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CJ-ONLINE  January 2010

CJ-ONLINE January 2010

Subject:

CJ Online 2010.01.01 PARKER, The Making of Roman India

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The Making of Roman India. By GRANT PARKER. Greek Culture in the Roman
World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii + 357. Cloth,
$99.00. ISBN 978–0–521–85834–2.

Order this text for $99.00 from Amazon.com
using this link and benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20

Previously published CJ Online reviews are at
http://classicaljournal.org/reviews.php


CJ Online 2010.01.01

In his Preface, Parker asks: What did India mean to Romans of the imperial
period? He sifts through literary, material and documentary evidence for
answers, paying heed to the different contexts in which that information is
preserved. Specifically, P. examines references to India in Latin and Greek
texts of the imperial period in light of the social processes whereby the
notion of India gained its exotic features, including evidence of the role
of the Persian empire and Alexander’s expedition. Three social contexts
receive special attention: trade in luxury commodities; political discourse
of empire and its limits; and India’s status as a place of special
knowledge, embodied in the “naked philosophers.” Roman ideas about
India ranged from the specific and concrete to the wildly fantastic; such
variety must be accounted for. The afterlife of these ideas into late
antiquity and beyond is also considered.

The book is aimed at both classicists and those interested in ancient India
or the history of orientalism, and is broken into three parts: (1) Creation
of a Discourse, (2) Features of a Discourse, and (3) Contexts of a
Discourse. Chapter 1, “Achaemenid India and Alexander,” outlines the
features of Greek Indography from the earliest texts to the late
Hellenistic world of the 1st century BC. The extent of Achaemenid power is
studied from the perspectives of four ancient writers: Scylax and the King
of Kings; Hecataeus’ cosmos; Herodotus and the satrapies; and Marvels and
lies of Ctesias. Next, Alexander and his aftermath are considered in four
categories: A conqueror and his historians; Megasthenes and
Chandragupta’s court; Bactrians and “Indo-Greeks”; and Mapping India:
from the bematists to Eratosthenes. P. asserts that the body of information
about India reached new levels of complexity with Alexander’s eastern
expedition. Part 1 concludes with an analysis of the origin and process of
the making of Roman India.

Chapter 2, “India Described,” considers contexts of Indography in
historiography, geography, natural history, romance and mime. Marvels and
monsters characterized Hellenistic accounts of India, even more so than the
earliest accounts. This marvel-based view was typical of Greek descriptions
of the ends of the earth generally, and in many respects was not unique to
India. Also considered are Indian pasts, profusion, social divisions,
gender relations, space and race, and catalogue or system. Under modes of
literary description, eight tropes that recur in Indographic texts are
discussed: the Periplus form, omission and abbreviation, authors and
authority, utopianism and barbarism, narrative space, analogy, fragments,
and closure. P. concludes that the recurrence of the marvel, that hallmark
of Hellenistic literature, in sources of the Augustan period and beyond is
a major theme in this Indographic discourse. Was knowledge about India
gathered as a product or a process? P. asserts that despite all it was a
process, though a slow one.

Chapter 3, “India Depicted,” considers how India was represented in
four motifs of Greek and Roman art: the marvel (from the earliest Greek
accounts); the Triumph of Bacchus (India is represented as a part in
several sarcophagus reliefs from Antonine and Severan times);
personification (e.g., the great hunt mosaic of the Villa Filosofiana in
Sicily, and a silver platter from Lampsacus now in the National Museum in
Istanbul); and the Christian topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes. Seen as a
typology of Indias, the analysis that emerges from this survey may be
understood as a set of contexts within which India was perceived by Greeks
and Romans.

Chapter 4, “Commodities,” explores what India meant to Romans, by
examining the discourse about specific goods. Focusing on roughly the late
1st century BC to the 6th century AD, the chapter traces the consumption of
Indian goods, or of supposed Indian goods, in the Roman world. Considering
objects of exchange and the materiality of distance, P. examines spices and
aromatics, precious stones, fabrics, slaves, animals and craft goods. He
draws on literary texts (e.g., Pliny’s Natural History, Strabo’s
Geography, Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography, the Periplus of the Erythraean
Sea), documentary sources, inscriptions, excavations and archaeological
finds to assess the social meanings of luxury goods from India and the
Roman taste for them. The figure of Alexander is particularly crucial to
the Roman image of India (cf. Plin. Nat. 12.21).

Chapter 5, “Empire,” looks at the notion that India marked the ends of
the world, a sentiment that abounds in texts from the Augustan age and
later. Was that world the inhabited world or the Roman Empire specifically?
P. answers that the definition of empire is difficult enough, and that the
notion of imperialism raises particular problems. The Pax Romana and Res
Gestae helped define Augustus’ discourse about empire after the Battle of
Actium. In Propertius’ Elegies (2.10/13–18; 3.4.1–4) we find
variations on the theme of the grandeur of Rome’s conquests, including
India. Horace’s Odes (1.12.53–7; 4.14.41–52) shows the same
principles at work. But after serious consideration (by Mommsen, Badian and
others) it is difficult to point to any Roman military interest in India.
The aging Trajan may have had designs on India, but his imperial sense of
the place was intensely concerned with Alexander’s conquests.
Nonetheless, according to P., India was in fact part of the Roman
empire—a region that could and would be conquered. It was India, more
than anything, that reminded Romans that Rome had expanded from
agricultural village to world empire. Indeed, Alexander’s visit to the
ends of the earth gave the Romans, and the western Middle Ages, eminently
reusable ways of thinking about that expansion.

In Chapter 6, “Wisdom,” P. asserts that holiness, along with the
related concept of wisdom, is among the main areas for consideration in any
survey of Greek and Roman ideas about India. P. posits that Indian wisdom
is a kind of mystified knowledge central to the concept of the holiness of
certain Indians. A major theme is India as a destination of religious
travel. Travelers to India came from the west and east. Fa-Hsien, a Chinese
pilgrim, visited India’s Buddhist sites between 399–414 AD. These
visits reflect India’s status as a site of spirituality. Christian
missionary activity in India, another kind of religious travel, also took
place. At this point P. wisely considers “wisdoms alien and other” with
a discussion of metamorphoses of sophia (with Pythagoras as a point of
comparison); elements of wisdom; and Jews, Chaldaeans and Indians. He
follows up with an analysis of, e.g., Brahmans and Gymnosophists, and then
turns to the “diffusion of paideia: Apollonius of Tyana” for
Philostratus’ testimony about Indian holiness. Apollonius’ eastward
pilgrimage to the wise teachers of ancient societies invites comparison to
Herodotus’ visit to the Egyptian priests. P. asserts that Philostratus
presents Pythagoras as a recipient and transmitter of Egyptian and,
ultimately, Indian wisdom.

To conclude, four broad phases of Indography can be identified: the
Achaemenid phase, when Greek images of India were formed in close relation
to the Iranian world; Alexander’s expedition and its immediate aftermath,
fleshing out the picture of India that had already emerged; the Roman
phase, in which writers appealed to their Hellenistic and earlier
predecessors, while the Pax Romana made possible the long-distance exchange
of luxury goods from exotic places; and the Christian phase, resting
heavily on an acceptance of the Augustan discourse about empire. How much
of this is due to Alexander’s expedition and the later Alexander Romance?
Imperial memories of Alexander’s visit to India account for the attitudes
of the vast majority of Romans, who did not themselves visit the
subcontinent, and Alexander could not have been far from imperial minds
during the political revolution of the late 1st century BC that in turn
made possible the greater awareness of India in the 1st century AD.
Alexander’s own concern with India seems inspired by the memory of the
Achaemenid kings whose achievements he desired to extend and fulfill. Roman
imperial desires, in turn, were fulfilled by virtue of the memory of
Alexander in India.

P. makes full use of primary and secondary sources. With impeccable
scholarship, he analyzes and challenges the historical data on the subject,
while inviting us to engage in the ongoing dialogue about India in Roman
thought.

PAUL PROPERZIO
Boston Latin Academy


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