Of the myths about Dionysus, few were as popular among Romans as the account of his quest to subdue the Indians “untaught of piety.” The poet Nonnus (active ca. 400 CE) regaled in his epic Dionysiaca how the deity’s victorious procession into India had once inaugurated a miraculous golden age across the Earth. Honeyed wine flowed from rocky crags along the Jhelum River. “Hares embraced frolicking dogs. Long serpents danced merrily . . . and sang out in unison elegiac hisses.” Tigers leaped like kittens and “elephants skipped through forest glades.”

For a moment all divisions of the world faded, and creation East and West harmonised in ecstatic joy. Understandably, many Romans chose this idyllic image of India as the sculptural motif for their sarcophagi. After their arduous pass through this mortal life, Romans’ souls longed for respite amid the exotica of an eternal India. For Romans, India existed in a liminal zone between the phantasmagorical and the mundanely purchasable. Millions of Romans daily encountered imports from India after the Roman Republic, having vanquished the last of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the first century BCE, acquired access to long-established routes through Persia and Red Sea ports in Egypt. Within a few decades the Italian city-state, which previously had no meaningful connections to India, transitioned into a cosmopolitan, autocratic empire and a mass importer of Indian goods. Indeed, if the paucity of Seleucid and Ptolemaic artifacts found in India is indicative, Mediterranean–Indian Ocean exchange was negligible prior to the determined policy of Augustus Caesar (r. 27 BCE–14 CE) to reinvigorate the lucrative spice corridor by fortifying and expanding the existing Egyptian ports of Myos Hormos and Berenike.

According to the first-century geographer Strabo, within five years of Augustus’ rapid push to transform the Red Sea into a Roman lake after the annexation of Egypt in 31 BCE, “120 [Roman] vessels were sailing annually to India.” This figure may be exaggerated, but the rapid proliferation of Indian commodities within the empire and of Roman artefacts across India is undeniable.

To the disdain of traditionalists such as Pliny the Elder (died 79 CE), Rome’s robust new connections to India irrevocably altered Roman fashions and patterns of consumption. Senators now strolled through the forum sporting onyx jewellery from the Deccan, while urban tradesmen seasoned their wine with aromatic Himalayan spikenard. Soldiers along Hadrian’s Wall flavored their rations with Malabar pepper, and Roman gourmands enumerated among the “spices that must be in the house” the Indian staples of pepper, ginger, clove, and cardamom. Even paupers could catch wafts of Asian cinnamon immolated at local temples. The allure of India resonated with so many Romans because India was as present in the marketplace as it was in the imagination.

Scholars have been intrigued by Roman perceptions of India for centuries, but only in the past few decades has sufficient archaeological evidence emerged to quantify the economic, material, and cultural impact of “Indo-Roman trade” on ancient communities from Britain to Bangladesh. Scepticism about literary accounts of hundreds of ships sailing annually between Roman and Indian ports has now given way to an earnest credulity toward Greek, Latin, and Tamil sources describing throngs of Romans landing on Indian shores.

Valerie Hansen and others have noted that, compared with the maritime flow of goods between India and Rome during the first-millennium CE, the passage of merchandise over the celebrated Silk Road during the same period seems rather a mere trickle. Roman sailors and their goods reached far inland across the Deccan and northern India into the thriving post-Mauryan centers of Buddhism.

There is hardly a region of the subcontinent that has not yielded Roman artefacts: ceramics, glassware, and bronze statuettes like the miniature Poseidon discovered in Kolhapur. Excavations from Gandhāra to Sri Lanka have unearthed imperial coins, such as those in the resplendent hoard from Penugaṁciprolu, representing almost all denominations, metals, and issuers. They are found by the thousand in long-submerged ports and overgrown palaces, Hindu temples, and Buddhist stūpas.

The recent archaeology of Indian Ocean trade has enabled historians to map chains of commerce across more than 8,000 kilometres. For instance, a ceramic cache from Arikameḍu, in southeast India, is now attributed to potters in first-century Arezzo, Italy (Campania), while five Tamil inscriptions discovered on potsherds in Roman Egypt are now known on paleographic grounds to be the work of scribes from Arikameḍu. These Indian potsherds are intermixed with numerous amphorae fragments of clear Campanian provenance. Maritime archaeology has similarly documented thousands of Roman amphorae along the Indo-Mediterranean axis from Arabia to northeast India and China. These finds corroborate not only Roman geographic texts and frequent remarks in Saṅgam literature about the “cool and fragrant wine” that yavanas (Greek-speakers) imported on “their excellent ships” but also surviving Egyptian records concerning large-scale wine exportation.

Indeed, it is on account of the small army of Roman sailors who spent their winters port-hopping around India that Roman geographers, such as Claudius Ptolemy and the anonymous author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, had such accurate knowledge of the coastlines, commodities, and inland topographies of India.

Roman texts convey little meaningful information about Indian political dynasties and offer even less about the practical operations of Indo-Roman trade. A series of Egyptian documents has recently revolutionised understanding of the logistical and political requirements for moving bulk goods from India across the Sahara and down the Nile to the Mediterranean market. One of these records, the so-called Muziris Papyrus, is a second-century loan contract between a Roman financier and a merchant in Muziris, on the southwest coast of India. The agreement concerns a large cargo shipment to Alexandria that left India on the Hermapollon, which sailed to Myos Hormos on the Red Sea. Weighing more than 250 tons, the freight included 140 tons of pepper, 80 boxes of spikenard, and 167 elephant tusks. It was then transported by camel across the Sahara to the Nile port of Coptos before making the ten-day voyage downriver to Alexandria. Loading and unloading the vessels in itself would have been an onerous task, while the overland desert journey would have required scores of camels and camel drivers, an equally demanding and expensive operation. The value of the cargo, some 6,911,852 drachmas – worth between 23 and 28 metric tons of silver – more than defrayed the transportation costs. If 120 or so vessels were unloading in Egypt annually, the ancient Sahara must have teemed with desert caravans and river flotillas ladened with the products of Mediterranean–Indian Ocean exchange.

The Roman imperial apparatus and private citizens expended considerable capital to maintain this particular trade route. An ostracon archive of an Egyptian camel driver named Nikanor provides a glimpse into the costly logistics of the project. The archive holds almost 60 years of receipts (6–62 CE) from a family-run transportation business that conveyed freight between Coptos and Rome’s Red Sea ports. As the receipts make clear, the thousands of people toiling in this arid wasteland would have perished without a steady stream of outside supplies, such as grain and lumber for ships and docks.

Colin Adams’s meticulous study of Egyptian land transport estimates that the urban population of Berenike required at least 2,000 camel-loads of food per month to survive. State subsidies for infrastructure and upkeep along the 350-kilometre desert route paved the way for in-demand Indian goods. Roman officials were equally invested in the internal distribution of Indian imports within the imperial heartland. The municipalities of the empire organised the purveyors of these goods – particularly vendors of spices and aromatics – into corporate associations. The associations were enduring institutions in the Roman world. Augustus himself sanctioned the central spice association in Alexandria, and a pepper monopoly persisted in the Egyptian city of Edfu until the seventh century.

In the city of Rome, where the imperial pepper warehouse held an estimated 9,000 tons of dry storage, pepper guildsmen were so numerous that they were organised into cohorts and centuries along military lines. The Roman state quite literally staffed an army of purveyors of Indian goods to secure this segment of the Mediterranean marketplace. Every forum and agora needed stalls for Indian spices and aromatics.

Excerpted with permission from “Rome and its Connections with India” by Norman Underwood in Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, edited by John Guy, Mapin Publishing.