Thursday, February 18, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Grant Parker, The Making of Roman India. Greek Culture in the Roman World. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii, 357. ISBN 9780521858342. $99.00.
Reviewed by Miguel John Versluys, Leiden University

Scholarly literature on India and its civilisation in the Roman world most often deals with specific aspects. Recent studies, for instance, have predominantly focused on trade and trade relations between the Roman Mediterranean and the Indian subcontinent;1 other topics (sometimes) dealt with are the alien wisdom of Indian civilisation and, of course, Alexander the Great. By stopping his campaign at the Indus valley Alexander defined India as the edge of the world, an idea that would strongly influence the Romans. This is the first reason why writing a monograph that covers all aspects of 'India in the Roman world' would be a formidable task, as it is imperative for the author to master a very wide array of sources and social contexts ranging from Greek philosophy and Roman literature to the archaeology of both the ancient Mediterranean and India. The second reason, however, I consider even more important. India was never conquered by the Romans and was not a province in the sense that other parts of the ancient world were. However, it played an important role in the Roman imagination in various ways, often through traditions that were defined and demarcated in the Hellenistic era (and before). Hence there were two Indias in the Roman world: the physical land at the other side of the Indian Ocean and India as a cultural concept. Now a large majority of scholarly literature, especially that written by historians and archaeologists, only takes the first India, the physical country, into account. But an overall interpretation of India in the Roman world should also, or perhaps even primarily, be concerned with India as a cultural scenario and moreover develop a methodology to integrate both aspects.

In this well written and stimulating book Grant Parker has admirably succeeded in doing both -- being a fine Alltertumswissenschaftler and a theoretically engaged intellectual historian at the same time -- and the result is therefore a landmark study, not only of India in the Roman world but also of the cultural mentality of the Roman Empire. For Roman history and archaeology in particular, it must also be characterised as an original investigation as far as theory and methodology are concerned, because Parker is refreshingly radical in putting a reception studies approach central to his study. This has become quite common for the interpretation of classical texts; it is still quite unusual for historical and archaeological analyses. This is not a book, therefore, about the presence of Romans or Roman material culture in India or about (commercial and other) contacts between India and Rome; no, this is a book that dares to ask the overarching question: What did India mean to the Romans of the Empire?

The text is clearly divided into three main parts--"Creation of a discourse" (Part I), "Features of a discourse" (Part II) and "Contexts of a discourse" (Part III)--framed by an "Introduction" and a "Conclusion: intersections of a discourse".

Part I ("Creation of a discourse") consists of a chapter entitled "Achaemenid India and Alexander" and deals with what would become the origins of the Roman view of India. The various Greek accounts we have (Scylax, Hecataeus, Herodotos, Ctesias) are first discussed and interpreted, and then the campaigns of Alexander and their legacy. An important figure in the latter category is a certain Megasthenes who visited the court of the Maurya emperor Chandragupta as a member of the Seleucid royal entourage somewhere around 320 BC. It turns out that tropes of India as the land of marvels and of wisdom and holiness were already developed in this period: the elements of the image were fixed in an early stage. Moreover, Parker makes a strong and convincing case for the importance of an Achaemenid context for the development of this image. Scylax of Caryanda, the first Greek we know of who travelled to the Indian subcontinent, did so for Darius I, and Herodotos writes on India as part of a survey of Persian satrapies. The campaigns of Alexander would not change this image as dramatically as we perhaps would expect: the tradition is continued in all aspects but at the same time enriched by two important themes, the first of which is autopsy. The credibility of sources like Megasthenes was considered (much) higher because he had been there himself, although simultaneously the marvellous nature of what he said about India continued to be disbelieved. A second important theme is India as place-marker: after Alexander, India more and more comes to represent the utmost Other, a place far away from the Mediterranean, at the very edge of the world.

Part II ("Features of a discourse") discusses how the Romans dealt with this (Achaemenid and Hellenistic) tradition in literature and material culture and is therefore divided into two chapters: "India described" on the one hand and "India depicted" on the other. "India described" discusses the reception of the earlier texts (and their relation to newly acquired knowledge) by authors like Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Arrian and others, always focusing "on the larger contexts within which India featured in Roman thinking" (69). Parker achieves this aim not by looking at individual authors but rather by discussing the genres in which indography features (historiography, geography, natural history and romance/mime) as well as what he describes as "topics of thought" versus "modes of description". In the first category, he looks at how Roman authors address subjects like social division, gender relations and race in India, showing that not only is the description of these elements stereotyped but also that they are presented in standardised literary forms. Still, Parker cautiously concludes that there is a process of collecting knowledge about India, albeit a slow one. Hence, it largely is a history of ideas we see being described in this chapter, with, not surprisingly, Pliny's Natural History as a nodal point. "India depicted" is a much shorter chapter in which Parker traces the visual traditions of the representations of India. Here Parker cannot always provide the depth that all the other parts of the book have, partly because there is (much) less material available, but partly also, perhaps, because as a classicist he is, logically, more at ease with texts than with material culture. In the visual tradition there seem to be several significantly different Indias or, to put it another way, different visual discourses each have their own 'India'. All well known representations of India (or Indians) -- like the marble head from the Villa Borghese, the Piazza Armerina mosaic and other personifications, and the 6th century AD platter from Istanbul) -- are (critically) discussed, especially as far as their Indian character is concerned. Identification remains difficult, also, as Parker rightly underlines, because the cultural boundaries between different visual traditions are not always as clear cut as most scholars like to have them. 'India' and 'Aethiopia', for instance, often seem to be interchangeable and hence Parker concludes about the much discussed Piazza Armerina personification (used as illustration on the cover of his book) that "there is no need to make a hard-and-fast decision between an African, Egyptian and Indian identity for the Piazza Armerina woman" (142); instead he sees the figure as a mélange oriental.

Part III presents the "Contexts of a discourse" and does so in three chapters, entitled "Commodities", "Empire" and "Wisdom". Here we have the social context for all the images in literature and material culture that have been discussed so far and I found the presentation at this point of this background material most illuminating, especially because Parker maintains his reception studies approach here as well. The chapter on "Commodities", for instance, is not a reconstruction of the trade between the Roman Mediterranean and the Indian subcontinent based on amphora-statistics, but rather an essay in cognitive geography. It is clear that goods regarded by the Romans as distinctly Indian carried with them a sense of the exotic. Parker argues persuasively that in view of the social meanings attached to those products we should not always take the places of origin mentioned for these commodities in ancient literature literally; the materiality of distance has a large role to play here. What matters is not, in fact, whether they were Indian, but whether they were perceived as Indian."The mapping of India that took place through commodities was thus the mapping of Rome" (202) Parker concludes at the end of the chapter. As a general conclusion in a book revolving around the concept of discourse this sentence does not strike the reader as a surprise; but as the close to a chapter with a detailed description and interpretation of Indian commodities it is most worthwhile. In the chapter on "Empire" Parker follows more or less the same strategy by showing that India was never a real candidate for Roman military expansion ("as desirable in principle as it was unrealistic in practice" 221). It does, however, play an important role in the conception of Empire: India mattered as the edge of the world to underline that Rome was its centre. So, while the Indian subcontinent was not part of the Roman world in a political and military sense, it certainly was part of the Roman mental map. Another important factor here was the image of Alexander. Conquering India was seen as the ultimate goal of military achievement and hence became a symbolic expression of imperial power. This mode of perception would acquire an impressive dynamic of its own: when India was mentioned, Alexander was never far away; and vice versa. After "Commodities" and "Empire", the chapter on "Wisdom" outlines the third social context important for the understanding of 'India' in the Roman world. The mystified knowledge of the Brahmans and Gymnosophists ('the naked philosophers') is part of a general Roman conception of the 'East' as a place where the priestly authorities are the guardians of special knowledge. Also here, therefore, "it is not so much a question of the Brahmans themselves, but of what underlying issues could be projected onto them" (304). It is their inherent exoticism that makes them attractive, Parker argues, and hence they become a kind of ethnic invention.

In his "Conclusion: intersections of a discourse" Parker summarizes the several phases of indography and illustrates their intertwinement and contextual functioning by an analysis of the India excursus by Curtius Rufus (8.9.1-36) before ending with a short (317-318) plea for the deconstruction of East-West dichotomies.

One of the great merits of this fascinating study is its fine balance between a typically post-modern, Foucauldian analysis and ancient realities. Parker has chosen to show the merits of his theoretical approach in the treatment of his data instead of tiring his readers with extensive summaries of (French) philosophy, and that works. If this is post-modernism in Classics, it's great. Parker also has been wise to avoid a title with the now ubiquitous phrase "the invention of". Although "the making of Roman India" is in the same vein, it much better implies the Hellenistic (and Achaemenid) stage on which the Romans built , while showing at a glance that the book excellently fits the Greek Culture in the Roman World series.

It is important to note that the discourse analysis used by Parker is particularly appropriate in the case of India, where 'representations' play a much more important role than physical encounters do. It is for that reason that the book has developed into "a history of representations that is concerned with social context" (7) as Parker characterises his own work in his Introduction. As such, however, the analysis proposed in the book is also very promising for the (archaeological) study of Rome and other Others (Greeks, Egyptians, Celts, etc.). In those cases it is often the 'physical' aspects alone that get the attention they deserve while the dynamic of the cultural scenarios these cultures represent at the same time remains underdeveloped.2 An important point with regard to the interplay between India real and imagined is Parker's conclusion that the heightened commercial contacts in the first two centuries AD "made remarkably little impact on indography" (310). The image, so it seems, did not allow itself to be corrected by reality. This prompts all kinds of interesting questions on the relation between 'real' and 'imagined' in the case of Rome and Greece, or Egypt, or the Celts, where social realities did influence cultural discourses. But it also implies that in those instances a discourse analysis of (mainly) literary texts alone is not enough to understand what those cultures meant to the Romans.

In an ambitious and wide ranging book like the one reviewed here the specialist can always disagree with this or that aspect, and I am sure that some of Parker's analyses of texts of individual writers will meet with criticism. As indicated above, as an archaeologist I myself would have liked to see material culture play a somewhat more important role. There is little to go on indeed but still these sources could sometimes have been better contextualised or have been put in a comparative perspective with other Orientalia to elucidate their contextual meaning.3 A second point of mild criticism concerns the author's prudence in dealing with scholarly discussions. Most often he takes the middle road; this is intelligent but this reader sometimes would have liked to learn more. Such is the case, for instance, with the evocation of Saïd's Orientalism or with the relation between the Roman image of India and later perceptions.

I believe, however, that such criticisms are not what a review of The Making of Roman India should be about. The case-study itself is treated in quite an exemplary way. But this is a book that through its approach deals with much more than the making of Roman India alone. It is about the nature of Rome as both a successor culture and a world Empire, and as such it deserves to be widely studied and used as a source of inspiration on how to deal with processes of cultural interaction in the Hellenistic and Roman world.


1.   See now the overview provided by R. Tomber, Indo-Roman trade: from Pots to Pepper (Duckworth Debates in Archaeology) (London 2008) with earlier bibliography (BMCR 2009.06.45).
2.   'Greece' probably is an exception here; see T. Hölscher, Römische Bildsprache als semantisches System (Heidelberg 1987) and a range of recent books like E. Gazda (ed.), The ancient art of Emulation (2002); C.H. Hallett, The Roman nude. Heroic portrait statuary 200 BC-AD 300 (2005); M. Marvin, The language of the Muses: the dialogue between Greek and Roman sculpture (2008). Somewhat more in general on 'cultural scenarios' and their functioning, see E.S. Gruen (ed.), Cultural borrowings and ethnic appropriations in Antiquity (Oriens et Occidens 8) (Stuttgart 2005); M.J. Versluys, "Exploring identities in the Phoenician, Hellenistic and Roman East. A review article," Bibliotheca Orientalis 65 (2008) 342-356.
3.   What could have been added, for instance, is discussion of terracotta figurines found in Egypt showing ethnic types, amongst which, it was thought, Indians (most probably not though; see S.-A. Ashton, Foreigners at Memphis? Petrie's racial types, in: J. Tait (ed.), 'Never Had the Like Occurred': Egypt's view of its past (London 2003) 187-196). What could have been better contextualised, for instance, is the ivory statuette from Pompeii (Fig. 10; Parker mentions the interesting suggestion (without reference) of it having been the leg of a small piece of furniture) for which see also T. Asaka, V. Iorio, ...lucroque India admota est. Contatti tra l'India e l'area vesuviana, in: S.T.A.M. Mols, E.M. Moormann, Omni pede stare. Saggi architettonici e circumvesuviani in memoriam Jos de Waele (Studi della Soprintendenza archeologica di Pompei 9) (Napoli 2005) 324-330.

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