Südasien-Chronik - South Asia Chronicle 5/2015, S. 399-426 © Südasien-Seminar
der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin ISBN: 978-3-86004-316-5
The Role of Monetary Networks in the Trade between
India and the Roman Empire
In 1786, a chance discovery of Roman coins in an agricultural field in
south India provided the first tangible hints to connections between
India and the Mediterranean region in antiquity (Turner 1989: 1, 71).
In an interesting coincidence, as these ancient ties with the West were
being recorded, new associations were being simultaneously forged
with contemporary European trading companies in then undivided
India. This situation depicts the long history of trade and communica-
tion between India and Europe.
In the first half of the twentieth century, archaeological excavations
at the port-site of Arikamedu on the Coromandel Coast decisively esta-
blished commercial links with the Roman Empire (Wheeler et al. 1946).
Under the rubric of ‘Indo-Roman trade’, the study of these links took
various avenues of focus ranging from identifying participants in the
trade, items of exchange, technology and infrastructure that facilitated
commerce and the role of political and religious factors in its organi-
sation and conduct. It is now understood that the so-called ‘Indo-
Roman trade’ in fact extended far beyond both India and the Roman-
Byzantine Empires, connecting several “circuits” of local and regional
trade from Africa to South-east Asia (Ray 1994: 189-90).
One of the core aims of this article is to further the discussion on
inter-regional connections with the aid of ‘monetary geography’ to
explain the “spatial organisation of currency relations” (Cohen 1998:
3). It is argued here that economic integration of regions was a long
process facilitated by monetary communication. Interaction between
currencies as numerous and diverse as the regions they represented
led to the formation of monetary networks. It is proposed that trade
between the subcontinent and the Mediterranean was made possible
by the convergence of several monetary networks. The study of these
networks therefore can provide a more nuanced understanding of the
nature of interaction between India and the Hellenistic and Roman
Empires which this exploratory discussion aims to cover.
The study of Roman coins from India
As the most abundant category of material evidence for ancient con-
nections between the South Asian subcontinent and the Mediter-
ranean, Roman coin finds from India have received wide scholarly
attention. The majority of Roman coins discovered in India are the
result of chance finds than systematic archaeological excavations
(Turner 1989: 46-87). It is reasonable to argue therefore that despite
an absence of written records about such discoveries prior to
seventeenth-eighteenth centuries, the possibility of earlier finds need
not be discounted.
During the nineteenth century, Roman coin collections grew in
museums and among private hands across India. The latter included
British administrators, some of whom served as diplomats to the
States of Indian rulers thus providing them greater access to antiqui-
ties from the interiors of the country (Ray 2006: 17). Other profession-
als from Britain posted in India too built their private collections of
locally recovered Roman coins in pursuit of a hobby (Prinsep 1832:
With access to European scholarship versed in the study of
Greek and Roman material culture, Roman coin finds from India began
to receive due attention (Elliot 1844). By early twentieth century,
systematic approaches began to define their study resulting in com-
mendable attempts at understanding chronology of trade between
Rome and India (Sewell 1904).
The political reality of the time, however, outweighed any possibility
of an unbiased approach to the subject. Colonial attitude and imperial
tone were most prominent in the writings of Vincent Smith (1890),
Mortimer Wheeler (1954) and E.H. Warmington (1928), among others,
whose portrayal of India was that of a passive recipient seemingly
lacking any agency in its own affairs while the Indo-Roman commerce
was effectively carried out by the industrious Romans. In most of these
writings, India constantly figures as a land experiencing an identity
and cultural crisis which eagerly emulated the sophisticated culture of
the West. These ideas influenced the then understanding of Roman
coins recovered in India. It was opined that “[…] the Greeks delibe-
rately established a Roman currency of Roman coins in Tamil districts”
(Warmington 1928: 278). The idea of sophisticated and superior West
was created in the opposing image of the backward and dependent
East. Elaborate explanations such as the following were also offered in
interpreting the body of evidence from India.
[…] at first, the Romans sent out under Augustus and Tiberius
very fine pure gold and silver coins but at the same time tried the
effect of bad coins, for instance the plated examples of Gaius and
Lucius, upon uncultured minds, and that after a little, perhaps
under Caligula and Claudius […], the Romans, moved by the
admiration of the Indians (for example of the Raja of Ceylon in
Pliny) for the better coins of constant weight, sent out silver and
gold of the very best standard and with the stamps of Augustus’
and Tiberius’ reigns, or struck a new issue of coins of similar
weight and stamp (in order to please the Indians who had learnt
to admire them), ceasing to include bad coins. (Warmington
Over the last century as several more Roman coins were discovered
across the country in hoards or as solitary finds, evidence at the level
of sites and regions is increasingly becoming available for study.
lack of common standards in the collection and presentation of data,
however, poses the main challenge towards attempting a general
analysis of evidence from within India. Nonetheless, growth in compa-
rative studies dealing with Roman coin finds from different areas both
within and outside the empire has enabled visualising patterns in trade
and circulation of coins, and highlighted inter-regional and inter-
cultural variations (Macdowall 1991, 1996; Lind 1991; Walburg 1991).
The spatial distribution of Roman coins in India is now fairly well-
documented. Their dense concentration in southern India along the
Krishna river valley and Coimbatore region is particularly well known.
In contrast, Roman coin finds are extremely rare in the North up to the
sites in Afghanistan and Pakistan where they tend to occur as deposits
in Buddhist stupas (Suresh 2004: 175-7). This variation in distribution
is perhaps the result of the different roles Roman coins played across
the subcontinent. In the North, they were suggested to have served as
bullion melted down by the Kushans to mint their gold coins (Sewell
1904: 596) and to avoid a competing foreign currency within their
territory (Wheeler 1951: 363-4). These hypotheses, however, fail to
address the role of Roman silver coins, the denarii, which are con-
sidered to have lent their name to the Kushan gold coins, the dinars.
The long-held assumption about Roman gold in Kushan coins was
conclusively dismissed upon trace element analysis of Roman aurei
and Kushan dinars that showed a clear variation in the chemical profile
of gold used (Blet-Lemarquand 2006). Previously, a similar analysis of
indigenous silver coins series, however, had confirmed a strong
relationship between the Kshatrapa ruler Nahapana’s coins and Roman
silver coins struck under the rule of Augustus and Tiberius at the Lug-
dunum mint (Turner 1984: 131).
In south India, due to their extensive presence Roman coins came
to be regarded as an established currency (Jackson 1913: 300;
Warmington 1928: 278, 283). They have even been likened to U.S.
Dollars of the contemporary times that are widely accepted and func-
tion as quasi-universal currency (Suresh 2004: 157). These views have
been challenged on the grounds that the then social formation in the
South did not support a monetised economy where coins represented
money; instead they were commodities exchanged for tradeable items
from the region (Gurukkal 2013: 198). This aligns well with the
original supposition by M.J. Walhouse (1876: 239) about the associ-
ation between Roman coin finds in the Coimbatore region and the rich
local reserves of beryl. It is further supported by textual references to
the export of gemstones from India (Casson 1989: 222).
Roman coin hoards have also been interpreted as potential markers
of status and prestige in the local gift economy (Thapar 2012: 569).
References to rewards of gold coins abound in the Sangam literature
and lend weight to this view (Zvelebil 1986). However, the wide chro-
nological range of this literary corpus (Abraham 2003: 211) prevents
precise dating to ascertain their relevance for the period under study.
In another suggestion, Roman coin hoards fulfilled the need for
banking and served as a means to stock wealth by Indian merchants
to use in their transactions (Falk 2015: 108). This hypothesis is unten-
able as it fails to explain how a large number of hoards meant for
recurrent access survived into the present day. The latest hoard
belongs from Weepagandla which cannot be dated beyond seventh
century (Suresh 2004: 170) implying that none of the known hoards
was accessed thereafter. Finally, the association of Roman coins with
megalithic burial sites (Suresh 2004) on one hand and Krishna Valley
sites with a strong visual presence of Buddhism (Padma & Barber
2008: 20) on the other, indicates the ability of Roman coins to enter
economic, sacred and funerary contexts alike.
In his study, S. Suresh (2004: 40-58, 77-9) gave considerable
space to the discussion on morphological features that could inform
further upon local practices. These include countermarks, slashes,
piercing, and appended loops that have been noted on coins from
several hoards. In approach, the analysis also incorporated a simulta-
neous discussion of other categories of material evidence including
imitations of Roman artefacts that he labels ‘pseudo-Roman’ objects.
More recently, Rebecca Darley extended extant knowledge by focusing
upon Byzantine coins in India in her doctoral dissertation shedding
light on the period between fourth and seventh centuries. Her study
indicated ritual contexts of distribution and use of late Roman coins in
India (Darley 2013: 283; 2015a: 60-84).
Another line of study deals with imitations of Roman coins known
from both within the Roman Empire and India.
Since the meanings
that Roman coins and their imitations held across India relate to local
practices, the study of Roman coins is therefore a simultaneous study
of associated practices. Recent works have also begun to redress the
gap in understanding collection practices involving Roman coins in
India (Darley 2015b) and historiography of specific collections (Darley
2012; Jansari 2013).
Envisaging directions for ongoing and future research
As may be noted from the above discussion, initial works laid a strong
foundation to the study of Roman finds from India. However, they also
suffered from certain limitations due in part to relatively new and
limited data in conjunction with the choice of theoretical framework
and methodological approaches adopted to engage with processes of
interaction and cultural change. For instance, visual and conceptual
similarities between coinages have been oft-explained exclusively in
terms of cultural influence and emulation. The premise holds true for
the influence of one native coinage on another (Gupta 2010: 49). The
use of portraiture in Kshatrapa (Shastri 1988: 60), Satavahana (Sarma
1980: 112), and Chera coins (Mitchiner 1998: 73; Mukherjee 2003:
4), or the close similarities between royal titles and weight standard
used by the Kushans and the Romans (Sewell 1904: 591; MacDowall
1990: 63 ff.; Puri 1996: 249; Falk 2015: 107), have all been argued in
a self-explanatory manner as imitations or products of inspiration. The
nature of such inspiration and the implications have however barely
Views regarding the native re-use of metal from Roman coins
towards minting local coinages under the Kshatrapas (Turner 1984:
131) and the Kushans (Sewell 1904: 596; Sagar 1992: 188) too has
similarly served to correlate Roman and Indian coinages without ade-
quate attention, however, to the motives behind such connections
(Warmington 1928: 292-3). While the theoretical purchase of the
concepts of ‘influence’ and ‘emulation’ to understand cultural contact
cannot be denied, their potential has been overplayed. In conse-
quence, processes that enable and constitute material changes which
denote cultural change have earned little attention. The existing
narrative of cultural interaction based on numismatic evidence there-
fore offers margin for alternative voices.
It seems appropriate to discuss the theoretical strands drawn from
multiple disciplines within social sciences that offer a range of means
to organise, examine and interpret numismatic data. Based on the new
possibilities, earlier hypotheses may be revisited in the light of data
now available to reassess current understanding of the field. The
longue durée approach of the Annales School of history writing is well-
known and proved particularly relevant to the studies on the Medite-
rranean (Cameron 1993; Braudel 2002). The vantage point that the
approach provides is crucial to observe larger processes and long-term
trends that are difficult to capture in the study of brief episodes such
as the ‘Indo-Roman’ trade. However brief in duration and precise in
definition, events are viewed under this approach not in isolation but
instead positioned within the larger chronological scale and context.
A seamless narrative of historical interaction between the Indian
Ocean region and the Mediterranean Sea remains wanting. Ancient
commerce between India and the Roman Empire has been hitherto
studied as an independent episode than as part of a sequence of
events that shaped these interactions. This is despite scholastic aware-
ness of the continuous relations maintained between cultures of the
Mediterranean and those of India as reflected in ancient literature.
The trend in earlier writings was to focus solely on the early centuries
CE when commercial exchanges peaked as witnessed in archaeological
and literary records (Doshi 1985; Begley & De Puma 1992; De
Romanis & Tchernia 1997). With growing evidence and the use of
diverse approaches to identifying and interpreting long-distance
connections, these chronological barriers are increasingly giving way.
Using the longue durée approach, different periods that precede and
succeed the one under study can be consulted to recognise and
demarcate the chronological limits of circulation of different coinages in
India, including those from the Mediterranean.
In a similar manner, spatial approaches offer the breadth of per-
spective that is necessary not only to identify activity areas but to
recognise patterns of conformity and divergence in the data. Locating
find-spots of Roman coins on a map is one way of mapping cultural
geography of the time under study to answer questions such as which
areas show their use, and by extension, the spatial bounds within
which cultural change was effected and hence may be studied. It has
been already argued that ‘‘mapping engenders new and meaningful
relationships among otherwise disparate parts’’ (Corner 1999: 229).
By adding contextual and taxonomic details drawn from archaeological
and numismatic sources to spatial distribution of these coins, more
robust thematic and chronological datasets can be generated. By
repeating this process for different coinages, their inter-relationships
and the role of specific sites where they recur in an identifiable pattern
may be better understood.
Spatial analysis can also help test dominant hypotheses in the field,
make them more precise or bring alternatives to the fore. The strong
association between Buddhism and foreign trade is understood on the
basis of the former’s ideological support to trade (Ray 1988; 1994).
The precise role of Buddhism in the actual conduct of trade, however,
is not clear. A comparative study of the frequency, quantum and type
of Mediterranean finds at ‘Buddhist sites’ against those from sites that
fall outside the circuit of Buddhist practice would serve to provide
insights into the geography of Mediterranean finds in India. The scope
of analysis may be narrowed to observe site-specific trends in the data
in studies of inter-site variability where the technique of ‘spatial
may be combined with empirical data on Roman coins.
With the help of Geographic Information System (GIS) applications,
the results obtained using these techniques may be graphically repre-
sented and studied against previous attempts at reconstructing ancient
pathways of movement (Lahiri 1999; Chakrabarti 2001, 2005, 2007,
In dealing with material evidence, an object-centric approach is held
useful for its acknowledgement of the capacity of objects to have an
agency. This entails recognising the ability of objects to influence
human behaviour and not remain as passive tools which merely
conform to human behavioural practices (Gell 1998; Gosden 2005;
Jones & Boivin 2010). As indicated in the previous research works, the
multiple meanings that Roman coins could accrue in India is a clear
indication of the multiple possibilities they could afford. These afford-
ances (Gibson 1977; Li 2014: 1), when recognised by human agents,
lead to material practices upon convergence of agency of the humans,
of the object(s) and their immediate environment. In archaeological
studies, these entities together have been defined as an assemblage
(Renfrew & Bahn 2001: 565) where the agency and identity of humans
is considered to be ‘embodied’ in the objects (Hodder & Hutson 2003:
The concept of embodiment, it is argued here, has served as a
convenient shorthand to explain the presence of Roman coins in India,
as say, prestige goods, currency, bullion etc. while the reasons that
often ‘act at a distance’ (Latour 2005: 159-262) and afford the use of
Roman coins in such a wide range of practices remains outside the
remit of enquiry and understanding. In other words, while the above
meanings and roles have been suggested, chiefly for Roman coins,
most of these suggestions remain hypothetical and cannot carry
weight unless demonstrated as in the case of their use as ornaments
and in sacred contexts. What is being questioned about the Roman
coin finds in India is not their versatility and adaptability but what
accounts for it. How does a culture acknowledge, perceive, and assimi-
late foreign objects into familiar spaces, redefine them, and experience
change in the process? The answer must lie neither entirely in the
coins themselves and nor in their culturally specific meanings but
instead sought in their usage which combine the affordances of coins
with their cultural reception.
By choosing to understand material assemblage to ‘embody’ or
materially manifest the values espoused by their human owners, the
role played by the constituents, such as coins, in opening up new
possibilities and shaping cultural practices will remain unaccounted for.
It is therefore considered more appropriate to understand assemblages
as being characterised by “distributed agency”
where the capacity to
act and effect change is shared between the different constituent
entities and not monopolised or dominated by either. Such a stance
proffered by the actor-network theory (Latour 2005: 11) which situ-
ates the object under study within its operative network will be key to
understand the situations at hand where the role of the actor, i.e.
Mediterranean coinages in the present case, is radically indeterminate,
its precise boundaries of function uncertain, and the range of different
entities that it forms association with fluctuates.
To understand the variety of meanings that Mediterranean coinage
portrayed in India, they must be situated within the networks of their
circulation and operation. While their circulation can be mapped on the
basis of their find-spots, and quantified, their operational networks
need to be identified in tandem with other coins and artefacts found in
association. For this purpose, morphological analyses will need to
accompany spatial understanding of the data which includes not
merely Mediterranean coinage but also those coins and artefacts that
are found in their association. Each of these artefacts has its own net-
works which converge at the nodes represented by those find-spots
where they are found together.
The formation of ‘Monetary networks’
The conduct of trade between India and the Roman Empire was the
result of processes that may be traced further back. These involved,
among others, interaction between the monetary systems prevalent in
different parts of India and the Mediterranean world. Such an
interaction is witnessed in the negotiation between coinages in terms
of their material medium, appearance, values and use. Similar negoti-
ation is also found in the respective value of coins and alternative
forms of money. These negotiations led to identifiable patterns of
alignment taken as evidence to the formation of networks between
diverse monetary systems. In this section seeks to demonstrate the
role of monetary networks in Indo-Mediterranean interaction.
The definition of monetary networks is derived from the understan-
ding of ‘networks’ as inter-relationships between entities. In the pres-
ent case, these entities are identified as the different coinages under
study. The role of the state and people as producers and users of coins
is understood as a constant factor and not consciously evoked in the
following discussion. Instead, attention is devoted to interaction and
inter-relationship between different coinages based upon their contem-
poraneity and use within common spatial bounds as revealed by
archaeological finds. Networks may be traced based on the overlaps in
the characteristic features that define these coinages. Previously, Sitta
von Reden (2010) illustrated monetary networks in western classical
antiquity by using one such feature, namely, the weight standard of
coins. Building upon this model, other characteristic features of coin-
ages in India, both foreign and local, such as iconography, legends,
and choice of metal besides weight standard will be explored to study
their mutual interaction. The role of ‘tradition’ i.e. the “conscious
engagement of current actions with past actions” (Osborne 2008: 1) in
defining these features is crucial. In numismatics, the study of ‘coinage
tradition’ is a standard tool to understand development of coinage
within a given culture or region (Cribb 2005: 1).
Following the first known coins minted in western Asia Minor in late
seventh century BCE and their subsequent spread under Persian rule,
coinage was adopted by several Greek city-states during sixth century
BCE (Meadows 2014: 170). Roughly during 500-331 BCE, northwest-
tern portions of the Indian subcontinent came under Achaemenid rule.
Around the same time, earliest form of coinage appeared in the Indian
subcontinent in the form of silver bars that were slightly bent and
punched with symbols (Horesh & Kim 2011: 292). Those recovered
from Taxila (in present-day Pakistan) were identified as struck on the
Persian standard representing double sigloi or staters (Allan 1936:
xvi). Close parallels to the bent bars of northwestern India were dis-
covered in the Nush-i-Jan hoard from Iran dated the seventh century
BCE without punch-marks that predate the Indian evidence (Stronach
1969: 15-6). Based on similar examples later noted from the Mir
Zakah hoard in Afghanistan (Bivar 1971: 101), a pathway of cultural
influence from Iran to Pakistan via Afghanistan was suggested to indi-
cate the transition of Persian currency to Indian coinage (Dhavalikar
The needs of state expenditure encouraged monetisation among
Greek cities (Howgego 1995: 19) which began to mint coins on
respective local standards of weight (Von Reden 2010: 65). More than
115 mints are known from Greece around the first quarter of fifth
century BCE (ibid: 71). Commercial links and political relations be-
tween cities, in the main, seemed to influence the choice of specific
weight standards adopted by Greek cities for their principal coin to
make their currencies more easily exchangeable (ibid: 65). Sitta von
Reden (2010: 65-91) identifies common weight standards as a marker
of monetary networks. Each weight standard has a principal coin in
which monetary transactions were conducted. There were smaller
denominations which were reckoned against this principal coin. Follow-
ing Robert Tye (2009: 116), it is maintained that ‘weight systems’
offer a more useful index in understanding ancient economies than
‘weight standards’. While weight standards are helpful to identify the
basic set of denominations in a monetary system, a weight system
makes it possible to study interlinkages between diverse weight stan-
dards and their denominations through mathematical means.
In India proper, punch-marked coinage was first minted in the sixth
century BCE (Gupta 2010: 8-19). They are so called due to the
symbols punched upon them identified as bankers’ marks (Gupta &
Hardaker 2014: 19). In contrast with Greek coins, also in silver and
punched with symbols, freshly minted punch-marked coins bore seve-
ral symbols on the obverse and continued to receive punches on the
reverse during their circulation. In both cases, these symbols are
understood to certify adherence to the accepted standards of metal
purity and weight that varied across states (Gupta 2010: 11; Crosby &
Lang 1964 cit. in Von Reden 2010: 19). In some cases, these symbols
also denote their civic and regional affiliations (Gupta 2010: 12).
Punch-marked coins continued to be issued under the hegemonic rule
of Magadha and later under the Mauryan Empire (322-185 BCE).
Several hoards of punch-marked coins have been reported from across
the country (Gupta 1955; Srivastava 2012), including south India
where these coins predate other local coins (Gupta 2010: 53-68). Their
continuous use in India is recorded up to at least the second-third
centuries CE (ibid: 20). They left a legacy that provided the model for
succeeding series of indigenous coins.
In the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, the principal coinage of Athens
was composed of silver and majority of it produced as tetradrachms
(Burnett 1998a: 3).
By mid-fifth century BCE, Athenian coins minted
on the Attic standard came to dominate the Aegean backed by
deliberate state policies that forbade its allies from minting their own
coins. The success of these policies may be inferred from the high
demand for Athenian coins indicated by their imitations in Egypt and
Babylonia in fourth century BCE (Von Reden 2010: 69; Howgego 1995:
51). Writing in the same century, Xenophon alluded to the wide
acceptability of Athenian coins (cit. in Von Reden 2010: 69) making
them a profitable ‘commodity’ (Rowan 2013) thus underlining their
power to penetrate distant markets. Consequently, states resorted to
‘bi-monetarism’ in order to reap benefits from Athenian coins without
abandoning local weight standards which governed daily transactions.
Macedonia, for instance, continued to mint coins on local standards for
domestic circulation but also on the Attic standard for external trans-
actions (Von Reden 2010: 81). The potential remit of these transact-
ions would soon touch the borders of then India.
Alexander’s (the Great) expedition into Asia in fourth century BCE
resulted in certain important changes that set the tone for further
developments in the region. Following the successful Battles of Gauga-
mela (331 BCE) and Hydaspes (326 BCE), the Macedonian Empire
came to extend as far as the northwestern territories of India. Within
the former Achaemenid territories, where Greek coins circulated as
bullion alongside the local gold darics and silver sigloi (Howgego 1995:
46-8; Cribb 2003: 19), Alexander and his successors actively brought
about monetisation (Kroll 2008: 14). By introducing silver coins on
attic standard alongside a double daric without discontinuing the civic
coinage (Howgego 1995: 51), Alexander effectively integrated the local
markets to his empire. In monetary terms, a vast stretch had thus
emerged extending from the Mediterranean to the borders of India in
which the attic standard held sway.
The Seleucid state upon inheriting the eastern provinces of the
Macedonian Empire largely continued the measures initiated by
Alexander (Aperghis 2004: 213-46). Strong relations between the
political elite of Mauryan and Seleucid Empires appear to have de-
veloped on the basis of matrimony, diplomatic and gift exchanges
(Thapar 2003: 177). Around mid-third century BCE, the Seleucid
provinces of Bactria and Parthia asserted their independence. They
continued to strike coins on the attic standard (MacDowall 2007: 237-
8). Regular threats from Scythian nomadic groups caused Hellenistic
inroads into India (Bopearachchi 1993:7) crossing the Hindukush
mountain range of Himalayas which had served as the border agreed
between the Seleucid and Mauryan Empires (Schmidt 1995: 18). This
led to protracted engagement with the Shungas who were in the pro-
cess of consolidating their position upon deposing the Mauryas (Thapar
2003: 210). The simultaneous re-emergence of tribal or clan-based
polities (ibid) reflects the situation in the region characterised by both
political instability and fresh opportunities. The entry of Greeks into
India may be understood in this light.
Indo-Greek coinage is credited for introducing India to the die-
striking technique, use of monograms, legends, and representation of
the king and deity (ibid: 216). The prevalence of an alternative system
of coinage in India, however, occasioned certain changes to the Indo-
Greek coins to make them acceptable for circulation. On the core
Hellenistic model of coinage, therefore, Indian elements were intro-
duced. These included the depiction of Indian religious symbols and
deities and inscription of bilingual legends that accommodated Prakrit
(inscribed in Kharoshthi, and more rarely, Brahmi script) on coins that
were previously exclusively Greek. The attempts to introduce the ‘attic
standard’, however, proved unsuccessful. The Indian weight standard
and the square shape of Mauryan coins i.e. ‘karshapanas’ were there-
fore adopted for issuing Indo-Greek coins. By methodical use of visual
vocabulary and weight standard, Indo-Greek coins were thus adapted
for use in India. In effect, these measures shaped a hybrid model
which lay at the intersection of Hellenic and Indian systems of coinage
that were Hellenistic in style but largely oriented towards India in
The assimilative character of Indo-Greek coins is paralleled by simi-
lar trends witnessed in epigraphic and textual sources that indicate
active political measures to participate in local systems. In these
attempts, Ray (1988: 316-7) has identified religion as a crucial point
of entry into joining ‘trading diasporas’ thus highlighting the intersec-
tion between networks of faith and networks of trade. Royal patronage
to religious structures and practices beyond the limits of one’s kingdom
was not uncommon in early Indian history (Parry 2008). The Indo-
Greeks appear to have followed this tradition as seen in the Besnagar
pillar inscription in central India. The inscription conveys that Heliodo-
rus, envoy of the Indo-Greek ruler Antialkidas to the local ruler, was a
devout follower of Indian deity Vasudeva (Thapar 2003: 216). Such
acts of conspicuous piety continued with time as noted in the donation
inscriptions by ‘yavanas’
in the Buddhist rock-cut caves in western
Deccan (Ray 1988: 317). These examples illustrate the systematic use
of religion towards secular ends. Such attempts to integrate proved
successful as reflected in the recognition and accordance of a high
position to the yavanas in the Brahmanical social order. Textual refe-
rences to yavana participation in rituals of kingship and royal wedding
ceremonies (ibid: 321) equally prove their elevated social standing.
Seen in the light of these ancillary sources of information, it may be
argued that the Indo-Greek coins were carefully designed political tools
to achieve economic ends. Their efficacy is attested by both direct and
indirect forms of evidence. The former is indicated by their continued
circulation in markets and presence in coin hoards belonging to later
periods. The latter is demonstrated by the changes witnessed in con-
temporary coinages. The coincidence between the entry of Greeks into
India and the emergence of tribal polities in the region has been
previously mentioned. Numismatic evidence indicates that while these
polities largely issued coins in copper on their respective weight stan-
dards, some of them also struck silver hemi-drachms similar to those
by the Indo-Greeks (Gupta 2010: 47).
It is probable that while copper coins sufficed for most local trans-
actions, the silver issues specifically facilitated monetary interaction
with the Indo-Greek kingdom. These developments are particularly
important when seen in the light of other contemporary coinages that
continued to be modelled after punch-marked coins. Cases in point are
coinage of the Shunga dynasty in the north and that of local dynasts in
the Eran-Vidisha region of central India. However, gradual changes are
visible in the Shunga coins, some of which now have a legend (Gupta
2010: 43). The hold of tradition in defining coinage may also be seen
in the change in the shape of Indo-Greek coins from round to square
to resemble the karshapanas issued by the Mauryas.
Political authority gradually shifted from the Indo-Greeks to the
Scythian invaders through matrimony (Senior & MacDonald 1998: 55-
6). The Indo-Scythians were followed by the Indo-Parthians. Their
respective coinages show conformity with Indo-Greek coins and added
further variety to coin types (Senior 2000: 143). Dated to the last half
of first century BCE, the Paratarajas continued to mint di-drachms,
drachmas, hemi-drachms and quarter drachms (Pieper 2013: 75). The
next stage of monetary interaction between the subcontinent and the
Mediterranean is marked by the strong association between Kushan
and Roman coinage.
The monetary history of Rome differs from that of Greek city-states.
Early forms of Roman money dated to late fourth century BCE consti-
tuted stamped bronze bars called aes signatum (Harl 1996: 24) which
seemed to have been used for making external payments than for
domestic exchanges (Von Reden 2010: 48). Since the sixth century
BCE, Greek cities in Sicily and Southern Italy used silver coinage to
transact with the Greek cities. Two centuries later, non-Greek cities of
the region are said to model their coins on Greek coinage (ibid). At the
same time, Rome began to cast aes grave, heavy bronze coins with
legends in Greek for use in Campania (Harl 1996: 24). If these trends
may be read against developments in Hellenic commerce discussed
above, it would imply that the growing demand for Greek coinage
began to influence regional commerce and money in Italy. In third
century BCE, with the capture of Campanian cities by Rome, the
Roman Republic inherited the fiscal responsibilities of the region which
were traditionally met using Greek silver coins (ibid: 26). This served
as the background to mint Hellenic-style silver di-drachmae stamped
with a legend indicating Roman authority (ibid: 25).
The adoption of silver coins in its monetary system did not eliminate
the need for bronze coinage. On the contrary, their production on
different weight standards in different places (Von Reden 2010: 50)
seems to indicate Rome’s direct engagement with multiple local mar-
kets using the locally accepted medium. This was accompanied by
centralised minting of silver coins in Rome (ibid) evidently meant for
transactions in Campania and the Hellenic sphere of commerce. More
than “to announce her entrance into the concert of civilized powers”
(Harl 1996: 25), developments that shaped Roman money therefore
seem to resonate with practical economic needs of the time. Just as
the political expansion of Rome made new demands on its economy
warranting monetary changes, so did these changes create the
situation for further political and economic expansion of the Roman
Republic. By the first century BCE, the denarii had eliminated most
rival coinages and the silver coinages of the Roman provinces in the
eastern Mediterranean were adapted to the existing monetary system
(Harl 1996: 34, 38-72; 97-124).
Around the same time, the Kushans were actively shaping an
empire that incorporated parts of eastern Iran, Chinese and Soviet
Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (Thorley 1979: 181). The
vastness of their empire necessitated a coinage with diverse regional
types that represented local deities, scripts, and weight standards. This
is in tune with similar measures previously taken by the Indo-Greeks.
The Kushan regional types, however, were also systematically linked
together by coins issued for general circulation across the empire
(MacDowall 2002: 165-9). These integrative efforts to achieve moneta-
ry cohesion and the use of royal titles similar to those used by the
Roman emperors have been viewed as deliberate measures to create a
unifying image of the Kushan ruler in the lines of the Roman example
(MacDowall 2002: 165). The similarity in royal titles has also been
regarded to indicate political aspirations of the Kushans to achieve an
exalted status similar to the Roman and Chinese emperors (Falk 2015:
107). A more direct connection between the Roman and Kushan em-
pires, however, is seen in the common weight standard of their gold
coinages. Although it has been argued that this does not indicate an
economic connection between them due to chronological reasons, the
recent attempt at “Reconstructing Kushan chronology” musters evi-
dence that points to the contrary. (ibid)
In parallel with monetary ties that bound dynasties in India with the
Mediterranean polities, similar ties among the regional polities within
India were also negotiated time and again. The resemblance in style
and coin types between the Yaudheya and Kushan coins (Gupta 2010:
47) may be assessed in the light of integrative processes witnessed
among other coinages as part of a tradition.
The rule of Kushans in northern India was paralleled by the rule of
the Western Kshatrapas and Satavahanas in western India and the
Deccan respectively. Monetary interaction between the two kingdoms
is indicated by mutual counter-striking of each other’s coins (Shastri
1998: 40). While this confirms their rivalry to control the Western
coast ports that enabled ties with the Mediterranean (Margabandhu
1985), they also convey the common values of these coinages (Jha
2003: 87). Furthermore, the adoption of portraiture in Satavahana
coinage soon upon the introduction of portrait-type coins by the
Western Kshatrapas strongly argues towards their mutual monetary
ties. This is also attested by the finds of coins and coin-moulds of the
latter in the interiors of the former’s territory (Jha & Rajgor 1994: 73).
Interestingly, there is also contemporary evidence for the issue of
portrait-style coins further south. While this may seem unrelated, a
combined review of numismatic evidence from the period reveals
otherwise. The deliberate incorporation of a common feature among
different coinages around the same time indicates certain common
requirements. These requirements concern access to silver.
The decline of the Mauryan State and the consequent halt in the
supply of silver punch-marked coins (karshapanas) that were used in
trans-regional transactions across India led to paucity of silver
(Bhandare 1999: 55). The Western Kshatrapas met this shortage initi-
ally by a heavy use of Indo-Greek coins which commonly circulated in
their markets. Further demand was met by the issue of Kshatrapa
silver coins which were designed to resemble the Indo-Greek coins
that were well-familiar within their territory (Jha & Rajgor 1994: 24-5).
This resemblance was achieved by depicting the bust of the king on
one side similar to Indo-Greek coins while placing their royal emblem
on the other to mark their political identity. Metallurgical analysis
indicates that these coins were struck from the silver obtained from
Roman coins (Turner 1984: 131). Through the conflicted borders
between the Kshatrapa and Satavahana kingdoms and the former’s
intrusions into the latter’s territory, the Kshatrapa portrait-style coins
are understood to have gained familiarity in the Deccan that prompted
the Satavahanas to introduce a similar coin-type with portraiture and
their dynastic emblem (Bhandare 1999: 56).
The adoption of portraiture, however, appears to have provided an
additional advantage – the integration of Roman coins into the mone-
tary systems of the Kshatrapas and the Satavahanas, thus creating a
monetary network. Contemporary Kshatrapa inscriptions at Nasik
provide the exchange-rate between Karshapanas and gold coins
(Senart 1905: 82). The former usually identified with the punch-
marked coins may be understood as the Kshatrapa silver coinage that
served the same purpose but conceptually referred to their precursor.
In the absence of any alternative possibility, and the numerous finds of
Roman gold coins (aurei), the so-mentioned gold coins are identified
with them. Similarly, the presence of punch-marks upon Roman coins
discovered in Satavahana sites indicates that these coins came to be
regarded as the earlier karshapanas.
The evidence for the extension of local notions and values of money
upon Roman coins is furthered by their imitations. For instance,
ancient forgeries of lead coins with silver-coating (Suresh 2004: 47)
denote successful incorporation of Roman coins into the monetary
system of the Satavahanas. The monetary links forged between Ksha-
trapa and Satavahana coinage led to overcoming barriers posed by the
different coinage traditions they inherited based on Indo-Greek versus
PMC models. Through such measures as counter-marking and adoption
of silver coinage of a comparable weight standard (Bhandare 1999;
2006: 84), the two coinages achieved a cohesive monetary system in
the region. By accommodating Roman coins in this monetary system, a
monetary network had thus emerged that linked the Mediterranean
This network however does not seem confined to Western India and
the Deccan but rather extended further south where the portrait-style
silver coins of the Cheras appear in aberrance to the established style
of coinage. The monetary tradition in the region reveals connections
with the Deccan as indicated by the shift to coinage from a local
monetary system based on globules. These coins were stylistically
similar to punch-marked coins which have also been discovered from
the region (Mitchiner 1998: 66-7). The incorporation of portraiture on
their coins by Chera rulers with a legend in Brahmi on the top (ibid:
75-6) indicates the continuation of monetary tradition of the region
that shaped in tune with developments in the Deccan. While the Chera
portrait coins have been argued to have been inspired by Roman coins
(Mitchiner 1998: 73) which are abundantly found in their territory
(Turner 1989), the parallels in the monetary practices with those
followed in the Deccan and the simultaneous adoption of portraiture in
coins clearly point towards a deliberate and systematic move towards
a commonly recognisable form of money. In this way, ‘portraiture’ on
coins serves as a marker to trace monetary networks. Since this type
of Chera coins are rare in number it is suggested that these special
issues were perhaps introduced as part of official measures to intro-
ducing the use of Roman coins in the region as money that could take
the role earlier associated with the punch-marked coins in interactions
with Deccan and more northerly regions.
The above discussion has so far been confined to coinage. However,
in the ancient world, coins served as one among several forms of
money. The definition of money is based on shared agreement in the
value and acceptability of specific medium/media in which to conduct
transactions. It therefore tends to vary in time and between places.
Specifically in the Indian context, a range of items including paddy,
salt, almonds, and cowry shells have served as money. The Sangam
literature of South India alludes to the first two items for local trans-
actions (Subrahmanian 1966: 232). Between the eighth and the eigh-
teenth centuries BCE, rice and cowries both circulated as currency in
Kashmir (Heimann 1980: 67), paralleled by cowries and almonds in
Gujarat (Scharfe 1989: 147). The wide-spread glass microbeads
termed ‘Indo-Pacific beads’ which are reckoned to have originated in
India might also have served similar purpose. The earliest dated finds
come from the site of Arikamedu in India and are distributed from
Japan to South Africa between third and fourteenth centuries CE.
(Katsuhiko & Gupta 2000; Francis 1990) This view is based on
comparable examples belonging to later period from Madagascar
connected with the Indian Ocean trade network.
The range of low or relatively low-value media of exchange in daily
transactions as noted above is attributed to the high demand for liquid
cash in India. Indeed, this is demonstrable since early on; for instance,
the proto-coinage globules in base-metal in South India spread far
wider than those in precious metal indicating the demand for small
change over higher denominations and simultaneously establishing
their significance in the monetary integration of the region. In the long
run and within the broader narrative that addresses the subcontinent,
however, the high demand for liquid cash could be met neither by
copper which has a high utilitarian value, nor by the insufficient
resources of gold and silver that were prone to hoarding and hence
constantly valued high (Heimann 1980: 56).
The role of cowries as a sustained medium of monetary exchange in
India may be understood in this context. A survey of their use reveals
their chronological and spatial relevance to the monetary networks and
they are also able to demonstrate the connection with coinage systems
thus truly serving to illustrate networks among diverse forms of
money. Early use of cowries as currency is indicated in Mahidhara’s
commentary on Vajasaneyi-Samhita of Yajur Veda (Scharfe 1989:
147). The same was true for Bengal at least since the Mauryan times
(Heimann 1980: 62). Transactions using cowries were noticed in
central India by Fa-Hien (337-422 CE) (Sircar 1968: 279), and later
attested by Hiuen-Tsang (602-664 CE) (Scharfe 1989: 147), both
Chinese Buddhist monks whose travelogues provide important infor-
mation on ancient India. From then until the nineteenth century, a sys-
tem of exchange was in place delineating values against the number of
cowries and ratios in which cowries may be exchanged with metallic
currency. The reason for such a long lasting monetary role played by
cowries is perhaps due to the relative permanency and stability they
afforded against diverse metallic currencies with variable composition
and values. This is found to be particularly true for the Gupta period
when cowries in the rural areas seem to have provided greater stability
in comparison to coinage in the cities that underwent steady debase-
ment (Heimann 1980: 56-59, 67).
The primary objective of this article was to study the nature of Roman
coin finds from India and to reveal and contextualise the long history
of monetary interaction between India and the Mediterranean. Some of
the key findings include understanding the causal role of political
measures in spearheading monetary connections. While the impor-
tance of weight standards in forming monetary networks is duly ack-
nowledged, the present analysis demonstrates that other elements of
coinage which constitute the visual composition also play a crucial role.
The role of local portrait coins in this process seems to warrant due
recognition as crucial nodal points that provided foreign coins the
means to access local markets which were hitherto out of their reach
due to cultural barriers which impeded their reception as money. In
the deliberate creation of a coin-type that lay at the intersection of the
Mediterranean and Indic coin traditions, a conceptual bridge between
local and foreign coin types was achieved through which different
polities created the conditions necessary for encouraging commercial
ties with the Mediterranean.
In that sense, portrait coins represent the foundation upon which
Indo-Mediterranean trade could be conducted and sustained over a
long time. Their interpretation as mere emulation of foreign coins
therefore no longer seems justified and warrants revision. The call for
revision does not, however, disregard these ‘hybrid’ coins to be
imitative of the foreign coins under study. Instead, the argument made
here is about the character and purpose of imitation. The similitude
with Hellenistic and Roman coins achieved within local coin types in the
present study indicates a deliberate choice driven by economic oppor-
tunities and political enterprise. Imitation was thus a pragmatic mea-
sure and not a mere reflection of indigenous admiration towards the
exotic. Roman coins from India therefore are evidence not only to
India’s foreign commerce in antiquity but simultaneously one of the
means to understand cultural transformation in the subcontinent.
This exploratory piece is part of my doctoral research. I am grateful to Dr. Vandana Joshi and
Prof. Michael Mann for providing me this opportunity. Dr. Shailendra Bhandare kindly verified
the authenticity of some online sources I cite. I especially thank my friend Narendra Killada for
the stimulating discussions on methods in social science research. Any errors are my own.
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