Situated on the banks of the Ariyankuppam river in the Indian Union Territory of Pondicherry, Arikamedu is an archaeological site that was first discovered in 1734 when the general locale was still a French colony. But the site failed to gain any significant scholarly attention until almost two centuries elapsed when a French historian by the name of G.V Debreu visited it.
An Ariyankuppam's child presented Debreu with an engraved seal from the site that bore the profile of Augustus Caesar, Rome’s first emperor, prompting Debreu to declare that Arikamedu had been a Roman colony in the past.
The relics unearthed at Arikamedu hint at the robust trade ties that developed between Rome and India after the empire welcomed Indian trade delegations during the period between 21 and 25 B.C. The acquisition of vital ports adjoining the Mediterranean in the 1st century A.D. enabled Rome to establish commercial ties with coastal South Indian states. These trading exchanges were further facilitated by the discovery of seasonal monsoon winds that enabled merchant ships to sail directly across the Arabian Sea.
Contemporary texts like the anonymously authored Periplus of the Erythraen Sea describe the valuable Indian trade items that were purchased by Roman consumers such as semi-precious stones and cotton textiles. Paid for in coinage, the demand for these Indian luxury goods was so widespread that the Roman statesman Pliny the Elder complained about how trading ties with India were leaching the financial resources of the empire.
Alluded to as ‘‘Podouke’’ by the Periplus, Arikamedu is listed as one of the major emporiums that were visited by merchants who embarked from Roman-controlled Egyptian ports in search of exotic Indian products. The substantial presence of a Roman trading settlement there is evinced by the extensive array of artifacts that have been discovered such as pottery, lamps, and cut gems known as intaglio that were engraved with designs typically used by Greco-Roman jewelers.
Some of the pottery sherds uncovered at Arikamedu were traced back to the Italian city of Tuscany where they were originally manufactured as high-end dinnerware for wealthy consumers. Archaeological excavations have also detected amphorae from the Aegean region, illustrating the fact that the local people in the vicinity had developed a taste for European wine. Most significant of all is the large hoards of Roman coins that have been discovered which date back to the reigns of the Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Nero. These coins have been recognized as the primary form of payment that the Romans used to fund their purchases of Indian goods.
The movement of human traffic was not entirely a one-way affair, however, with the discovery of Indian cotton textiles as well as sherds inscribed with Tamil graffiti in the Roman-controlled Egyptian harbor of Berenike indicating that Indian traders from Arikamedu likewise visited Roman ports.
Rome had become the largest empire in history, surpassing even the mighty Chinese dynasties. You can read more about how big Rome was at its peak.
Contrary to the assertion of Debreu, more recent historians credit the indigenous inhabitants with the founding of Arikamedu itself. Named the Pandakul people, the founders of this ancient trading hub inhabited a wide swath of territory that stretched from the South-East coast of India to the sprawling mountain ridge known as the Western Ghats.
As skilled horse-riders, the Pandakul were able to range extensively over their vast domain in search of the valuable mineral deposits that they utilized for their gem carving industries. Some scholars have claimed that the Pandakul civilization was responsible for processing most of the semi-precious stones that were exported to Roman markets. The inhabitants of Arikamedu also manufactured cotton textiles that were specifically designed to meet the tastes of Roman consumers.
Rome's influence extended far beyond Europe into Africa, Asia, and North America with excellent logistics and transportation systems.
In addition, the Pandakul likewise excelled at manufacturing decorative beads and may have even been among the very first civilizations to begin utilizing double-tipped diamond drills in the crafting process. Glass, garnets, carnelian, agate, and amethyst were utilized in copious quantities by the bead-crafting artisans of Arikamedu.
Many of these beads were subsequently exported to various locales in Southeast Asia. Archaeologists exploring Balinese sites dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. have uncovered blue glass beads that originated in Arikamedu. Similar glass and stone beads have also been identified at archaeological sites in Java and Thailand such as the Buni Complex and Ban Don Ta Phet respectively.
The inhabitants of Arikamedu may have played a role in circulating Roman goods beyond the Indian subcontinent as well. Fragments of Roman pottery that resembled the ones uncovered at Arikamedu have been found at certain ancient burial grounds in Java while Roman coins have also turned up at excavation sites in Thailand and Vietnam.
It is evident that during the ancient past when the Roman empire was at the height of its glory, an extensive web of trading ties existed that connected far-flung and disparate locations situated across the Mediterranean, India, and Southeast Asia into an integrated commercial network.