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Roman Coins Abroad: Foreign Coinage and Strategies of Sovereignty in Ancient India

Jeremy Simmons

Columbia University

Was the currency of one ancient culture ever utilized to express the sovereignty of another? This paper explores how the relationship between sovereignty and money in the ancient world changes when a currency created by one state travels well beyond the extent of its sovereign control and becomes an integral feature in other monetary systems. In order to elucidate this phenomenon, I address one example in particular, namely the large presence of imperial Roman coinage in India. Roman trade with India, attested by ancient literary sources like Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and the so-called Periplus Maris Erythraei, involved the transport of Roman goods and coin to the western coast of India via sea, where these items were traded for various Indian commodities. Roman critics largely bemoan the resulting influx of Roman coinage to India, with Pliny the Elder quantifying the losses to India alone at 50 million HS/annum (Nat. Hist. 6.26.101, 12.41.84). Although Roman authorities (including Tiberius, according to Tacitus, Ann. 3.53) decried the perceived loss of coinage from the Roman money supply to eastern luxuries, ancient literary sources fail to address the potential for Roman currency to play larger roles abroad.

The enduring presence of Roman coinage in India as a result of this trade, attested in numerous archaeological finds, is paralleled by the minting activities of Indian potentates. While coinage traditions in India are initially shaped by Mauryan precedents and the Hellenistic coinage of Central Asia, the influx of Roman currency via trade catalyzes new types of coin production by Indian rulers. Scholars have largely focused on the role of Indian currencies in facilitating transoceanic trade; however, this paper addresses the numismatic evidence from a unique perspective. I suggest that Roman coinage—as an abundant, foreign currency in ancient India—features prominently in various strategies of sovereignty undertaken by territorial states there, particularly in the first two centuries CE.

This paper differentiates between three geographic regions in particular: i) northern India/Central Asia, under the power of the Kushans; ii) the western Deccan, contested by the Western Kshatrapas and Satavahanas; and iii) southern India, ruled over by Tamil chiefdoms. In some cases, these cultures adapt or initiate currency production that rely on features of Roman money (imperial portraiture, iconography, weight, etc.); in others, they treat either defaced, imitation, or unaltered Roman coins themselves as currency, stores of wealth, or even specialized commodities. Iconographic emulation speaks to a likening between the Roman emperor’s authority expressed in coin and that of various Indian dynasts, while the cooption of Roman gold and silver coins as bullion for this purpose—sometime through deliberate acts of defacement—reflects a conscious attempt to express control over imported metallic resources. The presence Roman coinage further prompts dramatic structural changes to Indian monetary systems: for instance, as a result of the influx of the aureus to India, the Kushans begin to mint a gold coin called the dīnāra (after the denarius), which matches the aureus in weight, thus adding a whole new metal and denomination to the money supply. These strategies exist side-by-side with other means of expressing authority over contested territory, such as overstriking rival coinage, instituting a standardization of iconography on coinage, and investing in monastic institutions situated along territorial frontiers. In examining Roman currency far beyond the bounds of Roman political control, we can appreciate the interplay between sovereignty and money in a whole new light—such a relationship is dynamic, as Indian rulers willingly adopt features of a foreign currency designed in an entirely different political context as one of many instruments of local authority.

Session/Panel Title

Sovereignty and Money (Joint AIA-SCS Panel)

Session/Paper Number

30.4

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