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Funds, Fashion, and Faith: the many lives of Roman coins in Indo-Roman trade

Jeremy Simmons

Columbia University

Could one ancient currency become an integral feature in other monetary systems through trade, or have roles in regions that do not recognize it as money? This paper investigates the functions—both monetary and otherwise—of Roman imperial coinage once traded in the Indian subcontinent in the early centuries CE. The use of Roman coins, specifically silver and gold denominations, in the trade with India is well-attested in various literary sources (e.g. the Periplus Maris Erythraei) and the thousands of Roman coins uncovered throughout the subcontinent. In fact, these finds have long been cited as evidence for the ebb-and-flow of transoceanic commerce, if not a Roman trade deficit with India. We are quite familiar with the Roman viewpoint of the export of their coinage beyond the boundaries of empire, which is defined in financial terms (e.g. Pliny the Elder Nat. Hist. 6.26.101, 12.41.84; Tacitus Ann. 3.53), but there is little consideration in Roman sources of how these coins function beyond the boundaries of empire.

With the Roman world left behind, Roman coinage would hypothetically lose the administrative apparatus and the market necessary to support its use as money. The Indian subcontinent certainly had its own coinage traditions, whose denominational schemes differed from the tri-metallic Roman system; this is not to mention that large portions of the subcontinent were only partially-monetized, such as in the Tamil chiefdoms of the south. And yet, the high concentration of coins finds in less-monetized regions of southern India speak to their pervasive use there in different capacities from money. While the debates on the fungible nature of money vis-à-vis coinage go beyond the scope of this panel, the fundamental (but not revolutionary) result of these considerations is quite relevant—while Roman coinage could serve as a form of money in the Roman world, it was not always necessarily money beyond it.

It is precisely the qualities that marked precious metal coinage as a particularly effective form of money in the Mediterranean world—its precious metal content and formal design, enabling a non-perishable and transportable store of wealth—that could have enabled non-monetary usage of Roman coins once in India: as prestige objects, forms of personal adornment, and votive offerings. In these capacities, Roman coinage is equated to other commodities in terms of value or function and is reserved for specific social conventions, such as gift-exchange and religious dedication. Often, the physical manipulation of these objects marks or even enables their newfound functions, such as piercing or adding loops to coins for necklaces, while imitative production of similar products in India with these adaptations speak to the demand for Roman coins for these purposes. And yet, since the lifespan of a precious metal coin is far longer than that of other commodities, it can change function as it moves between different individuals and regions of the subcontinent, as indicated by attempts to reverse certain manipulations (e.g. filling the holes of pierced coins). Roman coins could also operate alongside indigenous currencies in certain monetized regions, but once more, they seem to be limited to specific subsets of the economy (e.g. for deposit with bankers, endowments at religious sites, etc.). The multivalence of these coins—as both a form of money and an object—at various stages of their long lives in India and the limitations to their use there should accordingly inform how we discuss the larger patterns of Indo-Roman trade.

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Coins and Trade

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