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  • Writer's pictureAnirudh Kanisetti

4. An Indian Lady in Ancient Rome (19 mins)

Updated: Dec 17, 2018

1900 years after she was carved, an Indian ivory statuette was uncovered in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. How did she come there, and how much had the world changed since the eruption of Vesuvius buried her?

This is her story: a story of the globalisation of the ancient world, a story of the vast diversity and complexity of the world that our ancestors called home.

Episode 4 of Echoes of India looks back on the first three to paint a picture of a planet in flux, as economic webs weave together ancient civilisations in a pattern of interaction and innovation that is strikingly reminiscent of the world we know today. Hear the explosion of Vesuvius, the great markets of Alexandria, and the booming thunder of the monsoons that blew trading fleets to the shores of India.

(This episode refers back to the first three of this season. You can access them here:

Episode 1:

Episode 2:

Episode 3:

Transcript and Sources Below.


In the Secret Cabinet of a museum in Naples, Italy, is an ivory statuette of a stunningly beautiful woman. Her legs are intertwined, her arms raised languorously. Her hair falls like a waterfall down her back, braided with jewels and flowers. Elaborate ornaments and garlands rest on her ample curves. Folds of translucent cloth drape her body, covering precisely nothing, and she smiles enigmatically, alluringly, as if she knows exactly what any viewer would think of her beauty and her sexuality.

The statuette was probably owned by some wealthy family in the Roman city of Pompeii. Was she considered a work of art? Did they unveil her beauty at their dinner parties, to be gasped at by gaggles of wealthy, sophisticated guests? Did her proud, arched eyes ensnare the hearts of some lonely, aged senators? Was she admired for hours, in silence, by lovestruck young men, who saw in her their own beloveds, so close, and yet so far?

And when, in 79 CE, the volcano Vesuvius erupted, like the forge of the angry god Vulcan, suffocating the people of Pompeii with its furious fumes, smothering the once-busy city with the black ash that had festered in its heart for centuries, did she welcome the darkness and the sleep? In her dreams, until she was dug up 1900 years later, did she see the land where she was born?

Did she see India?

I'm Anirudh Kanisetti, and welcome to Echoes.

When you and I study history, it's hard to constantly remember that all of human history happened simultaneously. Every single human on Earth today is a resultant of the actions and inactions of our common ancestors, who spread out all across the world, with their own romances and glories and despairs. Every arbitrary unit of time, every century, every hour, every minute, was filled with sex and violence and money and music and the thrill of the senses, of being alive, and looking out into the endless cosmos in silent wonder, as real to them then as it is to us now.

Julius Caesar was conquering Gaul while Azes, the Shaka King of Kings, battled the Indo-Greeks. Qin Shi Huangdi unified China under his bloody sword while Ashoka Maurya was brutally conquering Kalinga. And how many peaceful lives who changed the world in equally important ways are forgotten? How many brave people travelled across the world, experiencing the wonders of the Silk Roads, those great economic webs that spread from China through Southeast Asia and India, through Africa and Persia, into Europe? What languages did they speak, and what did they dream of at night?

Though I've mentioned in earlier episodes, how important merchants and trade were to the Indian subcontinent, we’ll delve into that a bit here. That beautiful ivory statuette which I described in the beginning of the episode, the Yakshi of Pompeii, is the perfect opportunity to discuss something that we think is very much a feature of the modern world - an early form of global trade. The thing is, as a species, we have a tendency to believe that we are unique and there has never really been anyone like us. And so globalisation, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, tolerance, human rights and all the other things we take for granted must be new and a result of things like the European Enlightenment and neoliberal capitalism, blah blah blah. Right?

Well, that's sort of true. But as we know, at least in the case of ancient India, multiculturalism and tolerance were not really that alien. Nor was it very strange for an ancient Indian - especially living in, say, Gandhara - to live in a cosmopolitan city where many languages were spoken and residents came from many ethnic backgrounds. So why do these supposedly modern traits appear in ancient India?

I think it’s down to the neurological foundations of human behaviour, and given the profit motive and the particular geographical and social environment of the subcontinent, these ideas evolved to suit our ancestors. Similar forces also drive modern globalisation: human behaviour, the profit motive, and particular geographical, technological and political configurations, allowing its ideas and institutions to evolve and thrive. So it shouldn’t really be that surprising that ancient societies, though they didn’t have gigantic freighters, Internet connections, and passports, also had some form of globalisation, rudimentary and different from ours though it was. India was especially well-positioned for that sort of thing compared to many ancient societies - it was bang in the middle of the Indian ocean, and about midway between the massive markets of the Mediterranean and China.

Let’s come back to our ivory carving. How did this beautiful ancient Indian lady come to ancient Rome? The answer, like much in history, is "we don't know for sure, not 100%". We know that, at least since the times of Cyrus of Persia in the 7th century BCE, there was already some contact between West Asia and India. And then, after the disruptive campaigns of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, the Greco-Roman world began to rapidly emerge as a new power centre. These new elites now knew about India, and as we saw in Episode 1 of Echoes, they were connected to it through political links. And so trade, trade began to boom, flowing from India through Persia into the Mediterranean.

And then the Central Asian and Parthian tribes came in, as we saw in Episode 2 of Echoes, bringing with them turmoil and warfare, and creating new trade networks in India's northwest. Trade from Gandhara was temporarily less viable. But that was for the best, it turned out, because now Central and West India, along the Deccan coast, also entered the trade game. The Romans were busy brutally conquering most of the Mediterranean world and extracting wealth, which ended up in the hands of new elites in new urban centres, connected through the turbulent maritime highway of the Mediterranean Sea. And in India, we saw in Episode 3 that state formation was well under way. (I’ll put links to all these episodes in the description). In India, as in ancient Rome, there was increased social stratification, urbanisation, and economic specialisation, allowing for the exchange of goods and ideas.

Much of the maritime trade from the Mediterranean to India was controlled by a kingdom founded by a successor of Alexander, a man called Ptolemy. This was Egypt, and Ashoka Maurya actually sent diplomats to interact with a descendant of Ptolemy, calling him "Tulumaya" in his inscriptions. The Ptolemies, like the Indo-Greeks or really the Indo-Everythings, settled down into Egypt, blending with their culture. But since they were much closer to the Greek world, they retained much Greek influence, whereas the Indo-Everythings weren't really close to their homelands and so became much more Indianised.

This Greek kingdom in Egypt had two shores. One was on the Mediterranean Sea, opening onto the Greco-Roman world; the other was on the Red Sea, pouring into the Arabian Sea. Explorers soon discovered the monsoon winds that blew ships to India every year. They would have come to Gujarat, to Maharashtra, all along the Western Coast of the great peninsula of South India. Soon they came to its East coast as well, which I'll discuss in a later episode. But on the Western Coast of India, they would have met newly-emerging states with their own artistic traditions - such as the Satavahanas and the Shakas.

Greco-Egyptian buyers would have picked up stuff that they thought was appealing, and sold to Indians the stuff that Indians found appealing. There would have been an exchange of ideas and artistic traditions. Indian artisans, always an inventive bunch, experimented with styles that their new patrons would have liked. Indian elites would have wanted the exotic styles of the West, and the West, even in this early period, wanted the exotic, magical goods of India. We’ll talk more about how Roman art influenced Indian masters in the next episode of the podcast, The Axis of the Cosmos. But it’s a remarkable parallel to how Indian elites today continue to consume and adapt Western styles and produce.

One would have thought, really, that having these close ties would have helped ancient Indians and Romans realise that they were not so different. But ideas are heavier than luxury items. Romans received goods that Indians would have found completely normal, such as spices. But since these goods were rare came from far away, they didn't know their original mundane purpose. Writing from the time shows that stuff like spices, perfumes, and Indian art were believed to be magical! What’s really interesting is that there is a similar pattern in how the West sees India today. We are still exotic, alien, different.

Have you ever met an Indian hippie wandering around in the beaches of Marseilles, France, searching for spiritual enlightenment in the works of Plato or, for that matter, the doctrines of the medieval Catholic Church? On the other hand, the beaches of Pondicherry are thickly covered with Western tourists on a mission to "discover themselves" by studying medieval or even early modern Indian philosophy that most Indians would have never even heard about. I'm always tempted to tell them "Boss, come to Pondy for the pretty beaches and colonial history, but your whole millennial 'discovering yourself by backpacking through India' is just some Orientalist hokum that has been nicely marketed to you, and the only enlightenment you find is going to be a very expensive placebo effect".

The strange this is that we’ve also internalised this Western view of Indian culture, seeing it as this endless source of perfect wisdom and magical spirituality. And I get that - it's hard to admit that our ancestors, brilliant as they were, were just as flawed and brilliant as any other ancient humans. It’s hard to say “Hey, we were special, but just as special as every other human civilization.” And it’s even harder because that means that we can’t easily say that our ancestors weren’t more special than the Western colonisers who made us ashamed of our culture for so long. But that’s a debate for another day and another place. So let’s come back to the 2nd century BCE and continue with the tale of early globalisation.

The exchange of artistic traditions, driven by the need to appeal to new, sort of proto-globalised cosmopolitan elites, explains a great deal about the mysterious ivory lady of Pompeii. Any modern Indian would take one look and say "Bro, that’s one of us" (I’ll put a bunch of pictures of her in the description and you can tweet me if you agree).

But the Yakshi is also… different. There are echoes of Indian art in her but there's clearly some influence from Greco-Roman ideas of art. If you've been to the Sanchi stupa in Central India, you can also see some similarities in the way she’s carved. Now the thing is, like most Indian sacred sites, Sanchi was worshipped at for centuries, and was constantly updated with donations from patrons using the latest artistic styles. Bands of master artisans would have travelled from one part of the subcontinent to another, wherever there was a demand for their work, and spread styles across regions, across centuries. So maybe some of them were involved in making her.

I know I haven't really answered the question about where Our Lady has come from. But there is one final clue which I haven't mentioned yet: on the bottom of the statue is a single letter, in Kharoshti script. In Episode 2 of this podcast I mentioned that Kharoshti was the script used in the Northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent, in Gandhara. Our lady doesn't look that Gandharan - but it’s enough of a clue to reconstruct her story, and it’s even more complex that you may have thought.

Perhaps our lady was made in Central India for a Gandharan market during the early period of urbanisation, when the Satavahanas were rising to power. Maybe an artisan whose father worked at Sanchi taught him how to carve, and they were making stuff adapted to the artistic tastes of some wealthy Gandharan. This is why art history can be so fascinating - it shows us the imprints, the traces that our ancestors left on the turbulent, never-ending river of time.

Somehow, despite the turmoil of the times, with Central Asian tribes flowing into the North-West, the carving found her way through trade to Gandhara. There, perhaps, she caught the eye of a Greek merchant who was visiting these once Indo-Greek cities, and he shipped her south along the Indus and across the Arabian Sea.

Did she see the lands of Ethiopia, where the monsoons are born? How did she feel when she stood in the bustling markets of Alexandria in Egypt, where the mad conqueror Alexander, who once tried to conquer India, was buried? Did she see the pyramids, and bask in the light of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the the great lighthouse of the Pharos, which speared the clear blue skies of the Mediterranean like a marble arm, casting its light for miles? Did she enjoy the attention of art collectors who convinced some wealthy Roman to pay through the nose for her, this magical, exotic beauty from the lands of India, and laugh silently at the idea that anyone could believe that an ordinary ivory statuette could be magical just because it came from a strange land?

Maybe she felt a spark of wonder and pity for these teeming, curious, countless masses of humanity spread across the Earth. And maybe, standing lonely in the museum of Naples with only her two attendants to give her company, she misses the time and place from which she came, and wishes silently to go back one day.


1. Much of this episode is a summary of the last three and the sources remain substantially the same.

2. The image was sourced from the Archaeological Museum of Naples here:

3. An early description of the statuette, and some speculation as to its origin, comes from D'Ancona, Mirella Levi. "An Indian Statuette from Pompeii." Artibus Asiae 13, no. 3 (1950): 166-180.

4. The connection to the Deccan comes from Basu, Chandreyi. “The heavily ornamented female figure from Pompeii,” in Il Fascino Dell’Oriente Nelle Collezioni E Nei Musei D’Italia

(exhibition catalog),Beatrice Palma Venetucci ed., pp. 59-63, Artemide, Roma. 2010.

5. For Roman views of India, see Pollard, Elizabeth Ann. "Indian Spices and Roman" Magic" in Imperial and Late Antique Indomediterranea." Journal of World History(2013): 1-23.



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