Two thousand years ago, Pliny the Elder, a grumpy old man, complained about the decadence of the Roman upper crust.
Targets of his opprobrium included people like Trimalchio, a man notorious for his extravagant dinner parties, who wanted to have more and lots of it.
As a result of the Roman elite’s enormous appetites,
“…in no year does India absorb less than fifty million sesterces of our empire’s wealth, sending back merchandise to be sold with us at a hundred times its prime cost.”1
Ancient India held a certain mystique in the Roman imagination, not unlike the allure of Milan and Paris today. And just as today, European luxury brands capitalise on this allure to command a premium, the ancient Indians were only too happy to do the same. Indian gems, silks and beads all caused a strain on Rome’s balance of payments.
But it was Rome’s taste for spicy curries that seemed to have done the most damage. Within Rome, pepper from India cost thirty two times the price of a pound of local bread, yet it seemed not to have any effect on demand. So crazy for pepper were the Romans that the Indians dubbed the spice yavanapriya or “beloved by the foreigners.”
In Arikamedu, near Pondicherry in South India (of Life of Pi fame), there can be found, even today, the ruins of a Roman trading settlement dating from the first century C. E., around the time of Emperor Augustus of Rome.
Here, Roman traders lived for over two hundred years. In exchange for the export of Indian luxury items, the traders imported into India Roman glassware and wine, possibly for their own consumption. Certainly they seem to have had a grand old time if one goes by the number of amphorae found at the site.
Some of the Roman traders became Buddhists, possibly to further their trade networks. Others seem to have left the settlement over time and gone into local employment as much sought-after bodyguards. To the Indians, their “hard eyes,” “terrible appearance” and “strong joints” made them ideally suited for the job.