Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.08.08

D.P.M. Weerakkody, Taprobane: Ancient Sri Lanka as known to the Greeks and Romans. Indicopleustoi: Archaeologies of the Indian Ocean.   Turnhout:  Brepols, 1997.  Pp. xxii, 287; 3 b/w pls.  ISBN 2-503-50552-X.  BEF 2,500.00.  

Reviewed by Nancy C. Wilkie, Carleton College
Word count: 1906 words

Throughout its history the island of Sri Lanka has been known by many names. Among Greek writers, beginning with Onesicritus of Astypalaea, a commander in the fleet of Alexander the Great, the most common name for the island was Taprobane (Ταπροβανῆ). This name was subsequently adopted by all Latin authors as well. It is generally agreed that the name Taprobane was derived from the Sanskrit Tamraparni (Pali Tambapanni) since the latter forms occur both in the ancient Sri Lankan Buddhist chronicles (Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa) and in the Rock Edicts of Ashoka with apparent reference to the island of Sri Lanka.

Weerakkody discusses these and other names that have been thought to refer to Sri Lanka in ancient Greek and Roman texts ranging in date from the late fourth century B.C. to the middle of the sixth century A.D. Besides Taprobane, the only names that he accepts as genuine references to the island are Palaisimoundou, Salike, and Sielediba, the latter derived from Sihala-dipa (Simhala-dvipa), the ancient Indian name for the island. The name Lanka-dipa, although common in India, apparently was not known by Greek and Latin writers.

The introductory chapters to the work discuss the historical conditions that pertained at the times when references to Sri Lanka were incorporated into the ancient Greek and Roman texts. Weerakkody argues that prior to the seventh century A.D., most information about Sri Lanka was acquired by Greek and Roman writers indirectly, through contacts with Indian merchants, envoys or missionaries. Since archaeological excavations have revealed that trade between India and Sri Lanka was well established early in the first millennium B.C., even the earliest Greek writers could have learned of Sri Lanka from Indian sources.

The Romans, too, seem to have had limited direct contact with the island. Only two visits to Sri Lanka by Romans have been recorded: that of a freedman of Annius Plocamus in the first century A.D., which resulted in the sending of a delegation from Sri Lanka to Rome during the reign of the emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54) (Pliny N.H. VI.23.84), and that of Sopatros, probably in the fifth century A.D. (Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christian Topography XI.17-19). This is not surprising, for products from Taprobane were readily available in Indian markets (Strabo II.1.14) so there was no need to travel to Sri Lanka to obtain them. Moreover, Bopearachchi (Foreward, p. xviii) has argued that those sailing between Egypt and the west coast of India during the southwest monsoon would have arrived in India in September or October. In order to take advantage of the northeast monsoon for their return journey, they would have had to depart India shortly thereafter, some time in November, so no time would have been available for even a brief trip to Sri Lanka.

In Chapters III-XIV Weerakkody examines in varying detail all of the passages in the ancient Greek and Roman texts that he regards as genuine references to Sri Lanka rather than to some real or imagined place far away in the East. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the idea of Taprobane as a utopia, which was to become commonplace among Roman writers, occurs first in Artemidorus of Ephesus (fl. 104-101 B.C.) (as cited by Pliny N.H. VII.2.30).

While recognizing that some of the utopian aspects of Taprobane recorded by Pliny were derived from earlier authors, Weerakkody points out that parts of Pliny's account may reflect the actual political situation on the island. For example, the ancient Buddhist chronicles represent Bhatikabhaya, the Sri Lankan king who presumably was responsible for sending the embassy to Rome during Claudius' reign, as a benevolent ruler, in contrast to those rulers who immediately preceded him. His conduct, according to Weerakkody, was intended by Pliny to stand in opposition to that of the Roman principate. For this reason, and because Claudius himself had a strong interest in history and may have seen to it that the information supplied by the Sri Lankan ambassadors about their country was properly recorded, Weerakkody rejects arguments that have attempted to date the Sri Lankan embassy to Rome to the reign of Augustus.

After dealing with the passages from ancient texts that he accepts as genuine references to Taprobane, Weerakkody turns in Chapter XVI to those that he regards as false or dubious. In general, the criteria he applies in judging whether or not an account contains a valid reference to Sri Lanka involve the accuracy with which the geography of the island is represented, how well details in the accounts correspond to evidence from indigenous sources, and whether or not they involve "linguistic fallacies." In the latter category are those place names that include the root "Div-" which many have thought must refer to Sri Lanka because of its similarity to the name that the Arabs gave to the island in the Middle Ages -- Serendib.

The original texts of all of the ancient Greek and Roman sources that refer to the island of Sri Lanka, including those that Weerakkody regards as referring to other islands in the region instead, are collected in Chapter XVIII. They are separated into three categories: geographical notices, descriptions of the flora and fauna of the island, and miscellaneous notices. In most cases, the edition from which the original text is excerpted is not indicated, nor are textual problems noted. Moreover, in Chapter XIX where the English translations of these texts are collected, the sources of most of the translations are not specified. Presumably many are by Weerakkody himself. Nonetheless, Weerakkody has done a great service by making these ancient references to Sri Lanka, genuine and dubious alike, available both in the original and in English translation.

The only maps included in the volume are those based on Ptolemy's Geography and the Peutinger Table. This is unfortunate since many who will find this work of interest will not be familiar with Sri Lanka and the countries in its immediate vicinity. Since Weerakkody makes reference to many places in Sri Lanka, India, and adjacent regions in his analysis of the ancient Greek and Roman texts, the lack of maps showing their location is especially frustrating. In addition to the maps, there is a single plate depicting a number of Roman coins and their imitations that have been found in Sri Lanka. However, none is identified as to type or provenience, and many are reproduced at such a small scale that their type cannot be determined.

The information that can be gleaned from numismatic evidence is dealt with by Weerakkody in Chapter XV and by Osmund Bopearachchi in his lengthy Foreword to the work. Of special interest are the Roman and Indo-Roman bronze coins of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. and their local Sri Lankan imitations. These have been found in great numbers on the island, often as part of large hoards. Many are in private collections, of unknown provenience, or inadequately published. In general, the coins are very worn, and when their context is known it is often a good deal later than the date that they were struck.

Looking for an historical event that might have precipitated the sudden importation of large numbers of Roman and Indo-Roman bronze coins, Weerakkody cites the invasion from South India of a certain Pandu who, according to the Mahavamsa, ruled the island from A.D. 433-460. He further suggests that most of the coin hoards from Sri Lanka may represent temple donations and payments made to soldiers during Pandu's reign. The abandoning of these hoards may have been the result of disturbances that accompanied the Sinhala rebellion led by Dhatusena, which ended South Indian rule of the island in A.D. 460.

Aside from Chapter XV, which deals with Roman coins, and a brief excursus in Chapter I on ancient trade, Weerakkody makes little use of the admittedly meager archaeological evidence pertaining to the date and nature of the contact between the Greeks and Romans and the ancient inhabitants of Sri Lanka. Although Bopearachchi in his lengthy (14 page) Foreword to the book summarizes the results of his own recent archaeological explorations along the lower parts of the navigable rivers of the south and west coasts of the island, even here greater emphasis is placed on the numismatic and literary evidence.

Bopearachchi argues that rivers played a significant role in the ancient trade of Sri Lanka, both as a means for transporting goods to the interior and as locations for ports, the remains of which he has identified near the estuaries of several major rivers. On the basis of this research, Bopearachchi questions the generally accepted notion that circumnavigation of the island was first accomplished by European invaders of the sixteenth century. This leads to a review of seafaring and trade patterns in the region, beginning with the Proto-historic period when contact between Sri Lanka and India is first attested, and extending, albeit briefly, to Persian, Arab and Chinese trade with the island.

Although Bopearachchi's Foreward refers to certain of Weerakkody's conclusions, it is not well integrated into the rest of the work. For example, references in the Foreword are in the Social Science format, while elsewhere, with only a few exceptions, they appear in footnotes. Tighter editing also would have revealed, for example, that C.W. Nicholas occurs in the Foreword (p. x) as 1990a, while in the bibliography it appears as 1990; that Bopearachchi 1994 in the text is presumably Bopearachchi 1996 in the Bibliography; that Deraniyagala's name is misspelled (p. xiii); that neither Seneviratne 1985 (p. xvi) nor Ray 1994 (p. xix) is included in the Bibliography, etc. Additional problems in the Bibliography include instances where entries are not listed in proper alphabetic order, e.g. Salles occurs several entries after Salomon; Nicholas 1950 is placed after Nicholas and Paranavitana 1961, and the latter work is referred to in the Foreword (p. xv) simply as 'Nicholas 1961'. Finally, many items discussed in the text are not included in the index. For example, there are no entries for Orosius, Aethicus and Philostorgius, all of whom are discussed in Chapter XIV and whose original texts and English translations are included in Chapters XVIII and XIX.

The origin of this work was Weerakkody's doctoral dissertation, entitled Aspects of the Acquaintance with Taprobane as Revealed by the Greek and Roman Writers, which he completed at the University of Hull in 1977. Since then he has published numerous articles on the same subject. As indicated in the Preface (p. vii) revised versions of these articles form the basis of this work. For example, Chapter XVII, "Classical References in the Interlinear Inscriptions from Sri Lanka," reproduces, with only minor changes, Weerakkody's article of the same title published in Ancient Ceylon No. 6 (1986) pp. 259-273. However, this article is not included among Weerakkody's publications in the Bibliography, nor are there citations indicating where any of the chapters in the book were previously published. Since many Sri Lankan publications are difficult to obtain outside the country, the lack of this information is especially regrettable.

Nonetheless, this is an impressive work, and one that should be consulted by all those with an interest in contacts between the Greco-Roman world and the East. By collecting and evaluating all of the evidence for ancient Sri Lanka that occurs in the Greek and Roman texts, Weerakkody has done a great service for those with interests in both areas. His work will certainly form the foundation for much scholarship on the topic for many years to come.

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