Tamil Nadu History

THE GREEK AND ROMAN CONTACTS WITH ANCIENT TAMIL COUNTRY

The Sangam Age in Tamil country is significant and unique for its social, economic, religious and cultural life of the Tamils. There was an all round development during this period. The Sangam literatures as well as the archaeological findings reveal these developments

From the very early times, Tamil country had carried on an extensive trade with foreign countries. The Greeks and Romans had commercial contacts with the Tamil country from about the Third century B.C. These trade relations had lasted throughout the Sangam period. We have plenty of sources to study the maritime activities during the Sangam Age.

Literary Sources

The Sangam literature refers to the Greeks and Romans as Yavanas. The Sangam poems describe the trading activities of Greek and Roman merchants in the Tamil country. They mention the important seaports and also about the exports and imports.

Similarly, the Greek and Roman writers of that period mention the details of the commercial contacts between their countries and South India. Particularly, the writers like Pliny, Ptolemy. Plutarch and the author of the Periplus had described the condition of trade in the First and Second centuries A.D.

Archaeological Sources

The archaeological evidences have further supplemented literary sources relating to the foreign trade, The Arikkamedu excavations remain as the important evidence for die Greek and Roman trade in the Tamil country. The place Arikkamedu, near Pondicherry had remained an important centre of trade for Greets and Romans, The Greek writers had referred to this place as Poduke, There was a great Roman Factory at Arikkamedu. Many articles such as coins, porcelain, jars and tubs for the purpose of dyeing clothes have also been found there. Further, Roman coins, pottery and other articles have been found in other parts of Tamil Nadu. Excavations have also been conducted at Puhar, Kanchipuram, Alagankulam, Madurai, Kodumanal and other places. Greek and Roman coins and other articles have been found in these places confirming the foreign trade during the Sangam Age.

Coins

Plenty of Roman coins have been found all over Tamil Nadu, particularly in the coastal areas. From these coins we come to know that the Roman emperors like Augustus Caesar, Tiberius and Nero had issued them. Since they lived in the First and Second centuries A.D., it may be said that the Sangam Tamils had trade relations with the Roman Empire.

Greeks

The Greeks were the first to enter into trade contacts with the Tamil region in about Third century B.C. The Greeks had adopted and mentioned several Tamil names for the commodities that were available in the Tamil country. For example, they had adopted the Tamil word Ansi (rice) and mentioned it as Oriza in the Greek language. The Greeks had paid much attention on the West coast. The seaport Musiri had remained their important trading centre. The Greeks provided an important link between Tamil country and the West, via Egypt.

Romans

After the Greeks, the Romans began to arrive in the Tamil country. The Pandyan kingdom was the first to get the benefit of the Roman trade. The Romans had employed the Tarn ii merchants to buy and sell goods in the local market. They had also served in the Pandyan army. In the First and Second centuries A,D,, both the Greeks and Romans expanded their trade in the Tamil country. After that period, there was a gradual decline in the overseas trade. The confusion in the Roman Empire and the collapse of the Sangam age in the Third century A.D. put an end to the Greek and Roman contacts with the Tamil country.

Exports and Imports

The Tamil country exported a variety of goods to Greece and Rome during the Sangam Age. The most important of them were spices like pepper, cardamom, cloves and ginger. The other items of export include sandal paste, flowers, scents, aromatic wood like Ahil, ivory, pearls, corals, medicinal plants, banana and rice. There was also a great demand in the west for the cotton clothes manufactured in the Tamil country. The Sangam literature reveals that fine varieties of clothes had been exported to the West. Further, varieties of beads, diamonds, sapphire, topaz, emerald, tortoise shells were bought by the Romans, The pearls of the Pandyan kingdom and the cotton clothes of Uraiyur had been largely exported.

The imports into the Tamil country had almost remained less than its exports. The imported goods include sweet wine, gold coins and ornaments, glass, copper and other articles. The horses for the Pandyan and other kingdoms of South India were brought in ships from foreign countries.

Sea-ports

The development of overseas trade was made easy by the seaports situated on the coasts of the Tamil country. There were several seaports in the Tamil country during the Sangam period. The most important seaports on the eastern coast were Mamallapuram, Poduke, Puhar Poraiyaru, Korkai and Kumari. The Sangam literature, Pattinappalai provides the details of the Puhar harbour and its activities. The port-town Korkai had remained famous for its pearls. It was the primary port of the Pandyan kingdom. On the West coast, Musiri and Thondi were the two important seaports. Warehouses for storing the goods were built along the coasts. The chief ports had their lighthouses, which were called in the Tamil literature as Kalangarai Ilangu Sudar. Facilities were also made in the seaports for repairing the ships. The arrival and stay of foreign merchants in port towns were common during the Sangam period. People from various countries had also lived in port towns and this paved the way for the development of cosmopolitan civic system in these towns.
Thus, throughout the Sangam period, the Tamil country had maintained commercial and other contacts with Greece and Rome.