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Still on the Roman trail



From R. Krishnamurthy’s collection of late Roman coins

It’s one of those weeks when my readers have had a ball. Getting in touch with me in person, via the postman, or on the telephone. And delighting in pointing out that things other readers of mine or I have been getting wrong.

First off the mark was leading numismatist R. Krishnamurthy who writes that to the best of his knowledge “no Roman coin has been unearthed at Arikamedu (Miscellany January 21) till now.” He goes on to write, “Prof. Dr. Peter Berghaus of Munster University, Germany, published an article some ten years ago about the discovery of Imperial Roman silver coins in Arikamedu. But he told me that he had bought these coins from a Bombay dealer who had informed him that the coins were from Arikamedu. It is not uncommon for coin dealers to claim that they have collected coins from such important places. So we are not sure about their provenance.”

Together with his letter reader Krishnamurthy sent me a copy of his book, Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur. In this beautifully illustrated book he says that after the death of the Roman Emperor Caracalla in 217 C.E., the Roman Empire almost collapsed, as did its international trade. Roman trade with South India remained desultory till the middle of the 4th Century C.E. But in the second half of that century, it picked up again, as revealed by the large numbers of later copper coins found in Karur, Madurai, Tirukkoilur and Sri Lanka.

Early Roman coins had been found in Coimbatore, Dindigul, Madurai, Nilgiris, Pudukkottai, Salem, Cuddalore and Karur Districts, according to reader Krishnamurthy. But, he says, after 220 C.E., Roman gold coins “hardly ever came to India.” Roman bronze coins, however, dating to the second half of the 3rd Century have been found in Tamil Nadu, as have copper coins from the second half of the 4th Century C.E.

Reader Krishnamurthy’s interest in ancient coins was sparked in 1982 when an antique dealer in Kodaikanal showed him an ancient Pandyan copper coin, rectangular in shape. He began collecting ancient coins thereafter and, in the process, came across several small Roman copper coins in Madurai. On a visit to Karur in 1987, he was astounded to hear that local scrap merchants, who were offering him hundreds of such coins, had melted down thousands of them earlier and obtained several kilos of ingots. His own collection of these Roman coins now numbers over 4000. And these he has been painstakingly cleaning and identifying.

Reader Krishnamurthy’s has not been the only response to this item.

Reader D.B. James writes that his father, while working in the Revenue Department, had found Roman gold coins in Nandyal, Andhra Pradesh. These are now in the Government Museum, Madras. It was felt that the Romans had come to Nandyal in search of indigo dyes.

Chennimalai in Periyar District, points out reader T.K. Visweswaran, was also famous for its venkakkal, which is used in the manufacture of glassware and once was used to make beads and “artificial diamonds”. Mining of the stone to the extent that it has been done warrants “Chennimalai being renamed Chennipallam!” he writes.

And a recent Kerala Archaeological Department announcement of Roman finds in Pattanam appeared in the Press just a few days after my item on the Roman Trail. Dr. Suresh’s book had not only mentioned Pattanam (coastal city’ or ‘port’), “a small straggling village 1.5 km northwest of Paravur in the Ernakulam District”, but also pointed out that several Roman finds had been made there in recent years. I had omitted mention of this village, which Suresh thinks could well have been Muziris. In fact, Paravur has a couple of ancient Jewish synagogues.

S. MUTHIAH

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