We are too used to the medieval idea of a farm labourer who never left his manor to recognise that the world was not always as ignorant as it later became. From the time of Alexander in the 330s BC to the rise of Christianity in the 330s AD, Greeks and Romans were often well-versed and familiar in the oriental trade.
While there are several Roman bases in India, mainly in Tamil areas of the south, there are no known Indian bases on Roman territory. But since the Romans in Egypt had Red Sea shipping bases such as Berenice, there could have been entrepôt cities where exotic animals and precious cargoes could have been received for onward shipment.
We are fortunate to have a surviving guide to this trade, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. This tells us about Roman trade with India up to the second century AD. You might consider it to be a briefing note for a merchants’ guild on the prospects for successful trade in that area. Such peripli were part of a long-running tradition of Greek writing about foreigners (xenoi), who were generally to be classified by the Greeks as Dangerous Foreigners and Useful Foreigners. The Indian peoples were definitely the latter, as the text relating to India has none of the common warnings about hostile people which can be seen in the section relating to East Africa.
There is evidence for long-term contact between Europe, North Africa and India. Zeus and his Italian version Iuppiter (Jupiter) are derived from Dyaus Pita, a senior god from the Rig Veda, the father of Indra in Hindu theology. Indra has the thunderbolt later assigned to Zeus. We have no idea how the people who became Greek came across these Hindu gods, but they were worshipped in Tamil lands. It does seem that Zeus only became chief god of the Greeks after the collapse of Bronze-Age Mycenaean culture and the rise of highland people like the Dorians, the so-called ‘Sons of Heracles’.
Ambrosia, the food or sometimes drink of the gods, the substance which gives them immortality, is a word taken from the Sanskrit ‘Amrita’ which is the same substance and the same word, essentially a- (non-) mer (death, the same root as ‘mort’ and ‘murder’). It has been claimed as a survival in Indo-European religion, in which case it survived remarkably well. Amrita also appears in the Rig Veda.
We have here two of many links between Europe and India. This points not to chance religious survivals but towards enduring cultural contacts. The Roman priests known as Flamines (singular Flamen) have a title that is etymologically and functionally close to Brahmins, a high-status priesthood forming part of the Rig Veda culture.
The third had been the invasion of western India by the army of Alexander the Great, and the subsequent Indo-Greek kingdoms, which endured for centuries, helped by the relative weakness of Persia after his destruction of the Shahs. It took Persia some 450 years to recover its status, so until the recovery, the Romans had land routes to India and beyond. The Periplus dates from the second century AD, the time when sea routes to the east had become more useful.
Rome was familiar with the east during the Principate; after all, Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia had written extensively about Brahmins. Pliny’s great interest in minerals served him well too.
One very definite reason to otherwise invisible Indians in the Roman world is the use of elephants in warfare. Hannibal used elephants against Rome in 218BC as everyone knows, and African elephants are impossible to train. The only elephant to survive Hannibal’s attack was his own mount, Surus, ‘the Syrian’, suggesting it was an Indian elephant brought via Syria. Claudius arrived to mark his conquest of (some of) Britain in AD43 with elephants. An elephant eats 400 pounds of food a day, presumably more when in a cold climate. It requires careful handling, which does suggest a squad of trained Indian mahouts, with some men to spare, in case of injury or death, as well as a team dedicated to providing its diet, and a mobile latrine team to prevent animal-borne diseases spreading to the army. Just as a medieval knight needed his support team of squires and grooms, the mounted Indian war elephant must have required a strong support base.
What did the Romans trade with India? They had plenty of things to buy from the East, but what did they sell? There was it seems an export market for gold and silver coin, as well as copper, cloth, wine, and of slightly darker impact, singing boys and young women for the harems of Indian lords. Beasts for the amphitheatre and arena seem to have been a Roman import. Trajan is recorded as importing large numbers of beasts, including tigers, something not seen before in Europe.
Why did the trade decline? It seems to have flourished under Augustus, as heir to the Ptolemies; he sent 120 ships a year from one Egyptian port alone to India, a huge increase on the Hellenistic kings’ levels of trade. Indian political visits became more frequent, and continued into the reign of Justinian; however the revival of Persia and later that of Islam seem to have closed that route for good.