Scholia Reviews ns 11 (2002) 11.

Stefan Faller, Taprobane im Wandel der Zeit: Das Sri-Lanka Bild in griechischen und lateinischen Quellen zwischen Alexanderzug und Spätantike. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2000. Pp. 243. ISBN 3-515- 07471-6. Euro44.00, DM86.05.

John Hilton
University of Natal, Durban

This is a slightly modified version of a 1997 doctoral dissertation from the Albert Ludwig University in Freiburg (p. 7). During its composition, the author evidently consulted scholars who have recently published significant studies of the island of Sri Lanka in antiquity,[[1]] as well as a wide range of relevant literature, some of which is quite inaccessible. The result is a thorough re- examination of the evidence for the important role played by the island of Sri Lanka in antiquity as a source of spices, precious stones, elephants and other exotic animals, and as an entrepôt in the trade between the Near and the Far East.

Faller has an interesting first chapter on the names of the island in antiquity (pp. 12-25). Speakers of English will be particularly taken with Horace Walpole's famous coinage of the word 'serendipity', which he defines as 'accidental sagacity', from the Arabic name for the island, Serendib. Walpole explains in a letter written to Sir Horace Mann on the 28 January 1754[[2]] that he had invented the word for felicitous social discoveries after reading a collection of oriental tales translated from Persian into English with the title The Three Princes of Serendip. In these stories the princes were prone to discover things by accident, such as when they discovered that a camel was blind in the right eye by observing that the animal grazed only on the left side of the road. The editor notes in an appendix that the popularity of the word increased dramatically after its use to describe Sir Alexander Fleming's accidental discovery of penicillin in 1928. The etymological connection between the Arabic Serendib and Sri Lanka via the Serendivi of Ammianus Marcellinus (22.7.10) is less clear, however, and the word may originally have referred to an island off the Arabian coast. A broader discussion of the connection between this Arabic name and Faller's later intriguing discussion (pp. 183-88) of the utopic island mentioned in Iambulos' narrative in Diodorus Siculus (2.55-60), which some have linked to Sri Lanka, would have been interesting, but may have led the author beyond the limits of his study.[[3]] Faller also explains the origins of the other names of the island (Lanka, Taprobane, Palaesimundum, Salike, Sielediba, and Ceylon), which bear testimony to the long and complex history of the island (p. 12). His explanations are enhanced by the phonetic appendix (pp. 215-27) of the languages involved in the study of Sri Lankan history, which include Tamil, Singhalese, Sanskrit, Pali, Malay, Armenian and Mandarin Chinese.

The remainder of the book consists of a meticulously categorised discussion of the extant evidence for ancient Sri Lanka from Onesikritos to late antiquity (pp. 26-188). Most discussion (pp. 51-110) and the most detailed break-down of the structure of the argument in the table of contents is devoted to the evidence provided by Pliny the Elder for the voyage of the freedman of Annius Plocamus to Sri Lanka and the subsequent embassy to Claudius (HN 6.81- 91). Faller defends the veracity of Pliny's account. He follows Meredith's reconciliation of the discrepancy in date between the Wadi Manih inscriptions of Lysas, the slave of Publius Annius Plocamus (AD 6), and Pliny's date for the presence of a freedman of Plocamus in Taprobane (AD 43).[[4]] Faller also traces the freedman's serendipitous voyage under the influence of a storm south-east down the Gulf of Oman past the Kerman region in modern Iran, then due south towards the Maldive islands before swinging east to Ceylon, landing up at Kudrimale Point on the north-west coast of the island (Kudrimale = 'Horse Hill', the Tamil equivalent of Pliny's Hippuros and the site of an ancient settlement). This erratic course is mapped onto the pattern of the monsoon winds in October as plotted by modern meteorologists. The sailing time of fifteen days is somewhat inconsistently defended on the basis of the unusual route and weather conditions on the one hand and nineteenth-century precedent on the other. What is particularly striking about Pliny's story, though, if Faller's reconstruction of it is correct, is the presence of a Roman tax-collector or merchant so far around the east coast of Arabia.

The entrepreneurial spirit of Plocamus's freedman may explain his rapid mastery of a communicative proficiency (adloquio, cf. p. 68 n. 329) in the language of the king of Taprobane and the subsequent embassy to the emperor Claudius. Faller's argues against received opinion (p. 70) that this language was the agglutinative Dravidian tongue Tamil rather than the Indo-European-related Sinhalese, on the basis of Pliny's calques of Tamil place names, among other things.[[5]] By making use of Tamil for Businessmen, Faller suggests, the freedman convinced the king of the stability of the Roman economy and induced him to send a delegation to Claudius. Thus Faller, again rather unconventionally,[[6]] supports the idea of a causal link (p. 72) between the freedman's visit to Taprobane and the later embassy. Faller reconciles the famous letter of Tiberius to the Roman senate concerning the drainage of money to foreign or even hostile nations in exchange for feminine luxuries (Ann. 3.53, which Pliny HN 6.101 links with India specifically) to his own position by arguing that prior to the arrival of the freedman in Taprobane, the booming trade between the Mediterranean and India had been conducted by South Indian intermediaries (p. 72). According to Faller, Plocamus's agent might have persuaded the king of the advantages of direct contact between himself and the Roman emperor. Moreover, the king appears to have been convinced of the stability of the Roman currency on the evidence of the money which he expropriated (captiva pecunia) from the freedman, who as a tax-collector and merchant would have had a wide variety of coins in his possession at the time of his capture. This is an attractive, if necessarily speculative line of argument, but it is nevertheless difficult to accept that trade at a level that concerned Tiberius twenty years before the embassy from Taprobane should not have resulted in merchants sourcing commodities such as Sri Lankan pearls (for which the island was famous) more directly themselves.

Faller further substantiates the veracity of Pliny's account of the embassy from Sri Lanka by arguing that the geographical and astronomical information they supplied reflected local conditions, although these were often misunderstood by Pliny: the supposed absence of the moon except between the eighth and sixteenth day of the month, for example, is related to the light and dark phases of the moon in the ancient Indian lunar calendar (p. 85f.); the 'Island of the Sun' that Pliny locates between India and Sri Lanka is the small island of Analaitivu whose name carries this meaning even today in Tamil (p. 83); finally, the reference to trees that scrape the bottom of ships here is taken, predictably perhaps, as a metaphor for the coral reefs around the island (p. 84). Faller deals convincingly with a number of other problems in Pliny's account: he argues that the embassy describes Sri Lanka rather than Sumatra (p. 86-88); that the red-haired and blue-eyed Seres are not Chinese but a people engaged in the silk trade from north India in the vicinity of China who are attested as having these physical attributes (pp. 88- 94); that the positive view of the morals of the people described in the embassy's report, exemplified by the fact that the price of rice is never raised, is consonant with the task of the ambassadors (p. 96), and so on. On this last point, the topos of the noble savage might also have played a part in shaping the tone of Pliny's report, but Faller does not discuss it here directly.

The evidence of other authors on Sri Lanka is judiciously given more circumscribed treatment. Of these Ptolemy, 'the highpoint of Greek geography' is given most space (pp. 112-35), followed by Kosmas Indikopleustes (pp. 151-61 -- Faller does not commit himself on the question of whether Kosmas personally visited Sri Lanka), Stephanos of Byzantium and poetic descriptions of the island (pp. 161-71), and the travels of the Theban lawyer in the De Gentibus Indiae et Bragmanibus attributed to Palladius (pp. 142-51). The observations of Kosmas -- that Taprobane served as an entrepôt in the trade between East and West, that the island was home to a significant number of Persian Christians, that the island was possibly divided into north and south kingdoms, and that the island was home to a priceless jewel -- are particularly valuable observations (pp. 153-55). The earlier sources such as Onesikritos, Megasthenes, Eratosthenes, Strabo, the PME and Pomponius Mela are given three to four pages each on average. There is no discussion of the numismatic evidence or the controversial interlinear inscriptions from Sri Lanka discussed by Weerakkody,[[7]] and the evidence of the Peutinger table is given very brief but well-informed treatment.

In this book Faller provides a well-researched discussion of the evidence for ancient Sri Lanka that makes a useful addition to the scholarship on the history of the island. While Weerakkody's work will remain the first choice because of its clearer illustrations, rather wider scope, and convenient appendix (containing the ancient evidence in the original Greek and Latin as well as in English), Faller's analysis in many places supplements this text and gives a refreshingly different angle and more focused investigation of many controversial points. It is rare for two studies of an island in the Indian ocean to appear almost simultaneously; the additional attention to the history of a region so close to our own shores that has influenced the development of the economies of the Mediterranean and East Africa so deeply is welcome.


[[1]] Notably D. P. M. Weerakkody, Taprobanê: Ancient Sri Lanka as known to Greeks and Romans (Turnhout 1997); O. Bopearachchi, 'La circulation des monnaies d'origine étrangère dans l'antique Sri Lanka', Res Orientales 5 (1993) 63-87; F. F. Schwartz, 'Kosmas und Sielediba', Ziva antika 25 (1975) 460-90; and the wider study K. Kartunnen, India and the Hellenistic World. Studia Orientalia 8.3 (Helsinki 1997). The earlier more general work of M. G. Raschke, 'New Studies in Roman Commerce with the East', ANRW 2.9.2 (1978) 604-1365 is easily accessible.

[[2]] W. S. Lewis (ed.), Horace Walpole's Correspondence with Sir Horace Mann (London 1971) Vol. 4.20, pp. 407f., with the appendix in Vol. 10 pp. 34f.

[[3]] On the connection between Sri Lanka and Iambulos's utopia, see W.-W. Ehlers, 'Mit dem Südwestmonsun nach Ceylon: Eine Interpretation der Iambul-Exzerpte Diodors', Würzburger Jahrbücher für die Altertumwissenschaft, nf. 11 (1985) 72-84.

[[4]] D. Meredith, 'Two inscriptions from the Berenice Road', JRS 43 (1953) 38-40.

[[5]] Cf. F. F. Schwartz, 'Ein singhalesischer Prinz in Rom', RM 117 (1974) 166-76.

[[6]] Cf. contra A. Dihle, 'Die entdeckungsgeschichtlichen Voraussetzungen des Indienhandels der römischen Kaiserzeit', ANRW 2.9.2 (1978) 546-80, at 569.

[[7]] For these see Weerakkody [1] 151-70, 183-96.