ANCIENT KINSHIP: Bonds between India and Italy through the ages - 1
by Come Carpentier de Gourdon on 08 May 2010 16 Comments

Within the greater epic of the still largely mysterious “Indo-European” migrations, the story of the millenary bonds between the two peninsulas, one in the ocean that bears its name and the other in its Mare Nostrum, fills a particularly intriguing chapter. As is often the case, geography provides a telling heraldic shield for the legends.


Both India and Italy are bounded by high mountains crowned by snowy peaks in the North and feature a large alluvial plain, their most densely populated region, in their shadow, irrigated by one large main river (the Ganges and the Po) that both meet the sea in vast marshlands near great maritime and commercial metropolises (Kolkata and Venice, both gateways to the Orient). There are also mountainous regions in the centre and South, relatively rocky western coastlines and sandy straight Eastern shores. Both “subcontinents” are graced by one island at their tip (Sri Lanka and Sicily) and they were repeatedly invaded across the North Western passes and ruled for centuries by foreign princes.


They are dotted with holy and legendary towns and monumental ruins, inhabited by ethnically diverse populations and their capitals are imperial, divinely founded cities whose origins are lost in the mist of mythology (Delhi-Indraprastha and Rome). One is built on the remains of seven earlier settlements, the other on seven hills. Italy’s name (Vitalia) appears to be derived from the Oscan name for the calf and the bull was the symbol of its first denizens, just as the cow held the highest place among the sacred animals of the Aryas of India.


The land of Ila, mother of Agni, is held to have been the site of the golden age (satya yuga) in Hindu mythology and likewise, Latium in Ausonia was held by the Romans to have been the kingdom of Saturn where the golden age had flourished. We see the Indo-Europeans transporting their myths and recreating their sacred topography wherever they went and, like the Indians, the Romans exported their religion to the farthest lands they came in contact with: Hinduism and Buddhism for the former and the Imperial Graeco-Roman cult followed by Catholic Christianity for the latter. In both cases, the first was a civilisational system founded on cosmogony and mythology, the second a missionary faith revealed by one great divinized figure, accessible to people of many cultures and languages.


There are many historical parallels as well, including the fact those two geographically homogenous and clearly defined regions were broken into many kingdoms and city republics as far as the annals can remember, though they time and again provided the axis for vast empires embracing the countries riverine of their respective seas. Finally, not to pile up to many comparisons that may appear facile, India and Italy saw the birth and enduring persistence of universal concepts of conjoined religious and political rule connected with their aristocratic languages: Samskrit and Latin. The Hindu-Buddhist Swaraja-Samrat or Chakravartin like the Imperator was also Pontifex Maximus if he achieved the highest wisdom as Rajarishi, and he ruled a society originally consisting of three traditional classes of the Indo-Aryan hierarchy: oratores (brahmins and patres), bellatores (ksatriyas and equites) and the laboratores (vaisyas and plebs) while allowing for a fourth “outer” ring of unaffiliated people, often of foreign origin and scattered in the countryside and in the uncultivated wilderness.


The origin of the Etruscans and Latins remains a matter of debate to this day, between those who see them as autochthonous or migrants from the Alpine North in some cases, and those who uphold the account by Herodotus, which makes Tyrrhenians or Rasenni (the people of Etruria) settlers from the state of Lydia (Arzawa), in Western Anatolia. That connection was also claimed by the descendents of Aeneas, the Dardanian (Luwite) prince who fled the destruction of the metropolis of Troy with his kin and wandered the seas before arriving on Italian shores.


Aeneas of Ilion or Ila (wilusa), son of Venus, is at once a maritime figure and a sylvan demi-god who achieves immortality, somewhat like Agni the Vedic fire god, son of Ila who is both heavenly, agricultural and a sea-traveller. Aeneas, from the Greek Aeni: to praise, is the one to be praised like Agni and his filial relationship with Venus, also a marine and forest deity (Venus is related to Vana: forest in Samskrit) brings to mind Shukra, the mythical Vedic Rishi who is the embodiment of Venus. Shukra is head priest of the Bhrigus, a sea-faring people located in western India homonymous with the Brygians or Phrygians, Luwite-speaking neighbours of the Lydians and also located in Western Asia Minor, who influenced the Romans throughout the latter’s history.


There is nothing revolutionary in those analogies as the multiple affinities between the most far-flung members of the great Indo-European family are well known. Ascanius, son of Aeneas, is originally Skanda, an Indo-Iranian war god also evoked by the name of Paris, another Trojan prince: Alexander or Alaksanda.


The three original Etruscan gods of the Palatine, Tinia, Uno and Menrwa (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva for the Romans) are reminiscent of the great Hindu triads. Diana whose name is rooted in diya, Sanskrit for light, is another goddess of the sky and the wilderness whose often orgiastic cults recall the “left armed” practices of the followers of the Indian mother goddess Parvati-Durga-Kali. Diana’s brother, Apollo’s (which means the apple lord) name is related to the samskrit root phala: for fruit. Other Latin gods, Jove-Jupiter (Yava), Saturn (son of Ila, Hel or Helen and Caelus-Kala), Janus (Jahnu and Gan), Neptune (Natha-Nethuns) and Pluto (Prithvi) are etymological cousins of their Vedic analogues. The Roman vestals present several analogies with the saptamatrikas of India and their round temple evokes the circular shrines dedicated to the yoginis of Tantric Hinduism.


Like Durga and her consort  Shiva whose hair is adorned by the moon, Diana, a lunar deity is threefold in her heavenly, terrestrial and infernal incarnations (Luna, Diane-Proserpine, Hecate) and her sacred grove in Aricia  (nemus aricinum) on the shore of lake Nemi not far from Roma, which stood surrounded by a wall, evokes the Naimisharanya (grove of Nimi) of the Vedic sages and the land of reeds, shaunaryavat, where the universal ficus rose  (ashwattha) close to the great Mana lake. The sages of Vedic India collected the mysterious sacred plant Soma – allegorically evocative of water and the moon – on the shores of that lake and the Latin who wanted to become Rex Nemorensis had to pluck the golden bough from the tree which gave Aeneas access to the netherworld.


The ficus (banyan, pipal) of India finds its symbolic counterpart in the oak tree of the Hittites, Romans and Celts. Diana was regarded as the “mistress of wild animals” just as Shiva is pashupati (master of animals) and she is also the mountain goddess like Parvati, whose name means mountain. Her cult was regarded as non-roman and “scythic” and was kept outside the pomerium, just as the worship of Bacchus-Iacchus (Bhaga means “lord” in Samskrit and yaksas are “supernatural” creatures often present in Indian mythology), that other “oriental” orgiastic deity whose associations with India remained strong to the end of the pagan age, as shown by the elephants and leopards who were described in his procession and by his alleged son, Comus (Kama).


Parallels, though less obvious, could also be drawn between the two royal brothers exiled in the forest, Rama and Lakshmana and Romulus and Remus. Rama and Romulus are archetypal soil-tillers and warriors who conquer other cities, one to rescue his wife and the other to bring home brides for himself and his people. The abduction of Sita to Lanka by the demon-god Ravana brings to mind the seasonal myth of Proserpina’s rape by Pluto since both Sita and Proserpina, as well as the mother of Romulus and Remus, Rhea Sylvia, are agrarian deities who personify the fertile earth. Sita also has two sons whom she raises in the forest and who later become great kings, in keeping with their secret royal ancestry, and forebears of many of India’s hoary dynasties. Mars, the father of the roman twins is a cognate of the Vedic Mrityu-Mara or Yama, the lord of death euphemistically designated as Mangala, the auspicious one.


Out of those Indo-European origins, the Romans built a state (regia, samskrit rajya) which, despite all the obvious differences, retained many institutions and customs derived from its Etruscan and Italic predecessors. The very symbol of regal authority, the Palatine owes its name to the shepherd Pales (Pala in Samskrit).


In its cosmological limits surrounded by the furrow dug by Romulus, the limes akin to the lakshmanrekha of the Ramayana, the civitas was built, as the camps were later erected by legionaries all over the future empire, on the model laid out by Etruscan sacred architecture, in a square intersected by two perpendicular axial roads: the via praetoria (the Decumana of the Tyrrhenians) and the via principalis (the pre-Roman Cardo) which are the rajapatha and the janapatha of the Indian Sulba Sastras.


We can divide the history of the relations between Italy and India into four successive periods for the sake of chronological clarity: the Roman and Byzantine eras, the medieval age, the Renaissance and its Baroque and Classical successors, and finally the relatively recent past since Italy’s unification.


Rome and Constantinople


The Roman republic’s conquest of the oriental shores of the Mediterranean gave it increased access to the material and cultural resources of Greece, Egypt and Syria, which in turn provided the link with ulterior Asia through Iran and Arabia, both on the land silk routes and on the oceanic spice routes. The extent of the trade which developed between the ports located on the Red Sea, such as Coptos and Myos Hormos, and on the delta of Mesopotamia and the Indian maritime emporia, especially from the year 30 BC, has often been underestimated in the past but, as the Periplum Maris Erythraei and other reports demonstrate, it was intense and involved hundreds of commercial vessels every season as permitted by the trade wind regime. Among the important imports from India, woven cotton and silk, teak wood, diamonds, pearls and spices are attested.


There is no doubt that large and prosperous merchant colonies formed in some big cities of both regions and that their cultural and religious influence was insidious. Since Rome’s Eastern dominions remained largely under Hellenistic influence, the Italian overlords continued to look at India mostly through the prism of Greek interpretations and accounts rendered since the days of Alexander’s campaigns by ambassadors such as Megasthenes and other travellers. If Cato, as a practical moralist and economist was worried about the grievous loss of wealth resulting from his countrymen’s addiction to Asian luxuries and Indian spices and gems in particular, others were fascinated by brahminical mysticism, by South Asian cosmology and legends and by concepts such as reincarnation. A visible effect of this influence is found in the “Indianising” fashions apparently adopted by the upper classes in the late Roman empire and in the popularity of Indo-Iranian gods such as Sabazius, Cybele and Mithra.


Alexandria was the hub for the diffusion of Indian ideas and philosophies around the Mediterranean. On the other side, the influence of Graeco-Latin culture is less easy to trace because it was absorbed rather quietly into the vastness of India and also, perhaps, because the division of society into castes did not facilitate the intermixing of foreigners with the local people. There are however references to the Mediterranean origins of certain ethnic groups on India’s West coast, from Gujarat to Kerala and, in particular, the Coorgis who live in the small state of Mercara in the South are reputed to be descendents of Roman legionaries.


Trading communities which thrived under the aegis of the Roman state, such as Jews, Syro-Phoenicians, Greeks and Armenians clearly continued to do business and travel in South Asia as they had for centuries already, and some must have settled by them in port cities such as Karachi (Barbaricum). Bharuch (Barygaza), Khambat (Cambay), Surat, Sopara (Ophir), Vasai (Bassein), Chaul, Kalyan, Calicut, Cochin, Cranganore (Muziris), Naura, Tyndir, Nelcynda, Damirica (Tamilakkam), Nagapattinam, Mamallapuram, Arikamedu and Poompuhar  (Kaveripattinam) – in some of which there were Roman commercial factories - and  become gradually indigenized.


The geography and culture of the Indian ocean region gradually emerged from the mist of legend and fantasy, as shown by the descriptions provided by successive Latin writers like Strabo (book 15 of his Geographia), Pliny the Elder (book vi of Historia Naturalis), Diodorus Siculus (book ii of Bibliotheca), Arrianus (in his Indika), Ptolemy (Geographia) and others who tended to blend reports from the Alexandrian annals with more recent accounts.


Neo-platonism heightened the interest for and the information about Indian philosophical and religious systems and, as Gregory Bongard-Levin notes in an article entitled “India as seen from Ancient Europe” (World Affairs, vol. 8, no. 1, Jan-March 2004, pp: 128-136), the advent of Christianity generated added curiosity towards both Brahmanism and Buddhism, the latter being regarded as a close approximation to the faith of the Galilean Messiah and indeed there are indications that the spread of Buddhist doctrines in the Near East by Indian and Iranian missionaries decisively influenced the early evolution of the new religion and, in particular, the development of the monastic, cenobitic and eremitic tradition rooted in asceticism.


Bongard Levin (ibid.) quotes Dio Chrisostomus and Apollonius of Tyana, both at the end of the first century CE as mystical teachers and writers who described and eulogized the Indian brahmanas as images of human perfection. The latter was reported by his biographer Philostratus, commissioned in the 3rd century by Empress Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of the Punic Caesar Septimus Severus, to have visited India, spent time learning the brahmanic doctrine and then to have disseminated it in Egypt, Ethiopia as among the Greeks and Romans. Julia Domna herself as a daughter of the hereditary priest-king of Baal at Emesus (Homs) was a promoter of Eastern religions which were widely practiced in Syria.


Apollonius, the Neo-Pythagorean spiritual master and miracle worker who was seen at one time as a rival for Jesus Christ in terms of popular following, may thus have been one of the transmitters of India’s religious culture and metaphysical notions in the Roman empire. The reports about the fabulous wealth of India converged with statements about the great wisdom and virtue of its elites and the general happiness of its population which Arrian (ibid.) among others had eulogized. In his words: “No Indian ever went outside his own country on a warlike expedition, so righteous were they” and elsewhere he notes: “All Indians are free, no Indian at all is a slave…The Indians have no slaves at all”, which must have sounded like utopia to the slave-based societies of the Mediterranean oecumene.


As Bongard Levin put it: “it was to India that the Roman philosophers turned their attention when dissatisfied with the local religious systems, they sought a way out of the narrow framework of rationalism…Especially attractive to the pagan authors was the image of the brahmanistic sage with his two dimensions: as an ascetic and as a highly learned and influential counsellor to the ruler” (ibid. p.132).


The Neo-Platonic doctrine, mainly expounded by Plotinus and Porphyry, owed a major debt to India as acknowledged by the latter: from the doctrine of emanations to reincarnation and vegetarianism, many of its core tenets reflected Indian notions and Plotinus himself tried to reach India in order to meet with the brahmanas though he was stopped on the way by political vicissitudes.


The Gnostic Bardesan is the first to have described in detail the differences between the Hindu brahmanas and the Buddhist sramanas (monks). He appears to have collected his first hand information about India from ambassadors who passed through Syria on their way to Rome. Bardesan was an influential theologian whose esoteric doctrine spread throughout the Roman empire. Both Clemens Alexandrinus, whose teacher Pantaenus had preached the Gospel to the Hindus, and Tertullian talked about the Indian religious and philosophical ideas while the former described them as seminal to Hellenic wisdom but, being Christian, apologists they and their successors had to proclaim the superiority of their faith over the Eastern cults, even over Buddhism which was viewed though, as a breach with polytheistic paganism. Later, the Iranian teacher Mani adopted Buddha in his theology which is one of the many syncretistic systems born in that era and general area.


When the centre of gravity of the Roman world shifted East to Constantinople, the contacts with South Asia could only increase and they naturally percolated from Byzantium to the Italian peninsula, whether  it was politically independent from the Oriental Metropolis or not. Travellers such as Cosmas Indicopleustes, in the 6th century AD at the time of Justinian, must have been several, although few records have survived. Cosmas’ Topographia Christiana is one of the most precious. Being a monk, he paid special attention to the Christian communities he found during his travels and he described the Syriac Catholics of the Malabar Coast. The Arian Bishop Palladius’s Essay On the Races of India and the Brahmanas which is quite complimentary to the Indians, was translated into Latin from the original Greek by his contemporary and adversary Ambrose of Milan, but the best known texts referring to India in the European medieval world must be the Physiologus, containing many descriptions of real and fabulous Indian plants, animals and monsters and the Historia Alexandri Magni (recensio a) of the Pseudo Callisthenes, available in the Latin version of Julius Valerius from the 4th century AD.


The Middle Ages


The irruption of Islam on the Near Eastern scene was to durably alter the connection between Europe and South Asia. The Arab Ommayad and Abbasid khalifal states became the intermediaries between the two regions and the Crusades, though they established a Frankish presence on the shores of Lebanon and Palestine, did not make a breakthrough towards either the Red Sea or Mesopotamia. The almost exclusive traders between East and West until the end of the 10th century seem to have been the Radhanite Jews who traded slaves (castrati boys and white women, we are told), spices and precious goods. The Italian seafaring republics which rose in power after the year 1000 largely replaced those secretive brokers, but their fleets could not venture east of the Mediterranean. Hence for centuries, most of the West learnt about India came through Arab and Persian accounts and interpretations.


Much of the scientific and technical knowledge of the Hindus was seen as Arab science by the Latin scholars though many of the great Muslim and Jewish physicians, mathematicians and philosophers proclaimed their debt to India which some, like Qazi Sa’id Al Andalusi often called the country of wisdom and learning. Romans had generally held Indians to be the most advanced chemists in applications such as dying, tanning and weaving, and the spinning wheel is acknowledged as an Indian invention.


The sophisticated metallurgy and steel-working techniques that developed in the Northern Italian cities in the early Middle Ages owed their excellence to the Syrian “wootz” steel-tempering secrets which in turn, imported through Persia, originated in the Konasamudram area in today’s Andhra Pradesh, where the fabled metallurgist and alchemist Nagarjuna flourished in the very first two centuries of the Common Era. For centuries, Roman ships had imported high quality steel from Tamil Nadu and Kerala which boasted famed smelting furnaces.


It seems that we must wait for the 14th Christian century to find a relatively steady stream of missionaries and travellers reaching the Indies which was, in the cosmology of the time, equated with the garden of Eden and the cradle of man. Taprobane or Srendip (Sri Lanka) today in particular was described as the paradisiac island on which Adam and Eve had been created. A century earlier however, Emperor Frederic II, king of Sicily and Naples, had gathered much information about Asia, including India, from the Muslim and Jewish scholars of his court. Even earlier his ancestor Roger II of Sicily had made Palermo a pole of geographic studies and it was there that Mohammad Al Idrisi drew his famous tabula rogeriana   in 1154.  


The loss of the Latin kingdoms in Palestine and Syria at the end of the 13th century inspired some European scholars and military leaders to think of ways to defeat the resurgent Islamic states. In 1291 Todisio Dorio, the Doge of Genoa, sent the brothers Ugolino and Guido di Vivaldo on two ships southward on the Atlantic along the African coast in order to reach India bypassing the Near East. However, they were lost somewhere on the way. The maps of Strabo made Libya (Africa) look much smaller than it is in its southern half so that those who relied on him believed that the circumnavigation of that continent to reach the Erythrean sea would take only one third of the actual distance involved.


In 1307, the eminent Venetian aristocrat Marino Sanudo penned his Secretum, whose title is in fact Opus Terrae Sanctae to suggest to Pope Clemens V the building of a mighty fleet that would  occupy the shores of the Indian ocean in order to strike the Arab states from the rear and control the trade in that very prosperous area. Sanudo describes the trade routes between the Coromandel Coast on the East of India, Gujarat, Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, Aden and the Red Sea Ports, proving that such knowledge was available to the Italian elites. Although his proposal was not put into effect, the Portuguese implemented it rather systematically almost two hundred years later, with the support of Rome which had long planned to bring Asia into the Christian fold as part of its design for world spiritual and material conquest.


In the first third of the 14th century the Friulan Franciscan Oderic of Pordenone and the Dominican Jordanus (Jourdain de Severac) both came to India, though the latter visited it more extensively and left a record of his travels in his recollection, Mirabilia. He reports finding in Tane, near present-day Mumbai (Bombay) where he landed, other Franciscans, including Tommaso di Tolentino, some of whom were executed by a local Muslim governor.


Missionary activity was hence well under way; Malabar, in particular, with its large Christian Syrian and Jewish communities, - and where Jordanus was made the first Catholic Bishop of South Asia in Kulam (Quilon, Columbum) by Pope John XXII in 1329 - and Mylapore (the future Madras) where the apostle Saint Thomas was reputed to have been martyred were magnets for the Westerners.


The Florentine cleric Giovanni di Marignoli visited some of those Christian establishments in 1348 and the Venetian trader Niccolo de Conti described the country and its people as he saw them during his journey between 1420 and 1436, particularly in the thriving southern empire of Vijayanagar, qualifying the Telegu language of the region as the closest to Italian among the tongues spoken on the subcontinent.


From seeking knowledge and mystical insights into India as it had in the Middle Ages, Europe did a 180 degree turn and began to earnestly propagate its faith and its religious institutions in the land of Brahma and Buddha; however the “will to power”, the urge to discover, colonise and annex had not yet reached definition in Christendom and it was only in the Renaissance that this more aggressive impulse came to the fore when technical and commercial means became available to embark on a process of global maritime expansion.


(To be continued…)

The author is Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal 

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