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  • The Making of Roman India
  • Erich S. Gruen
The Making of Roman India. By Grant Parker (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008) 357 pp. $99.00

The title of this work may deceive unwary readers. Some will find their expectations disappointed—or perhaps subverted. Parker does not refer to the shaping or the evolution of an India under Roman influence. There was no such Roman influence. Indeed the book deliberately skirts any actual, authentic, or concrete India. The "making of India" alludes to the image of that land and people in the eyes of classical authors, to the imaginative realm framed by those remote from its reality, to the discourse about that distant place—in short, to the construct of India. Even the "Roman" part of the title can be misleading. Much of the work treats Greek conceptualizing about India, starting from classical authors like Herodotus, Hecataeus, Scylax, and Ctesias and moving into high gear with Hellenistic representations by the Alexander historians, by Megasthenes, and by Clearchus. Moreover, many of the texts in the Roman period that Parker exploits are, in fact, the work of Greek authors—Strabo, Lucian, Ptolemy, Philostratus, and Diogenes Laertius. If there is anything distinctively Roman about the portrayals, it is difficult to discern. Most of the construct had been manufactured by Greeks but only adapted by Romans.

This book is a learned one, drawing impressively upon a wide range of sources, and framing India through a multitude of lenses—historians, geographers, mythographers, visual depictions, rhetoricians, philosophers, even Christian writers, who had their own perceptions and their own agendas. Some writers found fascination with India as representing the ends of earth, imagined as a land filled with marvels and monsters, or as a utopia, blurring the lines between truth and fiction (insofar as such lines existed at all). Others, spurred by the increased familiarity fostered by commercial contact, especially the spice and silk trade, conceived India as a seductive site of wealth and luxury. Still others fashioned Indian intellectuals as oriental purveyors of wisdom, ascetics, and holy men, by analogy with Hellenic philosophers or Christian sages. Parker rightly stresses the multiplicity and the complexity of the images. No single thread runs throughout, but a variety of strands.

One pivotal figure, however, does take center stage—Alexander the Great. The conqueror's celebrated campaign in the east brought him as far as the Indus valley and into the Punjab. He left little or no tangible impact on India, but he fired the imaginations of Greeks, prompting the projections of fabulous fictions, inspiring new geographies and ethnographies, and, most tellingly, providing a model for Roman emperors who sought to emulate Alexander's feats, and to claim as their own, penetration to the boundaries of the world. Parker exaggerates this last impulse. Only Trajan among emperors evinced a desire to follow Alexander's footsteps to India, and even he expressed the idea only when he reached the Persian Gulf near the end of his life. But the resonance of Alexander echoes through the Greek and Latin literature on this subject, and Parker properly calls attention to it. [End Page 128]

The book does not profess to bring an interdisciplinary approach or methodology to its topic. Parker pays the conventional homage to Said and acknowledges that his notion of "Orientalism" gains reflection in the Roman tendency to view the east as a totality.1 But he rightly resists the idea that this impression casts the east in a consistently negative light or resolved itself into an "us and them" antithesis. Parker's study breaks no new methodological ground. But it reveals the diversity of elements that formed the complex mosaic of this alluring subject.

Erich S. Gruen
University of California, Berkeley


1. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York, 1978).



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pp. 128-129
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