Anuradhapura and Rome: Pliny the Elder and his Encyclopedia of Natural History – By Prof.Kirthi Tennakone
Civilisations evolve independently and through mutual interaction. Trade, invasions, emissaries and missionaries and the diffusion of ordinary folk across borders represent avenues of cultural interrelationship. The ideas and information aliens bring and their potentialities affirmatively further the advancement of a nation. Equally important would be the genetic advantage of ethnic mixing. Sri Lanka stands as a prime example of a country that progressed in this manner.
Few cultures have succeeded in exerting their influence far away from their indigenous territory. Here, the first and foremost have been Romans. For that reason, they also gathered a wealth of information about foreign lands.
A man who lived when the Roman Empire was marching towards its climax and wrote a compendium on all affairs of the world, from cosmology to cosmetics, was Gaius Plinius Secundus, popularly known as Pliny the Elder. His 2000th birthday falls this year. He will be remembered for thousands of more years as one of the greatest writers of all time.
Pliny researched and recorded so much about different cultures in the world, until the time he lived. His reference to a visit of ambassadors from the Anuradhapura Kingdom to the Court of the Roman Emperor Claudius fascinated historians worldwide. Pliny dispelled the myth that, apart from Italy and Greece, people living in other lands are barbarians, showing the world in the Anuradhapura era, Sri Lankans were just as civilized as Romans.
In ancient times, large distances limited human movement. The advent of navigation mixed up cultures faster, changing the world. The Phoenicians, the tribes on the Mediterranean coast between Lebanon and Greece, were the pioneer navigators. By about 1000 BCE, their ships sailed almost every corner in the oceans of the region. The Romans acquired ship-building technology and the art of navigation from the Phoenicians, expanded their fleet and conquered lands, becoming the greatest political power in the world by the 1st century. The Roman Empire, lasting for about 1000 years, from 625 BCE, influenced culture and happenings in Europe, the Middle East and Africa profoundly. Despite the motto “Roma Invicta”, meaning undefeatable Rome, the empire failed to repulse an attack by Germanic forces in 476 CE.
The Anuradhapura culture in Sri Lanka evolved independently but followed a path parallel to Rome in its rise and fall. The era beginning around 370 BCE, continued longer than Roman civilisation, overlapping with it for nearly 800 years. Although we advanced to the highest standards in empirical technology, unlike the Romans, our ancestors did not strive to acquire foreign lands by installing a huge naval infrastructure. Instead, they concentrated on agriculture, building remarkable irrigation systems. Anuradhapura was always under the threat of South Indian invasions but succeeded in defending itself until 1017 CE. And later, as the art of navigation advanced worldwide, because of its unique geographical coordinates, the island became an attraction for trade and invasion.
Traditionally, the religion of early Roman civilisation was mythology, but they were also inspired by Greek philosophers. The favoured philosophy was stoicism, which tells people to live following the virtues of wisdom, justice, temperance and courage. Buddhism, a religion as well as a philosophy that originated in India, guided the Anuradhapura culture. The teachings of Buddha are not very different from stoic ideals. In both cultures, the rulers subscribed to religion and philosophies, but many of them, in their deeds, acted contrarily because of their greed for power. Nero, who studied stoicism as a young adult, killed his mother and second wife. Kashyapa I, brutally asphyxiated his father, King Dhatusena, to death by immuring him in a wall. It is said that Dahutsena had previously ordered the burning of his own sister alive. Society often ignores the grave crimes of rulers and highlights their achievements!
Many historians attribute the fall of Rome and Anuradhapura to the fault of rulers.
Ramsay MacMullen, a leading authority on Roman history, argues in his book “Corruption and Decline of Rome” a key factor in Rome’s fall was the steady loss of focus and control over the government as its aims were thwarted for private gain by high-ranking bureaucrats and military leaders. Historians have also said that the oppressive taxation of citizens to support the government and army contributed much to the downfall of the Empire in 476 CE. Poor improvised by heavy taxation, preferred invaders taking over the government.
Similar circumstances opened the way for the collapse of Anuradhapura. The kingdom grew into prosperity, of course not without intermittent calamities, primarily because of the principles of righteousness advocated by Buddhism, which created a favourable environment for the collective effort essential to promoting agriculture and technology. Erudite monks in monasteries devoted their entire lives to studies, qualifying them to advise the rulers, their reputation reached foreign lands, notably India and China. In later years, internal strife and greed for power to enjoy royal pleasures escalated, driving the country into poverty. The Buddhist establishment became more demanding than scholarly. Just as in Rome, conditions suited to a foreign invasion emerged.
Although Anuradhapura and Rome advanced rapidly in the 1st century CE, well above other nations, direct contact between the two cultures has been limited. Despite the strength of the Roman navy, their ships could not sail vast distances and reach Sri Lanka because of the difficulty of determining geographical locations without instrumentation, even a compass. The Romans heard stories about Taprobane from Persian traders and Greeks and considered it a different world.
Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History”, a thirty-seven volume encyclopedia, stands as one of the greatest writings of antiquity, covering all branches of knowledge. The book is frequently cited in Sri Lankan literature because it discloses a vivid description of a delegation of emissaries from Sri Lanka to the court of the Roman Emperor, Tiberius Claudius Caesar (41-54 CE). What Pliny enumerates is undoubtedly centered on a fact. Some have endorsed all he has said as accurate and looked for clues in Sri Lankan history, while others consider many of his claims to be taken with a grain of salt. An extract from an English translation of Natural History reads:
“During the reign of the Emperor Claudius, an embassy came from this distant island to Rome. The circumstances under which this took place were as follow: Annius Plocamus had farmed from the treasury the revenues arising from the Red Sea. A certain freedman of his, while sailing around Arabia, was carried away by a gale from the north beyond the coast of Carmania. In the course of fifteen days he had drifted to Hippuros, a port of Taprobane, where he was most kindly and hospitably received by the king; and having, after a study of six months, become well acquainted with the language, was enabled to answer all his inquiries relative to the Romans and their emperor. But of all that he heard, the king was more particularly struck with surprise at our rigid notions of justice, on ascertaining that among the money found on the captive, the denarii were all of equal weight, although the different figures on them plainly showed that they had been struck in the reigns of several emperors. By this circumstance in especial, the king was prompted to form an alliance with the Romans, and accordingly sent to Rome an embassy, consisting of four persons, the chief of whom was Rachias.”
Above is a reasonable and acceptable story. The weight of the Roman silver coin denarii remained constant (3.9 grams) from 200 BCE to 64 CE. The King of Sri Lanka appreciated the fact that Roman currency stood undepreciated for a long period.
Pliny signifies the episode by telling, a 1st century Sri Lankan ruler, having learned from a sailor of a foreign country where prosperity and justice existed, wished to form an alliance by sending an emissary. Pliny was aware that justice did not prevail in Rome all the time. Claudius earned recognition as a reasonable emperor, whereas those before and after (Caligula and Nero) were the cruelest. Pliny finalised his book during reign of Emperor Vespasian, who always sought Pliny’s advice and firmly reestablished the rule of law in Rome.
Pliny does not indicate how he obtained information about the envoys and the year of their visit is not mentioned. He famously accused writers for not acknowledging the authorship of the sources from which information was gathered. Perhaps to avoid being criticized on the same grounds, he seems to have adopted a clever style of writing. On the basis of some good evidence, he researched and wrote a story connecting existing information (not verified), to imply all the details came from the envoys.
According to Pliny, the vessel in distress landed in the port of Hippuros, Taprobane. Although various interpretations exist, there is no evidence of a port by that name in Sri Lanka, certainly not at the time the sailor landed. In other sections of his writing, he states the most famous city on the Island is Palesimundus and there is a river, lake and promontory by the names; Cydra, Megsbe and Coliacum – words derived from Greek. The Ancient Greeks sometimes confusedly described Sri Lanka and Anuradhapura as Palesimundus. It is unlikely the ambassadors have said they are from Palesimundus. According to Pliny, the people of Taprobane, worship Hercules. In Greek Buddhism, the most powerful god Hercules is the defender of Buddha. Many other legends in Pliny’s Natural History, including the statement, the people of Taprobane do not hire slaves, are found in more ancient Greek texts.
Since the Greek invasion of Persia in 492 BCE and Alexander’s conquest of territories further east and his march to India in 327 BCE, the Greeks seem to have acquired a wealth of information about Sri Lanka and the surrounding region. Based on the data they collected, Eratosthenes (276-194 BCE) estimated the size of Sri Lanka, and later Ptolemy drew a map. Geographic locations were given names by the Greeks. It is said that more than 90% of ancient Greek literature was intractable since the pre-modern era. Presumably, during Pliny’s time, many of these documents were available.
When there are so many uncertainties and ambiguities in Pliny’s account, Sri Lankan authors have presented lengthy arguments to trace the origin of the name of the leader of the delegation, mentioned as Rachias, primarily to ascertain his ethnicity – a glaring reflection of our immaturity. Can we be certain someone would remember and spell a foreign name correctly?
Pliny also wrote the Sri Lankan ambassadors who visited Rome were astonished to see the constellations Great Bear and Pleiades, as these are not visible from Tabrobane soil. It may be because Sri Lankans are not stargazers; instead; they confidently believe their destinies are fixed by the positioning of planets, which they never dare to see by looking at the sky. And having seen the northern sky upon arriving at the shores of Italy they were amazed. Pliny also presents another inadmissible story; according to the ambassadors, in their country, the star Canopus lit the night, casting shadows. It is true that in Sri Lanka, Canopus appears higher in the horizon compared to Italy, but everyone knows, no star is sufficiently bright to cast shadows – possibly an exaggeration by Pliny.
The historical chronicles of any culture are important and need to be venerated. At the same time, we should keep in mind, their contents not be taken as absolute truth for natural reasons. As the accurate recording of data did not exist in those days, many claims stem from hearsay, folklore and speculation. The writers were biased and opinions and facts are intermingled. A danger would be the use of their contents as supporting evidence for decision-making.
Reading chapters of Pliny’s book, devoted to other subjects indicates he resorted to rational argument, compared to Eastern historians of the time, but sometimes linked factual and fictional data and assertions of others without critical examination. Pliny was a polymath, but not an original thinker like Plato or Aristotle. Although he denounced extravagances, his thinking seems to have been influenced by Roman elitism.
Pliny the Elder’s (22-79 CE) biography is strange, unique and exemplary. Born to a wealthy family, he studied in Rome, beginning his career as an officer in the army.He served in Germany. Africa and Spain as a higher- level administrator in the Roman Empire. Literarily and philosophically inclined, he devoted his entire spare time to reading and writing, did not get married and led an honourable life entirely free of vices. His nephew, named Pliny the Younger, has said that his uncle did not waste even a minute distracting from official duties or studies. He read and wrote until late at night. At the time he was eating or taking a bath, a servant was instructed to read a book aloud for him to listen to. He rarely walked, but carried in a chair by slaves, so that he could read while moving. His incomparable volume of writing and his knowledge in areas of science, engineering, geography, history and art attest to what his nephew said.
The last appointment, Pliny held was commander of the Roman fleet. In CE 79, he lived with his sister and nephew near Pompeii and close to the naval headquarters. On August 24th afternoon, Pliny was working on a manuscript, when his sister told him smoke was rising above a mountain. He wanted to rush to the scene out of scientific curiosity. Minutes later, he received a message from a friend, telling him Mount Vesuvius had started to erupt and asking help for evacuation. He commanded a fleet of boats for rescue missions and traveled to shore, ignoring warnings of the assistants who followed him. Because of his feebleness, he suffocated to death by inhaling toxic gases.
Pliny was a defender of the Roman cause and the Emperors, particularly Claudius and Vespasian sought his advice. Many times he made statements implying prosperity of the Roman Empire exceeded all the other parts of the world, but often he lamented the extravagances of citizens and corruption of rulers as a deterrent to progress.
According to Pliny, the Sri Lankan delegates who visited Rome said, in their country, an elderly man of mild and clement disposition without children is elected as the king and if he happens to father children, abdication would be the consequence; this is done so that there may be no danger of the sovereign power becoming hereditary. We know this was not practiced in Sri Lanka or in Roman Empire. Perhaps, Pliny wrote these lines as a message to Roman polity, because he witnessed the dangers of imperial succession based on hereditary claims. Though an ardent advocate of Roman expansionism, he hinted that justice and fair play stood higher in Anuradhapura those days than in Rome.