Indians, Taprobanians, and Serians: Pliny the Elder on numerous peoples and customs in India and beyond (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indians, Taprobanians, and Serians: Pliny the Elder on numerous peoples and customs in India and beyond (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 29, 2023,

Ancient authors: Megasthenes, Eratosthenes, Poseidonios, Agrippa, and others as discussed in Pliny the Elder (first century CE), Natural History 6.56-91 (link).

Comments: In this passage, Pliny the Elder outlines various Greek authors’ and a couple of Roman authors’ views on the habitat and peoples of India, going even further to the island of Taprobane (Sri Lanka). Pliny does not really go into many details about any one people that he claims lived in India. Instead, he seems concerned to demonstrate his knowledge, and so he lists a large number of peoples from various geographical areas as drawn from his sources (e.g. Megasthenes, Eratosthenes, Poseidonios, and others). There is an aside here on Serians (Chinese), on which also see Pliny’s comments on this supposedly savage people at this link.

The competitive nature of Pliny’s ethnographic writing becomes even clearer when he turns to the inhabitants of Taprobane (now Sri Lanka). Here he claims to be able to correct previous Greek writers based on supposed contemporary knowledge gained from Taprobanian envoys who made it to Rome in the time of Claudius. Pliny speaks almost as though he was there with the envoys, which is questionable. The overall story has some affinities with the earlier, largely fictional, account of a journey beyond India attributed to a merchant named Iambouolos (as reported by Diodoros at this link). There is no doubt, however, that trade networks extended to India and beyond (via Berenike on the Red Sea) for some time before Pliny wrote, and there were some vague, and perhaps sensational, sources of knowledge in that way. I hesitate to suggest some articles on the topic of Pliny and Taprobane, in part, because many scholarly accounts seem enamoured with Pliny and take him almost at his word, and so are a less than reliable guide on how to take such ethnographic material.  Unfortunately, Duane Roller’s helpful and more balanced Guide to the Geography of Pliny the Elder has not yet reached India.

Source of the translation: H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz, Pliny: Natural History, 10 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1938-1962), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944, Jones passed away in 1963, copyright not renewed as well), adapted by Harland.


[Size of the India]

(6.21) We now come to a point after which there is complete agreement as to the peoples (gentes), namely beyond the range of mountains called the Hemodi [Himalayas]. This is where the Indian people (gens) begins, bordering not only on the eastern sea but on the southern as well, which we have called the Indian ocean. The part facing east stretches in a straight line until it comes to a bend, and at the point where the Indian ocean begins its total length is 1875 miles [i.e. Roman miles, which may have been somewhat shorter than modern miles]; while from that point onward the southerly bend of the coast according to Eratosthenes covers 2475 miles, finally reaching the river Indus, which is the western boundary of India. A great many authors however give the entire length of the coast as being forty days’ and nights’ sail and the measurement of the country from north to south as 2850 miles [India is in fact about 2000 modern miles / 3214 km from north to south]. Agrippa says that it is 3300 miles long and 2300 miles wide. Poseidonios gives its measurement from north-east to south-east, making the whole of it face the west side of Gaul, of which he gives the measurement from north-west to south-west.

[Climate and peoples]

In keeping with this, Poseidonios shows by an unquestionable line of argument that India has the advantage of being exposed to the current of the west wind, which makes it healthy. In that country the aspect of the heavens and the rising of the stars are different, and there are two summers and two harvests yearly, separated by a winter accompanied by etesian [northwesterly] winds, while at our midwinter it enjoys soft breezes and the sea is navigable. Its peoples (gentes) and cities are beyond counting, if one wished to enumerate all of them. For it has been brought to knowledge not only by the armed forces of Alexander the Great and the kings who succeeded him, Seleukos and Antiochos, and their admiral of the fleet Patrokles having sailed around even into the Hyrkanian and Caspian sea. But it is also known by other Greek authors who have stayed as guests with the Indian kings, for instance Megasthenes and Dionysios sent by Philadelphos [i.e. Ptolemy II Philadelphos, reigning ca. 284-246 BCE] for that purpose, and have also reported as to the strength of these peoples. Nevertheless there is no possibility of being exact as to this matter, since the accounts offered are so discrepant and difficult to believe.

Those who accompanied Alexander the Great have written that the region of India subdued by him contained five thousand towns, none of them less than two miles in circumference; that there are nine peoples; that India forms a third of the entire surface of the earth; and, that its populations are countless, which is certainly a very probable theory since the Indians are almost the only people that has never migrated from its own territory. From the time of Father Liber [Latin equivalent for the god Dionysos] to Alexander the Great one hundred and fifty-three kings of India are counted in a period of 6451 years and three months.

The rivers are enormous. It is claimed that, when Alexander was sailing on the Indus river, he never did less than seventy-five miles each day, and yet he could not reach the mouth of the river in less time than five months and a few days over. Nevertheless it is certain that the Indus is smaller than the Ganges. Seneca also, who among our own writers produced an account of India, gives its rivers as sixty in number and its peoples as one hundred and eighteen.

It would be an equally laborious task to enumerate its mountains; there is a continuous chain formed by Imavus, Hemodos [together forming what is now known as the Himalayas], Paropanisus [Hindu Cush range], and Caucasus, from which the whole country slopes down into an immense plain resembling that of Egypt. . . [omitted description of distances from locale to locale beginning with the Parthian city of Hekatompylos (Qumis, Iran), moving through what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, and ending at the Ganges river in India – based on the surveying work attributed to Diognetos and Baiton].

[Peoples south of the Himalayas in eastern India]

The peoples (gentes) worth mentioning after leaving the Hemodian mountains [Himalayas] (a projection of which is called the Imaos, which in the vernacular means “snowy”) are the Isarians, Kosirians, Izians, and (spread over the range) Chirotosagians and a number of peoples with the name of Bragmanians, among them the Maktokalingians. The rivers here are the Prinas and Cainnas, the latter a tributary of the Ganges, both of them navigable. Then there are the peoples of the Kalingians nearest the sea, and further inland the Mandaeans, the Mallians occupying mount Malhis, and the river Ganges, which is the boundary of this region.

[Social classes of the Indians]

(6.22) . . . [omitted description of the Ganges river]. . . . [The] last people situated on the Ganges’ banks is the Gangarid Kalingians. The city where their king lives is called Pertalis. This monarch has 60,000 foot-soldiers, 1,000 horsemen and 700 elephants always equipped ready for active service.

The populations (populi) of the more gentle Indians are divided into many classes in their mode of life: they cultivate the land, others engage in military service, others export native merchandise and import goods from abroad, while the best and wealthiest administer the government and serve as judges and as counsellors of the kings. There is a fifth class of persons devoted to wisdom which is held in high honour with these people and almost elevated into a sense of duty (religio). Those belonging to this class always end their life by a voluntary death upon a pyre to which they have previously themselves set light. There is one class besides these, half-wild (semiferum) people devoted to the laborious task from which the classes above mentioned are kept away, namely of hunting and taming elephants. They use elephants for farming and for transport. These are their most common type of herds and they employ when fighting in battle and defending their country. They choose elephants for use in war based on their strength, age and size.

[Indian peoples near the Ganges]

There is a very spacious island in the Ganges [i.e. likely in the delta of Bangledesh] containing a single people named the Modogalinga people. Beyond it are situated the Modubians, the Molindians, the Uberians with a magnificent town of the same name, the Modressians, Praetians, Aklissians, Sasurians, Phassulians, Kolebians, Orumkolians, Abalians and Thalutians. The king of the Thalutian people has an army of 50,000 foot-soldiers, 4,000 horsemen and 4,000 elephants. Next come the Andarians, a more powerful people, with a great many villages and thirty towns fortified with walls and towers. They furnish their king with 100,000 foot-soldiers, 2,000 horsemen and 1,000 elephants. The country of the Dardians produces gold in great quantity, and that of the Setians silver as well.

[Prasians as the most powerful people]

But almost the whole of the peoples of India and not only those in this district are surpassed in power and glory by the Prasians. They have a very large and wealthy city called Palibothra [Patna in northeastern India], from which some people give the name of Palibothrians to the people itself, and indeed to the whole tract of country from the Ganges. Their king maintains and pays a standing army of 60,000 foot-soldiers, 30,000 horsemen and 9,000 elephants, from which the vastness of his wealth may be conjectured.

[Peoples in central India near the Ganges, with physical description of skin-colour]

Further up country from these are the Monaedians and the Suarians, in whose domain is mount Malens upon which shadows fall towards the north in winter and towards the south in summer, for periods of six months alternately. According to Baiton [ca. 320s BCE] the constellation of the Great Bear is only visible in this region one time in the year, and only for a period of two weeks. Megasthenes says that the same thing occurs in many other places in India. The Indian name for their southern region is Diamasa. The Iomanes [Yamuna] river runs through the Palibothrian country into the Ganges between the towns of Methora [Mathura in north-central India] and Chrysobora. In the region to the south of the Ganges the peoples are browned by the heat of the sun to the extent of being coloured, though not quite burned black like the Ethiopians. The nearer they get to the Indus the more colour they display. We come to the Indus immediately after leaving the Prasians, a people in whose mountain regions they say there is a fist-sized people (pygmies). Artemidoros gives the distance from the Ganges to the Indus as 2,100 miles.

[Peoples in northwestern India]

(6.23) . . . [omitted lengthy discussion of the Indus or Sindus river, including measurements]. . . Between the Indus and the Iomanes are the mountain peoples (gentes) of the Kaisians and the forester Kaitribonians. Then there are the Megallians (whose king possesses 500 elephants and an uncertain number of foot-soldiers and horsemen), the Chryseians, the Parasangians and the Asmagians, whose district is infested with wild tigers. They have an armed force of 30,000 foot-soldiers, 300 elephants and 800 horsemen. They are bounded by the river Indus and surrounded by a ring of mountains and by deserts. Below the deserts [perhaps the Thar desert is in mind] at a distance of 625 miles are the Danians and Surians, and then desert again for a distance of 187 miles, these places for the most part being surrounded by sands exactly as islands are surrounded by the sea.

Below these deserts [perhaps southwest of what is now the Thar desert is in mind] are the Maltaikorians, Singians, Moroians, Rarungians and Morunians. These peoples are the inhabitants of the mountains that stretch in a continuous range on the coast of the ocean. They are free people who have no kings, and they occupy the mountain slopes with a number of cities. Next come the Nareans, who are closed in by the Capitalia range, the highest of the mountains of India. The inhabitants of the other side of this mountain work a wide range of gold and silver mines. Next to these come the Oratians, whose king has only ten elephants but a large force of infantry; the Suarataratians who are also ruled by a king yet do not keep elephants but rely on horsemen and foot-soldiers; and, the Odonbaiorians and the Arabastrians, whose fine city Thorax is guarded by marshy canals which crocodiles, creatures with an insatiable appetite for human flesh, render impassable except by way of a bridge.

Another town in their country is also highly spoken of, Automula, which is situated on the coast at the point of confluence of five rivers, and has a celebrated market. Their king possesses 1600 elephants, 150,000 foot-soldiers and 5,000 horsemen. The king of the Charmians is not so wealthy, having 60 elephants and small forces of the other kinds.

The people next to these is that of the Pandians, the only people in India ruled by queens. They say that only one child of the female sex was born to Herakles, and that she was in consequence his favourite and he bestowed on her a specially large kingdom. The queens deriving their descent from her rule over 300 towns, and have an army of 150,000 foot-soldiers and 500 elephants. After this list of three hundred cities we have the Derangians, Posingians, Butians, Gogaraeans, Umbrians, Nereans, Brangosians, Nobundians, Kokondians, Neseans, Palatitians, Salobriasians and Orostrians, the last people being adjacent to the island of Patala [perhaps pictured where the Indus empties in the Indian Ocean, south of Karachi, Pakistan], the distance from the extreme point of which to the Caspian Gates is given as 1,925 miles.

[Peoples on the Indus going upstream to the northeast (Pakistan and up into Afghanistan)]

From this point onward the peoples dwelling on the Indus – enumerating them going upstream on the Indus – are the Mathoians, Bolingians, Gallitalutians, Dimurans, Meganians, Ardabians, Mesians, Abans, Sunians and Silians. Then there is two hundred and fifty miles of desert [perhaps the FĂ sach Gleann Indus, or Indus valley desert, Pakistan, is in mind]. After traversing that desert, there are the Organagians, Abortians and Bassuertians. Next to these there is an uninhabited stretch equal in extent to the preceding one. Then there are the Sorofagians, Arbians, and Marogomatrians; the Umbnitians and Keians comprising twelve tribes (nationes) and each possessing two cities; and, the Asinians inhabiting three cities, their chief place being Boukephala, founded to be the burial-place of king Alexander’s horse bearing that name [on the bank of the Hydaspes river in Pakistan, modern location uncertain].

Inhabitants of the mountains above these under the Kaukasos [i.e. Hindu Kush] range are the Sosaeadians and Sondrians. Crossing the Indus and following it downstream we come to the Samarabians, Sarnbrakenians, Bisambritians, Orsians and Andisenians, and the Taxilians with their famous city. Then the region slopes down to level ground, the whole having the name of Amenda. There are four peoples: the Peukolitians, Arsagalitians, Geretians and Assoians. Actually, most authorities do not put the western frontier at the river Indus but include four satrapies, the Gedrosians, Arachotians, Arians and Paropanisidians. The river Cophes [now Kabul river, Afghanistan] as the final boundary the whole of which region others consider to belong to the Arians.

Moreover, most people also assign to India the city of Nisa and mount Meros which is sacred to the god Father Liber [i.e. Greek Dionysos] (this being the place from which originated the myth of the birth of Liber from the thigh of Jove), and the same as to the Aspaganian people, a district producing the vine, the bay and the box and all the kinds of fruit indigenous to Greece. Remarkable and almost fabulous reports as to fertility of soil, variety of crops and trees or wild animals and birds, and other living creatures will be recorded at several spots in the remainder of my work. The four satrapies will be described a little below, as at present our mind hurries on to the island of Taprobane [Sri Lanka]. . . [omitted mention of several other islands in India].

[Taprobane / Sri Lanka described]

(6.24) Taprobane, under the name of “Antichthonos,” was long considered to be another world [cf. Pomponius Mela, Description of Lands 3.70]. But the epoch and achievements of Alexander the Great supplied clear proof of its being an island. Onesikritos, a commander of Alexander’s navy, writes that elephants are bred there of larger size and more war-like spirit than in India. Megasthenes says that it is cut in two by a river, that the inhabitants have the name of “Palaiogonos” (i.e. born long ago), and that they produce more gold and large pearls than the Indians. Eratosthenes further gives the dimensions of the island as 875 miles in length and 625 miles in breadth [modern Sri Lanka is approximately 435 km (270 miles) x 240 km (150 miles), so a lot smaller than Eratosthenes’ estimate]. He also says that it contains no cities, but seven hundred villages. Beginning at the eastern sea it stretches along the side of India from east to west. It was formerly believed to be a distance of twenty days’ sail from the people of the Prasians. However, since the voyage to it used to be made with vessels constructed of reeds and with the rigging used on the Nile, in later times its distance was fixed with reference to the speeds made by our ships as seven days’ sail. The sea between the island and the mainland is shallow, not more than eighteen feet deep, but in certain channels it is so deep that no anchors hold the bottom. So ships are used that have bows at each end, so as to avoid the necessity of coming around while negotiating the narrows of the channel. The capacity of these vessels is as much as three thousand large wine-jars (amphorai).

[Local forms of navigation]

They [inhabitants of Taprobane island] take no observations of the stars in navigation. In fact, the Great Bear is not visible. Instead, they carry birds on board with them and at fairly frequent intervals set them free, and follow the course they take as they make for the land. They only use four months in the year for voyages, and they particularly avoid the hundred days following midsummer, when those seas are stormy.

[Accidental sail to Taprobane and subsequent embassy from Taprobanians; cf. Diodoros’ tale of Iamboulos (link)]

So far the facts stated here have been recorded by early writers. However, we have obtained more accurate information during the principate of Claudius [ca. 41-54 CE], when an embassy actually came to Rome from the island of Taprobane. The circumstances were as follows: Annius Plocamus had obtained a contract from the treasury to collect the taxes from the Red Sea [likely the Persian Gulf and portions of the Arabian Sea / Indian Ocean here]. While one of Plocamus’ freedman was sailing around Arabia [i.e. Saudi Arabia and Yemen], he was carried by strong winds from the north beyond the coast of Karmania [in modern terms southern Iran as the Persian Gulf opens into the Arabian Sea]. After two weeks sailing, he made harbour at Hipporos [perhaps Kudiramalai, with both meaning “Horse-hill”] in Taprobane. He was entertained there with kindly hospitality by the king, and in a period of six months acquired a thorough knowledge of the language. In reply to the king’s enquiries, he later gave the king an account of the Romans and their emperor. Among everything the king heard, the king was remarkably struck with admiration for Roman honesty, because with the money found on the captive the denarii were all equal in weight, although the various figures on them showed that they had been coined by several emperors.

[Pliny’s ostensibly more accurate information (than earlier Greek writers) from the Taprobanian envoys]

This strongly attracted the king’s friendship, and he sent four envoys, the main one being Rachia [perhaps Raja, a royal title]. From the envoys we [Romans] learnt the following facts about Taprobane: it contains five hundred towns [not seven hundred as claimed by Eratosthenes above]; it has a harbour facing south, adjacent to the town of Old Simundu [Palaisimundus; see Ptolemaios 7. 4.1], which is the most famous of all the places in the island and a royal residence, with a population of 200,000. Inland (we were told) there is a marsh named Megisba measuring 375 miles round and containing islands that only produce pasturage. Out of this marsh flow two rivers, Pahesirnundus running through three channels into the harbour near the town that bears the same name as the river, and measuring over half a mile in breadth at the narrowest point and nearly two miles at the widest, and the other, named Cydara, flowing north in the direction of India. The nearest cape in India (according to our informants) is the one called Cape Comorin, at a distance of four days’ sail, passing in the middle of the voyage the Island of the Sun [see the tale of Iamboulos in Diodoros (link)]. The sea there is of a deep green colour, and also has thickets of trees growing in it, the tops of which are brushed by the rudders of passing vessels.

[Taprobanians’ astrological interests]

The envoys were amazed at the new aspect of the heavens visible in our country, with the Great and Little Bear and the Pleiades, and they told us that in their own country even the moon only appears above the horizon from the eighth to the eighteenth day of the month, and that Canopus, a large and brilliant star, lights them by night. But what surprised them most was that their shadows fell towards our sky and not towards theirs, and that the sun rose on the left-hand side of the observer and set towards the right instead of vice versa.

[Aside on the Serians / Chinese, and critique of “luxury”]

They also told us that the side of their island facing towards India is 1250 miles long and lies south-east of India, and that beyond the Hemodian mountains [Himalayas] they also face towards the country of the Serians [i.e. Silk-people; Chinese], who are known to them through trade relations as well, the father of Rachia having travelled there, and that when they arrived there the Serians always hurried down to the beach to meet them. That people themselves (they told us) are of more than normal height, and have flaxen hair and blue eyes, and they speak in harsh tones and use no language in dealing with travellers. The remainder of the envoys’ account agreed with the reports of our traders that commodities were deposited on the opposite bank of a river by the side of the goods offered for sale by the natives, and they took them away if satisfied by the negotiation. Hatred of luxury is in no circumstances more justifiable and reflects what is procured from there and what means of trade are employed and for what purpose.

[Customs of the Taprobanians, including focus on “luxury”]

But even Taprobane, although banished by Nature beyond the confines of the world, is not without the vices that belong to us: gold and silver are valued there also, and a kind of marble resembling tortoise-shell and pearls and precious stones are held in honour. In fact, the entire amount of luxury there goes beyond ours. They told us that there was greater wealth in their own country than in ours, but that we made more use of our riches. With them nobody kept a slave, everybody got up at sunrise and nobody took a break in the middle of the day. Their buildings were of only moderate height. The price of corn was never inflated. There were no law-courts and no litigation. The deity worshipped was Herakles (Hercules). The king was elected by the people on the grounds of age, gentleness of disposition, and lack of children. If he afterwards had a child, he was deposed, to prevent the monarchy from becoming hereditary. They [the Taprobanian envoys] told us that thirty governors were assigned to the king by the population (populus), and capital punishment could only be inflicted by a vote of a majority of these governors. Even then there was a right of appeal to the population, and a jury of seventy members was appointed to try the case. If these jury-members acquitted the accused the thirty governors were no longer respected, being utterly disgraced. The king’s clothing was like that of Father Liber [Dionysos as imagined myths of his journey to India], and the other people wore Arabian clothing. If the king committed a delinquency he was punished by being condemned to death, though nobody executed the sentence, but the entire population turned their backs on him and refused to have any communication with him or even to speak to him. Holidays, they [the envoys] told us, were spent in hunting, tiger hunts and elephant hunts being always the most popular. Agriculture was industriously practised, but the vine was not grown, although orchard fruit was abundant. They were also fond of fishing, especially for turtle. Turtle shells were used as roofs for family dwellings because they were found so large in size. They [Taprobanians] looked upon a hundred years as a moderate span of life.

This is the information that was given to us about Taprobane.

(6.25) The following is the arrangement of the four satrapies which we deferred to this place in our account. After leaving the peoples nearest to India, you come to the mountain districts . . . [omitted following section].

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