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Updated: October 3, 2009 19:36 IST

Karur coins of Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians

R Vaidyanadhan
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A Greek coin found in Karur. Photo: R Vaidyanadhan
The Hindu A Greek coin found in Karur. Photo: R Vaidyanadhan

Tamil literature has profuse quotes about the presence of Romans. All referred to them as Yavanas.

The famous Pattu-pattu and Ettu-thokai; Silappadhikaram and Manimekhalai; and the Jivaka-Cintamani and Perum-kathai give several references to the Roman trade, their gifts and articles to the local kings.

When we collate and read them simultaneously, we feel proud to know that Tamil Nadu’s trade and culture is as old as its 3000-year old history.

The spot that attracted the Romans is Karur which is in the Tiruchi district of Tamil Nadu.

The astonishing number of coins and inscribed objects unearthed from the Amaravathi River bed, and their study by scholars like Iravatham Mahadevan, R. Nagaswamy and R. Krishnamurthy, (Editor, Dinamalar), prove beyond doubt that the Greeks, Roman and Phoenicians were here to trade.

According to Dr. Nagaswamy, Tamil scholar Francois Gros of the Ecole Francais Extreme Orient, Pondicherry, suggested the study of all the Karur finds and assessment of their archaeological significance, along with the role of Karur in the history of Tamil civilisation. The studies clearly proved that the presence of these foreigners had left a far deeper impact on the economy, defence, arts and architecture than imagined earlier.

The Tamil literature makes it abundantly clear that the Tamils admired the work and products of the Romans for their quality and in a number of cases started imitating them. The issue of portrait coins with the legend and head of the local Kings (Makkothai) is clearly a point in this direction.

According to Dr. Nagaswamy, the portrayal of men and animals on the local coins suggest a Roman hand.

Dr. Krishnamurthy’s interest in the field of numismatics has, in fact, led to the first paper on the coins of foreign rulers in 1993. It was on Seleucid coins from Karur (Studies in South Indian Coins - SSIC).

In his book, the Ancient Greek and Phoenician Coins from Karur, he says, “the world of Greeks spread from Spain to India and from Russia to Egypt. In this wide geographical span coins were issued by Empires, minor monarchies and by large and small city-states. As a result, we have a bewildering array of coins in a variety of metals and sizes.”

He got a number of Greek coins from Karur in recent years and reported about these and he was able to identify them with the help of Andrew Burnett, keeper of coins and medals, and Deputy Director of the British Museum, who is an expert on the Roman coins and author of several books on subject related to Roman period.

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