For the past two weeks I have been traveling in India for a family wedding. It has been busy, but jetlag and odd hours didn’t keep me from reading about India in Greek sources. There is a surprising amount of material–most of it positioning India as ‘exotic’ and ‘mystic’ the way many Western stereotypes do. I barely touched the fragments of Megasthenes; I didn’t cite much from Strabo; and I didn’t even begin to introduce Roman sources (Pliny the Elder has a lot to say).
And there are even more Greek sources! The Byzantine author Photius summarizes the work of Megasthenes and Ctesias on India. This leaves us with records of three Indica: Arrian’s, Megasthenes’, and Ctesias, whose account would be the oldest (it is allegedly based on accounts he heard from the Persians when he traveled with the expedition of Cyrus, c. 401 BCE).
To be honest, there is a lot more material on India from the ancient world than I expected even without Roman accounts and the fantastic Alexander romance. I am surprised that there isn’t a monograph already published on the subject! But I suspect that other than being chock-full of titillating details, a monograph couldn’t say much more than India is the exotic other in the Greco-Roman mind: a binary, rather than polar, opposite, occupying a space between the fantasy and reality, between history and fiction. In a way, ‘India’ in the Greco-Roman mind might not be qualitatively different from ‘India’ in Western pop-culture today.
Here’s another dose:
Photius, Bilbiotheca, 72. 46b (=Ctesias of Cnidos)
“[Ctesias says that] in the middle of India there are black men who are called Pygmies and have the same language as other Indians, but they are really small. The tallest of them are only two cubits, but most of them only one and a half. They have extremely long hair, down to their knees and lower, and the largest beards of all men. When they grow their beards long, they don’t wear clothing anymore, but they wrap their hair around them from their head and fasten it below their knees and arrange their beard in the front down near their feet, essentially using their hair to cover their bodies instead of clothing.”
῞Οτι μέσῃ τῇ ᾿Ινδικῇ ἄνθρωποί εἰσι μέλανες (καλοῦνται Πυγμαῖοι) ὁμόγλωσσοι τοῖς ἄλλοις ᾿Ινδοῖς. Μικροὶ δέ εἰσι λίαν· οἱ μακρότατοι αὐτῶν πηχέων δύο, οἱ δὲ πλεῖστοι, ἑνὸς ἡμίσεος πήχεος. Κόμην δὲ ἔχουσι μακροτάτην μέχρις ἐπὶ τὰ γόνατα καὶ ἔτι κατώτερον, καὶ πώγωνα μέγιστον πάντων ἀνθρώπων. ᾿Επειδὰν οὖν τὸν πώγονα μέγα φύσωσιν, οὐκέτι ἀμφιέννυνται οὐδὲν ἱμάτιον, ἀλλὰ τὰς τρίχας, τὰς μὲν ἐκ τῆς κεφαλῆς ὄπισθεν καθίενται πολὺ κάτω τῶν γονάτων, τὰς δὲ ἐκ τοῦ πώγωνος ἔμπροσθεν μέχρι ποδῶν ἑλκομένας, ἔπειτα περιπυκασάμενοι τὰς τρίχας περὶ ἅπαν τὸ σῶμα, ζώννυνται χρώμενοι αὐταῖς ἀντὶ ἱματίου.
Here’s a list of the posts.
The Curious Case of Herodotus’ India (Gold-digging ants)
The dog-headed people of India (Ctesias)
Thank you, India?