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The Travails of a Theban Lawyer

A Greek sailor’s trip to Malabar circa 355-363 AD

Deeply buried in the many layers of ancient history connected to the Malabar West Coast is the story of the Theban lawyer, one that has not been studied in detail as yet by Indian historians. It is an interesting story, but one which has so many contradictions within it that it is quite difficult to dredge out the bits of fact from a good amount of fiction. The problems arise when orally told tales are retold many times over and finally committed to text. Animals become dragons, men become ogres, women become mermaids and unimaginable acts are attributed to barbarian civilizations living far away. To pick up fragments of useful facts from such texts are, as one can imagine, quite tedious. Nevertheless, let us take a look at this adventurous tale which dates back to the beginnings of the Anno Domini era, but for that we have to start with a location in Roman Egypt, named Thebes.

Thebes known to the ancient Egyptians as Waset, was an ancient Egyptian city located east of the Nile about 400 miles south of Cairo, lying within the present day Egyptian city of Luxor on both the banks of the Nile, where the temples of Karnak and Luxor stand. The Assyrians were the first to pillage and plunder the wealthy city of Thebes around 667BC. The Greeks followed with Alexander in the lead but after a relatively peaceful period, successive revolts lay its population open to invasion by Rome. During the Roman occupation, Thebes became part of the Roman province of Thebais. The legend of the Theban legion, some 6000 Romans who converted enmasse to Christianity, if you recall, figures prominently in history. Following this there is indication of the presence of Diocletian’s Roman army in Luxor. Rome’s governance of Egypt was orderly, based on prefects, justice administrators, revenue officers and so on. The metropolis and their local officials shared in the burden of provincial government, especially as related to the transportation of supplies and collection of revenue. And importantly, the main produce of Egypt, that of prime importance to Rome was grain cultivation. More than all that, the Red Sea ports close by were the ones who conducted all the trade with erstwhile India, mainly the trade emporia on her western coast. It is also apparent that the author was not from Greek Thebes for it had lost all importance by then.

Roman legal practices were laborious and the classic law practices demanding and exact. One not keen on such a trade is prone to getting bored with that kind of thing and would but naturally not be able to scale its career ladder. Our hero was one such person, and he was getting tired of being a lawyer and as is evident, he was from the Scholasticus breed, a special class of trained civil servant and lawyers, created after the Emperor Diocletian’s time. Maybe he heard tales of wonder from the world yonder from sailors disembarking after perilous voyages to Malabar, braving the Hippalus monsoon winds.  He heard stories of immense wealth, practices of a land with strange people where spices were grown. Perhaps his imagination was stoked just enough, for he soon decided to forsake his tedious desk job and plan a trip to the land of spices.

We cannot yet be sure that his destination was a port in Malabar. That Rome conducted its trade mainly with Muziris south of Malabar is clear, we have discussed this at length, we discussed the famous Muziris Papyri some years ago. We also noted that winds did change course for long periods now and then and thus a number of Arabian sea ports appeared on India’s West Coast, each going on to become a favorite of a type of trader, all of which we discussed in a previous paper (Hubs of medieval trade) I had written.

The Greeks described Muziris in Periplus thus - Then come Naura and Tyndis, the first markets of Damirica (Limyrike), and then Muziris and Nelcynda, which are now of leading importance. Tyndis is of the Kingdom of Cerobothra; it is a village in plain sight by the sea. Muziris, of the same Kingdom, abounds in ships sent there with cargoes from Arabia, and by the Greeks; it is located on a river, distant from Tyndis by river and sea five hundred stadia, and up the river from the shore twenty stadia. Trade continued to peak with the Romans who followed Greeks though it declined from the mid-3rd century during a crisis period in the Roman Empire, but only to recover in the 4th century.

It was at this juncture that our man Thebes Scholasticus decided to take a trip to India. But before we get to his story let us see how his account comes to light. It appears that he narrated his story to an Egyptian Greek scribe named Palladius who added parts of it to his account of the Brahmins of India. I will not get into the details of why Palladius wrote about Brahmins, needless to say that their (i.e. the ancient chaste Brahmins) lives and methods were a source of immense curiosity since Alexander met some and took one home with him (see my article on Calanus).

What Palladius did was collect a lot of matter from here and there, which included narration from our lawyer and made a booklet titled ‘Palladius on the races of India and the Brahmans’. This booklet if perused in all seriousness would be an ‘avial’ of varying tales (mishmash of various vegetables cooked with coconut – a Kerala delicacy) and second hand information available from disembarking sailors and traders.

Three scholars took to studying the travails of our Theban lawyer in right earnest, the first being the English scholar Duncan Derrett. The second was the French historian Jehan Desanges and the third who studied the above papers and came up with a more detailed analysis was the eminent Sri Lankan Academic, the late Prof DPM Weerakkody. As for me, I am just the lucky person who laid hands on these carefully worked papers and am presently trying to make some sense of all that with a Malabar point of view.

That said, Derrett documenting his findings in 1962, lays his theory on why this Theban lawyers voyage could be dated to the 4th century, and goes on to narrow the travel dates down to 355-363AD. He then establishes that since there is a mention of the land where pepper grows in the text, the destination was Malabar. But there were a number of contradictions too, and these aspects will be looked into a bit later (Note: The main translation of the Greek Palladius text used here, is the one provided by Berghoff).

To get to Malabar in his days, it appears that he had to go to a Red Sea port called Adulis. Covering parts of what is now northern Ethiopia and southern and eastern Eritrea, Aksum was deeply involved in the trade network between India and the Mediterranean (Rome, later Byzantium), exporting ivory, tortoise shell, gold and emeralds, and importing silk and spices. Starting around 100 BC a route from Egypt to India was established, making use of the Red Sea and using monsoon winds to cross the Arabian Sea directly to southern India. The Kingdom of Aksum was ideally located to take advantage of the new trading situation. Adulis soon became the main port for the export of local goods, such as ivory, incense, gold, slaves, and exotic animals. From Adulis, a caravan route to Egypt was established which bypassed the Nile corridor entirely and allowed for goods to reach North Egypt and Alexandria for further movement to consumer centers in Europe. Adulis incidentally, lies 40 miles to the south of the modern day port city of Massawa and near the village of Foro, a sub-zone of Zula in Eritrea. It lies south of Bernice which was also famous for its Indian connections.

And so our man decided to go to Malabar and went to Adulis where there existed a trading Indian community which had its own chieftain. He learned a bit of their language and next decided to sail on to Taprobane or Ceylon. One could of course wonder why he chose Ceylon, though it was well known, it was not yet on the trading map of that era, perhaps he thought he could make a killing, become famous and rich as a pioneer with Ceylon trade. That decision it appears and we shall soon see, was to become a reason for his downfall.

Anyway he found passage in an Indian vessel. An extract from a translation of his original account in Greek, tells us the following. In the company of a "Presbyter" he sailed along and touched in first at Adulis (on the Abyssinian coast), and then at Axume, "where there was even a minor kinglet of the Indians in residence there. There he spent some time and gained a deep acquaintance with them and he wanted to go to the island of Taprobane also where the so-called Macrobioi live.

Let’s stop here for a while since the Theban goes on to explain that the Macrobioi have a long life span of upto 150 years. Was he planning on establishing contact with the Macrobioi to learn their longevity secrets? I can only assume he did not, as a typical lawyer, believe that longevity was due to the oft mentioned reason of the islands salubrious climate and gods will.

The account goes on to mention the 1,000 odd magnetic islands enroute which prevents boats with iron nails from passing and allows only boats using wooden pegs or nails for fastening. He details the island of Taprobane which he has heard about, which had coconut trees, arecanut trees, that they lived on rice, fruit and milk, and had goats. They wear skins round their middles.  The island has no pigs and has five large rivers. All stuff he had heard and most seem right from what we can imagine. But how come he never reached there? Let us continue to pick the threads of the Theban tale for here is where hell breaks loose and the descriptions falls apart…

Continuing on - He found some Indians going by ship from Axume for the purpose of trade, and he tried to get further east. He reached the neighborhood of the people called "Bisadae", the pepper gatherers. That people is very small and weak, they live in caves and the rock and are capable of making their way on precipices because of their acquaintance with the locality, and that is how they gather pepper from the bushes, for the bushes are also stunted as that scholasticus said. The Bisadaes too are stunted little fellows with big hands, unshaven and lank-haired. The rest of the Ethiopians and Indians are black, upstanding fellows and bristly-haired.

Now let’s stop and think. He has sailed with the Indians to reach a pepper gathering locale where tribals deliver the pepper grown in the highlands. Derrett believes it could have been Porkkad or Baccare (Vaikkarai) but the latter could be ruled out since we are talking about pepper which was cultivated only on the west of the Western Ghats. It could also have been any other port but not Muziris, a train of reasoning which we will soon come to terms with.

We see that the Theban lawyer is arrested as soon as he lands. Perhaps the companions of the lawyer explained to the local chieftain that this fellow was planning to move on to Ceylon and had other ulterior motives such as establishing a parallel trading outpost, perhaps it was to usurp their secret to longevity. Anyway he is arrested.

Then, he said, “I was arrested by the local ruler and was tried for daring to enter their country. They did not accept my defense since they did not know the language of our country, nor did I understand the charges they brought against me, for I did not know their language either, but simply by the twisting of the eyes we communicated with each other in recognizable gestures. I came to recognize their accusing remarks from the bloodshot color of their eyes and the savage grinding of their teeth, and guessed the meaning of what they said from their movements. On the other hand, from my trembling and anguish and the paleness of my face, they clearly realized my pitiable state of mind through my physical trepidation."

So I was arrested and was a slave among them for six years, handed over to work in the bake-house. The amount spent by their king was one modius of corn for his whole palace, and I don’t know where it came from. And so, in these six years I was able to interpret a great deal from their language and hence I have got to know the neighboring tribes besides.

I was released from there in the following way: Another king made war on the one who kept me captive, and accused him before the great king who resides in the island of Taprobane, of taking prisoner an important Roman and keeping him in the basest servitude. The king sent a judge, and upon learning the truth of the matter, ordered him to be flayed alive, for doing injury to a Roman, for they respect and fear the Roman Empire very much, thinking that it could even invade their country because of its supreme courage and inventive skill.

With this the Theban bows out from the Palladius text, leaving behind intriguing questions. Where did the ship take the Theban to? Who are the stunted tribal people? Would a Roman be put on kitchen duty for six years, even after he is said to have learnt the local language? Who is the great king of Taprobane and what relations did Ceylon kings have with Malabar or other nearby states? Who are the Besadae? Why is corn mentioned as a meal component in a Malabar palace? Is public flaying a method of punishment in Malabar and thereabouts? What was the local norm of justice considering the Theban was arrested straightaway? Why were the locals or for that matter the great king at Taprobane fearful of the Romans? Why did the Theban not sail on to Taprobane after release? How did he return to Thebes? Was the location on the Eastern side perhaps a place like Puhar where Romans were often destined? Or further up the Bay of Bengal? Let’s now get to the answers.

While Desanges believes the location where the Theban lawyer ended up was close to Assam, mainly due to the mention of the location Bisadae (and the Mekong valley dwarfs), it is more probable that he was captured by one of the hill or forest tribes of ancient Malabar and imprisoned by them. Perhaps he strayed too deep inland to discover the secrets of pepper growing and was picked up by this tribe. Larger principalities had more organized legal structures, were more hospitable to foreigners and punishment such as flaying of the king himself is unlikely. The use of corn is very strange, and there is no mention of rice. This also indicates that he was imprisoned in a remote tribe where they probably used root flour, that too on occasions. The modium measure is approximately a bushel or 15kg, not very much for a large palace kitchen, so it must have been a smaller principality.

There is another aspect to be kept in mind. The train of the Theban lawyer’s discourse is actually interrupted by Palladius and it is Palladius who brings up a description of the Bissadae. The Theban lawyer himself does not mention that he was with the Bissadae, it was an inference by Palladius.

The great king in Taprobane is another misnomer and does not connect up to any event in Cheranaad or Tamilakam. Desanges connects it to the Gupta era from the time of Samudragupta who he believes, was sovereign of both Assam and of the Sinhala people. Though Ceylon was a tributary of sorts, Samudragupta was certainly not resident in Ceylon. Derrett believes it was a Pandyan emperor who was temporarily resident in Ceylon. Weerakkody explains that a ruler named Pandu did indeed attack Lanka in the 5th century (not the 4th) and he slayed the king of Sri Lanka to assume sovereignty. He adds - The Mahavamsa calls him a Tamil (Damila), and later Sinhala traditions call him a Cola. But his name suggests Pandyan nationality.

But then again, there was another connection between a king of Lanka and Malabar, during the Chera rule dating to a couple of centuries earlier. We have knowledge of a certain king called Gajabahu, often identified with Gajabahu, king of Sri Lanka (2nd century CE), who was present at the Pattini festival at Vanchi. But for one of them to get involved in the release of a Roman Egyptian lawyer confined in a hill tribe is very strange. Nevertheless it is not an easy connection for one to come up with, so should have been a real happening. But what if a Chera King was temporarily resident in Lanka at that time? It could be so, though there is only an obtuse possibility reinforced by the use of the ancient term Cherantivu for Lanka (Lanka was known as "Cerantivu' - island of the Cera kings).

That the lawyer strayed into remote territory is clear for there was a presence of Romans not only in the Muziris region, but also near Puhar on the East coast, if at all it was on the other side. His release after six years thus becomes somewhat of a mystery and we have no record of his return home. What could have happened is that a local king sent his emissary to check and had the tribal leader flayed, and the prisoner released.

The lawyer was obviously distraught, and dropped his plans to travel to Taprobane. While one could question in retrospect if such a travel did indeed take place or if such a character existed, most accademics are clear that the language and wording of the original text signify that they did. Perhaps the connection to Taprobane could have been added by Palladius since he must have had some vested interest in suggesting prospective trade links to Taprobane. This story alludes to a potential Roman friendly king who lived there, or for that matter a king who feared Romans and would submit to them.

I should also add here that the entire work of Palladius was actually a submission to somebody much higher up, so Palladius must have been trying to point out that Taparobane is a place to consider for future trade! It is also to be recalled that the Romans were spending a lot of bullion on the India trade and any possibility of cost reduction would have been of interest.

Then again, the entire work of Palladius is in two parts with the first part detailing the Theban lawyer’s voyage was actually setting the stage – explaining the voyage, the risks and the terrain etc and leading on to the second part which covers the Brahmans of India, their ways and philosophy.
A keen reader might ask – How come the Romans, who had dared to endure the rigors and perils of a long voyage to South India, never continued their ventures to Ceylon? The obvious explanation has always been that the South Indian kingdoms effectually prevented and prohibited western merchants from trading directly with the island. But it is also possible that the Romans did not feel the need to go all the way to Sri Lanka as long as its products could be obtained easily and abundantly in the marts of India.

Weerakkody actually comes up with a plausible explanation and points to the 5th century Pandu period - The rise of the Sassanids in Persia and the revival of trade under the Byzantine emperors was matched by the growth in prosperity of Southern China, which now began to increasingly demand the luxury articles that came from the West by sea. Meanwhile, the Western Roman Empire became increasingly harassed by the barbarian invasions. There grew a fresh demand for pearls, spices, and precious stones. The South Indian merchants, who traditionally supplied these commodities to the western merchants, or rather their Axumite middlemen, must have been pressed increasingly for supplies; and it is natural that they should have taken to exploring and exploiting fresh sources. It is probably here that one should look for the background and the purpose of the occupation of Sri Lanka by Pandu and his successors in the mid fifth century A. D. The invaders ruled from Anuradhapura, but their interests penetrated far beyond the northern kingdom.

Derrett’s conclusion is that this was a commercial reconnaissance venture which went wrong. He suggests that the Theban's mission, a commercial reconnaissance, met with reactions on the part of the Axumites amounting to non-cooperation, and on the part of Malabar to downright hostility, preventing his entry into Sri Lanka, which was now becoming a rich entrepot for spices, and resulting in his six year captivity. The king in control of Malabar and Sri Lanka (whom Dérrett assumes to be a Pandya, despite his fourth-century dating of the episode) ordered the Theban's release and the severe punishment of his captor, a local sub-king, from a desire not to disturb relations with Rome and the commercial advantages that had accrued therefrom.

Or it could all be as Beverly Berg muses - No Greek traveler to India came back without a few tall tales, and the Theban scholasticus is no exception. The story of his capture and six years of slavery, working for the local king, is charming and sounds genuine in its simplicity, but captivity was a common romantic motif of the period. The scholasticus may have twisted his experiences a good deal to give his story a romantic plot somewhat like that of Iamboulos islands of the Sun story….

All of this took us back to a time when travel was risky and hugely adventurous. Today the world is at your fingertip, virtually on the computer screen. More developments will come by to make it all even more realistic, but I can assure you that it will be nowhere near what these pioneers experienced. No knowing what was to come, not knowing where you were going, not knowing what to expect and then at the end coming back to narrate that tale to wild eyed listeners. And that is why I love travel and travel a lot….

The Theban Scholasticus and Malabar in c. 355-60: J. Duncan M. Derrett, Journal of the American Oriental Society.
D'axoum à l'assam, aux portes de la chine: le voyage du scholasticus de thèbes (entre 360et 500 après j.c.). Jehan Desanges
Adventures of a Theban lawyer on his way to Sri Lanka: D. P. M. Weerakkody
The letter of Palladius on India: Beverly Berg
Taprobane - D. P. M. Weerakkody
Sri Lanka and the Roman Empire - D. P. M. Weerakkody

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