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I came across this quote in an interview with British philosopher Jonardon Ganeri:

What I would add is that philosophy did not have a single origin, but many origins around the world, and each of those roots produced outgrowths of philosophy that merged and tangled with each other in the course of human history. There were Buddhists in Alexandria and Rome, and there were sufis and Europeans in India. The old story that as philosophers we are the children of the Greeks had a particular function, largely political, at a particular time, but it doesn’t make much sense in the modern world [...]

It inspires this question about history: What in particular do we know about individual Buddhists in Alexandria and Rome? What traces, if any, have they left in recorded history?

  • 1
    It looks really strange to me… – o0'. Mar 17 '15 at 9:04
  • Dunno about Buddhists, but there is the Pompeii Lakshmi. – Rob Crawford Jun 14 '17 at 13:59
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In terms of specific individuals, the Sramana gymnosophist known as Zarmarus or Zarmanochegas is usually identified as a Buddhist (though this is not definite - part of a greater confusion over whether the Sramana mentioned in classical sources referred to Buddhists or not).

He was dispatched by an Indian ruler to meet with Augustus, and killed himself by immolation in Athens. This embassy is well attested in the works of ancient writers, such as Plutarch, Strabo, and Cassius Dio. Strabo wrote, for instance, that:

His naked body was anointed and wearing only a loin-cloth he leaped upon the lighted pyre with a laugh. The following words were inscribed on his tomb: "There lies Zarmanochegas, an Indian from Bargaza, who immolated himself in accordance with the ancestral customs of the Indians."

- McLaughlin, Raoul. Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the Ancient Lands of Arabia, India and China. A&C Black, 2010.

Much more tenuously, the Mahavamsa (a Buddhist history of Ceylon) records a delegation of Buddhist monks from "Alexandria". They were led by the Greek elder Mahadhammarakkhita, and arrived at Ceylon to attended the erection of the Mahathupa at Ruanwellil.

Mahadhammarakkhita, thera of Yona, accompanied by thirty thousand bhikkhus from the vicinity of A'lasadda, the capital of the Yona country, attended.

It is agreed that Yona meant Greek and that A'lasadda referred to Alexandria, but it isn't altogether clear which Alexandria. It seems scholars generally think it refers to the Alexandria of Bactria or the Alexandria of Arachosia. Alternatively, and I don't think anyone advocates this except the dubious Arthur Lillie, but it might also possibly be the Alexandria of Ptolemaic Egypt.


More generally speaking, the idea that there were Buddhists in the Roman Empire is not very exceptional, despite the overly defensive objections of some.

It is well established that there was at least some interaction between the Roman Empire and the Indian subcontinent, at a time when Buddhism was ascendant in the latter. Part of this interaction was the movement of individuals, such as merchants and diplomatic envoys, between the two regions.

[T]he fact that Roman subjects constantly visited India but Indians seldom visited the Roman Empire (except Alexandria and Asia Minor) is reflected in such evidence which we can collect.

- Warmington, Eric Herbert. The Commerce Between the Roman Empire and India. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Indeed, an Indian presence was attested to in Alexandria, a major cultural and commercial crossroad. The orator Dio Chrysostom, for instance, remarked that:

Ethiopians and Arabians from distant regions and Bactrians, Scythians, Persiand and a few Indians all help to make up the audience in your theatre and sit beside you on each occasion.

Probably some of the Indians went on to Rome, though the evidence is lacking. As a side note, Indian was one of the nationalities the poet Martial mentioned in his lampooning of a certain (fictitious) Caelia:

For you from his Egyptian city comes sailing the gallant of Memphis, and the black Indian from the Red Sea ... What is your reason that, although you are a Roman girl, no Roman lewdness has attraction for you?

To be sure, Indians were certainly not a common sight in much of the Mediterranean. At the same time, the evidence showed that they were present in Alexandria. In all likelihood some visited some other parts of the Roman Empire. It is not a stretch to conclude that some of those Indians were Buddhists.

Separately, Ashoka the Great left records of sending Buddhist missionaries into the West, including to Alexandria. They don't seem to have had much impact, though we know diplomatic (and commercial) contact continued thence.

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The only evidence I can find of actual practicing Buddhists is that a ruler from somewhere in Greater India sent an embassy to Rome sometime around the turn of the era (year 0ish). It did make quite an impression, due to one of its number self-immolating in Greece.

There seems to be a bit more familiarity with people of that faith in Greek circles. However, I think it would be wrong to claim that it was well understood in the West, or to imply there were active vital groups of practitioners living in the major population centers of the Roman Empire, as the quote seems to.

As for actual influence on Western Philosophy, its tough to find much first-hand evidence of that. The best I can find is a passage from Clement of Alexandria. He seems to be mostly accurately reporting how Budha himself was venerated, but in typical Greek form equates Budhist philosophy with the Gaulish Druids, Celtish philosophy, early Christianity, and all sorts of other non-Greek systems.

Now Jonardon Ganeri has a pretty impressive CV in Philosophy, so I wouldn't want to tangle with the guy on his own turf. But as for historical evidence of his claim of significant Eastern influence in Western thought, there just isn't much. Without that, I'd say its a bogus claim.

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The idea that there were "Buddhists" in ancient Rome is completely unattested except in the imagination of some revisionist philosophers bent on deprecating the importance of European culture.

Ancient Rome certainly sponsored a vast variety of long-forgotten cults and strange foreign traditions, but there is no record of Buddhism as being one of them.

  • 3
    DH1 – Drux Mar 17 '15 at 9:31
  • @Drux well, it would be on them the onus of bringing in some proof… – o0'. Mar 17 '15 at 9:46

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