Poseidon in the Punjab: The Greeks in India

This week I thought I’d give everyone a break from the Romans and Egyptians, and move back to Arsinoë’s other people: the Greeks. Specifically, the centuries-long presence of the Greeks where perhaps they would be somewhat unexpected: India.  

As I allude to in The God’s Wife, Alexander the Great’s (356 BC – 323 BC) conquests had reached as far as northern India (nominally the Beas/ Hyphasis River in Himachal Pradesh) before the discontent of his troops at the prospect of another campaign halted the Macedonian Empire’s march eastward. Alexander’s star over his army was high, but his Greek soldiers had been fighting almost continuously for over a decade and were not interested in spending more time in a foreign land away from their families. Additionally, Alexander had planned to swing south into Bengal, where they would inevitably run into the armies of several large native empires and confront an arduous amphibious maneuver to cross the River Ganges, which were added disincentives to agree to Alexander’s plans. Alexander was basically king of the western world at this point, but as a Greek ruler, his position was bolstered by a dozen or so veteran generals who served under him as advisors, and their opinion counted, too. One of them, Coenus, finally convinced him to listen to the threat of mutiny and turn back. Fate rewarded Coenus for this by killing him in battle before they even cleared the border.

Alexander’s response was basically: “Ha, maybe I was right…”

But it was too late to turn back at that point, so Alexander set up a few colonial settlements, established several satrapies (provinces ruled by a lord subordinate to him, something he picked up when he conquered Persia) , and blew town probably assuming he’d be back in a year or two with a fresh, less whiny army. 

But then Alexander died suddenly the next year of a fever, leaving only a pregnant consort who would eventually give birth to a son, but by then his aforementioned veteran generals had kind of worked things out between themselves… 

These generals, advisors, and heirs made up the Diadochi (the Successors), and after several wars and subsequent compromises, Alexander’s empire was divided up among those who were left into separate, semi-related kingdoms (that occasionally tried to steal territory from each other). You’ve already met a couple of them in The God’s Wife: General Seleucus’ West Asian empire based in Antioch, and of course, General Ptolemy’s empire in Egypt. Which is how a bunch of Greek descendants ended up ruling the Egyptians by the time we get to Cleopatra, Ptolemy, and Arsinoë’s time three hundred years later. 

But while the Babylonian Settlement gave many of Alexander’s former generals new kingdoms to rule, his satrapies in northern India were left in the hands of the lords he had placed there early, at least initially. After a few more wars and some timely deaths, time left Ptolemy and Seleucus as the clear victors among the Diadochi in terms of military might, territory, and resources. They were almost constantly at odds over border regions in the Middle East, but otherwise Ptolemy was content to keep to the western part of the old empire, which allowed Seleucus to expand prodigiously through the eastern empire. Eventually Seleucus conquered the Indian satrapies and absorbed them into his kingdom. He had designs on continuing deeper into India, but as the River Beas had been for his master, Alexander, Seleucus met another force of nature. 

Don’t let the saintly Jain trappings fool you, he’s here to throw down.

Chandragupta was the founder of the Mauryan Empire and is considered one of the greatest rulers to ever hold sway in the subcontinent. A centralized, unifying leader, Chandragupta overthrew the Nandan empire that ruled when Alexander was present in India, and his conquests took him north, where he defeated several of the Greek satraps. Seleucus attempted to hold onto the remaining territory, but after being handily defeated, he ceded a large part of that to Chandragupta in exchange for some war elephants, a marriage alliance between the two empires, and the satrap of Bactria (a small region that straddles modern-day Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). 

Seleucus fell victim to one of the classic blunders: starting a land war in Asia.

After Seleucus’ death, the Bactria satrapy declared itself an independent kingdom and started its own eastern push through the northern subcontinent. Over the next two hundred years, subsequent rulers of Yavanarajya (Kingdom of the Yavanas, the Greek-Speakers) or the Indo-Greek Kingdom moved their borders further east into modern-day Pakistan, Kashmir, and the Indian regions of Gandhara and the Punjab. At the same time, they were almost constantly losing their original territory in Bactria behind them to the Yuezhi, a nomadic people who came out of western China and swept over the Hindu Kush mountains behind them, and to wars with the Indo-Scythians of Persia. 

All of this expansion and contraction led to a slow decline of the Indo-Greek Kingdom, and after one last gasp revival in 70 BC, the territory splintered into smaller spheres of influence. The kingdom had nearly always been ruled by a collection of kings and satraps (often father/son co-rulers, much as the Ptolemies and the Seleucids did in the west), but the weaker power base debased this arrangement until Greek India was ruled by little more than a collection of petty princelings who left almost nothing behind them but a handful of coins. 

For the relevant time periods of The God’s Wife and Daughter of Eagles, Greek India had two kings of which we have a record: Zoilos II and Apollophanes, both of whom used the popular Greek epithet Soter (Savior) as a ruling name. As I said above, history has left us scant record of either of these men, but that isn’t to say that they had no influence or contact with the world outside of their shrinking borders. For example, these far-flung heirs of Alexander the Great still hadn’t lost touch with their Diadochi roots in the west. One of them is likely the unnamed Bactrian ally of Cleopatra and Mark Antony whom Virgil places at the Battle of Actium in the Aeneid:

Antony, with barbarous wealth and strange weapons, conqueror of eastern peoples and the Indian shores, bringing Egypt, and the might of the Orient, with him, and furthest Bactria 

(I know, I said we weren’t going to talk about the Romans…) 

And aside from the ill-starred Ptolemies, there were their eastern next-door-neighbors. Throughout its existence, Greek India had a continual cultural exchange with the indigenous subcontinental empires that was beneficial to both. Hellenistic art influenced Indian art and vice versa. Greek sculpture influenced some of the early human depictions of Buddha (heretofore represented through symbols), and one of the Bactrian kings is credited with some of the earliest known depictions of the Hindu gods on his coinage. Greeks would reproduce their native art, but one can see the design influence of Indian sculpture on the result, particularly with the female form. There is evidence of the Greek calendar and western numismatics in Indian thought down through the 4th century AD. Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, sent Buddhist emissaries to Greek India and there is evidence that many Greeks adopted the new religion. 

A Mauryan pediment with Greek-influenced scrollwork
A Greek cave temple in an Indian style and inscribed in Sanskrit
An Indian Buddha with Greek influence in the carving of Buddha’s draped clothing, and realistic form and expression.
This is a local Greek depiction of the Trojan Horse scene from the Iliad, but look how Indian the dress of the woman at the gates is.

As we saw earlier, rulers made treaties and marriage pacts amongst each other, and trade flourished between not only India and Bactria, but between these kingdoms and China as well. As the famous diplomat and traveler Zhang Qian reported in 128 BC: 

“When I was in Bactria, I saw bamboo canes from Qiong and cloth made in the province of Shu. When I asked the people how they had gotten such articles, they replied: ‘Our merchants go buy them in the markets of Shendu (northwestern India).’ Shendu, they told me, lies several thousand li southeast of Bactria. The people cultivate land, and live much like the people of Bactria.” 

This a soldier with a distinctly Greek Phrygian helmet found at a burial site from the 3rd century BC in Xinjiang province in western China

In short, we tend to think of these sorts of connections as tied to the conquests of Genghis Khan, or the beginnings of the Silk Road a millennium later, but the cross-pollination of east and west predates even the expanded Roman Empire, as you see. With such entrenched links, is it any wonder Cassius Dio expresses little more than mild interest when he tells of an Indian delegation from the great trading city of Madurai bringing live tigers,  saffron, and other eastern curiosities for Octavius’ court in Rome? India was old news to the Mediterranean by 25 BC! 

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