Alexander the Great in India

Alexander the Great, the Macedonian, grand general and irresistible conqueror, shrewd and charismatic, dissolute and merciless: altogether one of the most contradictorily impressive characters of the entire ancient world and founder of one of the largest empires of history whose expansion ranged from the Balkans to Punjab! Further to the kind enquiry of two of my most affectionate readers, here are some abstracts of my findings on Alexander’s two years in India – throughout the reports of the ancient texts.

In the summer of 327 B.C. Alexander organised a new army which counted almost 120,000 soldiers: mainly Macedonians plus Egyptians and Phoenicians sailors (these latter were indispensable to sail along the river Indus); besides the Macedonians were barely sufficient for his war-campaign as he – moving on with his victories – needed also to establish political structures and organise military-bureaucratic infrastructures on the newly conquered territories. Thus, according to Lucius Flavius Arrianus (Arrian), Alexander crossed the river Indus from Hund and reached Taxila, just across the Hindu Kush – Καύκασος Ινδικός, where the king Omphis (also known as Taxiles) yielded himself:

“Alexander laid a bridge over the river Indus… when Alexander had crossed to the other side of the river Indus, he again offered sacrifice there, according to his custom. Then starting from the Indus, he arrived at Taxila, a large and prosperous city, in fact the largest of those situated between the rivers Indus and Hydaspes. He was received in a friendly manner by Taxiles, the governor of the city, and by the Indians of that place; and he added to their territory as much of the adjacent Country as they asked for.”

Taxiles also asked him for help against King Porus (or Raja Puru) of Pauravaa, between the rivers Hydaspes and the Acesines (Jhelum and the Chenab) in the Punjab and his ally the King of Kashmir Abisares-Αβισαρης (or Abhisara or Embisarus) whose reign was behind the river Hydaspes and his dominions extending to Hyphasis (nearby the present Lahore), who were together trying to conquer the whole of Punjab. Thus Alexander had made his first Indian ally, as Plutarch reports:

“Taxiles, we are told, had a realm in India as large as Egypt, with good pasturage, too, and in the highest degree productive of beautiful fruits. He was also a wise man in his way, and after he had greeted Alexander, said: “Why must we war and fight with one another, Alexander, if thou art not come to rob us of water or of necessary sustenance, the only things for which men of sense are obliged to fight obstinately? As for other wealth and possessions, so-called, if I am thy superior therein, I am ready to confer favours; but if thine inferior, I will not object to thanking you for favours conferred.” At this Alexander was delighted, and clasping the king’s hand, said: “Canst thou think, pray, that after such words of kindness our interview is to end without a battle? Nay, thou shalt not get the better of me; for I will contend against thee and fight to the last with my favours, that thou mayest not surpass me in generosity.” So, after receiving many gifts and giving many more, at last he lavished upon him a thousand talents in coined money. This conduct greatly vexed Alexander’s friends, but it made many of the Barbarians look upon him more kindly”.

During his stay in Taxila Alexander also was able to meet for the first time the famous Indian philosophers: the Gymnosophists, (Darshanas) and the Brahmins priests which seriously tried to endanger his plans and strategies as they both pushed cities and citizens against the foreign conqueror. He brutally reacted to this entanglement…:

“The philosophers, too, no less than the [Indian] mercenaries, gave him trouble, by abusing those of the native princes who attached themselves to his cause, and by inciting the free peoples to revolt. He therefore took many of these also and hanged them.”

Some other philosophers were more fortunate as Plutarchus reports:

“He captured ten of the Gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions, and Alexander therefore put difficult questions to them, declaring that he would put to death him who first made an incorrect answer.”

Alexander then showed even more curiosity for these ascetics and eagerly wanted to meet them, something he tried with alternate success…:

“These philosophers, then, he dismissed with gifts; but to those who were in the highest repute and lived quietly by themselves he sent Onesicritus, asking them to pay him a visit. Now, Onesicritus was a philosopher of the school of Diogenes the Cynic. And he tells us that Calanus very harshly and insolently bade him strip off his tunic and listen naked to what he had to say, otherwise he would not converse with him, not even if he came from Zeus; but he says that Dandamis was gentler, and that after hearing fully about Socrates, Pythagoras, and Diogenes, he remarked that the men appeared to him to have been of good natural parts but to have passed their lives in too much awe of the laws. Others, however, say that the only words uttered by Dandamis were these: “Why did Alexander make such a long journey hither?”

Plutarch says that Calanus eventually came to better terms and met Alexander, although his meeting ended with a wise suggestion that nonetheless incorporated a sinister presage…:

“Calanus, nevertheless, was persuaded by Taxiles to pay a visit to Alexander. His real name was Sphines, but because he greeted those whom he met with “Cale,” the Indian word of salutation, the Greeks called him Calanus. It was Calanus, as we are told, who laid before Alexander the famous illustration of government. It was this. He threw down upon the ground a dry and shrivelled hide, and set his foot upon the outer edge of it; the hide was pressed down in one place, but rose up in others. He went all round the hide and showed that this was the result wherever he pressed the edge down, and then at last he stood in the middle of it, and lo! it was all held down firm and still. The similitude was designed to show that Alexander ought to put most constraint upon the middle of his empire and not wander far away from it.”

Thus according to Arrian in April-May 326 B.C. while king Abisares had sent his emissary to surrender without fighting, king Porus intended to contrast Alexander and was waiting to fight him with his army and 120 elephants across the river Hydaspes. A violent and sanguinary battle took place, with minor loss on Alexander’s army, while the Indians were severely defeated and both soldiers and elephants dispersed on the battlefield:

“Porus, with the whole of his army, was on the other side of that river, having determined either to prevent him from making the passage, or to attack him while crossing…. Alexander took the forces which he had when he arrived at Taxila, and the 5,000 Indians under the command of Taxiles and the chiefs of that district, and marched towards the same river… of the Indians little short of 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry were killed in this battle. All their chariots were broken to pieces; and two sons of Porus were slain”.

Even King Porus fought bravely and was wounded:

“Porus, who exhibited great talent in the battle, performing the deeds not only of a general but also of a valiant soldier… but at last, having received a wound on the right shoulder, which part of his body alone was unprotected during the battle, he wheeled round”

When Alexander met his imprisoned enemy: Porus, he was impressed by the courage and the charisma of his enemy. According to the dialogue Arrian has reported he treated him in a knightly manner and made him his new ally:

“Alexander… admired his [Porus] handsome figure and his stature, which reached somewhat above five cubits. He was also surprised that he did not seem to be cowed in spirit, but advanced to meet him as one brave man would meet another brave man, after having gallantly struggled in defence of his own kingdom against another king. Then indeed Alexander was the first to speak, bidding him say what treatment he would like to receive. The story goes that Porus replied: “Treat me, O Alexander, in a kingly way !“ Alexander being pleased at the expression, said : “For my own sake, O Porus, thou shalt be thus treated; but for thy own sake do thou demand what is pleasing to thee!” But Porus said that everything was included in that. Alexander, being still more pleased at this remark, not only granted him the rule over his own Indians, but also added another country to that which he had before, of larger extent than the former.’ Thus he treated the brave man in a kingly way, and from that time found him faithful in all things.”

Porus proposed Alexander to fight on his Eastern borders against the Nanda dynasty who ruled the kingdom of Magadha nearby Patliputra (nowadays Patna); the Macedonian soldiers started the march, nonetheless once they reached the river Hyphasis they refused to go any further as they wanted to go back home. Alexander, although reluctantly, adhered to their request and, as Diodorus Siculus reports, after having built 12 enormous altars to the Greek Pantheon put the expedition to an end.

“He decided thus to interrupt his campaign at this point, and in order to mark his limits he first of all erected altars of the twelve gods each fifty cubits high…”.

Actually the return would have revealed not as easy as he could have foreseen, as he had to split the army: some garrisons followed the banks of the Indus, others sailed along the river itself, others were exploring the ocean coasts of Belucistan (or Balochistan) and the Persian Gulf.

However the great triumph of Alexander’s warfare skills as well as the magnitude of his empire, though ephemeral, have been vastly celebrated along the centuries, and perhaps this passage from Quintus Curtius Rufus best synthesises the enthusiasm and spirit of victory and winners on their way back home:

“Iam nihil gloriae deesse; nihil obstare virtuti, sine ullo Martis discrimine, sine sanguine orbem terrae ab illis capi.”

[Now nothing was amiss to their glory; nothing could stop their courage: without fighting, without bloodshed they were the masters of the whole world.]

not quite as moving as – so antithetically, though – Joseph Roth’s description of the deep sadness and exhaustion  accompanying the return to Vienna (on a sad 1918 Christmas Eve) of one of the victi, discomfited of the Great War:

“The armed bayonets seemed not at all real, the rifles where loosely hanging askew on the soldiers’ shoulders. It was like they wanted to sleep, the guns, tired of four years of shootings. I was not the least surprised if none of the soldiers saluted me, my stripped cap, my stripped jacket’s collar did not impose any obligation on anyone. Yet I did not rebel. It was only painful. It was the end.”

The charm of the Gladiators

As usual Mary Beard’s blog is a great source of inspiration: in her latest post as she attended The Chester Conference – Roman Amphitheatres and Spectacula after which a “gladiatorial entertainment” had been promised, she commented:

All the high-minded academic diners on my table seemed to be looking forward to it as much as I was. After all, it was a wonderfully Roman idea. For gladiators didn’t just appear in the amphitheatre, they featured at funerals and – among the rich – as a private, dinner-time spectacle.

I’m glad I stayed. But it did turn out to be a little tamer than I had hoped (or feared). The bouts didn’t actually last very long and most of the fighters were so burdened with all the gear that they couldn’t muster much agility. That may have been true of the real version too. But I don’t imagine that ancient gladiators were quite as portly as most of this lot. Far be it from me to point the finger at others who should lose a bit of weight, but the impression I got was that it was overwhelmingly middle-aged men of the short and dumpy variety who liked dressing up as Romans.

Gladiators in the Roman world belonged to the worst category of beings – I omitted human purposely as they were not considered such. In fact, together with slaves and prostitutes they were all considered at the very bottom of Roman society, if they ever belonged to it. They were referred to and consequently treated as property, objects; plus – as we all know – they were destined to die in the arena sooner or later. Nonetheless these doomed slaves thrilled the perversions of all Romans and were highly popular as they are portrayed in incredibly numerous mosaics, pottery and frescos.


Apparently their incredible charm was only partly due to their muscles and the courage they showed in the arena. As well only some owed their popularity to their outstanding features: the mirmillons from Gallia, the Samnites, some rare blonde Germans and black Ethiopians might probably have attracted women thanks to their exotic origins. Nevertheless their real appeal must have been more likely due to the inextricable and perverse links entangling social transgression, blood, depravation and death which spurred the Roman fantasies and nights. Juvenal magisterially shows an interesting example in his Satire VI:

nupta senatori comitata est Eppia ludum
ad Pharon et Nilum famosaque moenia Lagi
prodigia et mores urbis damnante Canopo.
inmemor illa domus et coniugis atque sororis
nil patriae indulsit, plorantisque improba natos
utque magis stupeas ludos Paridemque reliquit.
sed quamquam in magnis opibus plumaque paterna
et segmentatis dormisset paruula cunis,
contempsit pelagus; famam contempserat olim,
cuius apud molles minima est iactura cathedras.
Tyrrhenos igitur fluctus lateque sonantem
pertulit Ionium constanti pectore, quamuis
mutandum totiens esset mare. iusta pericli
si ratio est et honesta, timent pauidoque gelantur
pectore nec tremulis possunt insistere plantis:
fortem animum praestant rebus quas turpiter audent.
si iubeat coniunx, durum est conscendere nauem,
tunc sentina grauis, tunc summus uertitur aer:
quae moechum sequitur, stomacho ualet. illa maritum
conuomit, haec inter nautas et prandet et errat
per puppem et duros gaudet tractare rudentis.
qua tamen exarsit forma, qua capta iuuenta
Eppia? quid uidit propter quod ludia dici
sustinuit? nam Sergiolus iam radere guttur
coeperat et secto requiem sperare lacerto;
praeterea multa in facie deformia, sicut
attritus galea mediisque in naribus ingens
gibbus et acre malum semper stillantis ocelli.
sed gladiator erat. facit hoc illos Hyacinthos;
hoc pueris patriaeque, hoc praetulit illa sorori
atque uiro. ferrum est quod amant. hic Sergius idem
accepta rude coepisset Veiiento uideri

Thus Eppia, a higher class matrona leaves her homeland, husband and children and her riches, to sail to Egypt on a scanty and dirty ship, on which she would have never set foot if in company of her husband; and this shameful transgression is all for the sake of her gladiator-lover Sergiolus, who does not seem to have inspired the casting of Russell Crowe…: he is middle-aged, almost completely bald, scar-faced, one of his eyes is continuously leaking, one arm is broken and he as a bump on his nose…

Definitely many other matrona loved gladiators, actors, singers and auriga; actually one fashionable behaviours for rich and noble class Romans during the Empire was to linger in bad and dangerous districts to feel the thrill of belonging for a while to the plebe and live the “lowest class” experience… Petronius Arbiter in his Satyricon gives a full account of these obscure sides of Roman decadence portraying – among many other depravations – a matrona who proves no shame at all to show interest for gladiators and actors, for instance when skipping the VIP tribune bystanders at theatre to go straight in pursue of her quarry backstage:

(omissis)… And as for your confession that you are only a common servant, by that you only fan the passion of the lady who burns for you, for some women will only kindle for canaille and cannot work up an appetite unless they see some slave or runner with his clothing girded up: a gladiator arouses one, or a mule-driver all covered with dust, or some actor posturing in some exhibition on the stage. My mistress belongs to this class, she jumps the fourteen rows from the stage to the gallery and looks for a lover among the gallery gods at the back.

Unavoidably some of these perverse relations produced embarrassing births… for instance of one of Emperor Caligula’s alleged sons Ninfidius Sabinus was actually said to be son of Martianus, a gladiator. As well as the successor of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus whose mother Faustina was said to be in love with another protagonist of the arena… Martial in Epigram VI with his unmistakable style mocks a nobleman giving him a lecture of petty genetics by pointing out that each of all his seven children cannot possibly be his as they resemble his cook, a gladiator, a baker, flutist a farmer etc.

Pater ex Marulla, Cinna, factus es septem

non liberorum: namque nec tuus quisquam

nec est amici filiusue uicini,

sed in grabatis tegetibusque concepti

materna produnt capitibus suis furta.

Hic qui retorto crine Maurus incedit

subolem fatetur esse se coci Santrae;

at ille sima nare, turgidis labris

ipsa est imago Pannychi palaestritae.

Pistores esse tertium quis ignorat,

quicumque lippum nouit et uidet Damam?

Quartus cinaeda fronte, candido uoltu

ex concubino natus est tibi Lygdo:

percide, si uis, filium: nefas non est.

Hunc uero acuto capite et auribus longis,

quae sic mouentur ut solent asellorum,

quis morionis filium negat Cyrtae?

Duae sorores, illa nigra et haec rufa,

Croti choraulae uilicique sunt Carpi.

Iam Niobidarum grex tibi foret plenus

si spado Coresus Dindymusque non esset.

Therefore I assume in those days too, beauty was in the eye of the beholder, no matter which class you belonged and how fit you were… things have not changed that much after all.

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When Rhodes outshone Athens

The Hellenistic age is characterised by the shifting of the barycentre of the Greek world toward East. In continental Greece, distressed by poverty and social struggles, only a few πολεις – Athens and perhaps Corinth – maintain a rather formal independence by preserving some of their political and social institutions and even Sparta is waning as for the first time builds its defensive walls around the πολις. Pericles’ golden age political spirit, Athens’ “imperial” attitude and “attire” are just a fading memory: no more hoplites but mercenaries defend the πολις and Piraeus is to some extent away from the new mercantile routes. Only thanks to its intellectual prestige Athens is slowly drifting to the status of prime academic-city (although not exclusive as Alexandria, Kos and other learning centres are developing), where scholars, philosophers and students continue gathering and generating thought. Meanwhile the Aegean islands benefit of this new Mediterranean political and commercial layout as maritime commercial routes, including the entire middle East (from Ponto to Cilicia and Syria), Nile’s delta, Sicily, Cyrene, Crete, Cyprus need several stepping stones, ports and storage warehouses.


Rhodes has a prime role as a πολις in this age. Founded in 408 B.C. by συνοικισμóς (union) of three πολεις who positioned their main centre in Rhodes (northwest of the island), subjugated until the death of Alexander the Great it has expelled his successors’ army and has resisted to the assault of Demetrius I Poliorcetes (305 B.C.). Rhodes incarnates a very rare example of the survived spirit of πολις during the Hellenistic age – an epoch of large kingdoms and revered monarchs. Its remarkable, though not long-lasting, fortune is principally based on the practical-commercial attitude of its population, proud and clever, integrated with rich resident foreign merchants, as well as unsurprisingly on its geographic location: a stone’s throw from the Turkish coasts and not far away from Alexandria and the Niles’ delta.

Rhodes has three main ports: commercial, military and transit and two minor landings – guarded by the famous 110 feet Κολοσσος a bronze statue to the God Helios, one of the World’s Seven Wonders and legendary emblem of the πολις. Ιts warehouses are full of amphora where wheat, cereals, wine, olive oil and other commodities are stored to depart for markets/destinations all over the known world – numerous amphora with Rhodes seal have been unearthed all over the Middle-East, Italy, Maghreb, Spain, France and even in Central Europe. The unsurpassed banking system, born and developed in Athens/Piraeus is now concentrated in Rhodes, where are established various branches of ancient financial institutions and where loans, currency exchange and clearing operations take place. Even from the legal standpoint the celebrated Lex Rhodia are widely applied to transactions and several principles of are even taken by Marcus Aurelius as a basis for his maritime code, whose roots can be found also in Byzantine and Republic of Venice Codes.

Rhodes fleet is one the best equipped of the whole Mediterranean and its 50 ships considerably reduce the risks and dangers of pirates – always a problem to maritime trade in those days – struggling to maintain safety and guarantee mercantile traffics. Thanks to the war to pirates and its mercantile alliance with Ptolemaic Egypt, major producer of wheat, Rhodes fosters its importance in the Mediterranean and subsequently its revenues.

Rhodes is ruled by a mixed democratic-aristocratic government solution and enacts several particular social policies – like mandatory food contributions to assist the lower classes – which altogether acquired Rhodes the fame of best administered πολις of whole Greek world. Rhodes public education system is well developed and broadly accessible, moreover all the citizens must serve in the πολις navy: these and other public policies grant a robust spirit of comradeship that surpasses any social class and characterises the social texture of this πολις. Its splendour survives also a major earthquake in 227 B.C. when it is almost completely destroyed: Rhodes is rebuilt even more superb with the financial aid of the whole Greek world – fine arts develop thanks, among the others, to Apollonius who left Alexandria and choose Rhodes as his abode.

Nonetheless, its fortune will not last for too long. Being a loyal ally of Rome during the wars against Philip V of Macedonia and Antioch III the Great, in consequence of the peace of Apamea Rhodes obtains several additional territories on the main land, namely in Lycia and Caria. Later on Rhodes probably overestimates its political power and diplomatic shrewdness by playing a too much ambiguous role with Rome in occasion of the war against Perseus of Macedonia. Thus the Empire, by reaction creates in 166 B.C. a new Tax Haven in Delos (former subsidiary location of Rhodes) under the jurisdiction of Athens which consequently polarises almost the entire Aegean mercantile traffic: in only a couple of years Rhodes’ Customs revenues (2% on fair value) collapse from 1 million drachma to only 150 thousand. Moreover Rhodes resists the siege of Mithridates VI the Great, Eupator Dionysius of Ponto (Rome worst enemy), but in 43 B.C. is taken by Crassus and completely devastated.

Since then Rhodes, although obtains the status of independence during the Roman Empire, will never regain its pivotal role in the Eastern Mediterranean, nonetheless it will become an academic centre, attracting many young rich aristocratic Romans to learn rhetoric (Apollonius Molon of Alabanda, teacher of Cicero later in Rome) and philosophy – its major school was founded by the Stoic Posidionius, a former student of another distinguished Rhodes citizen Panaetius.

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