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.”

King Asoka a spiritual monarch in the Hellenistic age

The expedition of Alexander in India opened the doors of Far East to Greek culture. Although The Great could not reach the Gange, as his troops were tired and dissatisfied, and even though later on his successors, the Seleucids monarchs, lost the conquered territories in less than a century the bridge between the cultures had been laid down. Most certainly one of those who contributed in building this transcultural exchange on the Indian side was Asoka, probably the greatest Indian ruler of III century B.C. being his dominion vast and including huge Indian territories among which also the present Bengali, Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Asoka belonged to the Maurya dynasty, grandson of its founder Chandra Gupta and son of Bindusara, and known as the good monarch of Pataliputra. Several diverging stories about this king have been found in the Divyavadana, the Asokavadana, the Mahavamsa and similar writings all narrating the story of a merciless king who embraced Buddhism and completely changed his attitude becoming an illuminated monarch. Apparently in the beginning of his kingdom Asoka invaded Kalinga (currently Orissa state, India), but the awfulness of the war, the sufferings of his soldiers and citizens and even the remorse felt for the defeated enemy (later on he apologised for the Kalinga war and reassured its population he would have never pursue any other expansion) were the final push for Asoka to a major change in his character as he had a pivotal role in extending Buddhism through India and the Hellenistic world..

But what Asoka (or Ashoka) is renowned for is the numerous inscriptions that he has spread all over his kingdom, as Asoka dedicated most of his life trying to transfer the application of Buddhist doctrine to the administration of his immense realm. This is a wonderful epigraphic treasury, mainly based on edicts issued by the monarch half way between decrees and sermons. Asoka’s edicts are essentially issued in order to enact the reorganization process he was carrying out based on new moral principles. He strongly aimed at generating within his borders a harmonious community. Asoka after having embraced Buddhism, follows the rules of Dharma that recommend virtue and meditation and consequently he rules and concomitantly preaches the new doctrine. He proclaimed his belief in ahimsa, non-violence and supported tolerance of all faiths. Some inscriptions also refer to the Ionians (this is the way all Greeks and non Greeks of Anatolia and Middle East were named by Indians) and some also refer to old diplomatic relations with Greek kings, started with Chandra Gupta and Seleukos and followed by Antioch II, Ptolemy II.

His inscriptions in a certain sense express the ideal self-proclamating and philanthropic Hellenistic monarchy characteristics as Asoka self-assumed the title of Devanampiya Piyadasi i.e. Beloved of the Gods He Who Looks On With Affection. Moreover in both Hellenistic and Asoka’s monarchy justice is the main issue and the monarch super partes is expected to rule it. Nevertheless the two monarchs’ inspiration is different, for in the Greek world what is supposed to guide the monarchs is reason alone, whereas Asoka rules in full accordance and respect of faith. Hellenistic kings never set their minds to create true proselytises, but used religion principally to legitimate their appointment.


Asoka used to write his edicts without using the mannerist language we are used to find in ancient royal proclamations. His personal tenor witnesses his very peculiar and articulated personality. As all preachers Asoka is often drifted away by tedious repetitions and an overly doctrinaire tone; he frequently refers to his efforts and achievements not for self praise sake, but more likely to show to his citizens/adepts the results of a true commitment to Buddhism. Asoka seems very keen in being a wise and just monarch and to administer his country as what Romans would have called a pater familias. Asoka was in fact also scrupulous as to the enactment of his decrees. His administration was consequent to his edicts, as state resources were used for public works, judicial reforms, cultivation improvements, building residencies, network of wells and roads. In order to verify the state of art of his projects Asoka personally used to perform recurrent scrutiny visits and encouraged his functionaries to do as well.

Asoka’s decrees have been excavated in numerous locations in India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan. His edicts were written on rocks at the margins of his kingdom and on columns along the main roads and where as many pilgrims as possible could be assembled and read them. Their weight is about 50 tons and they can reach the height of 15 metres; initially (as only few capitals have survived) they used to be capped by a lion or a bull or a horse. Their main language – and sometimes the sole – is Brahmi script that is the earliest post-Indus corpus of texts and the root of all Indian and Southeast Asia scripts. Nonetheless the edicts found in the eastern part of the kingdom are written in a proto-Magadhi, very likely the administrative language of Asoka functionaries. As to the decrees issued in western part of India they are in Sanskrit. Two inscriptions of Alexandria of Arachosia, found nearby Kandahar (South Afghanistan) in the 60s are very interesting examples of Asoka thought. Some of them are in Greek and Aramaic; somehow this testifies the strong will of the King Piodasses (as the Greeks called him) to enlarge the influence of his doctrine also among the Greeks and Iranic people by also exchanging ambassadors. Asoka issued this bilingual edict on the sects preaching charity and modesty. His 13th Rock Edict witnesses that he tried to spread Buddhism to the realms of Antiochus II, Ptolemy I, Antigonus, Alexander of Epirus and Magas of Cyrene. The most diffused religions in that age were the Sramanas, Brahmins, Ajivakas and Jains; and he preached that all religions cease from self eulogise and criticism of others. And it is important to note that the Greek word for sect is diatribe which means school of thought or philosophical, as well as the Greek word for tolerance and harmony is eusebeia (piety). Very likely the Greek philosophers of Arachosia, a city located in the very border of both Asoka kingdom and the Hellenistic world, are those who have somehow translated the Asoka credo and diffused it in the Middle East together with He convened a Sangha Council at Pataliputra in order to establish the true nature of Dharma practice and to banish those who would not adhere to it. Following this Council, he decided to extend his missions – involving also his son, Mahendra and his daughter Sanghamitra – to other countries, which included the Anatolia and Ionian Greeks, Ghandar, Kashmir, Himalaya, Mysore. Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia and Sumatra.


Asoka died in after thirty-seven years of sovereignty. By reading Asoka’s edicts it seems quite unambiguous that the myths about this wise and just monarch are a reality and definitely allow Asoka to be considered one of the greatest illuminated monarchs of the ancient world. Although it is hard to establish the actual effectiveness of Asoka’s government, unquestionably his edicts must be considered a significant gift to the progress of a more spiritually based political system and individual introspective attitude, as in politics Asoka was convinced that state’s major task was to truly defend and support the welfare of its citizens and in ethics Asoka preached and encouraged generosity, tolerance and mutual respect.

(omissis)… King Piodasses made known the doctrine of

Piety to men; and from this moment he has made

men more pious, and everything thrives throughout

the whole world. And the king abstains from killing

living beings, and other men and those who are

huntsmen and fishermen of the king have desisted

from hunting. And if some were intemperate, they

have ceased from their intemperance as was in their

power; and obedient to their father and mother and to

the elders, in opposition to the past also in the future,

by so acting on every occasion, they will live better

and more happily.

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