1902 Encyclopedia > India > Indian History: 4. Greek-Roman Period

(Part 19)


4. Greek-Roman Period

The external history of India commence with the Greek invasion in 327 B.C. Some indirect trade between India and the Levant seems to have existed from very ancient times. Homer was acquainted with tin3 and other articles of Indian merchandise by their Sanskrit names; and a long lists has been made of Indian products mentioned in the Bible.4 But the first Greek historian who speaks clearly of India was Hecadotus of Miletus (549-486 B.C.); the knowledge of Herodotus (450 B.C.) ended at the Indus; and Ctesias, the physician (401 B.C.), brought back from his residence in Persia only a few facts about the products of India, its dyes and fabrics, monkeys and parrots. India to the east of the Indus was first made known in Europe by the historian and men of science who accompanied Alexander the Great in 327 B.C. Their narratives, although now lost, are condensed in Strabo, Pliny, and Arrian. Soon afterwards Megasthenes, as Greek ambassador resident at a court in the centre of Bengal (306-298 B.C.), has opportunities for the closest observation. The knowledge of the Greeks and Romans concerning India practically dates from his researches, 300 B.C.4

Alexander the Great entered India early in 327 B.C., crossed the Indus above Attock, and advanced, without a struggle, over the intervening territory of the Taxiles6 to the Jhelum (Hydaspes). He found the Punjab divided into petty kingdoms, jealous of each other, and most of them inclined to join and invader rather than to oppose him. One of these local monarchs, Porus, disputed the passage of the Jhelum, with a force which, substituting guns for chariots, exactly equaled the army of Ranjít Sinh, the ruler of the Punjab in the present century.7 Plutarch gives a vivid description of the battle from Alexander’s own letters. Having drawn up his troops at a bend of the Jhelum, about 14 miles west of the modern field of Chilianwála,1 the Macedonian general crossed under shelter of a tempestuous night. The chariots hurried out by Porus stuck in the muddy bank of the river, and in the general engagement which followed his elephants refused to face the Greeks, and, wheeling round, trampled his own army under foot. His son fell early in the onset; Porus himself fled wounded, but, on the tendering his submission, was confirmed in his kingdom, and became the conqueror’s trusted frined.

Alexander built two memorial cities son the scene of his victory, Bucephalia on the west bank, near the modern Jalálpur, named after his beloved charger slain in the battle, and Nicaea, the present Mong, on the east side of the river.

Alexander advanced south-east through the kingdom of the younger Porus to Amritsar, and, after a sharp bend backward to the west, to fight the Cathaei at Sangala, he reached the Beas (Hyphasis). There, at a spot not far from the modern battlefield of Sobráon, he halted his victorious standards.2 He had resolved to march to the Ganges; but his troops were worn out by the heats of the Punjab summer, and their spirits broken by the hurricanes of the south-west monsoon. The native tribes has already risen in his rear, and the conqueror of the world was forced to turn back before he had crossed even the frontier province of India. Sutlej, the eastern districts of the Punjab, and the mighty Jumna still lay between him and the Ganges. A single defeat might be fatal to his army; if the battle on the Jhelum had not gone in his favour, not a Greek would have reached the Afghán side of the passes. Yielding at length to the clamour of his troops, he led them back to the Jhelum. He there embarked 8000 of them in boats previously prepared, and floated down the river; the remainder of his army marched in two divisions along the banks.

The country was hostile, and the Greeks held only the land on which they encamped. At Múltán (Mooltan), then as now the capital of the southern Punjab, he had to fight a pitches battle with the Malli, and was severely wounded in taking the city. His enraged troops put every soul within it to the sword. Farther down, near the confluence of the five rivers of the Punjab, he made a long halt, built a town,—Alexandria, the modern Uchch,—and received the submission of the neighbouring states. A Greek garrison and satrap, left there by Alexander, laid the foundation of a lasting influence. Having constructed a new fleet suitable for the greater rivers on which he was now to embark, he proceed southwards through Sind, and follows the course of the Indus until he reached the ocean. In the apex of the delta he founded a city—Patala—which remains to this day under the name of Hyderabad, the capital of Sind.3 At the mouth of the Indus Alexander beheld for the first time the majestic phenomenon of the tides. One part of his army he shipped off under the command of Nearchus to coast along the Persian Gulf; the other he himself led through southern Baluchistán and Persia to Susa, where, after terrible losses from want of water and famine on the march, he arrived in 325 B.C.

During his two years’ campaign in the Punjab and Sind, Alexander captured no province, but he made alliances, founded cities, and planted garrisons. He had transferred much territory to chiefs and confederacies devoted to his cause; every petty court had its Greek faction; and the detachments which he left behind at various positions, from the Afghán frontier to the Beas, and from near the base of the Himálayas to the Sind delta, were visible pledges of his return. At taxila (Deri-Shahan) and Nicaea (Mong) in the northern Punjab, at Alexandria (Uchch) in the southern Punjab, at Patala (Hyberabad) in Sind, and at other points along his route, he established military settlements of Greeks or allies. A large body of his troops remained in Bactria; and, in the partition of the empire which followed Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., Bactria and India eventually fell to Seleucus Nicator, the founder of the Syrian monarchy.

Meanwhile a new power had arisen in India. Among the India adventurers who thronged Alexander’s camp in the Punjab, each with his plot for winning a kingdom or crushing a rival, Chandra Gupta, an exile from the Gangetic valley, seems to have played a somewhat ignominious part. He tried to tempt the wearied Greeks on the banks of the Beas with schemes of conquest in the rich south-eastern provinces; but, having personally offended their leader, he had to fly the camp (326 B.C.). In the confused years which followed, he managed, with the aid of plundering hordes, to form a kingdom on the ruins of the Nanda dynasty in Magadha, or Behar (316 B.C.).4 He seized the capital, Pataliputra, the modern Patná, established himself firmly in the Gangetic valley, and compelled the north-western principalities, Greeks and natives alike, to acknowledge his suzerainty.5 While, therefore, Seleucus was winning his way to the Syrian monarchy during the eleven years which followed Alexander’s death, Chandra Gupta was building up an empire in northern India. Seleucus reigned in Syria from 312 to 280 B.C. Chandra Gupta in the Gangetic valley from 316 to 292 B.C. In 312 B.C. the power of both had been consolidated, and the two new sovereignties were soon brought face to face.

In that year Seleucus, having recovered Babylon, proceeded to re-established his authority in Bactria and the Punjab. In the latter province he found the Greek influence decayed. Alexander had left behind a mixed force of Greeks and Indians at Taxila. No sooner was he gone than the Indians rose and slew the Greek governor; the Macedonians massacred the Indians; a new governor sent by Alexander, murdered the friendly Punjab prince, Porus, and was himself driven out of the country by the advance of Chandra Gupta from the Gangetic valley. Seleucus, after a war with Chandra Gupta, determined to ally himself with the new power in India rather than to oppose it. In return for five hundred elephants, he ceded the Greek settlements in the Punjab and the Cabul valley, gave his daughter to Chandra Gupta in marriage, and stationed an ambassador, Megasthenes, at the Hangetic court (circa 306-298 B.C.). Chandra Gupta became familiar to the Greeks as Sandrocottus, king of the Prasii; his capital, Pataliputra,6 or Patná, was rendered into Palibothra. On the other hand, the names of Greeks and kings of Grecian dynasties appear in the rock inscriptions, under India forms.6

Megasthenes has left a life-like picture of the Indian people. Notwithstanding some striking errors, the observations which he jotted down at Patná, three hundred years before Christ, give as accurate an account of the social organization in the Gangetic valley as any which existed when the Bengal Asiatic Society commenced its labours at the end of the last century (1785). Up to the time of Megasthenes the Greek idea of India was a very vague one. Their historians spoke of two classes of Indians,—certain mountainous tribes who dwelt in northern Afghánistán under the Caucasus or Hindu Kush, and a maritime race living on the coast of Baluchistán. Of the India of modern geography laying beyond the Indus they practically knew nothing. It was this India to the east of the Indus that Megasthenes opened up to the Western world. He described the classification of the people, dividing them, however, into seven castes instead of four,1—namely, philosophers, husbandmen, shepherds, artisans, soldiers, inspectors, and the counsellors of the king. The philosophers were the Bráhmans, an the prescribed stages of their life are indicated. Megasthenes draws a distinction between the Bráhmans (_______) and the Sarmanae (_______), from which some scholars have inferred that the Buddhist Sarmanas were a recognized class fifty years before the council of Asoka. But the Sarmanae also include Bráhmans in the first and third stages of their life as students and forest recluses.2 The inspectors3 or sixth class of Megasthenes have been identified with Asoka’s Mahámátra and his Buddhist inspectors of morals.

The Greek ambassador observed with admiration the absence of slavery in India, the chastity of the women, and the courage of the men. In valour they excelled all other Asiatics; they required no locks to their doors; above all, no Indian was ever known to tell a lie. Sober and industrious, good farmers, and skilful artisans, they scarcely ever had recourse to a lawsuit, and lived peaceably under their native chiefs. He kingly government is portrayed almost as described in Manu, with its hereditary castes of councilors and soldiers. Megasthenes mentions that India was divided into one hundred and eighteen kingdoms; some of which, such as that of the Prasii under Chandra Gupta, exercised suzerain powers. The village system is well described, each little rural unit seeming to be an independent republic. Megasthenes remarked the exemptions of the husbandmen (Vaisyas) from war and public services, and enumerates the dyes, fibres, fabrics, and products (animal, vegetable, and mineral) of India. Husbandry depended on the periodical rains; and forecast of the weather, with a view to "make adequate provision against a coming deficiency," formed a special duty of the Bráhmans. "The philosopher who errs in his predictions observes silence for the rest of his life."

Before the year 300 B.C. two powerful monarchies had thus begun to act upon the Bráhmanism of northern India, from the east and from the west. On the east, in the Gangetic valley, Chandra Gupta (316-292 B.C) firmly consolidated the dynasty which during the next century produced Asoka (264-233 B.C.), established Buddhism throughout India, and spread its doctrines form Afghánistán to China, and from Central Asia to Ceylon. On the west, the heritage of Seleucus (312-280 B.C.) diffused Greek influences, and sent forth Graeco-Bactrian expeditions to the Punjab. Abtiochus Theos (grandson of Seleucus Nicator) and Asoka (grandson of Chandra Gupta), who ruled these two monarchies in the 3d century B.C., made a treaty with each other (256). In the next century Eucratides, king of Bactria, conquered as far as far as Alexander’s royal city of Patala, and possibly sent expeditions into Cutch and Guzerat, 181-161 B.C. Of the Graeco-Bactrian monarchs, Menander advanced farthest into North-Western India, and his coins are found from Cabul, near which he probably had his capital, as far as Muttra on the Jumna. The Buddhist dynasty of Chandra Gupta, profoundly modified the religion of northern India from the east; the empire of Seleucus, with its Bactrian and later offshoots deeply influenced the science and art of Hindustán from the west.

Bráhman astronomy owed much to the Greeks, and what the Buddhists were to the architecture of northern India, that the Greeks were to its sculpture. Greek faces and profiles constantly occur in ancient Buddhist statuary, and enrich almost all the larger museums in India. The purest specimens have been found in the Punjab, where the Ionians settled in greatest force. As we proceed eastward from the Punjab, the Greek type begins to fade. Purity of outline gives place to lusciousness of form. In the female figures, the artists trust more and more to swelling breast and towering chignons, and load the neck with constantly accumulating jewels. Nevertheless, the Grecian type of countenance long survived in Indian art. It is perfectly unlike the present coarse conventional ideal of sculptured beauty, and may even be traced in the delicate profiles on the so-called sun temple at Kanárak, built in the 12th century A.D. on the remote Orissa shore.

It must suffice to indicate the ethnical and dynastic influences thus brought to bar upon India, without attempting to assign dates to the individual monarchs. The chronology of the twelve centuries intervening between the Graeco-Bactrian period and the Mohometan conquest still depends on a mass of conflicting evidence derived from inscriptions, legendary literature, unwritten traditions, and coins.4 Four systems of computation exist, based upon the Vikramáditya, Saka, Seleucidan, and Parthian eras. In the midst of this confusion we see dim masses moving southwards from Central Asia into India. The Graeco-Bactrian kings are traced by coins as far as Muttra on the Jumna; and Sanskrit texts have recently revealed their advance through the Middle Land of the Bráhmans (Madhyadesha) to Sáketa (or Ajodhya), the capital of Oudh, and to Patná in Behar.5 The credentials of the Indian embassy to Augustus in 22-20 B.C. were written on skins,—a circumstance which indicates the extent to which Greek usage had overcome Brahmanical prejudices. During the century preceding the Christian era Scythian or Tartar hordes began to supplant the Graeco-Bactrian influence in the Punjab.


786-3 Greek, Kassiteros; Sanskrit, Kastíra; hence, subsequently, the name of Cassiterides given to the Scilly Islands. Elephas, ivory, through the Arabian eleph (from Arabic el, the, and Sanskrit ibha, domestic elephant), is also cited.

786-4 Dr. Birdwood’s Handbook to the British Indian Section of the Paris Exhibition of 1878, pp. 20-35.

786-5 The fragments of the Indica of Megasthenes, collected by Dr Schwanbeck, with the first part of the Indica of Arrian, the Periplus, Maris Erythroei, and Arrian’s Account of the Voyage of Nearchus, have been translated in two volumes by Mr J. W. M’Crindle, M.A. (Trübner, 1877 and 1879). The Indica of Ctesias, with the 15th Book of Strabo, is also promised; and the difficult sections referring to India in Ptolemy’s Geographia, properly annotated, would complete a work of the highest value to Indian history.

786-6 The Takkas, said to be a Turanian race, were the earliest inhabitants of Ráwal Pindi district. They gave their name to the town of Takshásila or Taxila, which Alexander found "a rich and large city, the most populous between the Indus and Hydaspes" (Arrian); it is identified with the ruins of Deri Shahan. Taki or Asarur, on the road between Lahore and Pindí Bhariyán, was the capital of the Punjab in 633 A.D.

786-7 Professor Cowell, who thinks that the Greeks probably exaggerated the numbers of the enemy, judiciously remarks—"Porus, one of several who occupied the Punjab, is said to have had 200 elephants, 300 chariots, 400 horse, and 30,000 efficient infantry; which, as observed by Sir A. Burnes, is (substituting guns for chariots)exactly the establishment of Ranjit Sinh, who was master of the whole Punjab and several other territories" (Cowell, App. Iii. to Elphinstone’s Hist. Ind., p. 262, ed. 1866). General Cunningham, who has given a lucid account of the battle, with an excellent map, Anc. Geog. Of India, pp. 159-177 (ed. 1871), states the army of Alexander at "about 50,000 men, including 5000 auxiliaries under Mophis of Taxila."

787-1 And about thirty miles south-west of Jhelum town.

787-2 The change in the course of the Sutlej has altered the old position of that river to the Beas at this point. The best small map of Alexander’s route is No. V. in General Cunningham’s Anc. Geog. Of India, p. 104 (ed. 1971)—64 miles to the inch.

787-3 For its successive appearances in history, see General Cunningham’s Anc. Geog. Of India, pp. 279-287, under Patala or Nirankot. He gives an excellent map of Alexander’s campaign in Sind at p. 248. Patala (Pattala, Pitasila, or Pattale) was formerly identified with Thatha, a town near to where the western arm of the Indus bifurcates (M’Crindle, Commerce and Navigation of the Erythroean Sea, p. 156, ed. 1879).

787-4 Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, i. Pref. vii.

787-5 For the dynasty of Chandra Gupta see Numismata Orientalia (Ceylon fasciculus), pp. 41-50.

787-6 The modern Patná, or Pattana, means simply "the city." For its identification with Pataliputrapura and Mr Ravenshaw’s crucial discoveries see General Cunningham’s Anc. Geog. India, p. 452 seq.

787-7 The Greeks as Yonas (Yavanas) are the _____ or Ionias. In the 13th edict of Asoka five Greek princes appear: Antiochus (of Syria), Ptolemy (Philadelphus of Egypt), Antigonus (Gonatus of Macedon), Magas (of Cyrene), Alexander (II. of Epirus).

788-1 Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian, being fragments of the Indika, by j. W. M.’Crindle, M.A., p. 40 (ed. 1877).

788-2 Bragmachárins and Vánaprasthans (_____). Weber very properly declines to identify the _____ exclusively with the Buddhist Sarmana. Hist. Ind. Lit., p. 28 (ed. 1878).

788-3 The _____ (Diodorus, Strabo), _____ (Arrian).

788-4 The evidence is well indicated in the Report of the Archoeological Survey of Western India for 1874-75, p. 49 (Mr. E. Thomas’s monograph).

788-5 Weber, Hist. Ind. Lit., p. 251-52, with his valuable notes, quoting Goldstücker (ed. 1878).

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