1902 Encyclopedia > Nearchus


NEARCHUS, son of Androtimus, one of the most distinguished officers in the army of Alexander the Great, and admiral of his fleet, with which he made an important and interesting voyage of discovery in the Indian Ocean. He was a native of Crete, but settled at Amphipolis in Macedonia, and must have early period of life a person of some consideration, as we find him attached to the court of Philip, where he became the friend and companion of the young Alexander, and when the prince fell into disgrace with his father Nearchus was banished, together with Ptolemy the son of Lagus, Harpalus, and others, for having participated in the intrigues of Olympias and her son against the old king. But after the death of Philip (336 B.C.) he was at once recalled, and rose to great favour with Alexander, which he appears to have fully merited by his abilities and judgment. He did not, however, accompany him in his earlier campaigns into Asia, having been left behind in the government of Lycia and the adjoining provinces, where he remained for five years. But in 329 B.C., he joined the king with a force of Greek mercenaries at Zariaspa in Bactria, and from this time he held an important post in his army, and took an active part in his Indian campaigns. Hence when Alexander has assembled his fleet on the Hydaspes, with a view to descending that river and the Indus to the sea, he confided the chief command of it to Nearchus. This post must, however, have been one of comparatively little importance, so long as the king himself remained with the fleet; but when, after descending the Indus to its mouth, and making a short excursion upon the Indian Ocean, Alexander himself undertook to conduct the army by land through the deserts of Gedrosia to Susa, while he confided the command of the fleet to Nearchus, with orders to conduct it to the head of the Persian Gulf, the position became one of great responsibility, and the success with which he accomplished the task rendered his name for ever famous in antiquity.

He set out in the first instance from a naval station at some point in the delta of the Indus; but, finding, on reaching the mouth of the river, that the monsoon was still blowing with great violence, he remained for twenty-four days in a Port Alexander. This is in all probability the same harbour which now forms the well-known seaport of Kurrachee. Sailing thence about the beginning of November (325 B.C.), he proceeded for five days along the coast to the westward as far as the mouth of the Arabis (now called the Poorally), and thence three days further, along the coast of the Oritae, to place called Cocala, where he was able to communicate for the last time with the land army of Alexander, and lay in a fresh stock of provisions. From thence he still followed the coast of the Oritae for three days, as far as place called Malana, which still bears the name of Cape Malan. It was at this point that the most difficult part of his voyage began, as from hence to the headland of Badis, now called Cape Jack, a distance of above 400 geographical miles, his course lay along the barren and inhospitable shores of the Mekran, inhabited by a very sparse population, who subsisted, as they do at the present day, almost wholly upon fish, for which reason they were termed by the Greeks Iehthyophagi. Hence the crews of the fleet suffered severely from the want of provisions, especially form that of corn or meal of any kind, of which they obtained no supply till their arrival at Badis. In other respects the navigation presented no real difficulties, the coast being free from reefs and other hidden dangers; and at a place called Mosarna they procured a pilot, after which they were able to proceed more rapidly. So slow and cautious had been their previous progress that they took twenty days to accomplish the distance from Malana to Badis, which Nearchus in consequence estimated at 10,000 stadia, or 1000 geographical miles, more than double the true distance. The remainder of the voyage presented comparatively little difficulty. After sighting from a distance the lofty headland of Maceta (Cape Mussendom), which marks the entrance to the Persian Gulf, the fleet put into the river Anamis in the fertile district of Harmozia (Ormuz), where they were agreeably surprised by the tidings that Alexander with his army was encamped at no great distance in the interior. After communicating with the king, Nearchus resumed his voyage along the northern coast of the Persian Gulf to the mouth of the Euphrates, and thence ascended the Pasitigris to Susa.

To conduct a large fleet, consisting principally of war galleys, along so great an extent of an unknown coast was undoubtedly an exploit requiring great prudence and ability on the part of its commander; but the voyage of Nearchus has acquired a much greater celebrity than it really deserves, both in ancient and modern times, from the circumstance that it stood entirely alone in antiquity, the similar expedition of Hanno along the west coast of Africa being almost unknown both to the Greeks and Romans, while in modern days it has attracted a greatly increased amount of attention from the accidental circumstance that a complete and trustworthy record of it ha been preserved. Nearchus himself wrote a detailed narrative of his expedition of which a regular and full abstract was embodied by Arrian in his work on India, -- one of the most interesting geographical treatises that has been transmitted to us from antiquity.

The success with which Nearchus had accomplished this arduous enterprise led to his selection by Alexander for the more difficult task of circumnavigating the great peninsula of Arabia from the mouth of the Euphrates to the Isthmus of Suez. But this project was cut short by the illness and death of the king (323 B.C.). In the troubles that followed we hear little of Nearchus, who appears to have assumed no prominent position, but we learn that he attached himself to Antigonus, and probably therefore shared in the down fall of that monarch (301 B.C.)

The narrative of his voyage, as transmitted to us by Arrian, is contained in the editions of that author’s works by Raphelius, Schmieder, and Krüger, as well as in the more recent edition by Dr. C . Müller (Paris, 1846), which forms part of Didot’s Bibliotheca Graeca. But by far the most valuable edition of the original text is that published by the same author, with copious geographical notes, in the first volume of his Geographi Graeci Minores (Didot, Paris, 1855). An English translation, with a very elaborate commentary, was published by Dr Vincent in his Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients in the Indian Ocean (4to, London, 1807). But much of his geographical information is now obsolete. (E.H.B.)

The above article was written by: Sir Edward H. Bunbury.

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