Chapter 7

Traveller: Alexander in Afghanistan and Pakistan

In the late Spring of 330 Alexander left Persepolis on a new campaign in the eastern parts of the empire he had won. It would be over five years before he returned. From the very start this journey to the east attracted more strange stories, and more moralizing commentary, than any other part of his career, and it has been a continuing source of fascination for historians in recent centuries. For ancient writers this was when Alexander was seduced by the luxuriousness of the east, and lost control of his passions. It was also when his unquenchable desire to go ever forward was eventually brought to a halt by his soldiers’ refusal to go on. For modern writers Alexander’s difficulty in dealing with insurgency in Afghanistan and the surrounding areas is the earliest evidence of the impossibility of governing that country; his killing of members of his court is presented as a sign that he was becoming a paranoid tyrant; and his treatment of the people of the Indus Valley is considered little short of genocide. Until recently there was little firm evidence to show what Alexander’s eastern campaign involved, but the work of archaeologists, and the appearance and publication of documents from the Persian satrapy of Bactria, in what is now Afghanistan, offer some important correctives to the views of the ancient writers.

Alexander and the queen of the Amazons

One episode in particular shows how early some fantastic stories were spread about Alexander’s activities in the east. Curtius describes in some detail the visit of Thalestris, the Amazon queen, to Alexander’s camp near the Caspian Sea. She was accompanied by 300 women warriors, and came with the intention of being impregnated by Alexander. To that end she spent 13 nights with the king before returning to her people. Plutarch provides details about where this story came from, saying that most of the authors he had read reported it, and naming five of them, but listing nine other authors who did not mention it. Both lists included men who had accompanied Alexander, but Plutarch tells a further story which casts doubt on the episode. Some years later, one historian, Onesicritus, was reading to Lysimachus, who had been one of Alexander’s companions on the campaign: when he came to the story of the Amazon queen, Lysimachus is said to have smiled and asked, ‘And where was I at the time?’

Curtius associated this story with Alexander’s adoption of Persian dress and court practices, which he saw as a sign that Alexander had lost all self-control. Other historians also chose to wait until this point in the narrative to describe Alexander’s adoption of Persian clothing, although, as we have seen, it is likely that the Macedonian court had been influenced by Persian protocol before Alexander’s reign, and Alexander had already been acting in accordance with local expectations in Egypt, Babylon, and Susa.

Into Afghanistan

Alexander’s initial aim was to prevent Darius III from raising new forces in the eastern parts of his empire. However, by the summer of 330, Darius was dead, having been betrayed by his general Bessus, who declared himself king and took the throne-name Artaxerxes V. Alexander was then able to claim that, as the legitimate king, he was avenging Darius’ death. His march took him through what is now northern Iran to Afghanistan, where he turned south to skirt the mountainous interior and then followed the route of the modern road from Kandahar to Kabul before turning northwest to Bactra (modern Balkh), and then across the Oxus River, which is now the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, and in Alexander’s time between the satrapies of Bactria and Sogdiana. By now Bessus had lost the trust of his fellow Persians, who turned on him and handed him over to Alexander. That was the Spring of 329, but there were another two years of fighting before Alexander was able to leave Sogdiana and Bactria: he faced insurgency in his rear and hostile neighbours on the other side of the River Tanais or Jaxartes.

The Greek and Roman narratives present the story of these years from the perspective of the Macedonian army and court. There are skirmishes fought and cities sacked, and from time to time troubles within Alexander’s entourage. Little is said about those they were fighting against. As a result it is easy to imagine that Alexander was facing the same difficulties that the British had to deal with in the 19th century, the Russians in the 20th century, and NATO forces in the 21st. The historian George Grote, writing in the middle of the 19th century, referred to ‘the rude, but spirited tribes of Baktria and Sogdiana’, and the novelist Steven Pressfield depicted Alexander’s infantrymen using the language, and sharing the attitudes, of contemporary US soldiers. But the region was no isolated wilderness in Alexander’s time. Recently a number of documents dating from the reigns of Artaxerxes III and Alexander himself have revealed that it was very much integrated into the rest of the Persian empire.

These documents include letters written on leather, several of which were sent by Akhvamazda, who was probably the satrap of Bactria, to another official, Bagavant, in the period from 353 to 348. Akhvamazda has to deal with complaints about Bagavant’s behaviour, and to make Bagavant get on with tasks set him. The responsibilities of both men extended to Sogdiana as well as Bactria. There are other letters and records of the distribution of supplies. Some of these records are very similar in form to documents recovered from Persepolis dating to the 5th century. All the Bactrian documents are written in Aramaic, which, by the 4th century, had become the language of administration throughout the empire (Figure 6). It is clear that Bactria, when Alexander arrived there, was a well organized region, integrated into the rest of the empire. The difficulties he faced in bringing the area under control were not that it was in the hands of quarrelling warlords, but that its administration could be effectively used by his opponents, in particular the rebel Spitamenes, who had turned Bessus over to Alexander, and then turned against him.


6. A document from Bactria, written in Aramaic in 324, listing supplies being distributed in the satrapy

The edge of empire

The northern boundary of Sogdiana, and of the Achaemenid empire, was the Jaxartes River, which was also known to the Greeks as the Tanais, and was recognized as dividing Asia from Europe. Beyond lay Scythia, and Arrian and Curtius each have accounts of how Alexander crossed the river to take on the Scythians beyond. The two accounts are significantly different from each other, although each starts with Alexander sacrificing, with the intention of crossing the river, and receiving unfavourable omens. In Arrian’s version, when a subsequent sacrifice also turns out unfavourably, Alexander decides to ignore the omens. He crosses the river and is initially successful, but then drinks some tainted water, falls seriously ill, and has to return across the river. In Curtius’ story the second sacrifice is very positive; the bad omens turn out to have foretold an ambush of Alexander’s men that had not yet been reported to Alexander, but the campaign across the Jaxartes is a complete success. Which of the two stories is correct is impossible to decide, but both suggest that the symbolic importance of Alexander crossing the Jaxartes was considerable.

Darius I had campaigned in the area in around 518, and in a later addition to the account of his reign he had inscribed at Behistun, he described how he crossed the ‘sea’ to fight the Scythians. Darius and his successors considered their empire to stretch from sea to sea, and in this conception the Jaxartes counted as a northern sea. In crossing the Jaxartes, but not attempting to hold on to the territory to its north, Alexander was following the practice of his Achaemenid predecessors in asserting the extent of his authority from sea to sea. And his later actions at the Hyphasis River in Pakistan were probably intended to achieve the same end.

Alexander was eventually able to settle affairs in Sogdiana and Bactria. As part of this process he followed an established Achaemenid practice of linking himself to the local Persian nobility by a marriage. His new wife was Rhoxane, daughter of Oxyartes, a leading Sogdian, whom Alexander later appointed as satrap of the area south of Bactria. The Greek and Roman historians appear unwilling to recognize Rhoxane’s significance, suggesting that the marriage was a love-match, and in Curtius’ case claiming that Rhoxane was socially far inferior to Alexander. It is clear, however, that it was the marriage that consolidated Alexander’s control of the region. One of the Bactrian documents discussed earlier is a long list of supplies which covers three months in year seven of Alexander’s reign, that is 324: the satrapal administration was working smoothly then. In the following centuries Bactria was to become one of the most prosperous parts of what had been Alexander’s empire.

Court intrigues

Quite apart from the dangers of military activity, Alexander was at risk from attacks from within his court. The threats, such as they were, did not come from his close advisors, but on two occasions they had repercussions that led to the deaths of senior courtiers. For Alexander and his contemporaries, plots were an inevitable part of court life. His father had been assassinated by a former bodyguard, and it remained unclear whether that was part of a wider conspiracy. But for later writers, especially for those living under Roman emperors, these events were opportunities to consider how courtiers ought to behave in an autocracy. The dictatorships of the 20th century in turn provided models for modern scholars writing about Alexander’s court, sometimes adding a further layer of anachronism to their accounts.

In the Autumn of 330 a conspiracy to assassinate Alexander involving a number of minor figures in his entourage was revealed. One of Alexander’s companions, Philotas, son of Parmenion, was said either to have been implicated, or to have known about the plot, and done nothing to prevent it. Philotas was put on trial and condemned to death, and Alexander also ordered the death of Parmenion, who had been left in command in Ecbatana in Media. It is impossible at this distance to determine whether Philotas and Parmenion were guilty of anything, and it is likely that their deaths resulted from the inevitable rivalry between individuals of a royal court whose members were competing for the favour of the king. Arrian gives a brief account taking Philotas’ guilt for granted. Curtius on the other hand provides a very elaborate description of Philotas’ trial, complete with speeches of accusation on both sides. His version of events has some resemblance to accounts of trials of Roman senators under the emperor Tiberius, for which we have descriptions in the Annals of Tacitus. This was a way of bringing to life for his Roman readers the events of an earlier period when a ruler was becoming increasingly despotic and suspicious.

A second conspiracy led to another courtier’s death. In Spring 327, around the time that Alexander married Rhoxane, a group of royal pages conspired to assassinate him. This followed the humiliation of one of the pages, named Hermolaus, during a hunt. The pages had easy access to the king, so were in a good position to carry out a plot against him, and this is what Hermolaus planned. It was only Alexander’s staying up all night that saved him, and the next day the plot was discovered. In the investigation that followed, Callisthenes, Alexander’s court historian, was implicated in the plot and arrested. As with other plots, we cannot know whether or not he was guilty, and in this particular case we do not even know what happened to him. Arrian says that the historians who were there at the time give conflicting accounts of his fate: Ptolemy said that he was executed, while Aristobulus stated that he died of disease while in custody. In the surviving narratives the real reason for the death of Callisthenes is taken to be his opposition to Alexander claiming divine status, and requiring his companions to prostrate themselves before him; the pages’ plot merely provided the pretext for his arrest. Most modern scholars have accepted this version of events, but, as we have seen, it has its problems.

One other significant death of a courtier occurred between the arrests of Philotas and Callisthenes: Alexander ran his companion Cleitus through with a spear after a drunken dinner. Cleitus was a cavalry commander under Alexander’s father Philip, and had kept that role under Alexander. He was said to have saved Alexander’s life at the Battle of the Granicus in 334. In the autumn of 328 Alexander appointed him satrap of Bactria. At a dinner soon after this, according to all the surviving narratives, an argument broke out between the two men. Accounts of the substance of the argument, and of what the protagonists actually did, are inconsistent and probably unreliable, but the evening ended with Alexander killing Cleitus. Both men were probably drunk. Roman moralists drew parallels between the deaths of Cleitus and Callisthenes, as two examples of the king killing his friends, and the authors of the surviving narratives put similar accusations into the mouths of both men—in particular that Alexander was dishonouring the memory of his father Philip by claiming to be son of Zeus. This was a standard accusation made against Alexander in later periods, and gave greater significance to Cleitus’ death as being one more example of a death resulting from Alexander’s increasing loss of awareness of his own mortality. But in all likelihood it was the proximity of men, alcohol, and weapons in the atmosphere of rivalry and ambition that would characterize any royal court that best explains what happened.

To the Indus Valley

From Afghanistan Alexander marched southeast through the Hindu Kush and into the northern part of the Indus River basin in what is now Pakistan. According to Herodotus’ Histories, Darius I had campaigned in this region, and the parts of what he calls India west of the Indus paid tribute to the Persian king. Not a lot is known about the region between the time of Darius I and Alexander, so it is not clear how far to the east the authority of the later Achaemenid kings reached, although Arrian says that a contingent of the Indians who bordered Bactria fought alongside the Bactrians at the battle of Gaugamela. For the Greek and Roman historians, this was not a significant issue in any case. Their narratives focus more on the idea of Alexander travelling further east than his heroic predecessors had gone. Alexander captured a supposedly impregnable fortress, the Rock of Aornus, which even Heracles was said to have been unable to storm, and he and his companions spent time in the city of Nysa, once visited by Dionysus, as was proved by the presence there of ivy, a plant particularly associated with the god, which was apparently found nowhere else in the region.

Four major tributaries flow into the Indus from the east, coming down from the Himalayas: from west to east, the Hydaspes (modern Jhelum), Acesines (Chenab), Hydraotes (Ravi), and Hyphasis (Beas). The territory between these rivers was controlled by a number of rival Indian princes. Alexander adopted a different pattern of control here from other parts of the empire. He did not appoint satraps and local military commanders, but rather he confirmed in their positions those princes who agreed to accept his authority. The first significant ruler to do this was Taxiles, whose territory lay between the Indus and the Hydaspes. Consequently Alexander was faced with opposition from Taxiles’ neighbour Porus, on the east side of the Hydaspes.

Alexander’s defeat of Porus, which followed his rapid crossing of the river, was the fourth and last major pitched battle of the campaign in Asia. A series of large silver coins, or medallions, were struck to commemorate the victory. Known as Porus decadrachms or Elephant medallions, these depict on one side a lone horseman attacking an elephant with two tall riders, one of whom is throwing a spear at the horseman—generally assumed to be a depiction of Alexander and Porus—and on the other side Alexander himself in full armour, holding a thunderbolt and being crowned with a wreath by a winged victory (Figure 7). These attributes should probably be associated with the title of ‘unconquered god’ that the Athenians were to bestow on Alexander some two years later on his return from this campaign. The coins or medallions were probably issued to Alexander’s soldiers as a reward for their service. They show Alexander as his troops would want to imagine him, all-powerful and victorious, and the Greek cities would have recognized his success in similar terms. But the coins should not be seen as Alexander making claims himself for any ‘divine status’.


7. A coin or medallion issued by Alexander to celebrate victory in his Indian campaign. The obverse shows a horseman attacking an elephant with a warrior on its back, probably representing Alexander and Porus. The reverse shows Alexander, in armour, holding a thunderbolt and being crowned by Victory

Alexander’s treatment of Porus after the battle became a popular subject, not least in a series of operas using a libretto by the 18th-century Italian poet Metastasio, and in the first full-length movie about Alexander, Sorab Modi’s Sikandar of 1941. Porus pledged allegiance to Alexander, who restored him to his position, and even increased the size of his territories.

Turning back?

After this Alexander continued eastwards over the Acesines and Hydraotes as far as the Hyphasis, which became the scene of one of the most frequently told stories about Alexander. It was on the banks of the Hyphasis, according to tradition, that Alexander’s soldiers finally refused to accompany him any further. In response Alexander supposedly shut himself up in his tent and refused to see anyone, and then said that he would go on alone. But when even this would not make his soldiers change their minds, he submitted to their will and turned back. This is one of the stories found in all the surviving narratives, and as a result its veracity has seldom been doubted, but all that this unanimity really proves is that the story had come into circulation before the earliest of the surviving narratives had been composed: it was so memorable a story that no subsequent narrator could ignore it. There is good reason to suppose that the story is an invention. Before he marched east from the Hydaspes, Alexander had commissioned the building of a fleet of transport ships to take his army down-river. It is likely that the Hyphasis was considered the boundary of the Persian empire towards India, just as the Jaxartes was north of Sogdiana. It may have been the case that Alexander had intended to cross the Hyphasis to assert his authority, and then return to its west bank, just as he had done both at the Jaxartes and also at the Danube at the start of his reign. If so, then according to Ptolemy, as reported by Arrian, it was unfavourable omens rather than Alexander’s soldiers that prevented him. Alexander’s activities in the eastern part of the empire make more sense as the consolidation of his rule over the territory he had won from Darius III, rather than an endless quest for new conquests. The authors of the Alexander histories had no interest in where the existing boundaries of the Achaemenid empire lay, so they present Alexander’s every move as winning new territory, but Alexander himself will have known better. Having reached the eastern edge of the territories he had already laid claim to, he was ready to turn south and march towards the ocean. He was not turning back homewards yet.

To the ocean

For the story of Alexander’s journey through the Indus Valley to the Indian Ocean we are entirely reliant on the Alexander historians. No inscriptions from Greeks or Indians have survived, and the constantly changing courses of the major rivers have erased any archaeological remains that there might have been.

Alexander sailed down the Hydaspes while contingents of his army marched alongside on either bank. His aim appears to have been to assert his authority by confirming those local leaders who acknowledged his sovereignty in their positions, and campaigning vigorously against those who resisted him. This was no different from his policy elsewhere, but modern scholars have tended to present this phase of the campaign as particularly violent and destructive. Certainly Alexander did face resistance in some places, and he received his most severe wound during the siege of a city somewhere in the southern Punjab. South of Punjab, although his army marched, and where necessary fought, through the territory on the eastern side of the Indus, Alexander was not concerned to establish direct rule over that territory, and he probably followed Darius I in treating the river as the eastern boundary of his empire. As it turned out, this was one of the first parts of Alexander’s empire to be taken over by others. Plutarch reports a visit by a young Indian prince (whom he calls Androcottus) to the court of Alexander when he was in the Punjab. That prince was Chandragupta Maurya, who came to power in around 322, and rapidly gained control of most of northern India from the Ganges Delta to the Indus. By the time he abdicated in 298, the Mauryan empire included most of South Asia, including the satrapies along the west bank of the Indus.

For Alexander it is clear that his arrival at the Indian Ocean marked the successful end of his campaign, and this was celebrated by sacrifices to the gods made out at sea. But the final stage of his campaign was to become the most notorious of all his travels, and possibly the most misunderstood.

The Gedrosian Desert

Alexander had brought a fleet down from the Punjab to the Indian Ocean, and his intention was to send it on up the Persian Gulf to the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates, and from there upriver to Babylon. To have a naval route that reached from Mesopotamiaalmost to Afghanistan would have been of great value, but it relied on the fleet being supplied as it sailed along the largely inhospitable south coast of Iran. It was for this reason that Alexander led a land force through the region of Gedrosia in southern Iran on his way from the Indus Delta back to Pasargadae. His purpose, as Arrian describes it, was to make sure that there was fresh water and supplies of grain available to the fleet as it sailed up the gulf. There is no doubt that this was a difficult task, as the territory was mostly desert and there were few good anchorages at the coast. The land expedition took two months, but it should be judged a success, as the fleet, under the Cretan commander Nearchus, was able to complete its journey without difficulty.

Ancient authors writing after Alexander’s time transformed the march through Gedrosia into a disaster resulting from Alexander’s arrogance and folly. After a sober account of how, with some difficulties, Alexander was able to achieve his aim, Arrian reports a series of stories about the hardship of the desert journey that he did not find in his main sources, but must have considered ‘worth telling and not entirely implausible’. Plutarch claims that he lost three-quarters of the army he took to India in the Gedrosian desert, even though he took far fewer than half of his troops into Gedrosia. Modern scholars have perhaps been too ready to believe the horror stories, even suggesting that the march through the desert was Alexander’s way of taking revenge on his soldiers for forcing him to turn back at the Hyphasis. This was not what the ancient writers thought. Arrian reports the view that Alexander was seeking to outdo his famous predecessors, Cyrus the Great and Semiramis, the legendary queen of Babylon, each of whom had gone through the desert and lost almost their entire army. We should recognize in the stories of the desert journey an interest not in Alexander’s folly, but in his superhuman endurance.

Once he had led his army out of the desert, the road was open first to Pasargadae and Persepolis, and then to Susa and Ecbatana, before the final chapter in Alexander’s life opened on the road to Babylon.

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