The court disturbances near Balkh did not set the Macedonians against their king: the soldiery remained contented, the officers were not reshuffled, and despite the rigours of the past two years Alexander felt safe enough to retrace his tracks for the grand adventure of his lifetime. He would cross the Hindu Kush and march east into India, a kingdom whose traders and spice plants had already been seen on the Oxus but whose way of life was known to the Greeks only through the fabulous tales of early romancers.
So far, Alexander’s ambitions had been easily understood. He had first conquered Darius, then claimed his empire, marching out to its north-east frontier but going no farther. West Pakistan, which the ancients called India, had also been a part of the Persian empire, but the frontier which had once stretched into the Punjab had been lost for a hundred years, and if Alexander knew this fact of Persian history it is doubtful whether it influenced his Indian plans. In India he would soon go beyond the Persians’ boundaries where there was no longer an empire to be reclaimed. His motives need a little imagination; they will never be certain, as historians can read a man’s documents but never read his mind. Throughout history, armies have been drawn from Kabul into India as if by a continuing tide, and Alexander was anticipating Mongols and Moghuls, Bactrian Greeks, Kushans, White Huns and the others who have spilled into India for conquest from the Hindu Kush; he did not invade for a cause or an idea, but no successful invader ever has, and the slogans are only ambition’s cloak before the simpleminded. ‘You, Zeus, hold Olympus,’ ran the verse on one of his official statues, ‘I set the earth beneath me.’ ‘The truth’, wrote an admiring officer, ‘was that Alexander was always straining after more.’ Except for Ammon’s alleged assurance that he would conquer the world, which was surely the posthumous guess of his soldiers, there is no other evidence that Alexander had dreamt of world domination or was fighting to realize such a vague ideal. It is more to the point that he restored the rajahs whom he conquered; he did not inflict his own superiority on his subjects or work off a lasting sense of frustration at the expense of the vast majority of those who surrendered. Patriots and rebels were killed and enslaved by the thousand as always, but
there is more of the explorer than the tyrant in the history of the campaign. For boredom is the force in life which histories always omit; Alexander was twenty-nine, invincible and on the edge of an unknown continent; to turn back would have been impossibly tame, for life in Asia could promise little more than hunting and the tedious tidying of rebellions and provincial decrees. Only in a speech to his troops is mention made of a march to the Eastern Ocean, edge of the world as the Greeks conceived it; though the speech is certainly not true to life it is tempting, not only because it is romantic, to believe that this detail is founded on fact. If the edge of the world was Alexander’s ambition, it was a goal which appealed as much to his curiosity as to a longing for power.
To a curious mind this strange new world was irresistible, and of Alexander’s curiosity there can be no doubt. ‘His troops’, said a contemporary, well placed to know, ‘took a very hasty view of India, but Alexander himself was keen to be more exact and therefore arranged for the land to be described by those who knew it.’ The Greek tales of India were part of any prince’s education; his staff had heard the rumours of India’s gold, said to be dug by gigantic ants or guarded by vigilant griffins: they would be keen to see the truth of the Sciapods, men who lay on their backs and shaded themselves from the sun with their one large foot. In India, men were said to live for two hundred years, making love in public, living according to caste and weaving their clothes from wool-bearing trees: there had been tales of falconry, fine purple, scents and silver: unicorns with red heads and blue eyes, pygmies and a sort of steel which could avert a storm. Like the first Christian missionaries to visit India, who explained the Hindus as descendants of St Thomas, the Greeks went east with their own myths and history and related what they saw to what they knew already. Nothing prepared them more than their own Herodotus; the flooding of the rivers, the Indians’ dress and their wild plants were described in Herodotus’s terms and as for his gold-digging ants, ‘I did not see any myself, wrote Nearchus, Alexander’s officer, ‘but many of their pelts were brought into the Macedonian camp.’ It took more than a personal visit to kill off the creatures of Greek fable; ‘In a valley of the Himalayas’, wrote one of Alexander’s surveyors on his return, ‘live a tribe whose feet are turned back to front. They run very fast, but because they cannot breathe in any other climate none of them could be brought to Alexander.’ So begins the history of the Abominable Snowman.
The Punjab had already been visited by westerners, not only by the bravest man in early Greek history, Scylax the sailor from Caria, but also, as the troops were soon to believe, by the Greek gods Heracles and Dionysus in the very distant past. Six thousand and forty-two years, so the Indians claimed, divided Dionysus’s invasion from Alexander’s; there was stress on their self-government ever since, a theme which Alexander picked up, and there was no mention of the Persian empire. As for Heracles, he had come a little later, but the Macedonians were to see cattle in India branded with the sign of a club which their hero always carried. These parallels with the two divine ancestors of the Macedonian kings cannot be dismissed in the search for Alexander and within months of his invasion, they are to come into sharp perspective against a background of Indian myth. One son of Zeus was keen to rival another: it was in the spring before the invasion that Alexander’s first Persian mistress Barsine gave birth to a son, believed, perhaps wrongly, to be Alexander’s own. Aptly, the baby was named Heracles, after the royal hero of the moment, even if Alexander never recognized him with full honours after his marriage to Roxane.
Amid its myth and fable, India was a conqueror’s chance for undying glory. The fighting would be tough, exactly what Alexander liked. The opponents were kings in their own right, his favourite class of enemy and as the Punjab was split between their independent tribes, many of whom had more of a link with Iran than India, they could as usual be set against each other. The Hindu religion had long centred in the plains, but it had not penetrated the wild mountain kingdoms; Buddhism was almost unknown, and there was no threat of a holy war. If Alexander succeeded his name would never be forgotten and even in their cups, men could no longer boast that Philip’s achievements were superior: he would have conquered what had eluded all native kings, and he would have opened a whole new world to the West; Achilles’s feats, by comparison, were very parochial.
As summer camp was broken in Bactria, the army he led eastwards showed the changes of the past two years. In size, it had grown but slightly. No new Macedonian troops had been received for the past four years. Fourteen thousand of the last year’s Greek reinforcements had been left to supervise the two Oxus provinces; the Thracian and the Paeonian cavalry were absent, and most of the Thracian and other barbarian infantry were serving in the garrisons of Parthia and Hamadan. Some 50,000 men remained for India, scarcely more than at Guagamela, though a very sizeable force by the standards of classical warfare. But in style, they were different men, for only some 35,000 were westerners from Europe. The Foot Companions had abandoned the sarissa as too unwieldy for the mountainous ground and they never used it with Alexander again; the Mounted Lancers had done the same and been merged with the Companion Cavalry, whose numbers had now fallen to some 1,800 Macedonians in the absence of reinforcements from their homeland. Archers, in which India was strongest, numbered at least 3,000; on foot, strength was maintained by three brigades of the newer mercenaries, mainly Greeks from Europe and Asia, but now led by Macedonian noblemen. Iranian horsemen from Bactria and Sogdia swelled the cavalry, though kept in separate units from the Greeks and Macedonians: there were even a thousand horse-archers recruited from Spitamenes’s nomads. As a whole, the army was lighter, more independent and better equipped with missiles. Iranians had given it balance, and the fluid tactics of their nomad horsemen along the Oxus had not been wasted on Alexander’s officers.
But it was the pattern of command which wore the newest look. The Foot Companions had been rearmed and were still brigaded in seven battalions whose officers, where changed, were brothers of the previous barons; the commands of Alexander’s highland infantry were very much a family affair. But through plots and depositions, the cavalry had lost all links with Philotas, Parmenion, Cleitus and the past. The diminished squadrons of the Companions had been spread for the last eighteen months into six or more Hipparchies, only one of whose known commanders had previously made his name as a leader of horsemen. The others were close friends, like Ptolemy or Hephaistion, or men like Perdiccas or Leonnatus, better known as royal Bodyguards; the Royal Squadron of Companions, once led by Cleitus, had been renamed and taken over by Alexander himself. Each had their friends and families, though their fickle currents of influence can no longer be usefully traced: an officer-class which had once been scattered with friends of Parmenion was now distinguished by future friends of Perdiccas, who would fight to keep the empire together after Alexander’s death. Clearest was the case of the Royal Shield Bearers, now renamed the Silver Shields because of their smart new silver armour. Initially, this picked unit of veteran infantry had been responsible to a son of Parmenion, but shortly before his family’s plot this son had died and now the Silver Shields looked to new officers, among them Seleucus, the future king of Asia, and Nearchus, Alexander’s friend from childhood, soon to be admiral of the Indian fleet; their supreme commander was Neoptolemus, related to the Epirote royal family and so to Alexander’s mother Olympias. By the summer of 327, a new group of marshals had emerged, not only in the royal Shield Bearers. These Hipparchs and trusted squadron-leaders now made it possible to divide the army more freely between different attacks at any one time, for long a principle of Alexander’s siegecraft but not of his pitched warfare. Spitamenes had shown that second rate underlings were not equal to the task. Parmenion and Philotas had also shown that the cavalry, especially, could not be entrusted to any one man.
In the provinces, a similar pattern was emerging, less urgent for being remote. In June Alexander returned at a modest pace to the Hindu Kush and crossed it comfortably in ten days, presumably by the same road as he had used before, rather than by the treacherous road through modern Bamyan, future sanctuary of Buddha. The snows had melted and after the rich finds of food in the Sogdian fortresses there were no fears about a second starvation as the troops marched over the high grazing-grounds, among skylarks, buff hillsides and the pungent smells of wormwood and wild roses. Down near Begram, the new Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus was found to be giving trouble: its commander was deposed for insubordination, the eighth appointment to have proved a failure in the fourteen satrapies conquered since the year of Gaugamela, and although the replacement was another Oriental, he was the last Iranian, except for Roxane’s father, to be given a governorship by Alexander. The experiment with the native satraps of the past four years had been convenient but risky, and by disappearing eastwards Alexander was inviting rebellion from those who still remained behind him; with only two exceptions, he was to reap a harvest of troubles on his return, ‘I wish to go to India’, Alexander was made to say in a fictitious letter, composed a thousand years later in Sassanid Persia, ‘but I fear to leave alive my Persian nobles. It seems prudent to me to destroy them to a man, that I may carry out my purpose with untroubled mind.’ To this, Aristotle was made to reply: ‘If you destroy the people of Fars, you will have overthrown one of the greatest pillars of excellence in the world. When the noble among them are gone, you will of necessity promote the base to their rank and position; be assured that there is no wickedness or calamity, no unrest or plague in the world which corrupts so much as the ascending of the base to the station of the noble.’ Nobody ever spoke more clearly for the views of a Persian gentleman than the Aristotle of Persian legend. But on returning from India the real Alexander would have more cause to question his advice.
The remaining summer months were spent peacefully in the Hindu Kush, a relaxation for the men who would otherwise have entered India in appalling heat, and a useful time for reconnaissance and the training of the new units. For the past two years the rajah Sasigupta had been maintained in camp, a man ‘who had fled from India to Bessus, but now proved trustworthy to the Macedonians’. In the absence of any maps, he was an invaluable source of native information; in early autumn Alexander left Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus and came sharply down from the foothills of the Hindu Kush till he struck the river Laghman and could survey the panorama of the Punjab spread before him. On the far bank of the Laghman, he fortified a native village and gave it the confident name of Nicaea, city of Victory, the theme which he always emphasized. Then, sending a herald east down the long-used road by the river Kabul, he invited the rajahs of the valley to a conference, no doubt on Sasigupta’s advice. It was early October before they arrived; meanwhile Alexander had declared the campaign open by a sacrifice, again to the goddess Athena of Victory.
His insistence on victory was not unfounded. He was bringing a professionally led army, complete with catapults, borers and siege-towers, into an independent world of border tribes, numerous but always at variance. Indian cavalry were not to be compared with squadrons of Companions and Iranians; the yantras of their epic heroes were only elementary slings and catapults. Their iron and steel and archery were famous, but they had none of the discipline of the Shield Bearers. The kings in the valleys still trusted in chariots, a force that meant little to the Macedonians of Gaugamela. There was one danger, and Alexander knew it to be very real: at the first news of invasion, Punjab rajahs would send for their mahouts, meaning to fight like their forefathers, trunk and tusk from the backs of the largest known animal species in the world. In India, Alexander was to be the first western general to do serious battle with Elephas maximus, ‘nature’s masterpiece, the only harmless great thing’: catapults were as nothing to the menace of an elephant on musth.
The elephant so dominated the Indian imagination that in Hindu mythology, it was said to support the world on its shoulders. But within five years, Alexander had made it his own: elephants guarded his tent, and their images adorned his funeral chariot, while shortly after his death, his close friend Ptolemy depicted him on Egyptian coins as if dressed in a cap of elephant-skin. As a result the elephant became a symbol of grand pretensions in the west; Caesar would take one to Britain, Claudius would take two: Pompey would try to enter Rome in a triumphal chariot pulled by elephants, only to find that the city gate was too narrow and he had to dismount. Thanks to Alexander a more exact knowledge of the elephant first spread to the west: in his great works on natural history, Aristotle described one with an accuracy that could only have come from dissection, while he also knew how to cure its insomnia, wounds or upset stomach, and how much wheat or wine was needed to keep it in prime condition. But like Alexander’s officers, he was inclined to believe that an elephant lived for two hundred years.
Through Alexander’s army, the skills of elephant and native mahout first raced westwards back to Greece. The use of the howdah, or turreted seat on the elephant’s back, became popular, and as neither art nor reliable literature mention it as native to India, the howdah may be an invention of Greek engineers. Within three years of Alexander’s death his officers had made elephants fell trees, hold up a river’s current and flatten a city wall. They were adorned, as in India, with bells and scarlet coverlets and again as in India, they served as executioners. And yet before him, they had never been seen in the uncongenial landscape of Greece. On the battlefield, their first shock proved decisive, though defenders soon learnt the value of planks of upturned nails against their tender feet: ditches were dug, and momentarily, the elephants halted, as they cannot jump. But when defences seemed to be winning, the Ptolemies shipped hunters to comb the forests of Ethiopia for new and braver recruits, while Carthage, gathering strength, began to explore her western marches for a suitable retort. Hannibal found them, and used them to terrify Italy; Rome, quick to learn, returned the compliment to Macedon and sent envoys east to the Syrian mud-parks of the Seleucids, with secret orders to hamstring every elephant in sight. Two years later, the Seleucid empire collapsed.
As enemies receded the Romans turned the elephant to show. They would dance, play the cymbals and walk a tight-rope in the circus, and for two hundred years, the audience loved what Alexander had first made possible. But it was the elephant who trumpeted last and loudest: in the mid-fourth century, as Persian power revived, hundreds of elephants tramped west through Asia in the dreaded name of Shapur, ‘most monstrous and horrific’, wrote a Roman witness, ‘of all war’s units’.
With the fall of the Western Empire, the elephant vanished from Europe, except for an occasional item of gifts; for six hundred years, however, it had symbolized the open frontier between East and West, a frontier which Alexander had been the first man to roll back. It was, perhaps, his most lasting contribution to classical life.
Without his Indian invasion, the elephant would surely never have been enrolled for Mediterranean military service. Its capture is hazardous and its disadvantages are serious. It dislikes winter cold and is happiest in warm mud; it must eat twice as much as it needs because of poor digestion, consuming 100 pounds of hay and up to fifty gallons of water daily: Aristotle knew of an elephant which would drink 140 gallons between dawn and dusk and then begin again at nightfall. Its hearing is superb but its sight dismally poor; it can swim but not jump, and its transport powers are unremarkable; it moves at a steady six miles an hour, charging rarely and then only for brief bursts at twenty m.p.h. It does not usually breed in captivity, though males spend awkward months on musth,exuding a fluid from their temples which makes them too morose to be controlled. Worst of all, the elephant has no team spirit. Though it is deeply affectionate to its master and mild to small children, human wars mean nothing and it will run amok among friend and foe alike. The most notable elephant in Greek history, called Victor, had long served in Pyrrhus’s army, but on seeing its mahout dead before the city walls, it rushed to retrieve him: hoisting him defiantly on his tusks, it took wild and indiscriminate revenge for the man it loved, trampling more of its supporters than its enemies in the process. In war, such devotion was a very mixed blessing.
Men, however, did their utmost to embolden it. In India, it was goaded, equipped with bells and fed on wine: in Ceylon, it was made to take opium. It was encouraged to whisk attackers in its trunk, at least until they wore the deterrent of spiked armour. Its tusks were strengthened with long steel daggers, tipped with poison; its body was protected in iron chain-mail, while seven or more warriors shot and speared from its saddled back, even without the protection of the howdah. Most important of all, though afraid of mice which would run up its trunk, it scared the wits out of horses: at Gaugamela, Alexander’s Companion Cavalry had safely outflanked the few opposing elephants, but in the Punjab they would have to withstand hundreds, this time face to face. Alexander was extremely anxious.
His first news in India was that elephants were on his side, for by early October, rajahs from the Indus valley had followed his herald back to the frontier and they promised that their twenty-five specimens were at his disposal. Such a welcome caused Alexander to divide his troops. The main road ran along the banks of the Indus towards the distant town of Taxila, home of the rajah Ambhi who had come, as expected, to surrender. Hephaistion, the mercenaries and half the Companions were to follow him down through the plains of Peshawar and bridge the Indus at Hund where it bends back northwards. In the latter stages, Ambhi would guide and supply them, while on the way they could capture such cities as Push-kalavati, City of the Lotus, in its open fields of sugar-cane and sand; its governor, however, resisted them for a month behind his ditch and mudbrick ramparts, only to be put to death for the trouble. Alexander, meanwhile, had swung far north into the Swat highlands with some 22,000 troops to protect this main road’s flank by tactics of terror: it was his lifeline back to Iran, and as a cautious tactician he could not leave northerly tribesmen to cut it when he still hoped for news and reinforcements from Asia. As the native kings had not surrendered, he decided to fight them, not bribe them. Choosing a road far up the river Alishang because it was reported to be the best supplied, he launched into an arduous six-month campaign with Sasigupta to guide him. The hill tribes were numerous, and they had. determined to resist valiantly among mountains and fast-flowing rivers which were not to be bridged lightly, even in December. Failing their surrender, Alexander was not disposed to be any more kind to resistant patriots than usual: it boded ill for the style of the war that he was wounded at the first city and ‘the Macedonians killed all prisoners, angry that they had pained their Alexander’.
But the grim business of war had its compensations. Up in the green valleys of the westerly Swat hills, perhaps near the peak of Koh-i-nor, camp had been pitched on a chilly December night and the men began to search for firewood at a height of some 5,000 feet. A bonfire was built and when timber ran short the troops smashed up square boxes of cedar-wood which they found conveniently distributed over the hillside: they did not realize they were burning the natives’ coffins. Before long the natives retaliated, but a brief attack rebuffed them and they preferred to surrender. Their envoys found Alexander in his tent ‘still dusty from the march but fully armed, wearing a helmet and holding a spear; they were amazed at the sight of him and falling to the ground, they kept a long silence’. Through interpreters, terms were agreed: to Alexander’s pleasure, the city was ruled by aristocrats, three hundred of whom were to serve in his cavalry while another hundred, after a brief argument, were left to keep the nobility in power. In the course of conversation, he became aware of a startling fact: these tribesmen had been settled by the god Dionysus, their town was the elusive sanctuary of Nysa and the mountain was therefore a holy place. In Greece the ecstatic followers of Dionysus wreathed their brows in ivy; on this Indian hill, alone of the ones they had visited, common ivy was growing in profusion. What better proof could the common soldier want? Dionysus had been this way before them.
Talk of Dionysus was spiriting to tired troopers and Alexander himself ‘wanted the tales of the god’s wandering to be true’. The cult of the god was old and fierce in his native Macedonia and no son of Olympias could underestimate it. He was keen as always to investigate, and the Companion Cavalry and Royal Squadron of Infantry were invited to join him in visiting the shady clumps of trees, the myrtle, box and laurel, symbols of the god and a blessing to eyes long wearied by rocky outcrop and dry salt desert. The place was a gardener’s paradise, and the soldiers picked the common ivy and twined its acrid stems into wreaths. Crowned with ivy garlands, they sang hymns to the god on the hillside and addressed him by his many names, whereupon Alexander offered him a formal sacrifice: ‘Many of the not unprominent officers around him garlanded themselves with ivy and – so several have written – were promptly possessed by the god and raised the call of Dionysus, running in his frantic rout. Ite Bacchai, ite Bacchai… – the words of the most memorable chorus in Greek drama, probably written in Macedonia itself, may have sounded on a Pakistani hillside.
This episode deserves to be believed, but its explanation is difficult. It is plausible to look first for an Indian background, and there are parallels which seem impressive. Alexander’s officers named the hillside Meros, the Greek word for a thigh and a link with Dionysus who was believed to have been born from the thigh of Zeus. But the Indians may have led them to the name, for in early Hindu cosmology the world was believed to float like the four petals of a lotus around its central mountain Meru, which rose out of the surrounding waters to the peak of the easeful gods. Alexander might have heard the Indians in his camp talking of Meru and identified the word, as so often, with what he knew in Greek. As for the god himself, an Indian Dionysus was repeatedly mentioned by later Greek visitors to India and among the native pantheon none is more plausible than the Hindu god Shiva, who is worshipped by dancers and cymbalists, dressed like Greek Bacchants in the skins of wild animals. Ivy, Meru and Shiva might seem to have encouraged the Macedonians’ fancy: scholars in Egyptian Alexandria later blamed the incident on Alexander’s love of flattery, but they were men with dry minds. They had never seen the Swati highlands or shared the hazards of an Indian explorer.
But there are difficulties in this Indian explanation, for the people of Dionysus conspire in a stranger story which tends to discredit it. Alexander was in the modern region of Chitral, which adjoins Nuristan on the eastern border of Afghanistan, home of the people long known as the Kafirs, whose kinsmen lived in Chitral and the Swat highlands where they share the Kafirs’ language and many of their stylish folk tales. The Kafirs are one of the least accessible and most enchanting peoples in Asia. Their skin is sometimes fair, their hair is occasionally blond. They have aquiline noses and noble foreheads and they wear a woollen headdress which has seemed to the imaginative to be like the broadbrimmed Kausia of the Macedonians. Ivy abounds in their well-treed mountains and the people, like Dionysus, are conspicuously fond of wine; their music and singing are famous, their architecture of carved wood is distinctive and often ornate. It was inevitable that these Kafirs should have attracted the attention of the Victorian British; in the nineteenth century the Kafirs did not yet practise as Hindus or Muslims, so some said they were early Christians, uncorrupted by the Catholic Church, others that they were Jews, while others believed that they were Greek descendants of Alexander’s garrisons, and hence had a European look, a story which was as old as Marco Polo and is still repeated; Kipling even paid these proto-Hellenes the honour of a story. But exploration proved that they neither spoke Greek nor cared for Jesus, and their origins soon lost popular appeal. But one strange fact had been noticed: alone of the tribes in the Hindu Kush the Kafirs expose their dead in wooden coffins, and so the Macedonians’ search for firewood springs to mind: the troops had smashed up the coffins which lay to hand round their bivouacs and the custom is probably a link across thousands of years, so that the Kafirs of Nuristan are indeed descendants of the people whom Alexander met. This casts doubts on a link between Dionysus and Shiva, god of the Hindus.
Research has discovered that the Kafirs speak a language whose roots derive from the earliest Indo-European dialects; Kafirs, then, are descendants of the first invaders to sweep west from India to Europe several thousand years before Alexander; hence their European looks, a feature which also owes something to their attraction for enterprising British ladies on the north-west frontier. Their religion, before they were forced to become Muslim, contained no Indian god to be compared with Dionysus; they worshipped a sky god, whom the Greeks would have called Zeus Ombrios, and a demon god in the shape of a stone, but they were not Hindus with a knowledge of Shiva. However, they did have a lively cult of the ibex or mountain goat, as befitted the people of one of its most prolific haunts, and as the Greek Dionysus’s worship included the killing and eating of a goat the parallel is very impressive. Possibly Alexander saw or heard of this equally ecstatic cult among the Kafirs, whose link with his own Dionysus seemed to be confirmed by their natural gardens and the western appearance of their spokesmen.
After Dionysus, it was time for Heracles. First, the rival son of Zeus made his laborious way across the waters of the Alishang and Kunar rivers, keeping far north and storming a strongly built citadel high on the Katgala pass: the ground was sheer, the walls protected by ditches and the defenders encouraged by 7,000 hired troops from farther east. In a preliminary skirmish Alexander was wounded in the ankle by an arrow from the city battlements and as his foot hung numb with pain, an Athenian all-in wrestler, who had long been applying his skills in the ranks, tried to atone for its bleeding by quoting the king a line of Homer: ‘Ichor,’ he remarked, ‘such as flows from the veins of the immortal gods.’ ‘Nonsense,’ Alexander retorted, ‘it’s not ichor: it’s blood.’ He had deserved divine honours by his prowess and he wished it to be known that he was specially favoured by his father Zeus. But he had no illusions about his own mortality and he would never have claimed that he had himself turned into a god.
Wounded and repulsed, Alexander took thought for his machines. A mound was ordered, as at Gaza, from which the catapults and siege-towers could bring their barrage within range, but the natives had the pleasure of seeing their first drawbridge collapse beneath the weight of its Macedonians. The catapults were more formidable, and when one of the arrow-shooters killed the Indian chieftain, the tribesmen gave in to superior engineering. Their hired troops surrendered and were taken into Alexander’s ranks, only to be massacred when they tried to escape on the following night. The rest were spared, including the chieftain’s mother, who made up for the loss of her son to a catapult by sleeping with Alexander and conceiving a replacement.
It was now midwinter, and the storming of two more highland citadels kept the army busy well into the new year; the fighting continued to be strenuous and the weather chilly but food was no distress: only three months’ earlier, a herd of 230,000 cattle had been captured, the finest of which had been chosen by Alexander who ‘wished to send them back to Macedonia to work the land’, a tribute to his keen eye for the agriculture on which all ancient economies depended: the rest sufficed to feed the army for several months on milk or meat, two rare luxuries in the diet of the classical world. Meanwhile the drift of the campaign was ever eastwards. Beyond the Swat hills, on the eastern side of the river Indus, lived a rajah whose people throughout history had always supported Alexander’s present enemies on the near bank. Agitators and hired troops had already come to cause trouble and as Alexander sacked and resettled one city after another on the edge of the Indus, the survivors kept retreating towards this one source of help. By early March they had been penned up into the north-east highlands overlooking the Indus itself and had fled to a steep spur north of Attock which even the hero Heracles, men said in Alexander’s army, had never been able to capture. At last, the scene was set for the climax to Alexander’s career as the greatest besieger in history.
In 1926 the site of this spur called Aornos was fixed by the explorations of Sir Aurel Stein, and his remarkable search has since been confirmed by archaeologists. Aornos is indeed as impressive as Ptolemy’s history suggested. Where the river Indus crooks westwards above the Nandihar valley, a complex of spurs and ridges are enclosed inside its bend. Among them is Pir-Sar, the ‘peak of the holy man’, a long flat-topped cliff which stands over a height of 7,000 feet, guarded on the east by the broad river Indus to which it descends in a series of slippery gorges. Due north, the even higher spur of Bar Sar rises to a sharply conical point and meets Pir-Sar first by grass slopes, then by a particularly treacherous ravine, while to the west, sheer cliffs drop 2,000 feet to a strip of valley and thence rise straight to the highest peak of the whole range. To the south, Pir-Sar’s terminal hillock breaks into three narrow branches, each more inaccessible than the next. As for Pir-Sar itself, its own flat summit commands a view dramatic enough to stir the most hardened Macedonian bodyguard, whether he looked away to the icebound eaves of the Upper Swat headwaters or south beyond the Indus to the metallic green of the plains round Peshawar. It was a site for mountaineers, but emphatically not for warriors.
From such a vantage point Alexander’s looping march up the bank of the Indus was sure to be detected. On no side of the rock could his army hope for easy access, and they had to choose between a ridgeway or a ravine. As for starving out the enemy, that was impossible because Pir-Sar had its own water-springs and a summit wide enough to grow crops for its occupiers, as it still does for the local Gujars. The cliffs and gorges were far too sheer for the catapults to come within range: when the natives talked of their Hindu god Krishna, worshipped by men dressed in lion skins, it was only natural for the Macedonians to equate him with their own royal ancestor Heracles and spread the word that not even Heracles had been able to storm Pir-Sar. To Alexander, that was another reason for attempting it himself.
From the pass, he briefly visited the Indus to check on Hephaistion’s bridge-building; he then approached Pir-Sar up river from the south. At the nearest base the heaviest troops and most of the cavalry were left to prepare supplies against a long siege, while the Horse-archers and all the crack skirmishing troops continued for a day and a half up the western bank until they met with a decisive stroke of luck: nearby tribesmen surrendered, offering to lead the army to the easiest point of assault. As usual, they were believed for lack of any alternative. Ptolemy and Alexander’s secretary Eumenes were sent on a reconnaissance, and striking due north from the river they seized the spur of Little Una, due west of Pir-Sar itself, helped by its covering of pine-trees and wild rhododendrons. After putting up a stockade on the hilltop, they lit a fire signal as prearranged. Alexander saw it, but so did the defenders, and it took two days’ skirmishing and the despatch of a native Indian messenger before king, secretary and historian were safely united on their advance ridge.
From Little Una, the outlook was very much more favourable. Pir-Sar, said the guides, was vulnerable on its hidden north face, so Alexander
scrambled towards it along the Burimar plateau until he came to rest at the great natural fosse of the Burimar-Kandao ravine, some 800 feet deep. Here he was vulnerable from above and quite unable to fight back, as the ravine was too wide and too deep for his catapults’ range. Undeterred, he once more ordered the landscape to be changed to suit him. Stakes were to be cut from the many nearby fir trees, some conveniently fallen, and a mound was to be built across a ravine as broad as a Punjab river until the catapults could find their mark. These amazing earthworks began at dawn, Alexander moving the first heap himself and then standing by ‘to watch and praise those who worked eagerly but to punish those who gave up for a moment’. After one day, sixty yards were already finished, but as the sides of the ravine dropped away, the work slowed down and it was three more days before men were within fighting range of the nearest tip of Pir-Sar itself. Presumably the mound was more a platform than a complete filling; its crisscross pattern of stakes and brushwood was one more credit to the troops’ skill in carpentry.
A foothold on Pir-Sar was not to be easily won. Alexander chose thirty advance guards, and ‘at the sound of the trumpet, he turned to them and ordered them to follow him, for he would be the first up the rock’. Nearing the top ledge, he changed his mind and sent the guards ahead, only to see them crushed by boulders rolled down from above: he was lucky to escape with his life, and so he withdrew for the next two days. Day and night the Indians beat drums to celebrate the repulse, but the third night brought silence, a blaze of torchlight and their attempt at a surprise retreat. Hauling himself up the rockface by a rope, Alexander this time led his Shield Bearers up to the attack, killing several fugitives and clearing the summit for the building of altars to Athena goddess of victory, possible traces of which were discovered by Aurel Stein. The rock was measured by the surveyors, whose geometry was remarkably accurate, and it was then time to climb down, the last threat to the lines from Balkh to the Indus having been forcibly dispersed. ‘I could only wonder,’ wrote Stein, with the evidence of the landscape before him, ‘that the story of Aornos should have escaped being treated altogether as a mythos.… I had no victory to give thanks for, and yet I too felt tempted to offer a libation to Pallas Athene for the fulfilment of a scholar’s hope, long cherished and long delayed.’
The last spring snows were melting along the Barandu valley as Alexander left Pir-Sar and marched to the natives’ final city through forests of rhododendron, primula and alpine clematis. Animals, not plants, were now his anxiety, for once in the great plain of the Indus, he would be in elephant territory: two units of Shield Bearers were sent to spy out the land beyond, with special orders to interrogate captives about the numbers of elephants in the service of rajahs. Alexander encouraged the local mahouts to hunt out beasts for his own use, which they duly did, mounting them and bringing them into the ranks with the very briefest training, except for two rogue bulls who stampeded over a precipice. Mahouts and Macedonians then marched a hundred miles down the banks of the Indus towards its crossing point at Hund, which had long been bridged by the obedient Hephaistion.
At Hund the Indus is in lazy and expansive mood. Resting between the Himalayan foothills and the gorges of Attock, it spills across the plains to a width of six miles, inviting the traveller to take it at his leisure. Ambhi, rajah of Taxila, had been feeding Hephaistion’s advance army with grain, another happy chance for the supply corps. He now sent presents in advance to the far bank, including 3,000 bulls, 10,000 sheep, many talents of silver and thirty elephants. Alexander first sacrificed the bulls ‘to his usual gods’, Ammon presumably among them, ‘and held athletic games and a horse-show’. The sacrifices proved favourable, so he entrusted himself to Hephaistion’s boats and bridge and perhaps to stuffed leather skins as well, and crossed the Indus to sacrifice again on the far bank, thankful that the rafts had not collapsed. Ambhi greeted him on the far side, ‘his elephants appearing like castles between his troops’, and as soon as they had established friendship, they marched into the plain north-west of Rawal-Pindi to a first true taste of Indian life.
In the shadow of the Murree hills, beside the Tamra-Nala river, the mudbrick town of Taxila lay open to the most outlandish visitors it had seen. Unlike the forts of Upper Swat, it stood at the meeting-point of three main roads, and had prospered accordingly. It was a seat of Hindu teachers and doctors, though probably not already of Buddhists too, whose founder the Greeks called Bouddhas, explaining him as the son of a fellow-soldier of Dionysus. But Taxila had none of the outward refinements of a university town. Its wide main street twisted through old and unplanned houses whose flat roofs caught the heat, each a different height from its neighbour, and whose walls of mud and rough-cut stone encroached on the passers-by; the simple rooms behind were floored with earth and let on their street side by the narrow slit of a single window. Only one public building stood in the town centre, a long and curving hall supported by wooden rafters; to left and right ran the narrow alleys of an Indian slum, where dirt and darkness were little improved by the presence of communal dustbins. While Alexander rode in to sacrifice, meet the local rajahs and hold a durbah in the city hall, his officers took closer note of their surroundings.
Physically, the Indians are slim [wrote Alexander’s admiral Nearchus]. They are tall and much lighter in weight than other men…. They wear earrings of ivory (at least, the rich do), they dye their beards, some of the very whitest of white, others dark blue, red or purple or even green. Their clothes are of linen, either brighter than all other linen or made to seem so by the people’s black skin: they dress in a tunic down to the mid-calf and throw an outer mantle round their shoulders: another is wound round their head…. They wear shoes of white leather, elaborately decorated, the soles of which are thickened to make them seem tall. And all except the very humblest carry parasols in summer.
Their hair, as Persian sculptures show, was gathered into a bun or topknot and as for their customs:
Those who are too poor to give their daughters a dowry [wrote Aristobulus], put them up for sale in the market in their prime, summoning a crowd of buyers by the noise of shells and drums. When a customer steps forward, first, the girl’s back is bared for inspection as far as the shoulders, then, the parts in front; if she pleases him and also allows herself to be persuaded, she lives with him on agreed terms.
Among other Indian tribes, impecunious virgins were bestowed as prizes in boxing-matches, where their lack of money did not matter, but the rich needed only to press their suit with the gift of an elephant to be sure of success. When the husband died, ‘some people said that the wives would burn themselves on his pyre and that those who refused to do so were held in disgrace’. This, the custom of suttee, was accompanied by a practice which Alexander had already tried to ban in outer Iran: the exposure of dead bodies to dogs and vultures. For a happy after-life, nothing mattered more to Greeks than a proper burial, and Alexander could not bear to see his subjects ignore it.
Other discoveries were more delightful. Wise men were to be seen in the market-place where they anointed all passers-by with oil as a sign of their favour and chose whatever they wanted free of charge, whether figs, grapes or honey. Remarking on their two different sects, the one with long hair, the other with shaven heads, Alexander was keen to meet their leaders, and so he sent his Greek steersman of the Fleet, Onesicritus, to search them out. He had chosen his man carefully, for Onesicritus knew philosophy as well as the sea, having studied with the great Diogenes, master of the Greek Cynic school. Eastern and western wisdom met for polite discussion: fortunately, Onesicritus was also writing a history.
Two miles from Taxila he came on fifteen wise men, sitting or lying naked in various postures. One, whom the Greeks called Calanus, laughed aloud ‘seeing that the visitor was wearing a cloak, a broad-brimmed Macedonian hat and knee-length boots’. Onesicritus was asked to take off his clothes and sit down if he wished to hear their teaching: ‘But the heat of the sun’, he later explained ‘was so scorching that nobody could have borne to walk barefoot on the ground, especially at midday.’ Less hardy than his master Diogenes, he hesitated in embarrassment, until the oldest and wisest guru, named Mandanis, excused him and began to talk. ‘Mandanis,’ he said, ‘commended Alexander for his love of wisdom, even though he ruled so vast an Empire: he was the only philosopher in arms he had ever seen.… He went on to ask about Socrates, Pythagoras and Diogenes, remarking that they seemed to be decent and easy men, though they paid too much attention to conventions and not enough to nature.’ Three interpreters were needed for the conversation. ‘Because my interpreters only understand the simplest language,’ Mandanis was believed to have said, ‘I cannot prove to you why philosophy is useful. It would be like asking pure water to flow through mud.’ But Onesicritus filtered the dark wisdom of the gurus through his own Greek preconceptions: he could barely understand them, so ‘steersman of fantasy, not of the fleet’, he took them to be agreeing with his own philosophy. Hindus, therefore, vouched in his history for the truths of Diogenes the Cynic.
Even if misunderstood, two of these naked wise men did make their way down to occupied Taxila. There, they dined at Alexander’s table and ‘ate their food while standing…: the younger and fitter of the two balanced on one leg and held up a wooden beam, about five feet long, with both of his hands; when the leg became tired, he shifted on to the other and stood there all the day long.’ As proof of his self-control he left the camp and refused all inducements to return, as they would put him at Alexander’s beck and call. The elder one, Calanus, had finished his thirty-seven years of prescribed asceticism and was free to adapt his way of life: for the next two years, he followed the army from Taxila to Susa and lectured to any officers who were interested. His death, aged seventy-nine, was to cause a remarkable stir.
Legend could hardly leave this meeting between East and West as it had happened. The theme was embellished with variations and for two thousand years, the name of the Gymnosophists, or Naked Philosophers, remained part of the common culture of lettered men. In India their meetings with Alexander passed through his Romance into the Sayings of Milinda, a classic Buddhist text; in the Mediterranean, they were prominent in the works and poems of scholars in Renaissance Florence; in England, after the death of Cromwell, Puritan gentlemen still pinned their revolutionary fervour on the Gymnosophists’ ideal, praising the Indians in pamphlets for being Puritans before their time, and denouncing Alexander as the type of a monarch like Charles II. The Gymnosophists’ fame had spread far beyond their town by the Murree hills, and all because a pupil of Aristotle had crossed the Hindu Kush in search of the eastern Ocean and a pupil of Diogenes had left the boats on his native island of Cos, joined the expedition and agreed, in India, to go out in the midday sun.