Alexander invasion in India a heroic entry which turned into a humiliating retreat.


Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A. (Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D.

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

Indian armies had two great military advantages over Alexander’s armies. War elephants and a cavalry which had invented the stirrup. Could Alexander have defeated such armies?

Almost all accounts of Alexander’s campaigns in India have been based on modern European translations of ancient texts. Unless Indian universities and think tanks look at the original Greek, Roman, Ethiopian and Egyptian manuscripts, a clear picture will not emerge. European translations are mostly slanted for obvious reasons. The Greek and Roman civilisations are the wellspring of western thought, science, culture, religion and philosophy; a defeat for Alexander ‘the Great’, would be a blow for all that he represents – especially the triumph of the West over the East.

The Greek invasion of India was a popular subject in Greece and Rome for many centuries. The Alexander romance even entered medieval European literature and religion. Much later it became the fountainhead of inspiration for the colonisation of the East, especially India.

The conquest of India, a super power then, by Alexander was seen as major victory. Alexander’s ‘conquest of India’ was the seminal point in Western history.

“Arrian and other writers clearly recount the special significance to Alexander of the victory in India. Later authors in the West continued to dwell upon the commemoration of this battle. Some of the accounts are quite unbelievable, but their very existence proves that the battle against Porus remained a popular subject in Greece and Rome for many centuries.”

Western Colonial historians implied that after the Battle at Hydaspes, India became a Greek colony, due to the the loss in that one battle! Anyone in the world can have their lucky day – including Alexander! The one important question which is ignored was “Were the Greeks able to retain their Indian conquests?”

Accounting for the Porus Red Herring, further analysis of Alexander’s actions, Alexander aimed at patching up alliances with Indian rulers to secure his borders.

Enigmatically, Indian archaeology, writers and history do not know of any Porus or much of Alexander’s Indian campaign. Under the onslaught of a ‘defeatist’ version of Indian history by colonial historians, Indian nationalistic historians admit that at best, Alexander may have conquered some border districts of India.

The Persians advise to Alexander

After defeating Persia in the year 334 BCE, Alexander of Macedon was irresistibly drawn towards the great Indian landmass. However, the Persians warned him the country was no easy target; that several famous conquerors had fallen at the gates of India.

The Persians told him how their greatest king, Cyrus, who had conquered much of the civilised world, had been killed in a battle with Indian soldiers exactly two centuries before Alexander.

And in an earlier antiquity, the Assyrian queen Semiramis, who had crossed the Indus with 400,000 highly trained troops, escaped with just 20 troops, the rest being slaughtered by the Indians.

In his book, Foreign Influence on Ancient India, Krishna Chandra Sagar says 150 years before Alexander, Indian archers and cavalry formed a significant component of the Persian army and played a key role in subduing Thebes in central Greece.

Alexander, however, knew no fear. More than anything else, he wanted to invade India. It would prove to be a strategic blunder.

Alexander’s newly inducted  Persian advisors would have filled him in, on how a few centuries ago,  Semiramis, Queen of Assyria, and Cyrus the Great, two significant historical figures of the Levant, had failed against the Indians.

Alexander in fact is said to be eager to capture India precisely because two earlier conquerors-Semiramis and Cyrus-had failed to do so. Here it is worth noting, Alexander apparently views the legendary Assyrian queen as an historical figure, the equal of Cyrus the Great, and strives to outdo them both. (from Warrior Women By Deborah Levine Gera).

The Assyrians, whose trans-Asia Minor Empire and their legendary Queen Semiramis too, had failed in the Indian campaign with faux elephants. Cyrus The Great, too had met his nemesis, trying to conquer India (or an army with significant Indian component). A modernized version of Strabo’s The Geography of Strabo reads, Alexander … heard that no one had hitherto passed that way with an army and emerged in safety, except Semiramis, when she fled from India. The natives said that even she emerged with only twenty men of her army; and that Cyrus son of Cambyses, escaped with only seven of his men … When Alexander received this information he is said to have been seized with a desire of excelling Cyrus and Semiramis … What credence can we place in these accounts of India … Megasthenes virtually agrees. (from Alexander the Great By Ian Worthington – ellipsis mine).

Alexander invasion in India

In reality Alexander invaded India expecting a heroic entry but in the end it turned into a humiliating retreat.

In 326 BC the formidable Greek-Macedonian army entered India. It was the first time Europeans and Indians first looked into one another’s faces; the first meeting of the two halves of the Aryan people since their forefathers had parted centuries before.

In his first encounter, Alexander fought for four days against the warlike people of the city of Massaga in Swat valley. On the first day of this battle, Alexander was injured and forced to retreat. The same fate awaited him on the second and third days. When Alexander lost men and was on the verge of defeat, he called for a truce. Clearly, the Indians weren’t aware of the Trojan horse episode, for the Greeks slaughtered the unaware and unarmed citizens of Massaga as they slept in the night of the fourth day believing that the battle was over.

In the second and third battles at Bazira and Ora, Alexander faced a similar fate and again resorted to treachery to defeat those fortresses. But the fierce resistance put up by the Indian defenders had reduced the strength – and perhaps the will – of the until then all-conquering Macedonian-led army.

If the Porus Red Herring is ignored, we can see that an important success of Alexander was his alliance with Ambhi – the ruler of Taxila. To cement this alliance, Alexander ‘gifted’ Ambhi with ‘a wardrobe of Persian robes, gold and silver ornaments, and 30 horses, 1000 talents in cash’. 1000 talents is anywhere between 25,000-60,000 kg of gold – 25-60 tons of gold !

Does this look like Ambhi accepted Alexander as the conqueror of the world – or was Alexander ‘persuading’ Ambhi to seal an alliance – at a huge price? Portrayed as traitor, a sell out, by Colonial historians, Ambhi’s case was a simple case of providing neutrality and supplies (at a fabulous price) to a travelling army, which was securing its own borders.

The payment of 1000 talents in gold to Ambhi aroused much envy and outrage in Alexander’s camp. It prompted Meleager, to sarcastically congratulate Alexander for ‘having at least found in India a man worth 1000 talents.’ What seals this incident is Alexander’s retort to Meleager, “that envious men only torment themselves.”.

In the year 518 BC, a few years after the defeat and death of Cyrus the Great, by a joint force of the Massagetae and the Indians, and more than 200 years before the death of Alexander, Darius-I re-organized his inherited empire into 20 satrapies.

To put these figures in perspective, Babylon and Syria, the richest provinces, paid 1000 talents, while Egypt paid 700 talents. (from Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire By David Christian).

At least, Darius-I, did not pay anything to the satrapies – unlike Alexander. If Ambhi wanted Alexander to wage a war against Porus, would it not be more logical that Ambhi, the (supposed) feudatory should have paid Alexander? Allegedly, Alexander bribed Ambhi (bribe a satrapy?) to join him and wage war against Porus.

War against Porus.

Greek histories record that Alexander’s hardest battle was the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum) in which he faced King Puru, the Yaduvanshi king of the Paurava kingdom of Punjab. It is said that in the year 327 B.C . Alexander the Great, pushing on from Persia, marched over the Hindu Kush and descended upon India. For a year he campaigned among the northwestern states that had formed one of the Persian Empire’s richest provinces, exacting supplies for his troops and gold for his treasury. Early in 326 B.C. he crossed the Indus, fought his way slowly through Taxila and Rawalpindi to the south and east, en- countered the army of King Porus, defeated 30,000 infantry, 4,000 cav- alry, 300 chariots and 200 elephants, and slew 12,000 men. When Porus, having fought to the last, surrendered, Alexander, admiring his courage, stature and fine features, bade him say what treatment he wished to receive. “Treat me, Alexander,” he answered, “in a kingly way.” “For my own sake,” said Alexander, “thou shalt be so treated; for thine own sake do thou demand what is pleasing to thee.” But Porus said that every- thing was included in what he had asked. Alexander was much pleased with this reply; he made Porus king of all conquered India as a Macedonion tributary, and found him thereafter a faithful and energetic ally.

Paurava was a prosperous Indian kingdom on the banks of the river Jhelum, and Puru – described in Greek accounts as Porus and standing over seven feet tall – was a generous monarch.

Perhaps, he was generous to a fault. Legend has it that ahead of Alexander’s entry into India, his Persian wife Roxana, the daughter of the defeated Persian king Darius, arrived in Paurava to meet King Puru (porus)   , who was preparing for war against the foreign invader.

Roxana gained access to Puru, and through the bond of rakhi, declared herself his sister. She then begged Puru (porus) to spare her husband’s life if he encountered the Macedonian king in battle. The large-hearted Indian king agreed to this bizarre request.

In the autumn of 326BC, the Greek and Paurava(porus)   armies faced each other across the banks of the river Jhelum in Punjab. By all accounts it was an awe-inspiring spectacle. The Greeks had 34,000 infantry and 7000 cavalry. This number was boosted further by their Persian allies.

Facing this tumultuous force led by the genius of Alexander was the Paurava (porus)   army of 20,000 infantry, 2000 cavalry and 200 war elephants. Being a comparatively small kingdom by Indian standards, Paurava (porus)   couldn’t have had such a large standing army, so it’s likely many of its defenders were hastily armed civilians.

According to Greek sources, for several days the armies eyeballed each other across the river. They write Alexander could not move his army across the river because it was swollen from the rains.

A lamer excuse is not found in history! Alexander’s army had crossed the Hellespont, a 1-8 km wide strip of sea that divides Asia and Europe, and which was well defended by the Persians. In comparison, crossing the narrower Jhelum against a much smaller adversary should have been a far easier task.

According to Greek sources, for several days the armies eyeballed each other across the river. The Greek-Macedonian force after having lost several thousand soldiers fighting the Indian mountain cities, were terrified at the prospect of fighting the fierce Paurava (porus) army. They had heard about the havoc Indian war elephants created among enemy ranks. The modern equivalent of battle tanks, the elephants also scared the wits out of the horses in the Greek cavalry.

Another terrible weapon in the Indians’ armoury was the two-meter bow. As tall as a man it could launch massive arrows able to transfix more than one enemy soldier.

The Battle with Porus

The battle was savagely fought. As the volleys of heavy arrows from the long Indian bows scythed into the enemy’s formations, the first wave of war elephants waded into the Macedonian phalanx that was bristling with 17-feet long sarissas. Some of the animals got impaled in the process. Then a second wave of these mighty beasts rushed into the gap created by the first, either trampling the Macedonian soldiers or grabbing them by their trunks and presenting them up for the mounted Indian soldiers to cut or spear them. It was a nightmarish scenario for the invaders. As the terrified Macedonians pushed back, the Indian infantry charged into the gap.

In the first charge, by the Indians, Porus’s brother Amar killed Alexander’s favourite horse Bucephalus, forcing Alexander to dismount., they also killed Nicaea, one of his leading commanders.

According to the Roman historian Marcus Justinus, Porus challenged Alexander, who charged him on horseback. In the ensuing duel, Alexander fell off his horse and was at the mercy of the Indian king’s spear. But Porus dithered for a second and Alexander’s bodyguards rushed in to save their king.

Plutarch, the Greek historian and biographer, says there seems to have been nothing wrong with Indian morale. Despite initial setbacks, when their vaunted chariots got stuck in the mud, Porus’s army “rallied and kept resisting the Macedonians with unsurpassable bravery”.

Two millennia later, British historians latched on to the Alexander legend and described the campaign as the triumph of the organised West against the chaotic East. Although Alexander defeated only a few minor kingdoms in India’s northwest, in the view of many gleeful colonial writers the conquest of India was complete. Western historians depict the Battle of Hydaspes as a clash of the organised West and the muddling East. That one battle is portrayed as the Greek conquest of India, while the fact is that Alexander merely probed the north-western extremity of India. Puru was by any reckoning a minor king and doesn’t even merit a mention in Indian accounts.

This statement by Russia’s Marshal Gregory Zhukov on the Macedonian invasion of India in 326 BCE is significant because unlike the prejudiced colonial and Western historians, the Greeks and later Romans viewed Indians differently. For instance, Arrian writes in Alexander Anabasis that the Indians were the noblest among all Asians.

In fact, Arrian and other Greeks say the Indians were relentless in their attacks on the invaders. They say if the people of Punjab and Sindh were fierce, then in the eastern part of India “the men were superior in stature and courage”. All this is glossed over by Western historians, in whose view the one victory over king Porus amounted to the “conquest of India”. But the Greeks made no such claim.

In 1957, while addressing the cadets of the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun, Zhukov said Alexander’s actions after the Battle of Hydaspes suggest he had suffered an outright defeat. In Zhukov’s view, Alexander had suffered a greater setback in India than Napoleon in Russia. Napoleon had invaded Russia with 600,000 troops; of these only 30,000 survived, and of that number fewer than 1,000 were ever able to return to duty.

In reality much of the country was not even known to the Greeks. So handing victory to Alexander is like describing Hitler as the conqueror of Russia because the Germans advanced up to Stalingrad.

So if Zhukov was comparing Alexander’s campaign in India to Napoleon’s disaster, the Macedonians and Greeks must have retreated in an equally ignominious fashion. Zhukov would know a fleeing force if he saw one; he had chased the German Army over 2000 km from Stalingrad to Berlin.

Reward to Porus

If Porus lost, why reward him? According to the Greeks, Alexander was apparently so impressed by Porus he gave back his kingdom plus the territories of king Ambhi of Taxila who had fought alongside the Macedonians.This is counterintuitive. Ambhi had become Alexander’s ally on the condition he would be given Porus’ kingdom. So why reward the enemy, whose army had just mauled the Macedonians?

The only possible answer is at the Battle of Hydaspes, the Macedonians realised they were dealing with an enemy of uncommon valour. Sensing defeat they called for a truce, which Porus accepted. The Indian king struck a bargain – in return for Ambhi’s territories, which would secure his frontiers, Porus would assist the Macedonians in leaving India safely.

Actually in the Battle of Hydaspes, the Indians fought with bravery and war skills that no other army had shown against the Greeks. In the first charge by the Indians, Puru’s brother Amar killed Alexander’s favourite horse Bucephalus, forcing Alexander to dismount. In battles outside India the elite Macedonian bodyguards had not allowed a single enemy soldier to deliver so much as a scratch on their king’s body, let alone slay his mount. Yet in this battle with the Paurava army, not only was Alexander injured, the Indians killed Nicaea, one of the leading Greek commanders.

According to the Roman historian Marcus Justinus, the battle was savagely fought. Puru challenged Alexander, who charged him on horseback. In the ensuing duel, Alexander fell off his horse and was at the mercy of the Indian king’s spear (and this is where legend meets history) when Puru perhaps remembered his promise to his rakhi sister (probably a Trojan horse sent in by the Greeks). He spared the Macedonian’s life, and Alexander’s bodyguards quickly carried off their king.

The Greeks may claim victory but if Alexander’s troops were so badly mauled by the petty regional fiefdoms, how could they have crushed the comparatively stronger army of Puru? An unbiased re-examination of contemporary histories suggests the Greeks probably lost the battle and Alexander sued for peace.

In his epic volume, The Life and Exploits of Alexander, a series of translations of the Ethiopic histories of Alexander, E.A.W. Budge, Egyptologist, orientalist and philologist, has given a vivid account of the Macedonian’s misadventure in India.

According to Budge, who worked for the British Museum in the early part of the 20th century, in the Battle of Hydaspes the Indians destroyed the majority of Alexander’s cavalry? Realising that if he were to continue fighting he would be completely ruined, the Macedonian requested Puru to stop fighting. True to Indian traditions, the magnanimous Indian king spared the life of the surrendered enemy. A peace treaty was signed, and Alexander helped Puru in annexing other territories to his kingdom.

The Greek geographer Strabo complains in the Geographika that all who wrote about Alexander preferred the marvellous to the true. Certainly he alludes to Alexander’s original propaganda to glorify his struggle in the East. He created his own mystified version of the campaign, transforming it into a search for divine traces.

Plutarch, the Greek historian and biographer, says of the Battle of Hydaspes: “The combat with Porus took the edge off the Macedonians’ courage, and stayed their further progress into India. For having found it hard enough to defeat an enemy who brought but 20,000 foot and 2000 horse into the field, they thought they had reason to oppose Alexander’s design of leading them on to pass the Ganges, on the further side of which was covered with multitudes of enemies.”

Indeed, on the other side of the Ganges was the mighty kingdom of Magadh, ruled by the ferocious and wily Nandas, who commanded one of the largest standing armies in the world. According to Plutarch, the courage of the Greeks evaporated when they came to know that the Nandas “were awaiting them with 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8000 war chariots, and 6000 fighting elephants”. Undoubtedly, the Greeks would have walked into a slaughterhouse.

Still 400 km from the Ganges, the Indian heartland, Alexander ordered a retreat to great jubilation among his soldiers. The celebrations were premature. On its way south towards the mouth of the Indus river, Alexander’s army was constantly harried by Indian soldiers. When the Greeks pillaged villages, the Indians retaliated. In some kingdoms, the Indian soldiers simply fell upon the Greeks because they wouldn’t tolerate foreigners invading their country.

In a campaign at Sangala in Punjab, the Indian attack was so ferocious that it completely destroyed the Greek cavalry, forcing Alexander the great to attack on foot. However, in the following counterattack, Alexander took the fort and sold the surviving Indians into slavery. (That’s another facet of the Macedonian that is glossed over by western historians; Alexander was far from being a noble king, and on the contrary was a vicious and cruel person.)

His battle with the Malavs of Multan – the most warlike people of Punjab – is perhaps the most recounted. In the hotly contested battle, Alexander was felled by a Malav warrior whose arrow pierced the Macedonian’s breastplate and lodged in his ribs. The Indian warrior seeing the enemy king fall, advanced to take his armour but was checked by Alexander’s bodyguards who rushed into the battle to save their king. The Macedonians later stormed the fort and in revenge killed every one of the 17,000 inhabitants of the fort, including women and children. Alexander never recovered from the wound and died in Babylon (Iraq) at the age of 33.

Arrian, the Roman biographer of Alexander, says the only ‘victory’ celebration by Alexander’s troops was after the battle with Puru. Surprising – that Alexander’s troops did not celebrate any victory, till the very end of the campaign. Was it, instead, a celebration that they had escaped with their lives?

Greek contemporary writers describe the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum) as the hardest fought of all Alexander’s battles. Frank Lee Holt, a professor of ancient history at the University of Houston, writes in his book, Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions: “The only reference in Arrian’s history to a victory celebration by Alexander’s army was after the battle with Porus.” Alexander’s army did not indulge in celebrations after the Battle of Gaugamela where they defeated 200,000 Persians. No wild festivities were announced after the Battle of Issus where they defeated a mixed force of Persian cavalry and Greek mercenaries. The fact they celebrated after the Battle of Hydaspes suggests they considered themselves extremely lucky to survive after the clash with the Hindu army, with its elephant corps.

The Greek retreat from India shows clear signs of a defeated force. Indeed, if the Greek and Macedonian soldiers were really that tired of fighting, as western historians claim, then the ‘triumphant’ troops should have returned via the same route they arrived. But instead they preferred to trek south through unknown and hostile lands in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. The only explanation is that they didn’t want to face the mountain kingdoms again.

Also, it’s a myth that the Greeks and Macedonians were tired of fighting and were hankering to meet their families. Alexander’s army had a system of rotation where large batches of soldiers were released to return home (with sufficient gold, slaves and other spoils of war) after major victories. In their place, fresh troops eager to do battle (and lured by the promise of more loot) were constantly trickling in from Greece.

There is more indirect evidence of the lack of major Greek victories in India. The booty that fell into Greek hands after they defeated the Persians in the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC is estimated at 100,000 talents (more than 2,500,000 kilos) of gold. However, there is no mention of any large booty captured from India – strange because those days India was pretty much swimming in gold and other precious metals and stones. So it can be safely argued that Alexander failed to get his hands on a substantial booty because he never won any substantial victories.

On the contrary, Alexander gave King Ambhi, the ruler of Taxila, 1000 talents (over 25,000 kilos) of gold to fight alongside him in the battle against Puru. That’s even stranger! Because Greek sources say Ambhi voluntarily came over to their side. So why a willing ally was paid such a large amount? If Alexander was really rolling through India, it’s inconceivable he would pay off a minor king to ally with him.

Alexander’s post-Hydaspes charitable behaviour, as per Greek accounts, is uncharacteristic and unlikely. For, in battles before and after, he massacred everyone in the cities he subdued. What was Alexander’s response to a ‘sub-continent occupied by a complex network of peoples and states, who viewed Alexander as a new piece to be played in their complex political chess game.’ He had to return the kingdom of Punjab to Porus – purportedly, after winning the battle. His loot and pickings from India were negligible.

Alexander ‘famous for clemency and liberality’?

To these lean pickings, what was Alexander’s response? Writes a historian, “the Macedonians frequently massacred the defenders of the city, especially in India.” Another modern historian, an expert on Greek history writes that ‘the tale of slaughter told in the ancient sources is unparalleled elsewhere in the campaign.’ ( from Ancient Greece By Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan)

His other famous ‘victory’ was at Jaxartes, over the Scythians – ‘over a people which had hitherto been deemed by its neighbours invincible’. Of course, the writer goes onto mention that it was Alexander’s illness, which ‘saved the Scythians from extermination.’

But after a few paragraphs, Alexander becomes ‘famous for clemency and liberality.’ After an overnight ride, the next morning, Alexander concluded a friendship pact with the Darvas, the Scythian chieftain with just a handshake – at Alexandria Eschate (“The Furthest”) in modern Tajikistan. He also ‘agreed’ to release all Scythian prisoners – without a ransom. Was the reason for this clemency and liberality, or to isolate Bessus, Spitamenes and Datafernes responsible for ‘two years of savage warfare waged across Sogdiana on a scale unequalled anywhere else in Alexander’s anabasis.’

War elephants that frightened Alexander’s army

326 BC was the year of the battle with Porus. After that battle, what possibly frightened Alexander’s army was the ‘information’ that further from Punjab, lay places “where the inhabitants were skilled in agriculture, where there were elephants in yet greater abundance and men were superior in stature and courage”

And Plutarch tells us how Alexander’s armies were told that the kings of the Ganderites and Praesii were awaiting them with eighty thousand horsemen, two hundred thousand footmen, eight thousand chariots, and six thousand fighting elephants. (from The Life of Alexander, Plutarch, The Parallel Lives).

By 303 BC, less than a 20 years after Alexander’s death (323 BC), Alexander’s greatest general, Seleucos Nicator, sued for peace with Chandragupta Maurya. He ceded large parts of empire, made a marriage alliance with Chandragupta, stationed an ambassador (Megasthenes) in Chandragupta’s court.  – and obtained 500 elephants, which proved invaluable in at the decisive battle of Ipsus.

Where did the much vaunted ‘Greek’ sarrisae and Macedonian phalanxes miss out? On the other hand, the 500 elephants that Seleucos Nicator bought from Chandragupta were decisive in the Battle Of Ippsus – which ended the Daidochi wars .

A hundred years later, terrorized Roman armies lost major battles against Hannibal and Pyrrhus. What about Pyrrhus and Hannibal frightened the Roman armies?Elephants. That is what. War elephants.

Pyrrhus’ army had elephants. That is what. Hannibal’s elephants are better known. If 20 elephants of Pyrrhus, or Hannibal’s 37, frightened the Romans so much, what happened to Alexander’s army, when faced with 100s, if not 1000s of elephants, which were common in Indian armies.

To put that in perspective, Chandragupta Maurya had thousands – figures range between 5,000 to 9,000. And how many elephants did Porus’ army have? 200 of them is the estimate by Greek hagiography.

In the battle against the Massaga, resulting in the defeat and death of Cyrus, against Queen Tomyris, Indian elephants played a crucial role. At this decisive battle of Ipsus, the  army  fielded “the largest number of elephants ever to appear on a Hellenistic battlefield” which turned out to be, as a historian describes as the “greatest achievement of war elephants in Hellenistic military history.” And Pyrrhus learnt his lessons, on using elephants in battle, at Ipsus.

Homesick  or frightened?

“Why did Alexander’s undefeated troops, after the Indian campaign, suddenly feel homesick?”

To the victors go the spoils, so if the Greeks and Macedonians were really victorious, as European accounts narrate, then why did they leave India so soon? After all, over 99 per cent of the country was still unconquered. And why did the retreating army resemble a defeated brood – rather than a triumphant force – trekking across inhospitable areas, losing an estimated 60,000 men in the process?

Greek ‘historians’ tell us that the main reason for Alexander’s turning back was homesick soldiers. The official goal of the invasion, the destruction of the Persian empire in revenge for its attack on Greece, had now been achieved, so the official duties of these troops were fulfilled. (from Alexander the Great By Arrian, James S. Romm, Pamela Mensch)

Greek sources say Alexander retreated from India because his soldiers were weary, homesick and close to mutiny. Imagine if German soldiers had told Hitler they were tired of fighting? They would have been summarily shot. In Alexander’s time, the punishment was crucifixion.

The Macedonian army had a system of rotation where large batches of veteran soldiers were released to return home (with sufficient gold and slaves). In their place, fresh troops eager poured in from Europe. During the (nearly) half-year long siege of Tyre, Alexander received fresh troop reinforcements from Macedonia. At this stage, Alexander also inducted into his army, fresh Persian soldiers, trained in Macedonian style of warfare. Again, after his marriage to Roxanne, a further 10,000 Persian soldiers joined his army. Hence, the troops left with Alexander, were either fresh or those who decided to stay with Alexander.

Before his India ‘campaign’, at Ecbatana, Alexander cashiered thousands of his Greek troops who wished to return home. After the death of Darius, at Ecbatana (330 BC), to all the Greek officers, wishing to return home, Alexander awarded one talent of gold (approx. 25kg-60 kg).

If they were weary of constant warring, it is inexplicable why these soldiers chose to fight their way through obstinately hostile Indian territories. The homesick soldiers would have preferred the garrisoned north-western route they took while coming in. Why would a brilliant commander subject himself and his troops to further violence when all they wanted was a peaceful passage home?

Clearly, the Macedonians were in a mess and not thinking straight. Not the sign of a victorious army.

The pleadings of Coenus, that Alexander’s men, “long to see their parents, wives, and children, and their homeland again.” were patently the cries of frightened soldiers. Once back in the folds of the secure Macedonian Empire, the same soldiers joined the mutiny at Opis. These Macedonian soldiers revolted when they were released by Alexander to return to Macedonia, demonstrates that reason for the revolt in India, was not home-sickness. Although the Greeks claim victory, the fanatical resistance put up by the Indian soldiers and ordinary people everywhere had shaken the nerves of Alexander’s army to the core. They refused to move further east. Nothing Alexander could say or do would spur his men to continue eastward. The army was close to mutiny.

Says Plutarch: “The combat with Porus took the edge off the Macedonians’ courage, and stayed their further progress into India. For having found it hard enough to defeat an enemy who brought but 20,000 foot and 2000 horse into the field, they thought they had reason to oppose Alexander’s design of leading them on to pass the Ganges, on the further side of which was covered with multitudes of enemies.”

Indeed, on the other side of the Ganges was the mighty kingdom of Magadh, ruled by the wily Nandas, who commanded one of the most powerful and largest standing armies in the world. According to Plutarch, the courage of the Macedonians evaporated when they came to know the Nandas “were awaiting them with 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8000 war chariots and 6000 fighting elephants”. Undoubtedly, Alexander’s army would have walked into a slaughterhouse.

The Greek historian says after the battle with the Pauravas, the badly bruised and rattled Macedonians panicked when they received information further from Punjab lay places “where the inhabitants were skilled in agriculture, where there were elephants in yet greater abundance and men were superior in stature and courage”.

As per Arrian, the only ‘victory’ celebration by Alexander’s troops was after the battle with Porus. Surprising – that Alexander’s troops did not celebrate any victory, till the very end of the campaign. Was it, instead, a celebration that they had escaped with their lives? Hundreds of kilometres from the Indian heartland, Alexander ordered a retreat to great jubilation among his soldiers.

The celebrations were premature. On its way south towards the sea, Alexander’s army was constantly harried by Indian partisans, republics and kingdoms.

In a campaign at Sangala in Punjab, the Indian attack was so ferocious it completely destroyed the Greek cavalry, forcing Alexander to attack on foot. In the next battle, against the Malavs of Multan, he was felled by an Indian warrior whose arrow pierced the Macedonian’s breastplate and ribs.  As Alexander retreated from India, a Mallian force attacked the Macedonian army. In this Mallian attack, Alexander was himself injured – and his very life was in balance for the next many weeks.

Says Military History magazine: “Although there was more fighting, Alexander’s wound put an end to any more personal exploits. Lung tissue never fully recovers, and the thick scarring in its place made every breath cut like a knife.”

Alexander never recovered and died in Babylon (modern Iraq) at the age of 33.

Why will a ruler who entered via Khyber pass, would leave the country via the thar desert, and in a boat to Babylon, where he died.  Normally, a king would go back via the route he came so as to show his triumph. But Alexander left his army, rather his army left him- and fled .He died of gangrene, which most probably was due to a wound inflicted in a fight with an Indian army.

Within the next few years, Western history admits that the Indians kings won back all their losses – quite unlike the rest of Alexander’s conquests. For instance the Sassanians, a true-blue Persian dynasty was able to retake Persia, in 223 AD, 500 years after Alexander, from the phil-hellenistic Parthians, who in turn were able to depose the Seleucids after 250 years – by 63 BC. Egypt, Greece  of course, never recovered.

The Indian elephant contingent had played a significant role in the win of Massaga Queen, Tomyris over Cyrus The Great and the Persians. Were the Massagas from Magadha? The other name for this tribe (referred to by the Greeks) against the Persians was the Derbices or Dahae. Was this name derived from the darbha grass, which Chanakya had used to swear the downfall of the Nanda kings?

When he arrived at Susa, twenty months after turning back from his conquests, his army was but a miserable fragment of that which had crossed into India with him three years before.

Seven years later all trace of Macedonian authority had already disappeared from India. The chief agent of its removal was one of the most romantic figures in Indian history, a lesser warrior but a greater ruler than Alexander. Chandragupta was a young Kshatriya noble exiled from Magadha by the ruling Nanda family, to which he was related. Helped by his subtle Machiavellian adviser, Kautilya Chanakya, the youth organized a small army, overcame the Macedonian garrisons, and declared India free. Then he advanced upon Pataliputra, capital of the Magadha kingdom, fomented a revolution, seized the throne, and established that Mauryan Dynasty which was to rule Hindustan and Afghanistan for one hundred and thirty-seven years. Subordinating his courage to Kautilya’s unscrupulous wisdom, Chandragupta soon made his government the most powerful then existing in the world. When Mcgasthenes came to Pataliputra as ambassador from Selcncus Nicator, King of Syria, he was amazed to find a civilization which he described to the incredulous Greeks still near their zenith as entirely equal to their own.

Yet within a few years after Alexander’s retreat, the Indians drove the Greeks out of India. Inspired by the master strategist Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty, defeated Seleucus Necator, Alexander’s satrap. This was quite unlike the rest of Alexander’s other territorial conquests. It took the Sassanians 500 years to get back Persia from the Greeks. The Parthians were able to depose the Greeks 250 years after Alexander. Egypt never recovered its lost glory.

Our knowledge of Alexander rests on histories produced long after the fact: a late first-century b.c.e. section of a world history written in Greek by  Diodorus of Sicily;

A LatinHistory of Alexander published by the Roman author Quintus Curtius Rufus in the first century c.e.;

A biography in Greek by Plutarch of Chaeronea, also produced in the first century c.e.;

A history written in Greek by Arrian of Nicomedia sometime in the second century c.e.; and Justin’s third-century c.e.

Latin abridgment (Epitome) of a lost Greek secondary account by the first-century author Pompeius Trogus.

Each of these five narrative treatments of Alexander’s reign claims to be a serious work of history or biography, but all five contradict one another on fundamental matters and cannot be considered absolutely reliable unless somehow corroborated by other evidence.

Beyond these texts, we have little except a compilation of legendary material known as the Greek Alexander Romance, a wildly imaginative work filled with talking trees and other wonders that later thrilled the medieval world. (from Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions By Frank Lee Holt).


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.