Indian History Part 43 THE KHYBER PASS Section II Alexander of Macedonia

Canberra, 25 October 2015

Alexander of Macedonia, often called ‘Alexander the Great’, became the first confirmed outsider to have defeated an Indian king when he routed the army of King Porus on the banks of the River Hydaspes. How did he reach so far from his native Macedonia to the banks of the great Indus River? The generational animosity between the Greek kingdoms and Persian Empire and the Greek’s single-minded pursuit of the defeat and destruction of the powerful Achaemenian Empire of Persia is not germane to this narrative. Alexander’s defeat of the Persian Emperor in battle and the subsequent conquest of the kingdom was the climactic resolution of more than two centuries of interaction through a mixture of cultural exchanges, war, and diplomacy between Persia and Greece.

The Destruction of the Achaemenian Empire

After the initial victory over Darius, Alexander pursued him through 333-31 B.C. By 333 B.C Alexander had already occupied Syria, most of the Mediterranean coast, and Egypt. Darius who had fled to the eastern provinces of his empire offered terms for a negotiated settlement three times, which were all refused by the Macedonian king. It is certain that the concept of a universal monarchy was already established in Alexander’s mind and therefore sharing power even as the superior power was never a consideration. By 331 B.C when the two armies again met at the Battle of Gaugamela, near modern day Mosul in Kurdish Iraq, the half of the Persian Empire was already under Greek control. Darius had relied on the resources of the Eastern Provinces and his army consisted—other than the core Persian elements—of Indians, Bactrians, Sogdianians and Scythians. Darius was once again defeated conclusively and fled the battlefield, bringing to an inglorious end what had been otherwise been a glorious reign. He was caught by the satrap of Bactria, Bessus, and murdered.

Alexander took possession of the great Persian capital Persepolis, sacked the city and burned the grand palace. It is likely that the palace was fired as an act of revenge for the destruction of Athens in 480 B.C by the Persian Emperor, Xerxes. The burning of the palace and sacking of Persepolis has to be accepted as nothing other than a symbolic act of State-sponsored vandalism. Alexander is also remembered for having put out the fire and this has special religious significance for the Persians.

Zoroastrian religion considers fire sacred as the supplier of energy and light to fight evil. Their temples are built to house the flame that is kept alive continually for centuries. This is the fire that Alexander had extinguished and he is remembered in Zoroastrian tradition and folklore as the ‘extinguisher of many fires’. Whether putting out the fire in Persepolis was a calculated move by Alexander, who was fully aware of its significance or just another random act in this episode of wanton destruction is open to speculation. There is no evidence to suggest that any of the acts after the Persian defeat were the enactment of deliberate policy since no aspect of the invasion carries even the slightest hint of religious overtones. The invasion was purely politico-military in nature. However, the incidental killing of a large number of the priests in the process of sacking the city directly impacted the Zoroastrian faith. At that time the liturgy and hymns of the faith were still orally transmitted from generation to generation of ordained and hereditary priests and a large amount of it was lost in this wanton killing. It is no wonder that in the entire Zoroastrian scripture only Alexander is given the epithet ‘Guzastag’, meaning the accursed, other than for the primary evil spirit, Angra Mainyu.

After murdering Darius, Bessus entertained ambitions of becoming the emperor, and after reaching Bactria raised a large army to fight Alexander. By 329 B.C. Alexander had conquered the territories all the way to the Kabul River and also founded another Alexandria, which is now called Bagram. He then advanced into Bactria. Despite his ambition, Bessus fled to Sogdiana on hearing the news of the approaching Macedonian army. The Sogdianian chief surrendered him to Alexander in an opportunistic manner. Alexander first humiliated Bessus and then executed him claiming, in an obtuse way, that the execution was necessary to avenge the murder of Darius, who had been his arch foe and not a friend. The tribes of the region, notorious for their independent streak was already in open revolt and it took Alexander two years of hard campaigning to subdue them and establish a semblance of stability. At the end of this campaign, in 327 B.C. he married Roxanne a princess of Bactria.

Alexander’s Orientalism

By the time of his march against Bactria, Alexander was already habitually wearing Persian dress. Even so it is significant that his first wife was a princess of the conquered people of the orient and not one from the nobility of Macedonia or at least Greece as was the traditionally accepted norm for Macedonian kings. At this stage Alexander’s orientalism becomes undeniable.

In The History of Alexander written by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, based on the Greek accounts of the time, Alexander is depicted explaining his concept of uniting Europe and Asia into one single kingdom. His vision is described as that of a lasting ‘imperium’ over Asia that would erase the distinction between the conqueror and the conquered.

The vision of a lasting imperium made the conquest of India a necessity in Alexander’s mind. The inevitability of having to conquer India to sustain the grandiose vision was based on the Hellenic concept of geography that proclaimed an ocean, the great sea, at the end of the world, which was not far beyond the River Indus. Upon reaching this great sea, the army could turn and sail back to Egypt and the Mediterranean. Therefore, Alexander believed that he was almost at the end of his quest for global conquest, with only India remaining to be subjugated.

Accordingly the Macedonian army was split into two, with Alexander commanding one half and his generals Hephaestion and Perdiccas jointly commanding the other half. The generals took their army and marched through the Khyber Pass, reaching the banks of the River Indus in 327 B.C. at a place called Ohind in the Punjab. In Persian Panj is five and ab is river, therefore the land where the five rivers—Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej running south to finally join the great River Indus—flowed was named the Punjab. Alexander took his part of the army along the Kabul River valley through the mountains north of the Khyber in a season of campaign and terrorism against the restive mountain tribes. This army marched through the modern Kunar and Swat valleys and arrived at Ohind in 326 B.C.

The Indian Interlude

While Alexander was camped in Sogdiana, Ambhi the Raja of Taxila had approached him, inviting the Macedonian to invade India to settle a personal rivalry that he had with his neighbour, King Porus. In return Ambhi accepted Alexander’s overlordship over his kingdom. This ready acceptance of Alexander as the overlord could be related to his defeat of Darius and therefore being the automatic and legitimate successor to the Achaemenians. It could also have been because of the fact that the Persian hold over the outlying regions of the empire had gradually become tenuous and in comparison, here was the victor of the struggle personally subduing the rebellions. The Indians had fought in the Persian army that had been defeated in the Battle of Gaugamela, which could have been the third factor in the ready acceptance of Alexander as the overlord. There is also a possibility that in the interim between the two battles in which Darius was defeated, Gandhara had become semi-independent and then declared full independence at the death of the Persian monarch. In all this speculation there is neither any indication of the common Gandhara people’s thinking process nor any information regarding what was considered to be their future. However, this is not strange or out of the ordinary considering the ruling ethos of the time.

The Macedonians were called Yavanas by the locals, obviously a corruption of the term ‘Ionian’, which subsequently became a general term for foreigners used in India till the 19th century. Alexander now moved to Taxila, where he was welcomed and also received submission from some other rulers in the region. Taxila had long been a centre of fused cultures and reciprocal exchanges of learning between the East and the West and therefore, the presence of the Macedonians would not have attracted any special attraction. King Porus refused to pay tribute to Alexander and was defeated in the battle that followed on the banks of the River Hydaspes. A Hellenic king now ruled the Punjab.

After the victory over Porus, who was reinstated with much fanfare, Alexander crossed River Acesines (Chenab) and then the Ravi. He handed over the annexed lands to his new-found friend King Porus, inadvertently being drawn into the power politics of the Indian sub-continent. The Macedonian army then reached the River Hyphasis (Beas) just 80 miles from the River Sutlej beyond which lay the Gangetic Plain, fabled as the heart of India, which was also the realm of the glorious Magadha Empire with its capital at Pataliputra. Alexander instinctively decided to continue the conquering march east to reach the great sea of Greek lore. There could be a number of reasons for this decision—the wealth and power that was attributed to Magadha may have acted as an incentive; his own thirst for conquest was now perhaps at the highest; and it is clear that his personal egotism was also at an all-time high. In any case it is clear that Alexander would not or could not have taken any other decision.

After the decision to strike further east and south was made, Alexander faced an unexpected problem—in May 326, the Macedonian army refused to go any further. In spite of all attempts by Alexander, cajoling, appealing to their bravery and loyalty, and even retreating to his tent in a great sulk, the veteran army refused to move. Ultimately, Alexander was forced to start his journey back and in November 326, the undefeated army sailed down the River Indus, reaching the Arabian Sea after a nine-month journey of conquest and slaughter of the tribes along the river.

Alexander and his Macedonians were part of a convulsive violence in the north-west and north of India for two years, but left only a temporary impact on the sub-continent. There was no lasting damage and not surprisingly not a single Indian source mentions the Greek invasion of the sub-continent. Alexander had only touched the outer fringes of the sub-continent. In fact the Achaemenian Empire that had lasted in North-West India for more than two centuries left more memories and influenced the development of Indian culture in a more permanent manner. The real legacy of Alexander is not his influence on culture or the creation of an empire, but as the pathfinder for those who came behind, bent on the conquest of legendary Hindustan, India. The Macedonian defeat of the Persian Empire and then victories over the border kingdoms of the sub-continent disrupted the established order of the day without creating and emplacing an alternative, since they did not stay to stabilise and rule the conquered areas. This was the classic pattern that Alexander followed in his expeditions, which became much more pronounced as he moved closer to his self-established goal of reaching the great sea. In the latter part of the expedition, there was a sense of a headlong and almost blind rush towards achieving Alexander’s ultimate goal and realisation of his singular vision. The result was that chaos was introduced to North-West India with no relatively enduring governance towards stability in sight. The times demanded concerted re-building and new states rose on the ruins of the old ones, providing opportunities for ambitious men to become people of stature and status.

An Ambitious Man

Before commencing his last journey out of India, Alexander met an ambitious man, possessed of great talent and purpose, seeking a kingdom for himself—Chandragupta Maurya. He was to go on to exploit the prevailing disorder and found a dynasty that is still considered one of the greatest that ever ruled North India. Chandragupta is reported as not being overawed by the great conqueror from Macedonia. Plutarch later wrote that Chandragupta criticised Alexander for not marching on the kingdom of Magadha after the latter’s premature withdrawal down the Indus. Magadha at that time, ruled by the Nanda dynasty, was showing signs of decay and was proverbially ripe for the picking. Chandragupta, in a display of ruthless ambition and demonstrating the ability for astute exploitation of Magadha’s weakness, went on to carve out an empire for himself. [A detailed account of Chandragupta and the Maurya Empire he created is given in Volume I of the series, pages 153-196]

Around the same time, Philip who had been left behind by Alexander as his representative in the region was murdered by the soldiers who installed Eudemos as the ruler of the Greek-controlled areas. Punjab was restive and Chandragupta continued to increase his influence in the turbulent atmosphere. In 317 B.C. Eudemos treacherously murdered Porus. This was reason enough for Chandragupta to lead a revolt in the Punjab against the Greeks, forcing Eudemos and a majority of the Greek army out of the country. Greek soldiers who were unfortunate to have been left behind in this hurried withdrawal were massacred. Chandragupta was now the master of Punjab and the Indus valley, controlling a large swath of territory. With an enhanced force, Chandraguta gradually captured the outlying provinces of the Magadha Empire. By 313 B.C. he had captured the capital Pataliputra and been crowned king, founding the first recognised great dynasty of the sub-continent.

The Khyber Pass comes back into Indian history again in 305 B.C. when Emperor Seleucus, Alexander’s successor, marched back through the pass to reclaim the Punjab. Here was yet another Macedonian General marching through the Khyber in an attempted campaign of conquest. The details of this incursion are lost in antiquity, although it is known that the result was that the Macedonian king ceded large prats of his Eastern Empire to Chandragupta Maurya in exchange for a Treaty of Friendship, 500 war elephants, and a marriage alliance. The provinces of Aria, Arachosia, Gandhara, and Gedrosia now came under Maurya rule. Chandragupta married Durdhara, a possible corruption of the Greek name Diodora, the daughter of Seleucus through an Iranian princess Apama. There is a distinct and interesting possibility that the succeeding Mauryan emperors were of mixed Greek-Iranian-Indian blood. The settlement of the treaty with the Macedonian king was the last important event in the eventful life of Chandragupta Maurya.

The importance of the North-West frontier area is that it was the first region that the fledgling Mauryan dynasty had brought under its rule and it was also the first territory that it lost in later years of its decline. The fact that the outlying areas of a monolithic empire being the first casualty in the wake of dynastic decline holds true in this case also. A generation after the rule of Ashoka the Great, the illustrious grandson of Chandragupta the Maurya, the Greeks once again marched through the Khyber, heralding the next wave of invasion and assimilation.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
All Rights Reserved
No part of this website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author. You may quote extracts from the website or forward the link to the website with attribution to For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

One Response to “Indian History Part 43 THE KHYBER PASS Section II Alexander of Macedonia”

  1. Good show Sanu

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: