For all Alexander’s ruthlessness, his wine-soaked rages and his growing megalomania, he was still a student of Aristotle, as the historian Arrian conceded in describing how he went out of his way to learn about the several different kinds of religious sects in Indian society, of which the most important were said to be the Brachmanes and Sarmanes. The former were held in the highest esteem and William Jones had no difficulty in identifying them with the Brahman priestly caste. However, the Sarmanes were less easy to understand (the word being derived from the Sanskrit shramana, or ‘wandering ascetic’, a term covering all sorts from Buddhists and Jains to Hindu saddhus and atheistic Ajivikas). Unlike the Brachmanes, these Sarmanes were celibate and the most respected among them lived away from centres of population, dressing in rags and living on leaves and wild fruits.
With Omphis secured as his local ally, Alexander continued his eastward advance to the banks of the River Hydaspes, beyond which lay the great plains ruled over by the Indian king known to the Greeks as Poros. His response to Alexander’s order to meet him on the banks of the Hydaspes and make his submission was to say that he would indeed meet him there – but with an army many times mightier than Alexander’s. Not in the least discouraged, Alexander outmanoeuvred Poros into concentrating his troops at one point while his own main force crossed the river at another under cover of a rainstorm. This gave him time to draw up his battle line and attack before the Indian king could reorder his troops. As the Greeks advanced, the sight of Poros’s war elephants caused some wavering in the ranks. However, the real threat came from Poros’s front line: four thousand cavalry and a hundred four-horse chariots, each carrying two archers, two shield-bearers and two charioteers armed with darts. But it soon became clear that the chariots were too heavy to move over the wet ground, whereupon Alexander’s cavalry saw their chance and charged, forcing the Indian cavalry back upon the elephants.
Whenever the elephants tried to break out Alexander’s cavalry harried them with darts, forcing them to fall back. Their retreat allowed Alexander to bring his infantry phalanxes forward, their shields linked together. First the Indian cavalary and then the infantry were cut to pieces, ‘since the Macedonians were now pressing upon them from every side. Upon this all turned to flight.’
Among those who fled was King Poros, wounded in the shoulder. Seeing his elephant leaving the field, Alexander sent King Omphis of Taxila after him as a peace-maker, as Arrian recounts: ‘Taxiles [Omphis], who was on horseback, approached as near the elephant which carried Poros as seemed safe, and entreated him to stop his elephant and listen to the message he brought from Alexander. But Poros, on finding that the speaker was his old enemy Taxiles, turned round and prepared to smite him with his javelin.’ Despite this rebuff, Alexander continued to send one messenger after another to King Poros, ‘and last of all Meroes, an Indian, as he had learned that Poros and this Meroes were old friends’.
It was Meroes the Indian who finally won King Poros over and persuaded him to surrender. All the surviving accounts relate how the king’s dignity in defeat so moved Alexander that he not only appointed Poros governor of his former kingdom but added to his territory.
Nothing more is heard of the Indian Meroes. However, his name can be read as the genitive ‘of Mero’, suggesting that he was an Indian mercenary from the mountain region of Meros, the scene of the Greeks’ ten-day long bacchanale. And as Meroes the Indian disappears from the battlefield so the Indian mercenary Sisikottos reappears, for as Alexander regrouped after the battle, he received news of a revolt in the mountain country he had only recently subdued. This report came from Sisikottos, the Indian mercenary appointed local administrator of the Mount Aornos country. Alexander’s response was to send a military column under one of his best generals, Philippos, to restore order to the province.
The Assakenian revolt failed to weaken Alexander’s resolve to continue eastwards until he had reached the furthest sea. But as he prepared to push on across the Punjab he was warned that the entire country beyond the River Hyphasis (the modern Beas) was ruled over by a single all-powerful monarch, named by the Sicilian-Greek historian Diodoros Siculos as Xandrames and by Curtius as Aggrames. He ruled over two peoples, the Gangaridae and the Prasii, who lived on either side of the River Ganges, and he maintained a vast standing army: ‘20,000 cavalry and 200,000 infantry, besides 2000 four-horsed chariots, and, most formidable of all, a troop of elephants which he said ran up to the number of 3000’.
When Alexander asked Poros for his opinion, Poros declared the information to be correct, adding this all-powerful Indian king was ‘a man of quite worthless character, and held in no respect, as he was thought to be the son of a barber’. This barber had become the lover of the queen and had conspired with her to murder the king and seize the throne, after which he had murdered all the royal princes. He had then been succeeded by his son Xandrames.
After his Macedonians refused to cross the Hyphasis, Alexander sulked Achilles-like in his tent for two days before emerging to order twelve altars of squared stone to be erected as a monument of his expedition. He then embarked his army aboard a fleet of ships built by his admiral Nearchos to begin his return journey by way of the Hydaspes and Indus Rivers. ‘Designing now to make for the ocean with a thousand ships,’ writes Plutarch, ‘he left Porus and Taxiles … in friendly relations with each other, strengthened by a marriage alliance, and … he confirmed each in his sovereignty.’ He also left behind two of his best fighting generals: his old friend Philippos as governor of Gandhara, and Eudemos, senior commander of his Shield-Bearers, to support King Omphis of Taxila and, no doubt, to keep an eye on him.
More Indian tribes had to be subdued and more cities sacked before Alexander and his men reached the (Arabian) sea, at which point Alexander made the near fatal decision to march his men through the deserts of Gedrosia (modern Sind), suffering great loss of life, so that it was a thoroughly demoralised army that finally reached the safety of Karmania (modern southeast Persia) in the last months of the year 325 BCE.
Despite the revels with which his men marked their return to Persia, Alexander had few reasons to celebrate. From every quarter came news that the Greek satraps he had left behind as local governors had either abused their authority or had declared themselves independent rulers. But the worst news was that his old friend Philippos, governor of Gandhara, had been killed: ‘The satrap of the Indian country’, writes Arrian, ‘had been plotted against by the mercenaries and treacherously murdered.’ Alexander then wrote to Eudemos and King Omphis of Taxila, directing them to assume the administration of Gandhara. He also wrote to all the governors and military commanders throughout his empire, ordering them to dismiss all the mercenaries in their pay immediately.
One of these mercenaries was the Indian Sisikottos, who had been serving as local administrator of Aornos under Philippos and may well have been involved in his death.
As Alexander made his way westwards through Persia his column was swelled by many of the military contingents he had earlier left behind as garrisons. At Persepolis he revisited the remains of the royal palace and expressed his regret at the destruction he had earlier caused there. He then marched on to Susa, greatest of the three Persian capitals, where in the late spring of 324 BCE he organised a mass wedding in the Persian manner for himself and his Companions in a bid to integrate his Macedonian officers into the Persian nobility. Alexander himself married the eldest daughter of King Darius, Roxane, and his closest companion Hephaeston married a younger sister. Other daughters of the Persian and Medean royal families and related aristocracy were married to no less than eighty of Alexander’s Companions. Macedonian soldiers who had married local wives were ordered to come forward to have their marriages registered, and no less than ten thousand did so.
Among those who participated at the mass marriage at Susa was the Macedonian general Seleukos, by every account a strong and courageous man who had fought alongside Alexander in many of his fiercest engagements and, by Arrian’s account, had led the Shield-Bearers against King Poros. Seleukos’s reward was to be given the hand of Apama, daughter of Spitamenes, the most formidable of the Persian chiefs to have opposed Alexander in the Oxus and Jaxartes campaigns.
Alexander was now no more than thirty-one but already showing marked signs of physical and mental decline, brought about as much by his heavy drinking as the many wounds he had suffered. Within fourteen months he was dead, his death at Babylon in the summer of 323 BCE most likely due to malaria or typhoid. Perdiccas, commander of the Companions’ cavalry, then appointed a number of his colleagues to govern various provinces in the name of Alexander’s heir, Alexander IV, born to Roxane two months after his father’s death. These satrapies became the power bases from which each general launched his own bid for ascendancy. With the assassination of Perdiccas in 321 BCE by his own officers, all semblance of Macedonian unity collapsed, and the forty-year Wars of the Diadochi, or ‘Successors’, began.
Meanwhile, on the eastern border of Alexander’s empire Eudemos remained in power in Gandhara, initially sharing control of the Punjab with his ally King Poros before securing Poros’s death by treachery. He and his fellow Macedonian Peithon, satrap of the lower Indus region, hung on but with each passing year their authority diminished until finally both generals withdrew with their armies into Persia in order to participate in the ongoing power struggle for Alexander’s empire.
The winner in the east was Seleukos, afterwards known as Nikator, or ‘the Victor’. In 305 BCE, having secured ‘the whole region from Phrygia to the Indus’, Seleukos the Victor felt strong enough to proclaim himself king of Mesopotamia and Persia. He then set about reclaiming Alexander’s territories beyond the Indus, which had long since reverted to Indian rule.
What followed is summarised by the historians Appian, Justin and Plutarch. According to the first: ‘He [Seleukos the Victor] crossed the Indus and waged war with Androkottos, king of the Indians, who dwelt on the banks of that stream.’ Justin gives a slightly longer account: ‘He first took Babylon, and then with his force augmented by victory subjugated the Bactrians. He then passed over into India, which after Alexander’s death, as if the yoke of servitude had been shaken off from its neck, had put his prefects to death. Sandrocottus was the leader who achieved their freedom.’ Plutarch has more to add on this new Indian ruler: ‘Androkottos, who had by that time mounted the throne, presented Seleukos with 500 elephants, and overran and subdued the whole of India with an army of 600,000 … Androkottos himself, when he was but a youth, saw Alexander himself, and afterwards used to declare that Alexander could easily have taken the country since the king was hated and despised by his subjects for the wickedness of his disposition and the meanness of his origin.’ Clearly, Androkottos and Sandrocottus are one and the same.
It is at this juncture, after a lapse of some twenty years, that the Indian mercenary Sisikottos/Sisocostus and the more shadowy Meroes give way to Sandrocottus (Justin), Androkottos (Appian and Plutarch), Sandrakottos (Pliny the Elder), Sandrokottos (Strabo), and – most accurately of all – Sandrocoptus (mentioned by the third-century CE Greek philosopher Athenaios in a fleeting reference) – referred to hereafter by the core name of Sandrokoptos, no longer a mercenary but king of India.
Of this new ruler Sandrokoptos, king of the Ganderites and Praesians, and his relations with the Macedonian Seleukos the Victor, king of Mesopotamia and Persia – no one is more forthcoming than Justin, even if he adds some fanciful details about the latter’s rise to power:
He [Sandrokoptos] was born in humble life, but was prompted to aspire to royalty by an omen significant of an august destiny. For when by his insolence he had offended Nandrus, and was ordered by that king to be put to death, he sought safety by a speedy flight. When he lay down overcome with fatigue and had fallen into a deep sleep, a lion of enormous size, approaching the slumberer licked with its tongue the sweat which oozed profusely from his body, and, when he awoke, quietly took its departure. It was this prodigy which first inspired him with the hope of winning the throne, and so, having collected a band of robbers, he instigated the Indians to overthrow the existing government. When he was thereafter preparing to attack Alexander’s prefects, a wild elephant of monstrous size approached him, and, kneeling submissively like a tame elephant, received him on to its back and fought vigorously in front of the army. Sandrocottus, having thus won the throne, was reigning over India, when Seleukos was laying the foundations of his future greatness.
Here the Indian king whom Sandrokoptos offended is named not Xandrames or Aggrames (as given by Alexander’s historians) but more correctly as Nandrus. By this account – and ignoring the giant lion and elephant, ancient symbols of royalty and strength – Sandrokoptos offends King Nandrus and flees for his life. He then collects allies, themselves outlaws, and subsequently turns the local Indian population against Alexander’s local satraps in Gandhara – Alexander’s murdered governor Philippos and his successors Eudemos and Peithon – before going on to win the throne of India. All this is achieved before Seleukos the Victor had secured his position as basileus; that is to say, some years before 305 BCE, when Seleukos launched his attack across the Indus.
That attack took Seleukos deep into the Gangetic plains, perhaps even as far as Sandrokoptos’s capital, known to the Greeks as Palibothra or Palimbothra. The latter’s forces then counter-attacked and drove Seleukos back across the Indus and deep into his own territories. The war was then concluded with a peace treaty, under the terms of which the Macedonian king relinquished all claims to India in return for five hundred war elephants, cemented with a marriage. The Greek historians are unusually taciturn on the finer details of this treaty, and only Pliny admits to the loss of Greek territory: ‘The Indians afterwards held a large part of Ariane [a satrapy of the Persian empire encompassing what is now eastern Iran, south-western Afghanistan and Baluchistan] which they had received from the Macedonians, entering into marriage relations with him, and giving in return five hundred elephants, of which Sandrakottos had nine thousand.’