Alexander in India

The retreat from the Beas was a disappointment, not a danger. The men were not so much embittered as exhausted; as for the officers, none of them plotted to take advantage of their king’s defeat. For defeat it was, and the disgrace would far outweigh the negligible fears in Alexander’s mind. He would not easily live with such a rebuff to his sense of glory, the heart of his Homeric values. He reached the Jhelum, only to find that Bucephala had been washed away by the rains; worse, news came from the ladies’ quarters that Roxane’s first baby had miscarried.

Only Porus benefited from the new despair. The ‘seven nations and two thousand towns’ between the Jhelum and the Beas were added to his kingdom; they had lost their interest now that the march to the east had been cancelled. There was only one direction left which promised Alexander his required adventure. It would be ignominious to retrace his steps through the Hindu Kush; now, therefore, was the moment to put the ship timber to use and explore southwards down the Jhelum to the river Indus. It was not the safest route home, but as a link between the conquests in east and west, this waterway might prove invaluable. Though Alexander had at last discovered from the natives that the Indus would not bring him round into the Nile and Upper Egypt he may well have preferred to keep up this hope among his weary troopers.

Back on the Jhelum more than 35,000 fresh soldiers from the west were waiting, raising the army’s strength to 120,000, a massive force by classical standards; they had also brought medical supplies and smart new suits of gold- and silver-plated armour. More important, they would raise morale. Eight hundred ships of various shapes and sizes were needed for the voyage down the Indus, but such was the energy of the newly equipped army that two months later the fleet was ready to be manned by the expert crews of Cypriots, Egyptians, Ionian Greeks and Phoenicians who had been following Alexander, as before they had followed the fortunes of the Persian kings. The journey downstream to the outer ocean could begin.

It is a commonplace of sermons and histories that powerful men are corrupted and pay for their licence by loneliness and growing insecurity. But in life, the wicked have a way of flourishing and not every despot ends more miserably than he began: power may turn a man’s head, but only the virtuous or the uninvolved insist that it must always cost him his soul. Inevitably, with Alexander this moral problem begins to be raised: thwarted, did he lose his judgement and turn on the methods of a textbook tyrant in his i solation? Failure will often show in a general’s style of leadership: he may no longer delegate his work, while refusing to take the blame for its consequences: he may be too exhausted to take a firm decision, too unsure to resist the meanest suspicions. It is only a legend that when Alexander heard from his philosopher Anaxarchus of the infinite number of possible worlds, he wept, reflected that he had not even conquered the one he knew. The need to justify a lost ambition can cause a man to over-reach; moralists, at least, might expect that Alexander’s first rebuff from his army would mark the loosening of his grip on reality.

History does not confirm that this was so. As no officer describes the mood of the king in council, it is impossible, as always, to divide the credit for the army’s actions between Alexander and his staff. Events, however, do not suggest autocracy or nervous indecision. Within two months, the entire fleet had been built from the felled timber, a tribute to the energy of officers and carpenters, and Alexander declared the enterprise open in characteristic style. After athletic games and musical competitions, he ordered animals for sacrifice to be given free to each platoon, and then going on board, he stood at the bows and poured a libation into the river from a golden bowl, calling upon Poseidon and the sea-nymphs, the Chenab, the Jhelum and the Indus, and the Ocean into which they ran. Then, he poured a libation to his ancestor Heracles and to Ammon and to the other gods to whom he usually paid honour, Poseidon, Amphitrite and the sea-nymphs, and he ordered the trumpeter to sound the advance.

The sailors responded, cheered by the taste of free sacrificial meat and by the pomp and variety of their expedition. There were flat-bottomed boats for the horses, thirty-oared craft for the officers, three-banked triremes, circular tubs, and eighty huge grain-lighters for supplies. These, the famous zohruks still used on the river Indus, were now built for the first time to serve Greeks; each able to hold more than two hundred tons of grain, they were one of Alexander’s most valuable borrowings from the East, and their shallow draught and huge single sail would soon prove themselves in strong currents against the usual Greek trireme.

In the hot sun, the men rowed naked. No ornament had been spared for their boats; for the first time, a Greek fleet’s sails had been dyed deep purple, ‘each officer competing with his rivals until even the banks looked on in amazement as the wind filled out their multi-coloured emblems’. Amid this luxury, their lines had been meticulously ordered: baggage-vessels, horse transports and warships were all to keep apart at the prescribed intervals and no ship was to break the line.

The plash of the oars was unprecedented, as was the shout of the coxes who gave orders for the rowers to take each stroke: the banks of the river were higher than the ships and enclosed the noise in a narrow space, so that it was magnified and re-echoed from one side to the other… deserted clumps of trees on each bank helped to increase the effect.

There were also the celebrated songs of Sinde whose rhythms no traveller then or now can leave behind him. The shipment of the horses so surprised the native onlookers, that many of them ran after the fleet, while others were attracted by the echoes and careered along the bank, singing wild songs of their own. The Indians are as fond of singing and dancing as any people on earth.

Alexander had been at pains to involve his officers in the enterprise. With a typical respect for the methods of Athenian government, he appointed thirty-two trierarchs, nineteen being Macedonians, ten Greeks, two Cypriots, and one being Bagoas his Persian favourite, who would take charge of individual warships, finance them and doubtless compete for efficiency of maintenance. Most of the baggage train would follow under escort by land. Its size can only be guessed by comparisons. By now, Alexander was said to be employing some 15,000 cavalry; in the same area in the nineteenth century, British armies would have allowed 400 camels to carry a single day’s grain supply for his horses alone. Nearchus the sea captain gave the size of the expedition as 120,000 men and it is not very likely that this is wild exaggeration or flattery. When their families, concubines and traders are added for a probable nine months’ journey, the scale of the quartermasters’ duties begins to come to life. ‘We need,’ wrote a British colonel, at a time when only gunpowder, heavy boots and stirrups had increased a soldier’s requirements, an extraordinary assemblage of men, women and children, ponies, mules, asses and bullocks and carts laden with all sorts and kinds of conceivable and inconceivable things: grain, salt, cloth, sweetmeats, shawls, slippers, tools for the turners, the carpenters and blacksmiths, goods for the tailors and cobblers, the perfumers, armourers, milk-girls and grass-cutters: moochees must work the leather, puckulias carry our water, while nagurchees will supervise the travelling canteen. What a sea of camels! What guttural gurgling groanings in the long throats of salacious and pugnacious males! What resounding of sticks, as some throw away their loads and run away, tired servants often getting slain or miserably losing the column, thousands of camels dying, not only from fatigue but from ill-usage and being always overloaded. Such is the picture of the baggage of an army in India; Smithfield market alone can rival it.

Protection and supply of the largest baggage train to be seen in the Punjab was one urgent reason for fighting any natives who threatened along the east bank. Another was that Alexander meant to retain any conquests and clear the river, like earlier Persian kings, as the natural frontier for his empire. Even before the retreat from the Beas, he had been warned of unrest among a local tribe called the Malloi. They had long resisted attacks from Porus and threatened to oppose all invaders. As it was not Alexander’s practice to leave any such enemy unscathed, he first subdued their neighbours on the early stages down the Jhelum and then planned to search out the Malloi by disembarking where that river met the Chenab. So far, the boatmen had been coping bravely, showing no fear in surroundings as strange as the Zambesi to its first European crew. But the natives began to talk nervously of the current and at a sudden bend in the river the explorers became aware of what they meant. The Chenab was flowing in on their left; they ‘heard the roar of rapids and stayed their oars… even the coxes fell into frightened silence, amazed by the noise ahead’. There was no hope of stopping before the whirlpools caught the tublike transport vessels and spun them round, loaded with corn and horses; they were heavy enough to survive, but the lighter warships were smashed in collisions, so much so that Alexander himself was forced to leave the royal flagship and swim for his life. The prospect of repairs was one more strain on the men’s morale.

Rather than risk a native attack in the meantime, Alexander left his broken boats and wisely divided his forces: Hephaistion and the remaining fleet were to sail ahead in order to cut off fugitives. Ptolemy, the baggage, and all the elephants were to follow slowly behind, while Alexander took his toughest troops to surprise the gathering Malloi with a mere 12,000 men. The plan was in Alexander’s boldest style and left no scope for suspect loyalties. He was determined to catch his enemy unprepared and, with admirable decision, he took the roughest and most unexpected route: towns intervened, and unless they surrendered they were shown no more mercy than usual. First, the troops stocked up with water from the Ayek river, and then they hurried across forty mud-baked miles of the Chandra desert in a single night, arriving in time to storm the unsuspecting inhabitants of Kot Kamalia fortress and hound down fugitives from marsh-bound Harapur. Driving the tribesmen east across the river Ravi, they made light work of steep Tulamba, a town which later proved too much for Tamurlane, and ‘pressed on boldly’ until all the citizens had been enslaved. Then they hesitated and wondered what was the point of it all.

They could hardly be blamed. They were a select corps cut off from the fleet and many of their infantry were over sixty years old; their toughness was unique but had been strained by three days’ forced marching through the desert, yet Alexander would not leave the Malloi alone. Their capital overlooked the river Ravi and they could use it to harass his approaching baggage; they had summoned troops against him and they could not expect a son of Zeus to turn away. He knew that he had to go on and this time, one of his famous harangues was all that the weary required. The men heard him talk, no doubt of gods and heroes, of Heracles, Dionysus and his own past fortune; emotion gave in to arguments they knew so well and ‘never before was so eager a shout raised from the ranks, as they bade him lead on with the help of heaven’. Not for the first time, Alexander had been saved by his powers of oratory, a gift he had so often observed in his father Philip.

A speech urged the army forwards, but before the towers of the nearby fortress of Aturi, they again began to hang back. When walls had been undermined and ladders placed against the citadel it was left to Alexander to climb them and ‘shame the Macedonians into following one by one’. After a brief rest, the peak of the march was reached: a huge troop of Indians, ‘at least 50,000’, had gathered near a ford across the Ravi. Here, at last, were the Malloi, but they were so harassed by 2,000 Macedonian cavalry that they retired across the river and shut themselves in their greatest city, the fortress of Multan.

Multan is a name engraved on the hearts of every mid-Victorian Englishman in India; only a familiarity with Captain Edwardes’s siege of Moolraj the Sikh in 1848 can explain what Alexander faced at this fateful moment in his career. Like Edwardes he was outnumbered by more than ten to one; he approached across the river and cordoned off the outer wall with his horsemen until the infantry could catch him up. Multan, then as now, was a double city, ringed by a wall near the river bank, and by an inner rampart which marked off the steep city-fortress in its centre. Its position was commanding and its view stretched over a river plain of mangoes, dates and pomegranates. Lushness was not its distinctive quality. Multan, say the natives to this day, is famed for four features: graveyards, beggars, dust and heat. In the early months of 325, Alexander was attacking a fort which was cursed for its uncongeniality.

When the infantry arrived, he led them against one of the small gates whose descendants, centuries later, were to give access to Edwardes’s Scottish sappers. The gate broke and the Macedonians poured in: further round the wall, wrote Ptolemy, scoring a point against his enemy, ‘the troops under Perdiccas hung back’. The next attack gave historians even more of an incentive to disagree. The objective was the citadel itself, which was to defy Edwardes for a fortnight longer than the outer town. Alexander commissioned the diggers and tunnellers and sent for the men with ladders. They were slow to stand forward, so he seized the nearest ladder and scaled the battlements himself; three senior officers followed, one of them carrying the sacred shield of Achilles which Alexander had taken as spoils from the temple at Troy. Indian defenders were brushed away by a few sword-thrusts until the king stood pre-eminent, as at Tyre, his armour gleaming against the background of the sky.

Down below, the ladders had broken and no more bodyguards could climb the wall. Alexander was cut off, under attack from nearby towers. A cautious man would have jumped back among his friends, but caution had never caused Alexander to spare himself for the loss of glory, and so he jumped down into the city. It was a memorable feat, though most irresponsible. He happened to land on his feet beside a fig-tree which gave him slight protection from enemy spears and arrows, but soon the Indians were upon him and he took to vigorous self-defence. He slashed with his sword and hurled any stones which lay to hand: the Indians recoiled, as his three attendants leapt down to join him, carrying the sacred shield. But Indian skills of archery were his undoing; his helpers were wounded, and an arrow, three feet long, struck him through his corslet into his chest. When an Indian ran forward to finish him off, Alexander had strength enough to stab his attacker before he struck home; then he collapsed, spurting blood, beneath the cover of his Trojan shield.

Outside, his friends had smashed the ladders and hammered the pieces as footholds into the clay wall; others hauled themselves up on to willing shoulders and gained the top of the battlement, where at the sight of their king beneath, they threw themselves down to shield him. The Indians had missed their chance, and as their enemies broke down the bars on the gates, they fled for safety. Macedonians were pouring in to avenge a grievance and, like the British smarting under two civilian murders two thousand years later, they massacred the men of Multan, down to the last of the women and children.

Inspection showed that Alexander’s wound was extremely serious and it was with little hope that the Macedonians carried him away on his shield. According to Ptolemy, who was not present, ‘air, as well as blood, was breathed out of the cut’; this would be certain proof that the arrow had punctured the wall of Alexander’s lung, were there not a complication in the medical theory of the Greeks. As the circulation of the blood was unknown and the heart was widely believed to be the seat of intelligence, it could be argued that the veins were filled with air or vital spirit and that in the case of a wound, the air came out first, making way for the blood to follow. Ptolemy may have meant no more than that vital spirit had escaped from the king’s veins, and hence the speed with which he fainted. But if the arrow did indeed pierce Alexander’s lung, as its length suggests, his wound is a fact of the first importance. He would never escape from it; it would hamper him for the rest of his life and make walking, let alone fighting, an act of extreme courage. Never again after Multan is he known to have exposed himself so bravely in battle. True, no more sieges are described in detail, but when Alexander is mentioned he is almost always travelling by horse, chariot or boat. The pain from his wound, perhaps the lesions from a punctured lung, are. a hindrance with which he had to learn to live. So too did his courtiers, but typically no historian refers to their problems again.

For the moment, it seemed doubtful whether he would live at all. His Greek doctor from the Hippocratic school had excised the arrow, but the rumour quickly spread that Alexander was dead. Even Hephaistion and the advance camp heard it and when a letter was brought saying that he was about to come to them, they disregarded it as a fiction of the generals and bodyguard. Within a week Alexander was ready for what he knew he must do. He ordered his officers to carry him to the river Ravi and ship him downstream to the main army; the scene that followed was described by his admiral, and brings us very near to what it was like to be led by a son of Zeus.

As soon as the royal ship approached the camp where Hephaistion and the fleet were waiting, the king ordered the awning to be removed from the stern so that he would be visible to them all. However, the troops still disbelieved, saying that it was only Alexander’s corpse which was being brought for burial. But then, his ship put in to the bank and he held up his hand to the crowd. They raised a shout of joy, stretching their hands to heaven or towards Alexander himself; many even shed involuntary tears at this unexpected moment. Some of his Shield Bearers began to bring him a bed on which to carry him off the ship, but he told them no, they must bring a horse. And when he was seen again, mounted on his horse, rolls of applause broke through the entire army: the banks and the nearby woods re-echoed the noise. He then approached his tent and dismounted, so that he could be seen to walk too. The men thronged round him, some trying to touch his hands, other his knees, others his clothing; other just gazed on him from nearby and said a pious word, before turning away. Some showered him with ribbons, others with all such flowers as India bore at that time of year.

‘His friends were angry with him for running such a risk in front of the army; they said it befitted a soldier, not a general.’ The complaint betrays them; after Alexander’s death, they never commanded such devotion. An elderly Greek came forward, noticing Alexander’s annoyance: ‘It is a man’s job,’ he said in his rough accent, ‘to be brave’ and he added a line of Greek tragedy: ‘The man of action is the debtor to suffering and pain.’ Alexander approved him and took him into closer friendship. He had spoken the very motto of an Homeric Achilles.

It was as if the wound had brought king and army together, for there were no more thoughts of mutiny, only an amazed relief. As for the local Indians, the slaughter at Multan induced them to send presents of surrender and plead for their ‘ancient independence which they had enjoyed since Dionysus’. Their gifts were of linen, a thousand four-horsed chariots, Indian steel, huge lions and tigers, lizard skins and tortoise shells; they sufficed for them to be added into the satrapy of north-west India, for it is a point of some importance that Alexander still intended to rule what he had conquered. After a week or two of convalescence, distinguished by a lavish banquet for the Indian petty kings on a hundred golden sofas, Alexander ordered the fleet downstream to the bend where the Punjab rivers join the lazy current of the Indus; there, no doubt from his sick bed, he gave proof of his continuing plans for the future. First, he divided the satrapy of lower India between a Macedonian and Roxane’s Iranian father; then, near Sirkot, he founded an Alexandria and stocked it with 10,000 troops, telling them to build dockyards ‘in the hope that the city would become great and glorious’. A little lower down the Indus he did likewise, repeating the dockyards and the city walls. Though his many damaged ships needed rapid replacement, these two naval bases were more than a response to a present emergency. They could be lasting pivots in a scheme to develop the Indus river both as a frontier and as a line of communication: ships from the yards would patrol the river, while the northern plains round Taxila and Bucephala would be comfortably within their range.


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