Alexander the Great and the Greek Influence in Central Asia

Bactrian warriors under the Achaemenids (400 to 330 BC)

Events in the mid-fourth century disrupted the political development of Central Asia and B.C. seriously changed the course of history for several centuries. In the eyes of Central Asians, the Greek-Macedonian army led by Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) probably came out of nowhere. He appeared from the west to move triumphantly through Mesopotamia and Persia, defeating the Persian army, one of the world’s most powerful military forces until that time. Alexander successfully fought against the Persian garrisons, campaigning between 330 and 327 B.C., and then suddenly left the region and never returned.

The political situation in Central Asia, along with its economic development, on the eve of Alexander’s invasion contributed significantly to his success. The Persian Achaemenian empire had controlled the Central Asian states in one way or another for about 200 years. By the mid-fourth century this control was already significantly weakened. The centralized Persian Empire had been considerably undermined by internal strife, excessive expenditures on the royal family’s lavish court life, public constructions and numerous military campaigns that siphoned revenues from a shrinking state budget. On top of that, there was growing strife between the center and the Central Asian periphery over taxes and the recruitment of conscripts and mercenaries into the Persian army.

Alexander the Great probably entered Central Asia in 330 B.C., after campaigning in Persia for about four years in pursuit of the Persian King Darius III (380-330 B.C.). Darius III gathered large armies several times but lost all the decisive battles. Step by step he retreated further to the east, probably hoping that the remoteness of his Central Asian satrapies would give him shelter against the advancing Greek troops. However, entrepreneurial Greek merchants, craftsmen and colonists had probably settled in or visited Central Asia and were able to provide help to Alexander. Darius’s military mismanagement and mediocrity angered many of his followers and supporters. In 330 B.C. he was murdered by his own governor Bessus, the satrap of Bactria. Bessus declared himself Darius’s successor and adopted the name Artaxerxes V.

With the rise of Bessus-Artaxerxes V as a self-nominated ruler of the Persian Empire, the war entered a new stage. Alexander and his army faced the threat of a protracted guerrilla war in the difficult mountainous terrain of Bactria and later Sogdiana, where Bessus Artaxerxes V sought refuge. The war did not quite end there, for Spitemenes, a satrap of Sogdiana, rose to lead the local resistance.

Before Alexandria-the-furthest could be begun, news arrived of rebellion, not among the Scyths, but in the rear. Since landing in Asia, Alexander had asked his men to march dreadfully hard, often without food, but he had never entangled them in a slow and self-sustaining struggle with guerrillas. Now for the first time his speed was to be halted. This Sogdian rebellion would exhaust his army’s patience for eighteen unsatisfactory months, make new demands on his generalship and induce a mood of doubt among his entourage. The causes were simple; four of Bessus’s henchmen still ranged free, led by Spitamenes the Persian whose name has a link with the Zoroastrian religion. All four now began to work on the native mistrust of the Macedonians. There was ample reason for it. Anxiously searching for food in the Sogdian desert, Alexander’s army had plundered ricefields, looted flocks and requisitioned horses, punishing all resistance severely. His thirty thousand soldiers could not be fed from any other source, but it was a dangerous way to behave. Meanwhile, the natives saw garrisons installed in their main villages; Cyrus’s old town was being changed into an Alexandria, and already, as in Bactria, Alexander had banned the exposure of dead corpses to vultures, because it repelled his Greek sensitivities. Like the British prohibition of suttee in India, his moral scruples cost him popularity, for Sogdians had not seen Persia overthrown only to suffer worse interference from her conquerors. It was time to be free of any empire, especially when a conference had been ordered at Balkh which the local baronry were expected to attend. If they went they might be held hostage. Bactrians, therefore, joined the resistance, the same Bactrians no doubt, whom Bessus had timorously abandoned, and from Balkh to the Jaxartes Alexander found his presence challenged.

Ignoring the nomad skirmishers who had gathered to rouse the south along the Oxus, Alexander turned against the nearest rebellious villagers. Here his garrisons had been murdered, so he repaid the compliment to the seven responsible settlements in a matter of three weeks. The mudbrick fortifications of the qal’ehs were treated contemptuously. Though siege towers had not yet been transported over the Hindu Kush, collapsible stone-throwers were ready to be assembled if necessary; they were not needed at the first three villages, which succumbed in two days to the old-fashioned tactics of scaling parties backed up by missiles; the next two were abandoned by natives who ran into a waiting cordon of cavalry, and in all five villages the fighting men were slaughtered, the survivors enslaved. The sixth, Cyrus’s border garrison at Kurkath, was far the strongest, because of its high mound. Here, the mud walls were a fit target for the stone-throwers, but their performance was unimpressive, perhaps because there was a shortage of ammunition; stone is very scarce in the Turkestan desert and it cannot have been possible to transport many rounds of boulders across the Hindu Kush. However, Alexander noticed that the watercourse which still runs under Kurkath’s walls had dried up in the heat and offered a surprise passage to troops on hands and knees. The usual covering fire was ordered and the king is said to have wormed his way with his troops along the river-bed, proof that his broken leg had mended remarkably quickly. The ruse was familiar in Greece, and once inside, the gates were flung open to the besiegers, though the natives continued to resist, and even concussed Alexander by stoning him on the neck. Eight thousand were killed and another 7,000 surrendered: Alexander’s respect for his newfound ancestor Cyrus did not extend to rebellious villagers who wounded him, so Kurkath, town of Cyrus, was destroyed. The seventh and final village gave less trouble and its inhabitants were merely deported.

Seemingly unmoved by wounds and the August sun, Alexander left the Oxus rising and returned to plans for his new Alexandria. The only available materials for building were earth and mudbrick, hence the walls and main layout were completed in less than three weeks. Nor was there any shortage of settlers after the recent besieging and razing: survivors from Kurkath and other villages were merged with volunteer mercenaries and Macedonian veterans and were consigned to a life in the hottest single place along the river Jaxartes, where the sun rebounds at double heat from the steeply rising hills on the far bank. The houses were flat-roofed and built without windows for the sake of coolness, but of the comforts of life, of the temples and meeting-places, nothing can now be discovered. The new citizens were chosen from prisoners as well as volunteers, and given their freedom in return for garrison service: they would have to live with Greeks and veteran Macedonians, fiercely tenacious of their native customs and aware that they had been chosen as much for their unpopularity with their platoon commanders as for their physical disabilities.

If the rebels further south had been unwisely forgotten in the first excitements of an Alexandria, it was not long before they forced themselves abruptly to the fore. The sack of seven nearby villages had done nothing for the true centre of revolt; Spitamenes and his nomad horsemen were still on the loose behind the lines, and during the building news arrived that they were besieging the thousand garrison troops of Samarkand. The message reached the Scyths on the frontier-river’s far bank: they gathered in insolent formations, sensing that Alexander was under pressure to withdraw. This was a serious situation, for Alexander’s troops stood at their lowest level of the whole campaign after the recent Alex-andrias and detachments; caught between two enemies, he chose to deal with the nearer and detached a mere 2,000 mercenary troops to relieve Samarkand, leaving himself some 25,000, no more, to shock the Scyths. Two generals from the mercenary cavalry shared the command of the Samarkand detachment with a bilingual Oriental who served as interpreter and as staff officer. They were never to be seen again.

As the relief force rode south, Alexander stayed to teach the Scyths a lesson. At first he ignored their provocations and continued to build, ‘sacrificing to the usual gods and then holding a cavalry and gymnastic contest’ as a show of strength. But the Scyths cared little for Greek gods, less for the competitors, and started shouting rude remarks across the river; Alexander ordered the stuffed leather rafts to be made ready while he sacrificed again and considered the omen. But the omens were deemed unfavourable and Alexander’s prophet refused to interpret them falsely: rebuffed by the gods, Alexander turned to his arrow-shooting catapults. These were set up on the river bank and aimed across the intervening river: the Scythians were so scared by the first recorded use of artillery in the field that they retreated when a chieftain was killed by one of its mysterious bolts. Alexander crossed the river, Shield Bearers guarding his men on inflated rafts, horses swimming beside them, archers and slingers keeping the Scyths at a distance.

On the far bank combat was brief but masterly. Scythian tactics relied on encirclement, whereby their horsemen, trousered and mostly un-armoured, would gallop round the enemy and shoot their arrows as they passed; others, perhaps, kept the foe at bay with lances. Alexander too had lancers, and he also had Scythian Mounted Archers who had been serving for a year in his army. He knew the tactics and dealt with them exactly as at Gaugamela; first, he lured the Scythians into battle with a deceptively weak advance force; then, as they tried to encircle, he moved up his main cavalary and light-armed infantry and charged on his own terms. For lancers, not bowmen, it was the only way to repulse nomad archers and the Scyths were jostled back with no room to manœuvre: after losing a thousand men, they fled away into the nearby hills, safe at a height of some 3,000 feet. Alexander pursued sharply for eight miles but stopped to drink the local water ‘which was bad and caused him constant diarrhorea so that the rest of the Scyths escaped’. He was still suffering from his recent neck-wound which had also lost him his voice, and an upset stomach was a convenient excuse for giving up a hopeless chase, especially as his courtiers announced that he had already ‘passed the limits set by the god Dionysus’. Like the cave of Prometheus, this mythical theme, important for the future, must not be treated too sceptically. In Cyrus’s outpost, stormed by Alexander, altars had been found for Oriental cults which the Macedonians equated with the rites of their own Heracles and Dionysus. If Dionysus had not reached beyond Cyrus’s outpost, furthest site of his equivalent Oriental cult, then Alexander could indeed be consoled for losing the Scythians. The omens had been justified by his sickness and failure.

Bursting the bounds of Dionysus was scant reward for what followed. While the Scythian king sent envoys to disown the attack as the work of unofficial skirmishers, Alexander heard a most unwelcome report from behind the lines. The 2,000 troops who had been sent back to Samarkand to deal with the rebel Spitamenes had arrived tired and short of food; their generals had begun to quarrel, when Spitamenes suddenly appeared and gave them a sharp lesson in fighting a mobile battle on horseback. Unlike Alexander, the lesser generals did not know how to deal with the fluid tactics of mounted Scythian archers, especially when they were outnumbered by more than two to one: their entire relief force had been trapped on an island in the river Zarafshan and killed to a man. The difference between frontline generals and reserves could hardly have been pointed more clearly, especially when Alexander had misjudged an enemy, not so much in numbers as in ability. Even if a larger force could have been spared from the scanty front line, Spitamenes’s speed might still have destroyed it; what was needed was a first-class general in sole command, whereas Alexander had appointed three wrong men and left them to argue. The error was galling and nothing was spared to avenge it.

On the first news of the disaster, Alexander gathered some 7,000 Companions and light infantry and raced them through the 180 miles of desert to Samarkand in only three days and nights. Such speed through the early autumn heat is astonishing, but not impossible, yet Spitamenes easily escaped from another tired and thirsty enemy, disappearing westwards into the barren marches of his attendant nomads. There was nothing for it but to bury the 2,000 dead, punish such nearby villages as had joined the nomads in their victory and range the length of the Zarafshan river for any signs of rebels. The search was unrewarding and eventually even Alexander gave it up: recrossing the Oxus, he quartered for the winter at Balkh, where he could only ponder the most conspicuous mishap of the expedition and the decrease in his forces which were now close to a mere 25,000.

Two wounds, a continuing rebellion and shortage of men and food had made his past six months peculiarly frustrating. But just when his prospects seemed at the worst, hope for a new strategy was to arrive most opportunely in this winter camp. From Greece and the western satraps, 21,600 reinforcements, mostly hired Greeks, had at last made their way to, Bactria under the leadership of Asander, perhaps Parmenion’s brother. and the faithful Nearchus who had given up his inglorious satrapy in Lycia to rejoin his friend in the front line. Far the largest draft as yet received, they allowed the army to be brought up to its old strength; they could be split into detachments, and at once Alexander’s problems would be reduced. Sporadic raiders could be beaten off by independent units and the theatre of war would narrow accordingly. The rocks and castles of the east were fortunately untroubled; north beyond the Jaxartes one raid had so impressed the Scyths that they had sent envoys to offer their princess in marriage. In central Sogdia, 3,000 garrison-troops had been added to a region which had twice been punished; the new mercenaries could now hold Balkh and the Oxus, so that only the adjacent steppes to the west and north-west remained open to Spitamenes. Even here, his freedom was newly restricted.

To Balkh came envoys from the king of Khwarezm, not a hushed desert waste as poets suggested, but the most powerful known kingdom to the north-west of the Oxus, where the river broadens to join the Aral Sea. It had left little mark on written history until Russian excavations revealed it as a stable and centralized kingdom, defended by its own mailed horsemen, at least from the mid-seventh century B.C.: now, it hangs like a dimly discerned shadow over a thousand years of history in outer Iran. In art and writing, it shows the influence of the Persian Empire to which it had once been subject; it was a home for settled farmers, and its interests were not those of the nomads who surrounded it in the Red and Black Sand deserts. Spitamenes was using these deserts as his base, and safety inclined Khwarezm to Alexander’s side. Its king even tried to divert the Macedonians against his own enemies, offering to lead them west in an expedition to the Black Sea. Alexander refused tactfully, though glad of a solid new ally: ‘It did not suit him at that moment to march to the Black Sea, for India was his present concern.’ It was the first hint of his future: ‘When he held all Asia, he would return to Greece, and from there he would lead his entire fleet and army to the Hellespont and invade the Black Sea, as suggested.’ Asia, then, was thought for the first time to include India, and not just the India of the Persian Empire. But polite refusals are no certain proof of his plans and it was easy to talk of the future in winter camp, the season when generals talk idly; it was only to hold back Spitamenes that the king of Khwarezm was wanted. Hopes in this direction had been raised for an early victory: the new reinforcements were brigaded and four Sogdian prisoners were conscripted into the Shield Bearers, because they were noticed by Alexander, going to their execution with unusual bravery. As winter passed, the traitor Bessus was sent to Hamadan, where the Medes and the Persians voted that his ears and nose should be cut off, the traditional treatment for an Oriental rebel.

Alexander decided that his positions were strong enough and he turned to conquer India. Before leaving for India, however, he decided to cement his stand in the region by making some strategic arrangements, one of which was a dynastic marriage. In 327 B.C., by accident or by an accord, he met and married Princess Roxana (Roshanak-“little star” in Persian), the daughter of an influential local leader and one of the most beautiful women in Asia. Other arrangements included the establishment of several cities as Greek-Macedonian strongholds and colonies. Ancient sources traditionally report that Alexander established six such centers in Central Asia: Alexandria of Margiana (near present-day Merv in Turkmenistan); Alexandria of Ariana (near present-day Herat in northern Afghanistan); Alexandria of Bactria (near present-day Balkh in northern Afghanistan); Alexandria on the Oxus (on the upper reaches of Amu Darya, which the Greeks called Oxus); Alexandria of Caucasum (close to present-day Bagram in northern Afghanistan); and Alexandria Eschatae (near present day Khojand in northern Tajikistan).

Bactria and Sogdiana were included in Alexander’s world empire, though very soon after his death in 323 B.C. these provinces began experiencing political turmoil. The empire was shattered by internal instability and infighting and rivalries among his generals. Between 301 and 300 B.C. Seleucus, one of Alexander’s generals, consolidated his control over the Persian possessions and founded the Seleucid Empire. In 250 B.C. Diodotus, governor of Bactria, broke away from the Seleucids and established an independent Greco-Bactrian kingdom. This kingdom flourished for 125 years, between 250 and 125 B.C., as an island of Hellenism in Central Asia. The Greco-Bactrian state prospered and became known as the land of a thousand cities, leaving significant cultural marks among both the settled and nomadic populations of Central Asia. At its zenith it extended its control well into Sogdian territory in the north and to areas of northern India, although it struggled against militant nomadic tribes that regularly attacked the kingdom from the north.

The final blow to the Greco-Bactrian kingdom came from the Eurasian steppe, where powerful nomadic tribal confederations of the Huns and Yueh-Chih fought fiercely for influence in the second century B. C. The Yueh-Chih lost to the Huns and were forced to move to the territory between the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, eventually regaining strength and destroying the Greco-Bactrian state, probably between 126 and 120 B. C.


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