The Bactrian revolt was subsequent to the adoption of the thureophoros in the Seleucid army, and the thureophoros appears in Bactrian art. It is likely that Hellenistic colonist infantry were now similarly armed. A Bactrian army raised by Euthydemos in 208 BC to foil an attempted Seleucid reconquest consisted entirely of cavalry. The Greek cavalry were probably originally standard Hellenistic lancers, adopting the bow later in response to enemy horse archers and elephants. A Graeco-Indian coin depicts a rider in Greek armour with a bow, but also a short spear carried in his quiver. This could have been shortened to fit the available space, but the method of carriage makes it unlikely to have been long enough to be classified as a lance. Another cavalryman in Iranian dress is depicted on a silver dish with a cased bow but using a long lance in both hands as his primary weapon. This could be one of the Iranian nobility, but  has  also  recently  been  interpreted  both  as  a Chionite  Hun  and  as  a  Sassanid  Persian,  both  of  whom  occupied  Bactria  in  the  4th-5th  centuries  AD. A find of cataphract equipment in a government armoury dates to around 150 BC.

The Kushans were originally one of the five Yueh-chi clans who occupied Sogdia and overran the Bactrian Greek kingdom shortly before 130 BC. In the 1st century AD the Kushans conquered the other clans and established the Great Kushan empire over northern India, eastern Iran and much of central Asia. The Kushans became Sassanid vassals in 262 AD, revolted in 356 with Chionite help but were defeated in 358, revolted again in 370 and established their independence by 390 under Kidara, again with Chionite aid. The Chionites settled among the Kushan and became known to the Romans as “Kidarite Huns”. This new “Little Kushan” state lost its northern territories to the Sassanids after a defeat in 468, but remained in being south of the Hindu Kush until it fell to the Hephthalite Huns sometime after 477. Frescoes from a Yueh-chi palace at Khalchayan show a cataphract cavalryman and several horse archers, looking very like Parthian types. Figures equipped as Hellenistic phalangites are shown on the rare “Macedonian soldier” type of Kushan coin, suggesting that remnants of the Bactrian or Indo-Greek forces were incorporated in early Kushan armies.

Macedonian invasion of Bactria

The Macedonian invasion of Bactria heralded a new phase in the offensive in Asia, for now Alexander would be fighting Bactrians, who had played only a minor role in the Persian Wars. The burning of Persepolis and the death of Darius, the last Achaemenid king, had achieved the aims of the invasion that Philip had first outlined to the League of Corinth in 337. Bessus’s threat to the stability of Alexander’s empire was not the Greeks’ problem, but in taking his army into Bactria Alexander was moving well beyond anything the Greeks or his father had envisaged. The young king’s pothos (desire or yearning) was to create an empire that was without parallel, to outdo everyone before him including even Cyrus the Great, and to ensure his fame long after his death. Even at this time Alexander may have intended to travel to the Southern (Indian) Ocean to determine whether his old teacher Aristotle was right when he described India as a small triangular promontory on this ocean. These motives explain why he discharged some of the soldiers provided by the League of Corinth, who went home with a generous bonus; those who remained were now enlisted in his army as mercenaries. The composition of the Macedonian army was also changing. That autumn (of 330) 300 cavalry and 2,600 infantry from Lydia joined the Macedonian army. These were the first of the recruits Alexander had had trained in Macedonian tactics even as early as his campaigns in Asia Minor. The following year 1,000 cavalry and 8,000 infantry arrived from Lycia and Syria. Unfortunately, Alexander’s thirst for fighting, relentless march eastward, and integration of foreigners into his army and administration still proved to be his undoing.

With his men doubtless grumbling the army left Hecatompylus and marched north to Zadracarta (Sari), capital of Hyrcania, by the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. While en route Nabarzanes (an assassin of Darius) wrote to Alexander begging for mercy and offering his surrender. This unexpected event gave Alexander and his men cause to assume that Bessus was not as powerful after all, an assumption that received further support when Artabazus (father of Barsine) and other Persian dignitaries came to Zadracarta seeking Alexander’s friendship. They had in their armies some 1,500 Greek mercenaries, whom he incorporated into his ranks.

Alexander’s troop numbers were increasing, but not so his horses. In the past few months a goodly number of these animals had died from the forced pursuits as well as the intense heat. With this in mind he invaded the territory of the Mardi peoples of the Zagros (not to be confused with the Mardi in southern Persis, against whom he had previously campaigned), who were known for their horses and cavalry skills. In reprisal the Mardi kidnapped Bucephalas, Alexander’s horse, but quickly returned him when Alexander vowed to slaughter all of them and lay waste to their lands. They sent envoys to him who would have brought presents, presumably including horses, which replenished Alexander’s cavalry numbers.

When Nabarzanes surrendered to Alexander in Zadracarta he gave the king various presents including the eunuch Bagoas. Alexander was so taken with this extraordinarily beautiful man that he entered into a lengthy sexual relationship with him. Zadracarta was also the venue for Alexander’s alleged encounter with Thalestris, the Amazon Queen, who wanted to bear his child. She seems to have been more attracted to Alexander by his reputation than anything else, for his short stature surprised her, and she said that it did not live up to his “illustrious record.” Her insatiable sexual appetite was said to have been too much for him, and after two weeks he bade her leave.

From Zadracarta the Macedonians marched to Susia in Areia, on the crossroads of Bactria to the north, India to the east, and Drangiana to the south. There, Satibarzanes, another of Darius’s murderers, submitted to Alexander. His information that Bessus was levying more troops than Alexander had imagined, including many from the tribes living beyond the river Oxus (Amu Darya), which marked the southern boundary of Bactria, motivated him to chase Bessus as quickly as he could. Leaving behind Satibarzanes as satrap with a small garrison of 40 javelin men at the capital Artacoana, Alexander set off along the Kopet Dag massif. His treatment of Satibarzanes shows that he intended to continue using native satraps when and where he could. He had been marching three or four days and had covered about 70 miles when he received the news that Satibarzanes had thrown his weight behind Bessus after all: he had murdered the Macedonian garrison and engineered the revolt of Areia.

At all costs Alexander had to protect his rear. He immediately took a contingent of troops and in just two days was back at Artacoana. A startled Satibarzanes took flight with 2,000 cavalry into Bactria. The other troops with him were not so lucky. They took refuge on a nearby hill, but an impatient Alexander set it on fire, killing them all. With Areia now his again, Alexander installed Arsaces, another Persian nobleman, as satrap and returned to his main army. It was also at this time that the rebellious Barsaentes (also one of Darius’s murderers), satrap of Drangiana and Arachosia, was apprehended as he fled toward the Indus; Alexander wasted no time executing him, thereby removing another potential threat to the Macedonians.

At Phrada (Farah), the capital of Drangiana, Alexander halted and decided to rest his men for the remainder of that winter. Here he was faced with a conspiracy against his life that brought to the surface the critical mood of his men toward his growing orientalism.

The Seleucids

Under the Seleucids, Bactria-Sogdiana formed one vast satrapy , under the rule of a single satrap, as in the Achaemenid period. The division into several satrapies, which Strabo refers to (XI 11,2), came with the rise of an independent Bactrian kingdom. Under the Seleucids the frontier zone (to the north ) was not a cut-off point of no contact between the empire and a ‘remote beyond’ of barbarian nomads: that lay to the north of Sogdiana – the river Syr Darya , beyond which stretched the vast steppes of Central Asia and Siberia, far distant. Bactria was not on the geographic periphery of empire. Also, it must be remembered that the line between nomads and sedentary peoples is not a socio-cultural caesura (Lattimore 1979).

The revolt of Bactria

By the early 230s, on any chronology, all are agreed that a separate kingdom, claiming independence from the ruler Seleucus II, had been created by a Greek named Diodotus , who took the title basileus (king), a satrap who had usurped royal power. The chronology – tied (by inadequate sources) to revolt and to an invasion of Parthia (cf. above p. 87) – presents a mess hardly capable of being unravelled. The ‘high’ chronology sets secession in the early 240s, before the dynastic split between Seleucus II and his brother Antiochus Hierax; the lower chronology sets the revolt later (239/8). This boils down to a ‘choice’ between a time when Seleucus was facing invasion from Ptolemy III, or a time of internal upheaval (‘the War of the Brothers’). Another approach is to see it as a product of ‘neglect’ by Antiochus II (and his immediate successors) of the eastern provinces; according to this the main focus of Seleucid power was in the west. This latter solution will not do. First, it is based upon an argument a silentio; secondly, there is evidence of Seleucus II’s personal, and therefore important, action in the east, for example against the Parthians; furthermore, there is Antiochus II’s appointment of a satrap of Parthia and his rulings for Babylonia (van der Spek 1986, 241-8 (= no. 11); Falkenstein 1941, 4-5). There is no particular reason to suppose that a decision to face Ptolemy’s threats, which seems to have been given priority, meant that ‘the east’ was neglected. The wars of the Seleucids elsewhere may have provided an opportunity but that is not to say that they caused secession. But what sort of factors may have played a part in the secession?

The Successors saw the region of Bactria as a ripe plum, because of its reputed wealth and resources of manpower as a base for expansion – it was not seen as ‘the back of beyond’ (cf. D. S. XVIII 7, where it is described as the base for controlling the Upper Satrapies; Plutarch Dem. 46, noting Demetrius’ plan to carve out a kingdom for himself based on Media and regions east). The joint kingship of Seleucus I and Antiochus was linked directly to Antiochus I’s energetic activity in this region (cf. Plutarch Dem. 46). It is likely to have been the case that any Bactrian satrap was aware of the possibility of secession if he established a concordat with the Bactrian inhabitants, as Seleucus had in Babylonia. That individual ambition played a part is indeed probable, but seems insufficient as an explanation. Anti-Macedonian or pro-Greek elements (Wolski 1977) are not incredible given the massacres of Alexander’s first settlers by Macedonian soldiers, even if these were not as total as claimed in the sources (Narain 195 7; Bevan 1902, 286-7). We are not in a position to guess whether the local population had a ‘better’ deal under the Greek-Bactrians than under the Seleucids, but we can perhaps say that the old idea underlying this view, that the Seleucids were operating an anti-Iranian exclusion policy (e. g. Will and see further below) is wrong, so this approach is suspect. Rostovtzeff 1941, Will 1979-82 and Wolski 1982 tend, in general terms, to see in Bactria an exceptional symbiosis engendered by the threat of Scythian nomad tribes beyond the frontiers of the Seleucid empire (primarily beyond the Syr Darya). The idea of some sort of agreement between ruled and new rulers would follow an earlier pattern: see, for example, Antigonus’ retention of Stasanor as satrap of Bactria, and of Tlepolemos in Carmania, ‘because it was not easy to remove them by letter since their administration had been good with regard to the local inhabitants and they had many supporters’ (D. S. XIX 48,1). The process may have been comparable to that of Seleucus I in Babylonia, who used the resources and power of his position as satrap to form the basis of what was to be built into a kingdom in the end. There is no evidence of a ‘Bactrian’ independence movement, any more than in the Achaemenid period (cf. Briant 1984), because no single Bactrian ‘nation’ existed – that would be an anachronism.

As to the question of the eventual secession of Bactria from the Seleucid kingdom, which, it should be noted, was not final until the second century, many scholars see a sort of external pressure for its lasting in the supposed consequences of what is seen as a total cut-off from the Seleucid empire by Parthia. But this view is untenable: there was no impenetrable barrier erected between these regions (see above pp. 79-89) – traders were passing from Bactria to Parthia, from Parthia to Iran and Mesopotamia; economic and cultural interplay between places under Seleucid rule and the mainstream Greek world, evident in the material finds, and places under non-Greek rule (e. g. Arachosia under the Mauryas), is attested in sculptt1re (imports), pottery, jewellery and epigraphy. The idea of an Iron Curtain descending is anachronistic and out of keeping with practical realities, such as the impossibility of total surveillance of routes across ‘political’ frontiers. It is an argument a silentio in as much as there is a total vacuum of evidence on diplomatic relations between the Seleucid empire and Parthia and Bactria, while there is evidence of intercourse in terms of goods (trade) and culture. Secondly, it misconstrues the gradual course and nature of the impact of the Parthians’ capture of Parthyene a. nd of their temporary incursions into Hyrcania, which could not cut the link with north-east Iran, i. e. the routes from Iran to the eastern satrapies. Only in the course of the second century did the Parthians gain control of the southern side of the Elburz mountains (see above p. 189), winning control of the Caspian Gates (the ‘keys of the earth of Asia’, ap. Isidore of Charax), and begin territorially to occupy it by settlement. The route to the still Seleucid provinces of Margiana and Aria, and so to Drangiana, was reachable from south of the Elburz, via Meshed and Herat, or, with more difficulty, via Carmania.

A second, external danger has been conjured up to ‘explain’ secession in the spectre of ‘a powerful Chorasmian state’ north-east of the Seleucid empire at the north end of the river Amu Darya. Much is uncertain here, since we know of no single ruler or unified empire in the sources. While archaeology has shown urbanisation from the seventh century in the oases and river valleys, and therefore a sedentary population existed, the political structure is a blank, the concept of a powerful state a figment (cf. Briant 1984, 23ff. for excellent critique). What there is evidence of in this area is Greek artifacts and Greek influence in art from sites showing that contacts existed beyond areas under direct Greek-Macedonian rule (Ghirshman 1962; Will 1979, 269). While to the Greeks of the ‘old Greek world’ this area may have remained the ‘back of beyond’ it does not seem to have been so to those nearer at hand.

The ancient Greek sources, going back to the hellenistic period, billed the Greek-Bactrian kings as rulers of ‘a thousand cities ‘. Here a boast is being made in that the many villages of Bactria, including fortified ones, are called ‘cities’, and it should be stressed that these villages are not differentiated from pole is, which in Greece could be very small. However, it would suggest that, in the limited areas where settled life was possible, places organised as communities and recognised as such by Greeks existed in great numbers. This very much recalls other areas in the Seleucid empire, for example the socio-economic pattern of the Iranian region of Rhagae, which had two thousand villages according to Posidonius (in Strabo XI 9,1). Indeed 56,000 villiages have been counted in modern Iran. We may remember also the four hundred villages plundered by the Roman general, Murena, in Cappadocia (Appian Mithr. 9.65). Concentration on the large number of settled communitie s under the rule of the central authority and the perception of this as a reflection of power are not misplaced. The reality was that ‘villages ‘, like other organised communities, functioned as fiscal units and unit s of production, of great importance to the crown.

In Bactria, as elsewhere in the Seleucid empire, space was also found for the land-holdings and oikoi of the cavalry. It has traditionally been accepted that the eight thousand cavalry (a record in terms of the size of cavalry forces in ancient warfare) reputedly produced on the field by Euthydemus again st Antiochus III, were recruited from local people settled in the area. This is the basis of the symbiosis view (see above p. 108). In fact this is not peculiar to Bactria, but is found throughout the Seleucid empire (cf. pp. 55-7 ; 78).

We are thus opposed to the views of several scholars that the reason for the Seleucids ‘ failure in the eastern regions was their inability to solve two problems: first, that of the administration of satrapies at a great distance and their defence; secondly, the (bad ) relations of the rulers with the colonised. Neither of these explanations can be accepted. The first is true of all empires and has nothing specifically to do with Seleucid policy as such : maintaining control over a great distance is always a problem for imperial rulers; the second should simply be rejected as the evidence does not support it. There is no evidence that Bactria and other ‘upper satrapies’ were perceived as, in some sense, more peripheral to Seleucid interests and more difficult to deal with than, for-example, Asia Minor; while Seleucid rule had to accommodate itself to a specific complex of existing socio-economic patterns and local cultural traditions, nothing suggests that this was an unusual political problem demanding, and resulting in, a unique solution.


The Persian tribal migrations from Central Asia into present-day Afghanistan and Iran began after Alexander the Great’s conquests and a century before the Parthians blocked Crassus’s way east. From roughly 200 b. c. to a. d. 200, wave after wave of Persian-speaking Parthian, Saka, and Kushan nomads burst out of the Central Asian grasslands and attacked the Greek cities of Afghanistan. Ancient Balkh, the “Mother of all Cities” and the Bactrian Greek capital south of contemporary Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, was repeatedly sacked.

Credible, comprehensive written records about the varied peoples inhabiting the vast Central Asian steppe in the centuries before and after the birth of Christ are lacking. None of these cultures possessed alphabets. It is clear, however, that this region became an incubator of nomadic tribal groups contesting one another for grazing land-the climate was too harsh to permit agricultural surpluses large enough to support the growth of cities.

A population explosion may have fueled the piecemeal nomadic migration out of Central Asia into the wealthier, more settled, and more organized ancient civilization of the time, which stretched from Rome through Persia and Afghanistan to China. In Europe, German barbarians under Arminius defeated a Roman army at the Battle of Teutoburger Forest south of the Elbe in a. d. 9, driving it back to the Rhine. Thereafter, Rome was consistently on the defensive against the endless chain of tribe driving tribe stretching back through the Central Asia steppe, west into Mongolia and the Takla Mekan, a desert located in contemporary China’s far western Xinjiang Province. The nomadic invasions cast Afghanistan into a shatter zone for groups in search of booty and land. The Persian-speaking Parthian, Saka, and Kushan tribes, distant relatives of most contemporary Afghans, were the first to arrive. They attacked the Hellenistic cities established by Alexander the Great, pillaging, one by one, Balkh and then the Greek principalities at Kandahar, Ghazni, Jalalabad, Peshawar, and Badakhshan. Alexandria, near Kabul, was the last Greek city to fall in about 70 b. c., during the reign of the Greek king Hermaeus, but it was by no means the end of turmoil in the area. The Huns, and then the Turks and Mongols, continued to invade Afghanistan over the next 1,300 years.  

In the first century a. d. the Kushans overran Afghanistan and built an empire based near Peshawar in the region of Gandhara. Kushan kings adopted Buddhism. Their empire profited from its location at the center of the Great Silk Road network of trade routes linking Han China to the Roman Empire. Caravans traversed Eurasia east to west, passing through the Afghan cities of Balkh, Kabul, Bamian, and Herat, and robust trade also moved along the north-south corridors linking Balkh, Kabul, Jalalabad, Peshawar, and Delhi. During the third to fifth centuries a. d., Buddhist missionaries traveling the Silk Road carved two giant Buddha statues into the soaring mountain cliffs of the Bamian Valley about 70 miles northwest of Kabul. The two standing Buddhas, 180 and 121 feet tall, survived invading armies for 1,500 years. In March 2001, the Taliban destroyed them for inciting idolatry and blasphemy and for violating their extremist “Islamic order.”

The White Hun tribes, whom historians also identify as the Hephthaliti or Ephthalite Huns, burst out of the Takla Mekan into Central Asia and began flooding into Afghanistan in the fifth century a. d. As their name implies, the White Huns were Caucasians; according to the Byzantine historian Procopius, they had “white bodies and countenances that are not ugly.” The White Huns were unrelated to Attila’s Black Huns rampaging through Europe at the same time. They obliterated the Kushan Empire and everything else in their path as they proceeded into northern India.

The White Huns, like the Persian Parthians, Sakas, and Kushans, contributed to the bloodlines of most contemporary Afghans. Their empire, covering present-day Afghanistan, western Iran, and northern India, lasted into the second half of the sixth century. The current Pashtun tribal structure, customs, and language retain the imprint of the White Huns. They brought with them words that are prominent in today’s Pashto vocabulary, including the word for “tribe,” ulus, and khan, an honorific name for an important tribal elder or landowner. The nineteenth-century British anthropologist H. W. Bellew listed White Hun and Pashtun shared attributes: “the rigid law of hospitality, the protection given to the refugee, the jealousy of female honour, the warlike spirit and in sufferance of control, the pride of race, the jealousy of national honour and personal dignity, the spirit that loves to domineer.” Instability and political anarchy shook Afghanistan and Central Asia after the White Huns marched through. Turkish tribes invaded in the tenth century, ransacking and pillaging down to the Indus Basin and through Persia into Anatolia. (In 1453, the Saljuk Turks overthrew the Byzantine Empire and established the Ottoman Dynasty, which lasted until World War I.) The great Arab expansion after Mohammed’s death in 632 largely missed Afghanistan, but it extended into Central Asia north of the Amu Darya, converting Turkish-speaking tribes to Islam; Arab and Turkish Muslim spiritual proselytes followed the Turkic sword into Afghanistan, conveying Islam’s message. Arab Sayyids, whose name connotes ancestry extending back to the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, went to Afghanistan to spread Islam, married locally, and settled down. Most inhabitants of Afghanistan had embraced Islam by the mid-nineteenth century.


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