Alexander the Great, or the Merely Mediocre: the spinning of a legendMany years ago I came across a comment in a Usenet posting (to those who don’tremember Usenet, it was the blog of the pre-web world), that said that there was no proofthat Alexander won any victories in India and that it might be more appropriate to callhim “Alexander the Merely Mediocre”.The comment amused and intrigued me and much later I had an opportunity to readAlexander’s biography by Plutarch. I was surprised to find out that Plutarch wrote hisbiography over two hundred years after Alexander’s death using oral legends as hissource. It is possible that he may also have had access to a personal diary kept byAlexander’s physician, but that is about it. Plutarch wrote the biography of Alexander aspart of a series of biographies that contrasted the different styles of great Greek leaders,and in his view, Alexander was possibly the greatest of the greats, flawed only byyouthful indiscretions. But otherwise, the tale came from legends spread by Alexander’sfriends after he came back from India and died.So the story of how Alexander met and defeated the Puru king (“Porus” to the Greeks)and released him because Puru asked to be “treated like a king” in defeat did not comefrom any documented source. It was a legend.The story, then, of Alexander’s triumphant march into India, finally only giving up at theurging of his soldiers who were tired after years of fighting and who wanted to return totheir loved ones (in Persia?); the odyssey down the Indus, defeating various kingdoms butsustaining a deadly wound; and, finally splitting his army in two so that they would havea better chance of returning with the news in case of further conflicts; returning with afraction of his army to the seat of his empire in Persepolis and his death from his wounds;all based on legend. No documents, no sources, just myth.So did Alexander really venture successfully into India and turn back at the urging of hismen? Or was it all spin?I’ve searched what I can access of Usenet now and looked elsewhere for any follow-up tothe original comment. I did not find any, so I thought I should follow up, if only with acomment on Boloji!Alexander’s defeat of the Persian empire and his victory over Egypt are well documentedby non-Greek sources. So, I am not saying anything about these. After Alexander’sdeath the empire was divided into three, corresponding roughly to Greater Greece, Egypt,and Greater Persia, with tributaries to the east commanded by generals, such as Seleucus.No lands east of the Indus were part of this division; and subsequently, under theMauryas, an Indian empire extended all the way into modern Afghanistan (ancientGandhara) and modern Baluchistan (ancient Gedrosia). So Alexander did not even leavebehind successors who would acknowledge his rule.
So what exactly happened to Alexander in India?Supposedly, Alexander first met some resistance from minor kingdoms in the Northwest,possibly from around Swat. He defeated these rulers. Then he met Ambi of Taxila whowelcomed him as a fellow ruler, agreed to be his vassal, and offered him safe transit tothe east. Then Alexander laid siege to a city and commited a crime against Athena bypromising a safe conduct to mercenaries defending the city and massacring them afterthey left the city – Plutarch believes that the withdrawal of Athena’s blessing was thereason why he could not complete his victories in India.Then Alexander crosses the Indus into the Punjab and somewhere near modern-dayDelhi, perhaps even in the historic battlefields of Panipat or Kurukshetra, he fought Porusand Porus lost. There is a story about how the Indian elephant brigade was winning theday when by cleverly attacking Porus’ elephant, the Greeks managed to un-elephantPorus, and the elephants in disarry retreated rough-shod over their own troops.Porus is captured and brought to Alexander in chains. Alexander looks at the tall(supposedly 6 cubits) Porus and asks him how he wanted to be treated. Porus replied,“Like a king” – his arrogance and pride aroused Alexander’s admiration.Promptly, Alexander released Porus, agreed to be his friend, restored his lost kingdom tohim, and added to it lands that were part of Ambi’s Taxila.Huh? Let’s have that again.Ambi, who fought on Alexander’s side, lost lands to Porus as a result of Porus’s defeat.Some defeat.Then, having established himself as a magnanimous victor, Alexander asked Porus whatit would take to win the rest of India. He made the mistake, I guess, of asking this inpublic with all his generals listening in, and Porus described the entire rest of theGangetic valley with its multiple kingdoms, and the Magadhan empire downstream.Porus described these in terms of how much bigger they were than his own littlekingdom.As a result, there was no more stomach among Alexander’s generals for continuing. Theyhad almost lost to Porus. How could they successfully confront even larger forces?And so Plutarch’s story goes that the army revolted against continuing. And Alexanderdecides to retreat, but he asks Porus what the best way to return would be. He is told thathe should go down the Indus in boats and then go along the Makran coast in boats andships to Arabia and thence to Persia. And Alexander does something like that – at theIndus delta he splits his force into two and sends one by sea and the other by land andthey both return safely after three years.
But, uh-ho?Why couldn’t he just retreat? He had just defeated Porus and obtained his eternalfriendship. He had defeated the kingdoms along the way and set up his own warlords torule them. Ambi was his friend (well, maybe). He knew the way back.There is a simpler explanation that does not require one to strain one’s intelligence.Alexander lost to Puru. Puru imposed a separate peace on Ambi that included thesurrender of some Taxilan land to Puru and a withdrawal of support for the Greeks.Alexander negotiated a safe-conduct for his own troops, provided they went down theIndus, and did not trouble Taxila or Puru again.So there’s Alexander, having suffered his first major defeat, set adrift down the Induswith a much reduced army. To get food and supplies, they have to negotiate or fight withthe cities they pass. They even pick up some “philosophers” from a city populated anddefended by “philosophers”, i.e., Brahmins. Plutarch has some stories about theseBrahmins, some of which remind one of prescriptions in Kautilya’s Arthashastra.Along the way, Alexander suffers a wound to the side.They reach the delta of the Indus and make a decision to split – I’d like to imagine thatthe idea of splitting his force came from his Indian philosopher friends. It was wiseadvice. Alexander’s most urgent concern would have been for his family and his empireif any Persian enemies or even some fair-weather friends received the news of his defeat.The two halves of his army would be tied by bonds of friendship (and hostages in all butname retained by Alexander in his force). Whichever half returned first, it would serve tospread a different story, a story of the victory and the magnanimity of Alexander theGreat.What was left back in the Gangetic plain? Two “small” kingdoms, Taxila and Puru, thatwere to be swallowed up by the expanding Magadhan empire. Twenty years later,Chandragupta Maurya would take over the Magadhan empire and the true details of theencounter between these Indian kingdoms and Alexander would be lost to history forever.Instead, Alexander’s physician and friend who had taken care of him on his deathbed hada journal to write. And his other friends had a story to tell, that would ensure that themyth of Alexander Megalos (the Great) would keep his enemies from attacking him as helay dying.Centuries later, Plutarch makes Alexander immortal.Why do I call the legend of Alexander “spin”. Because that is what it is. Alexandercould not afford to look like a loser. His successors could not afford to look like losers.Years later, Plutarch could not afford to deflate the Alexandrian bubble.
If we took the inhabited portions of all of Alexander’s verified conquests, and excludedthe “Indian” provinces of Gandhara and Gedrosia, the resulting empire, “Alexander’sempire”, would be a little bit smaller than the inhabited portions of the Gangetic plain.Yes, Alexander may have been a great warrior and he was surely a lucky one when hedefeated the weakened Persian empire, but it would be silly of us to accept withoutquestion the thesis that Alexander was all set to conquer the kingdoms of North India.But such is the influence of the “West” on us Indians – and by the “West” I mean thePersians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Europeans, the English, theAmericans, and so on, that we accept without question that some tin-pot megalomaniacwas about to do just that.