If we were to ask you, “Where was the last
independent Greek state in the world?” would you believe that the answer was India? Indeed,
for a brief period of time, the only part of the Greek speaking world independent from
foreign rule was a small enclave in East Punjab. This diminished rump state was once part of
a much greater Hellenic presence that spanned across modern day Afghanistan, Uzbekistan,
Tajikistan, Pakistan and India. To find out how this came to be, we must start from the
beginning. In this video, we will explore the two-century long history of the Greco-Bactrian
Kingdom, and its cultural legacy. In the year 334 BC, Alexander the Great began
an unprecedented war of conquest across the known world. Alexander and his army of veteran
Macedonians pushed their way through the entirety of the Achaemenid Empire, and then further
East. Many Greek cities were founded in his wake, establishing the Greek people as the
ruling elite across the new Macedonian Empire. This Empire’s eastern borders reached the
Punjab in the south, and the Ferghana Valley in the North. The city of Alexandria Eschate
was established there, its name literally meaning “Alexandria the Furthest”.
Upon Alexander’s death, his generals carved up the conquered territories amongst themselves.
The Ptolemaic dynasty rose in Egypt and the Levant, while the Seleucids ruled over the
former territories of the Achaemenid Empire, throughout Asia Minor, Iran, and parts of
Central Asia. The Seleucids ruled over a vast territory,
across many different people groups, languages and religions. They spent much of their history
feuding with the Ptolemies over the Syrian borderlands. The Seleucids owed the success
of their Empire to their adoption of the Achaemenid Persian administrative bureaucracy. They divided
their Empire into regional “satrapies” where a Greek elite would rule over a native
population, whom usually would take up lower level administration roles. One of the easternmost
and wealthiest of these Seleucid Satrapies was the region of Bactria. And it is in this
region that our story is centered. Bactria was always a rugged, harsh borderland.
In the days of the Persian Empire, it was akin to the wild west. The peoples of Bactria
had always been fiercely independent and resistant to centralized Persian rule. Over time, the
native Indo-Iranian Bactrians would come to be Hellenized, and absorb much of Greek culture,
including the Greek alphabet, but that independent spirit would remain, succeeded by the Greeks
who came to rule the region. When Alexander originally reached Bactria
with his army in 329 BC, he founded eight cities in the area. However, there were already
many Greeks there when he arrived. Remarkably, Bactria, a region on the edge of the Hellenic
known world, had more Greeks than many regions much closer to the Greek mainland. This was
likely a practice adopted by the Achaemenid rulers, who in centuries prior had deported
Ionian and North African Greeks who dissented against their rule.
The reign of King Darius I saw an entire city of Greeks in Barca, Cyrenaica deported due
to their refusal to surrender accused assassins within their walls. Xerxes I had exiled the
Branchidae, priests of the Spring of Didymae in Ionia. Over centuries of Persian rule,
various Greek groups had found themselves in this rugged borderland. As a result, there
was a distinct, independent Hellenic identity in Bactria separate from the Seleucid conscience.
By the year 250 BC, the ruler of the Seleucid Satrap of Bactria, Diodotus, officially seceded
from the Seleucid Empire, and proclaimed himself King Diodotus I of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.
The motivation behind this secession remains unclear. Diodotus may have seen his opportunity,
after the Seleucid Empire was thoroughly weakened by the Third Syrian War with the Ptolemaic
Kingdom. He also took the title “Soter”, which
mean “savior”. It is believed that he acquired this title after driving the Parthians,
led by first King Arcases, out of Bactria. Nevertheless, it is important to remember
that during Seleucid rule, there had always been a distinct Greco-Bactrian identity, enabling
their rebellion. For the time being, the Seleucids were unable
to reconquer their eastern Satrapies, as they were tied up in a bitter struggle with the
Ptolemies. This gave the newly found Greco-Bactrian Kingdom time to establish its borders.
Around 230 BC, Diodotus’ son, Diodotus II was overthrown internally by Euthydemus, who
previously had been the Seleucid Satrap of Sogdia. Euthydemus had deposed the short-lived
Diotodus Dynasty, outraged that they had made an alliance with the Parthian King Arcases,
the very same Arcases whom they had fought against not a decade earlier, who was considered
a threat to all Hellenic civilization. Euthydemus expanded the borders of the Greco-Bactrian
Kingdom to include Sogdiana and Ferghana, including the city of Alexander Eschate. The
Greco-Bactrian Kingdom now ruled all the Hellenistic cities of Central Asia. Euthydemus and his
forefathers would become known as the Euthydemids, the most prosperous dynasty of Greco-Bactria.
King Euthydemus’s first test came in 209 BC, with the ascension of the Seleucid King
Antiochus III. Antiochus was young and ambitious, and had no greater desire than to take back
the territories in Iran and Central Asia that had once been part of the Seleucid Empire.
He first laid ambitions upon the Parthian Kingdom, subduing them by taking the cities
of Hykania, Tambrax and Syrinx. With Parthia neutralized, Bactria was to follow, and thus
Seleucids marched into Bactrian territory. Euthydemus was in Tapuria when he heard of
this incursion. He quickly levied 10,000 heavily armoured Cataphracts and rode to the passage
at the River Arius where he stood prepared to meet Antiochus’ army.
According to his intel, Antiochus knew that Euthydemus and his 10,000 Cataphracts only
guarded the river passage by day, and at night retreated to a nearby walled settlement. So,
on the second day of marching, Antiochus left part of his army behind, and sneaked across
the Arius river with 2000 veteran cavalry, and 10,000 Peltast infantry under the cover
of night. At daybreak, Euthydemus realized that Antiochus
had crossed the river. He immediately rallied all of his cavalry and charged the Seleucid
lines. The Seleucid infantry was taken by surprise, and was yet to form up its ranks.
Antiochus had to act, or his scrambling army would be overrun by a fully armoured cataphract
charge. He rallied his 2,000-strong cavalry, outnumbered 5 to 1, and rode out to meet the
Bactrians to buy his infantry time. Antiochus and his horsemen fought off the first squadron
of cataphracts, and both sides took heavy losses. However, a second and then a third
wave crashed into his ranks, nearly breaking them.
It was at this point that the commander of the Seleucid Peltasts Panaetolus finally rallied
his infantry to Antiochus’ aid. They flanked and overwhelmed the Bactrian Cataphracts,
routing them off the battlefield. It is said that Antiochus rallied his remaining cavalry
and took many prisoners. At this point he had his horse killed under him, and lost several
teeth in the ensuing fall. All contemporary accounts say he fought valiantly.
The Seleucid king had won the initial battle, while Euthydemus had lost a quarter of his
men and been routed. Euthydemus retreated to the city of Bactria, modern-day Balkh in
Afghanistan, and holed up there, prepared to withstand a siege.
Indeed, Antiochus III arrived at the walls of Balkh and besieged it. We know little about
this siege, only that it lasted for three years, and that towards the end, Antiochus
was forced to withdraw. According to the contemporary historian Polybius, Antiochus and Euthydemus
reached an honourable peace, due to recognizing the common threat of nomadic Scythian tribes
in the north, which, as Polybius put it, would “utterly Barbarize” Hellenic civilization
in the east. The Bactrians had secured their independence
through attrition. An honourable peace between Euthydemus and Antiochus was signed, in which
Euthydemus paid Antiochus a number of war elephants as tribute, while Antiochus promised
his daughter’s hand in marriage to Euthydemus’s son, Demetrius, and recognized Euthydemus
as a rightful king. Thus, the sovereignty of the Greco-Bactrian
Kingdom was finally solidified, and it would continue to rule over much of central Asia
and parts of India for many decades to come. The Greek geographer Strabo famously stated
that “The Greeks who caused Bactria to revolt grew so powerful on account of the fertility
of the country that they became masters, not only of Ariana, but also of India”. Indeed,
four decades after Euthydemus’ victory over Antiochus, the Greeks of Bactria accomplished
what even Alexander had failed to do, and conquered parts of India.
From 180-175 BC, under the reigns of Apollodotus I and Demetrius II, the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom
pushed into the regions of Gandhara and western Punjab. Unfortunately while Demetrius II was
campaigning in India, one of his generals back in the Bactrian capital, Eucratides,
staged a coup, seizing Kingship over Bactria. As a result, the Greeks in India split from
their brethren in Bactria creating a distinct Indo-Greek Kingdom which would rule over parts
of India until 10 AD. The most famous of these Indo-Greek Kings was Menander I, who ruled
from 155 – 130 BC. In Buddhist Pali Canon, he is mentioned as a convert to Buddhism,
and a great patron of the faith, resulting in many Greeks converting, and the formation
of a distinct Greco-Buddhist art form. It is said the first sculpture of Buddha depicted
in human form was done by Greek artists, who fused his image with the likeness of their
own gods, such as Apollo. It even became common practice to depict Herakles himself as the
Buddha’s protector. Greek contributions to Buddhist doctrine and art are said to have
eventually spread along the silk road, influencing the Mahayana sect of the faith that came to
be practiced in China. A Roman Geographer and contemporary to the
Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Justin, described the region as “the extremely wealthy Bactrian
Empire of 1,000 cities.” Bactria was known as a land of great riches, a bridge between
east and west. The Chinese explorer Zhang Qian, when visiting the markets of Bactria
in 130 BCE, recorded how impressed he was by the diversity of goods that could be found
there, even observing that many of the products came from China itself. Indeed Bactria was
the crossroads of the world. The Kingdom of Greco-Bactria would come to
an end around the year 125 BC, with the invasion of the Yuezhi, an Indo-European nomadic pastoral
people who had been driven out of their traditional homeland in modern day China by the Xiongnu.
Even though Greek sovereignty had come to an end, the urban infrastructure of the Greco-Bactrians
endured. Greek peoples would continue to have a cultural influence in the successor states
of the region, such as the multi-ethnic Kushan empire, governed by the descendants of the
Yuezhi. The Greeks remained a visible minority group in the region for centuries. The Kushan
language used the Greek alphabet, and adopted aspects of the Greek cults.
In India, the last Indo-Greek King, Strato II, fell in 10AD, after a nearly 200-year
long period of Greek rule in the subcontinent. By the time Strato’s realm had fallen, it
was the last independent Greek state in the world, with all of Alexander’s former territories
conquered by Rome, or the Parthians. The Greek presence on the edge of the known
world at the time may have been a relatively short one, in the grand scheme of things,
but their coins, artworks and ruins are dotted across Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and India to
this day. One cannot ignore the impact they had on the peoples of the region, the wealth
and prosperity they brought to their Kingdoms, and their cultural influence, which still
leaves ripples in our modern world. Thank you for watching our video on the Greek
states of Central Asia and India. We will continue with this topic, so make sure you
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