Marshal Gregory Zhukov, the legendary Russian commander, said the
Macedonians had suffered a catastrophic defeat in India. In the final
part of this analysis, fact and fiction are separated.
After defeating Persia in the year 334 BCE, Alexander of Macedon was
irresistibly drawn towards the great Indian landmass. However, the
Persians warned him the country was no easy target; that several
famous conquerors had fallen at the gates of India.
The Persians told him how their greatest king, Cyrus, who had
conquered much of the civilised world, had been killed in a battle
with Indian soldiers exactly two centuries before Alexander.
And in an earlier antiquity, the Assyrian queen Semiramis, who had
crossed the Indus with 400,000 highly trained troops, escaped with
just 20 troops, the rest being slaughtered by the Indians.
In his book, Foreign Influence on Ancient India, Krishna Chandra Sagar
says 150 years before Alexander, Indian archers and cavalry formed a
significant component of the Persian army and played a key role in
subduing Thebes in central Greece.
Alexander, however, knew no fear. More than anything else, he wanted
to invade India. It would prove to be a strategic blunder.
“Following Alexander’s failure to gain a position in India and the
defeat of his successor Seleucus Nikator, relationships between the
Indians and the Greeks and the Romans later, was mainly through trade
and diplomacy. Also the Greeks and other ancient peoples did not see
themselves as in any way superior, only different.”
This statement by Russia’s Marshal Gregory Zhukov on the Macedonian
invasion of India in 326 BCE is significant because unlike the
prejudiced colonial and Western historians, the Greeks and later
Romans viewed Indians differently. For instance, Arrian writes in
Alexander Anabasis that the Indians were the noblest among all Asians.
In fact, Arrian and other Greeks say the Indians were relentless in
their attacks on the invaders. They say if the people of Punjab and
Sindh were fierce, then in the eastern part of India “the men were
superior in stature and courage”.
All this is glossed over by Western historians, in whose view the one
victory over king Porus amounted to the “conquest of India”. But the
Greeks made no such claim.
Battle of Hydaspes – Hardest ever
Greek contemporary writers describe the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum) as
the hardest fought of all Alexander’s battles. Frank Lee Holt, a
professor of ancient history at the University of Houston, writes in
his book, Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant
Medallions: “The only reference in Arrian's history to a victory
celebration by Alexander's army was after the battle with Porus.”
Alexander’s army did not indulge in celebrations after the Battle of
Gaugamela where they defeated 200,000 Persians. No wild festivities
were announced after the Battle of Issus where they defeated a mixed
force of Persian cavalry and Greek mercenaries.
The fact they celebrated after the Battle of Hydaspes suggests they
considered themselves extremely lucky to survive after the clash with
the Hindu army, with its elephant corps.
If Porus lost, why reward him?
According to the Greeks, Alexander was apparently so impressed by
Porus he gave back his kingdom plus the territories of king Ambhi of
Taxila who had fought alongside the Macedonians.
This is counterintuitive. Ambhi had become Alexander’s ally on the
condition he would be given Porus’ kingdom. So why reward the enemy,
whose army had just mauled the Macedonians?
The only possible answer is at the Battle of Hydaspes, the Macedonians
realised they were dealing with an enemy of uncommon valour. Sensing
defeat they called for a truce, which Porus accepted. The Indian king
struck a bargain – in return for Ambhi’s territories, which would
secure his frontiers, Porus would assist the Macedonians in leaving
Alexander’s post-Hydaspes charitable behaviour, as per Greek accounts,
is uncharacteristic and unlikely. For, in battles before and after, he
massacred everyone in the cities he subdued.
Why pay off a vassal?
Before the battle, Alexander gave king Ambhi 1000 talents (25,000
kilos) of gold for fighting alongside the Macedonians. The only
explanation is Ambhi was driving a hard bargain. He knew the rattled
Macedonian army was seeking to quickly exit India. He thought he could
use the Macedonians to remove his rival Porus. However, Porus’
decision to offer Alexander combat checkmated those plans.
Tired of fighting: Lame excuse
Greek sources say Alexander retreated from India because his soldiers
were weary, homesick and close to mutiny. Imagine if German soldiers
had told Hitler they were tired of fighting? They would have been
summarily shot. In Alexander’s time, the punishment was crucifixion.
The Macedonian army had a system of rotation where large batches of
veteran soldiers were released to return home (with sufficient gold
and slaves). In their place, fresh troops eager poured in from Europe.
If they were weary of constant warring, it is inexplicable why these
soldiers chose to fight their way through obstinately hostile Indian
territories. The homesick soldiers would have preferred the garrisoned
northwestern route they took while coming in. Why would a brilliant
commander subject himself and his troops to further violence when all
they wanted was a peaceful passage home?
Clearly, the Macedonians were in a mess and not thinking straight. Not
the sign of a victorious army.
Need for glory
David J. Lonsdale, a lecturer in Strategic Studies at the University
of Hull, writes: “Alexander’s invasion of India and Napoleon’s
invasion of Russia in 1812 both appear reckless and unnecessary from a
strategic perspective. Therefore, perhaps they can both be explained
by the sheer naked ambition of the two commanders.”
Alexander’s tragedy was he was in a Catch-22 situation. The
Macedonians and Greeks welcomed the wealth from the conquered lands,
but the man who ensured this flow was persona non grata.
In Greek eyes a Macedonian was hardly an equal. The Greeks hated
Alexander for sacking their cities and enslaving their people. In his
own country, he was an outsider for being half-Albanian, from his
mother’s side. The common people suspected him of murdering his
So in order to retain the loyalty of his troops, Alexander had to wage
constant war while also taking great personal risks in battle. For, he
could not be seen as weak, let alone beaten.
A few years before the Indian campaign, a large part of the Macedonian
army was massacred by the Scythians (Hindu Shakas, the Buddha’s
clansmen) at Polytimetus, present day Tajikistan. Alexander warned his
surviving troops not to discuss the massacre with other soldiers.
Strabo, the Greek historian wrote: “Generally speaking, the men who
have written on the affairs of India were a set of liars…Of this we
became the more convinced whilst writing the history of Alexander.”