The Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom: Alexander The Great’s Easternmost Legacy
Alexander the Great was one of the finest and most successful military leaders the world has ever seen. In the 4th century BC he carved out one of the largest empires in history, stretching from Greece to India. Alexander’s military campaigns changed the face of the world, and after his death he left a legacy of new kingdoms and states as his empire disintegrated. One such state, in the easternmost part of the Hellenistic world, was the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom.
This ancient kingdom included much of modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. Moreover, at their height of power, the Graeco-Bactrians were in control of parts of Iran and India.
Although the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom came into being in the 3rd century BC, after the conquests of Alexander the Great, the area acquired its ‘Greek’ nature prior to the arrival of the Macedonian king. This was introduced by the Achaemenids (the first Persian empire), who ruled over the area in the centuries before Alexander.
After more than a century of power, the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom collapsed at the end of the 2nd century BC, overrun by nomadic invasions.
Bactria and the Achaemenids
Prior to the establishment of the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom, the region, known as Bactria, was a satrapy (province) of the Achaemenid Empire. Bactria, known also as Bactriana or Zariaspa, lies between the mountains of the Hindu Kush and the Amu Darya (known also as the Oxus River). The area covered by Bactria corresponds with today’s Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
Cyrus the Great was the first king to conquer the region (Adriaen Collaert / Public Domain)
It is thought that Bactria was properly subdued during the 6th century BC by the Achaemenid ruler, Cyrus the Great. It is also during the Achaemenid period, which lasted for the next two centuries, that the first written records of Bactria were produced.
The Achaemenids succeeded in holding on to Bactria for about 200 years, until their defeat by the Macedonians under Alexander the Great. Over the course of these two centuries, Bactria had become one of the most highly prized satrapies of the Achaemenids.
The Achaemenids prized Bactria so highly because of two factors. Firstly, the plains that stretched from the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush to the Amu Darya were very fertile, making it suitable for agriculture. Secondly, Bactria benefitted greatly from trade.
In addition to deposits of gold, silver, and lapis lazuli in the nearby mountains, the Silk Route also passed through the region, and several trade centers emerged to take advantage of this situation. In addition to materially enriching the area, the Silk Route also brought new religious, cultural, and artistic ideas to the area.
This continued until about 600 AD, long after the demise of the Achaemenids, Alexander’s empire, and the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom.
A Valuable Province
The material wealth of Bactria is reflected in the depiction of its tribute-bearers at Persepolis, the Achaemenid capital. On the eastern stairway of the Apadana, the greatest palace in the city, are the so-called “Tribute Processions.”
These reliefs depict the tributes brought to the Achaemenid ruler by the subjects of his vast empire. Whilst the representatives from other provinces are shown bringing hides, ceramic vessels, and livestock as tribute, those from Bactria were portrayed bearing golden bowls.
The Bactrian tributes depicted in the Apadana include a Bactrian camel (Mostafameraji / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Apart from the wealth generated by Bactria, the area was also a convenient place for the Achaemenids to exile their Greek prisoners of war. During the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the Achaemenids fought many wars with the Greeks.
The Greek prisoners of war from their victorious battles were sent from the western end of the Achaemenid Empire to its eastern end, exiled to Bactria. These prisoners of war intermingled with the indigenous Bactrian population, Hellenizing the region as they brought their Greek ways of life with them to their new home.
This proved an effective way of normalizing the Greek population into the Achaemenid Empire. In later centuries, the Achaemenids frequently included the Bactrian Greeks in their armies, as they were formidable warriors.
Alexander The Great
In May 334 BC, Alexander the Great landed in Asia, marking the beginning of his campaign against the Achaemenid Empire. By the winter of 329/8 BC, Alexander and his army had arrived in Bactria, after crossing the wild mountains of the Hindu Kush.
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This meant that the Macedonians entered the area from the southeast, taking the Achaemenids by surprise, as they were expecting the invaders to come from the west. Bactra, the capital of the satrapy, was easily captured, after which the Macedonians passed through the desert, and crossed the Amu Darya.
The Bactrian and Sogdian tribesmen were shocked by the rapid advance of the Macedonian army. Therefore, they turned against the Achaemenids and captured their ruler, Artaxerxes V Bessus. He was handed over to Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals.
Shortly after this, however, the Bactrians and Sogdians revolted again, this time against Alexander, as they opposed some of the measures imposed by the Macedonian ruler on them. This second revolt was crushed by the Macedonians.
Roxane and Alexander the Great (Il Sodoma / Public Domain)
After things had settled, Alexander tried to gain the support of the indigenous population by marrying a local princess, Roxane. Alexander, needless to say, had no intention of staying in Bactria forever, and continued his campaign of conquest by again crossing the Hindu Kush to invade the region of Punjab.
Before leaving Bactria, Alexander left an occupation force to ensure the region remained loyal to him. It is estimated that this force consisted of up to 30,000 men, many of whom were Greek mercenaries.
Rebellion And The Seleucids
In early 325 BC, the Greeks left by Alexander in Bactria revolted, and decided to return to Greece. This occurred as a result of Alexander being almost mortally wounded whilst besieging the citadel of the Mallians in northern India.
The Greek occupiers were supported by the indigenous population, who wanted them to leave their territory, so that they could return to their old way of life. Alexander, however, recovered and managed to suppress this revolt.
The Greeks in Bactria revolted again in the summer of 323 BC, following Alexander’s untimely death. Although an army under the command of Peithon (one of Alexander’s inner circle) was sent against the rebels, and many of the Greek settlers were killed, the revolt was never fully suppressed.
Alexander’s empire broke up almost immediately after his death, and his generals began to fight amongst themselves for supremacy, and control of territory. One of the consequences of this was that Bactria was left alone whilst Alexander’s generals were fighting in the west.
In 309 BC, Seleucus I Nicator emerged victorious from the Babylonian War. This victory gave Seleucus, the founder of the Seleucid Empire, control over the eastern satrapies/provinces of Alexander’s empire. In 308 BC, Seleucus sent an army to Bactria to claim it as part of his newly established empire.
The Seleucid Empire encompassed Bactria in the east (Arab Hafez / Public Domain)
In the decades that followed, Bactria remained part of the Seleucid Empire. Under Seleucid rule, Hellenism was further introduced into Bactria. This satrapy in turn contributed greatly to the wealth of the Seleucid Empire, and hence became known in Antiquity as the ‘Land of a Thousand Cities’.
It seems that, for a period, the Bactrians and Greeks lived together harmoniously. All this changed, however, during the middle of the 3rd century BC.
In 245 BC, Andragoras, the satrap of Parthia, to the west of Bactria, rebelled against his Seleucid overlords. Although Andragoras succeeded in establishing an independent kingdom, he was unable to hold on to it for long.
Without Seleucid military support, Andragoras’ kingdom was susceptible to foreign invaders. In 238 BC, the Parni, a collection of eastern Iranian tribes under their leader Arsaces I, invaded Parthia, overthrew Andragoras, and established the Parthian Empire.
Around the time of Andragoras’ revolt, Bactria was governed by a satrap named Diodotus. This satrap had held his office since the reign of Antiochus I, the immediate successor of Seleucus I. After hearing of Andragoras’ revolt, Diodotus too decided to shake off the Seleucid yoke.
The Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom (Unknown Author / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Therefore, he renounced the overlordship of the Seleucid Empire, declared Bactria an independent kingdom, and proclaimed himself king. Thus, the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom was established.
Unlike Andragoras, Diodotus managed to hold on to hold on to his new-found kingdom. He is said to have succeeded in repelling a Parthian invasion, and did not suffer retribution from the Seleucids, who had other problems to deal with in the western part of their empire.
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Nevertheless, as a result of the rise of the Parthians, the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom was cut off from the rest of the Hellenistic world. Apart from that, the Parthian presence undermined Bactrian control of overland trade along the Silk Route, resulting in a reduced rate of trade between Bactria and the Hellenistic world.
The Early Kings Of Graeco-Bactria
Diodotus probably enjoyed a prosperous and peaceful reign. According to some scholars, when the Seleucid Empire was in chaos around 246 BC, its ruler Seleucus II tried to secure Diodotus’s friendship by marrying one of his sisters to him. This could be regarded as a reflection of the significance of the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom.
Diodotus was succeeded as king by his son, Diodotus II, who was less fortunate than his father. Around 225 BC, Diodotus was overthrown by a usurper, Euthydemus, who became the next ruler of the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom.
It is thought that Euthydemus was originally a satrap of Diodotus, perhaps ruling over Sogdiana in the north east. This is due to the belief that Euthydemus’ control extended all the way to this area.
Silver coin depicting Euthydemus. Note the Greek alphabet (Rani nurmai / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Towards the end of the 3rd century BC, the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus III the Great, launched a military campaign in the east in an attempt to recover the satrapies lost by his predecessors. Around 206 BC, Euthydemus met the invading Seleucids with an army in northwestern Afghanistan. Although the Graco-Bactrians were defeated, Euthydemus managed to escape, and returned to Bactra, his fortified capital.
Antiochus pursued Euthydemus, and laid siege to the city. The Graeco-Bactrians withstood the Seleucid siege for the next two years, and the conflict was brought to an end by a peace agreement between the two sides.
Whilst Antiochus allowed Euthydemus to keep his kingdom, Euthydemus acknowledged Antiochus as his overlord. The peace agreement was sealed by the marriage of one of Antiochus’ daughters to Euthydemus’ son, Demetrius.
Expansion And Civil War
Following this conflict with the Seleucids, the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom began to expand its borders. To the south, India had been in turmoil for decades since the death of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka in 232 BC.
Around the beginning of the 2nd century BC, the Graeco-Bactrians seized the opportunity to invade India. The Hindu Kush, which traditionally marked the border between the Graeco-Bactrians and the Mauryans, was breached around 180 BC by Demetrius, who had succeeded his father, Euthydemus. The invasion was a success, resulting in the establishment of the Indo-Greek Kingdom in northern India.
Whilst Demetrius was campaigning in India, a usurper by the name of Eucratides seized the Graeco-Bactrian throne. Demetrius returned to Bactria, determined to reclaim his kingdom, but it was not to be. He was met in battle by the forces of Eucratides, defeated, and killed on the battlefield.
Eucratides is said to have been a descendant of Diodotus, and his coup, therefore, may be regarded as the restoration of the Diodotid dynasty. Like Demetrius before him, Eucratides also sought to extend Graeco-Bactrian control into India, and campaigned extensively in the northwestern part of the country. The success of Eucratides’ campaigns is reflected in his abundant coinage, inscribed in both Greek and Pali, a language of the Indian subcontinent.
Eucratides was eventually murdered by his own son around 145 BC. This resulted in a civil war, which weakened the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom. Consequently, the Graeco-Bactrians were unable to stop the advance of the Yuezhi, a nomadic tribe that arrived from the north.
The path of the Yuezhi migrations (World Imaging / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Yuezhi had fled westwards following their defeat by the Xiongnu in 162 BC, and it is unclear if their move into Bactrian territory was a resettlement, or an invasion proper.
The Collapse Of The Kingdom
In any case, the Yuezhi continued their advance, and around 125 BC, the last Graeco-Bactrian king, Heliocles II, abandoned Bactria, and moved his capital to the Kabul valley, where he ruled over his territories in India. This may be regarded as the end of the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom.
The Indo-Greek Kingdom, which was founded by Demetrius, however, survived until the first years of the 1st century AD. This represents the continuation of Hellenism in the east. Additionally, the Yuezhi, who remained in Bactria till around 12 BC, were also Hellenized to a certain degree. This is seen, for instance, in their adoption of the Greek alphabet.
So it was that the long Hellenic tradition in the region endured. The Greeks were already present in Bactria during the Achaemenid period, long before the arrival of Alexander the Great. It was only during the time of the Seleucid Empire, however, that an independent Greek kingdom, the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom, came into existence in that area.
Although the kingdom was the part of the Hellenistic world, it was separated from it by the Parthian Empire. Whilst the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom kept its Greek roots, it was, for the most part, not involved in the politics of the Hellenistic world. Instead, its attention was always to the west and India, where it succeeded in establishing the Indo-Greek Kingdom.
The legacy of the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom lies in its transportation of Hellenism to this part of the world. And the unique culture that resulted combined influences from both the East and the West.
Top image: The Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom forged its own Greek identity, far from Greece. Source: Ksenia Tassel / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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