Alexander vs Porus: Beyond the fog of war
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 its gates.
The Persians told him that two centuries before Alexander’s arrival, the great Zoroastrian king Cyrus had entered the northwest region to invade India, but lost, before reaching it, the greater part of his army. Only seven of his soldiers lived to see Persia again. (1)
In an earlier antiquity, the Assyrian queen Semiramis, who had who crossed the Indus with 400,000 highly trained troops, escaped with just 20 men, the rest being slaughtered by the Indians. (2)
Historian Krishna Chandra Sagar (3) says 150 years before Alexander, Indian archers and cavalry formed a significant component of the Persian army and played an important role in subduing Thebes in central Greece.
But peace and quiet were unknown to Alexander. He was one of history’s greatest warriors – a killing machine so relentless that his very oxygen was fighting, conquest and territorial expansion. Arrian, the Greek historian writes: “Alexander had no small or mean conceptions, nor would he ever have remained contented with any of his possessions so far, not even if he had added Europe to Asia, and the Britannic islands to Europe; but would always have searched far beyond for something unknown, being always the rival if of no other, yet of himself.” (4)
Therefore, when he heard of the failures of Semiramis and Cyrus, the Macedonian king declared that he wanted to invade India more than ever. 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.”
The above statement by Russia’s legendary general 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.
According to Arrian, “Moreover, they discovered that they were tall in stature, in fact as tall as any men throughout Asia, most of them being five cubits in height, or a little less. They were blacker than the rest of men, except the Ethiopians ; and in war they were far the bravest of all the races inhabiting Asia at that time.”
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 claimed victory over the small Paurava kingdom of Porus amounts 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) in June 326 BCE as the hardest fought of all Alexander’s battles. Frank Lee Holt, a professor of ancient history at the University of Houston, writes (5): “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 a gigantic Persian army of 200,000 men. 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 feared elephant corps.
If Porus lost, why reward him?
One of the iconic exchanges in world history is that between the `two kings. When Alexander met Porus after the battle, he is reported to have asked him how he wanted to be treated. Porus replied: “Like a king.” If there was anything else he wanted for himself, Alexander said, he only had to ask. “Everything is included in that,” Porus said.
This is certainly not an exchange between a victorious ruler and a defeated one, but it has all the appearance of a negotiation. According to Arrian, “When they met, Alexander reined in his horse and looked at his adversary with admiration. He was a magnificent figure of a man, over seven feet high and of great personal beauty; his bearing had lost none of its pride; his air was of one brave man meeting another, of a king in the presence of a king with whom he had fought honourably for his kingdom.”
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. The mauling Alexander’s troops received was a greater order of magnitude than ever before. Military historian Nigel Cawthorne (6) says the Macedonian army suffered 4,000 casualties. That’s a staggering number considering Paurava was a tiny kingdom.
A more probable scenario is that sensing defeat the Macedonians called for a truce, which Porus accepted. This is in line with the behaviour of Hindu kings throughout history – from Prithviraj Chauhan at the First Battle of Tarain in 1191 to the numerous wars fought against the British, to the 1948, 1965 and 1971 wars in the modern era, Hindus have shown an unbroken – and unnecessary – merciful streak. Instead of chasing the defeated army and finishing him off, they have allowed the foreign invader to live and fight another day.
At Hydaspes, the Indian king may have offered them a deal that was difficult to turn down. In return for his enemy Ambhi’s territories – which would secure the Paurava kingdom’s frontiers – Porus would assist the Macedonians in leaving India safely.
Alexander’s post-Hydaspes charitable behaviour, as described in Greek accounts, is uncharacteristic and unlikely. For, in several battles before and after Hydaspes, he had massacred or enslaved 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 too was driving a hard bargain. He knew the rattled Macedonian army was seeking to quickly exit India. Ambhi thought he could use the Macedonians to remove his rival Porus. However, Porus’ decision to offer Alexander combat checkmated those plans.
The reason for placating Ambhi with gifts was that the moment he stepped into India, Alexander had met fierce resistance. Comparatively small Hindu kingdoms had checked his advance at great cost to life and property. Unlike the Persian king who had fled from the battlefield, the rulers of republics such as the Aspasians, Assakenoi, Bazira and Ora (located in or around the Swat Valley in modern Pakistans) had led from the front while defending their citadels. They nobly played their role as guardians of India’s gateway.
At Massaga, for instance, 7,000 male and female Indian mercenaries decided to fight Alexander rather than switch allegiance and fight their hosts. They put up a fierce fight, meeting a glorious death “which they would have disdained to exchange for a life with dishonour”. (7)
Tired of fighting: Lame excuse
Greek sources say Alexander retreated from India because his soldiers were weary, homesick and close to mutiny. This is a line happily latched on to by Western historians as it gives them the almost perfect alibi to bail out Alexander. But that’s not how professional armies work. 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 whereby 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.
Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (8) notes that after the battle with the Paurava army, Alexander received a reinforcement from Greece at the river of more than 30,000 infantry and nearly 6,000 cavalry; also suits of armour for 25,000 infantry, and 100 talents of medical drugs.
Mutiny and inglorious retreat
The Battle of Hydaspes had drained Macedonian morale; after the next battle, with the republic of the Kathas at Sangla, which left thousands of Macedonians killed and wounded, the army was on the point of rebellion. The tipping point came when Pheges, an Indian king who decided not to fight but let Alexander pass through his territory, confirmed the massive size and ferociousness of the Nanda army east of the Ganges.
Facing a mutiny, Alexander saved his face by offering a sacrifice to the gods as a preliminary to crossing the Indus. As expected the omens were unfavourable and Alexander ordered a retreat. “The army received the announcement with tears of joy and grateful shouts,” writes historian, numismatist and archaeologist Awadh Kishore Narain. “They hardly realised what was still in store for them. For Alexander had yet to fight some of his fiercest and most dangerous battles.” (9)
In January 325, Alexander learnt that the Oxydracae (Shudrakas) and the Malli (Malavs), who lived around modern Multan, were mobilising to block his path to the sea. Note that these two kingdoms could have chosen to let the Macedonian army pass through their territories; the foreign soldiers would have looted some crops and cattle and the Indian republics could not have had to endure sieges and loss of life. But instead the Shudrakas and Malavs mobilised an army of 100,000 men and 900 war chariots.
Faced with the prospect of fighting once more, Alexander’s men were soon on the point of rebellion. Alexander had to lie to them that the people ahead were not warlike and the ocean was close (it was almost 700 km further south) so the troops would agree to fight.
The plight of the Macedonian army has an uncanny resemblance to the travails faced by two large and defeated armies of the past – Napoleon’s Grande Armee and the German Wehrmacht. Both armies were harried by Russian partisans all the way from Moscow to the border of Russia. It is always the defeated army that is harried, not a winning one.
Indeed, 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, Alexander and the Macedonians were in a mess and not thinking straight. Not the sign of a victorious army.
In order to understand the scale and intensity of the resistance the Macedonians faced in India, one only has to look at Alexander’s march from Kabul to the Beas to the lower Indus. Narain writes: “Alexander took almost two years to cover this area, which is proportionately a longer time for a lesser space than in his other campaigns, and the battles fought were as dangerous, as glorious, as full of bravery and adventure.”
A vivid example of the Macedonian army coming unstuck was during the battle against the Malavs. Cawthorne writes: “Alexander called for scaling ladders, but his men refused to climb them. So he climbed up alone, holding a light shield over his head. At the top he killed the defenders who barred his way, then stood alone on top of the battlements – the perfect target for any archer.”
The Macedonians still refused to follow their king, and in fact begged him to come down. Alexander was so frustrated that he jumped down inside the citadel. It was only at this point that the Macedonians gathered their wits and courage and decided to save their king. Alexander was joined by Leonnatus and Abreas, a highly decorated guards officer. The Macedonians rallied and stormed the gate but were greeted by a volley of arrows. Abreas fell, shot in the face, and Alexander was struck by an arrow that pierced his breastplate and lodged in his chest.
The enraged Macedonians killed all the men, women and children in the fort. “This campaign of brutality now became part of Alexander’s strategy. The violent resistance slowed down the army’s progress and it took Alexander five months to reach the sea. During this period he fought a series of bloody battles in a war largely inspired by Brahmin priests. He hanged any Brahmin that fell into his hands, reserving crucifixion for civil leaders that opposed him. He asked one Brahmin why he had encouraged his king to revolt. His reply was: ‘Because I wished him to live with honour or die with honour.’ This bloodthirsty repression simply stored up resentment for the future. By 300 BCE, every Macedonian garrison in Punjab had been slaughtered.” (6)
Death in the desert
After reaching the mouth of the Indus river, Alexander divided his army into two. One part was to leave by ships that would hug the Makran coast and sail to Babylon (modern Iraq). The second army led by Alexander would march on foot (as his cavalry had been entirely destroyed by Indians at Sangla) through Balochistan into Persia and enter Babylon.
Alexander’s march through modern Balochistan, during which he lost the majority of his troops, as well as the accompanying women and children, shows he was willing to take a punt on the merciless desert rather than face the Indians in the northwest all over again. Undoubtedly, the Aspasians, Assakenoi, Massagans and others, whose homelands he had devastated, would have challenged his weary army on the narrow mountain passes.
Nineteenth century philologist John McCrindle’s account offers ample light on the humiliations faced by Alexander’s men, suggesting they were a demoralised army. “Most of Alexander’s historians admit that all the hardships which his army suffered in Asia are not to be compared with the miseries which it here experienced,” he writes. (1)
Owing to the great length of the march, the soldiers suffered greatly, tortured alike by raging heat and unquenchable thirst. When their provisions ran short the soldiers came together and killed most of the horses and mules. They ate the flesh of these animals, which they professed had died of thirst and perished from the heat. No one cared to look very narrowly into the exact nature of what was going on, both because of the prevailing distress and also because all were alike implicated in the same offence.
Alexander himself was not unaware of what was going on, but he saw that the remedy for the existing state of things was to pretend ignorance of it rather than permit it as a matter that lay within his cognisance.
What followed was one of the saddest episodes of the Macedonian campaign. With the horses and mules being eaten, it was no longer easy to convey the soldiers labouring under sickness, nor others who had fallen behind on the march from exhaustion, nor the women and children in the baggage train. Thousands were left behind on the road from sickness, others from fatigue or the effects of the heat or intolerable thirst, while there were none who could take them forward or remain to tend them in their sickness. “The majority perished in the sand like shipwrecked men at sea,” writes McCrindle.
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.” (10)
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 virtually persona non grata back home.
In Greek eyes a Macedonian was a barbarian. Much as he wished to be treated as a demigod, the Greeks didn’t acknowledge as having any Hellenic heritage. In fact, they hated Alexander for sacking their cities and enslaving the people of the Greek cities. In his own country, he was an outsider for being half-Albanian, from his mother’s side. Some even suspected him of murdering his own father.
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.
Creating myths and resorting to falsehoods were integral to Alexander’s strategy. A few years before the Indian campaign, a part of the Macedonian army was massacred by the Scythians at Polytimetus, present day Tajikistan. In order to avoid loss of morale, Alexander warned his surviving troops not to discuss the massacre with other soldiers who were to follow him into India.
The mythmaking around the Alexander cult had reached such ridiculous proportions that 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.”
The contemporary Indian observations made by the kings and priests are at once philosophical and patriotic. According to Narain, “They indicate two things. First, there was an emotional love of freedom and a patriotic sense of honour. Secondly, India, with her peculiarly philosophical attitude, was not at all overawed by the greatness of Alexander and not only regarded the Indian campaign as most unjustifiable but also anticipated its futility.” (11)
Both Chanakya and the youthful Chandragupta Maurya, who seem to have had a firsthand view of Alexander’s campaign in Punjab, understood the Indian pulse of reaction correctly. Narain concludes: “Even while Alexander was in Gedrosia (Balochistan), the only alien satrap appointed by him in India was murdered and when Alexander was dying in Babylon, Chandragupta Maurya and Chanakya, perhaps with the help of Porus, were liberating and unifying Punjab as a prelude to the final overthrow of the great Nanda power of the Ganges valley, which the army of Alexander had feared so much that the latter was forced to withdraw from the Beas. Alexander’s campaign in India was therefore certainly not a political success. And it is also true that it left no permanent mark on its literature, life or government of the people. The name of Alexander is not found in Indian literature. Certainly, Alexander did not intend his conquests in India to be as meaningless as this. But it was so.”
- ‘John Watson McCrindle, ‘The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great as described by Arrian, Q. Curtius, Diodoros, Plutarch and Justin’, https://archive.org/stream/cu31924028252546/cu31924028252546_djvu.txt
- The Complete Fragments of Ctesias of Cnidus: Translation and Commentary with an Introduction’, http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0022521/00001
- Krishna Chandra Sagar, ‘Foreign Influence on Ancient India’
- Arrian, ‘Alexander Anabasis’, VII.1.4 https://archive.org/stream/cu31924026460752/cu31924026460752_djvu.txt
- Frank Lee Holt, ‘Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions’
- Nigel Cawthorne, ‘Alexander the Great’ p. 115
- C. Majumdar, ‘Classical Accounts of India’
- Diodorus Siculus, ‘Bibliotheca Historica’, XVII. 95
- K. Narain, ‘Greece & Rome’, Vol. 12, No. 2, Alexander the Great, pp. 155-165
- David J. Lonsdale, ‘Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy’
- A.K. Narain, ‘Greece & Rome’, Vol. 12, No. 2, Alexander the Great, p. 162
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