Greek tragedy: Alexander’s failed invasion of India

Greek tragedy: Alexander’s failed invasion of India

Alexander’s invasion of India is regarded as a huge Western victory against the disorganised East. But the largely Macedonian army may have suffered a fate worse than Napoleon in Russia. In Part 1 we discuss the stubborn Indian resistance to the invasion; Part 2 will examine whether it was Alexander or Porus who won the Battle of Hydaspes.

In 326 BCE a formidable European army invaded India. Led by Alexander of Macedon it comprised battle hardened Macedonian soldiers, Greek cavalry, Balkan fighters and Persians allies. Estimates of the number of fighting men vary – from 41,000 according to Arrian to 120,000 as per the account of Quintus Curtius. (1)

Their most memorable clash was at the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum) against Porus, the ruler of the Paurava kingdom of western Punjab. For more than 25 centuries it was believed that Alexander’s forces had defeated the Indians. Greek and Roman accounts say the Indians were bested by the superior courage and stature of the Macedonians.

More than a thousand years after Alexander’s death, the myth-making reached absurd and fantastic proportions with the arrival of a new genre known as the Greek Alexander Romance (2), a fictional account of Alexander’s Asian campaigns composed of a conglomeration of the rumours surrounding his rule. The destruction of the Persian Empire and the defeat of the Indian kingdoms were the highlights that drove the popularity of the Alexander Romance in Europe. A version of this story was included in the Koran in which Alexander is called Dhulkarnain.

During the colonial period, British historians latched on to the Alexander legend and described the campaign as the triumph of the organised West against the chaotic East. Although Alexander defeated only a few minor kingdoms in India’s northwest, in the view of many gleeful colonial writers the Greek conquest of India was complete.

In reality much of the country was not even known to the Greeks. So handing victory to Alexander is like describing Hitler as the conqueror of Russia because the Germans advanced up to Stalingrad.

Zhukov’s view of Alexander

In 1957, while addressing the cadets of the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun, the great Russian general Georgy Zhukov (3) said Alexander’s actions after the Battle of Hydaspes suggest he had suffered an outright defeat. In Zhukov’s view, Alexander had suffered a greater setback in India than Napoleon in Russia. Napoleon had invaded Russia with 600,000 troops; of these only 30,000 survived, and of that number fewer than 1,000 were able to return to duty.

If Zhukov compared Alexander’s campaign in India to Napoleon’s disaster, the Macedonians and Greeks must have retreated in an equally ignominious fashion. The WW II commander would recognise a fleeing army if he saw one; he had chased the Germans over 2000 km from Stalingrad to Berlin.

No easy victories

Alexander’s troubles began as soon as he crossed the Indian border. He first faced resistance in the Kunar, Swat, Buner and Peshawar valleys where the Aspasians (Iranian Aspa, Sanskrit Asva = horse) and Assakenoi (Sanskrit Asvakas or Asmakas, perhaps a branch of, or allied to, the Aspasioi), challenged his advance. Although mere specks on the map by Indian standards, they did not lack in courage and refused to submit before Alexander’s killing machine.

The Aspasians hold the distinction of being the first among the Indians to fight Alexander. The Roman historian Arrian writes in ‘The Anabasis of Alexander’ that with these people “the conflict was sharp, not only from the difficult nature of the ground, but also because the Indians were….by far the stoutest warriors in that neighbourhood”. (4)

The intensity of the fighting can be measured from the fact that during the siege Alexander and his two of leading commanders were wounded. Alexander was hit by a dart which penetrated the breastplate into his shoulder. But the wound was only a slight one, for the breastplate prevented the dart from penetrating right through his shoulder.

In the end the guile and superior numbers of Alexander’s army won the day. The Macedonians captured 40,000 men and 230,000 oxen, transporting the choicest among the latter to their country for use as draft animals.

Alexander next attacked the hill state of Nysa, which probably occupied a site on the lower spurs and balleys of the Koh-i-Mor. It was governed by a body of aristocracy consisting of 300 members, Akouphis being their chief. The Nysaens readily submitted to the Macedonian king, and placed at his disposal a contingent of 300 cavalry. According to Rama Shankar Tripathi (5), the Nysaens claimed descent from Dionysius. “This gratified the vanity of Alexander, and he therefore allowed his weary troops to take rest and indulge in Bacchanalian revels for a few days with their alleged distant kinsmen.”

Greek guile defeats Massaga

Alexander’s next nemesis was the Assakenoi who offered stubborn resistance from their mountain strongholds of Massaga, Bazira and Ora. Realising the gravity of this new threat from than West, they raised an army of 20,000 cavalry and more than 30,000 infantry, besides 30 elephants.

The fighting at Massaga was bloody and prolonged, and became a prelude to what awaited Alexander in India. On the first day after bitter fighting the Macedonians and Greeks were forced to retreat with heavy losses. Alexander himself was seriously wounded in the ankle. On the fourth day the king of Massaga was killed but the city refused to surrender. The command of the army went to his old mother, which brought the entire women of the area into the fighting.

Realising that his plans to storm India were going down at its very gates, Alexander called for a truce. Typical of Indian kingdoms right through history, the Assakenoi agreed to their eternal regret. While 7,000 Indian soldiers were leaving the city as per the agreement, Alexander’s army launched a sudden and sneaky attack. Arrian writes: “Undaunted by this unexpected danger, the Indian mercenaries fought with great tenacity and “by their audacity and feats of valour made the conflict, in which they closed, hot work for the enemy”.

When many of the Assakenoi had been killed, or were in the agony of deadly wounds, the women took up the arms of their fallen men and heroically defended the citadel along with the remaining male soldiers. After fighting desperately they were at last overpowered by superior numbers, and in the words of Diodoros “met a glorious death which they would have disdained to exchange for a life with dishonour”. (Hindu women like Rani Padmini, who preferred to jump into the fires of jauhar rather than become captives, can trace their tradition of self-sacrifice and valour to antiquity.)

After the fall of Massaga, Alexander advanced further, and in the course of a few months’ hard fighting captured the important and strategic fortresses of Ora (where a similar slaughter followed), Bazira, Aornos, Peukelaotis (Sanskrit = Pushkaravati, modern Charsadda in the Yusufzai territory), Embolima and Dyrta. (Due to the peculiar Greek orthography most of these cities are now impossible to identify or decipher.)

However, the fierce resistance put up by the Indian defenders had reduced the strength – and perhaps the confidence – of the until then all-conquering Macedonian army.

Faceoff at the river

In his entire conquering career Alexander’s hardest encounter was the Battle of Hydaspes, in which he faced king Porus of Paurava, a small but prosperous Indian kingdom on the river Jhelum. Porus is described in Greek accounts as standing seven feet tall.

In May 326 BCE, the European and Paurava armies faced each other across the banks of the Jhelum. By all accounts it was an awe-inspiring spectacle. The 34,000 Macedonian infantry and 7000 Greek cavalry were bolstered by the Indian king Ambhi, who was Porus’s rival. Ambhi was the ruler of the neighbouring kingdom of Taxila and had offered to help Alexander on condition he would be given Porus’s kingdom.

Facing this tumultuous force led by the genius of Alexander was the Paurava army of 20,000 infantry, 2000 cavalry and 200 war elephants. Being a comparatively small kingdom by Indian standards, Paurava couldn’t have maintained such a large standing army, so it’s likely many of its defenders were hastily armed civilians. Also, the Greeks habitually exaggerated enemy strength.

According to Greek sources, for several days the armies eyeballed each other across the river. The Greek-Macedonian force after having lost several thousand soldiers fighting the Indian mountain cities, were terrified at the prospect of fighting the fierce Paurava army. They had heard about the havoc Indian war elephants created among enemy ranks. The modern equivalent of battle tanks, the elephants also scared the wits out of the horses in the Greek cavalry.

Another terrible weapon in the Indians’ armoury was the two-meter bow. As tall as a man it could launch massive arrows able to transfix more than one enemy soldier.

Indians strike

The battle was savagely fought. As the volleys of heavy arrows from the long Indian bows scythed into the enemy’s formations, the first wave of war elephants waded into the Macedonian phalanx that was bristling with 17-feet long sarissas. Some of the animals got impaled in the process. Then a second wave of these mighty beasts rushed into the gap created by the first. The elephants either trampled the Macedonian soldiers or grabbed them by their trunks and presented them up for the mounted Indian soldiers to spear them to their deaths. It was a nightmarish scenario for the invaders. As the terrified Macedonians pushed back, the Indian infantry charged into the gap.

In the first charge, by the Indians, Porus’s son wounded both Alexander and his favourite horse Bucephalus, the latter fatally, forcing Alexander to dismount. (6) This was a big deal. In battles outside India the elite Macedonian bodyguards had provided an iron shield around their king, yet at Hydaspes the Indian troops not only broke into Alexander’s inner cordon, they also killed Nicaea, one of his leading commanders.

According to the Roman historian Marcus Justinus, Porus challenged Alexander, who charged him on horseback. In the ensuing duel, Alexander fell off his horse and was at the mercy of the Indian king’s spear. But Porus dithered for a second and Alexander’s bodyguards rushed in to save their king.

Plutarch, the Greek historian and biographer, says there seems to have been nothing wrong with Indian morale. Despite initial setbacks, when their vaunted chariots got stuck in the mud, Porus’s army “rallied and kept resisting the Macedonians with unsurpassable bravery”. (7)

Macedonians: Shaken, not stirred

The Greeks claim Porus’s army was eventually surrounded and defeated by Alexander’s superior battle tactics, but there are too many holes in that theory. It is acknowledged by Greek and Roman sources that the fierce and constant resistance put up by the Indian soldiers and ordinary people everywhere had shaken Alexander’s army to the core. They refused to move further east. Nothing Alexander could say or do would spur his men to continue eastward. The army was close to mutiny. These are not the signs of a victorious army, but a defeated group of soldiers would certainly behave in this manner.

Says Plutarch: “The combat with Porus took the edge off the Macedonians’ courage, and stayed their further progress into India. For having found it hard enough to defeat an enemy who brought but 20,000 foot and 2000 horse into the field, they thought they had reason to oppose Alexander’s design of leading them on to pass the Ganges, on the further side of which was covered with multitudes of enemies.”

The Greek historian says after the battle with the Pauravas, the badly bruised and rattled Macedonians panicked when they received information further from Punjab lay places “where the inhabitants were skilled in agriculture, where there were elephants in yet greater abundance and men were superior in stature and courage”.

Indeed, on the other side of the Ganges was the mighty kingdom of Magadh, ruled by the wily Nandas, who commanded one of the most powerful and largest standing armies in the world. According to Plutarch, the courage of the Macedonians evaporated when they came to know the Nandas “were awaiting them with 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8000 war chariots and 6000 fighting elephants”. Undoubtedly, Alexander’s army would have walked into a slaughterhouse.

Hundreds of kilometres from the Indian heartland, Alexander ordered a retreat to great jubilation among his soldiers.

Partisans counterattack

The celebrations were premature. On its way south towards the sea via Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan, Alexander’s army was constantly harried by Indian partisans, republics and kingdoms.

In a campaign at Sangala in Punjab, the Indian attack was so ferocious it completely destroyed the Greek cavalry, forcing Alexander to attack on foot.

In the next battle, against the Malavs of Multan, he was felled by an Indian warrior whose arrow pierced the Macedonian’s breastplate and ribs. Says Military History magazine: “Although there was more fighting, Alexander’s wound put an end to any more personal exploits. Lung tissue never fully recovers, and the thick scarring in its place made every breath cut like a knife.”

Alexander never recovered and died in Babylon (modern Iraq) at the age of 33.

The Battle of Hydaspes was Alexander’s last major open-field battle. Everything else was a skirmish compared with it. The Macedonians and Greeks were not the same tough guys anymore; always on the retreat; constantly being harried by Indian kingdoms. If ever there was a defeated army, this one certainly behaved like one.

Part 2: The concluding part will analyse who really won the battle.

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  1. Quintus Curtius, ‘History of the Wars of Alexander’, (Book XIII, 17)
  2. ‘Greek Alexander Romance’,
  3. S. Rajaram, ‘Porus’s Defeat of Alexander at the Battle of Hydaspes’,
  4. Arrian the Nicomedian, ‘The Anabasis of Alexander’ (Book IV, 25),
  5. Rama Shankar Tripathi, ‘History of Ancient India’, p 118
  6. Arrian (Book 15, 14, 4)
  7. Plutarch, ‘The Life of Alexander’,*/8.html

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Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.