Alexander the Great is known as one of the greatest military geniuses of all times. The lands he conquered stretched from Macedonia to the east. But how far to the east?
Oftentimes people say that Alexander even marched as far east as India. But is that true and did Alexander really conquer the land that we nowadays know as India?
You probably already noticed by the way I phrased that question that there is more to it than just a simple yes or no answer.
The question of Alexander actually conquered India is harder to answer than one might think. The reason being is that the modern-day state of India is not identical to the territory that was called India in Antiquity.
Alexander conquered an area that in Antiquity was known as India. Nowadays the same territory is referred to as Pakistan. Alexander barely crossed the border into modern-day India.
Let`s find out more!
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Did Alexander the Great conquer India?
Did Alexander the Great conquer India? Well that depends on who you ask.
An ancient Greek would have said yes. For the ancient Greeks India was the area of modern-day Pakistan and northern Afghanistan. So basically all the land west oft he Indus river.
When we compare that with modern-day India then we find out that Alexander barly marched into the area of modern-day India. The reasons why Alexander couldn`t march any further will be explained in the following.
India in Antiquity
During the Greek Antiquity „India“ was the term for the land west of the river Indus, the Kabul valley (modern-day Afghanistan), the Achaemenid province of Ghandhara (modern-day north-western Pakistan), Sindh (also modern-day Pakistan), and Punjab (a province consisting both of modern-day Pakistan and modern-day India).
The Greeks had no Idea about the actual mass of land that was east of the Indus. They did not know about the river Ganges or the actual conditions east of the Indus.
Aristoteles, the famous greek philosopher, polymath, and teacher of Alexander the Great, thought that one could see the Oceanus, the world-ocean that marked the end of the world, from the peaks of the Hindukush.
Why was Alexander interested in conquering India?
Apart from his curiosity, Alexander wanted to conquer India to recreate the largest extend the Persian empire had ever had. That would have put him in one line with Dareios I, a legendary Persian king.
Alexander’s Indian campaign had been planned and prepared since 328 BC. The main goal of the campaign was to extend the empire to the maximal extend that it had under the legendary Persian king Dareios I and that got lost under the rule of Xerxes.
Yes, the same Xerxes who played a major role during the Greco-Persian Wars and the battle of the Thermopylae. Click here to read my article about the battle of the Thermopylae and other even bigger but less known battles of the Greco Persian wars.
Another motive of Alexander was the Idea that by reaching the Oceanus, the end of the world, he would be able to secure his empire against invasions from the east.
The idea was simple: When there is only an ocean that borders the empire then a hostile invasion is impossible. From a strategic position that would have been ideal since it would have reduced the need for stationing loyal troops at the eastern borders. These troops than could have been used for campaigns into the western part of the Meditteranean.
So the Idea that Alexander would have reached the Oceanus after conquering India shows once again how far off the greek estimations of the extend of the land east of the Indus were!
The last motive was probably curiosity. The Greeks had always seen India as a mystical land with two-headed women, rivers that carry milk & Honey, and unfamiliar wildlife.
That kind of curiosity shows best in the greek Idea that the River Indus and the River Nile were the same. The reason for that assumption was that both were inhabited by crocodiles.
Now that reason might sound comical to us, but Alexander saw a strategic value if the theory proved to be true. He would be able to use ships for a comfortable Return to Egypt instead of marching all the way back.
Do you want to learn more about the life of Alexander the Great and the battles that he fought? Then you might want to check out the biography of Alexander that was written by the ancient Roman writer Plutarch (and that is still one of the most important sources for our knowledge about Alexander). You can find a translated version here* on amazon.
But let’s return to the question of how much of India Alexander conquered.
How much of India did Alexander conquer?
We already established that the antique Understanding of India was quite different from the modern state of India. But how much of modern-day India did Alexander conquer?
The India campaign started in the summer of 327 BC. Alexander divided his army into two groups. The bulk of his army would take the easy southern route to the Indus river while Alexander and a smaller force would take the northern path.
Within 10 Days Alexander the Great and his men were able to cross the 9842 ft high Hindu kush.
During his campaign from the summer of 327 till 325 BC Alexander used the principle of divide and conquer.
There was no main Indian king on the eastern side of the Indus. The power was shared by rivaling local kings. Alexander used these rivalries to his advantage.
It was in the spring of 326 BC that Alexander and his army (click here to learn more about the Army and different units of Alexander the Great) crossed the Indus River.
The Macedonian army was advancing onto the river Hydaspes (in the modern-day Pakistan part of Punjab) where he would fight his last battle against the Indian king Poros.
In June of 326 BC, Alexander won the Battle of the Hydaspes but it was the bloodiest battle of his entire life. After he had dealt with the captured Poros Alexander decided to march east.
After the victory, the Macedonian army marched east for 70 days and reached the eastern end of Punjab.
Only during the 70 days after the battle of the Hydaspes in the year of 326 BC, Alexander was actually operating on territory that is modern-day India!
And it was here that the advance of Alexander was stopped.
Why did Alexander fail to conquer India?
Now I just wrote that Alexanders’ advance was stopped at the eastern border of the (nowadays Indian part of the) Punjab. But why?
He had already defeated Poros, his most dangerous Indian enemy. So what did stop Alexander from conquering the rest of modern-day India?
In short: His own soldiers stopped Alexander the Great from further marching into India.
You have to realize that many of Alexanders’ soldiers had followed him from the beginning.
Yes, losses were replaced by new recruits, and veterans were left behind to inhabit newly founded cities. But a serious amount of Macedonian warriors had been with Alexander since the beginning of the campaign in the spring of 334 BC. And some had already served under Alexanders` father Philipp II of Macedon.
They were tired after marching all the way from Macedonia to the western regions of Modern-day India. Most of them wanted to call it a day and return home to their families.
In addition to that, the last 70 days of marching after the battle of the Hydaspes had been hell.
Alexander’s Army did not only have to fight their way through snake & Mosquitos-infested forests, but they also had to defeat local Indian warlords who used war elephants.
But their worst enemy was the weather! The Macedonians had never experienced a Monsoon. The hot and humid weather wore the already fatigued soldiers down. After the grueling 70 days march the Army arrived at the river Hypasis, the modern Beas River in India, where they learned of another giant river to the east.
That river was the Ganges and it was the perfect goal for Alexander. But his soldiers were completely exhausted.
During the 8 years from 334 to326 BC, the veteran soldiers of Alexander the Great had marched 20864,4 miles. That is 1603 miles per year!
During these 8 years, they had never mutinied against their leader.
But here, at the River Hypasis, they made it very clear that they were not willing to march any further. They feared that the Ganges would just be the next stopover and that they would never return home.
So they implied to Alexander that they might not be able & willing to fight the coming battles with the same dedication as the previous ones…
The refusal of his army hit Alexander hard. He spent the next 3 days in his tent thinking about his options and avoiding any contact with soldiers and officers.
After the 3 days, Alexander left his tent and announced the retreat.
The unwillingness of Alexanders’ soldiers to continue the march and the following retreat were the reasons why Alexander was not able to conquer India!
The Army marched back to the Indus river.
From here it started to make its way south along the banks of the Indus. And in November of 326 BC, the Indian Ocean was reached.
Here Alexander divided his army and led the smaller part through the gedrosian desert and back to Babylon.
During the march through the gedrosian desert, Alexander would lose 75% of his soldiers, all of them due to bad preparation and the rough environment.
But the Motive for that kind of homicidal undertaking is a story for another blog post.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
P. Cartledge, Alexander the Great (2005).
Plutarch, The life of Alexander the Great.