Category Archives: 4. Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great in India

Alexander was born in Macedonia in 356 BCE to Philip II and his wife, Olympias. They belonged to the race of Epeiros and claimed to be descended from the Homeric hero Achilles (M’Crindle 15). Alexander was 20 years old when his father was assassinated at a family wedding. Following his death, Alexander quickly won the support of the Macedonian army and assembly as Philip’s heir (Hamilton 44). [Some believe the Macedonian assembly had the right to elect or depose a king. It is not clear if this is true, but Alexander did address the assembly with the seeming purpose of winning their support (King 384-385)]. Anyone who opposed his authority was quickly executed and he was crowned king of Macedonia in 336 BCE (Freeman 315).

During the reign of Philip II, Macedonia had conquered Greece and formed the League of Corinth. Philip was the head of the League, and all Greek city-states, with the exception of Sparta, were forced to join (Freeman 314). When the Greeks heard of Philip’s death, there was widespread dissent and unrest. Alexander reaffirmed Macedonian control of the Greeks in a relatively bloodless campaign during which he was reaffirmed as the leader of the League of Corinth. The Greeks gave Alexander troops and appointed him commander of a campaign of revenge against Persia (Bosworth 28).

Alexander’s campaign into Persian began in 334 BCE and lasted until approximately 330 BCE. [Darius III was defeated in the fall of 331 BCE and in 330 BCE, the last great palace of Xerxes was sacked]. It was during this campaign that Alexander travelled to Egypt. The Egyptians welcomed him as a god and proclaimed him the King of Upper and Lower Egypt and the son of Ra (the sun god). It was also during this campaign that he travelled to the oracle of Ammon at Siwah in the Libyan Desert. [Ammon was a local god who was often equated with Zeus]. It is said that the priests at Siwah declared Alexander to be the son of Zeus himself (Freeman 319-322).

After the death of Darius III, another man, Bessus claimed to be the heir to the Persian throne. So Alexander crossed the Hindu Kush in 329 BCE to meet him. Bessus was hunted down and executed. This area, Bactria and Sogdiana (modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan), was very unstable and the local leaders resented Alexander’s invasion. The terrain was well suited for guerilla warfare and Alexander spent two years fighting down pockets of resistance (Freeman 325).

With the death of Bessus, Alexander’s campaign to conquer Persia was completed. He had no reason to attack the countries East of Persia, yet Alexander chose to continue campaigning (Narain 156). According to some scholars, his desire to continue likely stemmed from the fact that at one point India, or part of India, was within the Persian Empire. Darius I had ruled “India” and there were also claims that Cyrus had ruled all of India to the “eastern ocean” (Tarn 85-87). When Alexander crossed the Indus, it is clear that he was interested in conquering India and it is thought that he also hoped to reach the “eastern ocean” (Narain 156). [Alexander knew nothing of northern or eastern Asia; to him ‘Asia’ simply meant the empire of Darius I. He would have had no idea how far the “eastern ocean” was from Persia (Tarn 85-87)]

In 327 BCE, Alexander recrossed the Hindu Kush. He sent half of his phalanx and most of his cavalry under two of his generals, Hephaestion and Perdiccas, through the Khyber Pass to the Indus River to build boats and prepare pontoons (Burn 149; Narain 156). Alexander, with the rest of the army, took a more Northern route through the mountain country of Bajaur and Swat (Bosworth 120-121). Any city that resisted or opposed Alexander was attacked and their men were massacred. At the city of Massaga, 7000 mercenaries were killed by Alexander when they refused to join his armies (Freeman 326; Narain 157). He saw the inhabitants of this area as his subjects and expected instant submission; those who did not submit were killed or enslaved (Bosworth 121).

Alexander was wounded in one of these skirmishes. He took an arrow to the shoulder while storming a hill fortress at the beginning of his campaign through the mountain country. When they captured the fortress the next day, Alexander made an example of them. Anyone defending the city that did not escape was killed and the settlement was destroyed (Bosworth 121).

The only city spared by Alexander on his journey to the Indus was Nysa. He granted this city their freedom and independence based on their claim that the city was the birthplace of the Greek god Dionysus (Freeman 326). Alexander reached the Indus and met up with the rest of his army almost a year after separating (Bosworth 125; Narain 156). The men who had been sent ahead under Hephaestion and Perdiccas had successfully bridged the river and in 326 BCE Alexander and his army crossed the Indus (Freeman 326; Narain 157). Alexander knew very little about the land he was entering. When he saw crocodiles in the Indus, he thought the river must be the headwaters of the Nile. The men did not understand the caste system of India. They assumed the ksatriya class to be mercenaries, which they were familiar with in the Greek world. Alexander classified the Brahmin class as philosophers and saw them, with their resilient nationalism, as his greatest opponents (Burn 150).

Alexander was greeted and welcomed by the ruler of Taxila; when Alexander reached the Indus, gifts from this state were waiting for him. However, it appears that the motive of this ruler was to use Alexander and his army to defeat rival Indian princes to the East (Freeman 326; Arrian 259). One of these princes, Porus, had heard of Alexander’s invasion and mobilized to resist him. He waited for Alexander on the East side of the Hydaspes River (Freeman 326).

When Alexander reached the Hydaspes, Porus was on the far side with his army, which included about 200 elephants. The river was swift and high due to the melting snow from the Himalayas and Porus was intent on preventing Alexander from crossing (Burn 152).  Alexander, however, was determined to cross. Porus had scouts who kept watch over Alexander’s movements; it was not as simple as just moving up or down the river and crossing, since Porus would hear of the plan long before they could reach the other side. Alexander made it known that he planned to cross the river and that he would wait until the winter (when the river would be fordable) if necessary. He began to collect enough food to supply his army for a long time. He also had his men constantly moving up and down the river threatening to cross. All this movement began to wear down the enemy’s alertness. While this continued, monsoon season arrived. Alexander selected the spot for his actual crossing some seventeen miles away from his main camp. He crossed the river at night during a thunderstorm. His preparations and the weather gave Alexander the time he needed. He was able to get across just in time to form a front against the first of Porus’ troops (Burn 153-154).

The battle was extremely hard fought but was one of Alexander’s most crushing victories. His ingenuity in opposing Porus’ elephants was a significant contribution to his victory. The Macedonian infantry shot those driving the elephants and attacked the elephants as they charged. This caused the elephants to retreat back into the infantry lines, trampling anyone in their way (Burn 155-156; Freeman 326). Most of the elephant drivers were killed. The elephants were wounded, bewildered, and angered by fear and pain. They panicked and began attacking those around them. The Macedonians had room to move and maneuver and therefore could avoid the crazed animals. The Indians, however, were relatively boxed in and the elephants became a bigger threat to them than the Macedonians were (Arrian 278-279). As the elephants tired and slowed their charges, Alexander surrounded the remaining Indian army. The Indians suffered terrible losses, but some were able to find a gap in the Macedonian cavalry and flee (Arrian 279).

Porus fought bravely to the end. When it was clear that the battle was over, he rode away on his elephant. He was bleeding from a wound on his shoulder and was almost completely alone on the battlefield (Freeman 326). Alexander was deeply impressed with his heroism (Bosworth 130). He sent after Porus and asked him what he would like, and Porus replied that he wished to be treated as a king. Alexander reaffirmed Porus as king and even added further territory to his kingdom (Burn 156-157; M’Crindle 308-309).

Alexander wished to continue further into India, but his army was weary from years of campaigning. Furthermore, monsoon season was upon them and they had suffered seventy days of continuous rainfall by the time they reached the Beas River (Freeman 326-327). Here the army mutinied and refused to march any further East. Alexander was upset, but eventually gave in to his men. To preserve his dignity, he offered a sacrifice on the bank of the river and found the omens to be unfavourable. Therefore he announced his decision to continue no further (Narain 159-160).

While he may have conceded to continue no further East, Alexander refused to return by the route they had come. They followed the Indus River south until they reached the ocean. Many of the tribes that lived along the Indus River were hostile and their cities were stormed and conquered as the army moved south (Freeman 327). Alexander was nearly killed in one of these conquests against the Malloi tribe. He took an arrow to the chest and for days his men thought he would die. Many believe that this wound severely weakened him and contributed to his early death (Burn 160-162; Narian 160).

The army reached the ocean in 325 BCE and then marched west across the Makram desert. It took sixty days to cross the desert and some sources believe that they suffered great losses during this journey. After escaping the desert, the army under Alexander continued on to Persepolis in the heart of the Persian Empire (Freeman 327). Alexander continued to dream of future campaigns, but in 323 BCE, less than two years after returning from India, he was dead. There is debate over the exact cause of his death. Some sources believe his earlier wound played a great role, some think he may have been poisoned, and many simply say that he fell ill (Freeman 327-329).

Alexander’s legacy lived on and he became a role model for future leaders. The Romans especially looked up to Alexander (Freeman 331-332). However, not all aspects of Alexander’s campaign were as remarkably successful. Although he went further east than anyone before him, he left no permanent mark in India. His influence and name are not found in Indian literature, life, or government. Some Indian historians argue that while he did campaign into India, he did not meet any of the great nations of the Hindusthan. Some also remark on the unprovoked nature of Alexander’s invasion and the suffering afflicted upon the Indian people (Narian 162).

The lasting effect of Alexander’s campaign in India is reminiscent of an encounter Alexander was said to have had with a group of Indian philosophers. Arrian tells that as Alexander marched by, the sages simply stomped their feet and showed no other interest in him. When Alexander asked them what they meant by this, they replied:

King Alexander, every man can possess only so much of the earth’s surface as this we are standing on. You are but human like the rest of us, save that you are always busy and up to no good, travelling so many miles from your home, a nuisance to yourself and to others. Ah well! You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of this earth as will suffice to bury you. (Arrian 349)





Arrian (1971) The Campaigns of Alexander the Great. Bungay: The Chaucer Press.

Bosworth, A. B. (1988) Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burn, A. R. (1963) Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic World. London: English University Press Ltd.

Freeman, Charles (2004) Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean (2nd ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hamilton, J. R. (1973) Alexander the Great. London: The Anchor Press Ltd.

King, Carol J. (2010) “Macedonian Kingship and Other Political Institutions.” A Companion to Ancient Macedonia. Edited by Roisman, J and Worthington I. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

M’Crindle, J. W. (1816) The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great as Described by Arrian, Q. Curtius, Diodorus, Plutarch and Justin. Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co.

Narain, A. K. (1965) “Alexander and India.” Greece & Rome, 12(2): 155-165.

Tarn, W. W. (1948) Alexander the Great: Volume 1 Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




Related Topics for Further Investigation


Malloi Tribe

Battle of the Hydaspes

History of the Bajur and Swat Regions

Indian warfare


The Great nations of the Hindusthan in the 4th Century BCE

History of Western India

Elephants in Indian warfare

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Article written by: Raiah Hark (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.