Alexander’s heirs in India – Graeco-Macedonian rule in Pakistan and North-Western India after Menander I Soter

The Bactrian kingdom, which had emanated from the conquests of Alexander the Great and had become independent from Seleucid rule during the middle of the 3rd century BC, came to an end due to the invasion of nomadic horse people of Scythic descent around the middle of the 2nd century BC. Greek rule was repelled south of the Hindu Kush Mountains where it would pertain for another century, a region now designated ‘Indo-Greek’. The terms ‘Bactrian’ and ‘Indo-Greek’ desperately need to be revised, because the present usage mixes geographic, chronological, and judgmental ethnical aspects.

Overall, sources from and about these kingdoms are not numerous, the only sources we have in abundance are silver and bronze coins. Although their significance is supported by scattered and isolated material evidence, nearly everything we know about these kingdoms – their social structure, their religious pantheon, and of course their economy – has to be deduced from these coins.
These coins show an intriguing design, with a portrait of the king on the obverse and a deity on the reverse, which follows the Hellenistic standard set by the successors of Alexander the Great. What is peculiar to Indo-Greek coins is that together with a Greek legend, naming the king with his epitheton (or even epitheta) on the obverse, a Prakrit (Indian) legend in Karoshti is set on the reverse, representing an exact translation of the Greek. Additionally, Indo-Greek bronze coins keep the twofold legend but are minted on square flans, likewise unseen in the rest of the Hellenistic world and following Indian precedents.

Nevertheless, the Indo-Greeks always played a less significant role in research compared to the Bactrian kingdom. Since Tarn’s (1938) seminal, but out-dated work no coherent history of the Indo-Greek kingdoms has been written. The coins have been gathered by two scholars in particular, Osmund Bopearachchi (1991; 1998; Bopearachchi – ur Rahman 1995) and Richard Senior (2004; 2006; Senior – MacDonald 1998), but newer research following a broader approach of social history tends to ignore the Indo-Greek part of Greek rule in Central Asia (cf. Coloru 2009; Widemann 2009; Mairs 2014).

This then is my project’s aim: a social history of the Indo-Greek kingdoms, starting with Zoilos I (ca. 130–120 BC), the first Indo-Greek king to rule only south of the Hindu Kush Mountains and ending with Archebios (ca. 90–80 BC) and Hermaios (ca. 90–70 BC).

I want to examine social contacts between the Greek and indigenous people. Why is the self-expression of these kings purely Greek although we know that some of them were of non-Greek descent? We can expect the layer of the ethnically Greek population to be rather thin, but nevertheless the construction of kinship and familiar bonds seems to have been in the kings’ own best interest. Was kinship – real or pretended – the only way to become integrated into the upper level of society? What defines ‘Greekness’ in this situation of diaspora? And finally, how was the cultural landscape changed by the migration of the Greek community into the lands south of the Hindu Kush Mountains?

By comparing twenty kings in a time span of ca. sixty years it seems clear that we have to deal with different kingdoms, which can be separated from each other only by analysing the diffusion of the respective kings’ coins. We can expect a system of different co-regencies and client-kingdoms. Both have been done, but only in a cursory way without undertaking dies-studies of these coinages. Only dies-studies will enable us to estimate the size of a specific king’s coinage and thereby allow us to draw conclusions about the length of the reign. Additionally, the results of these studies will put us in a position to specify the monetisation and economic conduct of the Indo-Greek kings.

Besides the ‘basic’ numismatic work, an iconographical analysis of the coins’ design will be conducted. Whereas the iconography of the Bactrian coinages feature a strongly Hellenised design, Indo-Greek coinages tend to widen the iconographic inventory. Greek deities are coupled with strange attributes, e. g. Zeus with an elephant. This hints towards syncretistic tendencies, incorporating indigenous religious notions into the iconography.

These syncretistic tendencies can also be observed in the organisation of the minting process. Whereas on Bactrian coins, the control letters naming officials responsible for the specific coinage and indicating the place of mintage are purely Greek, on Indo-Greek coins a Greek letter is always combined with a Karoshti letter, not corresponding to the Greek one. This phenomenon has never been examined, but it could hint at the participation of indigenous officials during the process.

Supplementing the numismatic side, the meagre material evidence will be consulted. One essential example is the Heliodoros pillar, erected by Heliodoros, an ambassador of the Indo-Greek king Antialkidas to the court of an Indian Sunga-king. Although the Brahmi-inscription is found in every volume on the history of India, it is almost entirely unknown to Classical scholars and has never been the subject of a thorough archaeological analysis.

My project will analyse the relation between the Greek and indigenous people in Pakistan and North-Western India for a time span of ca. sixty years. It will seek to answer questions about the self-definition of the Greek upper-class in a situation of migration and diaspora and the strategies indigenous social climbers employed to overcome social barriers.

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