A Brief History
In 326 BC, Alexander III of Macedon, known more familiarly as Alexander the Great, having conquered the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, the largest empire within the ken of the Greeks of the time, turned his attention to the next great conquest, that of the fabled but little known land of India. What exotic people and riches awaited the greatest conqueror of ancient times? With only one way to find out, Alexander once more mounted his armies and stepped forward to the Indian sub-continent, transiting the famous Khyber Pass.
Alexander the Great was the premier conqueror of his day, a shrewd politician and military genius that invariably won battle after battle, and in fact usually also won the peace that followed with diplomatic tact to meld the conquered people into his empire, sharing Greek and Macedonian ways with the conquered people and adopting some of the defeated people’s culture. While his armies may have started to grow weary of battle and perhaps had developed a desire to enjoy the spoils of conquest, Alexander had an insatiable appetite for conquest, turning his attention to the East and the fabled land of India.
The far eastern reaches of the Achaemenid Empire included Gandhara, a Persian satrapy located in the area of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent. As Alexander had defeated the Achaemenids, moving into Gandhara presented no particular problem. The next region in Alexander’s sights was the Punjab, the region that today consists of Eastern Pakistan and the Northern part of India. It was there in May of 326 BC that Alexander won a great victory over King Porus of the Paurava Kingdom at what is known as The Battle of the Hydaspes.
Fought at the Jhelum River, a river known to the Macedonians and Greeks as the Hydaspes, Alexander wielded a force of about 40,000 infantrymen supported by as many as 7000 cavalry, a force that included Asian allies. In opposition fighting for King Porus was a similar sized force, though an army that included as many as 1000 charioteers and up to 200 war elephants among its ranks. Despite the obvious danger of engaging such a formidable foe, Alexander had no choice but to fight Porus for he could ill afford to bypass such a powerful foe left to threaten his flanks. The battle would prove a daunting challenge to Alexander, who used his military genius to good effect, crossing the monsoon swollen river in order to outflank his opponent, a risky though unexpected maneuver that gave Alexander a tactical advantage. Prior to the crossing, Porus carefully monitored the position of the invading army as Alexander moved his troops up and down the river, searching for a fordable crossing. Alexander managed to make his crossing with a degree of secrecy while leaving a major component of his forces behind to perform an enveloping attack once his initial force was engaged. Other components of Alexander’s army would make other crossings to support the attack.
Amphibious attacks are often called the most difficult of assaults, and river crossings are likewise among those attacks fraught with the danger of being overwhelmed during the crossing. Alexander managed the concepts of secrecy and surprise masterfully and used the tactics of filling animal skins with hay to provide flotation for his men and animals. He also ordered his galleys and other boats to be cut in half or in threes in order to provide smaller, stealthier craft to perform his river crossing.
The battle unfolded with Porus atop one of his largest war elephants, located with the other heavily armed and armored pachyderms at the center of his formation. Alexander eschewed attacking the strong front of the Indian formation, electing to attack the flanks to eliminate the enemy cavalry first. As the battle raged the war elephants took a heavy toll of Alexander’s infantry, stomping his phalanxes and goring men with steel encased tusks. Although hard fought with perhaps 1000 of Alexander’s men killed, the army of King Porus lost about 20,000 killed and captured.
Alexander admired the courage and valor of Porus in the battle, and sent an emissary to entreat the King to surrender. Porus hurled his spear at the messenger, but instead of enraging Alexander, Alexander found the act of defiance to be inspiring. Finally, Porus agreed to surrender and Alexander met him in a famous face to face meeting of great warriors. In recognition of the bravery of King Porus, Alexander spared his life and set up his former enemy as the proxy monarch of the new Macedonian acquisition. A late arriving force of Indian soldiers, including a contingent of 70 war elephants became part of the booty taken by Alexander.
Alexander led his army to the boundaries of the next empire on his path to North-central India, the Nanda Empire, but here his weary men demurred, longing for a respite from the constant fighting and travel further and further from their homes. Although short of what we may call a mutiny, the unrest among his soldiers prevailed upon Alexander to stop at the river Hyphasis (now called the Beas River) and agree to return to the West. Prior to marching Westward, Alexander, ever the cautious and deliberate military mind, ensured that his Southern border along the Indus River was secure by defeating miscellaneous tribes and towns along the way. In 326 BC, his advance into India was now over, and so was the conquering career of Alexander the Great, the greatest conqueror of his day and perhaps the best military mind in all of history. Alexander died of a fever under mysterious circumstances in Babylon in 323, the cause of death still debated among scholars.
The invasion of India by Alexander and his eclectic armies was highly successful and had resulted in the defeat of a great and powerful enemy, though it had stopped short of the endless advance envisioned by the eternal warrior, Alexander the Great. Was it even possible for Alexander to prevail against the enormous armies that lay before him in India? While such speculation is exactly that, just speculation, the task of encountering vast numbers of Indian soldiers would have taken an extreme toll on Alexander’s core of Macedonian and Greek soldiers and quite possibly led to his eventual defeat. Or not! Who knows?
Question for students (and subscribers): What if Alexander managed to motivate his men to march on when they mutinied? What if he had lived longer and returned to India to renew his campaigns there? In either scenario, could he have conquered all of India? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Charles Rivers Editors. Alexander the Great in India: The History and Legacy of the Macedonian King’s Final Campaign. Independently Published, 2019.
Everitt, Anthony. Alexander the Great: His Life and His Mysterious Death. Random House, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a painting of Alexander and Porus by Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.