Alexander the Great in the Punjab: a Photo Essay

29 May 2008
Statuette of Aphrodite, from Begram (Afghanistan)

Statuette of Aphrodite, from Begram (Afghanistan)

In the autumn of 327 BCE, Alexander the Great had settled his affairs in Bactria and crossed the Hindu Kush mountains for the second time. Although he arrived in the city he had founded two years before, Alexandria in the Caucasus (modern Begram near Kabul), he was not returning home. Far from it: he wanted to invade the mysterious country of the Indus, which he believed to be on the eastern edge of the earth.

Today, a visit to the Swat valley is almost impossible, as it has been taken over by the Taliban. Maybe these photos are of some help. Bold links lead to pages with more photos.


Invading the Punjab was comparatively easy. There was an old road, called the Uttarāpatha (‘the upper road’), which started in the country of the Upper Kabul, went through the Khyber Pass, and passed along the capitals of the Lower Kabul valley, the western and eastern Punjab, and finally reached Patna on the Ganges. The Macedonians would use this road, but realized that they had to cover their flanks.

Map of the valleys of the Kabul and Swat

Map of the valleys of the Kabul and Swat

In Nagarahara (the neighborhood of modern Jalalabad), a group of rajas offered their submission. They were not the first: a man named Ambhi, prince of the western Punjab, had already come to Bactria to subject himself to Alexander, and had asked the “son of Zeus” to help him fight against the ruler of the eastern Punjab. In Jalalabad, Alexander was recognized as avatar of the Indian god Vishnu, and he believed that the country had already surrendered to him. In other words: those who refused to obey Alexander, were traitors, and would be punished. This explains the extreme violence of the coming campaign.

The remains of Peucelaotis

In the first days of 326, the Macedonian army was divided into two columns. Perdiccas and Hephaestion took the largest group along through the Khyber pass and occupied Puskalāvatī, “the city of lotus flowers”, the capital of the Lower Kabul valley. The photo shows one of the two hills, and some Pathan boys looking for eggs in the nests of the birds. The site is covered with sherds, waiting for an archaeologist to investigate it. Not much later, this column reached the river Indus, and built a pontoon bridge across this mighty stream.

The Swat Campaign

The Indus

The Indus

The second column was commanded by Alexander himself. This army did not take the main road, but took a more northern route, to cover the flank of the main force. Alexander’s men walked across the valleys of several tributaries of the Kabul. The first of these was the Kunar, where the native Aspasians were miraculously saved when it was discovered that the god Dionysus, one of Alexander’s ancestors, was born on a nearby mountain (more…). There was strong proof for this claim: everywhere, the Macedonians saw ivy, and everybody knew that this was the symbol of Dionysus. It is likely that some cult of Vishnu lies behind this story.

Nomads near Wuch

Nomads near Wuch

Having terrorized the inhabitants of another city, Arigaion, Alexander entered the next valley along the dry bed of the river Wuch, where he laid siege to a town called Massaga, which is probably identical to the place that is now called Churchill’s Picket. The siege lasted some time, but after an Indian mercenary leader had been killed, his men surrendered. Negotiations started and Alexander ordered the mercenaries to occupy a nearby hill. However, during the cease-fire, Alexander ordered his men to attack the Indians, explaining that he had granted them a safe-conduct to the hill, but had not granted them their lives. The city was captured immediately after, and Alexander appears to have had a brief relationship with the queen.

The Swat near Birkot

The Swat near Birkot

The lovely Swat valley was now open to the Macedonian armies. Alexander had already sent out two divisions, commanded by Coenus and Polyperchon, to attack two fortresses: Bazira and Ora. The first of these has been identified near modern Bir-Kot. It is a steep rock, and on many places, you can still see the walls and ditches that once surrounded the fortress. Catapult stones were also found. Ora, modern Ude-Gram, was even larger. Walls have been identified, but a proper excavation has not taken place.

Birkot (ancient Bazira)

Birkot (ancient Bazira)

Alexander’s colonels were unable to capture Bazira and Ora, which were defended by the Assaceni, who felt little incentive to come to terms. After all, those who had surrendered at Massaga, had been killed. Besides, the fortresses were simply too high and too steep to storm. Even worse, a nearby Indian king sent reinforcements to Ora. Only when Alexander personally saw to the sieges, the fortresses were taken. At Ora, elephants were captured, and the Macedonians rapidly learned how to deal with these animals. The fate of the defenders is not recorded.

The Aornus and the Indus

The Aornus and the Indus

Through the Shang-La pass, even today not an easy road, Alexander’s men proceeded to the valley of the Indus. A large group of Assaceni had taken refuge on a steep rock called Āvárana, “hiding place”. It was no less than 1500 meters high and would be hard to take. According to a local legend not even the god Krishna had been able to capture the fortress – which meant that Alexander had to try it.

There were two summits; the eastern one had an artesic well and was occupied by the Indians. Ptolemy managed to occupy the other summit with a small group of Macedonians, but when Alexander tried to reinforce this vanguard, he was unexpectedly attacked by the Assaceni. However, he managed to pass along them, and when the two Macedonian divisions were on the western summit, the final attack could begin. A dam had already been built across the valley between the two summits when the besieged surrendered. They were all massacred. Alexander had surpassed Krishna.

The Battle of the Hydaspes

Taxila (Bhir Mound)

Taxila (Bhir Mound)

A couple of days later, Alexander’s army reached the other Macedonian army, and the united troops crossed the bridge and proceeded along the Uttarāpatha. Soon, they were in Taxila, the capital of the western Punjab. Actually, there are several ancient cities over there (Sirkap, Sirsukh, Rawalpindi, Islamabad), but the place that Alexander visited has been excavated on a place called Bhir Mound. The prince who had invited Alexander, Ambhi, now accepted the royal title and was from now on called after his city – in the Greek sources, he is called Taxiles. The Macedonians perfected their knowledge of the elephant and developed a weapon against it: a lance to which some kind of knife was added, useful to cut off trunks. They also understood that a phalanx, if it stayed close, had no reason to fear the big animals. There was some time to relax, and we know that at least one officer, Onesicritus, spent some time trying to meet the local saddhu’s (non-Brahman wise men). This meeting of cultures, however, was not without difficulties: he had to make use of four translators – and that which he took to be the name of his new friend, Calanus, in Indian means something like “hello”.

The landscape of the Uttarapatha

The landscape of the Uttarapatha

Alexander had promised the new king of the western Punjab to help him fight against the king of the eastern Punjab. As was customary, he was named after his city: Poro, or, as the Greeks said, Porus. His capital, Lo Poro, is probably identical to modern Lahore, and could be reached following the Uttarāpatha. The landscape, however, is hilly and uneven, and although the road itself appears to have had some sort of pavement, the soldiers must have hated it – especially because they had to carry the pontoons with them, which they had used to build a bridge across the Indus. Their complaints would soon force Alexander to take special measures.

The Jhelum in May

The Jhelum in May

Our sources present the clash with Porus as a big, decisive battle, but it was not. Alexander employed only one sixth of his army; lesser known battles like those at the Persian Gate and the Jaxartes were larger. Nor was the outcome in doubt: the king of Poro was an isolated raja, leader of a small part of the eastern Punjab. However, he held one trump card: Alexander would have to cross the river Vitaçtā (Hydaspes in Greek, modern Jhelum). This would be difficult under all circumstances, because the rivers in the Punjab are very wide; but the monsoon was early that year, and it would be impossible for mere humans to cross the rivers. A stand-off was possible, and would -against the avatar of Vishnu- be something like a victory.

One of Alexanders coins commemorating his Indian victory; British Musuem

One of Alexander's coins commemorating his Indian victory; British Musuem

However, Porus did not know that Alexander’s men had carried the pontoons to the river. One night, Alexander moved through the hinterland to a place more upstream, where he managed to cross the river without being observed: it was raining too hard. When he encountered Porus’ vanguard, the Indian chariots slipped away in the mud, and this was also the reason why the Indian archers could not employ their two-meter high bows – these terrible weapons, which could project spears instead of arrows, needed a stable point on the ground, but there was only mud. Alexander’s phalanx, cavalry, and mounted archers, on the other hand, did not suffer from the rain, and they surrounded Porus’ army, forcing the Indian infantry to move ever closer to their own elephants. The result was terrible: about two thirds of the Indian army was killed, and Porus was forced to surrender.

To the Edge of the Earth

Alexander founded a city on the battlefield, called Nicaea, “victory city”. It must be very close to the city of Jhelum, where the Uttarāpatha crossed the river. A Buddhist source mentions Nicaea and its twin city, Bucephala, as stages along the road. The men who were left behind to build these cities, were also commanded to build ships. Alexander believed that he was now very close to the edge of the earth, and believed he would be back soon.

Alexander with the attributes of Zeus

Alexander with the attributes of Zeus

The Macedonian army proceeded now directly to the east, and no longer followed the Uttarāpatha, which would have brought them to the southeast, to Lahore and Amritsar. The other road, straight east, was less hot.

Still, the soldiers complained, and Alexander gave them a lot of money. The coins are splendid, and the sum he paid was a good one – but there was a catch. On the reverse, one could see Alexander himself, carrying a thunderbolt. In other words, he claimed to be the one who had created the lightning and rain that had made the battle against Porus so easy. The soldiers who accepted the money, at the same time accepted Alexander as their god – a battle theology with very serious implications. Within three years, Alexander would demand worship in the cities of Greece as well.

The Chenab

The Chenab

For the moment, the soldiers continued, and they did cross several new rivers, like the Ashkini, which the Macedonians called Acesines and is now known as Chenab. The Iravati (Hydraotes, modern Ravi) was no problem either, and the sack of a city called Sangala did not create any troubles too. The inhabitants were killed. But the soldiers were getting tired of the monsoon rains and complained that their weapons could no longer be refitted. When they reached the Vipäs (Hyphasis, modern Beas), and learned that between the river and the Ocean was the kingdom of Magadha, they refused to follow their king. Alexander gave in. It was mid-summer, and he must have expected a different thirtieth birthday.

To the south

A banyan tree

A banyan tree

Porus was still in Alexander’s company, and was useful: he had already been isolated when he fought against Alexander, and he had lost his army, so he was dependent upon the Macedonian forces. This made him the perfect viceroy, and he received all country east of his own kingdom.

Alexander now went back to Nicaea, where his fleet was ready. Its commander was Nearchus. The army, about 100,000 men, was divided into three groups: one army for the left bank, one for the right bank, and one aboard of the ships. The native population surrendered well in advance of Alexander’s arrival, except for the Mälava, or Mallians as the Greeks called them. When Alexander reached the northern border of their country, not far from modern Jhangsadar, he decided to break their resistance.

The Chenab near Kamalia

The Chenab near Kamalia

The ships were to continue to the south, and to wait at the confluence of the Ashkini and Iravati, which, back then, was at Shorkot. Of the remaining two groups, one would go straight to the east, and the other one (commanded by Alexander) would pass through a dry area and go to the southeast, to Kamalia. The people would be trapped: the main force would kill them all – and if they fled to the north or southwest, they would meet the other army or fleet, while the river Iravati would obstruct their flight to the southeast. At a ford in the river, Alexander killed the last refugees.

Nor was this the end of the genocide. A city that was known for its Brahmans was sacked as well. The killing of the holy men would send a shock wave through the Indus valley, and made sure that Alexander would encounter more resistance when he headed south.

The walls of Multan

The walls of Multan

For the time being, the merciless attack on the unarmed Mallians went on, and Alexander reached their capital, modern Multan, south of the point that Alexander had chosen for the rendez-vous with his fleet. Buddhist sources tell that there was an important shrine on a hill, which was surrounded by a wall, part of which still stands. When Alexander stormed the city, an Indian archer was able to use his dangerous weapon, and the large arrow hit Alexander in the sternum. He was unconscious when his soldiers sacked the city and killed the inhabitants.

What remains of Alexandria: an acropolis that is partly rebuilt and partly washed away

What remains of Alexandria: an acropolis that is partly rebuilt and partly washed away

When Alexander regained consciousness, he was at the place that is now called “Head of the Punjab”: the confluence of the five great rivers, almost six kilometers wide. He built a city, which is now known as Uch. The campaign through the Punjab had come to an end, and a new campaign, equally savage, was about to begin: the Macedonians had to fight their way to the Ocean against people who wanted to avenge the Brahmans and understood that Alexander was a human being, not an avatar of a god.

The violent intermezzo had no direct consequences: Porus was too weak and the Macedonian garrisons were too small to defend the region, and besides, Ambhi of Taxila still hated Porus. Violent resistance never ceased, and in 317, the latest Macedonian soldiers left the country. The destabilized region, which was still suffering from manpower shortage, was taken over by the king of Magadha, Chandragupta, who had copied Alexander’s army tactics and founded the Maurya Empire. This new state was Alexander’s most lasting legacy.


  • A.B. Bosworth, Alexander and the East. The Tragedy of Triumph (1996 Oxford)
  • P.H.L. Eggermont, Alexander’s campaign in Southern Punjab (1993)
  • F. L. Holt, Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions (2003)
  • Aurel Stein, On Alexander’s Track to the Indus (1929, reprinted 2003 Lahore)

Two Battles of Caesar

27 May 2008

I am moving some pages through my website (more…), and today did two battle sites where Julius Caesar defeated the Belgians: at the river Sabis, the modern Selle in French Flanders, he overcame the Nervians, and at Huy (map to the right) he besieged the Atuatuci. (Related: Alesia, Rubico, Dyrrhachium, Pharsalus, Zela.)

I also moved Segovia (the famous aqueduct) and two unimportant pages: the Pyrenees, and the limes castle at Böbingen.

Military Dust

27 May 2008

LacusCurtius’ Bill Thayer has put online a brief article by Edward Echols titled “Military Dust“, originally published in the Classical Journal of 1952. And indeed, it deals with dust on the battlefield, and sort of sums up twenty instances of that substance playing a role on the battlefield. The photo to the right is a dustdevil I encountered on the road to Harran/Carrhae. Crassus must have seen something similar.

Moving Livius.Org (1)

26 May 2008

I am preparing a big migration of the Livius website from the old, plain html to a content management system. As a preliminary, I have to separate texts from pictures, which had (long time ago, when I started back in the mid-1990’s) to be in the same directory. There are about 340 pages that I now need to move, because they are in what used to be the “picture archive”, a separation between “real articles” and topographical pages that once seemed to be a good idea. I have now moved four articles, and have seized the opportunity to improve them a bit: the siege of Dyrrhachium, Heracles (photo), Sillyum, and Tyana. None of it is terribly interesting. Eventually these pieces will move again, to an URL that looks like a number.


25 May 2008

The Egyptian bird benu, or purple heron, has had a remarkable history. Originally, it was mentioned in myths about the Creation, but later authors converted this animal in the firebird that lived almost eternally. Among the authors who refer to the phoenix (a rendering of benu, but in Greek meaning “the brilliant one”) are Hesiod, who claims that the bird could be 100,000 years old; Herodotus, who tells how the bird buries his father; the playwright Ezekiel, who describes its colors; and, in c.100 CE, suddenly three Latin authors – Tacitus, Martial, and bishop Clement of Rome. The little picture shows a Coptic phoenix, which symbolizes the resurrection. You can read more about the bird here, although the news here is probably more interesting.

Augustus’ Trophee at La Turbie

25 May 2008

Just north of Monaco, high up the mountains, are the ruins of the Tropaium Augusti, a monument dedicated to the emperor Augustus, “because under his guidance and auspices, all Alpine nations … were submitted to the Empire of the Roman people”. The generals in charge were Augustus’ stepsons Drusus and Tiberius. The event was also commemorated by the poet Horace, who devoted Ode 4.4 to these victories.

The monument itself almost fifty meters high. It consisted of a square podium, twelve meters high, on which the inscription was written, flanked by two Victories. The second tier, accessible by stairs, consisted of a roofed circular colonnade. Between the twenty-four columns, one could see statues of various commanders. On top of a stepped cone, the visitor could see the statue of Augustus. I imagine that the gilded parts must have been visible from a great distance and may have served as a beacon for ships.

A visit to the monument can easily be combined with the Villa Kerylos in nearby Nice (or a visit to the casino of Monte Carlo).

The Siege of Alesia

25 May 2008

The statue of Vercingetorix, with the moustache of Napoleon III.

The Siege of Alesia in 52 BCE is one of the most decisive battles in world history. Julius Caesar overcame the Gallic leader Vercingetorix, and broke Gallic resistance against the Roman conquest. Until then, the Roman Empire was essentially the Mediterranean world, but now, it expanded far beyond the well-known sea, all the way to the Rhine.

Caesar’s own account is very artful: everything depends on one single siege, Alesia; during this siege, all is decided on one single day; during that day, one single fight really matters, the one in the northwest; and the fight over there is decided by one man, Julius Caesar. Things must have been more complicated; in the end, the Gauls had to prostrate for Roman organizing skills and discipline, but Caesar could rightfully claim that it was his generalship that had won the battle.

The photo shows the statue of Vercingetorix at Alise St Reine.

Morituri te salutant

23 May 2008

The line “morituri te salutant” is often quoted as the gladiator’s salute. I have seen modern reenactors opening their shows with it. In an article from the Transactions of the American Philological Association, H.J. Leon proved not only that the remark was not common at all, but also that it was used by naumachiarii, men condemned to die in a staged naval battle; besides, the two sources quoting the line refer to the same incident, which suggests that it was only used on that occasion. The article is now online at LacusCurtius; go here.

An Early Dedication to Elagabal

22 May 2008

Elagabal was a Syrian sun god, who was worshipped with rituals that are strongly reminiscent of the Babylonian Akitu festival. He is probably best known because an attempt to introduce his cult in Rome was made by the emperor Heliogabalus – whose real name was Varius Avitus Bassianus, but who was always called after his god.

His reign was from 218 to 222, and it is often assumed that he was responsible for the spread of the cult to other parts of the world. However, there is an interesting inscription in the City Museum of Woerden (Netherlands), that proves that the cult of the Syrian sun god was already known on the other side of the empire more than half a century before the reign of Heliogabalus.

It was erected by a soldier who may have been born somewhere along the Danube, but who may as well have been a native from the Low Countries. Here is the text:

Pro Salute Imperatoris Caesaris Titi Aelii HAdriani
Antonini Avgusti Pii
BASSVS Signifer COHortis
For the good health of the emperor caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus
Antoninus Augustus Pius,
to the sun Elaga-
bal and Minerva has

Lucius Terentius
Bassus, standard bearer of the third
unit of Breuci [erected this altar].

Epaphroditus: Nero’s assassin, Josephus’ protector

16 May 2008

The Roman courtier and patron of the arts, Epaphroditus, is an intrigueing man – or perhaps we must use the plural, Epaphroditi. Our sources mention two people:

  1. An influential courtier during the reign of Nero, who eventually helped the emperor commit suicide, retired, was patron of the philosopher Epictetus, and was killed by Domitian;
  2. A grammarian named Marcus Mettius Epaphroditus, who founded a library and several schools in Rome during the reign of the Flavian emperors.

Because the second man becomes “visible” in our sources when the first one disappears, it is possible that they are identical. The issue has some importance, because an Epaphroditus was patron of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. The interpretation of his splendid Against the Greeks depends partly on the identification of the correct Epaphroditus.

You can find more information here; the little statue is in the Palazzo Altieri in Rome, opposite the San Gesù. Officially, it is not accessible, but the people at the gate are kind and will allow you to come in.

Naustathmos (Ras al-Hillal)

10 May 2008

The ancient Roman port of Naustathmus has been identified with Ras al-Hillal (“Cape Crescent”) in Libya. When the emperor Justinian reorganized the southern border (in 538/539), he fortified several ports. Churches were built to make sure that the sailors and soldiers would always receive divine help. The church of Ras al-Hillal has survived pretty well; it must have been a very big building. After a century, the church was converted into a mosque.

The Temple of Elst

9 May 2008

The Roman Temple of Elst (between Arnhem and Nijmegen in the Netherlands) must have been one of the largest north of the Alps. The site was already venerated before the Romans settled the Batavians in this area, and the site remained in use as a site of religious significance: today, it is the main church of Elst. When this Christian monument was bombed during the Second World War, the pagan shrine was discovered. It was apparently built at the beginning of our era, and reconstructed when Trajan visited the area in c.100.

The second sanctuary was made of natural stone, measured 23 x 30 meters, and must have had a height of 17 meters – comparable to a modern building of four or five stories. The temples of a typical Italian town like Pompeii were smaller and were erected from bricks, which suggests that the god of Elst was very important indeed.

Which god it was, is not known. Yet, it is certain that he was identified by the Romans with one of their own gods, because near the sanctuary, the remains of a traditional Italian sacrifice were found, a suovetaurilia. The only deities who received this triple offering of pig, sheep and bull were Mars and Mater Matuta (the male and female deities of fertility).

It is possible that the Romans identified him with their Hercules, because the remains of a statuette have been found, which show the club of this demigod. Since the supreme god of the Batavians, Magusanus, was equaled to Hercules, it is very tempting to think that Magusanus was venerated in the Elst temple. However, Hercules is not really known as a fertility god.

The site is open to the public, but you must make an appointment. The website of the Protestant Church contains this page on the history of the monument; I can not give a phone number as that may change. The church is about five minutes from the little railroad station.

Nora Chadwick, Celtic Britain

9 May 2008

According to modern standards, “Celtic Britain” (1963) is actually a bit of a misnomer: the book by Nora K. Chadwick (1891‑1972) is not -as many would expect- about pre-Roman Britain, but about the period after the Fall of the Roman Empire, in which the kingdoms of Wales and Scotland came into existence, and church life was dominated by the conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the Celtic Church.

Also available: an old article on Simonides on the fallen of Thermopylae.


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