By the time Demetrius had risen to power in Bactria, India was no stranger to invaders from the west. First Darius I and then Alexander the Great would fix their eyes on this sub-continent. Both had attempted to leave a permanent foothold on this far edge of the known world; both had failed. Yet by the start of the 2nd century BC, much had changed.
India was no longer the enigma that it had been for both past invaders. By then – following amicable relations and peace with the Hellenistic World for the past 100 years – Greek knowledge of the country’s northern lands had significantly increased. Quickly those in the west began to realise how daunting a task it would be for anyone planning to invade that land – the Indian kingdoms could boast of having some of the largest armies in the world. Demetrius, however, remained undeterred. He saw an opportunity; a vast empire was crumbling.
The Mauryan Empire
For the last 130 years, one prestigious kingdom had dominated Northern India: The great Mauryan Empire. Its past rulers had been some of the most powerful and significant in India’s history – its founder Chandragupta Maurya and the Buddhist hero, Ashoka to name two of the greatest. In its height, their lands and armies became so formidable that they had even threatened the Hellenistic World in Asia. By 184 BC, however, that Mauryan ‘golden age’ had long passed.
This Empire had changed greatly since its height of power 50 years before; no longer was it the unbreakable force that many famed Hellenistic Greeks had seen it as – men such as Seleucus I and Megasthenes. Now, that era was coming to an end.
184 BC: End of a Dynasty
Having orchestrated the assassination of Chandragupta’s last direct descendant, a new man had now usurped the throne. His name was Pushyamitra Shunga, a former general that had become angered at Mauryan rule. As Chandragupta’s final successor died, so too did the Mauryan dynasty. This great family was at an end.
Such a great change from over 100 years of Mauryan rule would not be straightforward for Pushyamitra however; a smooth transition would not happen overnight. Many Indians would voice their dissatisfaction to his accession – the man’s only claim to the throne, after all, being that he had betrayed his predecessor. Internal turmoil inevitably followed.
This civil unrest was not bad news for everyone however. Hearing of this trouble in India, Demetrius saw a great opportunity. It would be he, he believed, that would save northern India from this turmoil, reviving the once-great Mauryan Empire with himself as King. This was the chance he had been waiting for. Gathering a large army, Demetrius prepared to follow in the footsteps of Alexander. The second ever Greek invasion into India was about to commence.
The Invasion of India Begins, 183 BC
Crossing over the Hindu Kush with a large army of Greeks and native Bactrians, Demetrius arrived to a hero’s welcome. To many Indians and especially for one group, this Greek king was the man they had been waiting for.
At that time, there were two main religions in northern India. On the one hand there was Brahmanism, an early form of Hinduism. On the other, there was a newer religion that had only recently gained popularity: Buddhism.
Emerging in around 1000 BCE, Brahmanism had been the central religion in that country for centuries. Yet no longer was its primacy assured. Under the Mauryan dynasty – especially during the reign of the great Ashoka – the new religion, Buddhism, had become widespread. Its rise would continue past Ashoka’s death and by the time Pushyamitra had ascended the throne, that religion was now dominant. Brahmanism was crumbling.
Pushyamitra, however, had other ideas. A fervid Brahman himself, the new Emperor eagerly wanted to restore this religion to its past heights. Internal turmoil and Buddhist persecution duly followed. For Demetrius, however, this civil unrest presented him with a great opportunity.
Championing the Buddhists
Naturally, the Buddhists would not take kindly to Pushyamitra’s violent stance. Seeing their king devoted to destroying their religion they quickly sought another to overthrow him. Demetrius knew he could be that alternative. Gladly he would champion their cause, stating every man’s religion was his free choice and presenting himself as the man to save them from persecution. Its success would be unprecedented.
Hearing of the Greco-Bactrian King’s religious tolerance, many Indians would look kindly to Demetrius. Rather than viewing him as some foreign invader coming to ransack their lands, they saw him as their saviour – the ‘King of Justice’ who would deliver them from persecution. Demetrius had the popular support. Now, he had to conquer.
With little difficulty, Demetrius soon made great progress into northwest India. As city after city realigned with him and his cause, the Greek King quickly began to establish his own kingdom on that part of the Indian subcontinent – the largely Buddhist population happy under his rule. There Demetrius would find wealth and willing new Indian recruits aplenty. Yet this was just the beginning.
Divide and Conquer
From then on, Demetrius’ campaign would meet with unrelenting success. Dividing his army into two separate forces, Demetrius likely aimed to crush Pushyamitra in one devastating two-pronged attack. The plan was set. Now Demetrius and his Greco-Bactrians had to carry it out.
The March to Barygaza
Commanding one half of his army himself, Demetrius headed south down the Indus River, following in the footsteps of his idol Alexander. Soon enough, after conquering everything in his path, he reached the Indian Ocean. Having arrived there however, disaster struck. Hearing of new troubles back in Bactria Demetrius himself was forced to return home. Yet this hindrance did not stop Demetrius’ plan.
Putting his army under the command of Apollodotus (who was most likely either Demetrius’ youngest brother or one of his best generals), Demetrius ordered the conquest to go on without him. It would prove a wise move. Under Apollodotus that force continued its good fortune, advancing as far south as the prospering port of Barygaza (modern day Bharuch); a truly outstanding achievement for a Greek army. In the east, too, a similar story was unravelling.
The March to Pataliputra
Under the command of Menander – one of Demetrius’ greatest and most loyal generals – the other half of Demetrius’ army had headed east. It too would meet with great success. Setting off from Taxila – the most prestigious city in northwest India – Menander and his army would have likely faced constant opposition, fighting through hundreds of miles of territory loyal to Pushyamitra. Yet Menander and his army of Greeks, Bactrians and Indians, proved unstoppable.
Beating off any attempts to halt their advance, the Greek army traversed almost the entirety of northern India. Finally, it would reach Pataliputra: The former Mauryan capital situated on the banks of the Ganges River. The Indian Yuga Purana document records the army’s imminent arrival at that city,
Then, after having approached Saketa…the Yavanas (Greeks), valiant in battle, will reach “The Town of the Flower-Standard”(Pataliputra). Then once Pataliputra has been reached and its mud-walls cast down, all the realm will be in disorder.
(Yuga Purana: Slokas 47-48)
Soon enough, as predicted, Menander and his army tore down Pataliputra’s mud walls and the city fell to the invaders. The capital of the most formidable Indian Empire for the past 200 years was now in the hands of forces loyal to Demetrius; a Greek now ruled the most prestigious city in India.
No longer were Demetrius’ desires to become the next Alexander just fantastical dreams. Now, having captured Pataliputra, these dreams were quickly becoming reality.
For Pushyamitra, things were getting desperate. Wherever he had attempted to halt this invasion, he had failed – his fervent desire to persecute his own citizens was now coming back to haunt him. Now he found himself on the brink of complete defeat.
Victory in Sight
For Demetrius, however, victory was within sight. Hearing of the success of his two armies, Demetrius now found himself the ruler of an empire larger than that of any Greek. Apollodorus recalls,
The Greeks (in Bactria)… grew so powerful… that they became masters not only of Ariana, but also of India…and more tribes were subdued by them than by Alexander – by Menander in particular… and others by Demetrius, son of Euthydemus, king of the Bactrians.
Demetrius – thanks primarily to the great leadership of his two most trusted generals, Apollodotus and Menander – had achieved what many before had failed to do: He had matched the achievements of the greatest military general the world had ever seen…… almost. The conquest was not yet finished. Pushyamitra was still alive and remained a constant threat; he may have been down, but he was certainly not out.
The Final Blow
One final push was needed before Demetrius could call his invasion complete.
Pushyamitra now found his remaining lands encircled by the Greeks on two sides. The final step to his complete demise was easy to see. Pinning the Shungan King between two forces, the Greco-Indian army would slowly turn the screw on their foe, attacking from two sides at once. Defeat appeared only a matter of time for Pushyamitra. Yet Demetrius would take no chances.
Having returned to India with reinforcements from Bactria, the Greek King prepared for the final crushing blow against his opponent – the last step to restoring the Mauryan Empire. Demetrius now looked almost certain to become the next great ruler of India; he was within touching distance of completing a conquest as great as that of Alexander himself. Victory appeared only a matter of time.
This, however did not happen.
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Further Reading on this Topic
Apollodorus’ account of Demetrius’ Indian Invasion in Strabo here.
Justin on Eucratides here. N.B: Approach this account with an open mind. His story about the death of Eucratides is almost certainly fiction).
Narain, A. K. 2008. ‘The Greeks of Bactria and India,’ The Cambridge Ancient History 8, 388-421.
Tarn, W. W. 1966. The Greeks in Bactria and India, Cambridge University Press.