The Critical Moment: Attack from Behind

As Demetrius prepared to deal the final blow against his Indian rival, news reached him that would alter his plans completely: Bactria itself was under threat.

Demetrius was not the only Greek King with ambitions at that time. To the west, another had chosen his time wisely to launch his own formidable conquest. A man who’s plans would ultimately decide the fate of both Demetrius and his Indian invasion: Antiochus IV.

Antiochus IV

As king of the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus was ruling a Kingdom that had become a shadow of its former glory. Its lands no longer stretched from the Hindu Kush to Asia Minor as they had in its height. Instead, having recently suffered a humiliating defeat to Rome, Antiochus now found himself inheriting lands restricted to around the Fertile Crescent. This setback however, did not deter Antiochus’ big dreams.

Antiochus would be sure to learn from his predecessor’s mistakes against Rome. Rather than viewing that nation as the main cause for his kingdom’s current decline, Antiochus viewed the Romans very differently. Seeing that nation’s unstoppable success in the west, Antiochus used Rome’s achievements to inspire him to build his own great empire. That empire would not be in the west however – going up against Rome would have been suicide – but the east.

Reclaiming the East

For Antiochus, looking at his kingdom’s former territories in the east must have been gut-wrenching. Rather than remaining in his hands, those lands now belonged to other nations, hostile to Seleucid rule – nations such as Parthia and Demetrius’ vast Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. Antiochus wanted to change this; no longer would he tolerate their independence. Now, Antiochus planned to re-unite those eastern lands under one man’s rule: His own.

Eucratides and the Invasion of Bactria 169 BC
Eucratides' Invasion of Bactria 169 BC
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Heading off from Babylon in 169 BC, Eucratides headed east to Bactria itself. Antiochus knew that if his general’s invasion succeeded, then he could move onto his final goal: To surround the Parthians on two sides and complete his eastern conquest.

These ambitions, however, were merely dreams at that time. Action had to be taken, conquests had to be made. Retaking Bactria was the obvious first choice.

Seeing Demetrius and his formidable army preparing for the final blow against Pushyamitra far away in deepest India, Antiochus saw his opportunity. In 169 BC, whilst he himself headed west to fight in Egypt,  Antiochus ordered Eucratides, his governor in the east, to reclaim Demetrius’ home kingdom for the Seleucids.

It would be Eucratides’ invasion that stopped Demetrius from completing the greatest conquest the Classical World had yet seen.

The Result: Retreat

Hearing of Eucratides and his invasion into Bactria, Demetrius altered his plans entirely. Rather than finally finishing off Pushyamitra and becoming the first Greek King of the greatest Indian Empire ever seen, he ordered a large-scale retreat. Pataliputra, the most prestigious Indian city of the time, was abandoned. So too were all Demetrius’ gains east of Mathura. He simply did not have the forces to hold both those lands and Bactria at the same time. Bactria took priority. The Indian conquest – when its success appeared almost guaranteed – was abandoned.

Leaving behind some of his forces – including his (possible) brother Apollodotus and esteemed general Menander – to consolidate their remaining lands in India, Demetrius headed back to Bactria to deal with the new threat. Perhaps the Bactrian King had hoped he would return to that subcontinent after defeating Eucratides? Perhaps he thought then he would continue the conquest? That, however, never materialised.

Eucratides
Gold 20-stater coin of Eucratides
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A gold coin of Eucratides. With its diameter being 58 mm (roughly twice the size of a modern day 50p coin), Eucratides’ coinage was the largest in antiquity.

Demetrius returned to Bactria never to leave again. Finding his foe much stronger than he had first thought, Eucratides would emerge victorious. Demetrius himself, having lost the great battle sometime in 167 BC, was slain. That King’s great desire to emulate his hero, Alexander, was at an end.

Eucratides would not stop with Demetrius’ death however. Vanquishing any other Bactrian forces he faced (including those of both Demetrius’ sons and  Apollodotus), this Seleucid would go on to conquer all of Demetrius’ lands west of the Hindu Kush. There, following the death of Antiochus IV, Eucratides would establish his own rule for a brief period of time. As with Demetrius, however, he too would meet his end in battle, falling to Demetrius’ sole-surviving son who, desiring revenge, had enlisted the aid of a new growing eastern power. A power that in time would destroy the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom for good: The Parthians.

India

As for India, its fate also rapidly changed. The dream of reuniting the powerful Mauryan Empire died with Demetrius. Its lands becoming divided, two new kingdoms emerged in its place. They could not have been more different.

The Shungan Empire

Eucratides’ invasion was not bad news for everyone. For Pushyamitra, Demetrius’ retreat to deal with this new threat was the lifeline he desperately needed. He would be sure to take full advantage.

Thanks to Eucratides’ timely intervention, Pushyamitra recaptured Pataliputra and the other eastern lands Demetrius and his Greeks had abandoned. Re-establishing his control, that Shungan – who only recently had looked all-but beaten – became the founder of one of these new kingdoms. One that would last for the next 100 years and rule much of northeastern India: The Shungan Empire.

The Indo-Greek Kingdom

In the west, however, another empire emerged. Demetrius may have abandoned many of his Indian holdings, but not all of them. It would be these remaining lands that now formed a new Indo-Greek Kingdom. Successfully fighting off Eucratides and his invasion into India, that Kingdom would be the final legacy of Demetrius’ conquests on the subcontinent, ensuring a Greek influence on much of northwest India remained for centuries. All this began with Demetrius – no insignificant achievement.

For over 150 years kings would reign over the new Indo-Greek Kingdom, each with varied degrees of success. One ruler, however, would stand out above the rest.

Menander

His name was Menander, the hero of Demetrius’ daunting expedition to Pataliputra. Following Demetrius’ demise on his return to Bactria, it would be this general that inherited the infant Indo-Greek Kingdom on the subcontinent. During his reign, the Kingdom would prosper as Menander cemented a Greek presence in northern India.

After his death, not only would his Buddhist subjects forever portray him as a very wise ruler, but tales of Menander’s just reign would reach as far as Greece itself. Having achieved such high renown in his lifetime, Menander – originally a commoner at birth – rose to become the greatest Greek monarch to ever rule a stable empire in India.

Menander and Buddhism
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King Menander listens to the Buddhist prophet, Nagasena – as recorded in the Milindha Panha (Questions to Menander). According to the text, Menander became the first Greek king to convert to Buddhism.

Under Menander and his descendants, this Indo-Greek Kingdom ensured Demetrius’ invasion would not completely fail; Demetrius, after all, had succeeded in leaving the first permanent Greek presence on Indian soil. Yet it could have been so much more.

What if

With Demetrius meeting his end in Bactria, so too did his dreams of a magnificent Indian conquest. He had got so close only for his almost certain success to be pulled from under him; Antiochus and Eucratides mercilessly saw to that. Imagine therefore how different antiquity would look if Eucratides had not invaded in 169 BC. What if Antiochus had not decided on launching an ambitious eastern campaign of his own?

Success

In such a world, the fate of Demetrius’ conquest would likely have been very different. Rather than having to abandon its completion at the last moment, Demetrius would have launched the final phase of his Indian invasion – the crushing blow to destroy Pushyamitra entirely. With Apollodotus attacking from the west and Demetrius and Menander the east, victory for the Greco-Bactrians was all but assured. Demetrius’ Invasion of India would be complete.

Following this success, Demetrius would have achieved his dream – completing a conquest as formidable as that of Alexander. More importantly, however, victory would have ensured the rebirth of one of the greatest empires in Indian history.

With Pushyamitra’s rule overthrown, Demetrius, a Greek originally born far to the west, could have restored the Mauryan Empire to its prime. To many in the west, such a story would have appeared laughable. Demetrius however – as the undisputed new king of that revived Empire – would have had the last laugh.

Ruling lands that stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Bay of Bengal (roughly 3, 000 miles  in distance) , Demetrius would have become the King of the largest Empire yet seen in antiquity. Neither the Persian, Macedonian nor even the Roman Empire could rival its size. Such an achievement would have dramatically altered how we remember Demetrius in antiquity.

Demetrius the Great
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Demetrius’ dream to match Alexander’s achievements would have come to reality if not for Eucratides; his name would have rapidly become that of a legendary Greek general.

In such a world, Demetrius would have succeeded where all other Greeks had failed: He had achieved a conquest as great as that of the divine Alexander over 100 years before. Classical writers and biographers would have widely retold his incredible story – men like Plutarch and Nepos especially come to mind – determined to keep the formidable conquest of this Greek in such an exotic, far-away land alive.

No longer would we have to try to deduce as best we can about how Demetrius conducted his invasion from a few various snippets of information. Instead, our knowledge of this conquest would be significantly boosted by an overwhelming amount of sources: Ones focusing entire chapters and whole books on the Greco-Bactrian Empire and the fascinating conquest of Demetrius, its greatest king. All this appears highly possible if not for Eucratides’ actions in 169 BC.

Conclusion

Demetrius’ Indian campaign is undoubtedly – despite our limited surviving evidence – one of the most fascinating campaigns in antiquity. Committing himself to an invasion more ambitious that those famed expeditions of both Alexander and Caesar, this Greco-Bactrian king had been so close to success. Ultimately, however, he would fail at the last hurdle.

Yet if it had not been for those equally ambitious dreams of conquest by Antiochus IV, then Demetrius’ conquest would almost certainly have succeeded. The results of such success are amazing to think of.

For how long would Greek kings remain the most powerful rulers in India? How differently would we remember Demetrius and his conquest in antiquity? Would his Empire have become an effective counterpoise to Rome in the east? And of course, what would have happened to the legacy of the great Alexander in such a world? Would Demetrius have stolen his crown as the most formidable Greek conqueror ever? All fascinating questions to ask in a world where Demetrius had not been forced to halt his great invasion at the last moment.

Note: Please Read

N.B Sadly, we have very little surviving evidence about this fascinating part of history. The above re-telling of events is what I, having viewed the evidence (mainly of William Tarn and Indian records/ archaeology), believe was the most likely timeline of events.

Of course there will be some disagreement as the sources we have surviving are VERY ambiguous, so we expect and welcome challenging views. The late Indian historian Awadh Narain for example believes that this conquest was done mainly by Menander and Apollodotus and not Demetrius.

Furthermore, Justin says Eucratides perished in India at the hands of his own son. This claim, however, scholars such as Tarn refute with the alternate belief he fell to Demetrius’ son and the Parthians now becoming more credible.

This article series is meant as a short fascinating story of a series of events that appears very possible from the surviving sources we have. All the information is based on plausible scholarly opinion from this evidence but unfortunately it can never be hard-key fact due to the surviving source’s limitations and ambiguity on both the Indian and the Greek side. I therefore do welcome comments that disagree with the proposed series of events and look forwards to discussing them.

Enjoying the content? See more at Turning Points of the Ancient World.

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.