169 BC and a new empire is rising. After fourteen years of fighting, one Greek king is on the verge of becoming a legend. His name is Demetrius, ruler of an Empire in deepest Asia. Fighting an enemy that was neither Greek nor Roman, Demetrius has invaded a land that to many looked unconquerable – India. Succeed and Demetrius will be able to boast of achieving a conquest as formidable as that of his idol, Alexander the Great. Fail however, and his name will be forever lost to obscurity. It is to be in this year that his fate is decided.
Background: Hellenistic Asia in 185 BC
By this time, Asia had transformed substantially since Alexander the Great had breathed his last back in 323 BC. For the past 100 years, the Hellenistic Greeks had ruled supreme over this cradle of civilisation, bathing in the afterglow of Alexander’s Persian conquest. Now, however, their control was starting to dwindle.
The Ptolemies, Antigonids and Seleucids – by 185 BC, these Greek dynasties had become shadows of their former selves; their glory days were behind them. Now, new empires had begun to make their own mark on this rich part of the Ancient World.
To the west, the ever-growing power of Rome had started to gain great influence over the Greek kingdoms in the Eastern Mediterranean – in particular over the Attalids and the Ptolemies; yet they were not the only concern. Further east, in the lands that remained in Hellenistic control, old internal troubles – mostly in the form of violent revolts and deadly power struggles – once again reared their ugly heads. As these Hellenistic Kingdoms began to experience difficulties, one thing became notably clear: Greek power in Asia was waning.
There was however, one exception to this claim. One Greek kingdom remained strong.
That exception was the Kingdom of Bactria, the ‘Jewel of Iran’ and ‘Land of a Thousand Cities.’ Situated far to the east, this kingdom would become renowned in antiquity for both its wealth and strategic value – its lands ideally located on the main trade route between the West and the Orient. Yet all was not peace and prosperity.
Being situated on the edge of the ‘civilised’ Greek world, also brought its downsides. To the north and northwest, Bactria would frequently face incursions from many hostile nomadic tribes. As the first to face these dangers, many Greeks in the west would view this land as nothing more than a rich buffer state – its main reason for existing being to use its resources to prevent hordes of bloodthirsty barbarians from descending on the Greek world. One Bactrian king, however, thought very differently.
230 BC: Euthydemus I
Seeing his kingdom prospering and the nomadic threat contained, Euthydemus saw Bactria as much more than just a boundary marker for civilisation; to him this kingdom was an empire in waiting.
Forming the Greco-Bactrian Empire
Attempting to make his visions reality, Euthydemus would spend much of his ruling lifetime attempting to expand his realm. Backed by a formidable army – consisting of deadly Bactrian cavalry, disciplined Hellenistic infantry and powerful elephants – he would prove very successful, finally confirming Bactria as an independent sovereign state and conquering lands in every direction.
By the time of his death in around 200 BC, Euthydemus had proven those in the west wrong: His realm was now much greater than just a small buffer state.
His son, seeing his father’s achievements, would be sure to take note. Living up to Euthydemus’ conquests would be no easy task, yet Euthydemus’ heir would prove more than capable. It would be he that almost turned this far-flung semi-Greek kingdom into the most powerful empire ever seen. The time of Euthydemus was over; the reign of Demetrius had begun.
Demetrius: Continuing the Dream
Euthydemus had envisaged Bactria one day becoming the centre of a large Asian Kingdom – the Roman Empire’s equivalent in the East. Demetrius would be sure to keep this vision very much alive.
By 185 BC Demetrius ruled a vast kingdom stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west to the Hindu Kush in the east; his campaigning had proved just as successful as that of his father. For Demetrius, however, this was just the beginning.
Simply matching his father’s achievements did not satisfy Demetrius; his ambitions went even further. Above all else, this Greco-Bactrian King desired to complete a conquest bolder than any seen before.
Having grown up learning about the legendary achievements of the great Alexander, Demetrius desired to emulate his idol’s success. He too would aim to achieve a conquest as daunting as that of Alexander’s Persian campaign over a hundred years before. Many Hellenistic Kings had attempted this before him – leaders such as Antigonus and Pyrrhus. Ultimately however, they had all failed, many losing their life in the process. Demetrius believed he was different. Only time would tell.
Finding such a daunting conquest did not prove difficult. To the south-east of his new Empire, one place offered him such an opportunity. A land that had been ruled by powerful dynasties for centuries. India.
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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.