Alexander the Great Invades the Indian Subcontinent

After Alexander’s army won several hard-fought battles in India, his soldiers refused to march farther eastward, and he was forced to order the army to return to Babylon.

Summary of Event

When Alexander the Great ascended to the Macedonian throne in 336 b.c.e., he probably did not have the goal of becoming the greatest conqueror of history. After suppressing insurrections in Greek states, however, he relatively quickly took over the imperial governments of Asia Minor, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia. Each victory increased his appetite for additional conquests. When conquering a community, Alexander brutally crushed all opposition, sold many of the local people into slavery, and insisted on the payment of taxes. He appointed a satrap (or local administrator) that he could trust and attempted to involve as many local personnel as possible. Increasingly, he recognized the importance of respecting local customs. In his new capital Babylon, therefore, he introduced Asian court ceremonies, causing discomfort among some of his Greek and Macedonian officers. Alexander the Great

By early 327 b.c.e., Alexander had secured the northern frontiers of Mesopotamia and Persia. By then, he had the goal of expanding his empire farther eastward than the Persians had controlled under Darius III, which was beyond the Indus River. Although his knowledge of India was limited, he knew that the historian Herodotus had written that the country had great riches and gold. Perhaps he was also motivated by stories about his mythological ancestors Dionysus and Heracles visiting India. His commanders argued that the project was impractical, but Alexander was stubborn.

In the summer of 327 b.c.e., Alexander began his Indian campaign by establishing bases and colonies in present-day Afghanistan, along the Kabul River and its northern tributaries. Many communities avoided bloodshed by agreeing to pay taxes to the invaders. One such town was renamed Nysa, where Alexander’s scholars interpreted the local Hindu deity, probably Indira, to be the same as Dionysus. When communities resisted, Alexander’s soldiers slaughtered numerous people as examples. The Assaceni Kingdom in the Swat Valley, with its thirty thousand soldiers and large fortress at Massaga, put up an especially bloody struggle. The Assaceni, even after their defeat, continued to rebel against Macedonian rule.

Alexander the Great (mounted, top center) leads his troops.

(Library of Congress)

When Alexander crossed the Indus River in the spring of 326 b.c.e., he was welcomed by Omphis, the ruler of the small kingdom of Taxila. Omphis was happy to make an alliance with Alexander in hopes of defeating his archenemy, Porus, ruler of Paurava, which was located east of the large and turbulent Hydaspes (modern Jhelum) River. When Alexander proposed negotiations, Porus rejected the offer, for he was confident that Alexander would be unable to cross the swelling Hydaspes during the monsoon rains.

In May, 326 b.c.e., Alexander’s soldiers managed to bridge the river with rafts north of Porus’s camp. The exact location of the resulting Battle of the Hydaspes is unknown. Although Porus’s army had more soldiers (estimated at 34,000 to 15,000), Alexander had the advantages of a large mobile cavalry, many more archers, the phalanx formation, and capable commanders such as Craterus, Ptolemy, and Coenus. Porus’s army had two hundred elephants, but the invaders made them panic and stampede. After eight hours, the invaders were victorious. Alexander was nevertheless impressed with Porus’s courage, so he allowed him to remain the ruler of Paurava. Near the battlefield, Alexander founded two cities, Nicaea (meaning victory town) and Bucephala (in honor of his horse killed in the battle).

In June, Alexander’s forces crossed the Chenab and Ravi Rivers, capturing Sangala (near modern Amritsar) and other communities. They campaigned as far as the Beas River. Alexander wanted to push on to the powerful kingdom of Magadha in the Ganges Valley, but his commanders, faced with monsoon rains and uncertain dangers, refused to march farther eastward. Alexander was so furious that he stayed in his tent for three days. After sacrificing to the gods, Alexander finally conceded that the omens were unfavorable for more eastern battles. However, even when he ordered the troops to return to Babylon, he remained angry with his officers.

Rather than returning the way he came, Alexander insisted that the return trip would be an occasion for additional conquests. As the army rode down the Hydaspes and Indus Rivers on rafts, they raided and subdued numerous villages along the way. During an assault on a village of the Malli tribe, Alexander almost died when an arrow entered his chest, barely missing his heart, but he soon recovered. In July, 325 b.c.e., the army reached the mouth of the Indus. About half of the soldiers boarded ships for the Persian Gulf. Alexander and the other soldiers began their disastrous march of fifteen hundred miles across the Gedrosian desert and mountainous terrain.


Alexander’s invasion allowed Europeans to learn more about India and its culture, including its agricultural products and its mathematical and scientific developments. The resulting fusion of European and Indian culture contributed to the great scientific advances in the period known as the Hellenistic age. However, the Indian campaign was not a military success. Within twenty years after Alexander’s departures, no Greek colonies remained in India. While Alexander’s army was in this distant country, moreover, his empire tended to break apart, and the disastrous march to Babylon resulted in the deaths of thousands of soldiers. If Alexander had not invaded the lands east of Persia, it is possible that his empire might have been more unified at the time of his death.

Alexander’s invasion had very little impact on India. As soon as the invaders left, the local tribes and communities reasserted their independence. Although it is possible that Indians learned more about Greek science, philosophy, and military tactics as a result of the invasion, the Indians already had some access to Greek culture as a result of their commercial relations with Persia. The invasion did have the long-term consequence of promoting fear of European imperialism.

Further Reading

  • Arrian, Flavius. The Campaigns of Alexander. New York: Penguin Classics, 1977. Although writing four hundred years later, Arrian is considered the most dependable of the ancient historians.
  • Bosworth, A. Brian. Alexander and the East: The Triumph of Tragedy. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. A scholarly and detailed account of Alexander’s conquests, taking a moralistic and critical approach to the violent conquests.
  • Fuller, John F. C. The Generalship of Alexander. New Brunswick, Vt.: Rutgers University Press, 1961. Considered the best treatment of the military techniques and strategies of Alexander.
  • Hammond, Nicholas. The Genius of Alexander the Great. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. A very readable biography by an outstanding scholar who takes a balanced but generally favorable view of Alexander.
  • Wood, Michael. In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. The companion work for a television series, the volume has beautiful illustrations and interesting discussions of the places that Alexander visited.

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