Diodotus I Founds the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom

Diodotus I rebelled against his Seleucid overlords and created an independent kingdom between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus River, which became an important conduit of Hellenic culture into Central Asia.

Summary of Event

Although Diodotus I probably was instrumental in wresting Bactria from the Seleucid Dynasty and establishing it as a Greek kingdom, the evidence for the exact sequence of events is slight. Diodotus I was the satrap (governor) of the province of Bactria-Sogdiana in the Seleucid Empire. According to one school of thought, he revolted against the Seleucid ruler Antiochus II in 250 b.c.e.; according to another, his gradual progress to independence can be traced in Seleucid coinage. However, this latter, numismatic argument has itself been undermined by changing theories about the coinage of the time. Diodotus I
Antiochus II

About 246 b.c.e., the year of Antiochus’s death and his succession by Seleucus II, Diodotus I is said to have been bribed with marriage to a daughter of Antiochus, sister of Seleucus. This would imply that Diodotus I was still a Seleucid satrap at this time. His son, Diodotus II (d. c. 210 b.c.e.), is attested as king of Bactria by 227 or 228 b.c.e., which suggests that Diodotus I could not have died much later than 230, more likely around 239 b.c.e. The family romance gets tangled after Diodotus I’s death, for Diodotus II turned against the Seleucids and joined forces with Tiridates of Parthia (r. c. 248-211 b.c.e.), the Seleucids’ enemy. However, Diodotus I’s widow appears to have retained allegiance to her Seleucid family and married her own daughter to Euthydemus (fl. third century b.c.e.), himself a satrap of the new Bactrian kingdom who then murdered Diodotus II.

According to the Greek historian Polybius (c. 200-c. 118 b.c.e.), Euthydemus told Antiochus the Great (242-187 b.c.e.) that he was no rebel but that he had killed the son of one. If this is a true reporting of Euthydemus’s words, it would imply that Diodotus I was the rebel against the Seleucids. Other historians, however, are uncertain whether it was Diodotus I or Diodotus II who established the Bactrian kingdom. What does seem clear is that by the 230’s b.c.e., Bactria was a separate kingdom; the date at which it achieved this independence may have been anywhere between 250 and 238 b.c.e.

Diodotus and his descendants have been termed “an elusive dynasty” by modern historians because of the immense prestige they enjoyed during their day, and for several centuries after, contrasted with the complete lack of documentary information surviving from the Diodotids themselves. A pottery fragment bears an incomplete Greek word that may be the beginning of the name Diodotus, but it may also be the beginning of any of several other words. Other slight bits of documentary evidence are even less convincing.

Lacking documentary sources, modern knowledge of ancient Bactria derives from archaeology, literary references in the works of outside observers, and numismatics. The archaeological evidence, for instance, reveals that Bactria was an integral part of the overall Hellenistic culture. The city of Ai Khanoum, developed between c. 280 and c. 250 b.c.e. in the confluence of the Oxus and Kochba Rivers, included a theater, a pool, a treasury, a palace, an arsenal, and a gymnasium, along with numerous mansions owned by wealthy Greeks. A monumental gate greeted visitors to a public area dominated by a sprawling palace. A limestone wine press attests to a certain level of culinary sophistication, and the public library housed Greek philosophical texts that would have been read by citizens with such Greek names as Strato, Cosmas, Philoxenos, and Philiskos. A Greek visitor named Klearchos traveled 3,000 miles (4839 kilometers) from Greece to Ai Khanoum early in the third century b.c.e. to publicize the maxims from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The propagation of these maxims in Ai Khanoum was not unique, for copies were posted in the gymnasia of other cities in central Asia. Archaeological discoveries indicate that throughout the Diodotid period Ai Khanoum enjoyed peace and prosperity.

Literary sources offer another kind of insight into the Diodotid period in Bactria. The Geōgraphica (c. 7 b.c.e.; Geography, 1917-1933) of Strabo and a history of the world by Strabo’s contemporary Pompeius Trogus were both probably derived from a lost work of the first century b.c.e., the Parthika (Parthian history) of Apollodorus of Artemita. Strabo’s brief references to Diodotus I are inconsequential, but the ancient historian Justin condensed Trogus as the Epitoma historiarum Philippicarum (n.d.; Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, 1853). Justin himself is a mystery; it is uncertain whether his name was M. Iunianus Iustinus or M. Iunianius Iustinus, although the latter is more likely, and he lived as early as 144 c.e. or as late as 395 c.e. Justin reports that the quarrel over the Seleucid kingdom by the royal brothers Seleucus and Antiochus made possible a rebellion, and Diodotus I (or Theodotus, as Justin calls him) took advantage of this moment to rebel himself, setting himself up as king. The population of Macedonia defected as well.

A third source of information about the Diodotids appears in their coinage, the history of which constitutes a fascinating story of intimidating complexity. The first coin minted by Diodotus turned up in France in 1835 but was not at first recognized as such because it bore the name, in Greek, of King Antiochus, and it depicted Zeus naked and hurling a thunderbolt. The first coin bearing the name King Diodotus in Greek was described in 1841 and now rests in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Gradually, a few hundred coins from Diodotid Bactria have come to light, providing perhaps the most useful evidence about the reign of the Diodotids and their place in history.


By breaking free of the Near Eastern Seleucid Empire, Bactria became a conduit of Hellenistic culture—art, architecture, coinage, and writing—from Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean world into Central Asia and northwestern India. When Bactria was, in turn, conquered by the Yuezhi, a Central Asian tribal group that probably are the people called Tokharians by the Greeks, Bactrian and Hellenistic culture were carried almost to the Great Wall of China. As Bactrian influence spread across the Hindu Kush into India, it also became a conduit for Buddhism into Central Asia. A distinctive artistic style developed from this multicultural kingdom that combined the classicism and naturalism of Greek art with the stylization of Indian religious sculpture.

Further Reading

  • Holt, Frank L. Thundering Zeus: The Making of Hellenistic Bactria. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Studies the period of Diodotus I and Diodotus II with great attention to their coinage.
  • Justin (Marcus Junianus Justinus). Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus. Translated by J. C. Yardley, with an introduction by R. Develin. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994. The classical source for the story of Diodotus I, here known as Theodotus.
  • Legg, Stuart. The Heartland. New York: Capricorn Books, 1971. Very readable account of the nomadic tribes in central Asia.
  • McGovern, William Montgomery. The Early Empires of Central Asia: A Study of the Scythians and the Huns and the Part They Played in World History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939. Summarizes the events of Diodotus I’s reign.
  • Sherwin-White, Susan, and Amélie Kuhrt. From Samarkand to Sardis: A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. An excellent and generally revisionary account of the Seleucids.
  • Tarn, W. W. The Greeks in Bactria and India. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1951. Tarn’s account of the Seleucids and Diodotus I, long the standard, has been superseded by the research of Sherwin-White and Kuhrt and of Holt.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

Antiochus the Great; Menander (Greco-Bactrian ruler). Greco-Bactrian kingdom[GrecoBactrian kingdom]