Greco-Bactrian Kingdom Reaches Zenith Under Menander Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Menander expanded the Greco-Bactrian Empire to its greatest extent; he is immortalized in The Questions of King Milinda, a Buddhist dialogue between Menander and the Buddhist sage Nāgasena.

Summary of Event

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 b.c.e., the eastern kingdoms of his empire fell to the Seleucids. In c. 256 b.c.e., Diodotus I broke away from the Seleucids, establishing Bactria as a separate kingdom. Menander remains the most well-known of the Indo-Greek kings. Menander (c. 342-291 b.c.e.)

The chronology for the successors of Diodotus I has been difficult to ascertain, with various scholars positing different dates for the reigns of kings. This situation arises from the scarcity of written sources. At times the only evidence for certain kings is numismatic. Joint kingships and rival kings claiming legitimacy at the same time complicate the establishment of an exact chronology.

What seems clear from the evidence is that Diodotus I was succeeded by his son Diodotus II. Then Euthydemus I became the king, apparently revolting against Diodotus II. Antiochus the Great led a campaign against Euthydemus in an attempt to reassimilate Bactria into the Seleucid Empire. After a two-year siege of Bactria, Antiochus concluded a peace with Euthydemus, promising to give his daughter in marriage to Demetrius, the son of Euthydemus. The acknowledgment of Euthydemus’s right to rule consolidated the existence of the kingdom of Bactria. Euthydemus was followed by his sons Euthydemus II and Demetrius I. It is unclear who ruled first or whether they were appointed at the same time. In any case, Demetrius, ruling in the early part of the second century b.c.e., has been credited by some with expanding the extent of the kingdom into India. Thus he is known as “Rex Indorum,” king of the Indians. Antimachus was followed by Demetrius II. Evidence suggests that around this time, Pantaleon and Agathocles, perhaps brothers, were also ruling. The rise of Eucratides I (171-155 or 170-145 b.c.e.) occurred at about the same time. He and his successors seem to have gained control of western Bactria, while Panteleon and Agathocles ruled over the eastern half of the kingdom. Eucratides was assassinated by his son Plato, who would be supplanted by another of Eucratides’ sons, Heliocles I.

It was into this world of the rule of Pantaleon and Agathocles as well as Eucratides that Menander rose to power. The Milindapañha (first or second century c.e., some material added later, date uncertain; The Questions of King Milinda, 1890-1894) states that he was born in Kalasi near Alasanda, probably Alexandria-in-Caucaso (modern Begram, Afghanistan). Some, however, have argued for Alexandria in Egypt. The Questions of King Milinda says Menander was descended from a royal family, although the name of his father and mother are not given. It is not clear that he is descended from the Diodochi or from Euthydemus. He rose to the kingship c. 155 b.c.e., and his capital was in Sāgala (now Sialkhot, Pakistan).

Menander’s major accomplishment was his invasion of India. According to the Roman historian Strabo, Apollodorus of Artemita reported that Menander advanced beyond the Hypanis (modern Gharra, a tributary of the Indus river) as far as the Imaus River (either the Yamuna or Sun Rivers).

Indian sources describe a Greek advance into India at this time without specifically naming Menander. In his Mahābhāṣya (second century b.c.e.; English translation, 1856), Patañjali (fl. c. 140 b.c.e.) cites references to the Greek conquest of Sāketa (Ayodhyā) and Madhyamikā. In the play Mālavikāgnimitra (traditionally c. 70 b.c.e., probably c. 370 c.e.; English translation, 1875), the Indian playwright and poet Kālidāsa refers to the defeat of Greek forces at the Indus River by Vāsumitra during the reign of his grandfather Puṣyamitra (d. 148 b.c.e.). The Yuga Purāna (n.d.; The Yuga Purana, 1986) in the Gārgi Saṁhitā (n.d.), a work on astrology, describes the Greek advance into India, which ended in the capture of Pataliputra (Patna). However, Menander was not able to consolidate his conquests and left India without retaining any territory.

The Questions of King Milinda reports that Menander withdrew from the world and left his kingdom to his son. However, Plutarch in Ethika (after c. 100 c.e.; Moralia, 1603), says that he died in camp and that his ashes were equally divided among the cities of his kingdom, where monuments were dedicated to him. Plutarch’s account is reminiscent of descriptions of the dispersal of the Buddha’s remains. At the time of Menander’s death (c. 135 b.c.e.), Agathocleia, his wife (probably the daughter of king Agathocles), served as regent for Strato, their son, who was not of age to assume the kingship.

Two other Greco-Roman sources may also be cited at this point. Pompeius Trogus (1st century b.c.e.-1st century c.e.) also mentioned Menander in his Philippic Histories (around 20 b.c.e., now lost). Only the table of contents for book 41 of this work has survived. In it, Trogus is said to have described how Diodotus came to power and how during his reign the Scythians, Saraucae, and Asians invaded Bactria. The book also contained a description of affairs in India during the reigns of Apollodotus and Menander. On the whole, the passage reveals few specifics about Menander, and the account errs in placing the invasion of the Scythians and the others during Diodotus’s reign instead of later.

The Periplus Maris Erythraei (also known as Periplus, first century c.e.; Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 1912), written by a sea captain, recorded that the old drachmas with inscriptions of Apollodotus and Menander were marketed as bullion in Barygaza (modern Bharuch, north of Mumbai, in northwest India). The reference to coins was verified by the discovery in Gogha near Barygaza of a horde of coins, some of which were minted by Apollodotus.

The coins of Menander were bilingual (in Greek and Kharoshti). Pallas was most frequently on the reverse. His titles were “soter” (savior) and “dikaios” (just). Some scholars, however, have argued that the coins with the epithet “just” belong to another king named Menander. Menander’s coins have been found in Kabul, Swat, Gandhara, Taxila, and east of Mathura. These finds seem to confirm what the literary sources suggest about the extent of his power. In the recent assessment of scholar Gerard Fussman, Menander’s kingdom, at its greatest extent, included Gujarat, Rajasthan, a great part of Uttar Pradesh, the Panjab, perhaps the Sind, the Northwestern Frontier Provinces, and the regions around Kabul and Jalalabad.

In addition to the evidence of the coins, a Buddhist reliquary casket preserves the name of Menander and a mention of his regnal year. The Buddhist reliquary provides little evidence to evaluate whether Menander was a Buddhist. Menander’s name is cited here only in relation to giving a date. Elsewhere on his coins, there is a wheel, which has been taken as the Buddhist dharmacakra, wheel of the law. However, this interpretation has not been accepted by all scholars. In the end, The Questions of King Milinda is the only major piece of evidence linking Menander to Buddhism, and recent scholars have been skeptical about its historical value.

Significance

With Menander, the influence of the Greco-Bactrian kings reached it zenith. His successors were unable to stay in power. In the century after Menander, more than twenty rulers are recorded. By the middle of the first century b.c.e., the Yuezhi-Kushān, Śaka, and Scytho-Parthian ethnic groups had taken over the region. In addition to his exploits, Menander’s fame is assured in the portrayal of Milinda in The Questions of King Milinda He is the only Greek king to be mentioned in Indian literary sources.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Norman, and Colin M. Kraay. The Hellenistic Kingdoms: Portrait Coins and History. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973. This book gives an account of the coins minted by Menander, with some illustrations of the coins. Maps and plans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fussman, Gerard. “L’Indo-grec Menandre: Ou, Paul Demiéville Revisité.” Journal Asiatique 281 (1993) 61-138. An up-to-date reevaluation of the evidence on Menander. Fussman rightly points out the importance of the Chinese translations of Milindapañha, which antedate the Pāli versions of the text. He reviews in detail the evidence of the coins issued under Menander and offers a new text and commentary of the Bajaur reliquary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Narain, A. K. The Coin Types of the Indo-Greek Kings. Chicago: Argonaut, 1968. A list of the different types of coins produced by Menander.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Narain, A. K. The Indo-Greeks. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962. A general history of the Greco-Bactrian kings. Maps, bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tarn, W. W. The Greeks in Bactria and India. 3d ed. Chicago: Ares, 1985. While this text, originally published in 1938, may appear to be out of date, scholars on Menander, as Fussman points out, are still conducting a dialogue with Tarn and establish their positions in relation to him.
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Menander (Greco-Bactrian ruler). Greco-Bactrian kingdom[GrecoBactrian kingdom];under Menander[Menander]

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