May 30

The Indo Greek Kingdom in India

The Bactrian Greek who ruled over the parts of North-West India between the 2nd century BCE and 1st century BCE are known as Indo Greeks. They were limited to the borders of the sub-continent by the time King Ashoka of Mauryan dynasty was in power. They had also developed good mutual relations. But the decline of the Mauryan empire and rise of the Shunga dynasty is believed as among one of the reasons that inspired the Indo Greeks for the expansion. 

Another view regarding the Indo Greek invasion and attack to India was the continuous pressure arising from the Scythian tribe, due to which their control over Bactria was lost. Thus, to escape the wrath of the Scythian tribes, they were forced to invade India. Since the successors of Ashoka and the Shungas were too weak to hold ground, the invasions on the North-Western borders started. The first successful invasion was done by the Indo-Greeks in 2nd century BCE. 

A large part of North-Western India was occupied by them, this was way more than that occupied by Alexander. They were the first one to issue gold coins and their lineage can be tracked on the basis of the excavated coins that include that of silver, copper, and even nickel. It shall also be considered that from among 42 Indo-Greek kings, 34 are known only through coins. 

Background of Indo-Greeks

When the Mauryan Empire became weak, Antiochus – the then Syrian king targeted and led an expedition towards the Indian subcontinent around 206 BCE.

The Bactrian Greek who ruled over the parts of North-West India are referred as the Indo-Greek by the historians. But further in Indian history they are called by the name of Yavanas. The Greeks began to settle in the North-Western part of the Indian subcontinent in the 5th century itself but their rule was established just after the army of Alexander the Great defeated the pre-existing Persian empire in the region. 

In 326 BCE, the rule of Alexander was established to as far as the Beas River. He used to capture the regions and give them in the hand of the Governors and move further. But when he tried to move forward towards the south, his army refused to go further east. So, Alexander left India in 325 BCE leaving all of the territory of the Indian subcontinent in the hands of his generals and governors. It is also believed that Chandraguta Maurya had received the help from the Greeks when he overthrew the Nanda dynasty. 

Another major encounter of Greeks in Indian subcontinent is marked against Chandragupta Maurya itself when their armies confronted each other around 305 BCE. But this confrontation was settled with a marriage agreement due to which the Chandragupta married the daughter of the then Greek General Seleucus Nicator. Also, several Greek officers such as Megasthenes were sent to the Mauryan court. 

Hence, even till the time of Ashoka, there was no interference of Greeks in Indian sub-continent. The Greek dynasty established by Seleucus Nicator was eventually and successfully ruling the Bactrian region that had been conquered by Alexander. It was only after the Mauryan empire became too week and their rule in Bactria was interrupted by the Scythians that the Greeks turned towards the Indian invasion. 

When the Mauryan Empire became week, Antiochus – the then Syrian king targeted and led an expedition towards the Indian subcontinent around 206 BCE. Before moving towards the Indian subcontinent he also had laid an expedition to Bactria which had resulted in the peace negotiation. Crossing the Hindukush Mountain, he marched towards the Kabul valley. On the way he had an encounter with Subhagasena, who was connected with Virasena, the king of Gandhara and great grandson of Ashoka. After engaging with Subhagasena, Antiochus found himself in a difficult position. Further his presence was urgently needed at his home due to the expanding Roman power. He accepted the token of submission of Subhagasena and went back. 

We do not find any other major encounter of the Greek beyond the Hindukush Mountain till the rise of the Shunga Empire. They were probably waiting for the right opportunity.

Indo Greek, Bactrian greek,  King Ashoka, Mauryan dynasty, Mauryan empire, Shunga dynasty, Scythian tribe, Demetrius, Menander,
Territory of the Indo-Greeks

Source: Map created from DEMIS Mapserver, which are public domain. Koba-chan.Reference: [1], CC BY-SA 3.0

The Invasion to India

Demetrius was the king who ascended the Bactrian throne around 200BCE. He played an important role in the history of both the regions, Bactria and India. After Alexander, Demetrius was the only person who carried the Greek arms in the interior of India. He led a series of expedition towards India. 

When Demetrius became the ruler of Bactria, it was already a prosperous country and hence he was strong enough to lead an expedition to India. Another thing that favoured him was the political instability of India. He conquered India to the large portions of Punjab and Sindh. By that time, Kabul valley and Gandhara were already in complete control of him. His army might have confronted the army of Pushyamitra Shunga on the banks of the Indus River but was not successful to advance towards the interior of India. He is considered as the founder of the Indo-Greek or Yavana era in the North-Western part of the subcontinent. 

His coins are found bearing his image with the elephant helmet as worn by Alexander representing his India conquest. But his invasion on India had a drawback on him as being away from Bactria for a very long time, he lost his throne to Eucratides, who was further succeeded by Heliocles. But soon the Bactrian region was lost from the Greek in the hand of Scythian tribe. The Bactrian empire was fully conquered by the Scythian tribe in 135 BCE. The rule of Heliocles might have lasted over Indian region just for the few more years after this date.

Indo Greek, Bactrian greek,  King Ashoka, Mauryan dynasty, Mauryan empire, Shunga dynasty, Scythian tribe, Demetrius, Menander,


Menander was the greatest and the most important of Indo-Greek ruler. He became the one to give the political stability to the Indo-Greek power and expanded it to great extent. His empire was as vast that it extended from over the parts of both Bactria and North-Western India and included the southern Afghanistan, Gandhara and the region west to the Indus River. He had his capital in ‘Sakala’ (Sialkot) of Punjab and is believed to have invaded the vast region of ganga-Yamuna Doab but failed to retain it for long. 

Menander was converted to Buddhism by Nagasena, who he accepted as his Guru. The famous Buddhist text Milindapanho (Question of Milinda) mentions about the philosophical questions that Menander asked Nagasena. The text claims that impressed by his answers, king accepted Buddhism as the religion. He is also identified by the name of King Minedra, as mentioned in the fragmented Kharosthi inscription ancient records of Bajaur.

It is also claimed that Menander had attacked Patliputra and it was under his dominion for a short period of time. But this incident is contradicted in several other records and in accordance with the numismatics too as no coins have been found in Patliputra bearing the name of Indo-Greek ruler Menander. But the proof of over the inscriptions and coins reveal that the Indo-Greeks had great control over Mathura and it was considered as an important province of the Indo-Greek rulers.

The decline of the Indo-Greek Empire

The death of King Menander led to the reduction of the Indo-Greek Empire due to the emergence of the new smaller republics

The death of King Menander led to the reduction of the Indo-Greek Empire due to the emergence of the new smaller republics. Some of them were those that sought their rise after the downfall of the Mauryan Empire. Some of the most prominent of them were Yaudheya and the Arjunayanas. These republics also began to mint newer coins to marking their victories upon the earlier Indo-Greek territories. The numismatic evidence also proves the existence and the rise of the powerful Shaka empire and the conquest of the Rudradaman, which came from the western territories of the Scythians. 

Hence, it was seen from the mid-2nd century BCE that the Indo-Greeks were under pressure from all the sides. Shakas, a branch from the Scythians tribe that had captured Bactrian region were now proceeding towards the Indian Subcontinent from the North-West. According to the records, Indo-Parthians too had a huge role in the downfall of the Indo-Greek Empire.

There are relatively less historical records found about the Indo-Greek Empire after the death of King Menander around 130 BCE. The reason behind this might be the isolation of the Indo-Greek from rest of the Graeco-Roman world. The last known ruler of the Indo-Greek empire was King Hermaius, who was defeated by the Parthians around the last quarter of the 2nd century BCE which led to end of this empire in the entire region south of Hindukush. 

Though the rule of this empire continued in the parts of North-Western India for some more time. The coins bearing the name of Queen Agathokleia (Queen of King Menander) and her son Strato have been found. Further in the 1st century BCE or the early 1st century CE, the last remaining part of the territory i.e., area east of Jhelum was ceded to the Kshatrapa ruler Rajuvula.

Impact of the Indo-Greek Rule in Indian Subcontinent

  1. The Indo-Greeks were the first rulers in Indian subcontinent to issue the gold coins. Further, the coins of the Shakas, Parthians, and Kshatrapas followed the basic features of Indo-Greek coinage. 
  2. They also have a huge contribution in the field of art and literature. They introduced a different form of Gandhara art in the North-Western frontier of India. It was the result of the merging of the influence of both Indian and central Asian contacts. The example that can be sought is the Besnagar Pillar inscription of Heliodorus. Also, some of the new terms having the influence of the Greek terminology came into existence in the subcontinent.
  3. They are also famous for the monumental buildings and their small, finely crafted objects. A great passion of infrastructure development, town planning and urban progress was seen in the Indo-Greek sites like that of Ai-Khanoum, Antioch and Sirkap, and Taxila.
  4. The Indo-Greeks also contributed their presence in India by introducing the practice of military governorship which was the practice taken over by the other dynasties and empires till the medieval era.

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