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By Parag Ranjan Dutta
All history must be treated geographically/and all geography must be treated historically. – Herodotus
Greece is known for its contribution to geographical thoughts and ideas. Greeks were the pioneers in many fields of geography and the period is known as the ‘Golden Age of Greece’. The period had seen the contributions of many geographers in different fields, and interestingly students of Geography find an unusual name in this regard, Alexander the Great.
Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was born in July 356 BC in Pella, the administrative capital of Macedonia. His father King Philip II sent him to the Greek philosopher and thinker Aristotle.
Aristotle taught his pupils Homer’s Illiad, which inspired Alexander so much that he wanted to be a warrior like Achilles, hero of the Trojan War.
After the assassination of his father, Alexander was in ascended to the throne of Macedonia at the tender age of 16. It is believed that before his father breathed his last he said to his son “create for yourself another kingdom because the one I leave for you is too small’. Alexander had a strong desire to conquer the whole known world, which the Greeks thought ended with the Indian boundary.
Educated by Aristotle’s teachings, Alexander set foot on a long and arduous journey towards east with a well-trained army. First he destroyed Thebes in Central Greece before entering Asia to safeguard his northern borders in 335 BC. Thebes was a rival of ancient Athens who took side with the Persians.
Before entering Hellespont (Turkey) in Asia he defeated the barbarian tribes of Ister (Danube) basin. According to a legend, Hellespont was named after a girl ‘Hella’, who fell into the sea. Alexander’s conquest helped spread the Greek culture, known as Hellenism across his Empire. His reign marked the beginning of a new age known as Hellenistic Age.
Alexander sent back most of the Macedonian army before entering India. His invasion of India began when he crossed the Indian border into Punjab in 326 BC. The region was then divided into a number of small states. During his expedition the tract between the Indus and Jhelum was ruled by King Ambhi (Greek: Omphis) whom Greeks called Taxiles (Greek : prince) after the name of his capital Taxila, near the city of Attock, Pakistan. Ambhi was believed to be a direct descendent of Shakuni, the prince of Gandhara kingdom. The king of Taxila (Takshashila) welcomed him and showered him with gifts.
Alexander was unnerved by the sight of Ambhi’s forces and formed an alliance with him. Ambhi accepted the offer to avenge Puru, his arch enemy. According to the Greeks, Ambhi and Puru were related matrimonially. Before launching an attack on Puru’s kingdom, there was a great concern of crossing the Indus during monsoon.
Alexander’s decision to cross the swollen Indus to catch Puru’s army by surprise was regarded as a masterstroke. His assault into Punjab was halted by a powerful man, King Purushottam ( Puru), a Vedic tribal King of the Paurava dynasty, who ruled the kingdom between Jhelum and Chenub rivers. In reality Puru or Porus was not a name but a gotra (sub-cast) of the Jats that belong to the Puru tribe mentioned in the Rigveda. Alexander’s historian Arrian mentioned Jats to be the bravest people he had to fight in India.
Although victorious, the Battle of Hydespas was possibly the battle of their life fought by the Macedonian army. Alexander was so impressed by his war techniques and bravery that Puru was allowed to govern his kingdom as a satrap (a provincial governor in the ancient Persian Empire). The battle was significantly very important which would have far reaching consequences in future because it opened up a new beginning for Indo- Greek trade.
With the help of Puru’s army, it would not have been difficult to invade the Gangetic Valley. But when Alexander’s army reached the Beas river, the soldiers refused to cross it.
Alexander’s dream of reaching the end of the world came to an end possibly because of his poor geographical knowledge. We come to know about Alexander’s expeditions through the writings of Greek philosopher Plutarch, Alexander’s historian Arrian, Greek historian Siculas, Roman historian Curtius and Greek geographer Strabo. Anabasis (marching up or an advance into the interior of a country) of Arrian is the best source of Alexander’s campaign, especially his conquest of the Persian Empire. It was Alexander who united the Greek states to establish Macedonian colonies in Persia and Babylon. The Great general died of malaria in Babylon on June13, 323 BC.
(The author is former head of the Department of Geography, St Edmund’s College)