"... victorious Hellenes should dance again in India" - Alexander the Great and the Battle of the Hydaspes

 15 May 326 BCE, or around this date, during his attempted conquest of India, Alexander the Great defeated King Porus of the Paurava Kingdom at the Battle of the Hydaspes in present-day Pakistan.

“If it were not my purpose to combine barbarian things with things Hellenic, to traverse and civilize every continent, to search out the uttermost parts of land and sea, to push the bounds of Macedonia to the farthest Ocean, and to disseminate and shower the blessings of the Hellenic justice and peace over every nation, I should not be content to sit quietly in the luxury of idle power, but I should emulate the frugality of Diogenes. But as things are, forgive me Diogenes, that I imitate Herakles, and emulate Perseus, and follow in the footsteps of Dionysos, the divine author and progenitor of my family, and desire that victorious Hellenes should dance again in India and revive the memory of the Bacchic revels among the savage mountain tribes beyond the Kaukasos.” (Plutarch “On the Fortunes of Alexander”)

Alexander in the thick of it - the Battle of the Hydaspes,
as imagined in T. H. Mannerhow's "Peeps at History", Illustrated by Allan Stewart (1911)

drunken god. The mischievous priests serving at the Ammonium in Siwa, the oracle out in Egypt’s western desert, confirmed what mother had told him all the while. Not grumpy, blustering, boorish Philip was his father but Zeus himself, the king of the gods, known as Amun in Egypt. And while Freudian exegetes would have had a field day, Alexander, the brilliant young commander with an Oedipus complex, who had already conquered half the Middle East and Egypt in a lightning campaign, began to behave as if he had already one foot in divine spheres. He adopted Persian court ceremonials, demanded the proskynesis, full prostration, even from his former mortal companions, his grumpy, blustering, boorish Macedon soldiery. And then, one night in Maracanda, the fairytale-like provincial capital of Bactria, while feasting in Eastern splendour, someone put the Indian bee in Alexander’s divine bonnet. India. A half-mythical place of untold riches beyond the borders of even the Persian world empire Alexander had just conquered in a quasi coup de main. His half brother Heracles failed to conquer it back in the days of the Heroic Age before the Trojan War, his other sibling Dionysus wandered there in his Hera-induced madness, subdued India and returned to the West in triumph in a chariot drawn by panthers. Was there a final frontier for a deity like Alexander himself? Not on this earth. Let’s go. It might be then and there that one of his cavalry generals, grumpy, blustering, boorish Cleitus the Black, in his cups himself by then, had asked him to bring his Macedonians back to life if he was a god, those fallen at the Granicus, at Issus, the siege of Tyre, at Gaugamela and during the endless skirmishes fought since they began their conquest of the world. The deity grabbed a spear from one of his life guards and hurled it into the heart of the man who had saved his life at the Granicus and henceforward, nobody dared to blaspheme against the god anymore or question his decisions. And off they marched, in the spring of the year 327 BCE, with 40,000 foot and 7,000 horse, his heavies, the hetairoi, companions, among them as well as light horse, mostly archers recruited in the Middle East, onwards through the Caucasus Indicus, the Hindu Kush, and further, across the Indus to the Land of the Five Waters, the Punjab.

A silver victory coin minted in Babylon in 322 BCE,
showing Alexander crowned by Nike, goddess of Victory above
and Alexander charging King Porus on his war elephant below

northern part of the Indian subcontinent was, by and large, a conglomerate of several warring states in the early 320s BCE. The ancient kingdom of the Pauravas might have been one of the more powerful and its lord, Porus, literally stood out as being over 7’ tall and maybe he was the scion of an ages-old Vedic clan, the Puru. However, he had assembled a mighty army himself, 30,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, 300 chariots and, most notably, up to 200 well-trained war elephants. It was a bit early for the monsoon to set in, but one of the eponymous rivers of the Punjab, the Hydaspes, was swollen, and rain bursts changed with extreme heat. Alexander began to look for a suitable crossing while Porus would defend his riverbank and had everything he needed to turn a Macedon crossing into a bloodbath. Now Alexander came up with a rather clever ruse de guerre, leaving a small part of his troops behind, ordered them to create lots of noise, march up and down the river and light fires to give the impression that the whole army was entrenched there and about to sit it out until the monsoon season was over. Porus obviously fell for it, Alexander’s main battle crossed the Hydaspes further upstream, at night, in heavy rain, and rushed his men towards the position of the Pauravas. Porus was alerted when day broke but had no idea yet about how large the approaching Macedon force was. He sent his son with the chariots and cavalry to reconnoitre, the lad and his men where caught by Alexander’s horse archers, trampled into the ground by his heavies, Porus junior fell and the skirmish’s survivors gave his old man the news that the Macedon obviously had managed to cross the river in force. Porus left a contingent behind to watch those on the other side of the Hydaspes and turned the rest of his army to meet Alexander. The Battle of the Hydaspes had begun in earnest. It is, generally speaking, not a very bright idea, to chase one’s already exhausted heavy cavalry, what after a nightly river crossing and a hard-fought skirmish in somewhat inclement weather, back and forth across a battlefield swimming in mud to deceive the enemy, but that’s exactly what Alexander did. And wondrously enough, after riding hard from the left flank around the rear of the Macedonian phalanges to the right and back again, they crushed into Porus’ horse, drawn out and forward by the Macedon manoeuvres, right to the point where Alexander wanted them and there the hetairoi rode them into the ground. With their flanks safe from enemy cavalry, the now nearly invincible Macedon phalanx pushed the 20’ long steel hedgehog of their massed pikes forward into Porus’ elephants and infantry. The pachyderms were driven to madness by arrows and javelins shot into their vulnerable eyes, stampeded and ran back into the lines of the Pauravas while the heavy rain obviously stopped Porus’ own archers to fire mass volleys into the advancing Macedonians, the nightmare of every infantry formation. The phalanx pushed on, crashed into the dissolving enemy lines and turned the battle into a bloody rout. Porus was soundly defeated and Alexander had supplied a tactical masterpiece. At least according to reports that were written hundreds of years later. None of the original eyewitness accounts of the so-called Alexander Historians have survived.

Charles Le Brun (1619 - 1690): "Alexander and Porus" (1673)

Porus, or so the story goes, was captured and brought before Alexander. The god-king admired his defeated enemy’s bravery and tenacity, allowed him to rule as his vassal and marched on towards the banks of the mighty River Ganges and the borders of the Nanda Empire, stretching far to the east into Bengal. And then his men simply had it. By the river Hyphasis, a tributary of the Sutlej, they refused to go any further and Alexander grudgingly ordered the retreat back to Babylon. It was the end of his Indian adventure. And since a god is not denied with impunity, he decided to march his mutinous men back through the Gedrosian Desert that stretches from the mouth of the Indus to the Strait of Hormuz. Many died of exposure until they finally reached Persia in 324 BCE, two years after their epic march began in Bactria. Alexander finally ascended to Olympus after his mortal veil died in Babylon a year later, leaving the mortal world with one of the greatest stories ever told. Greek civilisation, though, had gained a sphere of influence from the western edges of Europe to the Ganges valley and would remain a prominent identity-establishing cultural factor for centuries. And while Alexander’s successors in the Middle East, most prominently the Seleucid dynasty and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, along with the tribes and horse nomads of Central Asia, were at each other’s throats, another young adventurer used the power vacuum left behind by Alexander in Northern India as a chance to carve out his own domain: Chandragupta, founder of the Maurya Empire who unified much of Greater India into one state for the first time.

A 3rd century BCE Ptolemaic coin celebrating Alexander's victory in India posthumously, attributing the conqueror with a symbolic elephant scalp

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