Alexander and Chandragupta Maurya: a short history of war, empire, and greatness

The use of the suffix ‘great’ has become less common in modern history-writing however, as historians have moved their focus away from the political triumphs of individual rulers to the society, economy, art and architecture of their times.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on Sunday (November 14) said that Chandragupta Maurya, who founded the Mauryan empire in the 4th century BC, had defeated Alexander of Macedon in battle — and yet, it is the latter whom historians have chosen to call “great”.

“…Once the countrymen learn the truth, India will change,” Adityanath said.

‘Greatness’ in perspective

Alexander was referred to as “great” by early historians just as several other conquerors and prominent rulers have been called across empires and ages.

Prominent examples are the Roman emperor Constantine; the Persians Cyrus and Darius; Herod, king of Judea; and in more modern times, Catherine and Peter of Russia, and Frederick of Prussia.

In Indian history, ‘great’ has been used for the emperors Ashoka, Rajaraja and Rajendra Chola, and Akbar, among others.

The use of the suffix ‘great’ has become less common in modern history-writing however, as historians have moved their focus away from the political triumphs of individual rulers to the society, economy, art and architecture of their times.

They have also subjected the rulers’ apparent greatness to new perspectives and to more rigorous historical scrutiny through a re-evaluation of old sources and by referencing those that have been discovered more recently.

The ‘greatness’ of Alexander…

Alexander came to be called ‘great’ because of his stupendous military conquests which dazzled European writers and chroniclers of the ancient world.

He had established, before he turned 30 years of age, the largest empire the world had seen until then, which stretched across modern western and central Asia all the way from Greece to India’s northwestern frontier.

Subsequently, Ghenghis Khan (1162-1227) stamped his authority over a bigger swathe of Asia and Europe, and other conquerors such as Tamerlane, Atilla the Hun, and Charlemagne, as well as Ashoka, Akbar, and Aurangzeb built their own very large empires.

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The Chola emperors Rajaraja I (985-1014) and Rajendra I (1014-1044) built formidable navies that conquered the Maldives, and reached Sri Lanka and several countries of Southeast Asia across the Bay of Bengal.

…And that of Chandragupta

Chandragupta Maurya’s own achievements too, were very significant. He was the architect of an empire that controlled the plains of both the Indus and the Ganga, and which stretched until the eastern and western oceans. With Pataliputra at its imperial centre, the Mauryan Empire for the first time unified most of South Asia.

Chandragupta laid the foundations of an extensive and efficient system of centralised administration and tax-collection that formed the bases of his empire. Trade and agriculture were reformed and regulated with the building of infrastructure and standardisation of weights and measures, and provisions were made for a large standing army.

Chandragupta’s political mentor and chief adviser was Chanakya, also known as Kautilya and Vishnugupta, to whom is attributed the legendary Arthashastra, the pioneering Indian treatise on political science, statecraft, military strategy, and economy.

Alexander’s Indian campaign

Alexander was born in 356 BC at Pella in ancient Greece, and succeeded his father, king Phillip II, to the throne at the age of 20. Over the next 10 years, Alexander led campaigns across large parts of West Asia and North Africa.

In 330 BC, he defeated Darius III in the decisive battle of Gaugamela, and after a long campaign in Bactria in the region of the Amu Darya north of today’s Afghanistan, he crossed the Hindu Kush and entered the Kabul valley.

In 327 BC, Alexander crossed the Indus, the farthest frontier of the old Persian empire, and began his Indian campaign that lasted about two years.

The king of Taxila surrendered to Alexander, but beyond the Jhelum he was challenged by the legendary warrior whom Greek sources have identified as Porus.

In the battle of Hydaspes that followed, Alexander won, but following his famous interview with Porus — during which the wounded king is said to have demanded that the invading emperor treat him “as befits a king” — was impressed enough to return to the captive Porus his kingdom, and to leave him in charge of Punjab when the Greek army ultimately retreated.

Alexander’s premature retreat

After the defeat of Porus, Alexander wished to march on into the heartland of the Gangetic basin — but upon reaching the Beas, the last of the five rivers of Punjab, his generals refused to go further.

Alexander was forced to turn back, and he followed the Indus southward to its delta, where he sent part of his army to Mesopotamia by sea, while leading the other part overland along the Makran coast.

He reached Susa in Persia in 324 BC, and in the following year, died in the ancient city of Babylon, to the south of today’s Baghdad.

His aborted Indian campaign notwithstanding, Alexander is believed to have died undefeated in any battle — seemingly fulfilling the prophecies of the oracles that he would conquer the entire world.

At the time Alexander turned back from the threshold of India, his army was tired and homesick, they had wearied of fighting in the heavy Indian monsoon, and it is possible they were intimidated by stories of two great armies that lay in wait for them ahead — that of the Nandas of Magadha (c. 362 BC-321 BC), comprising, according to Greek writers, at least 20,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, and 3,000 war elephants, and beyond, the Gangaridai empire corresponding to what is today West Bengal and parts of Bangladesh.

Alexander had by this time travelled some 1,000 miles from Macedonia, conquering seven nations and, it is said, more than 2,000 cities. He hoped to solve the “problem of the ocean” that Greek philosophers had grappled with, reaching the sea, and then sailing to subjugate more new lands.

Chandragupta and Alexander

Historians estimate the year of Chandragupta’s rise to power in a band stretching from 324 BC to 313 BC; however, it is generally accepted that he ascended the throne in 321 BC.

Even accepting the least recent year for his accession would, however, place him after Alexander had left India — and just before the Greek emperor’s death in Babylon.

Be that as it may, Greek sources suggest that Chandragupta may have been in communication with Alexander during the latter’s Indian campaign. A L Basham’s The Wonder That Was India notes that “classical sources speak of a young Indian named Sandrocottus — identical with the Chandragupta Maurya of Indian sources…”.

“Plutarch states that Sandrocottus advised Alexander to advance beyond the Beas and attack the Nanda emperor, who was so unpopular that his people would rise in support of an invader… The Latin historian Justin adds that later Sandrocottus offended Alexander by the boldness of his speech…and after many adventures succeeded in expelling the Greek garrisons and gaining the throne of India.”

Based on these accounts, Basham concluded that “it is reasonable to believe that the emperor Chandragupta Maurya, who rose to power soon after Alexander’s invasion, had at least heard of the conqueror, and perhaps derived inspiration from his exploits”.

Chandragupta’s imperial ambition

Greek and Indian sources agree that Chandragupta overthrew the unpopular last king of the Nandas, Dhana Nanda, and occupied his capital, Pataliputra. The young warrior is said to have been a protege of the Brahmin philosopher Kautilya who, having been insulted by the Nanda king, bore a grudge against him.

Buddhist texts say Chandragupta Maurya belonged to the kshatriya Moriya clan associated with the Shakyas. Brahmanical texts, however, refer to the Mauryas as shudras and heretics.

Guided by the guile and strategy of Kautilya and by his own great military prowess, Chandragupta went about fulfilling his imperial ambitions. Once he had established his mastery over the plains of the Ganga, he moved north-west to occupy the power vacuum left by the retreat of Alexander’s army.

“These areas fell to him rapidly, until he reached the Indus. Here he paused as the Greek Seleucus Nicator — the successor to Alexander — had fortified his hold on the area,” wrote Romila Thapar in The Penguin History of Early India. Consequently, “Chandragupta moved to central India for a while…but 305 BC saw him back in the north-west, involved in a campaign against Selucus”, in which he was successful.

By the peace treaty that was negotiated in 303 BC, “some Seleucid territories that today would cover eastern Afghanistan, Balochistan, and Makran were ceded to the Maurya”, wrote Thapar. Some matrimonial alliances followed as well, and during the campaign and afterward, there was considerable cultural contact between the Mauryans and the Greeks.

With the treaty of 303 BC, “the routes and nodal points of the north-west region shifted from Persian-Hellenistic to Mauryan control,” wrote Thapar. “The territorial foundation of the Mauryan Empire had been laid, with Chandragupta controlling the Indus and Ganges Plains and the borderlands — a formidable empire by any standards.”

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