Thursday, October 14, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Coloru Omar, Da Alessandro a Menandro: il regno greco di Battriana. Studi ellenistici 21. Pisa/Roma: Fabrizio Serra editore, 2009. Pp. 383. ISBN 9788862271776. €295.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Filippo Canali De Rossi, Rome

This book is a study of the kingdom of Bactria through the Hellenistic age: in the first section Coloru, showing an almost incredible erudition, outlines the growing relevance of this subject in scholarship. The second and more substantial part deals with the history of Bactria under Greek rule.

The first chapter describes Bactria as a region separated from Sogdiana by the river Oxus (Amu-Darya): to the south the Hindu Kush divides Bactria from India. Study of Greek Bactria was prompted in the sixteenth century by the discovery and trade of coins. The paramount monograph on Bactria was published by Th.S. Bayer in St. Petersburg (1738); the more recent works of W.W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India, Cambridge 1951, and A.K. Narain, The Indo-Greeks, Oxford 1957, are also among standard treatments of Greek rule in Bactria.1 Coloru offers a detailed history of archaeological investigations (French, English, Russian and Italian), and does not refrain from taking into consideration biological evidence, as the Indian Kafiri are supposed to be of Greek descent.

The second chapter is devoted to ancient historical sources: although a few passages on Bactrian history are preserved in Diodorus, Polybius or Strabo, there is much to regret in the loss of the Parthica written by Apollodorus of Artemita. The most detailed extant account of Bactrian events is that offered by the Latin Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus, preserved only in an abridgment. More bits of evidence are scattered through several authors and books, including the Periplus Maris Rubri, Pliny the Elder, Aelian, Athenaeus and the mysterious POxy nr. 403 where, in a comic fragment, a few words are given in a gibberish tongue, perhaps an Indian dialect.

Chapter III deals with the employment of events from the Bactrian saga -- like the dramatic murder of Eukratides at the hands of his son -- in medieval literature (including Boccaccio) and contemporary science fiction (H.P. Lovecraft). This section, not altogether appropriate here, was previously published as an article.2 In the rest of the book the history of the Greek kingdom of Bactria is thus reconstructed: chapter I is devoted to Greek presence in Bactria before Alexander and in the immediate aftermath.3 In Achaemenid times entire populations had been transplanted from the Greek world to the Persian Empire: these included Eretrians, Milesians and the Boeotian Celoni. Barceans were moved from Cyrenaica to Bactria at the hands of Cambyses. Bactria was a satrapy in the Achaemenid empire, and its administration was generally entrusted to a cadet son of the Great King. After conquering this region between 329 and 327 BC, Alexander founded there a number of colonies (8 or 12 according to Strabo and Justin) where the most unruly of his troops were settled. As he left for India in the spring of 327 BC, Amyntas was appointed satrap with a force of 3500 cavalry and ten thousand soldiers, but two years later, at the rumor of Alexander's death, there broke out a revolt of the Greek settlers. Again in 323 BC an even greater revolt (we are told of 23,000 men) took place: Peithon son of Krateuas, sent by the regent Perdiccas, defeated them in battle and unwillingly had to proceed to their extermination. The new governor Philippos was soon superseded by Stasanor and the latter, popular among his subjects, could not be deprived of this satrapy by Antigonos.

In chapter II the author narrates the reconquest of the East by Seleucos: in the meantime coins had been minted in Bactria by a certain Sophytos.4 Seleucos made a compact with the Mauryan ruler Chandragupta to the effect that mixed marriages among Greeks and natives be allowed, and from now on diplomatic relations were regularly maintained. Seleucos delegated his son Antiochos, born from the Iranian wife Apama, to the superintendency over the 'upper satrapies', and geographical explorations were entrusted to the strategoi Patrokles and Demodamas. A number of cities were founded or rebuilt and from a variety of countries Greeks flowed over the East.

In chapter III the constitution of Bactria as an independent state is sketched. Indeed Seleucid rule was not for long: it happened that the satraps of Parthia and Bactria, Andragoras and Diodotos (or Theodotos), simultaneously revolted around 250 BC, but Andragoras' dominion was soon invaded by the Parthi led by Arsakes, while Diodotos was able to take and keep the royal title as the ruler of 'the thousand towns of Bactria', and to resist an invasion of nomads. His son Diodotos II joined forces with Arsakes to prevent the return of Seleucos II, but only to fall victim of a conspiration led by Euthydemos.

Chapter IV is dedicated to the 'golden age' of Bactria, under Euthydemos and his son Demetrios. It is doubtful whether Euthydemos had supported the Syrian usurper Molon: in any case Antiochos III laid siege to the city of Bactra, where Euthydemos and Demetrios resisted for about two years. In the negotiations Euthydemos claimed for himself the merit of having punished the original rebel, Diodotos, and an agreement with Antiochos was readily signed: a recently published inscription from Kuliab is probably contemporary with these events (appendix, nr. 5). Euthydemos' son Demetrios is credited with the conquest of India, where the Mauryan empire, since the death of Asoka (232 BC), was rapidly declining.

In chapter V we learn how Demetrios' son Euthydemos (II) lost a part of his kingdom to the usurpers Antimachos, Agathokles and Pantaleon: Antimachos, named 'Theos', shared the royal title with his brother Eumenes and the latter's son.5 Pantaleon and Agathokles ruled in succession on the eastern part of the expanded kingdom. Both Antimachos and Agathokles minted the so-called 'pedigree' coins, commemorating former kings of Bactria. Pantaleon and Agathokles were the first to strike bilingual (Greek and Kharoshthi) coins.

In chapter VI the intriguing figure of Eukratides is put to the fore: we learn from coins that he was the son of a certain Laodike, possibly a Seleucid princess, and Heliokles. From 171 BC on he was able to reunite all territories of Bactria north of Hindu Kush and made a series of succesful campaigns against the neighbouring natives. He crossed the Hindu Kush and defeated in battle Menander, who had become the king of this region about 165 BC: subsequently Eukratides took the title of Megas, while Menander took refuge in his eastern domains. In the west Eukratides probably made an alliance with the Syrian usurper Timarchos.6 Through another campaign in India (possibly registered in the Indian text Yugapurana) Eukratides was able to conquer the city of Taxila, pushing Menander further east, but had to face the counterattack of a certain Demetrios, and found himself in a very difficult strait, with only 300 soldiers against 60,000. He was finally able to escape, but only to fall in a plot at the hands of his own son.7

In the west the Bactrian kingdom had been eroded by the attack of nomadic peoples: migrations of the Tocharii are probably also registered in Chinese sources under the name of Yuezhi, a nation that had been pushed westwards by the Xiungnu (Huns). After the death of Eukratides I more kings of Greek Bactria (north of the Hindu Kush) are known from coins: it was probably some of them who sent troops to the Seleucid Demetrios II for his unfortunate campaign against the Parthians. Greek rule was finally overwhelmed by the invasion of the Yuezhi, but Greek culture did not completely vanish.8

In chapter VIII we learn how in India the legacy of Eukratides was taken over by his former enemy Menander, who regained all territories south of the Hindu Kush: he also, according to the Indian text Milindapañha, became a Buddhist convert. According to Plutarch, instead, Menander died in battle, and while his wife and son retained the eastern part of his dominions, the western regions (including Paropamisadae, Arachosia and Gandhara) became the realms of Zoilos and Diomedes. The successor of Zoilos was Lysias, who temporarily ruled in association with Antialkidas.9

The final chapter concerns institutional, economic and religious issues of the Graeco-Bactrian state, whose model was the Seleucid kingdom: it had smaller administrative divisions, entrusted to a strategos or, at lower level, to a meridarches.10 The region was able to produce every kind of resource except olive oil; there was a local production of wine. The spread of Bactrian coins to neighbouring regions (India, Shri Lanka) testifies to wide commercial relations, but evolution of taste and style in ceramics is very similar to that of any other area in the Hellenistic world. As for religion it is doubtful whether a regular cult of Alexander the Great is attested in Kandahar,11 but the fact that some of the Greek kings of Bactria bear the epithet 'Theos' testifies to the existence of a ruler cult, as in the Seleucid empire.12 On coins, we see the presentation of most of the Hellenic pantheon, but Indian deities are also represented; Herakles and Dionysos enjoyed a special and widespread diffusion. Of the local cults that of the river Oxus was prominent.13 Buddhism found a significant acceptance among the Greeks, as is shown by Asoka's edicts, by the tale of king Menander and by the meridarches Theodoros saving some of Buddha's relics in a casket.

The volume is provided with a massive (30 pages) bibliography, an accurate index of ancient sources, inscriptions and papyri, and more general indexes of names, peoples and things. There is also a useful appendix where some rare or recently published documents are reprinted with Italian translation. Several B&W illustrations include maps, coins, inscriptions, views of archaeological sites and miniatures from medieval manuscripts.

To sum up: Coloru's book seems to me a superb study, thoroughly documented and well written. It is only to be wished that it may find wide international acceptance.


1.   See now also F. Weidemann, Les successeurs d'Alexandre en Asie centrale et leur he/ritage culturel, Paris 2009.
2.   O. Coloru, "Reminiscenze dei re greco-battriani nella letteratura medievale e nella science fiction americana," Studi ellenistici 20, 2008, 519-539.
3.   For a survey of Greek presence beyond the Euphrates before Alexander see also F. Canali De Rossi, I Greci in Medio Oriente e Asia Centrale, Roma 2007.
4.   No relation between this ruler Sophytos and the merchant Sophytos whose acrostic epigram has been found in Kandahar and recently published (appendix nr. 6) is discernible.
5.   Appendix, nrr. 7 and 8. For the last parchment see also F. Canali De Rossi, Iscrizioni dello Estremo Oriente Greco, Bonn 2004, nr. 459.
6.   For Timarchos' acknowledgment by the senate, see also F. Canali De Rossi, Le ambascerie dal mondo greco a Roma, Rome 1997, nr. 569.
7.   Eukratides had reigned for at least 24 years (171 – 147 BC) as attested by an accounting inscription from Ai Khanum: Iscrizioni dello Estremo Oriente Greco, nr. 329.
8.   This is attested by the Greek signature of a certain Palamedes at the end of a Kushan inscription: Iscrizioni dello Estremo Oriente Greco, nr. 314.
9.   Antialkidas' diplomatic relations are documented by the so-called Besnagar pillar (Iscrizioni dello Estremo Oriente Greco, nr. 409) recording the embassy performed by a certain Heliodoros from Taxila to the 9th Sunga king, Bhagabhadra.
10.   About the administration we learn a lot of details by the 'economic' texts of Ai Khanum, Iscrizioni dello Estremo Oriente Greco, nrr. 322-357.
11.   Iscrizioni dello Estremo Oriente Greco, nr. 293.
12.   In the unpublished inscription from the necropolis of Ai Khanum mentioned on p. 282 (see also SEG 52, 2002, 1516.6), one should restore ἱερέως ἀπὸ γο[νέων ('priest by descent') rather than ἱερέως ἀπογό[νων ('priest of descendants').
13.   Iscrizioni dello Estremo Oriente Greco, nr. 311. I cannot subscribe the author's statement (pp. 276-277), that Sarapis is here an Egyptian deity: see Iscrizioni dello Estremo Oriente Greco, nr. 280, and commentary on p. 180.


  1. I'm afraid that at 295 euros (did I read that right?) the reviewer's hope for widespread use of this book is not likely to be fulfilled.

  2. Books published by Fabrizio Serra editore are generally (perhaps entirely) prohibitively expensive.

  3. Effettivamente, è da lamentare che i prezzi dei volumi pubblicati da Fabrizio Serra Editore sono quasi sempre eccessivamente elevati, nonostante i vari contributi economici (fondi di Dipartimenti, del CNR, del MIUR-PRIN, ecc.) di volta in volta ricevuti.


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