Friday, July 13, 2018


Josef Wiesehöfer, Horst Brinkhaus, Reinhold Bichler (ed.), Megasthenes und seine Zeit / Megasthenes and his Time. Classica et Orientalia, 13. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2016. Pp. vi, 230. ISBN 9783447106245. €58.00.

Reviewed by Pierre Schneider, Université d'Artois (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The extraordinary ethnographic literature from the Hellenistic period is almost entirely lost, except for several books which have survived in fragmentary form. Such is the case of Megasthenes' Indika, the importance of which no one would question today, even though this text still eludes us in many aspects. Thus, a monograph authored by scholars of different backgrounds ("Indologen, (Alt-)Historiker, Klassische Philologen, Archäologen, Altorientalisten und Iranisten" [p. 3]) in order to explore new horizons is particularly welcome.

This volume offers twelve contributions based on a series of talks delivered at the Christian-Albrecht-Universität (Kiel) in 2012. The typos and mistakes that I was able to notice, within the limits of my competence, are very few (e. g., p. 180, n. 72, "Pédeche"; p. 41: the Phoenicians sent out by Necho II did not circumnavigate Africa in an anticlockwise direction ("in senso antiorario").There is no introduction, but a short foreword instead ("Anstelle einer Einleitung") with an – excessively – promising title: "Megasthenes und Indien im Fokus althistorischer Forschung". Actually, half of this brief text reflects on a long quotation borrowed from Eduard Meyer. The core of the second part is a lapidary list of five reasons why Megasthenes must be studied ("zentraler Untersuchunggegenstand" [p. 3]).

How the Greek representation of India evolved following Alexander's campaign is the subject of the first article, by Reinhold Bichler. In fact, the author concentrates on a specific point, namely the political organisations and ruling forces in northwest India. The first section consists of a review of the ideas which shaped the image of the country that Alexander and his companions had in mind. Then the author proceeds to compare Arrian's narrative and the Vulgate-tradition with regard to the "Herrschaft und politische Organisation". For example, Bichler points out that Arrian does not often apply the word basileus to Indian rulers: terms such as hegemôn, arkhôn, and nomarkhos are preferred, for they became vassals to Alexander. In contrast, the Vulgate authors have less rigid classifications (pp. 8-9).

Horst Brinkhaus offers a short overview of recent research on the ancient Indian treatise entitled Arthaśāstra. First the author summarizes the discussions relating to the authorship and the period of composition, reporting the arguments of various specialists: Stein, Goyal, Kulke, Falk, Kangle... The relationship between Megasthenes and the Arthaśāstra is of course at stake here, especially with respect to the problem of Megasthenes' seven merê (social classes), which hardly correspond to the four Varṇa organizing the Indian society. This vexing question has been, however, solved ("gelöst," p. 33) by McClish, whose analysis is presented in the rest of the chapter.

Veronica Bucciantini deals with Megasthenes as a travelogue writer, starting with a broad overview of the Reiseliteratur, "definita come l'insieme di descrizioni reali o fittizie di un viaggio" (p. 37), from Aristeas of Proconnesus to Nearchus. Then Bucciantini comes to the place occupied by Megasthenes in this tradition. Many points are considered of which the most important seem to be the following ones: 1) Megasthenes follows the footprints of his predecessors whatever the subject (realia or mirabilia); 2) the Indika is representative of a particular kind of Reiseliteratur, namely that composed for political authorities (" … resoconti che dovevano essere presentati a sovrani e governi che li avevano commissionati" [p. 56]).

Bruno Jacobs' essay brings the reader to the domain of Indian archaeology. This highly readable chapter with its excellent pictures is a comparative study of Megasthenes' description of the city of Palibothra and the remains unearthed in Patna. After an overview of the Greek evidence, Jacobs presents some archaeological facts regarding the ancient city. He then moves on to the question of a potential Achaemenid influence on Mauryan architecture, suggested by the resemblance of the Indian pillars to those of Persepolis. The idea that after the destruction of Persepolis some craftsmen emigrated to India, with the corollary that stone architecture may date back to Chandragupta's reign, is not firmly established, Jacobs says. Nonetheless these pillars tell us much about the contact between the Mauryan rulers and the West.

The paper by Sushma Jansari and Richard Ricot is a stimulating attempt to clarify the question of Chandragupta's relationship with Jainism, with a cross-examination of Indian sources and Megasthenes. With respect to the latter, the authors refer to the passage – categorized into paradoxography by modern scholars –, where Megasthenes describe mouthless people who live on odours (the Astomoi). To begin with, Jansari and Ricot assess the value of the documentary material. Then they suggest that Megasthene's Astomoi might be identified with the Jains, considering some Jain peculiarities, such as gauze masks and diet. In conclusion, the authors cautiously acknowledge that "we are unlikely to ever discover the precise truth" behind Megasthenes' Mouthless people, but assume that these fragments may indicate that Chandragupta was in contact "with the different religious sects in his kingdom" (p. 95).

With Grant Parker's contribution, it is the crucial topic of the reception of Megasthenes that is investigated. As Parker rightly recalls, since "the Indica has survived only in the context of later texts", those "hosts texts" need detailed consideration (p. 97). After an overview of those authorities (Diodorus, Strabo …), he comes to the main point, showing that Megasthenes is substantially a problem of (Roman) receptions and contexts. To give a single example, in his narrative of the myth of (Indian) Heracles, Megasthenes hints at Indian pearls: it is actually no surprise that this passage was retained by Arrian, for "commodities were central to Roman imperial perceptions of India" at that time (p. 103). Among many other ideas, Parker convincingly argues that the audiences of Diodorus, Strabo, Pliny and Arrian were unlikely to read about Alexander's expedition and India – which implies encountering Megasthenes' Indika – without thinking of their own times.

Daniel T. Potts' contribution deliberately does not focus on India and Megasthenes: instead the author thinks that there "is some value in extending the perspective back in time to much earlier periods" (p. 109). Thus, this chapter examines how Dilmun (Bahrain), Magan (Oman) and Meluhha (the Indus valley) were connected to their neighbours and to more distant places, mostly on the basis of archaeological evidence (beads, weights, seals, pottery). That the entire area from Gujarat to southern Iraq was "well-integrated into a system of economic and social interaction" (p. 116) long before the time of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is now ascertained by archaeology, Potts claims.

In his paper Duane W. Roller compiles in a few pages a biographical presentation of Megasthenes and his work. The extant pieces of evidence are presented to the reader without substantial discussion. The rest of the chapter consists of a summary of the subjects treated in the Indika. Some remarks on the tradition of the Megasthenic text close the chapter.

The next chapter by Robert Rollinger does not lack originality. The starting point is the intriguing passage where Megasthenes counts the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar among the greatest conquerors. Rollinger argues that Alexander and Nebuchadnezzar became "parallel figures": this makes sense within a Seleucid context, as both figures were considered "to prefigure the early Seleucid rulers" (p. 133). Rollinger also scrutinizes Near Eastern textual evidence, to show that Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid royal ideology expressed the idea of world dominion. The lists of various peoples and places quoted in those texts are the reason why Rollinger speaks of "mental maps". The author's conclusion is that, by insisting on world dominion, the Seleucids acted as "heirs" (p. 152) not only of Alexander, but also of their Near Eastern predecessors.

Kai Ruffing deals with India as described in Greek literary sources before Megasthenes. This long chapter is arranged chronologically, beginning with the first Greek contacts with the Persian world and ending with Onesicritus. On a very general level, one can say that Ruffing summarizes the accounts of India produced by Herodotus, Ctesias, Aristotle and Alexander's companions, concentrating mostly on Nearchus and Onesicritus. Ruffing concludes that the literary image of India up to Alexander's time and beyond was influenced by literary conventions and authors' intentionality; even though autopsia allowed this picture gain more authority, the Greek discourse did not reach the level of true realities and facts ("indische Realien und Tatsachen" [p. 187]). Next, Oskar von Hinüber draws the reader's attention to the relationship between the Greeks – and Hellenism – and king Aśoka, a subject he has already addressed.1 An accurate analysis of the king's name, especially as it appears on the bilingual Kandahar inscriptions (βασιλεὺς Πιοδάσσης), supports the idea that the Greek translation was made at Pataliputra ("in der Kanzlei" [p. 95]). Hinüber convincingly argues for an uninterrupted presence of Greeks at the Indian court, Megasthenes being the first one. The question of royal correspondence is then examined. Hinüber does not exclude that Greek models were used by Aśoka. At any rate, he is confident that lively cultural exchanges linked the Greek (Seleucid) and Indian (Mauryan) worlds.

The last paper by Josef Wiesehöfer is a reappraisal of the treaty struck by Seleucos and Chandragupta in 304/303. To the author's eyes, this episode in the relations between the two rulers has been "reduced to a matter of either/or": e. g., "either it was Seleucus who was the determining contractual partner, or it was Chandragupta..." (p. 208). Wiesehöfer points out the weaknesses of such an approach, and rightfully argues that both kings pursued their mutual interests. On the level of ideology (i. e., the monarchs' public image), he claims that both benefited from this situation. Megasthenes' Indika must be placed in this context, for he "sought to gain literary justification for Seleucus' waiver of the conquest of this part of the world" (p. 211). Then Wiesehöfer expands on the idea of relatively continuous contact between the two cultures and finally reflects on Aśoka's attempt to propagate the dhaṃma.

Before assessing the strengths and weaknesses of this book, I must acknowledge the limits of my expertise: in particular, Indian sources and archaeology are beyond my competence. Thus, the few reservations which I am able to express and which, actually, do not diminish the intrinsic value of the studies in question, are about a limited number of subjects. To take just one example, it seems to me that Rollinger oversimplifies the concept of "mental map" which is far more sophisticated than he apparently believes, and thus needs clarifying – I did not notice any specific reference in his impressive bibliography.

One or two decades after important studies (the names of A. Zambrini, A. B. Bosworth, and K. Karttunen come to mind), this volume sets Megasthenes back into the foreground. Most importantly, it beautifully brings together various specialists in order to consider the Indika from a multidisciplinary perspective. This no doubt must be counted among the book's strengths. Turning to the individual chapters, the majority of them deserve respect for their clear-cut ideas, stimulating suggestions and original documentary material. In contrast, several contributions either are of marginal relevance to the subject of the monograph, or cannot be regarded as truly innovative, irrespective of their authors' actual expertise. Besides, the volume lacks a robust introduction putting Megasthenic studies in perspective. Zambrini's recent article is a reminder that this subject cannot be escaped.2

At any rate this volume shows that Megasthenes requires an international team's work to be properly studied, particularly if we realize that the Indika still awaits a thorough pluridisciplinary commentary. I express the hope that this task will be completed soon.


1.   Oskar von Hinüber, "Did Hellenistic Kings Send Letters to Aśoka?", JAOS 130/22 (2010), pp. 261-266.
2.   A. Zambrini, "Megasthenes Thirty Years Later", in Claudia Antonetti and Paolo Biagi (edd.), With Alexander in India and Central Asia. Moving East and Back to West, Oxford, 2017, pp. 222-237.

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