BMCR 2001.04.07

The Greek Kingdom of Bactria

, The Greek Kingdom of Bactria. Oxford: University Press of America, 2000. xvi, 284. $47.50.

The Hellenistic Kingdoms of Central Asia are a fascinating and understudied area of the Hellenistic world and thus any addition to the literature on them is welcome. The starting point for this volume is not, as perhaps one might expect, the death of Alexander the Great, but rather his Eastern campaigns, beginning with the Gaugamela campaign. The first three chapters of the book, almost half its entire length, are dedicated to Alexander and while S. is right that these campaigns were the genesis of the Bactrian kingdom and is correct to emphasise the enormous impact that Alexander’s campaigns had here, the amount of time spent on the mechanics of those campaigns seems a little disproportionate. The fourth chapter deals with the place of Bactria in the wrangles of Alexander’s successors, ending with the Battle of Ipsus. S. sees Seleucus as bringing a very different approach to the region than that of Alexander: “Alexander had brought a whirlwind of doom upon the native inhabitants…whereas Seleucus brought a message of conciliation and mutual understanding” (page 117). Later S. notes that Seleucid colonies normally excluded the native population (they are described strikingly by Peter Green, as “governmental ghettos for a ruling elite”) but wishes to exclude Bactria from this general tendency. Here a little more exploration of the evidence for this phenomenon and the reasons for it would have been welcome. S. believes that substantial immigration to Bactria took place and infers that this led to Bactria being known as the land of a thousand cities (page 135). Again while S. acknowledges in his footnotes that some of these cities could have been fortified villages (one thinks of the inflation of the status of such villages in Spain by various Roman governors) some further analysis of this issue would have been welcome. On page 136 S. argues that this period produced a “profound development” of Bactria’s urban and economic fabric. Once again a lengthier analysis of this phenomenon and a discussion of whether this represented a new direction or merely a recovery to the levels reached by Bactria before Alexander’s devastation of the region would have been useful at this point.

The kingdom of Bactria itself is then dealt with in four chapters which discuss the area’s secession from Seleucid rule under Diodotus, the rise of the Euthydemids, the kingdom’s expansion under Demetrius, and finally the usurpation and rule of Eucratides.

There is a wide-ranging bibliography, albeit not as detailed in parts as that supplied by Holt’s edited edition of Tarn’s classic The Greeks in Bactria and India (Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1984), and a serviceable index. One notes some hostility on the author’s part towards academe in general: we have the pointed use of inverted commas around the phrase the experts on page xv and around professional on p.229 where the professional is further described as “obtuse”. Two maps are provided, one showing Alexander’s march to Bactria and beyond, the other Bactria in more detail. They are of reasonable clarity. There are also some mediocre illustrations of Bactrian coins. A chronological king list would have made a useful addition to the book.

Apart from the long introduction on Alexander, two things may surprise the reader. One is strict way in which S. interprets his remit. Bactria is very firmly the focus of the book and the other Indo-Greeks, their kingdoms, and impact are almost totally excluded. There is only the most cursory mention of King Menander, for example, and Taxila is merely a place through which Alexander passed on his campaigns. Bactria is also seen very much as an outpost of the Greek world. One of the strengths of S’s account is to set Bactria in its Hellenistic context, but this, as Narain pointed out in his The Indo-Greeks (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), does not tell the whole story and an attempt to look at the Eastern side of Bactria’s setting would also have been welcome.

The second surprise is the degree to which S’s book is a military-political narrative which eschews social history and material culture. This seems a great shame particularly given the work done in recent years on cultural interaction in the Seleucid kingdom. Occasionally somewhat jarring statements are made in this respect. The city of Ai Khanum, seen by S. in its finally stages as the royal residence of Eucratides, is regarded as a “purely Greek city” (p.131), yet its archaeology shows a palace-complex which owes more to the Near East than Greece or Macedonia, and the plans of its private houses are also heavily influenced by non-Greek designs. Nor is the heroon of the town’s founder, Cineas, Greek in form. A similar mix emerges when we look at the inhabitants of the town. Many sport Greek names, but we do know of two palace accountants named Oxeboakes and Oxebazes. Ai Khanum therefore seems to be less than pure, and some analysis of what was found there would seem of importance. In fact, apart from some discussion of coin-types, there is no detailed discussion of any of the archaeological artifacts from the area or what they tell us about cultural interaction. This is a sad omission from the book as in the opening chapters S. shows himself capable of dealing with such matters, underlining the tensions that existed between the Greeks and Macedonians in the area.

To construct an historical narrative of Greek Bactria is a difficult task given the nature of our evidence. The available literary evidence is fragmentary and often late in date. The bulk of the remaining evidence is numismatic, an even more dangerous foundation on which to build firm conclusions. Coins can circulate in strange ways and often are poor guides to where frontiers lie. S. notes this problem, remarking of the war between Demetrius and Eucratides that the evidence “is numismatic in nature and very insubstantial, as much of the evidence on the Graeco-Bactrians seems to be”.

It is a shame that S., having recognised this point, does not provide a sustained in-depth analysis of these sources, drawing out some conclusions as to what can and what cannot be done with them. S. does discuss these issues in specific instances, but does not offer an overarching account which would allow the reader to discern his overall approach. Some numismatic debates need a lengthier discussion than S. allows, an example being the meaning of the monograms found on Bactria coins. He also appears to regard the legend “Phar” found counter-struck on some coins of Demetrius as a full name rather than an abbreviation as seems more probable. Equally there is no speculation about the nature of this name, which does not appear to be Greek.

Nevertheless, S. cannot be accused of wishing to conceal the difficulties of his approach from the reader. He presents alternative viewpoints of events, often at some length. Sometimes these discussions end in virtual aporia, but that may well be the correct approach for many of these issues. Occasionally some statements seem a little too positivistic. It is not certain, for example, that Chandragupta made Seleucus his suzerain (p.120). S. is right to be disdainful of psychological inferences made from coin portraits, albeit he seems to commit this sin himself when discussing the coins of Eucratides (page 220).

There are some infelicities of language and on occasions strange slips. Hypaspist does not literally mean “shield-bearer of the king” (p.6). On page 98 we have “Grecians” rather than “Greeks” in a translation (presumably not S’s own) of Diodorus Siculus. Phobos was the Greek god, not goddess, of fear (page 15), note 100 here takes us not to Quintus Curtius, but Plutarch’s Life of Alexander and the reference there should read 31.4 rather than the mysterious “p.129”. Mithridates is misspelt Mithradates throughout.

S’s book provides an interesting account of Bactria, but the narrowness of its scope does not make it a suitable introduction to this field nor a replacement for more weighty tomes such as that of Tarn.