BMCR 2020.01.42

The Greek Experience of India. From Alexander to the Indo-Greeks

Richard Stoneman, The Greek Experience of India. From Alexander to the Indo-Greeks. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019. xviii, 525. ISBN 9780691154039 $39.95.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This book represents a continuation and an extension of Stoneman’s previous researches into the Greek experience of India. It aims to recover the observations of Alexander’s studious companions and ‘to test them against what we can know from an Indian point of view, as well as to identify the patterns in the curtains that prevented them too from seeing India clearly’ (7). It is also about ‘the encounter of two incommensurable civilizations that came face to face for two pregnant centuries’ (2). These two centuries are between Alexander’s Indian campaign and Menander’s death. The chronological span under consideration, therefore, is limited to the period 326 – ca. 135 BC, but for the purposes of his study Stoneman often goes beyond those dates. Geographically, the focus is on the area of Northern India (between the Indus and Ganges) and largely ignores the rest of the subcontinent and Taprobane.

As its title indicates, the volume concerns the Greek experience of India. Emphasis is put on Megasthenes’ Indika which quickly became standard, but also on the Alexander historians who provided important information on the Indian lands, as seen through Greek and Macedonian eyes. Certainly, the author is well versed in Greek and Latin sources and utilizes them effectively. No less attention is paid to Indian sources – whenever necessary Stoneman discusses them and often draws parallels with Greek ones in order to prove or disprove possible interactions between the Greeks and Indians as far as religion, philosophy, literature, art, etc. are concerned. An interesting aspect of the book is that while its subject is antiquity, it provides many medieval and modern parallels which, given the topic (India), seems a good idea.

In my view, the best part of the volume is the one devoted to Megasthenes’ Indika. It is a serious contribution to the topic. There are some shortcomings: sometimes the author poses important questions, discusses them, but provides no answers whatsoever; a general conclusion at the end of the book seems necessary; a conclusion at the end of part II (Megasthenes’ Description of India) would be useful.

The book is divided into three parts, each of them consisting of several chapters. The chapters are subdivided thematically, and a single chapter may discuss different problems.

Part I consists of four chapters.

Chapter 1 presents, briefly and in reverse chronological order, ancient, medieval, and modern views about India. In the part devoted to ancient views, Stoneman dwells on Alexander’s predecessors, namely Scylax of Caryanda, Herodotus, and Ctesias. It is worth mentioning that he accepts Panchenko’s view,1 that Scylax sailed on the Ganges, not on the Indus as is generally assumed. Stoneman’s contribution to this issue is his identification of Herodotus’ Caspatyrus2 with Keśavapura, ‘a district of Mathura on the Jumna/Yamuna’ (28). If so, the Greeks had knowledge of the Ganges valley, and even of the whole coast of India3 and to a certain extent of Taprobane, as early as the last quarter of the 6 th century BC. However, the proposed identifications of both the river and the city remain debatable.

Chapter 2 discusses various aspects of Alexander’s Indian campaign. Stoneman does not express clearly his own opinion about the aims of the campaign, but he rejects the idea that it was a scientific mission. The route followed by Alexander is traced and the necessary attention is paid to the events important for this study that happened during his stay in India. Stoneman supports the view that Alexander and Hephaestion, following a local custom, crossed the Indus using a bridge of boats. Next, basing his arguments on Strabo (XV.1.35),4 he presumes that a scouting party, perhaps including Alexander, reached the headwaters of the Ganges. This, however, seems highly unlikely. Alexander’s policy of terror during his voyage down the Indus is seen as a sign of his increasing megalomania, and the increasing frustration and desperation among the troops.

Chapter 3 deals with Heracles and Dionysus as part of Alexander’s vision of India. According to Stoneman, Alexander expected to find precisely these two gods in India, and attached such importance to them because of their role ‘in Macedonian royal ideology, and hence in Alexander’s mythologisation of his expedition in heroic terms’ (82). And since Alexander insisted that Heracles and Dionysus were in India, neither his companions nor Megasthenes were seeking to explain phenomena of Indian religion, but were simply trying to find evidence for these deities there. As for the modern identification of Heracles with Kṛṣṇa and of Dionysus with Śiva, Stoneman points out that in at least one case – that with the Suraseni – the identification of the first two is secure, but this does not mean that every reference to Heracles in an Indian context refers to Kṛṣṇa. As for Dionysus and Śiva, he thinks they have a lot in common, but doubts whether at the time of Alexander Śiva existed in the form in which he is now known.

Chapter 4 focuses on the natural history of India. Stoneman examines evidence for Indian flora and fauna in the works of Scylax, Ctesias, and the Alexander historians. He enumerates many plants and animals, gives their ancient descriptions, and proposes identifications of some of them with modern species.

Part II consists of six chapters concerning Megasthenes’ description of India.

Chapter 5 provides an introduction to the topic. Stoneman points out that we do not know where Megasthenes came from. In his view, Megasthenes’ dates were ca. 350-290 BC, he repeatedly visited India after 304/3 BC (the treaty between Seleucus and Chandragupta), and his Indika was an ethnography written about 300 BC. Therefore Megasthenes described Chandragupta’s India, not the India after Alexander’s death. The chapter also deals briefly with northern India before Megasthenes.

Chapter 6 attempts to reconstruct the structure of Megasthenes’ Indika. The attempt is based on five accounts of India, those of Diodorus, Strabo, Arrian, Curtius and Dionysius Periegetes. Stoneman notes that these accounts (especially the first three) have almost the same structure and that ‘all the extant fragments of Megasthenes can easily be fitted into this structure’ (180). Therefore, the abovementioned authors followed the pattern of the Indika. Moreover, Stoneman points out that with certain exceptions the overall structure of Ctesias’ Indika was not unlike Megasthenes’ (on the basis of Photius’ summary). Unfortunately, he does not express his view whether Megasthenes followed Ctesias’ pattern. Once all that is done, Stoneman proposes his own arrangement of the fragments (Schwanbeck’s and Jacoby’s numerations are noted) as follows: ‘Book 1. Geography and natural resources; ancient history; human populations’ (183); ‘Book 2. Political structures, society and customs’ (184); ‘Book 3. History (hardly to be distinguished from mythology), religion and philosophy’ (185). Unlike Schwanbeck, Stoneman divides the Indika into three books, not into four. In fact only Jacoby’s Fragment 1a cites Book 4.

Chapter 7 considers the geography and ancient history in the Indika. Stoneman seeks to establish what geographical information Diodorus, Strabo, and Arrian drew from Megasthenes in their accounts of India. What is missing here is an overall picture (based on the fragments) of Megasthenes’ geographical knowledge of India. As for ancient history, Stoneman believes that Megasthenes’ aim was ‘to convey ancient history as he heard it in terms that would be intelligible to Greeks’ (191). In his view, the Greek writer ‘has some conception of an Indian (Brahman) tradition about the arrival of Aryan, Vedic culture in India, presumably from Brahman informants’ (192). He used the same informants for his king-list (153 kings from Dionysus to Chandragupta).

Chapter 8 examines Megasthenes’ knowledge of Indian culture and society. Throughout the chapter Stoneman compares the information provided by the Indika with that from the Indian Arthaśāstra, which is usually thought to have been written after Megasthenes’ work. The idea of this comparison is to see ‘whether there is a fit or a mismatch’ (202) between the two works. Unfortunately, Stoneman does not provide a definite answer to this question and simply leaves the reader to decide. In his view, Megasthenes’ division of Indian society into seven classes (μέρη) was due to his reproduction of the Brahmanical idea of the ideal division of society into four varnas, but also of the seven limbs of the body politic. As for Megasthenes’ statement that there was no slavery in India – it contrasts sharply with Arthaśāstra and the Laws of Manu – he believes that the Greek writer ‘was describing what he saw, a society where people did not lose their freedom and become the property of others’ (221).

The question of Utopia is the subject of Chapter 9. Stoneman presents Greek and Indian ideas about utopian societies and concludes that Onesicritus, Nearchus, and Megasthenes were not authors of utopias, but did their best to describe what they actually saw.

Chapter 10 is devoted to Megasthenes’ information on the natural world of India. Stoneman discusses the Indian flora and fauna and the monstrous races presented in the Indika, and tries to identify some of them e.g. the one-horned animal was a rhinoceros, the gold-digging ants might have been marmots, etc.

Part III consists of six chapters concerning the interactions between Greeks and Indians in India.

Chapter 11 addresses the question of Indian philosophers and the Greeks. The accent is put on: 1) Alexander’s encounter with the naked philosophers; 2) the personality of Calanus; 3) Megasthenes’ division of the Indian philosophers into Brachmanes and Sarmanes. Stoneman thinks that a good deal of Onesicritus’ information on the naked philosophers was genuine Indian material and that Calanus may have been an Ājīvika with Jain elements, whereas Dandamis (the oldest and the wisest of the naked philosophers) was a Jain with Ājīvika elements. Megasthenes’ Sarmanes may well be Buddhists.

Chapter 12 consists of a series of heterogeneous case studies concerning Greek experience of Indian thought. Stoneman demonstrates that in most cases the ideas arose independently and were not a result of interactions. This was the case with reincarnation and the so-called tripartite soul. He also thinks that the search for Greek influence on philosophy in the 3 rd and 2 nd centuries BC is fruitless, and that The Questions of King Milinda ‘contains nothing that would remind one of Greek philosophy’ (366). On the other hand, Stoneman is sure that Pyrrho of Elis (ca. 360–ca. 270) modelled himself on Buddhist attitudes, and that ‘it is quite conceivable that Paśupatas adopted aspects of the Cynic way of life’ (365).

Chapter 13 covers the interactions between the Greeks and the Indians from 323 to ca. 135 BC. Stoneman provides examples of Indian influence on the Greeks (e.g. the pillar of Heliodorus, and Menander’s adoption of Buddhism) and vice versa (e.g. Aśoka’s Greek inscriptions).

Chapter 14 studies Greek influence on Indian literature and theatre. Stoneman regards the impact of Greek theatre on Indian as slight. As for a possible Greek (Homeric) influence on both the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, he concludes: ‘the social and political circumstances of north-west India around the turn of the era were inimical to acceptance of Greek models by the authors of the great epics’ (426).

Chapter 15 deals with Greek impact on the art of India. According to Stoneman, the evidence of the Sanchi reliefs for architectural styles in the reign of Aśoka and after that is crucial – the buildings depicted there ‘do not look much like Greek buildings’ (435). On the other hand, he finds Greek influence on early (2 nd century BC) Mathura sculpture (e.g. girdles tied in a ‘Heracles knot’, Heracles wrestling with a lion, etc.) which he explains with the possibility that Greek artists already established in Bactria might have been invited to work in Mathura. As for painting, Stoneman, comparing the early (3 rd – 2 nd century BC) wall paintings from the Ajanta caves near Aurangabad and paintings from Vergina, concludes: ‘to my eye the paintings at Ajanta could have been made by a Greek (Macedonian) observing intently the Indian life around him’ (459-460).

Chapter 16 discusses Philostratus’ description of Apollonius of Tyana’s wanderings in India. Stoneman thinks that it cannot serve as evidence for the history and appearance of Hellenistic Taxila. This, however, does not diminish its importance ‘as a kind of summation of the Greek experience of India’ (470).

There are an insignificant number of mistakes.5 The volume is richly illustrated (58 illustrations) and well edited. It is useful for all those interested in the Greek experience of India.

Table of Contents

Part I. First Impressions
Chapter 1, Writing a Book about India, 5-35
Chapter 2, Alexander in India, 36-79
Chapter 3, Heracles and Dionysus, 80-98
Chapter 4, The Natural History of India, 99-126

Part II. Megasthenes’ Description of India
Chapter 5, Introducing Megasthenes, 129-176
Chapter 6, Megasthenes’ Book, 177-185
Chapter 7, Geography and Ancient History, 186-197
Chapter 8, Culture and Society, 198-237
Chapter 9, The Question of Utopia, 238-253
Chapter 10, Megasthenes on the Natural World, 254-285

Part III. Interactions
Chapter 11, The Indian Philosophers and the Greeks, 289-331
Chapter 12, Two Hundred Years of Debate: Greek and Indian Thought, 332-374
Chapter 13, The Trojan Elephant: Two Hundred Years of Co-existence from the Death of Alexander to the Death of Menander, 323 to 135 BCE, 375-404
Chapter 14, Bending the Bow: Kṛṣṇa, Arjuna, Rāma, Odysseus, 405-426
Chapter 15, Greeks and the Art of India, 427-460
Chapter 16, Apollonius of Tyana and Hellenistic Taxila, 461-477

Appendix: Concordance of the Fragments of Megasthenes, 479-480
Bibliography, 481-509
Index 511-525


1. D. Panchenko, ‛Scylax’ Circumnavigation of India and Its Interpretation in Early Greek Geography, Ethnography and Cosmography, I˙, Hyperboreus Vol. 4 (1998), Fasc. 2, 211-42.

2. Hdt. IV.44.2. See also Hdt. III.102.1.

3. Herodotus (IV.44.1-3) reports that Scylax circumnavigated the coast from the Indus mouth (the Ganges according to Panchenko) to a place from where the Egyptian pharaoh Nechos had sent Phoenicians in ships to sail round Libya. If – as Stoneman does – one accepts Panchenko’s view, this means that Scylax circumnavigated the whole of India.

4. Cf. Diod. II.37.3; Plut. Alex. 62.1-2; Just. XII.8.9.

5. ‘he hardly had to time to build’ (p. 70); ‘Probably Probably’ (p. 101); ‘The key passage is Strabo’s sentence about him’ (p. 130) must be ‘Arrian’s sentence . . . ’; we we (p. 142); WhatMegasthenes (p. 216); a missing full stop – ‘between Herodotus and Megasthenes It seems more probable’ (p. 246); ‘A Brahman is a Brahman is a Brahman’ (p. 323); ‘refers (line 12) refers to’ (p. 437); ‘a lion is a lion is a lion’ (p. 444).