BMCR 2021.11.21

The Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek world

, The Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek world. Routledge worlds. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 712. ISBN 9781138090699 $200.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Hellenistic polities that once existed in Afghanistan and Pakistan rarely featured in traditional narratives of the ancient world. Owing to limited attestations in Greco-Roman sources, the so-called “Greco-Bactrians” and “Indo-Greeks” remained as curiosities at the edges, footnotes to the campaigns of a certain Macedonian king. Over the last fifty years, excavation and chance discoveries have increased our knowledge of this part of the Hellenistic world exponentially.[1] In the wake of this surge of evidence from conflict zones—and scholarly interest in global and transcultural history—a comprehensive survey of this difficult subject has been needed for some time.

The Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek World, clocking in at over 700 pages, rises to the challenge. Following a brief introduction by the editor, Rachel Mairs, this volume contains 30 richly-illustrated essays by leading experts from multiple disciplines, organized into seven parts based on broad themes (e.g., history of scholarship, culture and identity) or the type of source material discussed (e.g., written, archaeological, numismatic). The complex (and often exiguous) data are treated from different perspectives by different contributors; the resulting bricolage is a virtue, not a bug. The editor readily admits her “light editorial hand”: the volume is not meant to be read start-to-finish, but piecemeal, with many controversial points left unresolved (pp. 2–3).

A number of distinct, but ultimately interconnected cultural milieux are treated in Part I. These range from Seleukid forefathers (Strootman) and Parthian cousins (Bruno), to the neighboring Steppe (Stark) and regions further afield (e.g., Mauryan India (Jansari) and China (Nickel)), about which authors offer some very valuable ideas: the Seleukid Empire as a “network polity” that required local collaborators to function (p. 12); the vital role Central and South Asia played in supplying the war machines of Southwest Asia (pp. 22–24, 82); the intricacies of giving due consideration to nomadic peoples (p. 80); a detailed treatment of Old Nisa and its spectacular rhyta (pp. 67–73). All these contributions succeed in casting Central Asia in particular not as a frontier, but one of several cores in a much wider Eurasian world.

The traditional scholarship on this topic is often presented in dichotomous terms: most notably W. W. Tarn’s Hellenocentrism versus A. K. Narain’s post-colonialism.[2] In many ways, the deep dives into the scholarly past in Part II provide clarifying context. So often modern political history—the Great Game (see Coloru), French missions in Afghanistan (Fenet), the Soviet and American invasions, and the persistence of the Taliban and tribal divisions—stands in the background of the individual histories of academic pioneers. This is perhaps best exemplified by the centuries-old Russian interest in this topic, from scholars under the Czars to members of the fledgling academies of post-Soviet states in Central Asia (Gorshenina and Rapin). These chapters offer keen insights into a much older and more nuanced intellectual landscape—one intimately tied to geopolitical contestation.

After finding no trace of Greeks during his excavations at Balkh in the 1920s, Alfred Foucher spoke of a mirage bactrien, an oft-quoted phrase which encapsulates how limited archaeological findings can defy academic assumptions. This was before the rediscovery of Aï Khanoum in northern Afghanistan a few decades later,[3] as well as the valuable and ongoing work of excavators up to the present, which have repeatedly changed the course of scholarly debates. Updated archaeological findings make up the largest portion of the volume (Part III), mirroring their outsized contribution to the field. Surveys by active archaeologists go beyond Bactria (Martinez-Sève) to include a number of other Central Asian states (Stančo, Lindström, Lyonnet, Puschnigg), southern Afghanistan (Ball), and the Swat Valley (Olivieri). Recent excavations do reveal targeted Hellenistic investments, such as irrigation networks (pp. 227–29) and fortifications along the northern frontier (pp. 261–69). But for the most part, the transformations of Hellenistic rule and nomadic incursion are downplayed. Key developments in the region date to much earlier periods (pp. 239, 243, 305, 317, 320), and authors repeatedly emphasize factors such as voluntary abandonment (pp. 255–69), the continuity of ceramic assemblages (pp. 272, 305–7, 341–49, 405), and the reuse of architectural features (pp. 298, 307). In many ways, the romanticized structures at Aï Khanoum (see Lecuyot) are just as misleading as the paltry findings at Bactra.

Even in moments of intense fascination, Greek and Roman historiographers do not offer much in their treatment of this world that is so distant from Mediterranean shores. Nevertheless, the Greco-Roman canon has long been mined for data, especially synchronisms to anchor relative dates. To the usual suspects—the Alexander historians, Polybius, Justin’s epitome of Pompeius Trogus—Part IV of this volume adds written testimony from the subcontinent, such as the Pāli Milindapañha (Kubica), and numerous ancient Chinese chronicles (Yang; see also Stark and Nickel), each with its own biases and blind spots. A small corpus of inscriptions and documents, which includes texts in Aramaic and numerous Indic languages, complicates the view we get from ancient intellectuals. Mairs’ own contribution in this section provides a nuanced discussion of texts beyond the literary—how even Greek inscriptions from southern Tajikistan or Kandahar must be read at the intersection of various factors beyond an “epigraphic habit” as traditionally conceived (pp. 420–23).

If we went by textual sources alone, we could count the number of identifiable Hellenistic monarchs in Bactria and India on one hand (with a finger or two to spare). Most epigraphy, in the form of royal names and titles in Greek and Indic dialects, is found on coins. Multiple considerations of numismatic evidence in Part V give readers a sense of the advances in the field since the canonical studies and herald the potential gains of new cataloguing efforts.[4] No fierce debates over chronology straddle these chapters, but disagreements do arise over individual approaches: for example, Jakobsson’s theory regarding a posited Bactrian king Antiochos Nikator, intuited from numismatic portraits, faces skepticism from Bordeaux; both Glenn and Bhandare rightly caution against building grand narratives upon few examples, while Jansari works from a die-study of only 82 specimens. Repeated explanations of numismatic methodology and evidentiary limitations (e.g., pp. 478–84, 520–24) are welcome and should be especially valuable to non-specialists.

In discourses of culture and identity, it is easy for essentialism to prevail through the use of static cultural labels—“East” and “West,” “Greek” and “local”—even when inherently complex evidence refutes them. But most of the essays in this volume (not just those in Parts VI and VII) take bold steps forward, challenging the very notion of Greekness (e.g., Mairs, Ball, Ghosh) or else understanding this region in the context of ancient globalization (Strootman, Hoo). Across these chapters, legacy plays a key role. So much is contingent upon the Achaemenids, a precedent never truly forgotten (Wu, Petrie). Similarly, the Kushans, the most organized successors to eastern Hellenistic polities and the beneficiaries of an interconnected world, actively engaged with the memory of Greek rule through the conscious adaptation of coin design and the consumption of Roman goods, which drew upon the “Hellenistic” as part of a wider stylistic koine (Morris, Cribb). In some ways, we might understand them in the context of other successors in Parthia (see Bruno) or Commagene,[5] who not only placed themselves in the ranks of Hellenistic warlords, but also presented as heirs to the Achaemenid kings before them.

There is much to admire about this work beyond its sheer size: for instance, the Alexander hagiography so common in early scholarship is acknowledged as such (pp. 2, 132–33, 176–77, 181–85); similarly, the potent (and often destructive) force of the antiquities market over the centuries is appropriately noted (pp. 5, 133–35, 159–60, 178–80, 296, 366, 420, 583). Nevertheless, when viewed as a whole, the volume possesses some unfortunate structural imbalances. For one, chapters that focus on Afghanistan and Central Asia outnumber those addressing other regions at a rate of two-to-one. Those that do address the Indian subcontinent or China are also more liable to engage in “container thinking” and unidirectional dynamics, praising how the “Greek,” “Macedonian,” or “Hellenistic” must have influenced local cultural trajectories for the better.[6] As a result of these disparities across contributions, the Indo-Greeks and the wider situation outside Bactria are somewhat left behind—areas that stood the most to gain from a project such as this.

The light editorial touch also creates some complications. Some are relatively superficial, such as the differences in formatting, citation styles, and transliteration conventions. Standardized regional maps are also absent, which might have helped those attempting to orient themselves in unfamiliar terrain.[7] But others hamper the creation of an approachable “world” in the scholarly sense—or at least one that clearly articulates the tensions and contradictions within it. As cautioned in Mairs’ introduction, very different interpretations of the same evidence stand side-by-side, and, aside from occasional parenthetical nods, only a few authors actively engage with the theories advanced by others in the volume. Many of the essays take an almost Socratic approach instead, excluding possible interpretations and ultimately ending in aporia, but leaving a sense that we have edged closer to the essential truth of the thing. A plethora of voices is represented; but those who come to this work seeking specific answers (e.g., a fixed chronology) or merely a critical understanding of the dissonance between them may leave disappointed. Even with all the clarity afforded by individual contributors, perhaps the best collective view we can hope for is a different sort of Bactrian mirage—the constantly shifting vision of a growing field.

These amount to small quibbles in the face of a Herculean effort that ultimately fulfills its mandate: this volume is now the standard reference on the topic, a common point of departure for a new generation of readers. Its immediate assumption of this role is all but ensured by the precipitous timing of its release, at the end of two decades of coalition forces in Afghanistan and the rapid transformations that come with the return of Taliban rule. Current circumstances are very much on the minds of those working on this part of the world, who fear for the well-being of friends, colleagues, and the Afghan people. A dispassionate observer might note that avenues of access may be closing and that items of cultural heritage may well be subjected to intensified destruction and looting. One might say that the encyclopedic scope of this project befits this new precarity, an academic recourse to preserve and protect what might be lost. However, for all the richness and diversity in its content, this volume reminds us that the work of forming a cohesive history of antiquity in this region—all with an eye to the human adversity of the present—is far from over.

Authors and titles

Rachel Mairs, “Introduction” (pp. 1–7)

Part I — Interactions (pp. 9–124)
Rolf Strootman, “The Seleukid Empire”
Sushma Jansari, “South Asia”
Jacopo Bruno, “Parthia”
Sören Stark, “Central Asia and the Steppe”
Lukas Nickel, “China and Bactria during the reign of Emperor Wu in written tradition and in archaeology”

Part II — History of scholarship (pp. 125–214)
Omar Coloru, “The Quest for Bactra: Scholarship on the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom from its origins to the end of colonialism”
Annick Fenet, “The Original ‘failure’? A century of French archaeology in Afghan Bactria”
Svetlana Gorshenina and Claude Rapin, “Hellenism with or without Alexander the Great: Russian, Soviet and Central Asian approaches”

Part III — Regional archaeological survey (pp. 215–416)
Laurianne Martinez-Sève, “Afghan Bactria”
Ladislav Stančo, “Southern Uzbekistan”
Gunvor Lindström, “Southern Tajikistan”
Bertille Lyonnet, “Sogdiana”
Gabriele Puschnigg, “Merv and Margiana”
Warwick Ball, “Arachosia, Drangiana and Areia”
Luca M. Olivieri, “Gandhāra and North-Western India”

Part IV — Written sources (pp. 417–64)
Rachel Mairs, “Greek inscriptions and documentary texts and the Graeco-Roman historical tradition”
Olga Kubica, “Reading the Milindapañha: Indian historical sources and the Greeks in Bactria”
Juping Yang, “Chinese historical sources and the Greeks in the Western Regions”

Part V — Numismatic sources (pp. 465–536)
Simon Glenn, “History from coins: The role of numismatics in the study of the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek worlds”
Sushma Jansari, “Two sides of the coin: from Sophytes to Skanda-Kārttikeya”
Jens Jakobsson, “Dating Bactria’s independence to 246/5 BC?”
Olivier Bordeaux, “Monetary politics during the early Graeco-Bactrian kingdom (250–190 BCE)”
Shailendra Bhandare, “The last phase of the Indo-Greeks: Methods, interpretations and new insights in reconstructing the past”

Part VI — Culture and identity (pp. 537–92)
Guy Lecuyot, “Ai Khanoum, between east and west: A composite architecture”
Milinda Hoo, “Globalization and interpreting visual culture”
Suchandra Ghosh, “Representation of Greek gods/goddesses in Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek visual culture”
Lauren Morris, “Roman objects in the Begram hoard and the memory of Greek rule in Kushan Central Asia”

Part VII — Beyond the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek worlds (pp. 593–682)
Xin Wu, “Central Asia in the Achaemenid period”
Cameron A. Petrie, “Achaemenid north-west South Asia”
Joe Cribb, “Greekness after the end of the Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms”


[1] R. Mairs maintains an online bibliography of the field, now hosted by the Hellenistic Central Asia Research Network.

[2] Tarn, W. W. 1938. The Greeks in Bactria and India. Cambridge; Narain, A. K. 1957. The Indo-Greeks. Oxford.

[3] Bernard, P. et al. 1973–2013. Fouiles d’Aï Khanoum I–IX. Mémoires de la Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan vol. 21, 26–31, 33–34. Paris.

[4] E.g., the recently announced OXUS-INDUS Project.

[5] Versluys, M. J. 2017. Visual Style and Constructing Identity in the Hellenistic World: Nemrud Dağ and Commagene Under Antiochos I. Cambridge.

[6] E.g., it is conjectured how the splendors of Greek architecture and sculpture should have caused Zhang Qian to gawk in wonder during his visit to Daxia (Bactria) in the second century BCE—despite the fact that none of these details are to be found in Sima Qian’s Shiji (p. 112). Such statements betray the spirit of the volume as outlined in the introduction: to provide not only a diversity of opinions, but also ones which “do not privilege any single ethnic group or culture” (p. 6).

[7] The first regional map, Fig. 4.6, appears on p. 65. The first macroregional map, Fig. 9.1, appears on p. 200. Both are designed for their respective chapters.