BMCR 2022.10.08

Megasthenes’ Indica: a new translation of the fragments with commentary

, Megasthenes' Indica: a new translation of the fragments with commentary. Routledge classical translation. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2021. Pp. 172. ISBN 9780367472948 $160.00.


Megasthenes’ Indica (c. 310 BCE) was the fullest source on India available to subsequent Greek authors. Unlike Megasthenes’ predecessor Ctesias, who gained his knowledge of India in Persia, Megasthenes travelled to the subcontinent himself, as an ambassador for Seleucus I to the Maurya kingdom of Candragupta. Even in the Roman era, when trade with India made it a much better known place in the Graeco-Roman world than it had previously been, Megasthenes work continued to exert an influence. The text of Megasthenes is, sadly, long lost, though considerable fragments remain, especially in Diodorus, Strabo and Arrian. The new translation of the fragments by Richard Stoneman will be the standard point of entry for subsequent scholars and readers approaching what remains of this text, especially in the English-speaking world. It offers a clear and accurate translation, and the notes will helpfully orient those new to Megasthenes, as well as offering much that is stimulating to those already familiar with his work.

Stoneman’s book begins with an Introduction discussing the nature of Megasthenes’ work, its relationship to other ancient writers on India, and the sources of the fragments. As he sets out (on pp.16-17), the earlier editions of the fragments had taken contrasting approaches. Schwanbeck[1] had aimed to be as inclusive as possible, printing 59 fragments, of which 52-59 were marked as “incerta”. The next editor of the fragments, Jacoby, printed only those fragments which their sources ascribed by name to Megasthenes, thus reducing the total to 34 fragments.[2] Along with these Jacoby included seven testimonia and a supplement containing other material on India which is not ascribed to a particular author, some of which may well go back to Megasthenes (p.16). Stoneman’s approach is “to be as inclusive as possible, but to discuss in every doubtful case the grounds for and against believing it to be the work of Megasthenes.” This same inclusiveness has also motivated his inclusion in the notes of quotations from other ancient authors on India, in order to give as full an impression as possible of the information (or, as Stoneman says, “lore”) concerning India which was available to authors in the classical period (p.17). The concordance of Stoneman’s fragment numbers with those of Schwanbeck and Jacoby (pp.xiii-xiv) is valuable, given the length of time that scholars have been depending upon and citing these earlier versions.

The main substance of Stoneman’s book is, of course, made up of the translation (pp. 29-74) and commentary (pp.83-136). I have already noted the clarity and readability of the translation. Since we can never be sure that we are in fact dealing with a direction quotation rather than a paraphrase in any of the fragments of Megasthenes (as Stoneman observes, p. 16), the purpose in a translation like this one cannot be to convey with fidelity the style of the author since this has been refracted through the voices of those transmitting the fragments to us. The translation does, however, achieve what can reasonably be expected: conveying the fragments in English without undue fuss or flourish. The sources of the fragments indicate a division of Megasthenes’ text into three books, which Stoneman naturally follows in his presentation of the fragments. The books dealt with Geography and Resources, Political Structures, and The Indian Philosophers, in that order. There does, however, appear to have been a certain digressiveness to Megasthenes’ account, since the mythic incursions of Dionysus and Heracles into India are ascribed to the first book on Geography and Resources, along with some of the mythic peoples who featured prominently in Greek and Roman writing on India: the Mouthless Ones, Dog-Heads and Reverse Feet (pp.55-57).

Stoneman’s commentary does an excellent job of positioning Megasthenes’ work in relation to other authors, and of exploring the reasons for Megasthenes’ beliefs about India, especially where these might otherwise appear bizarre or fantastic. As he observes, citing the Real-Enzyklopädie article of Stein,[3] it is clear that Megasthenes’ influential account of the “fabulous races” simply reported what he was told by his Indian informants (p.9). This is important to emphasise, as it has proven all too easy for scholars touching on Megasthenes to dismiss his account as mere fantasy, especially given Strabo’s vehement condemnation of him for outright invention (quoted on p.8). Stoneman’s use of the relevant Sanskrit sources clarifies the kinds of beliefs on which Megasthenes drew.[4] Though these are not, of course, the sources themselves for Megasthenes, who was dependent on oral sources not written ones, they do represent the cultural currents feeding his work. Readers wanting fuller discussion than is possible even in the long notes of an edition like this one are referred to Stoneman’s recent monograph.[5]

On some occasions, the hunt for the origins of Megasthenes’ stories is necessarily inconclusive, though the journey itself is entertaining. Regarding the Mouthless Ones, Stoneman relays various theories connecting these people to Herodotus’ people on the Araxes who sniff smoke to become intoxicated, to Jains (whose limited diet and practice of sometimes covering the mouth are held to be the source of the tale), to Brahmans who sniff the smoke of the sacrifice, and to a Himalayan people who sniff onions and garlic to avert altitude-sickness (all p.111). Despite expressing a preference for the penultimate theory, Stoneman wisely leaves the question open. Megasthenes, who seems to have taken a Herodotean attitude to citing his sources without claiming certainty when such certainty was impossible, would likely have approved.

One of the great questions in assessing Megasthenes’ account of India is the relation of his text to the Arthaśāstra of Kautilya. The chronology of most Indian texts is fraught, and this is certainly the case for the Arthaśāstra, which has often been used, and equally often contested, as a corroborating or complementary source for Megasthenes. Stoneman succinctly summarises the debate on the topic (pp.9-11) and notes that the Arthaśāstra postdates Megasthenes by (at least) two centuries and that some parts of it may even be significantly later. He is suitably tentative in his conclusions: while he does draw upon the Arthaśāstra “where it provides a parallel for something in Megasthenes”, he does not use it “to fill out the outlines derived from Megasthenes” (emphasis in original) (p.11).

The publishers have in general done a good job of producing a typo-free book, the only exception being some inconsistencies in the transliteration of Sanskrit. The note on this point (p.xi) states that Sanskrit words are given in the standard scholarly transliteration with diacriticals. Though this is usually the case, there are occasional lapses: on p.9 Artaśāstra is correct throughout but Mudrarakshasa appears instead of Mudrārākasa; varna instead of vara on p.86; Smriti for Smti on p.87; Ramayana for Ramāyana on p.111. This is, of course, a tedious list of quibbles, albeit one which could be extended. Is it really not possible for a good publisher to cover issues like these in copy-editing?

Stoneman’s book offers a clear and careful translation and notes, augmented with appendices on other accounts of Indian philosophers (Appendix A) and Pliny’s account of India (Appendix B). It makes accessible and comprehensible an important author for the study of Greek knowledge of, and interest in, other cultures and places, and is sure to have a considerable life as a valuable resource for scholars of the Greek and Roman and of the Indian worlds.



[1] Schwanbeck, Eugen A. 1846. Megasthenis Indica. Leipzig: Pleimes.

[2] Jacoby, Felix. 1958. Fragmente der griechischen Historiker vol.III.c. Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, Leiden: Brill.

[3] Stein, Otto 1932. “Megasthenes”. Paulys Real-Enzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft 15, 230-326.

[4] See, for example, the discussion of the Mouthless Ones and Dog-Heads in fragment 26 on pp.111-112.

[5] Stoneman, Richard 2019. The Greek Experience of India: From Alexander to the Indo-Greeks. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.