The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom connected the East in West in the ancient world. Greek military settlers, following Alexander the Great took over Afghanistan. They conquered a sizable empire over the Indus River Valley and converted to Buddhism.
These Greeks played a major role in opening the Silk Road that economically connected China and Rome. And yet, it seems forgotten in history.
Steven Pressfield recently wrote a novel about the Greeks in Bactria called the Aghan Campaigns.
It follows Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the Eastern fringes of the fallen Persian Empire. The Macedonians decisively destroyed the Persian armies in open battle and seiges and Alexander declared himself the King of Kings over East and West. The northeastern lands of Iran and Afghanistan refused to submit. The Bactrian tribesmen waged a three year long guerrilla war. Alexander only broke them by massacring the populations. He sealed the peace by marrying Roxane, a Bactrian daughter of a former tribal enemy.
The establishment of Greek Military Settler Colonies in the region is a lesser told history. Military Settler Colonies served as permanent garrisons. They occupied a capital city or a nearby fort, where the military men and their wives lived and trained. They could be rapidly deployed if the locals rose in revolt. The Macedonians colonized the city of Bactra – near modern day Mazari-Sharif. Another was Alexander, modern day Kandahar. They survived for over three hundred years in the region, ruling over Afghans, Iranians, Chinese and Indians. Yet they left behind few written sources so our knowledge is very limited.
Frank Holt wrote one of the better histories on this subject. Thundering Zeus: The Making of Hellenistic Bactria.
After Alexander died, the Diadochi fought over the vast Empire. Ptolemy took Egypt, Seleucus took Babylon and Syria, and so on. The Seleucid Empire ruled over Bactria and the lands to the Indus River Valley. It ceded the Indian lands to the rising Mauryan Empire and opened trade contacts between Greece and India. Seleucus and his son Antiochus I forged an empire from modern day Turkey to India and solidified Greek rule over the region in a way that Alexander did not.
Bactria was a satrapy under Seleucid Rule. Situated in the mountains, it guarded the Kyber Pass to India and the Oxus and Jaxartes Rivers where horse nomads reigned.
Diodotus appears in history although we know virtually nothing about him.
Diodotus, the governor of the thousand cities of Bactria (Latin: “Theodotus, mille urbium Bactrianarum praefectus”), defected and proclaimed himself king; all the other people of the Orient followed his example and seceded from the Macedonians. (Justin, XLI,4 )
Diodotus triggered a revolt against Seleucid rule and authority. The Greco-Bactrians sided with the Pahlavian nomads – a Persian speaking group that settled Parthia. Together they gained independence. The “Pathians” would go on to conquer Iran and Iraq from the Seleucid’s over the next century and a half.
The Greco-Bactrians were independent but disconnected from their ethnic kin. They still conquered a very large empire in Central Asia.
The Greeks opened extensive contacts with Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire of India. Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to these Greeks as well as merchants.
In 220 BC, the Greeks and Chinese of the Qin Dynasty opened diplomatic contacts and trade relations. This marked the beginning of the Silk Road. This allowed for future Sino-Roman relations. The Chinese called Rome Daqin – the opposite of the Qin Empire and at the opposite end of the Eurasian Trade System.
In the 180s BC, the Mauryan Dynasty was overthrown by the Sunga Dynasty, destabalizing parts of India. The Greeks took that opportunity to conquer Taxila and the entire Indus River Valley. This created the Indo-Greek Kingdom.
The Indo-Greek capital was in Taxila, near modern day Islamabad, Pakistan. This city controlled the trade routes into India and the northern Indus River. This region of the Greek empire survived until 10 AD.
The opening of trade routes with India and China introduced new technologies, ideas and economic resources to Europe. The Bactrian Greeks secured the passage of these resources. That wealth drew nomads to raid and invade these territories. The Greeks came under steady attack by the Saka, Parthians, and the Yuezhi.
The Greeks first lost political control over Bactria and Iran to the Parthians and Saka. Later waves of horse nomads eventually wore down and subdued the Indo-Greek Kingdom. The colonists survived and lived under the foreign rulers for generations.
They left behind a lot of influence. Greek art techniques influenced Buddhist art and sculpture for instance.
It’s unfortunate that so little of their history remains. Holt does an excellent job of reconstructing it from foreign accounts, Bactrian coins, and the like. He makes the point that sometimes the most interesting things about humanity are destroyed because they were interesting. Great, wealthy cities are sacked and razed. We know more about mediocre peasants of this time than many of the Bactrian kings.
The Greeks and Chinese developed the Silk Road. That alone was worth the cost of all these wars.