The Origins of the Indo-Greeks
Bactria is the ancient name of the area lying to the south of the Oxus river and northwest of the Hindukush mountains, and corresponds to the northern part of modern Afghanistan. The Greeks of Bactria were originally satraps (subordinate rulers) of the Seleucid Empire of West Asia. In about the mid-third century BC, Diodorus I revolted against the Seleucids and established an independent Bactrian Greek kingdom. The Bactrians extended their control into other areas as well. By the early 2nd century BC, they had moved into the area south of the Hindukush. In 145 BC, they lost their hold over Bactria, but continued to rule in the northwest part of the Subcontinent for a few decades. The Bactrian Greeks who ruled over parts of northwest India between the 2nd century BC and the early 1st century AD are known as the Indo-Greeks or Indo-Bactrians.
The Rule of the Indo-Greeks in Bactria and India
Demetrius II, Appollodotus, Pantaleon, and Agathocles were responsible for extending Bactrian rule to the south of the Hindukush into northwest India. A prolonged feud between the ruling houses of Euthydemus and Eukratides began after the reign of Demetrius I. Kings Amyntas, Antialkidas, Archibius, and Hermanus belong to the house of Eukratides. The Basnagar pillar inscription suggests that the rule of Antialkidas extended up to Taxila, as the ambassador Heliodorus is described as a native of that city.
Important Indo-Greek Rulers
Menander: One of the most important Indo-Greek rulers was Menander. He can be identified with King Milinda, who is mentioned in the Buddhist text “Milinda Panha.” Menander’s rule extended over parts of Bactria and northwest India. A fragmentary Kharoshti inscription on a casket found at Bajaur in the northwest frontier province of Pakistan refers to relics of the Buddha being enshrined during the reign of a king named Mimidra, who can be identified with Menander. Plutarch tells us that after Menander’s death, there was a conflict over his ashes.
Antialkidas: The last important Indo-Greek ruler was Antialkidas, probably from the Euthydemid branch. The most reliable sources about Antialkidas are the inscription of Bhupal (Basnagar pillar) and coinage. From these sources, we can undoubtedly say that he was the ruler of Taxila in the 2nd century BC. The Basnagar pillar inscription also shows that Indian rulers had diplomatic relations with Greek ruler Harmanus. The last Indo-Greek ruler, Harmanus, was defeated by the Parthians and Indo-Greek rule in Bactria and the area immediately south of the Hindukush came to an end.
Cultural Contributions of the Indo-Greeks
Cultural Contributions: The most significant contribution of the Indo-Greeks in India was their cultural contributions.
Religion: In matters of religion, Indo-Greek rulers were heavily influenced by Indians. Menander was a Buddhist follower, as evidenced by the “Milinda Panha,” which is a record of a conversation between the Buddhist monk Nagasena and Menander. Menander’s coins also depicted the Buddhist dharma chakra. Antialkidas’s ambassador, Heliodorus, was a supporter of Vishnu. In honor of his visit to Taxila, he set up a pillar inscription in Basnagar. A series of coins from King Agathocles depicted the god Shankarsana (Balarama) on the obverse and Basudeva (Krishna) on the reverse, indicating that Agathocles was a follower of Vishnu.
Influence on Society: Indo-Greek culture also influenced Indian society in some ways. Chandragupta Maurya married Seleucus’s daughter, Helen, and this started a trend of intermarriage between Indo-Greeks and Indians. This mixed culture introduced new elements into Indian society, which had some effect on the Hindu caste system and reduced the emphasis on castes.
Influence on Art: Indian art was greatly influenced by Indo-Greek skill. The Gandhara school of art was founded on Indo-Greek techniques, which were further developed during the time of the Sakas, Parthians, and Kushans. In the creation of Buddha figurines, Greek techniques were combined with Indian techniques, resulting in Buddhas with muscular arms and serene, smiling faces.
Coins of the Indo-Greeks
Coins: The coins of the Greek-Bactrians, which circulated north of the Hindukush, were made of gold, silver, copper, and nickel. They followed the Attic weight standard and had Greek legends. The coins depicted Greek deities (such as Zeus, Apollo, Athena) on the obverse and the portrait of the king on the reverse, along with the names and titles of the kings.
The Indo-Greek coins, which circulated south of the Hindukush, were made of silver and copper, and were square in shape. They had bilingual inscriptions in Greek and Kharoshthi (more rarely, Brahmi) and followed an Indian weight standard. Later on, Indian rulers also adopted this structure of coinage, following the Indo-Greek model by maintaining the weight, shape, and structure of their coins. Indian rulers also started to depict the date on their coins. Indian punch-marked coins were replaced with a new type that maintained the date, shape, and weight.
Literature and the Indo-Greeks
Literature: According to W.W. Tarn, Indian science and literature were also influenced by the Greeks. The Gargi Samhita has some Greek words. Tarn also says that Greek plays were performed in India, but there is no concrete evidence to support this. Tarn claims that Indian dohas were derived from Greek hexameters. It is clear that Indian culture was greatly influenced by Greek culture, and it is also possible that the Greeks were influenced by India as well.