Among the various references available about the Indian history of pre-Christ period, much relevance and importance has been given to the classical Greek writers. These writers described the life and expeditions of Alexander and his later generals. As Alexander was, probably, the first historical invader into India, therefore, these accounts provide eye-witness history, culture and traditions of that era.
Below are given the accounts of various Greek writers which have references to India. The three main historians who accompanied Alexander during hi campaign were, 1. Nearchus, 2. Onesicritus and 3. Aristobulus.
Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) – Diodorus of Sicily was among the famous Greek historians who lived during the time of Julius Caeser and the reign of Augustus. He wrote a general history of the world since its beginning to his own times, compiled in forty volumes, called Bibileotheca Historica (Historical Library), of which only fifteen are extant.
Excerpts from The Historical Library of Diodorus The Sicilian (English translation by G Booth)
Book II, Chapter I
When Stabrobates the Indian king heard of these great armies, and the might preparations made against him, he did all he could to excel Semiramis in everything. And first he built of great canes four thousand river-boats; for abundance of these canes grow in India about rivers and fens, so thick as a man can scarce fathom; and vessels made of these reeds (they say) are exceeding useful, because they will never rid or be worm-eaten. He was very diligent, likewise, in preparing of arms, and going from place to place, throughout India, and so raised a far greater army than that of Semiramis. To his former number of elephants, he added more, which he took by hunting, and furnished them all with everything that might make them look terrible in the face of their enemies; so that by their multitude, and the completeness of their armor in all points, it seemed above strength and power of man to bear up against the violent shock of these creatures. Then follows the vast description of the war between Semiramis and Stabrobates in which the former retreated back from the banks of river Indus.
Book II, Chapter III
Indian is of a quadrangular form, one side lying towards the east, and the other to the south, environed and washed by the great ocean; that side on the north is divided by the mountain Hemodus from Scythia, where the Sacae inhabit; the fourth part towards the west is bounded by river Indus, the greatest of all others next to river Nile.
Moreover, in India are many great navigable rivers which descend into the plains from the mountains in the northern parts, (where they have their spring-heads) and at length all meet together and fall into the river Ganges, which is thirty furlongs in breadth, and takes it course from the north to south, and so empties itself into the main ocean, passing by in its course the nation of the Gandarides lying on the east, where are bred multitudes of most monstrous elephants. No foreign king hitherto ever conquered that part of the country, all strangers dreading the number and strength of those creatures. Even Alexander himself, who conquered all Asia besides, left only the Gandarides untouched. For when he came with his whole army as far as to the river Ganges, and had subdued all the Indians behind him, as soon as he understood that the Gandarides had four thousand elephants fitted and completely furnished for war, he wholly desisted the further prosecution of his design against them.
He (=Alexander) had obtained from Phegus a description of the country beyond the Indus: First came a desert which it would take twelve days to traverse, beyond this was a river called the Ganges which had a width of thirty-two stadia and a greater depth than any other Indian river; beyond this again were situated the dominion of the nation of the Praisioi and the Gandaridai, whose king, Xandrames, had an army of 20,000 horses, 200,000 infantry, 2,000 chariots and 4,000 elephants trained and equipped for war. Alexander, distrusting these statements, sent for Poros and questioned him as to their accuracy. Poros assured him of the correctness of the information, but added that the king of the Gandaridai was a man of quite worthless character and held in no respect, as he was thought to be the son of a barber. This man, the king’s father, was a comely person, and of him the queen became enamored. The old king having been treacherously murdered by his wife, the succession had devolved on him who now reigned.
Strabo (64 BCE-24 CE) – Strabo was a Greek geographer & historian. He has described Indian in his Geographica. The topographical description of India is meager and limited to few towns and rivers; but his account of the people of the country is more copious, he being supplied with materials from the historians of Alexander and of the campaigns of Seleucus in India. He has taken his references from Megasthenes, Onesicritus, Deimachus and Cleitarchus, but his confidence rests chiefly on Patrocles, Aristobulus and Nearchus. Artemidorus and Nicolaus of Damascus are also consulted.
Excerpts from The Geography of Strabo. (English translation by H C Hamilton)
At the confluence of the Ganges and another river (the Erannoboas, or Hiranyabahu) is situated (the city) Palibothra, in length eighty, and in breadth fifteen stadia. It is in shape of a parallelogram, surrounded by a wooden wall pierced with openings through which arrows may be discharged. In front is a ditch, which serves the purpose of defense and sewer for the city. The people in whose country the city is situated are the most distinguished of all the tribes, and are called Prasii. The king, beside his family name, has a surname of Palibothrus, as the king to whom Megasthenes was sent as an embassy had the name of Sandrocottus.
Both of these men were sent to Palimbothra, Megasthenes to Sandrokottos and Diamachos to Amritochades, his son.
Along the Indus are the Paropamisadae, above whom the Arachoti; then next to these towards the south, the Gedroseni, together with other tribes who occupy the sea-coast; the Indus runs parallel along the breadth of these tracts. The Indian occupy [in part] some of the countries situated along the Indus which formerly belonged to the Persians. Alexander deprived the Ariani of them and established there settlements of his own. But Selecus Nicator gave them to Sandrocottus in consequence of a marriage contract, and received in return five hundred elephants.
Pliny the Elder (alias Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79 CE)) – Pliny the Elder, was a Roman naturalist, and natural philosopher. He was also a naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and personal friend of the emperor Vespasian. He wrote an encyclopedic work, Naturalis Historia, which became a model for all other encyclopedias. The Naturalis Historia is one of the largest single works to have survived from the Roman empire to the modern day and purports to cover the entire field of ancient knowledge, based on the best authorities available to Pliny.
He claims to be the only Roman ever to have undertaken such a work. The work is dedicated to the emperor Titus, son of Pliny’s close friend, the emperor Vespasian, in the first year of Titus’s reign. It is the only work by Pliny to have survived and the last that he published, lacking a final revision at the time of his death during the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius.
Excerpts from Natural History of Pliny (English translation by G Bostock)
Book VI, Chapter 21-23
In this country there are nations and cities which would be found to be quite innumerable, if a person should attempt to enumerate them. For it has been explored not only by the arms of Alexander the Great and of the kings who succeeded him, by Seleucus and Antiochus, who sailed round even to the Caspian and Hyreanian Sea, and by Patrocles, the admiral of their fleet, but has been treated of by several Greek writers who resided at the courts of Indian kings, such, for instance, as Megasthenes, and by Dionysius, who was sent thither by Philadelphus, expressly for the purpose; all of whom have enlarged upon the power and vast resources of these nations. Still, however, there is no possibility of being rigorously exact, so different are the accounts given, and often of a nature so incredible.
From the time of Father Liber to that of Alexander the Great, one hundred and fifty-three kings of India are reckoned, extending over a period of six thousand four hundred and fifty one years and three months. The vast extent of their rivers is quite marvelous; it is stated that on no one day did Alexander the Great sail less than six hundred stadia on the Indus, and still was unable to reach its mouth in less than five months and some few days: and yet it is a well-known fact that this river is not so large as the Ganges.
From (Peucolaitis) thence to river the famous river Indus and the city of Taxilla sixty; from thence to famous river Hydaspes one hundred and twenty; and from thence to the Hypasis, a river no less famous, two hundred and ninety miles, and three hundred and ninety paces. This last was the extreme limit of the expedition of Alexander, though he crossed the river and dedicated certain altars on the opposite side. The remaining distances beyond the above point were ascertained on the expedition of Seleucus Nicator. They are to the river Sydrus, one hundred and sixty-eight miles; to the river Jomanes, the same; thence to the Ganges, one hundred and twelve miles; to Rhodapha, five hundred and sixty-nine miles, and to the town of Calinipaxa, one hundred and sixty-seven; thence to the confluence of Ganges and Jomanes, six hundred and twenty-five; thence to the city of Palibothra, four hundred and twenty-five and thence to the mouth of the Ganges, six hundred and thirty-seven miles.
The last nation situate on the banks of the Ganges is that of Gangarides Calingae; the city where their king dwells has the name of Protalis. The king has 60,000 foot-soldiers, 1000 horses and 700 elephants, always caparisoned for battle. The people of the more civilized nations of India are divided into several classes. But more famous and more powerful than any nation, not only in these regions, but throughout almost whole of India, are the Prasii, who dwell in a city of vast extent and of remarkable opulence, called Palibothra; from which circumstance some writes have given to people themselves the name of Palibothri, and, indeed, to the whole tract of country between the Ganges and the Indus. Its army is of 600,000 foot-soldiers, 30,000 horse and 9,000 elephants.
Plutarch (46-120 CE) – Plutarchwas a Greek historian and biographer. He is primarily known for his Parallel Lives.
Excerpts from Plutarch’s Lives (English translation by John Langhorne & William Langhorne)
“The combat with Porus abated the spirits of the Macedonians, and made them resolve to proceed no further in India. It was with difficulty they had defeated an enemy who brought only twenty thousand foot and two thousand horse into the field; and therefore they opposed Alexander with great firmness, when he insisted that they should pass the Ganges, which they were informed, was thirty-two furlongs in breadth and in depth a hundred fathoms. The opposite shore too was covered with numbers of squadrons, battalions, and elephants. For the kings of Gandarites and Praesians were said to be waiting for them there, with eighty thousand horse, two hundred thousand foot, eight thousand chariots and six thousand elephants trained to war. Nor is this number at all magnified : for Androcottus, who reigned not long after, made Seleucus a present of five hundred elephants at one time, and with an army of six hundred thousand men traveled India, and conquered the whole.”
Androcottus, who was then very young, had a sight of Alexander, and he is reported to have often said afterwards, “That Alexander was within a little of making himself master of all the country; with such hatred and contempt was the reigning prince looked upon, on account of his profligacy of manners, and meanness of birth.”
Arrian (Arrian of Nicomedia (86-160 CE)) – Arrian was a Roman historian & philosopher. His Anabasis Alexandri (Anabasis of Alexander or Campaigns of Alexander) is the best known work apart from Indica, his another work, which describes Nearchus’s journey from India is also famous with regards to history of India.
Excerpts from Arrian’s History of Alexander’s Expedition (English translation by Mr Rooke)
Book V, Chapter VI
All Asia is divided by these mountains into two parts, one towards the south and other northwards : moreover, that south part is separated into four divisions, the chief of which is that of India , according to Eratosthenes and Megasthenes (who assure us, that while he entertained a converse with Sibyrtius governor of the Arachosii, he frequently visited Sandracottus the king of India).
Book V, Chapter VIII
Alexander after building a bridge over river Indus, arrived at the other side and proceeded towards Taxila, a large and wealthy city and the most populous between Indus and Hydaspes. Taxiles prince of the place and the Indian inhabitants received him in friendly manner.
After stationing his garrison at Taxila and making Philip the governor of this province, Alexander proceeded to the other side of Hydaspes as he came to know that Porus was encamped there with all his army.
Book VIII (Indica), Chapter V
Megasthenes gives us the name of many rivers, which empty themselves into southern and oriental ocean, without mixing their streams with the Indus of Ganges, to the number of fifty-eight, all navigable. But even Megasthenes himself seems to me not to have traveled over much of India, though a great deal more than any of Alexander’s followers. He tells us, he was at the court of Sandracottus, a mighty king of India; and of Porus, another, much greater and more powerful than Sandracottus.
Book VIII (Indica), Chapter IX
From Bacchus to Sandracottus, the Indian reckon one hundred and fifty-three monarchs, who reigned during the space of six thousand and forty-two years.
E Iliff Robson ((ARRIAN, ANABASIS ALEXANDRI: BOOK VIII (INDICA))) mentions Dionysus instead of Bacchus
Justin (3rd century CE) – Justin was a Latin historian who lived under the Roman empire, sometime after king Augustus. His exact dates are unknown, however, he might be placed in third-fourth century CE safely. He wrote Historiarum Philippicarum libri XLIV.
Excerpts from Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus (English translation by John Selby Watson)
After the division of the Macedonian empire among the followers of Alexander, he (=Seleucus) carried on several wars in the east. He first took Babylon, and then, his strength being increased by this success, subdued the Bactrians. He next made an expedition into India, which, after the death of Alexander, had shaken, as it were, the yoke of servitude from its neck, and put his governors to death. The author of this liberation was Sandrocottus, who afterwards, however, turned their semblance of liberty into slavery; for, making himself king, he oppressed the people whom he had delivered from a foreign power, with a cruel tyranny. This man was of mean origin, but was stimulated to aspire to regal power by supernatural encouragement; for, having offended Alexander by his boldness of speech, and orders being given to kill him, he saved himself by swiftness of foot; and while he was lying asleep, after his fatigue, a lion of great size having come up to him, licked off with his tongue the sweat that was running from him, and after gently waking him, left him. Being first prompted by this prodigy to conceive hopes of royal dignity, he drew together a band of robbers, and solicited the Indians to support his new sovereignty. Sometime after, as he was going to war with the generals of Alexander, a wild elephant of great bulk presented itself before him of its own accord, and, as if tamed down to gentleness, took him on its back, and became his guide in the war, and conspicuous in fields of battle. Sandrocottus, having thus acquired a throne, was in possession of India, when Seleucus was laying the foundations of his future greatness; who, after making a league with him, and settling his affairs in the east, proceeded to join in the war against Antigonus.
Quintus Curtius Rufus (1st century CE, Historiae Alexandri Magni Book IX, Ch II) – “Having therefore requested Phegus to tell him what he wanted to know, he (=Alexander) learned the following particulars: beyond the river lay extensive deserts which it would take eleven days to traverse. Next came the Ganges, the largest in all India, the further bank of which was inhabited by two nations, the Gangaridae and the Prasii, whose king Agrammes kept in field for guarding the approaches of his country 20,000 cavalry, and 200,000 infantry, besides 2,000 four-horsed chariots and, what, was the most formidable forces of all, a troop of elephants which he said ran up to the number of 3,000.
All this seemed to the king to be incredible, and he therefore asked Porus, who happened to be in audience whether the account is was true. He assured Alexander in reply that, as far as strength of the nation and kingdom was concerned, there was no exaggeration in the reports, but that the present king was not merely a man originally of no distinction but even of a very meanest condition. His father was in fact a barber scarcely staving off hunger by his daily earnings but who, from his being not uncomely in person, had gained the affection of the queen and was by her influence advanced to too near a place in the confidence of the reigning monarch. Afterwards, however, he treacherously murdered his sovereign, and then, under the pretence of acting as a guardian of the royal children, usurped the supreme authority, and having put the young princes to death begot the present king who was detested and held cheap by his subjects, as he rather took after his father than conduct himself as the occupant of the throne.”
Appian (95-165 CE) – Appian is a Roman historian of Greek origin. He was born in Alexandria in . He is famous for his historical work Historia Romana (Roman History) which is written in 24 books. The first reliable English translation was done by Horace White in 1899.
Excerpts from Appian’s Roman History (English translation by )
Syrian Wars, pt 55
Antigonus was killed in battle, and then all the kings who had been in league with Seleucus against him divided his territory among themselves. At this division all Syria from the Euphrates to the sea, also inland Phrygia, fell to the lot of Seleucus. Always lying in wait for the neighboring nations, strong in arms and persuasive in council, he acquired Mesopotamia, Armenia, ‘Seleucid’ Cappadocia, Persis, Parthia, Bactria, Arabia, Tapouria, Sogdia, Arachosia, Hyrcania, and other adjacent peoples that had been subdued by Alexander, as far as the river Indus, so that the boundaries of his empire were the most extensive in Asia after that of Alexander. The whole region from Phrygia to the Indus was subject to Seleucus. He crossed the Indus and waged war with Androcottus, king of the Indians, who dwelt on the banks of that stream, until they came to an understanding with each other and contracted a marriage relationship. Some of these exploits were performed before the death of Antigonus and some afterward.
Athenaeus (3rd century CE) – Athenaeus of Naucratis was a Greek rhetorician and grammarian who flourished about the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd century CE. Several of his publications are lost, but the fifteen volume Deipnosophistae mostly survives.
The Deipnosophistae, which mean “dinner-table philosophers” or perhaps “authorities on banquets”, survives in fifteen books. The first two books, and parts of the third, eleventh and fifteenth, are extant only in epitome, but otherwise the work seems to be entire. It is an immense store-house of information, chiefly on matters connected with dining, but also containing remarks on music, songs, dances, games, courtesans, and luxury.
Excerpts from The Deipnosophists or Banquet of the Learned of Athenaeus (English translation by C D Yonge )
But dried figs were so very much sought after by all men, (for really, as Aristophanes says- “There’s really nothing nicer than dried figs;”) that even Amitrochates, the king of the Indians, wrote to Antiochus, entreating him (it is Hegesander who tells this story) to buy and send him some sweet wine,  and some dried figs, and a sophist; and that Antiochus wrote to him in answer, “The dried figs and the sweet wine we will send you; but it is not lawful for a sophist to be sold in Greece.”
“Phylarchos saya that among the presents which Sandrokottos, the king of Indians, sent to Selukos were certain powerful aphrodisiacs.”
- Booth, G (1814). The Historical Library of Diodorus The Sicilian. Military Chronicle Office. London.
- Bostock, John & Riley, H T (1855). Natural History of Pliny. Henry G Bohn. London.
- Chinnock, E J (1884). The Anabasis of Alexander. Hodder & Stoughton. London.
- Frazer, W R (1906). Plutarch’s Lives. Swan Sonnenschein & Co. New York.
- Hamilton, H C (1857). The Geography of Strabo. Henry G Bohn. London.
- Langhorne, John & Langhorne, William (1795). Plutarch’s Lives. London
- Rooke, John (1814). Arrian’s History of Alexander’s Expedition. R Lea; J Nunn; Lackington, Allen & Co. London.
- Watson, J S (1853). Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus. Henry G Bohn. London.
- White, Horace (1912). Appian’s Roman History. William Heinemann. London.
- Yonge, C D (1854). The Deipnosophists or Banquet of the Learned of Athenaeus. Henry G Bohn. London.