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The Greco-Buddhist Empire of the Euthydemids

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Bâkhdhîm çrîrãm eredhvô drafshãm

Bactra the beautiful, crowned with banners —The Vendidad, I. 7

 

The sudden death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. shattered the brittle cohesion of the greatest empire hitherto known to man. The Conqueror’s Diádokhoi (successors) carved up his realm for themselves, each in turn claiming the mantle of kingship. The lion’s share of the spoils fell to Seleucus I Nicator (the Victor), who established himself as king in Asia - ruling a vast empire from the Hellespont to the Hindu Kush. However, the Seleucid Empire itself was a fragile polity - with ambitious satraps and scheming relatives waiting to exploit the slightest sign of weakness.

Although the empire emerged from the Wars of the Diadokhoi relatively unscathed, the so-called Syrian Wars saw the Seleucids gradually lose ground to their arch-enemies in Ptolemaic Egypt. Emboldened by his overlord’s defeats, the Seleucid satrap of Bactria, Diodotus II, seceded from the empire in 250 B.C., perhaps in alliance with the virulent anti-Hellenic satrap of Parthia, Andragoras. However, the Parthian alliance was deeply resented by large tracts of the Greek colonial elite. Twenty years later, a distant relation of the royal family named Euthydemus (a Magnesian Greek) staged a palace coup, executed Diodotus and placed his own dynasty on the throne of Bactria. Thus began the rise of one of the most unusual and esoteric polities of late antiquity: The Empire of the Euthydemids.

Bactria’s claim to greatness was dependent on a number of variables: Chiefly its many rich cities, its fertile land and its martial people - a curious mix of Scythians, Indians, Persians and a steady flow of Hellenic settlers. These advantages were well known to both the Parthians and Seleucids, who conspired to invade the Bactrian state in 209 B.C. However, Euthydemus deflected the Seleucid invasion in a battle on the Arius river, gravely wounding the Seleucid king, Antiochus III in the process.[1]

Much of the eastern territories of the Seleucid Empire now fell under the sway of the Bactrians, extending Euthydemid control all the way to Carmania and Hyrcania. Undeterred, Antiochus instead turned West - hammering the Ptolemies in Syria and Asia Minor before suffering a catastrophic defeat to the advancing forces of the Roman Republic in 189 B.C. With the Seleucid Empire in disarray, Euthydemus’ successor, Demetrius I Aniketos (the Invincible), launched an invasion across the Hindu Kush in order to protect the Greek settlements around the Indus River from the chaos surrounding the collapse of the Mauryan Empire. It was during this campaign that Demetrius became enamoured with the Buddhist religion, granting it a preeminent position within the Bactrian court and sponsoring the construction of a large number of stupas and monasteries throughout his domains. It has been speculated that Demetrius’ conversion to Buddhism might have provoked a section of the Hellenic elite to rebel against him, but this has since been disproven. Even though a coup d’état was attempted by the general Eucratides whilst the king was away in India, it apparently enjoyed little support or was simply badly executed.[2]

When Demetrius died in 162 B.C.[3] a period of instability ensued as a number of Bactrian lesser kings tried to seize the throne for themselves. The Parthians also began to reassert themselves, obtaining a short span of independence from Bactra. Out of this chaos rose Menander I Soter (the Saviour). A scion of Euthydemus on his mother’s side, Menander struck down the Parthians at a large cavalry battle near Parthaunisa before directing his armies West against the Seleucid remnants. In a series of campaigns rivalling that of Alexander, Menander seized the Persian plateau, before washing his weapons in the waters of the Mediterranean. Terribly weakened by exhausting conflicts with the Ptolemies and by revolts by the Hebrews and Nabateans, the Seleucid Empire capitulated to Menander in 140 B.C. Although, Menander’s conquests brought the Buddhist faith closer to the Greek heartland than ever before, they were not to last. The meddling of the Saviour’s successors in the internal policies of Hasmonean Judea and the Roman client states of Pergamon and Rhodes provoked the outbreak of a series of Euthydemid-Roman Wars, which eventually pressed the Bactrians out of Syria. Soon thereafter Babylonia and Mesopotamia would be lost as well whilst the Persian core of the old Achaemenid Dynasty erupted into a Neo-Zoroastrian fury, confining the Euthydemids to the easternmost corners of their realm. The only remaining traces of Menander’s brief rule would be the great stupas erected by his victorious armies. Indeed, whilst it is safe to say that practical political effects of Euthydemid rule were relatively inconsequential, one cannot overstate the importance which the syncretism of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism would exert on the religious development of the West.                 

 

Notes

[1]This happened in OTL as well, although the Seleucids managed to drive off the Bactrians. After a three year siege of Bactra, Antiochus was nevertheless forced to recognise the independence of Enthydemus’ realm.

[2]In OTL, Eucratides managed to displace the Euthydemids, leaving the furthest Hellenic state in Asia divided between Bactria and India. This hastened their respective downfalls at the hands of invading nomads such as the Kushans.

[3]Demetrius died sometime around 180 B.C. in OTL.

 

Sources

Borders, city placement and names:

Adams, Winthrop Lindsay: “The Hellenistic Kingdoms” in The Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World edited by Glenn R. Bugh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Blackwell, Christopher W & Martin, Thomas R.: Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912)

Rawlinson George, Hugh: Bactria: The History of a Forgotten Empire (London: Probsthain, 1912)

Tarn, William Woodthorpe: The Greeks in Bactria and India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966)

Supported by various maps by Thomas Lessman found on Wikipedia.

 

Terrain & Topography

Natural Earth and GEBCO 2020, information combined in QGIS and finished in Adobe Illustrator 

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Comments4
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JonasGraf's avatar

One of the best maps I've seen in a long time. Lots of nice details and excellent topography.

darklord86's avatar
Cameron-J-Nunley's avatar

The influence of Buddhist thought on European and Middle Eastern civilization would be fascinating hypothetical to study. I imagine the Hanukkah Revolt would drive a massive wedge between traditional Judaism and Greco-Buddhist thought and for even more distinct philosophical trends between Judaism's successor religions and a Buddhist influenced middle east.

rawilsono374's avatar

Buddhist centres in Antioch, Susa, Nineveh and Harmozia. Perfect for exerting long lasting influence throughout many different regions through many different means.