Plutarch's Alexander and India

-Excerpted from 1832 Translation of Plutarch (Volume 5)
A. J. Valpy
When Alexander was on the point of setting out for India he saw his troops were so laden with spoils that they were unfit to march. Therefore, early in the morning that he was to take his departure, after the carriages were assembled, he first set fire to his own baggage and that of his friends, and then gave orders that the rest should be served in the same manner. The resolution appeared more difficult to take than it was to execute: few were displeased at it, and numbers received it with acclamations of joy. They freely gave part of their equipage to such as were in need, and burnt and destroyed whatever was superfluous. This greatly encouraged and fortified Alexander in his design. Besides, by this time he was become inflexibly severe in punishing offences. Menander, though one of his friends, he put to death, for refusing to stay in a fortress he had given him the charge of; and one of the barbarians, named Osodates, he shot dead with an arrow, for the crime of rebellion.

About this time a sheep yeaned a lamb with the perfect form and color of a tiara on its head. Looking on the prodigy with horror, he employed the Chaldeans, who attended him for such purposes, to purify him by their expiations. He told his friends, on this occasion, ' that he was more troubled on their account than his own ; for he was afraid that after his death fortune would throw the empire into the hands of some obscureand weak man.' A better omen, however, soon dissipated his fears. A Macedonian, named Proxenus, who had the charge of the king's equipage, on opening the ground by the river Oxus, in order to pitch his master's tent, discovered a spring of a gross oily liquor; which, after the surface was taken off, came perfectly clear, and neither in taste nor smell differed from real oil, nor was inferior to it in smoothness and brightness, though there were no olives in that country. It is said, indeed, that the water of the Oxus is of so unctuous a quality, that it makes the skins of those who bathe in it smooth and shining.

It appears, from a letter of Alexander's to Antipater, that he was greatly delighted with this incident, and reckoned it one of the happiest presages the gods had afforded him. The soothsayers said it betokened that the expedition would prove a glorious one, but at the same time laborious and difficult, because Heaven has given men oil to refresh them after their labors. Accordingly, he met with great dangers in the battles that he fought, and received very considerable wounds. But his army suffered most by want of necessaries and by the climate. For his part, he was ambitious to show that courage can triumph over fortune, and magnanimity over force : he thought nothing invincible to the brave, or impregnable to the bold. Pursuant to this opinion, when be besieged Sisimethres, on a rock extremely steep and apparently inaccessible, and saw his men greatly discouraged at the enterprise, he asked Dxyartes ' whether Sisimethres were a man of spirit ?' And being answered, ' that he was timorous and dastardly,' he said, ' you inform me the rock may be taken, since there is no strength in its defender.' In fact, he found means to intimidate Sisimethres, and made, himself master of the fort.

In the siege of another fort, situated in a place equally steep, among the young Macedonians that were to give the assault, there was one called Alexander; and the king took occasion to say to him, ' You must behave gallantly, my friend, to do justice to your name.' He was informed afterwards that the young man fell as he was distinguishing himself in a glorious manner, and he laid it much to heart.

When he sat down before Nysa, the Macedonians made some difficulty of advancing to the attack, on account of the depth of the river that washed its walls, till Alexander said, ' What a wretch am I, that I did not learn to swim !' and was going to ford it* with his shield in his hand. After the first assault, whilst the troops were refreshing themselves, ambassadors came with an offer to capitulate ; and along with them were deputies from some other places. They were surprised to see him in armor without any pomp or ceremony ; and their astonishment increased when he bade the oldest of the ambassadors, named Acuphis, take the sofa that was brought for himself. Acuphis, struck with a benignity of reception so far beyond his hopes, asked what they must do to be admitted to his friendship ? Alexander answered, ' It must be on condition that they appoint you their governor, and send me a hundred of their best men for hostages.' Acuphis smiled at this, and said, ' I should govern better if you would take the worst, instead of the best.'

It is said the dominions of Taxiles in India were as large as Egypt: they afforded excellent pasturage too, and were the most fertile in all respects. As he was a man of great prudence, he waited on Alexander, and after the first compliments, thus addressed him : * What occasion is there for wars between you and me, if you are not come to take from us our water and other necessaries of life, the only things that reasonable men will take up arms for? As to gold and silver and other possessions, if I am richer than you, I am willing to oblige you with part; if I am poorer, I have no objection to sharing in your bounty.' Charmed with his frankness, Alexander took his hand, and answered, ' Think you, then, with all this civility, to escape without a conflict ? You are much deceived if you do. I will dispute it with you to the last; but it shall be in favors and benefits; for I will not have you exceed me in generosity.' Therefore, after having received great presents from him, and made greater, he said to him one evening, ' I drink to you, Taxiles, and as sure as you pledge me you shall have a thousand talents.' His friends were offended at his giving away such immense sums ; but it made many of the barbarians look on him with a kinder eye.

The most warlike of the Indians used to fight for pay. On this invasion they defended the cities that hired them with great vigor, and Alexander suffered by them not a little. To one of the cities he granted an honorable capitulation, and yet seized the mercenaries as they were on their march homewards, and put them all to the sword. This is the only blot in his military conduct; all his other proceedings were agreeable to the laws of war, and worthy of a king.

The philosophers gave him no less trouble than the mercenaries, by endeavoring to fix a mark of infamy on those princes that declared for him, and by exciting the free nations to take up arms; for which reason he hanged many of them.

As to his war with Poms, we have an account of it in his own letters. According to them, the river Hydaspes was between the two armies, and Porus drew up his elephants on the banks opposite the enemy, with their heads towards the stream, to guard it. Alexander caused a great noise and bustle to be made every day in his camp, that the barbarians, being accustomed to it, might not be so ready to take the alarm. This done, he took the advantage of a dark and stormy night, with part of his infantry, and a select body of cavalry, to gain a little island in the river at some distance from the Indians. When he was there, he and-his troops were attacked with a most violent wind and rain, accompanied with dreadful thunder and lightning; but, notwithstanding this hurricane, jn which he saw several of his men perish by the lightning, he advanced from the island to the opposite bank. The Hydaspes, swelled with the rain, by its violence and rapidity made a breach on that side, which received water enough to form a bay, so that when he came to land, he found the bank extremely slippery, and the ground broken and undermined by the current. On this occasion he is said to have uttered that celebrated saying, ' Will you believe, my Athenian friends, what dangers I undergo to have you the heralds of my fame V The last particular we have from Onesicritus: but Alexander himself only says they quitted their boats, and, armed as they were, waded up the breach breast high ; and that when they were landed, he advanced with the horse twenty furlongs before the foot, concluding that if the enemy attacked him with their cavalry, he should be greatly their superior, and that if they made a movement with their infantry, his would come up time enough to receive them. Nor did he judge amiss. The enemy detached against him a thousand horse and sixty armed chariots, and he defeated them with ease. The chariots he took, and killed four hundred of the cavalry on the spot. By this Porus understood that Alexander himself had passed the river, and therefore brought up his whole army, except what appeared necessary to keep the rest of the Macedonians from making good their passage. Alexander considering the force of the elephants, and the enemy's superior numbers, did not choose to engage them in front, but attacked the left wing himself, while Coenus, according to his orders, fell on the right. Both wings being broken, retired to the elephants in the centre, and rallied there. The combat then was of a more mixed kind ; but maintained with such obstinacy, that it was not decided till the eighth hour of the day. This description of the battle we have from the conqueror himself, in one of his epistles.

Most historians agree that Porus was four cubits and a palm high, and that though the elephant he rode was one af the largest, his stature and bulk were such, that he appeared but proportionably mounted. This elephant, during the whole battle, gave extraordinary proofs of his sagacity and care of the king's person. As long as that prince was able to fight he defended him with great courage, and repulsed all assailants; and when he perceived him ready to sink under the multitude of darts and the wounds with which he was covered, to prevent his falling off, he kneeled down in the softest manner, and with his proboscis gently drew every dart out of his body.

When Porus was taken prisoner Alexander asked him how he desired to be treated. He answered, ' Like a king.'—' And have you nothing else to request?' replied Alexander. ' No,' said he; ' every thing is comprehended in the word king.' Alexander not only restored him his own dominions immediately, which he was to govern as his lieutenant, but added very extensive territories to them ; for having subdued a free country, which contained fifteen nations,five thousand considerable cities, and villages in proportion, he bestowed it on Porus. Another country, three times as large, he gave to Philip, one of his friends, who was also to act there as his lieutenant.

In the battle with Porus Bucephalus received several wounds, of which he died some time after. This is the account most writers give us : but Onesicritus says he died of age and fatigue, for he was thirty years old. Alexander showed as much regret as if he had lost a faithful friend and companion. He esteemed him, indeed, as such ; and built a city near the Hydaspes, in the place where he was buried, which he called after him, Bucephalia. He is also reported to have built a city, and called it Peritas, in memory of a dog of that name, which he had brought up, and was very fond of. This particular, Sotio says, he had from Potamo of Lesbos.

The combat with Porus abated the spirit of the Macedonians, and made them resolve to proceed no farther 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 the Gandarites and Pruesians 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 Seleucas a present of five hundred elephants at one time, and with an army of six hundred thousand men traversed India, and conquered the whole.

Alexander's grief and indignation at this refusal were such, that at first he shut himself up in his tent, and lay prostrate on the ground, declaring ' he did not thank, the Macedonians in the least for what they had done, if they would not pass the Ganges; for he considered a retreat as no other than an acknowlegement that he was overcome.' His friends omitted nothing that might comfort him ; and at last their remonstrances, together with the cries and tears of the soldiers, who were suppliants at his door, melted him, and prevailed on him to return. However, he first contrived many vain and sophistical things to serve the purposes of fame ; among which were arms much bigger than his men could use, and higher mangers, and heavier bits than his horses required, left scattered .up and down. He built also great altars, for which the Persians still retain much, veneration, and their kings cross the Ganges every year to offer sacrifices in the Grecian manner on them. 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 on, on account of his profligacy of manners, and meanness of birth.'

Alexander, in his march from thence, formed a design to see the ocean ; for which purpose he caused a number of row-boats and rafts to be constructed, and on them fell down the rivers at his leisure. Nor was this navigation unattended with hostilities. He made several descents by the way, and attacked the adjacent cities, which were all forced to submit to his victorious arms. However, he was very near being cut in pieces by the Malli, who are called the most warlike people in India. He had driven some of them from the wall with his missive weapons, and was the first man that ascended it. But presently after he was up the scaling ladder broke. Finding himself and his small company much galled by the darts of the barbarians from below, he poised himself, and leaped down into the midst of the enemy. By good fortune he fell on his feet; and the barbarians were so astonished at the flashing of his arms as he came down, that they thought they beheld lightning, or some supernatural splendor issuing from his body. At first therefore they drew back and dispersed. But when they had recollected themselves, and. saw him attended only by two of his guards, they attacked him hand to hand, and wounded him through his armor with their swords and spears, notwithstanding the valor with which he fought. One of them standing farther off, drew an arrow with such strength, that it made its way through his cuirass, and entered the ribs under the breast. Its force was so great, that he gave back, and was brought on his knees, and the barbarian ran up with his drawn scimitar to despatch him. Peucestas and Limnaeus placed themselves before him; but the one was wounded and the other killed. Peucestas, who survived, was still making some resistance, when Alexander recovered himself and laid the barbarian at his feet. The king however received new wounds, and at last had such a blow from a bludgeon on his neck, that he was forced to support himself by the wall, and there stood with his face to the enemy. The Macedonians, who by this time had got in, gathered about him, and carried him off to his tent.

His senses were gone, and it was the current report in the army that he was dead. When they had, with great difficulty, sawed off the shaft, which was of wood, and with equal trouble had taken off the cuirass, they proceeded to extract the head, which was three fingers broad, and four long, and stuck fast in the bone. He fainted under the operation, and was very near expiring ; but when the head was got out he came to himself. Yet, after the danger was over, he continued weak, and a long time confined himself to a regular diet, attending solely to the cure of his wound. The Macedonians could not bear to be so long deprived of the sight of their king; they assembled in a tumultuous manner about his tent. When he perceived this, he put on his robe, and made his appearance ; but as soon as he had sacrificed to the gods he retired again. As he was on his way to the place of his destination, though carried in a litter by the water side, he subdued a large track of land, and many respectable cities.

In the course of this expedition he took ten of the Gymnosophists, who had been principally concerned in instigating Sabbas to revolt, and had brought numberless other troubles on the Macedonians. As these ten were reckoned the most acute and concise in their answers, he put the most difficult questions to them that could be thought of, and at the same time declared he would put the first person that answered wrong to death, and after him all the rest. The oldest man among them was to be judge.

He demanded of the first, ' which were most numerous, the living or the dead V He answered, ' the living; for the dead no longer exist.'

The second was asked, ' whether the earth or the sea produced the largest animals V He answered, ' the earth ; for the sea is part of it.'

The third, ' which was the craftiest of all animals V ' That,' said he, ' with which man is not yet acquainted.'

The fourth, ' what was his reason for persuading Sabbas to revolt V—' Because,' said he, ' I wished him either to live with honor, or to die as a coward deserves.'

The fifth had this question put to him, ' which do you think oldest, the day or the night?' He answered, ' the day, by one day.' As the king appeared surprised at this solution, the philosopher told him, ' abstruse questions must have abstruse answers.'

Then addressing himself to the sixth, he demanded, ' what are the best means for a man to make himself loved?' He answered, ' if possessed of great power, do not make yourself feared.'

The seventh was asked, ' how a man might become a god ?' He answered, ' by doing what is impossible for man to do.'

The eighth, ' which is strongest, life or death?'— ' Life,' said he; ' because it bears so many evils.'

The last question that he put was, ' how long is it good for a man to live ?'—' As long,' said the philosopher, ' as he does not prefer death to life.'

Then turning to the judge, he ordered him to give sentence. The old man said, ' in my opinion they have all answered one worse than another.'—' If this is thy judgment,' said Alexander, ' thou shalt die first.'— ' No,' replied the philosopher, ' not except you choose to break your word: for you declared the man that answered worst should first suffer.'

The king loaded them with presents, and dismissed them. After which he sent Onesicritus, a disciple of Diogenes, to the other Indian sages who were of most reputation, and lived a retired life, to desire them to come to him. Onesicritus tells us Calanus treatedhim with great insolence and harshness, bidding him to strip himself naked, if he desired to hear any of his doctrine. ' You should riot hear me on any other condition,' said he, ' though you came from Jupiter himself.' Dandamis behaved with more civility; and when Onesicritus had given him an account of Pythagoras, Socrates, and Diogenes, he said, ' they appeared to him to have been men of genius, but to have lived with too passive a regard to the laws.'

Others say Dandamis entered into no discourse with the messenger, but only asked ' why Alexander had taken so long a journey V As to Calanus, it is certain Taxiles prevailed with him to go to Alexander. His true name was Sphines; but because he addressed them with the word Cale, which is the Indian form of salutation, the Greeks called him Calanus. This philosopher, we are told, presented Alexander with a good image of his empire. He laid a dry and shrivelled hide before him, and first trod on the edges of it: this he did all round ; and, as he trod on one side, it started up on the other: at last, he fixed his feet on the middle, and then it lay still. By this emblem be showed him that he should fix his residence, and plant his principal force in the heart of his empire, and not wander to the extremities.

Alexander spent seven months in falling down the rivers to the ocean. When he arrived there he embarked, and sailed to an island which he called Scilloustis, but others call it Psiltoucis. There he landed, and sacrificed to the gods. He likewise considered the nature of the sea and of the coast, as far as it was accessible. And after having besought Heaven, ' that no man might ever reach beyond the bounds of his expedition,' he prepared to set out on his way back. He appointed Nearchus admiral, and Onesicritus chief pilot, and ordered his fleet to sail round, keeping India on the right. With the rest of his forces he returned by land, through the country of the Orites ; in which he was reduced to such extremities, and lost such numbers of men, that he did not bring back from India above a fourth part of the army he entered it with, which was uo less than a hundred and twenty thousand foot, and fifteen thousand horse. Violent distempers, ill diet, and excessive heats, destroyed multitudes ; but famine made still greater ravages: for it was a barren and uncultivated country ; the natives lived miserably, having nothing to subsist on but a few bad sheep, which used to feed on the fish thrown up by the sea ; consequently they were poor, and their flesh of a bad flavor.

With much difficulty he traversed this country in sixty days, and then arrived in Gedrosia. There he found provisions in abundance ; for, besides that the land is fertile in itself, the neighboring princes and grandees supplied him. After he had given his army some time to refresh themselves, he marched in Carmania for seven days, in a kind of bacchanalian procession. His chariot, which was very magnificent, was drawn by eight horses. On it was placed a lofty platform, where he and his principal friends revelled day and night. This carriage was followed by many others; some covered with rich tapestry and purple hangings, and others shaded with branches of trees, fresh gathered and florishing. In these were the rest of the king's friends and generals, crowned with flowers, and exhilarated with wine.

In this whole company there was not to be seen a buckler, a helmet, or spear; but, instead of them, cups, flagons, and goblets. These the soldiers dipped in huge vessels of wine, and drank to each other; some as they marched along, and others seated at tables, which were placed at proper distances on the way. The whole country resounded with flutes, clarionets, and songs, and with the dances and riotous frolics of the women. This disorderly and dissolute march was closed with a very immodest figure, and with all the licentious ribaldry of the bacchanals, as if Bacchus himself had beeu present to carry on the debauch.

When Alexander arrived at the royal palace of Gedrosia, he gave his army time to refresh themselves again, and entertained them with feasts and public spectacles. At one of these, in which the choruses disputed the prize of dancing, he appeared inflamed with wine. His favorite, Uagoas, happening to win it, crossed the theatre in his habit of ceremony, and seated himself by the king. The Macedonians expressed their satisfaction with loud plaudits, and called out to the king to kiss him ; with which, at last, he complied.

Nearchus joined him again here ; and he was so much delighted with the account of his voyage, that he formed a design to sail in person from the Euphrates with a great fleet, circle the coast of Arabia and Africa, and enter the Mediterranean by the Pillars of Hercules. For this purpose he constructed, at Thapsacus, a number of vessels of all sorts, and collected mariners and pilots. But the report of the difficulties he had met with in his Indian expedition, particularly in his attack of the Malli, his great loss of men in the country of the Orites, and the supposition he would never return alive from the voyage he now meditated, excited his new subjects to revolt, and put his generals and governors of provinces on displaying their injustice, insolence, and avarice. In short, the whole empire was in commotion, and ripe for rebellion. Olympias and Cleopatra, leaguing against Antipater, bad seized his hereditary dominions, and divided them between them. Olympias took Epirus, and Cleopatra, Macedonia. The tidings of which being brought to Alexander, he said ' his mother had considered right; for the Macedonians would never bear to be governed by a woman.'

In consequence of this unsettled state of things he sent Nearchus again to sea, having determined to carry the war into the maritime provinces. Meantime, he inarched in person to chastise his lieutenants for their misdemeanors. Oxyartes, one of the sons of Abulites, he killed with his own hand, by a stroke of his javelin. Abulites had laid in no provisions for him; he had only collected three thousand talents in money. On his presenting this, Alexander bade him offer it to his horses; and, as they did not touch it, he said, ' Of what use will this provision now be to me V and immediately ordered Abulites to be taken into custody.

The first thing he did after he entered Persia was to give this money to the matrons, according to the ancient custom of the kings; who, on their return from any excursion to their Persian dominions, used to give every woman a piece of gold. For this reason several of them, we are told, made it a rule to return but seldom ; and Ochus never did: he banished himself to save his money. Having found the tomb of Cyrus broken open, he put the author of that sacrilege to death, though a native of Pella, and a person of some distinction. His name was Polymachus. After he had read the epitaph, which was in the Persian language, he ordered it to be inscribed also in Greek. It was as follows: ' O man! whosoever thou art, and whencesoever thou comest, (for come I know thou wilt,) I am Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire. Envy me not the little earth that covers my body.' PLUT. Vol. v. N

Alexander was much affected at these words, which placed before him,in so strong a light, the uncertainty and vicissitude of things.

It was here that Calanus, after having been disordered a little while with the cholic, desired to have his funeral pile erected. He approached it on horseback, offered up his prayers to Heaven, poured the libations on himself, cut off part of his hair, and threw it on the fire; and, before he ascended the pile, took leave of the Macedonians, desiring them to spend the day in jollity and drinking with the king: ' for I shall see him,' said he, ' in a little time at Babylon.' So saying he stretched himself on the pile, and covered himself up. Nor did he move at the approach of the flames, but remained in the same posture till he had finished his sacrifice, according to the custom of the sages of his country. Many years after, another Indian did the same before Augustus Caesar at Athens, whose tomb is shown to this day, and called ' the Indian's tomb.'

Alexander, as soon as he retired from the funeral pile, invited his friends and officers to supper; and, to give life to the carousal, promised that the man who drank most should be crowned for his victory. Promachus drank four measures of wine, and carried off the crown, which was worth a talent, but survived it only three days. The rest of the guests, as Chares tells us, drank to such a degree, that forty-one of them lost their lives, the weather coming on them extremely cold during their intoxication.