Alexander the Great's victory over the Persians in the 330s B.C. in present-day Turkey and Iran opened up former Persian territories in Central Asia to Alexander's conquering armies. Upon capturing Samarkand in present-day in 329 B.C., Alexander the Great reportedly exclaimed, "Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarkand is true except it is even more beautiful; than I could have imagined." Soon afterwards he declared himself a god.

Alexander subjugated most of its eastern territories from 330 to 327 .BC. Perhaps the most lasting impacts of Alexander's conquests were: 1) the strengthening of trade routes between East and West that would later become the Silk Road; 2) the spreading of European culture and knowledge eastward; and 3) the spreading of Asian culture and knowledge westward. Of particular importance was the dissemination of Greek culture far into Asia, which in turn had an affect on government, art, literature and religion in places that had never heard of Greeks before.

Alexander's goal in Central Asia was to capture Bessus, a Persian traitor and ruler of Bactria. After his men suffered from frostbite and severe hunger while crossing a 3,700-meter-high pass in the Hindu Kush in April, when mountains were still covered in snow, Alexander got his hands on Bessus, who was turned over by his allies. Besses was tied a post on the side of a road. After he was taunted and jeered, his ears and nose were cut off. After that he may have been dismembered but more likely he was crucified.

Central Asia was a major crossroad for Silk Road caravans. Hostels and caravansaries were set up every 17 miles, the distance a camel train covers every day. Alexander captured six cities including Samarkand (then called Maracanda) in three days. He set up a headquarters in Samarkand. Alexander established a number of garrison towns in western Asia and used them to house troops, encourage trade and defend conquered lands. Herat in Afghanistan is the only one of these towns that still remains today. It was known in Alexander's time as Areion.

The nomadic Turkic tribes that live in Central Asia today say that Alexander had two rams horns on the sides of his head and that is why he wore his hair long. Coins minted after his death show Alexander with horns. Later Muslims would call him Iskander Dhulcarnein — Alexander the two horn. In the Turkoman version of the story still told today only Alexander's barber knew his secret...and he just had to tell someone or something, so he whispered the secret into a well. Reeds began to grow in the well, but whenever someone cut one for a flute, it didn't make any music it only said "Alexander has two horns."

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Many in Alexander’s Army Want to Turn Back

After Darius' death rumors spread that the campaign was finished and Alexander was ready to head home. To squash these rumors Alexander called a meeting of his generals and told them, according to a 1st century Roman historian Curtius, "with tears in his eyes, complained he was being brought to a halt in the middle of a brilliant career."

Plutarch wrote: ““But it signifies little to Alexander whether this be credited or no. Certain it is, that apprehending the Macedonians would be weary of pursuing the war, he left the greater part of them in their quarters; and having with him in Hyrcania the choice of his men only, amounting to twenty thousand foot, and three thousand horse, he spoke to them to this effect: That hitherto the barbarians had seen them no otherwise than as it were in a dream, and if they should think of returning when they had only alarmed Asia, and not conquered it, their enemies would set upon them as upon so many women. However, he told them he would keep none of them with him against their will, they might go if they pleased; he should merely enter his protest, that when on his way to make the Macedonians the masters of the world, he was left alone with a few friends and volunteers. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

“This is almost word for word as he wrote in a letter to Antipater where he adds, that when he had thus spoken to them, they all cried out, they would go along with him whithersoever it was his pleasure to lead them. After succeeding with these, it was no hard matter for him to bring over the multitude, which easily followed the example of their betters. Now, also, he more and more accommodated himself in his way of living to that of the natives, and tried to bring them, also, as near as he could to the Macedonian customs, wisely considering that whilst he was engaged in an expedition which would carry him far from thence, it would be wiser to depend upon the goodwill which might arise from intermixture and association as a means of maintaining tranquillity, than upon force and compulsion. In order to this, he chose out thirty thousand boys, whom he put under masters to teach them the Greek tongue, and to train them up to arms in the Macedonian discipline.

Alexander Has a Hard Time in Central Asia

Not everything went smoothly for Alexander the Great in Central Asia. Alexander's forces were harassed by nomadic horsemen called the Spitamneses. They made lighting strikes and then retreated before the Greeks could do anything about it. This and road weariness made Alexander's men increasingly restless and anxious to return home.

Plutarch wrote: “Nor did they judge amiss, for he exposed himself to many hazards in the battles which he fought, and received very severe wounds, but the greatest loss in his army was occasioned through the unwholesomeness of the air, and the want of necessary provisions. But he still applied himself to overcome fortune and whatever opposed him, by resolution and virtue, and thought nothing impossible to true intrepidity, and on the other hand nothing secure or strong for cowardice. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

By this time Alexander was drinking heavily and had adopted modified Persian dress and customs, something that did not endear him to his loyal Macedon troops. He became increasingly paranoid and displayed wild fits of temper at perceived disloyalty. During one drunken party, when Alexander was boasting about his victories, Cleitus, a friend that once saved his life, said that Alexander owed thanks to his father and the Macedonian veterans that had stood by side all for so many years. Alexander was incensed by this remark. He accused Cleitus of being coward to which Cleitus accused him of pandering to the Persians. Enraged all the more, Alexander grabbed a spear and thrust it through his friend's chest, killing him instantly. Alexander was instantly filled with remorse and pulled the spear from Cleitus's body and tried to impale himself. Some officers managed to wrestle the spear from him. Alexander shut himself in his tent for days, grieving.

In Hyrcania on the Caspian Sea, Alexander was given a beautiful eunuch named Bagoas, who became Alexander's lover. This move was not popular either, nor was Alexander's desire to be treated like a god and requiring his troops to prostrate themselves in front of him and kiss him. Ephippus, a contemporary of Alexander, wrote: "In his honor myrrh and other kinds of incense were consumed in smoke; a religious stillness and silence born of fear held fast all whom were in his presence. For he was intolerable, and murderous, reputed to be melancholy mad."

Alexander Heads East of the Caspian Sea in Strange Clothes, with Wounds and Diarrhea

After Darius' death Alexander headed north to the region east of the Caspian Sea into what into present day Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, where he encountered little resistance. By 329 B.C. he had reached present-day Kabul. Plutarch wrote: “And now with the flower of his army he marched into Hyrcania (land south-east of the Caspian Sea in modern-day Iran) , where he saw a large bay of an open sea, apparently not much less than the Euxine, with water, however, sweeter than that of other seas, but could learn nothing of certainty concerning it, further than that in all probability it seemed to him to be an arm issuing from the lake of Mæotis. However, the naturalists were better informed of the truth, and had given an account of it many years before Alexander’s expedition; that of four gulfs which out of the main sea enter into the continent, this, known indifferently as the Caspian and as the Hyrcanian sea, is the most northern. Here the barbarians, unexpectedly meeting with those who led Bucephalas, took them prisoners, and carried the horse away with them, at which Alexander was so much vexed, that he sent an herald to let them know he would put them all to the sword, men, women, and children, without mercy, if they did not restore him. But on their doing so, and at the same time surrendering their cities into his hands, he not only treated them kindly, but also paid a ransom for his horse to those who took him. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

“From hence he marched into Parthia, where not having much to do, he first put on the barbaric dress, perhaps with the view of making the work of civilizing them the easier, as nothing gains more upon men than a conformity to their fashions and customs. Or it may have been as a first trial, whether the Macedonians might be brought to adore him, as the Persians did their kings, by accustoming them by little and little to bear with the alteration of his rule and course of life in other things. However, he followed not the Median fashion, which was altogether foreign and uncouth, and adopted neither the trousers nor the sleeved vest, nor the tiara for the head, but taking a middle way between the Persian mode and the Macedonian, so contrived his habit that it was not so flaunting as the one, and yet more pompous and magnificent than the other.

“At first he wore this habit only when he conversed with the barbarians, or within doors, among his intimate friends and companions, but afterwards he appeared in it abroad, when he rode out, and at public audiences, a sight which the Macedonians beheld with grief; but they so respected his other virtues and good qualities, that they felt it reasonable in some things to gratify his fancies and his passion of glory, in pursuit of which he hazarded himself so far, that, besides his other adventures, he had but lately been wounded in the leg by an arrow, which had so shattered the shank-bone that splinters were taken out. And on another occasion he received a violent blow with a stone upon the nape of the neck, which dimmed his sight for a good while afterwards. And yet all this could not hinder him from exposing himself freely to any dangers, insomuch that he passed the river Orexartes, which he took to be the Tanais, and putting the Scythians to flight, followed them above a hundred furlongs, though suffering all the time from a diarrhea.

Alexander the Great Expedition into Hyrcania

Arrian wrote: “Alexander now took the soldiers who had been left behind in his pursuit and advanced into Hyrcania, which is the country lying on the left of the road leading to Bactra. On one side it is bounded by lofty mountains densely covered with wood, and on the other it is a plain stretching as far as the Great Sea in this part of the world. He led his army by this route, because he ascertained that the Grecian mercenaries serving under Darius had succeeded in escaping by it into the mountains of Tapuria; at the same time he resolved to subdue the Tapurians themselves. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“Having divided his army into three parts, he himself led the way by the shortest and most difficult route, at the head of the most numerous and at the same time the lightest division of his forces. He despatched Craterus at the head of his own brigade and that of Amyntas, some of the archers, and a few of the cavalry against the Tapurians; and he ordered Erigyius to take the Grecian mercenaries and the rest of the cavalry, and lead the way by the public thoroughfare, though it was longer, conducting the waggons, the baggage, and the crowd of camp-followers. After crossing the first mountains, and encamping there, he took the shield-bearing guards together with the lightest men in the Macedonian phalanx and some of the archers, and went along a road difficult and hard to travel upon, leaving guards for the roads wherever he thought there was any peril, so that the barbarians who held the mountains might not at those points fall upon the men who were following.

Having passed through the defiles with his archers, he encamped in the plain near a small river; and while he was here, Nabarzanes, the commander of Darius’s cavalry, Phrataphernes, the viceroy of Hyrcania and Parthia, and the other most distinguished of the Persians in attendance on Darius, arrived and surrendered themselves. After waiting four days in the camp, he took up those who had been left behind on the march, all of them advancing in safety except the Agrianians, who, while guarding the rear, were attacked by the barbarian mountaineers. But these soon drew off when they got the worst of it in the skirmish. Starting from this place, he advanced into Hyrcania as far as Zadracarta, the capital of the Hyrcanians. In this place he was rejoined by Craterus, who had not succeeded in falling in with the Grecian mercenaries of Darius; but he had thoroughly traversed the whole country, gaining over part of it by force and the other part by the voluntary capitulation of the inhabitants. Erigyius also arrived here with the baggage and waggons; and soon after Artabazus came to Alexander with three of his sons, Cophen, Ariobarzanes, and Arsames, accompanied by Autophradates, viceroy of Tapuria, and envoys from the Grecian mercenaries in the service of Darius.

“To Autophradates he restored his viceregal office; but Artabazus and his sons he kept near himself in a position of honour, both on account of their fidelity to Darius and because they were among the first nobles of Persia. To the envoys from the Greeks, begging him to make a truce with them on behalf of the whole mercenary force, he replied that he would not make any agreement with them; because they were acting with great guilt in serving as soldiers on the side of the barbarians against Greece, in contravention of the resolution of the Greeks. He commanded them to come in a body and surrender, leaving it to him to treat them as he pleased, or to preserve themselves as best they could. The envoys said that they yielded both themselves and their comrades to Alexander, and urged him to send some one with them to act as their leader, so that they might be conducted to him with safety. They said they were , in number. Accordingly he sent Andronicus, son of Agerrhus, and Artabazus to them.”

Alexander's route in Central Asia

Expedition against the Mardians and Ariaspians

Arrian wrote: “He then marched forward against the Mardians [ Iranian tribe living along the mountainous region bordering the Caspian Sea] taking with him the shield-bearing guards, the archers, the Agrianians, the brigades of Coenus and Amyntas, half of the Companion cavalry, and the horse-lancers; for he had now a troop of horse-lancers. Traversing the greater part of the land of the Mardians, he killed many of them in their flight, some indeed having turned to defend themselves; and many were taken prisoners. No one for a long time had invaded their land in a hostile manner, not only on account of its ruggedness, but also because the people were poor, and besides being poor were warlike. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“Therefore they never feared that Alexander would attack them, especially as he had already advanced further than their country. For this reason they were caught more easily off their guard. Many of them, however, escaped into the mountains, which in their land are very lofty and craggy, thinking that Alexander would not penetrate to these at any rate. But when he was approaching them even here, they sent envoys to surrender both the people and their land to him. He pardoned them, and appointed Autophradates, whom he had also recently placed over the Tapurians, viceroy over them. Returning to the camp, from which he had started to invade the country of the Mardians, he found that the Grecian mercenaries of Darius had arrived, accompanied by the envoys from the Lacedaemonians who were on an embassy to king Darius. The names of these men were, Callicratidas, Pausippus, Monimus, Onomas, and Dropides, a man from Athens.

These were arrested and kept under guard; but he released the envoys from the Sinopeans, because these people had no share in the commonwealth of the Greeks; and as they were in subjection to the Persians, they did not seem to be doing anything unreasonable in going on an embassy to their own king. He also released the rest of the Greeks who were serving for pay with the Persians before the peace and alliance which had been made by the Greeks with the Macedonians. He likewise released Heraclides, the ambassador from the Chalcedonians to Darius. The rest he ordered to serve in his army for the same pay as they had received from the Persian king, putting them under the command of Andronicus, who had led them, and had evidently been taking prudent measures to save the lives of the men.”

“Alexander appointed two commanders over the Companion cavalry, Hephaestion, son of Amyntor, and Clitus, son of Dropidas, dividing the brigade of the Companions into two parts, because he did not wish any one of his friends to have the sole command of so many horsemen, especially as they were the best of all his cavalry, both in public estimation and in martial discipline. He now arrived in the land of the people formerly called Ariaspians, but afterwards named Euergetae, because they assisted Cyrus, son of Cambyses, in his invasion of Scythia. Alexander treated these people, whose ancestors had been serviceable to Cyrus, with honour; and when he ascertained that the men not only enjoyed a form of government unlike that of the other barbarians in that part of the world, but laid claim to justice equally with the best of the Greeks, he set them free, and gave them besides as much of the adjacent country as they asked for themselves; but they did not ask for much. Here he offered sacrifice to Apollo, and arrested Demetrius, one of his confidential body-guards, on suspicion of having been implicated with Philotas in the conspiracy. Ptolemy, son of Lagus, was appointed to the post vacated by Demetrius.”

March to Bactra (Afghanistan) in Pursuit of Bessus

Arrian wrote: “Having settled these affairs, he marched to Zadracarta, the largest city of Hyrcania, where also was the seat of the Hyrcanian government. Tarrying here fifteen days, he offered sacrifice to the gods according to his custom, and celebrated a gymnastic contest, after which he began his march towards Parthia; thence to the confines of Areia and to Susia, a city in that province, where Satibarzanes, the viceroy of the Areians, came to meet him. To this man he restored his viceregal dignity, and with him sent Anaxippus, one of the Companions, to whom he gave forty horse-lancers so that he might be able to station them as guards of the localities, in order that the Areians might not be injured by the army in its march through their land. At this time came to him some Persians, who informed him that Bessus had assumed the erect tiara and was wearing the Persian dress, calling himself Artaxerxes instead of Bessus, and asserting that he was king of Asia. They said he had in attendance upon him the Persians who had escaped into Bactra and many of the Bactrians themselves; and that he was expecting the Scythians also to come to him as allies. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“Alexander, having now all his forces together, went towards Bactra, where Philip son of Menelaüs came to him out of Media with the Greek mercenary cavalry which were under his own command, those of the Thessalians who had volunteered to remain, and the men of Andromachus. Nicanor, the son of Parmenio, the commander of the shield-bearing guards, had already died of disease. While Alexander was on his way to Bactra, he was informed that Satibarzanes, viceroy of Areia, had killed Anaxippus and the horse-lancers who were with him, had armed the Areians and collected them in the city of Artacoana, which was the capital of that nation. It was also said that he had resolved, as soon as he ascertained that Alexander had advanced, to leave that place and go with his forces to Bessus, with the intention of joining that prince in an attack upon the Macedonians, wherever a chance might occur. When he received this news, he stopped the march towards Bactra, and taking with him the Companion cavalry, the horse-lancers, the archers, the Agrianians and the regiments of Amyntas and Coenus, and leaving the rest of his forces there under the command of Craterus, he made a forced march against Satibarzanes and the Areians; and having travelled stades in two days came near Artacoana.

Satibarzanes, however, no sooner perceived that Alexander was near, than being struck with terror at the quickness of his arrival, he took to flight with a few Areian horsemen. For he was deserted by the majority of his soldiers in his flight, when they also learned that Alexander was at hand. The latter made rapid marches in pursuit of the enemy, killed some of the men whom he discovered to be guilty of the revolt and who at that time had left their villages, fleeing, some one way, some another; and others of them he sold into slavery. He then proclaimed Arsames, a Persian, viceroy over the Areians. Being now joined by the men who had been left behind with Craterus, he marched into the land of the Zarangaeans, and reached the place where their seat of government was. But Barsaëntes, who at that time had possession of the land, being one of those who had fallen upon Darius in his flight, learning that Alexander was approaching, fled to the Indians who live this side of the river Indus. But they arrested him and sent him back to Alexander, by whom he was put to death on account of his guilty conduct towards Darius.”

Alexander Crosses the Hindu-Kush

Hindu Kush

After his men suffered from frostbite and severe hunger while crossing a 3,700-meter-high pass in the Hindu Kush in April, when mountains were still covered in snow, Alexander got his hands on Bessus, who was turned over by his allies. Besses was tied a post on the side of a road. After he was taunted and jeered, his ears and nose were cut off. After that he may have been dismembered but more likely he was crucified.

Arrian wrote: “After the transaction of this business, he advanced against Bactra and Bessus, reducing the Drangians and Gadrosians to subjection on his march. He also reduced the Arachotians to subjection and appointed Menon viceroy over them. He then reached the Indians, who inhabit the land bordering on that of the Arachotians. All these nations he reached marching through deep snow and his soldiers experiencing scarcity of provisions and severe hardship. Learning that the Areians had again revolted, in consequence of Satibarzanes invading their land with , cavalry, which he had received from Bessus, he despatched against them Artabazus the Persian with Erigyius and Caranus two of the Companions, also ordering Phrataphernes, viceroy of the Parthians, to assist them in attacking the Areians. An obstinately contested battle then took place between the troops of Erigyius and Caranus and those of Satibarzanes; nor did the barbarians give way until Satibarzanes, encountering Erigyius, was struck in the face with a spear and killed. Then the barbarians gave way and fled with headlong speed. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“Meantime Alexander was leading his army towards Mount Caucasus, where he founded a city and named it Alexandreia. Having offered sacrifice here to the gods to whom it was his custom to sacrifice, he crossed Mount Caucasus, after appointing Proëxes, a Persian, viceroy over the land, and leaving Neiloxenus son of Satyrus, one of the Companions, with an army as superintendent. According to the account of Aristobulus, Mount Caucasus is as lofty as any in Asia, and most of it is bare, at any rate in that part where Alexander crossed it. This range of mountains stretches out so far that they say even that Mount Taurus, which forms the boundary of Cilicia and Pamphylia, springs from it, as do other great ranges which have been distinguished from the Caucasus by various names according to the position of each. Aristobulus says that in this part of the Caucasus nothing grew except terebinth trees and silphium; notwithstanding which, it was inhabited by many people, and many sheep and oxen graze there; because sheep are very fond of silphium. For if a sheep smells it even from a distance, it runs to it and feeds upon the flower. They also dig up the root, which is devoured by the sheep. For this reason in Cyrene, some drive their flocks as far as possible away from the places where their silphium is growing; others even enclose the place with a fence, so that even if the sheep should approach it they would not be able to get within the enclosure. For the silphium is very valuable to the Cyrenaeans.

“Bessus, accompanied by the Persians who had taken part with him in the seizure of Darius, and by , of the Bactrians themselves and the Daans who dwelt on this side the Tanais, was laying waste the country at the foot of Mount Caucasus, in order to prevent Alexander from marching any further, both by the desolation of the land between the enemy and himself and by the lack of provisions. But none the less did Alexander keep up the march, though with difficulty, both on account of the deep snow and from the want of necessaries; but yet he persevered in his journey. When Bessus was informed that Alexander was now not far off, he crossed the river Oxus, and having burnt the boats upon which he had crossed, he withdrew to Nautaca in the land of Sogdiana. He was followed by Spitamenes and Oxyartes, with the cavalry from Sogdiana, as well as by the Daans from the Tanais. But the Bactrian cavalry, perceiving that Bessus had resolved to take to flight, all dispersed in various directions to their own abodes.”

Conquest of Bactria, and Pursuit of Bessus across the Oxus

Amu Darya (Oxus)

Arrian wrote: “Alexander now arrived at Drapsaca, and having there given his army a rest, he marched to Aornus and Bactra, which are the largest cities in the land of the Bactrians. These he took at the first assault; and left a garrison in the citadel of Aornus, over which he placed Archelaüs son of Androcles, one of the Companions. He appointed Artabazus the Persian, viceroy over the rest of the Bactrians, who were easily reduced to submission. Then he marched towards the river Oxus, which flows from mount Caucasus, and is the largest of all the rivers in Asia which Alexander and his army reached, except the Indian rivers; but the Indian rivers are the largest in the world. The Oxus discharges its water into the great sea which is near Hyrcania. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“When he attempted to cross the river it appeared altogether impassable; for its breadth was about six stades, and its depth was much greater than the proportion of its breadth. The bed of the river was sandy, and the stream so rapid, that stakes fixed deep into the bottom were easily rooted up from the earth by the mere force of the current, inasmuch as they could not be securely fixed in the sand. Besides this, there was a scarcity of timber in the locality, and he thought it would take a long time and cause great delay, if they brought from a distance the materials needful for making a bridge over the river. Therefore he collected the skins which the soldiers used for tent-coverings, and ordered them to be filled with chaff as dry as possible, and tied and stitched tightly together, so that the water might not penetrate into them. When these were filled and stitched together, they were sufficient to convey the army across in five days. But before he crossed the river, he selected the oldest of the Macedonians, who were now unfit for military service, and such of the Thessalians as had volunteered to remain in the army, and sent them back home. He then dispatched Stasanor, one of the Companions, into the land of the Areians, with instructions to arrest Arsames, the viceroy of that people, because he thought him disaffected, and to assume the office of viceroy of Areia himself.

“After passing over the river Oxus, he made a forced march to the place where he heard that Bessus was with his forces; but at this time messengers reached him from Spitamenes and Dataphernes, to announce that they would arrest Bessus and hand him over to Alexander if he would send to them a small army and a commander for it; since even at that very time they were holding him under guard, though they had not bound him with fetters. When Alexander heard this, he gave his army rest, and marched more slowly than before. But he despatched Ptolemy, son of Lagus, at the head of three troops of the Companion cavalry and all the horse-lancers, and of the infantry, the brigade of Philotas, one regiment of , shield-bearing guards, all the Agrianians, and half the archers, with orders to make a forced march to Spitamenes and Dataphernes. Ptolemy went according to his instructions, and completing ten days’ march in four days, arrived at the camp where on the preceding day the barbarians under Spitamenes had bivouacked.”

Capture of Bessus

Arrian wrote: “Here Ptolemy learned that Spitamenes and Dataphernes were not firmly resolved about the betrayal of Bessus. He therefore left the infantry behind with orders to follow him in regular order, and advanced with the cavalry till he arrived at a certain village, where Bessus was with a few soldiers; for Spitamenes and his party had already retired from thence, being ashamed to betray Bessus themselves. Ptolemy posted his cavalry right round the village, which was enclosed by a wall supplied with gates. He then issued a proclamation to the barbarians in the village, that they would be allowed to depart uninjured if they surrendered Bessus to him. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“They accordingly admitted Ptolemy and his men into the village. He then seized Bessus and departed; but sent a messenger on before to ask Alexander how he was to conduct Bessus into his presence. Alexander ordered him to bind the prisoner naked in a wooden collar, and thus to lead him and place him on the right-hand side of the road along which he was about to march with the army. Thus did Ptolemy. When Alexander saw Bessus, he caused his chariot to stop, and asked him, for what reason he had in the first place arrested Darius, his own king, who was also his kinsman and benefactor, and then led him as a prisoner in chains, and at last killed him?

“Bessus said that he was not the only person who had decided to do this, but that it was the joint act of those who were at the time in attendance upon Darius, with the view of procuring safety for themselves from Alexander. For this Alexander ordered that he should be scourged, and that the herald should repeat the very same reproaches which he had himself made to Bessus in his inquiry. After being thus disgracefully tortured, he was sent away to Bactria to be put to death. Such is the account given by Ptolemy in relation to Bessus; but Aristobulus says that Spitamenes and Dataphernes brought Bessus to Ptolemy, and having bound him naked in a wooden collar betrayed him to Alexander.”

Alexander Deals with Bessus

Punishment of Bessus

After battling Scythians and Sogdians for some time Alexander was able to get back to Bessus. Arrian wrote: “When he had accomplished this, he came to Zariaspa; where he remained until the depth of winter arrived. At this time came to him Phrataphernes the viceroy of Parthia, and Stasanor, who had been sent into the land of the Areians to arrest Arsames. Him they brought with them in chains, as also Barzanes, whom Bessus had appointed viceroy of the land of the Parthians, and some others of those who at that time had joined Bessus in revolt. At the same time arrived from the sea, Epocillus, Melamnidas and Ptolemy, the general of the Thracians, who had convoyed down to the sea the Grecian allies and the money sent with Menes. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

“At this time also arrived Asander and Nearchus at the head of an army of Grecian mercenaries. Asclepiodorus, viceroy of Syria, and Menes the deputy also arrived from the sea, at the head of another army. Then Alexander gathered a conference of those who were then at hand, and led Bessus in before them. Having accused him of the betrayal of Darius, he ordered his nose and ears to be cut off, and that he should be taken to Ecbatana to be put to death there in the council of the Medes and Persians. I do not commend this excessive punishment; on the contrary, I consider that the mutilation of the prominent features of the body is a barbaric custom, and I agree with those who say that Alexander was induced to indulge his desire of emulating the Median and Persian wealth and to treat his subjects as inferior beings according to the custom of the foreign kings.

“Nor do I by any means commend him for changing the Macedonian style of dress which his fathers had adopted, for the Median one, being as he was a descendant of Heracles. Besides, he was not ashamed to exchange the head-dress which he the conqueror had so long worn, for that of the conquered Persians. None of these things do I commend; but I consider Alexander’s great achievements prove, if anything can, that supposing a man to have a vigorous bodily constitution, to be illustrious in descent, and to be even more successful in war than Alexander himself; even supposing he could sail right round Libya as well as Asia, and hold them both in subjection as Alexander indeed designed; even if he could add the possession of Europe to that of Asia and Libya; all these things would be no furtherance to such a man’s happiness, unless at the same time he possess the power of self-control, though he has performed the great deeds which have been supposed.”

Alexander the Great Marries Roxana

wedding of Alexander and Roxane

Alexander married Roxana (Roshanak), the daughter of the most powerful of the Bactrian chiefs (Oxyartes, who revolted in present-day Tajikistan). Arrian wrote: “The wives and children of many important men were there captured, including those of Oxyartes. This chief had a daughter, a maiden of marriageable age, named Roxana, who was asserted by the men who served in Alexander’s army to have been the most beautiful of all Asiatic women, with the single exception of the wife of Darius. They also say that no sooner did Alexander see her than he fell in love with her; but though he was in love with her, he refused to offer violence to her as a captive, and did not think it derogatory to his dignity to marry her. This conduct of Alexander I think worthy rather of praise than blame. Moreover, in regard to the wife of Darius, who was said to be the most beautiful woman in Asia, he either did not entertain a passion for her, or else he exercised control over himself, though he was young, and in the very meridian of success, when men usually act with insolence and violence. On the contrary, he acted with modesty and spared her honour, exercising a great amount of chastity, and at the same time exhibiting a very proper desire to obtain a good reputation.”[Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884,]

Plutarch connected a story about an Amazon with Alexander’s marriage to Roxana. He wrote: ““Here many affirm that the Amazon came to give him a visit. So Clitarchus, Polyclitus, Onesicritus, Antigenes, and Ister, tell us. But Aristobulus and Chares, who held the office of reporter of requests, Ptolemy and Anticlides, Philon the Theban, Philip of Theangela, Hecatæus the Eretrian, Philip the Chalcidian, and Duris the Samian, say it is wholly a fiction. And truly Alexander himself seems to confirm the latter statement, for in a letter in which he gives Antipater an account of all that happened, he tells him that the king of Scythia offered him his daughter in marriage, but makes no mention at all of the Amazon. And many years after, when Onesicritus read this story in his fourth book to Lysimachus, who then reigned, the king laughed quietly and asked, “Where could I have been at that time?”[Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ]

“As for his marriage with Roxana, whose youthfulness and beauty had charmed him at a drinking entertainment, where he first happened to see her, taking part in a dance, it was, indeed, a love affair, yet it seemed at the same time to be conducive to the object he had in hand. For it gratified the conquered people to see him choose a wife from among themselves, and it made them feel the most lively affection for him, to find that in the only passion which he, the most temperate of men, was overcome by, he yet forbore till he could obtain her in a lawful and honorable way.”

Central Asia After Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great’s empire collapsed shortly after his death and the territories that were conquered in Central Asia were ruled for a while by Alexander's successors in the region, the Syria-based Selucids. The Selucids didn't last long. After their empire collapsed Central Asia fell back into the hands of the Persians or local leaders. In the centuries that followed Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Transoxiana once again found itself a border zone, torn apart by different centres of power, such as Parthia, Graeco-Bactria and the Kushan and Sasanian empires.

Although the Seleucids faced challenges from the Ptolemies of Egypt and from the growing power of Rome, the main threat came from the province of Fars (Partha to the Greeks). Arsaces (of the seminomadic Parni tribe), whose name was used by all subsequent Parthian kings, revolted against the Seleucid governor in 247 B.C. and established a dynasty, the Arsacids, or Parthians. During the second century, the Parthians were able to extend their rule to Bactria, Babylonia, Susiana, and Media, and, under Mithradates II (123-87 B.C.), Parthian conquests stretched from India to Armenia. After the victories of Mithradates II, the Parthians began to claim descent from both the Greeks and the Achaemenids. They spoke a language similar to that of the Achaemenids, used the Pahlavi script, and established an administrative system based on Achaemenid precedents. [Source: Library of Congress]

Meanwhile, Ardeshir, son of the priest Papak, who claimed descent from the legendary hero Sasan, had become the Parthian governor in the Achaemenid home province of Persis (Fars). In A.D. 224 he overthrew the last Parthian king and established the Sassanid dynasty, which was to last 400 years.

Greco-Bactrian kingdom

Ai Khanum: Afghanistan’s Ruined Greco-Roman City

Around 328 B.C. Bactria, a province of the Achaemenid Empire, was conquered by Alexander the Great and the region became the easternmost outpost of Hellenistic civilization in Asia. Here, in 300 B.C., Seleucus I, one of the Alexander's successors, founded Aï Khanum, a Greek colony that flourished under the local Greco-Bactrian rulers as a center where Hellenism and eastern traditions intermingled to create a distinctive art form. Aï Khanum was invaded and pillaged in 145 B.C. by nomadic peoples of the northeastern steppes, but its artistic legacy endured for centuries, influencing the arts of Central and South Asia until the Islamic conquest. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]

Aï Khanum, located in present-day Takhar Province of Afghanistan — was modeled on a Greek urban plan and was filled with the public buildings of a Greek city, such as a gymnasium for education and sports, a theatre, a fountain, and a library with Greek texts. Other structures derive from ancient Near Eastern traditions, such as the royal palace and the temples. The same melding of eastern and Hellenistic elements is found in the artistic production of the local workshops.

Richard Covington wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, “Founded around 300 B.C. by Seleucus I, a Macedonian general who won a power struggle to control the region following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.”, Ai Khanum “became the eastern outpost of Greek culture in Asia. Its artifacts reflect Greek and Indian, as well as local, artistic traditions. Works... include a seven-inch-high bronze figure of Hercules and a gilded silver plaque that combines Greek and Persian elements. It depicts Cybele, the Greek goddess of nature, riding in a Persian-style chariot, shaded by a large parasol held by a priest.” [Source: Richard Covington,Smithsonian Magazine, September 2008 /*]

“Ai Khanum was also discovered by chance. While out hunting game in 1961 near the border with the then Soviet Tajik Republic (present-day Tajikistan), the last Afghan king, Zahir Shah, was presented with a carved chunk of limestone by local villagers. The king later showed the fragment to Daniel Schlumberger—then the director of a French archaeological expedition in Afghanistan—who recognized it as coming from a Corinthian, likely Greek, capital. In November 1964, Schlumberger led a team to Ai Khanum, where, after digging up shards bearing Greek letters, he began excavations that continued until the Soviet invasion in December 1979. /*\

“Shaped like a triangle, roughly a mile on each side, the city, which was strategically located at the junction of the Oxus and Kokcha rivers, was dominated by an acropolis situated on a flat-topped, 200-foot-high bluff. Its huge entry courtyard was surrounded by airy colonnades supported by 126 Corinthian columns. Beyond the courtyard lay reception halls, ceremonial rooms, private residences, a treasury, a large bathhouse, a temple and a theater. As in nearly every Greek city, there was a gymnasium, or school, and in it excavators found two sundials that appear to have been used to teach astronomy. Unusually, one of them was calibrated for the Indian astronomical center of Ujjain, at a latitude some 14 degrees south of Ai Khanum—an indication, says Paul Bernard, a member of the French excavation team, of scholarly exchanges among Greek and Indian astronomers. /*\

“Based on Indian works discovered at the site, Bernard believes that in the second century B.C., Ai Khanum became the Greco-Bactrian capital city Eucratidia, named for the expansionist king Eucratides, who likely brought the pieces back from India as spoils from his military campaigns there. After a century and a half as an outpost of Hellenistic culture in Afghanistan, the city came to a violent end. Eucratides was murdered in 145 B.C., apparently touching off a civil conflict that left the city vulnerable to marauding nomads, who burned and destroyed it the same year. Sadly, the archaeological site of Ai Khanum met a similar fate; it was looted and nearly obliterated during the years of Soviet occupation and civil strife in Afghanistan.” /*\

Begram: Alexander’s City in Afghanistan

Begram horses

In 329 B.C., Alexander the Great is believed to have established the fortress city of Alexandria of the Caucasus in a lush river valley south of the Hindu Kush mountains about 50 miles north of Kabul. Now known as Begram, the city was an important trading center for the Greco-Bactrian kingdom from about 250 to 100 B.C. and continued to thrive under the Kushan Empire that arose in the A.D. first century. [Source: Richard Covington, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2008 /*]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The ancient city of Begram was partially excavated in the 1930s and 1940s by French archaeologists who uncovered a building with several rooms. Two of them—Rooms 10 and 13—had been sealed off in antiquity and contained a remarkable cache of works of art. Many had originated in distant parts of the world: glassware, bronzes, and porphyry from Roman Egypt; first-century lacquer bowls from China; and ivory furniture ornaments, made in India or locally carved. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]

The hoard dates to the rule of the Kushan dynasty (1st–3rd century A.D.), a royal line descended from nomads who first conquered the northern parts of Afghanistan before taking the territory south of the Hindu Kush and extending their empire to the Ganges valley in India. The Kushans are thought to be a branch of a people known in Chinese writings as the Yuezhi who were pushed out of their ancestral lands on China's northwestern frontier by another nomadic group, the Xiongnu in Chinese sources.One branch of the Yuezhi, the Guishuang, fled to Afghanistan where they encountered the Greek language and eventually changed their name to Kushan, the term by which they are known today.

Ever since its discovery, scholars have puzzled over the nature of the settlement at Begram. Some believed it to be a city founded by Alexander the Great or his successors in the fourth century B.C. (Alexandria ad Caucasum), which later became the summer capital of the Kushan dynasty. According to this view, the works of art constitute a treasure hoarded or assembled over time by Kushan rulers for their personal use. More recent studies have regarded Begram not as a royal city but as an important trading center on the northwestern edge of the Kushan Empire. In this view, the finds represent a splendid repository of trade goods, sealed off to protect valuable commodities awaiting further distribution along the Silk Road.

Begram is located near an American air base. Roger Atwood wrote in National Geographic, “The ancient city of Begram... 2,000 years ago this was the opulent summer capital of the great Kushan Empire, which stretched as far as northern India. Traders brought ivories and art from all corners of Asia. Courtiers stuffed themselves on local figs, pomegranates, and grapes against the majestic scrim of the snowy Hindu Kush. [Source: Roger Atwood, National Geographic, June 2008 ]

Art and Artifacts of Begram

Begram Alexander

Roger Atwood wrote in National Geographic, “When French archaeologists cut into the site in the late 1930s, they found a cache of luxury goods suggesting a vibrant, trade-based economy that flourished while Rome crumbled. Buried under layers of soil were bronze sculptures from Italy, lacquer boxes from China, plaster medallions of muscular Greek youths, and a group of exquisitely painted Egyptian glass vessels depicting, among other things, the Alexandria lighthouse, an African leopard hunt, and a scene from the Iliad. Most strikingly, the diggers found stacks upon stacks of carved ivory and bone sculptures, more than a thousand in all, featuring placidly smiling women and mythical river creatures associated with the art of India. Someone left this impossibly eclectic mix inside two rooms that, around A.D. 200, were bricked shut and abandoned. Dazzled by the find, archaeologists compared it to the discovery of King Tut's tomb 15 years earlier, believing it to be the remains of a royal residence. Researchers now think the structure may have been a warehouse for luxury goods being transported across Asia on the Silk Road or marketed to local elites.” [Source: Roger Atwood, National Geographic, June 2008 ]

Some of most pieces from Begram Highly prized in the ancient world, ivory—the tusks or teeth of animals such as the elephant or hippopotamus—was an elite material used to make luxury objects and to embellish furniture for royal palaces from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia and Iran. In Hellenized Central Asia as well, ivory was used to carve exceptional pieces for the local aristocracy, such as a large hoard of ceremonial vessels from the Parthian court of Nysa, in modern Turkmenistan. The exquisite ivory furniture elements discovered at Begram provide another instance of the masterful use of this fragile material, easily damaged by changes in temperature and climate, and very rarely found intact in excavations. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]

Most of the Begram ivories depict voluptuous women relaxing, playing musical instruments, or hugging children in semi-enclosed spaces suggested by gateways, doors, and fences. The doors are often shown ajar, as if to invite the viewer to enter the private world within. Such imagery has suggested that the objects they once decorated were intended for the use of women rather than for a more general population. The lush figures of the women shown in the sculptures and plaques found at Begram parallel those found in contemporaneous Indian works, as does the clothing and jewelry. This led many scholars in the past to suggest that the ivories found at Begram may have been produced further south, in India, and traded to northern Afghanistan. Historical records in fact indicate that guilds of ivory carvers existed in India. However, it is also possible that the Begram ivories were produced by itinerant craftsmen or, as has been recently proposed, by local artists trained in a range of South Asian traditions.

Sanjyot Mehendale, a Near Eastern authority at the University of California at Berkeley, told Smithsonian magazine that Roman glass and bronze, Chinese lacquered boxes and hundreds of Indian-style ivory plaques and sculptures unearthed at Begram in 1937 and 1939 suggest that the city had been a major commodities juncture along the Silk Road. French archaeologists Joseph and Ria Hackin, who excavated the site, concluded that Begram was the summer residence of the Kushan emperors. Other archeologist say the two sealed rooms containing what the Hackins called "royal treasure" were actually a merchant's shop or warehouse. The glassware and bronze likely arrived by sea from Roman Egypt and Syria to ports near present-day Karachi, Pakistan, and Gujarat in western India, and were then transported overland by camel caravan. Artifacts from Begram include plaster medallions depicting Greek myths; ivory plaques recounting events from the life of Buddha; a chair adorned with carved ivory, mythical creatures of India; and fish-shaped flasks of blown colored glass. /*\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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