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When Ancient Greeks and Scythian Sakas Fought for Domination in India

nomadic tribe Sakas
The Scythian nomads known as Sakas fought against the ancient Greeks of India, who ruled a large kingdom in South Asia. Credit: world history encyclopedia / Simeon Netchev CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The ancient Greeks of India ruled a large kingdom in South Asia until the Scythian nomads, known as Sakas, fought against them.

Altyn Adam: The Golden Man

In Kazakhstan near Almaty, there are several burial mounds of individuals of Saka ancestry. The Sakas were a group of nomadic Eastern Iranian peoples who historically inhabited the northern and eastern Eurasian Steppe and were closely related to the Scythians. Both groups formed part of the wider Scythian cultures.

It was in the year 1969 that Kazakh archaeologist Kemal Akishev found a young Saka king, who was about seventeen to eighteen years old, in one of the Kurgans. The king was dressed in attire covered with thousands of gold pieces.

Greek king of India Menander I Soter
Emperor Menander I Soter. Credits: CNG Coins / Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The Greeks of India

The ancient Greeks of India had established a large empire in India, thanks to the efforts of able warriors such as Demetrius, son of Euthydemus I, and Menander I Soter, who conquered vast territories and established Hellenic power in new areas.

Greeks are mentioned in both the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and they contributed significantly to the propagation of Buddhism in the world. The Greek language became an elite language for Central Asian nomadic migrant communities and settled communities of northwestern South Asia.

The presence of Greek inscriptions on coins of non-Greek rulers in South Asia shows the importance of the Greek language in this part of the world. But when and how were the Indo-Greeks defeated and their kingdom conquered?

Ancient Greeks ruled in India long after their leadership had been obliterated in other parts of the world, and, in India, the cause of the downfall of the power of the Greeks was primarily attributed to the Sakas.

Nonetheless, even after the victory of Sakas, it was they who accepted the culture of those they defeated. The Sakas became Hellenized, as did several nomadic conquerors after them.

Representation of Saka King Altyn Adam’s headgear
Representation of Saka King Altyn Adam’s headgear, kept in the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Image Credits: Arunansh B. Goswami / GreekReporter


As per François Widemann in his article “Maues King of Taxila: An Indo-Greek Kingdom With a Saka King,” published by the International Association for Mediterranean and Oriental Studies, “Greek nationality and religion were doubtless the ideology, the founding myth of Indo-Greek states.”

These were “so strongly felt that they survived a long time after the fall of the Indo-Greek political power, under the successor states Saka, Indo-Parthian and early Kushans,” Widemann wrote.

The Eastern Saka tribes began migrating southwards, after they had been defeated by the Yue-Chi, also known as the Kushans who later played an important role in defeating the Sakas in India. This migration was what eventually led the Sakas into the Indus Valley about a century after the movement had begun. 

As per Widemann Maues, the first Saka king of what was once the Indo-Greek kingdom of Taxila was not only highly educated in Greek culture but also gifted with a sharp political intellect. In order to commemorate a Saka success in the southern parts of the Indo-Greek territories, he produced a purely Greek coin, aligning himself with a Greek hero.

Representation of Saka King Altyn Adam’s dagger
Representation of Saka King Altyn Adam’s dagger kept in National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Image Credits: Arunansh B. Goswami / GreekReporter

Counter offensive of Greeks

The death of Maues also known as Moga, however, heralded a counter offensive of the Greeks. His son Artemidorus and subkings were defeated by Greek king Apollodotus II, who reigned east and west Punjab, or Taxila. The Saka kingdom crumbled to pieces, and several Greek rulers reestablished their power.

Philoxenus Anicetus, reacquired control over the whole of the Paropamisadae, Northern Arachosia, and the Qunduz region. Greek Zoilus II Soter, who had succeeded Apollodotus II, kept his own between the Hydaspes (Jhelum River) and the Hydraotes (Ravi River).

Finally, probably following the death of Philoxenus, Hippostratus, formed a kingdom for himself. It included both Northern Arachosia and Taxila. Aside from the district of Alexandroupolis, the Greeks were again in possession of all the territories which they had held prior to the Saka invasion.

As per Widemann, “Greek aristocrats would never…consider Sakas, even strongly Hellenized, as equal to them, and share power with them. When…in Taxila, Azes (the Saka King) took a much more radical [approach] than Maues.”

“The foundation of a new era, identified with the Vikrama era, from the beginning of his reign” has been “among the signs of the real end of the Indo-Greek kingdom centered on Taxila,” wrote Widemann.


Representation of Saka’s horses
Representation of Saka’s horses kept in National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Image Credits: Arunansh B. Goswami / GreekReporter

End of ancient Greek rule in India

The Saka King Azes was a strong warrior, who, as per Ludwig Bachofer in his article “Greeks and Sakas in India,” published by the American Oriental Society, “attacked Hippostratus who had at first defeated the Sakas in a battle on a river—probably the Jhelum—and celebrated his victory by issuing coins with a triton.

Later, he suffered a severe reversal of this, and coins of his were restruck by Azes with the allegory of his naval victory and Poseidon standing upon a crouching figure. The same device was struck over some coins of Apollodotus II, who was probably allied with Hippostratus.

Greek resistance was certainly weakened, but it was not yet broken. The defeat of Hippostratus did not actually mark the end of Greek rule on Indian soil. During the reign of the Saka King Azilises, the Sakas extended their sway to Mathura.

Rajuvula a Great Satrap (Mahakshatrapa) ruled in the area of Mathura in northern India in the years around 10 CE under the authority of Azilises. Rajuvula defeated the last Indo-Greek king, Strato II and his son, and thus ended the power of the Indo-Greeks in India.

However, their culture continued to influence those rulers who came after them—not just the Sakas but even Kushans. The most powerful Kushan King was Kanishka, and coins from early in his reign designated him as “Kanishka, King of Kings” in Greek. They contained images of ancient Greek deities.

Indo-Greek rule is in fact an important part of the history of the state of India and brings the modern states of India and Greece closer as friends and strategic allies.

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