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Menander, the Greek King of India


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

King Menander began as a Greek general of King Demetrius of the Euthydemid dynasty. He is considered as probably the most successful Greek king of India, and ruled a huge empire from Gandhara to the Hindu holy city of Mathura. But lets start at the beginning!

Euthydemid Dynasty

As per W. W. Tarn in his book ‘Greeks in Bactria and India’, to omit the Euthydemid dynasty from Hellenistic (Greek) history, as has usually been done, and to confine that history to the four dynasties which bordered on the Mediterranean one, throws that history out of balance. Therefore it is important to learn about the Euthydemids. Diodotus, the Greek governor of Bactria, was the first to rebel against Antiochus, the Greek king of the Seleucid dynasty, and later on another satrap, Euthydemus defeated Diodotus’ son and founded the Euthydemid dynasty.

Menander was originally a Greek general of Euthydemid King Demetrius. He is considered as probably the most successful Indo-Greek king, and ruled a huge empire from Gandhara to the Hindu holy city of Mathura. He conquered Pataliputra (called Palibothra by Greeks), a city once ruled by the great Indian emperor Asoka, something that even Alexander the Great could not do. Menander later left Pataliputra and formed his frontier south of Mathura.

The Milinda-panha, a Buddhist text, purports to record a dialogue between Buddhist sage Nagasena and king Menander. This text is regarded as canonical in Burmese Buddhism, and included as part of the book of Khuddaka Nikaya.

From General to Emperor

So how did a general of the Euthydemids became an emperor? The answer, as per W. W. Tarn, is that he was voted in by the Euthydemid army after the death of Demetrius, and legitimized his rule by marrying Demetrius’ daughter Agathocleia.  

Menander ruled from his capital Sagala, modern Sialkot in Pakistan. He also had a summer capital in the hills, and made military settlements of troops in the west, such as Daedala in India, an Indo-Cretan city settled by Cretan mercenaries and possibly Lycians (as per W. W. Tarn), and Salagissa, somewhere east of the Sutlej river, a military settlement of Pisidian mercenaries (from Pisidia, an ancient region of southern Asia Minor). 

Menander I Soter Drachm Coin
Menander I Soter depicted on Drachm Coin. Credit: ancientcointraders /Wikimedia Commons / cc by 4.0

As far as Menander’s coins are concerned, he had silver Drachms which depicted goddess Athena striding and hurling a thunderbolt. As per John Keay, in his book ‘India: A History’, the Menander depicted on his coins does not have the look of a conqueror. His topi-style helmet appears much too big; protruding curls and delicate features suggest effeminacy; and he calls himself ‘Basileos’ and ‘Soter’, ‘King’ and ‘Saviour’, rather then ‘Conqueror’ or ‘Patriot’. His other legacy is more in keeping with this gentler image, for in Buddhist tradition he is remembered as ‘Milinda.’


greco-buddhism greece ancient buddhism
A seated Gandhara Buddha from 300-500 AD that is the epitome of Greco-Buddhism. Credit: Willard84/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Menander was a great benefactor of the Buddhist faith. As per the text Milindpanha, Menander not only converted to Buddhism, he became an Arhat, which in Buddhism means one who has attained the goal of enlightenment or awakening (bodhi). The difference between an Arhat and a Buddha is that the Buddha attains enlightenment by himself, whereas the Arhat does it by following the teachings of another.

An Indo-Chinese tradition, connects Menander with the origin of the most famous statue of Buddha in Indo-China, the statue the Emerald Buddha, which Menander’s teacher Nagasena made out of a magic emerald by supernatural power. As per Plutarch, after Menander’s death the cities raised stupas (Buddhist temples) over his ashes. In Buddhist literature four kinds of men, and they only, are described as worthy of stupas: Buddhas, Pratyeka Buddhas (solitary saints), disciples of a Buddha who have become saints, and kings who are Chakravartins (the ancient Indian conception of the world ruler). Plutarch mentions that Menander was honored because he was a Chakravartin.

The Buddha

Long, long ago, prince Siddhartha Gautama, who later became the Buddha, meaning the “enlighted one”, was born in Lumbini in the present day nation state of Nepal. Though Siddhartha was born in Nepal, it was in India that Buddhism was born.

Over the years the message of Gautama Buddha spread far and wide; in fact long before Islam emerged, Buddhism provided a form of religious cohesion along the Silk Road route that connected Asia to Europe.

Victor of Palibothra

Alexander the Great
Statue of Alexander the Great in Thessaloniki. Credit: Alexander Gale / Greek Reporter

Though a benefactor of a pacifist religion, Menander was still a military conqueror, and achieved what Alexander the Great could not achieve, the conquest of Pataliputra (Greek: Palibothra). Parts of Bihar state in India, namely Patna, Gaya and parts of Shahabad were known as Magadha in ancient times. Magadha, where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment, was a military super power ruled by Nanda King Xandrames (Dhanananda) during the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion. Xandrames’ army was believed to have over 20,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 2,000 chariots, and 3,000 elephants.

This army was so powerful that the Greek army of Macedonia, which had defeated emperor Darius III of Persia, feared the might and control of this Indian opponent; they strongly opposed any forward invasion by Alexander the Great after winning the battle of Hydaspes, and wanted to return to Persia as soon as possible.  

Alexander could not conquer the capital of Magadha Pataliputra and began his homeward journey in 325 BC and in 324 BC; he died in Persia. However his aim was fulfilled by Menander who, as per Irish historian V. A. Smith and W. W. Tarn, conquered the city, the capital of Magadha, and achieved what Alexander the Great could not achieve. He came to be considered as probably the most successful Greek king of India, a king respected by Buddhists all around the world. Many Indians still name their sons Milind, after Menander.

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