India, in Alexander’s time, meant the land of the Indus–not necessarily the area where the modern country of India stands. The Greeks, who had limited knowledge of the geography of central Asia, knew almost nothing of the Indian subcontinent or China. India, to the Greeks, meant the area in western Pakistan, particularly the Punjab and Sind territories.
There are several possible reasons why Alexander chose to pursue India. Part may be simply that Persia had once possessed parts of India, and therefore Alexander, as the new Great King, wanted to reclaim it. As little was known about India, curiosity was likely also a factor. Perhaps most important, India was the end of Asia as far as Alexander knew; its acquisition was necessary if he was to rule the entire continent.
The invasion of India began in the summer of 327 B.C. Alexander proceeded as he had in his Persian conquest, vanquishing city by city. Many cities surrendered without a fight; those that did not were usually massacred without mercy. Alexander soon gained the support of Ambhi, the ruler of Attock. Alexander and his troops rested for a couple of months in the capital city of Taxiles as they prepared to meet Ambhi’s enemy, Porus.
In response to Alexander’s request that he submit, Porus assembled his army and prepared to meet Alexander on the bank of the Hydaspes River. When Alexander arrived, he found that Porus had the fords guarded with elephants, which made a crossing impossible. Moreover, whenever Alexander moved along the river, Porus mirrored him on the opposite side. To confuse his foe, Alexander divided his army into several units and spread them along the bank. This splitting up also gave Alexander a chance to search for other possible fords farther down; indeed, a suitable one was found seventeen miles upstream. The question was whether Alexander could keep Porus from following him all the way to that crossing point.
Once again Alexander devised a plan to confuse his enemy. For several nights, he sent the cavalry to various spots along the bank and instructed them to make noise and raise war cries. Porus, of course, followed them the first few times, but eventually stopped responding to Alexander’s bluffs. On the night planned for the attack, Alexander divided the troops into three groups. One would remain in the original spot to keep Porus off guard, while a second group prepared for a crossing that would take place only if Alexander succeeded in clearing the fords. Alexander himself led the third group, consisting of about 15,000 infantry and 5,500 cavalry. Porus sent an initial group of about 2,000 cavalry, led by his son, to attack the Macedonians while they were crossing and to drive them back into the river. However, the Indians did not make it in time to have the early advantage, and Alexander easily defeated the troops.
Porus was therefore forced to march against Alexander with full force, leaving only a small detachment to face the second crossing group. The fact that Porus’s front line consisted entirely of elephants prevented Alexander from using his cavalry, as the horses would not charge in face of the elephants. Once again, Alexander succeeded with a brilliant strategy. He kept a segment of his cavalry hidden, allowing Porus to think that he was winning. When Porus advanced to exploit Alexander’s apparent weakness, the hidden cavalry emerged and caused confusion among the already exposed Indians. The battle culminated in the surrounding of the Indians, and Porus was finally prevailed upon to surrender. The victory had not been easy, however. The Macedonians were particularly troubled about the elephants, which had brutally trampled and mangled their soldiers. Nevertheless, it was Alexander’s last major battle and one of his greatest.
Alexander allowed Porus to continue his rule–a decision likely motivated by Alexander’s recognition that he was running out of resources to maintain a strong presence at every corner of his territory. Nevertheless, Alexander’s thirst was not quenched, and he wanted to press farther, though his next opponent, the Nanda empire, would have been very formidable. Alexander’s troops had other plans, however, and talks of mutiny abounded. The troops had been away for eight years and marched over 17,000 miles. The elephants had been especially demoralizing, especially since it was reported that Nanda possessed about 4,000 of them. Alexander offered every possible incentive and bribe, but even his chief officers sympathized with the men. One senior officer, Coenus, finally rose to speak on behalf of the men, and Alexander finally recognized that a rebellion led by a popular man like Coenus was an alarming possibility.
Alexander, therefore, he was finally prevailed upon to turn around and head home, though he never forgave his men and officers. He was convinced that he could have conquered the entire world if his men had not turned their backs on him. Furthermore, he showed no apparent gratitude for their service and dedication. He purposely took a difficult journey home that required constant skirmishes with unconquered Indian provinces. Alexander’s armies finally left India by sea in September 325 B.C.
Some sources have exaggerated Alexander’s success, particularly in his domain over India. In reality, Alexander’s influence in the area was limited. Porus was essentially an independent ruler, though formally he derived power from Alexander. Moreover, Alexander did not have the resources to hold India in line, and by 317 B.C. all traces of Macedonian power had essentially disappeared. Nevertheless, Alexander had led a great expedition to unfamiliar territory, and he had conquered it as effectively as he had conquered the rest of Asia.
Alexander’s return was not a direct one. While the fleet sailed, Alexander also led part of the army on the coast to explore and collect supplies. In the course of the journey he made some poor decisions, including a difficult march through the desert, which resulted in the deaths of almost a quarter of those who began the journey. Though the blame clearly fell on Alexander’s overconfidence, he found suitable scapegoats as usual.
Stopping in Persia, Alexander had quite a bit of housekeeping to do. He removed several satraps, executing those whose crimes–usually conspiracy–had been flagrant. His continued desire to unite Persia and Macedonia resulted in a mass marriage, as he paired up eighty of his leading officers with noble Iranian brides.
Alexander made two important decrees before he left Susa in 324 B.C. First, there was the problem of social distress arising from the many Greek mercenaries wandering Asia, who had been exiled from their native lands, often because of Alexander’s policies. Alexander made the risky move of restoring all exiles to their native Greek cities, which would likely alienate the leaders of those cities. Alexander’s second great decree was that he was now a god. That this decree was due in part to irrationality is possible; Alexander had achieved a great deal in his conquest, and he apparently decided that human honors did not measure up to his greatness. From a young age he had felt destined for divinity, and his experience in Asia and Egypt likely confirmed his belief that he was above the race of men.
After the death of a close friend, Hephaestion, Alexander entered several days of mourning and then decided to undertake a new campaign–which would be his last. His target was a tribe called the Cossaei, who controlled a mountain area and charged a toll on those who needed to pass to reach Babylon or Susa. The Persian leaders had never been able to clear the Cossaei out, and had simply paid the fee. Alexander decided to subdue the tribe, and, after a forty-day campaign, he had virtually annihilated them.
Alexander continued on to Babylon, where he began preparations for his next campaign. In the city he experienced a number of bad omens, though writers may have exaggerated some of these portents to heighten the drama surrounding Alexander’s death. On June 3, 323 B.C., Alexander attended two parties that went early into the morning. Afterward he fell feverishly ill, and was incapacitated until his death on June 13. No heir was named; Alexander had indicated that he expected a funeral contest to take place to determine the strongest successor.
Though Alexander’s illness was officially attributed to a fever aggravated by heavy drinking, the possibility that he was poisoned has been raised. The suspects are Aristotle and Antipater, both of whom had reason to fear Alexander’s retribution for various disloyalties, and both of whom also disliked his favorable treatment of the Persians. Aristotle possessed the knowledge to make the poison and Antipater the means to administer it. Though the poisoning theory will likely never be proven with certainty, most scholars regard it as a strong possibility.
With Alexander’s death came the gradual dismantling of the empire, which had no chance of enduring without his leadership. In his thirty-two years he had assembled one of the greatest military records in history. His brilliance as a tactician demonstrated itself time after time, as he systematically conquered a significant portion of Asia one piece at a time. Alexander was particularly effective in adapting to enemy tactics, and he always knew how to exploit a weakness. Moreover, his leadership ability is not to be underestimated. He knew how to choose the right governors and how to keep them in line; he knew when to compromise and when to be obstinate. Alexander may not have enjoyed the love of his subjects–particularly in Greece–but he successfully ruled them by invoking the appropriate balance of fear and respect. Though he was ruthless with potential conspirators, he also had good reason to believe that his life was constantly in danger, as countless previous rulers had lost their lives due to carelessness.
The ultimate extent of Alexander’s success remains disputable. Although he has been portrayed as a visionary, he seems to have had little underlying motivation for his expeditions beyond a desire for conquest. Moreover, although he has been praised for uniting the Persians and Greeks, his success may have been overestimated. After his death, the two peoples did not live in the kind of harmony Alexander had envisioned.
Despite these shortcomings, Alexander’s influence on the development of the world is not to be doubted. He founded an estimated seventy cities and made room for the spread of Greek culture in the East. More importantly, he opened up increasing possibilities for trade and social communication between East and West. Ultimately, the building of the Roman Empire can be traced to seeds that Alexander planted. While he may have viewed himself as above the human race, there is no doubt that few men have changed the course of human history to a comparable extent.