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S05 E03 Greco Bactria transcript

Listen to our episode on Greco Bactria. This was the original script for the show, so it might not contain adlibs and edits. 

Welcome to Countries That Don’t Exist Anymore!

This week we’re taking a trip to Greco-Bactria -  ancient Greek outpost on the very edge of the known world. 

And by known we mean, known to the Greeks and Romans. To Afghanis, Pakistanis and Indians of the time, these Greeks would have been right in the centre of the known world. So it’s all a matter of perspective.

But even now, Ancient Greeks with their philosophy and columns in the middle of Central Asia? It’s still such a fascinating concept that we had to do an episode on it.

(I’d like a “nice, different unusual” from Kath & Kim. There’s one here at 22:14 Kath & Kim S04 E05 - video Dailymotion but it’s not quite right).  

Building prosperous powerful kingdoms in the area hundreds of years after the death of Alexander, the Greeks in the East not only maintained Alexander's Eastern most conquests but expanded on them.

Greco-Bactria minted the largest gold coin in antiquity - the Eukratidion. This gold coin was the largest gold coin of the ancient world -  2 inches in diameter and weighed about 200g. 


Nice confusing mix of imperial and metric there.


Welcome to Britain.

The Eurkatidion contained gold content worth £10,000. In one coin. 


Change must have been a nightmare. 

When the coin was put onto the London market back in the 19th century, it sold for the equivalent of £700,000 in today’s money. The king on the coin was called Eucratedes - the Greco-Bactrian king who extended the kingdom to its furthest extent.

Although this king was roughly located in Afghanistan, he’s clearly Hellenistic and is pictured wearing a cavalry helmet, diadem with bull horns to signify divinity.

The reason we’re talking about coins is they’re some of the best evidence we have of who was ruling Greco-Bactria and when. And when you get a chance, google Greco-Bactrian coins. The quality of the work on them is incredible - especially the heads sides. It makes later Roman efforts look like they were made out of Playdo and knocked off by a toddler.


You know what hasn’t been knocked off by a toddler? Our latest theme tune.

Ed: (Pierre Serre)

The opening version was lively but perhaps not in the sense it was meant. In any case, I still think you should bring back the old theme.

Perhaps I should have said that the new theme (not the lively one) was too “country” and should "not exist any more."


Country eh? Got it.

THEME TUNE - Country style.

Where was Bactria?

So Bactria was made up of what is now Northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekistan. As dry and dusty as that sounds, Bactria was actually very fertile in the lands along the rivers of Amu darya (which was known as the Oxus back in the day) and Syr Daria, aka the Jaxartes.


The irrigated land was great for farming. Bactria seemingly could produce everything - except for olive trees. A local favourite was melons.


Would you look at the size of those melons.



But wife, I’m literally judging a Bactrian agricultural show. I’m a melon expert.


But Bactria also had lots of mineral wealth including lapus lazuli (shiny blue mineral) and tin.


Important for cans.


Yes, but an important constituent of bronze back then.


Important for coming in third.

Located along the fertile banks of the Oxus River, Bactris was important militarily - due to the rearing of very powerful horses. Bactrian cavalry were the Persians elite horsemen.

Another local animal is the Bactrian camel - the two humped cousin of the Arabian camel.


Well, those are a pair of mighty fine humps.


These camels facilitated trade between India and Mesopotamia. And as we mentioned in Wagadou, being at a key trade junction where merchants have to go through your lands equals KERCHING.

But settlement in Bactria was nothing new. The earliest complex civilisations went back to about 2500 BC we think.

Then Persian ruler Cyrus the Great moved into the area in the mid 6th century BC and put Bactria under Achaemenid Persian control for the next couple of centuries. And Bactria became one of the most important regions in the Persian empire. In fact the heir to the throne was usually given the governorship of Bactria. And this was no backwater assignment. Bactria had about 2 million inhabitants at this time.

But why were there Greeks this far East?

Yes, let’s get some context in. So you know how we mention the Romans every episode? Well this time we’re going to be mentioning Alexander the Great constantly. I’m pretty safe in assuming that people know about him and how much he conquered in his short time. He loooved conquering. You may have heard the line, “Alexander wept for there were no more lands to conquer.”

Alexander: (Cartman cying)

I’ve ran out of lands to conquer.


Umm. Your majesty… what about most of India. And China. And you’ve barely made a dent in Europe. And Africa come to think of it. And who knows what other lands there are beyond the ocean…. So when you think of it you’ve barely conquer…

Knife thrust


No more laaaaands.

Fastforwarding to 331 BC with Alexander the Great defeating Darius III in two main battles, conquering 4 main administrative capitals of the Achaemenid Persian empire and destroying its capital Persepolis. Bye bye Persian Empire.  Hello Macedonian Empire.

Darius III tries to flee to Bactria to raise a new army but is killed by one of his governors - known as a satrap. The satrap in question was Bessos, the satrap of Bactria, who tried to raise his own army on his home turf. 

But when Alexander finally arrives in Bactria, he's welcomed with open arms by the locals. So Bessos fled North to a place called Sogdia, whose people then handed him over to Alexander - who has Bessos gruesomely killed, not least because he killed Darius III. Who Alexander probably wanted to parade around and pose for carvings with before having him killed himself. It's the classy thing to do.

Alexander then goes North and founds the city of Alexandria Eskatte - Alexander the Furthest - a military city in present day Uzbekistan. Alexander’s plan was to mark the Yaxartes River as the frontier of his lands.

But this is a bit of a PR blunder with the Sogdians.

The reason is simple. Alexander has been welcomed because the previous administration were unpopular because of their interference.

To the north of Sogdia are the Eastern Scythians - a nomadic people who were like the tearaway big brothers of the Sogdians. Putting a Greek military post bang in the middle of this was seen by the Sogdians as an attempt to split their lands and interfere. So the Sogdians go into revolt and it's a particularly nasty one. 

Alexander's heavy infantry mercenaries are surrounded and slaughtered by Sogdian cavalry. Alexander eventually quells the revolt after 3 years but it’s a slow business of sieging one fortress after another. 

And it's not through war that he succeeds, but by diplomacy. To quell the revolt, Alexander marries Roxana, the daughter of Bactrian chief Oxyates.

Alexander carries on to try and conquer India but leaves a huge garrison of 13,000 Hellenic mercs in Bactria and Sogdia. Partly because the place isn't fully pacified but partly because these mercs were sent to him from Macedon because they were seen as too much of a threat at home and so were sent as far away as possible. 

Alexander understandably doesn't trust them so leaves them in Bactria while he goes conquering in India. But it’s not all ne’erdowells. Some of the garrison force are older or injured Macedonians, who aren't happy about being left behind, though Alexander is relieved to get rid of them.

News then comes back to Bactria that Alexander got an arrow in his lung and died. 


Sounds nasty. See kids? Don’t inhale arrows.

Hearing this, the Greek mercenaries go into full revolt. And by revolting we mean that they get ready to desert Bactris and go home. 

"I don't like it here. The weather gets really cold. It's too dusty and I'm tired of dipping my bread into melon oil. What the hell is that?"

One revolting general, Athenadorous, captures Bactra, and probably kills Alexander’s satrap there.

Unfortunately for everybody on the rampage, they then get the news that Alexander is actually alive and well and on is way back. The same can’t be said for Athenadorous who gets killed by a guy called Byton. 


So Byton’s pro-Alexander?


No, actually Byton then starts his own march home to Greece. Anyway, all very confusing. But this is what it was like to try and control Bactria.

Back in India, Alexander isn’t having the best time. While he has pretty much swept all before him, his men have had quite enough of sweltering heat and spicy food. 

So in 323 AD, Alexander leaves India, flips off Bactria and is off to the much more civilised Babylon. From there he plans on conquering west into Arabia and possibly Europe rather than further east, which seems like far too much trouble.

Unfortunately for Alexander, he dies of typhoid.


Alexander the not Great at washing his hands regularly.

Within 48 hours of his death, in the very room in which he died, there's literally already blood on the walls as there's a massive fight between different factions over who should takeover the empire.

The guy who comes out on top is Perdecus, Alexander's highest ranking general who becomes regent for Alexander's infant son, who incidentally doesn't make it past childhood.


Infant mortality was high in those days. Especially for heirs to massive empires that EVERYBODY wants.

And of course the number one problem for Perdecus was Bactria. In the west, there were capable generals who have sizable armies to put down revolts. Not on the east front, so Perdecus sent Macedonian and Persian troops to put down the army of these troublesome Greek mercenaries and succeeds through a subtle blend of bribery and massacre. Those that survived or were bribed make the wise choice of staying put in Bactria. It was an easy choice. Anyone could answer that.

Bactria or death?

Bactria please.

Very well. Give him Bactria.

Thanks very much.

So Bactria is settled with initially reluctant permanent colonists, who start to think. This melon oil might catch on after all.

Next we jump forward in time to a bit where Alexander's former generals were forging their own empires. And you may have heard of these characters.

In the west, the main character is Ptolomey who established his own empire in Egypt and the Levant. In the east, it's Seleucus (founder of the Seleucid empire) who cobbles together an empire in 300BC and rather fancies Bactria as an essential addition. 

His son, Antiochus, is half Sogdian himself (via his mother) and so is actually a good fit to be made Viceroy of the region. So he actively oversees the place and pours resources into the region to develop it. He builds a mint at Bactria and probably founded Ai Khanoum - which would become an important city in Greco-Bactria and a capital at one point. But we’ll get to that.

As it happens, Antiochus becomes Seleucid emperor's X couldn’t hang around because he’s got to spend all his time busy fighting the Ptolomies in the West - so never gives Bactria the attention it needs.

Maybe I didn't govern you

Quite as often as Babylonia

Maybe I didn't visit you

As a province you grew lonelier

If I used you for war elephants

And appointed random satraps

You were always on my maps

On my yellow campaign maps.

Tell me

Tell me that your farmland hasn’t dried

Give me

Give me grain to keep my armies satisfied. Satisfied.

As such the Seleucid satraps in the east were left alone to run things as they saw fit and to build up an independent power base. But it took a crisis in the Seleucid Empire before powerful people in Bactria thought they might wriggle free.

In 246 BC, Anthiocus II died and civil war broke out over who got to be chief Seleucid. Meanwhile it occurred to the Ptolemies that this might be a fabulous time to invade. Long story short, no one could pay much attention to what was going on in the East. This allowed a nomadic people called the Parne to rebrand themselves as the Parthians and kick off a rebellion to establish their own kingdom.

And with all the chaos happening, the satrap of Bactria, a man called Diodotus, starts thinking independently and (in not so many words) secedes from the Selucid empire and becomes King of Greco-Bactria.

Who was Diodotus?

Err… we don’t really know. In classic CTDEA style, the sources for this kingdom are extremely patchy. Of course, Greco- Bactria was a literate place, but the climate of Bactria is not our friend when it comes to preserving documents. Probably a bit too much Greco-Bacteria. We know more about Greco-Bactria when it’s involved in a war with a power that western sources would actually bother to talk about. 

Apart from that, the historical record treats Greco-Bactria like one of those long-running extras in Eastenders. We’ll watch them in the background for 20 years growing older on their market stall without ever saying a word. Then even one of the main characters has a celebration in the pub, we'll see the extra in the background as if they’re a real mate of the main character, despite them never having exchanged a word.

One thing we can say about Diodotus is that his coins are very Greek. On one side, there’s the profile of a very ancient Greek looking man. On the back is Zeus holding a thunderbolt and you can see Zeus’ bum very prominently - and he’s obviously been working out.


Yep, sounds Ancient Greek to me.

But it’s not just because he liked arses. Diodotus' name actually means Zeus given.


I bet he thought he was God’s gift.

Yep. Literally his name.

But holy posterior or not, he managed to drive out a Parthian raid in 250 BC and, feeling pleased with himself, gave himself the name Dioditus Soter - or saviour.


He gave himself the title Zeus' Given Saviour? He would have loved LinkedIn.

Either way this kinda cemented his reign and I’m sure he never stopped talking about it.




Diodotous Soter.


Diodotous Soter. You left the fire burning in the grate and half the house background. Why can't you be more careful Diodotous?

D: (mumbles)

Diodotous Soter.

What did a Bactrian king actually do? 

The Bactrian model of kingship was very Hellenistic and did much the same thing as Seleucid kings and Ptolomeiac kings, i.e. led armies, appoint close advisors and heard petitions.


1 million signatures? Let me see. Democracy should be established, corruption must be stamped out and there’s apparently someone's been weeing in the public baths? This is very serious and there must be immediate action. The last time I was there, I put my head under water. [do better]

It wasn’t uncommon for a king to appoint their heir as co-king, ensuring a stable succession and meaning that work could be split in two - which was particularly useful should one king want to go to war while the other watched things at home. And Hellenistic kings were big on war.

Anyway, when Diodotus’  son comes to the thrown, he takes the name Diodotus II - because he was an original thinker.


He was known as Diodotous ho logizomenos exo tou kibotiou.


What's that mean?


Diodotous who thinks outside the box. Worth a Google.

One of his first acts of Diodotous II was to make a treaty with a local warlord - the Parthian founder Assarses - who has taken a next door region for himself. 

Both kingdoms are pretty new and they’re also highly aware of the resurgent Seleucid Empire back on the warpath. So they band together in anticipation of Seleucus II's reconquest. Which doesn't really work out as the Selucids are driven off by the Parthians.

With everything now more stable in Bactria it was time for…

(spinning wheel, slowing, stops)


Euthydemis was satrap of Sogdia and Frigana to the north. He married the sister of Diodotus II and so now being newly-wed brother-in-law of the king, he stages a coup in 225 BC and kills Diodotus II, making himself king, and starting a new dynasty - the Euthydemids. Euthydemis. Euthydemids. Diodotus. Diodotids. Seleucus. Seleucids. You see how this works?


You just take your name and add ids to the end? So our dynasty will be called the O’Meara-ids.


Yes, with its charismatic founder, Editus.





(Slapping noises.)

New king. New coin. To mark his new dynasty, Euthydemis stuck with the Greek head on the front, but this time he swapped out Zeus for Heracles or Hercules. No bum going on this time, but you can see a penis.


Yep, Ancient Greek. Checks out.

What’s interesting about the change of coinage is that the symbols seem to become more warlike as Greco-Bactria goes on - maybe because it starts to get cut off from the rest of the Hellenistic world and so takes on this role as an island of Hellenism surrounded by “barbarians."

Or maybe because Greco Bactria was just a powerful military nation. As far as we know, the Bactrians stuck to the phalanx and heavy cavalry formula imported by Alexander the Great. Native Bactrians and Sogdians were probably favoured as cavalry men or mounted archers, including hiring mercenaries from the Steppes. And let’s not forget about those war elephants.

What was the religion in Greco-Bactria?

Mixed. The local people carried on with the religion of the Achemaid Persians, i.e. Zoroastrianism. Whereas the more Greek elements of Greco-Bactrians worshiped the Olympians - Zeus, Athena, Hera etc. 

On Euthydemis’ coins, we go from a seated Apollo to a thunderbolting Zeus to a club wielding Heracles. In early reigns monarchs age on coins as new ones are minted. Anyone in Commonwealth countries will know what it’s like to see a dying monarch on their coins.

Song (Eleanor Rigby)

Hellenic peoples

Moving out east far away from the warm lands of Greece

Couldn’t you freeze?

Minting your coins with

x-rated gods shooting bolts or Heracles

Dying monarchies

All the Grecian people

Where do they all come from

All the Grecian peoples

Where do they all belong?

But later Greco Bactrian kings remain ever youthful on their coins. And it’s probably no coincidence that a cult of the ruler became more of a formality too. 


You can’t have an old god.


What about the Judeo-Christian god? White hair? Beard?


Yes, but that’s New Testament retirement god. He sent his son down to take care of the admin while he took a back seat and put his feet up. Very different from the Old Testament God, Jahweh - obscure warrior god who won the god lottery.


3.8 billion people worship that God now!


Small god makes good. It's a heartwarming story.

Anyway, Euthydemis was possibly able to overthrow Diodotus because of his alliance with the Parthians - who many Greco Bactrians consider stinky barbarians. Euthydemis gets into the expansionist mood and starts thinking that Parthia might be his next target. 

Unfortunately for him, a certain Antiochous III comes to the Seleucid throne. And this one is known as Antiochous the Great, who's pretty set on reconquering Parthia, Bactria and the east.


Never go to war with any king called anyone the great.


True. The White? Sure. The Fat? Yes. The wise? Definitely.


100%. You can always beat up a nerd.

Antiochus the Great was not to be messed with. The youngest son of Seleucus II (in case you’re keeping count), he inherits the Selucid empire at its weakest but crushes any or all opposition by 212 BC. 

His dream is to rebuild the dominant empire of Seleucus I, whose domains stretched from Thrace to India. And that means he needs the Eastern provinces back.

So he gathers an army of 120,000 men (according to ancient sources, so probably about half of that). And in 210, he starts heading east, steamrolling through the Parthians. Euthydemis has been king for about 13 years by this time and has pretty strong support. He has Indian war elephants, light infantry and Hellenised heavy troops bristling with spears. But crucially he has that Bactrian cavalry to lean on. 10,000 of them!!!!!

In 208, we have the decisive Battle of the Arius River between Antiochous III and Euphedemis. Euphedemis sends his giant cavalry force to stop Antiochous crossing a river on the border of his territory. By day, they form up by the banks.

BUT every night, Euphedmis's cavalry retire to a town a few miles back from the river - probably to a Holiday Inn. So what does Antiochus do? He leads a smaller force of 15,000 troops so they're less conspicuous and crosses the river at night. Doy.

The problem is that even having 15,000 troops cross a river takes time, so when the Bactrians turn up in the morning, Antoochus's troops are still crossing. The Bactrians realise that this is their chance to capture or kill the Seleucid Emperor. 

Antiochus sees the danger so charges at the Bactrians to buy his men some time to cross and form up. Antiochus is not called the Great for nothing and is in the thick of the fighting, loses his horse and then loses some teeth when he gets speared in the mouth. But his charge works well, giving his Seleucid cavalry and light infantry enough time to surround the Bactrians, forcing them to retreat.

Seeing this, Euphedmis creeps off to Bactra and then for 2 years between 208 - 206 BC is  put under siege.

So who are you…

I’m just a Bactrian king… a lowly lowly Bactrian king. Oh my god we’re going to die. etc.

Since everybody hates Steven Segal films, the two come to an agreement. 

Antiochus had a large empire to deal with and wanted to get back to it. Euphedemis was sick of this Seleucid lockdown. And while he was under siege, Sogdia was also slipping out of his grasp, so he needs to concentrate on re-establishing his power. 

So Euphedemis sent his son Demetrious to negotiate with the Seleucids.

During negotiations, Euphedmis got his son to take an interesting position. He claimed that he had never rebelled against the Seleucids. That was Diododus and Euphedemis had killed him for it. He also pointed out that the longer the siege goes on the more Hellenistic territory would be open to barbarian raids from the north, i.e. the Scythians. What's interesting about this is that Euphedmis still had plenty of sway with nomadic armies in the north. So this could be a "it would be a real shame if nomads invaded your land."

Or, it could be a:


"It would be a real shame if nomads invaded your land."

That said, Sogdia definitely got its independence at some point during this time, and Sogdia could definitely influence what the northern nomads wanted to do, so his warning could have been genuine.

Either way, Antiochus III agreed and sealed the deal by marrying one of his daughters to Demetrious. Marriage. Ensuring a peaceful life since 50,000BC.


Because families never argue.



So is this the end of Greco Bactria? 

Not at all. The kingdom keeps going and Euphedmis keeps getting to keep using the title, king. In return he has to throw some grain and a few war elephants into the deal.

All Antiochus wants is a supplication so he can go back to court in Babylon and say "oooh, look what I conquered!" 

That would allow him to then focus West on getting back Thrace and Macedonia. 

Unfortunately for Antiochus III this leads him to go toe to toe with a fairly formidable new Mediterranean power called the Roman Republic. Antiochus declares himself the champion of Greek freedom against Roman domination" but it doesn’t go well for him and he dies on campaign.


Guys. If you’re going to fight the Romans, you need to wait. Anything BC getting close to AD, not advised. But 300 AD, 400 AD? You’re golden.

Bad news for the Seleucids. Great news for Greco Bactria, since Antiochus was the last Selucid monarch to poke his nose in. While the Seleucid Empire doesn't disappear off the map at this point, it won't be able to venture so far East again.

And with Antiochus's chariots disappearing into the distance, Euphedemis could then turn round and claim a victory…for some reason. To mark the occasion, we've found a celebratory inscription dedicated to the goddess Hestia and mentioning the kings which sounds like it's straight off Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

"This fragrant altar to you August Hestia, most honoured among the gods, Heliodotus established in the grove of Zeus, so that you may graciously preserve, free from care together with Divine good fortune, Euphedemis, greatest of all kings, and his outstanding son Demetrius, renowned for fine victories."

Euphedemis took the title greatest of all kings or Basileus Magistos. Why? Maybe because Antiochous III took the title Basileus Magos, Great King. 

Pretty cheeky!


Editus Magos. I likes the sound of that.


Philitus Magistos?



  • Slapping -

(Anything you can do, I can do…)

Kingy things you can do, I can do better.

I can do kingy things better than you.

Sadly, we don't hear much more about Euphedemis. Again, this might be because scholars were fine with anything involving Antiochous III but weren't so bothered about what happened to Bactria when he wasn't involved.

But we do get to hear about the exploits of his son Demetrious, who then goes on to invade India and have lots of successful campaigns. And it's a great time for it! The massive Mauryan empire of India had been overthrown and civil war was rife. 

So enter left the Bactrians for some land grabs while no one's looking. And the Greco-Bactrians start to add some Indo-Greek into the mix - or the Yahvanas as the Indian scribes called them. Handy for Demetrious, but many Indian Buddhists were happy to serve Demetrious in their struggle against the Indian Brahmins, the elite priest caste of the Hindus.

So, Demetrious names a city after himself in the Hindu Kush and there are coins minted of Demetrious in an elephant skin cap to brag about his Indian conquests.

And these conquests aren't just flash in the pan. In fact the evidence points to a permanent Greek Kingdom in India, alongside the Bactrian one. But we’ll come back to these Indian kingdoms once we finish up with Greco-Bactria.

This is a period where things get really murky. There are plenty of coins knocking around, but not much is being recorded.

Off the back of a tax receipt, we learn of a King called Antemocus I or Antemocus Theos AKA Antemocus the God. So this king pretty much skipped the death bit and just made himself a god during his life.

However another man called Eucratedes wasn't in the worshiping mood, so overthrew the god king of Bactria in 170BC. 

This new king, Eucratedes I wasn't of the Euphedemid line but seemed interested in restoring divided Bactria. Therefore he promptly reconquered Sogdia and brought it back into the kingdom and expanded Greco-Bactria to its territorial height of - earning himself the title Eucratedes the Great - and was said to have ruled over 1000 cities. 

He was also the king to mint the largest gold coin of the ancient world.He also apparently relocated the capital to Eucratedea, AKA Ai Khanoum.

What was life like in Greco-Bactria?

Let’s take a pause from our episode of what king did what to what king, and actually talk about life in Greco-Bactria. 

While it was known as the land of a thousand cities, we’re actually having trouble finding lots of these Greek cities that we are told existed. But we have found one at Ai Khanoum.

So, as a reminder, Ai Khanoum was established between 281-261 BC during the reign of Antiochus I.

And it was a good spot for a city - on a fertile plain and at the junction of two rivers. The original Bactrians had already built 2 canals for irrigation and agriculture, with the Greeks adding a third canal - possibly for a trendy arts district.

The city was massive - 300 sq km, 115 sq miles. That’s twice the size of ancient Rome. Ai Khanoum had well fortified walls. The city was triangular in shape with the streets in a tidy grid system - a very Greek feature. The main street running through it was 2km in length (1.2 miles) with a canal running by the side of it for drinking water.


Public areas of Ai Khanoum have shown evidence of a theatre that could seat 6,000, public baths, a gymnasium (where boxing, wrestling and the Greek combat sport of Pankration was taught) and a raised acropolis. All signs of Classical Greek city in what is now Afghanistan. 

A royal palace also indicates it was likely to have been a royal capital at some point. And it had its own mint.


The southern district of Ai Khanoum had lavish mansions, whereas other areas were filled with smaller housing for key workers - like tradesmen, servants and gym instructors.

But the architecture of most homes was far more Bactrian than Greek - with buildings made out of wood and local mudbrick with large fireplaces. This wasn’t just about a shortage of marble though. It was also down to the realities of the climate of Greco Bactria - which could get much colder and drier in the winter than Greece.

The palace of Ai Khanoum was a bit different. It’s more of a blend of Greek and Iranian in both structure and decor. The presence of a courtyard with lots of rectangular rooms spoke to a Persian tradition. But that said, the rulers obviously couldn’t resist slapping on some Corinthian columns for good measure.

But temples dedicated to Greek gods were suspiciously Mesopotaminan looking - with distinctive niches on the temple walls. Evidence of other deities have been found inside, but maybe this shouldn’t be too surprising. Unlike the Abrahamic religions, the Greeks and Romans were never all that bothered about borrowing other gods for their pantheon. But that’s not to say there was never any religious tension.

When Alexander arrived in Bactria, he was disgusted with the Zoroaristrian tradition of open air burials - where birds and dogs were allowed to consume the unburied corpse. The Greeks much preferred cremation, which the locals thought was weeeeird.


I mean, it’s just so disrespectful. Burning your beloved relative? I can barely think about it. Anyway, thanks for coming to my mum’s funeral.


Fido. Dinner time.

So despite the very Greek coins, from the street level we have more of a cultural blend. But this isn’t surprising. Alexander’s army consisted of 10s of thousands of Greek men who then would have had children with 10s of thousands of local women. So blending was very much the order of the day. 

Even so, Greco Bactrian kings are depicted in Greek attire and we think the populace continued to wear the Kausia - a Macedonian hat favoured by commoners and nobles alike. The Persians in fact referred to the Macedonians as the Greeks with shields on their heads.

What language did they speak in Greco-Bactria?

Greek was very much the language of government and the upper class, and the Greek alphabet became the basis of the now-extinct Bactrian language. Then of course there were local dialects still on the tip of the locals tongues with Aramaic being used commonly as a lingua franca.

Let’s get back to Eucratedes the great and see how he’s doing…

So in 165BC, Eucratedes sent an invasion into the Punjab, bumping into an Indo-Greek Kingdom ruled by Demetrious II, who was known as King of the Indians. 

It’s a bit like how Roman general got the name Scipio Africanus for conquering all of Africa.


Do you mean that tiny bit on the north coast where Cartyhage was?



At this point, accounts vary. I've read one account where Demetrious II is actually king of Bactria and it was he who Eucratedes had to overthrow.

So in this account, Demetrious II came back from whichever part of India he was in to put down Eucratedes’ rebellion and put him under siege for 5 months. Somehow Eucratedes slipped the siege and defeated Demetrious there or in India. 

But in whatever order it happened, Eucratedes definitely overthrew somebody and then definitely seems to have beaten an Indo-Greek king at something, thereby adding a bit of India to his kingdom. 

But as Bactria was kicking off a new dynasty of its own, so was the Parthian Empire - under the formidable Mithridates I.


Doesn’t sound that bad.


AKA Mithridates the Great.



This time, it was the Parthian turn to steamroll. Mithridates gobbled up Selucid territory, taking Media then Babylon, the most important bit of the empire. And because everybody was writing about Mithridates it means we have more sources about Eucratetes. 

But what happens when you put to The Greats in a room? Well, it’s a bit of a stalemate.


Shall we discuss terms over dinner? Pass the salt would you?


No, you pass the salt.


Well played.

And in a repeat of the past, the two came to an agreement not to mess with each other, allowing Eucratedes to look East to India and Mithridates to look West to the Selucids.

So with peace secured and an enlarged realm, Eucratedes seems to have been ready to set up a new golden age for Greco-Bactria. Unfortunately not everything went his way. In further Indian campaigns, had a rough time against an Indo Greek beast of a king called Menander. 

Battered and bruised, Eucratedes decided to go home for a well-earned rest, only to be greeted with open arms by his son Helioclese - who promptly murdered him in the 140s and leaves him unburied. 


I see. In the Zoroastrian tradition?


Nope. Out of disrespect. The equivalent of basically throwing his father in a sjip. He thereafter took the name Helioclese the Just.

As in Helioclese the Just awful, since within 20 years of taking power, Greco Bactria effectively dissolved as a Kingdom. 

Even coins minted in his reign are very poor quality with spelling mistakes.[office - you wanna send it out like that?] And there are loads of them too - probably suggesting that he was having to pay for lots of soldiers and mercenaries. The most delicious detail is that commemorative coins are minted paying tribute to his father’s conquests. The same father he literally murdered. Helioclese. You turd.

But he was just the final stinky cheese layer on the soggy lasagne of problems conspiring to bring down Greco Bactria.

Why did Greco-Bactria end?

  1. Parthia - while Eucratedes was conquering in India, Mithridates took Western Bactrian territory too in the early 140s. He may even got as far in as Bactra. And while an agreement was reached, Parthia had done a great deal of damage to Greco-Bactria.

  1. Trouble from nomads. As usual, one lot push another lot who push another lot. And what starts in Han China ends with the U-a-chi coming into Bactria and dominating the area. There’s even archaeological evidence that Ai Khanoum was attacked and then mainly abandoned by 145 BC.

  2. Civil unrest. Not surprisingly, Helioclese wasn’t super popular. And while establishing a timeline is difficult, we get the strong impression that his reign definitely didn’t go uncontested.

So the Hellenic population move out of Bactria and into Sogdia to the north and east India, where Greek Kingdoms last decades longer. But we definitely know that in the next few decades, Greco-Bactris is definitely done.

In 126 BC, a Chinese ambassador visited Bactria and reports that the area has no great ruler but petty chiefs, who are of the U-a-chi. But he says that while the people can't fight, they are pretty good at commerce.

And while he seems odd that Greco-Bactris should dissolve so quickly, the one thing that the Batrians were consistent at was instability. No new regime could last much longer than two kings:

  • Euphemis overthrew the Diodotids.

  • Eucratedes ousted the Euphedemids

  • Eucratedes was then assassinated by his own son.

And when they weren’t killing each otyher, they were trying to kill other Hellenic rulers in India.

And this is just what we know.

When archaeologists surveyed the damage at Ai Khanoumm, they found stone missiles from catapults in the walls. This wasn’t a nomadic. This probably came from fellow Greeks. Just as likely to be a civil war. Then throw some nomads into the mix and it’s little wonder that the place imploded in such a short time.

But Bactria had theatres, gymnasiums, iconography. All the Greek goodness which was consciously laid down to convince thousands of Greek soldiers and colonists "hey it's nice here. No need to go home." Because the first thing people tried to do on hearing of the death of Alexander was go home.

But they stayed and Greek culture lived on in Bactria.


Just because we find Greek looking things in Bactria, we shouldn't say "hey, isn't it weird that there was a Greek civilisation in Afghanistan or India?" because strictly it wasn't. It was something new. Something Greco-Bactrian or Indo-Greek. 

In the same way, a place like the USA or even Canada or Australia isn't British. It's something new and distinct.

And just because a power structure collapses, people don’t just stop living the way they’ve been living overnight. 

Just because Ai Khanoum is abandoned, life goes on. Canals are maintained, agriculture continues. There's no dark age.

The Kushan Empire, founded by nomads in the 1st century AD, used the same iconography for their gods, Greco Bactrian letters are still going on coins. We even see a continuity of Greco Bactrian architecture, with the odd column popping up. 

These Central Asian nomads aren't saying, "oh let's borrow things from Greeks." No, they're saying this is local. This is what we do.


Are you local?


So, Greco Bactria is done. No more Greek kingdoms in the East, thank you very much. Right, that’s me done for the day. Reckon I’ll clock out, crack open a Heinie and settle down for a marathon of Baywatch Nights.

Although the Kingdom of Greco-Bactria was finished, the Kingdoms of the Indo-Greeks persisted.



Where were the kingdoms of the Indo-Greeks?

If you thought that evidence for the Greco-Bactrians was feeble, strap in for the flimsy Indo Greeks. But we can say that Indo-Greek territory covered Afghanistan, Pakistan and NW India from 185 BC into the 1st century AD.--

Bactria was exotic enough, but India was a land of far off wonder to the ancient Greeks with the first recorded Greek apparently having visited the Indian subcontinent in 515BC. The general feeling back in Greece was that India was populated by people with dogs heads and, for some strange reason, gold digging ants.


Gold digging ants?

"They take my picnic when I'm in need.

Yeah, they steal my trifles and all my brie.

They’re good digging ant...."   

Quiet now.

Who was the first Greek to invade India?

That’ll be in 327 BC when Alexander conquered into the Indus River Basin and the Punjab. He was keen to venture further in, but his men hated the heat, hostile natives and presumably spending extended periods on the toilet.

So Alexander made local rulers his satraps but left some of his own generals to ensure their good behaviour. But instead Alexander’s generals promptly started murdering each other, as Alexander’s generals tended to do. 

So these Indian provinces were technically part of the Macedonian Empire, but weren't really being supervised.

In 322 BC, the area was conquered by Chandragupta Maurya who took over the region and established his Mauryan Empire. The largest empire in Indian history.

Pop quiz: Second largest?

But by the time of Euphemedes and Demetrious, the land was divided kingdoms once again. Great news for them, as western expansion was off the cards thanks to the treaty with Antiochus the Great.

So in 185BC, Demetrious leads troops into the Hindu Kush "reinstating" Greek rule. Founded or renames a city in Arakosia (modern day Kandahar) called Demetrious.

By the way, Kandahar literally comes from the name Alexander. The ancient Greek settlement in Kandahar was called Alexandria in Arakosia.

Demetriou's Indian conquests were then ruled by Agathocles (probably Demetrious's son) and Panteleon, who either co-ruled or one after the other. 

And just to keep the record straight, this occurred while Euphedemis II was ruling in Bactria.

Agathocles does two interesting things - first, he uses two languages on his coins - both Greek and the local language in his coins. He also makes them square in shape in step with Indian currency. At that the time, he conquered Taxila (modern day Pakistan) - which was the most important city in the area.

But Agathocles didn’t treat his kingdom as anything new - minting coins commemorating Bactrian rulers including Alexander the Great, Euphedemes I and Demetrius I. Remember, it’s not totally clear whether everybody sees the Indian and Bactrian kingdoms as completely separate or if this is basically a co-ruler deal. It’s like when the Roman Empire splits into Western and Eastern. Is it one empire? Most people at the time would have said so.

Back in Bactria in 170, Eucratedes overthrows the Euphedemids and (as we’ve already heard) he campaigns against Demetrious II. We all know what happens to Eucratedes and the Greco Bactria.


Demetrious II? What happened to Agotohocles.



After the war with Bacria, the Indo Greeks have to consolidate and rebuild. Welcome to the stage, Menander I Soter.

Who was Menander I?

We think he was of the Euphedemid family and came to throne in 155bc. THis would explain why Euratedes went after him, since Eucratedes had overthrown the Euphedemids back in Bactria.

Menander then used Gandara (modern day Pakistan) as a base to invade into India - pushing further than Alexander the Great - Menander marched south into Gujarat  - much further than rather than Alexander's limits of Punjab.


Right, but I think that Alexander would point out that he had conquered all the way from Macedon. Whereas Menander was already in the neighbourhood. So he didn’t exactly outdo Alexander.


Oh, I’m sorry. Who got as far as Gujarat?




Right. And what do you think Alexander would say about that?


I think he would cry, because there were more lands to conquer.

But it might even go further than that. For one thing, we find coins of Menander in the Bay of Kumbhat, even further south. That’s not to say that Menander conquered that far south. After all, coins that Menander minted were also found in Hampshire, England - and we’re not saying that Menander was King of Hampshire, or are we?


V/o: Could it be true that King Menander I Soter ruled over Hampshire in England? Professor Doctor Chip Frisbee of Patriot Bible University, Colorado implies it with questions he has no intention of answering.

0:55 - 1:07

Several sources say that Indo Greeks went through Utah Pradesh and reached the Ganges, besieging Pali Putra. If you don’t know where that is, you don’t need to look it up on a map. But we’re talking about modern East India, a few hundred miles from Bangladesh!

And yes, these are raids. We’re not talking about a territorial empire. But we hear about these Greek raids in Indian accounts which refer to them as the Yahvanas.

What were Indo-Greek cities like?

The problem with building cities in India is that it’s a densely settled place and Indian ruins are generally covered with thousands of years of subsequent habitation. But there are definite physical traces of Indo Greek cities and we handily have Indian sources attesting to others.

Probably the most important settled city was Taksila (modern day Pakistan), but then it was an important city for ages, so we’re unlikely to find a Greek city in there. More like a chaotic mix of lots of civilisations.

Serkat was a much more recognisably Greek grid system of streets with Ionian and Corinthian columns, Hellenic temples, and bungalows.

But Menander's most important city was his capital - Sagala or Sakala in the Punjab. Accounts of the time describe the place:

"A great centre of trade, situated in a delightful country. Well watered and hilly, abounding in parks and gardens and groves and lakes. A paradise of rivers and mountains and woods. Wise architects have laid it out. Brave is its defence, with many and various strong towers and ramparts. With superb gates and entrance archways with the royal citadel in its midst. White walled and deeply moated. Well laid out are its streets, squares, crossroads and marketplaces."

Ancient TripAdvidor was just much better written.

And it probably doesn't need to be said, but India was riiiich in gems and gold. The wealth allowed the Indo Greeks to mint amazing coins. In 1st BC, the Indo Greeks struck the largest silver coins found in antiquity - 2.5 inches in diameter.

The Indo Greeks facilitated trade between the Chinese and the West. And even in India, the coins featured the Greek gods - but there's a more obvious blend. There are Greek coins featuring Hindu gods. On another coin it's Zeus riding on the back of an elephant! And as we've said, we also get the local language. So Menander is both Basileus (in the Greek tradition) and Maharajasa (in the Indian tradition).

We get inscriptions from people invoking both Greek and Hindu gods and using both a Greek and Indian name by which they can be identified. Not so weird, because the same thing was going on in Seleucid Mesopotamia and Ptolemaic Egypt.

How did the Indians see the Greeks?

They initially called them Yona - from Ionians, which then was extended to anyone from the West, including the Parthians and later the Romans. They also saw them as barbarians, Melechas - since Greeks were outside the caste system.



And they also tended to plunder and kill quite a lot.


Fair enough.

But the Greeks as foreign devils was the Brahmin view. Since the Indo Greeks sponsored Buddhism, Buddhist texts describe Menander as the wise and the just. And it’s no surprise. The Brahmins wanted Buddhism out of India, so in the Greeks Buddhists found protectors. And that’s had an interesting impact on the development of Buddhism.

There is a fictional account of Menander’s conversion to Buddhism which also describes his capital of Sagala, his advisory council and even the grid system that the city was built on. While it's not a historical record, the "Questions of King Melinda" (as it's called) sound suspiciously Socratic.

When Menander died he had his body cremated and placed into stupors (monuments) in India and Bactria. The cremation bit. Very Greek. The stupor bit? Very Buddhist.


Woah! So there was Greek Buddhist king!


Probably yes, except the other kinds who had their remains interred in monuments were Macedonian kings?


Bloody clickbait.

Well, not quite. It's probably no coincidence that the action would have been taken to please both Greek and Buddhist subjects. It's just good PR all round. In the same way, Buddhist temples have been found that were built or expanded during the Indo Greek Kingdom. The sponsorship of local religions was pretty much standard operating procedure for Hellenistic monarchs.

But let's not write it off entirely. In the West he was revered as a conqueror almost to rival Alexander. In some traditions of the East, he was revered practically as a Buddhist saint. And there's no smoke without incense.


One place we see a definite blend is in art, which has been called Greco-Buddhist. 

Before the 2nd century AD, the Buddha was never depicted in human form. Most likely because the Buddha stressed the immaterial and so followers would see worshipping a figure as problematic. The Buddha was supposed to have achieved Nirvana, transcending the human form. It was basically blasphemy.

But after the 2nd century people were like…

Cartman: (0:40)

Whatever…I do what I want.

There's something in the most famous image of the Buddha which is unlike other depictions of him. The folds of his clothes are Greco-Roman. The Buddha is now reminiscent of Emperor Augustus. He also has a nimbus, or halo, over his head which was only find in Greek, Roman and Parthian art to represent deities. Especially Apollo which the Buddha closely resembles. The hair is slightly curled. 

In other imagery, the Buddha has a muscle bound henchman carrying a club with a cloak called Vajrapani. Squint your eyes a bit and it's costly Heracles! The same Heracles that Menander also had on his coins and just about everywhere else.

And that's not all. Figures from Greek mythology made their way into Indian art - Hippocampuses, Narids and Atlas the titan.n still another example, there's an Indian rendering of the Trojan horse story.

Anyway, back to Kings and things.

The great patron of Buddhism, Menander, died in 130BC. 

And he’s the last Indo Greek ruler to be mentioned in a Greco-Roman text.

20 more kings and queens that rule for another 140 years, which we know about mainly through coinage.

After Menander came Strato I and the quote unquote godlike queen Agotheclea - suggesting she was likely wife of Menander and mother of Strato. And another figure called something like…Zoilus I?

19 Of Zoidberg's Absolute Best Quotes From Futurama - YouTube (0:14 - “Hooray! People are paying attention to me!”)

It seems like Menander’s kingdom was divided into four sections - Kandara, the Hindu Kush, Arakosia and the Punjab. We don’t know if this was by design or because of civil war. But if we know anything about monarchies in general (and Hellenistic monarchies in particular) it was that there would have been a rather fickle policy of alliance followed by backstabbing on a grand scale.

One King Antiochidus, started to put Hindu gods on his coins - perhaps an attempt to get the support of the local populace or neighbouring powers.

But whichever way you paint it, 4 rival and small kingdoms are a tempting target for outsiders. The nomadic Sythians (also known to Indians as the Saka) were pushed out of Parthia in 120 BC so turned their attention East, bypassed the Uashi (who now dominated Bactria) and invaded the Indo-Greek kingdom - by 85BC they toppled the Indo-Greek ruler of Kandara - a man named Archapeos. From there the first Indo-Saka kingdom was set up with its capital of Taksila.

And yes, the other Greek kingdoms did invade and reclaim Kandara, but this was then retaken by Apollodotus II. We know this because his name is stamped over the Indo-Saka coins. But the Saka retook Kandara by 56 BC. And this kind of bun fight carries on.

And since our records are now based solely on coins, it seems useful to talk about them. By the mid first century BC, coinage after Apollodorus’ reign is very poor quality - much smaller coins (because of the debasement of coinage) complete with blocky pictures and spelling mistakes. The silver mines were drying up and new sources of silver (like in Bactria) were difficult to access because of hostile nomad kingdoms.

Based on coinage, the final Greek rulers in the area were ironically in the most Eastern part of any Greek settlement - the Punjab. The last Indo-Greek king was either Strato II or Strato III.

We generally say that the end of the Hellenistic Age comes with the death of Cleopatra - who has been called the last ruling heir of Alexander. But that honour may go to King Strato of Punjab - and by another 40 years.

Either way Strato was overthrown by 10AD.

His last coins show an old man drawn in Playdough with barely legible lettering and a crude drawing of the goddess Athena. It’s the ZX Spectrum of ancient coins.

300 years after the invasion of Alexander and 200 years after the invasion of Demetrious, the last outpost of Eastern Hellenism was over.

I just wish they'd have left more evidence of their presence.

*Where are the Greeks?

What's wrong with the west, mama?

Seleucuds actin' like they ain't your brothers

I think the Parthians wanna stir up drama

Antiochous got spears and loadsa armour

In Bactria we tryna keep Hellenism

Foes don't want Hellenism, here livin

The mythology, and philipsophy

Architecture with Doric columns aint their cuppa tea.

But if you only back EUF-edemis

Then you're gonna lack Eucratedes

Who builds up Ai Khanoum, more living room

Helioclese killing spree means Bactria’s doom.

Indo kingdoms is the next step

But Greek lookin Budda don't get us rep.

Man, you gotta have proof just to set them straight

Was Menander or Alexander really great?

Coins are minted, no docs surviving

Historians hurt, hear them cryin'

Can we break down Afghan speech

Are you sure you can’t hear Greek?

Archy, Archy, Archaeology help us

Cos the evidence is weak 

'Cause people got me, got me questionin'

Where are the Greeks (Greeks).

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