Bactria

Yesterday I read Alexander the Great and Bactria by Frank L. Holt. The book is published by E. J. Brill and I can confirm that for me it was. Holt offers some very valuable insights into Bactria’s pre-Alexandrian history. He also has a few words to say about what happened after Alexander left; though, as the title indicates, the focus of the book is on the Macedonian king’s visit (329 – 327 B.C.).
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Ever since I became interested in the life and times of Alexander the Great the temptation for me has been to focus on the first half of his expedition – all that happened between Greece and Babylon. That was where he fought his three major battles, and won the Persian Empire, after all; what could that most strange and unknown part of the world, the ancient far-east, have to offer to compete with that?
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Firstly, it had Alexander’s fourth major battle that I had conveniently forgotten about. It also had some of his most intense personal dramas; for example, the murder of Black Cleitus and his seemingly inexplicable marriage to a barbarian princess; it also had some serious military dramas, too – Alexander was injured more times after Babylon than ever he was before*.
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The east also gave the Macedonian king some of his most fabulous triumphs; for example, the crossing of the Hindu Kush and scaling of the Sogdian Rock – as well as most serious reverses; e.g. the crossing of the Gedrosian desert. Therefore, the far-east most certainly deserves to be remembered, read and written about. So, that is why I am writing this post. I must also give credit, though, to Alexander’s Army for putting the thought of Bactria in my head in the first place, (thanks, specifically, to this discussion). It isn’t the first time Alexander’s Army has inspired me and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
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Back to Bactria. A wild and primitive place? Poor and inconsequential? Before reading Alexander the Great and Bactria that is what I might have said about it. Holt put me right, though.
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According to Holt ‘[s]ome scholars’ (Holt, p. 39) believe that Darius I’s parents were ‘former Bactrian rulers’ (Ibid). Whether they were or weren’t, Bactria was of sufficient interest to Darius (549-486 B.C.) that he made his son, Ariamenes, its satrap. I’m not clear as to whether Darius’ son and heir, Xerxes, held that office prior to becoming the Great King, but after succeeding his father as Great King he appointed his son as satrap.
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What did Bactria offer that made it so important? As Alexander found when he marched from Bactra to the Oxus River, part of the country is desert. But, citing Ammianus Marcellinus, Holt notes that it was ‘a fertile region with good grazing lands along the higher plains and in the mountains’ (Holt, p. 18). Marcellinus also praises ‘the quality of Bactrian flocks, including their proverbially strong camels’ (Holt, pp. 18-19). They must have been strong indeed to get a proverbial reputation for it!
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Holt (p. 35) notes how Plutarch in his De Alexandri Magni Fortuna aut Virtute (L. 328C-329D) gives Alexander the credit for civilising the Bactrians,

Alexander… taught the Arachosians to till the soil, and persuaded the Sogdians to support rather than slay their parents… He induced the Indians to accept the Greek gods, and the Scythians to bury rather than eat the dead… He taught the Gedrosians the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles… Thanks to Alexander, Bactria and the Caucasus peoples worship the gods of Greece… He planted Greek institutions all across Asia, and thus overcame its wild and savage way of living… His enemies could not have been civilized if they had not been beaten… Greekness was marked by excellence, but wickedness was the way of the barbarians.

I have to confess I had never heard of this text before. However, I have now found (a different translation of) it here.
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Plutarch is almost amusing in his bias. As I see it, the fertile countryside and close attention of senior Persians is as strong an indication as I can think of that the country that was in its own way civilised**.
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We need not limit this statement to the period of Darius I and afterwards – Holt points out that archaeological surveys have discovered ‘ample evidence for the early development of irrigation, commerce, and fortified cities in ancient Central Asia’ (Holt, p. 27). ‘Palatial architecture’ (Ibid) has been discovered – which I take to mean either the remains of palaces or high status homes – and ‘temple structures’ (Ibid).  The region went through its ups and downs (much like Greece with its own dark age) but we certainly do not appear to be dealing with primitive peoples here.
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How did Bactria achieve its developed state? Holt says that archaeologists are coming to the view that a ‘Bactrian miracle’ occurred rather than a Persian or even Median one (Holt, p. 33). This suggests to me that not only did Bactrians have the right amount of food to live on but they also enjoyed the peace and cultural life necessary for a country to be able to develop.
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After crossing the Hindu Kush, Alexander marched to Bactra unopposed. From there, he made his way to the Oxus River, this time opposed only by the fierce heat of the desert. It seems that Bactria, like Egypt, was a country ready and waiting to join his empire.
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Things went wrong, though. Holt puts the blame on Alexander’ construction of Alexandria-Eschate (Alexandria the Furthest) on the Bactria-Sogdiana border. The natives regarded this as an intolerable infringement upon their way-of-life and took up arms. Eighteen months of bitter fighting followed.
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How did it end? Holt says that while the death of (the principle rebel leader) Spitamenes, was ‘significant’ it was not ‘decisive’ (Holt, p. 67). Rather, ‘[i]t was rather the king’s treatment of the remaining Sogdian chieftains which ameliorated the situation’ (Ibid). What did Alexander do? Well, stop killing them for a start, then he gave them their previous positions of power back.
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One other important thing also happened to bring peace to Bactria-Sogdiana: Alexander married Roxane, daughter of Oxyartes, a Bactrian nobleman. Curtius says she was ‘a woman of remarkable physical beauty with a dignified bearing rarely found in barbarians’ (8. 4. 23). And, indeed, prejudiced Roman writers! Her marriage to Alexander, though, is best understood as being of the same kind as Philip II’s to his various wives – a wholly political affair.
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By-the-bye, Curtius says that their first meeting took place at a banquet and not after the capture of the Sogdian Rock. He also says that the banquet was arranged by Oxyartes with ‘typical barbaric extravagance’ (Ibid); a final piece of proof that Bactria – for all the political upheaval that had affected it – and Oxyartes were both very wealthy.
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* If you would like to read more about Alexander’s injuries, I wrote about them here and here

** NB Bactria’s economy did not rely on Bactrians. Holt mentions the historian Arnold Toynbee who visited the region in 1960. In Toynbee’s eyes,

Bactria provides a classic example of a geographical ’round-about’ where “routes converge from all quarters of the compass and from which routes radiate out to all quarters of the compass again.”
(Holt, p. 31)

An obvious example of the international trade that Bactria must have engaged in is that in the beautiful jewel, lapis lazuli, which made its way (I’m sure amongst other places) to the Egyptian court.

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One thought on “Bactria

  1. It is nice to see you’re following other Alexander blogs. I’m learning. The Plutarch translation is amazing, but I don’t think India and Persia were so uncivilized. Wasn’t that only Plutarch’s opinion? He had his own agenda, writing for the Romans who admired the Greeks.

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