The Mallian Campaign: Conquest Through Terror?

In this post I continue my look at Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington. For an explanation of this series, visit the first post here.


In only one week, all of the Mallian towns west of the Hydraortes [sic] were taken and their inhabitants slaughtered in this “conquest through terror”.

As you can see, when Worthington says that Alexander pursued a ‘conquest through terror’, he is quoting another writer. That person is A. B. Bosworth who uses the phrase in Alexander and the East: The Tragedy of Triumph.

What do Worthington and Bosworth mean by a conquest through terror? So far as Worthington is concerned(1), the answer is clear: Alexander defeated the Mallians by slaughtering them. All of them. That was the terror – that no quarter was given to anyone. Soldier or civilian.


Why did Alexander resort to such a ruthless tactic? The answer to this may lie in the intelligence that he received prior to beginning the campaign regarding what kind of fighters the Mallians (and the Oxydracae) were.

According to Arrian (VI.4), Alexander was told that the Mallians and Oxydracae ‘were the most numerous and warlike of the Indians in that part of the country’. So, having decided to conquer both, he knew that he would have to come down hard on them; all of them.


This is what happened. After entering Mallian territory, Alexander attacked one town out of the (Sandar-Bar) desert killing Mallians in the field whether they were armed or not, and whether they resisted him or not. The town was then put under siege and all its defenders slaughtered (Arrian VI.6-7). At the same time, Perdiccas killed Mallians fleeing from another town (Arr. VI.7).

Having taken the first town, Alexander returned to the banks of the Hydraotes. There, he killed any Mallian refugees that he came across (Ibid). Any? Actually, no, not quite. Arrian (Ibid) tells us that he took some prisoner. Most of these, however, escaped to a fortified location, which Peithon then successfully assaulted. The survivors were enslaved.

A Mallian fortress was the next to fall. Most of the defenders died fighting (Arr. VI.8). Arrian tells us that only a handful survived (Ibid). They, presumably, were reduced to slavery as well.

A pause in operations now followed. When Alexander came to the next Mallian settlements he found that they were all deserted – the Indians had wisely fled the coming storm (Ibid). But Alexander was not yet done. He ordered Peithon and a cavalry officer named Demetrius to take an infantry detachment back to the Hydraotes and scour the countryside for any Mallian refugees. He told them to ‘kill all of [the refugees] who refused to give themselves up’ (Ibid).

After resting his men, Alexander returned once more to the Hydraotes. There, he took part in his third river bank confrontation (Arr. VI.8-9). Well, kind of. For though the Mallians held the far bank against him, as soon as Alexander began his advance across the river, they withdrew inland.

Arrian says that when the Mallians realised that Alexander was advancing with only his cavalry, they ‘offered a vigorous resistance’ (Arr. VI.8), but no actual battle appears to have taken place. Instead, Alexander simply kept the Indians at bay with ‘manoeuvring’ (Ibid) and probing attacks.

Given what they must have known about Alexander’s ruthlessness along with their own reputation for being ‘warlike’ (Arr. VI.4), why did the Mallians not attack? According to Arrian, they had the numbers, being ‘some 50,000 strong’. All Alexander had was his cavalry – a few thousand at most. One wonders if reports of the Mallians ‘warlike’ nature had been exaggerated. Who was it who supplied Alexander with this intelligence, after all, if not rival Indian tribes.

The question of how strong the Mallians really were becomes even more pressing when we read that upon the arrival of the Agrianes, archers, and ‘some picked units of light infantry’, the Mallians promptly broke ranks and fled into a nearby fortified settlement. Okay, they would also have seen the Macedonian heavy infantry approaching behind the advance troops but they were still 50,000 in number. Were there that many women and children, perhaps? Or did they just lack the inner strength to fight, or maybe a leader to guide them?

Alexander laid siege to the settlement and there undertook the most heroic action of his life when he jumped into the courtyard of the settlement’s citadel alone to fight the Mallians inside. The Macedonians had brought up scaling ladders but been slow – reluctant – to climb them. Filled with impatience (and no doubt anger as this was the second time in the Mallian operation that it had happened), Alexander climbed the ladder and jumped down into the courtyard. Three men, Peucestas, Leonnatus and a soldier named Abreas followed him but for a long moment, Alexander was quite alone. He fought bravely but was felled by an Indian arrow. He would have died but for the timely arrival behind him of his three officers.

They protected the king until the Macedonian army managed to break into the courtyard. Some climbed over the walls, others heaved the citadel gates open. A general slaughter then took place – Indian men, women, and children were all killed (Arr. VI.9-11).


The citadel assault marks the end of the Mallian campaign. As Alexander recovered from his injuries, the Mallians and Oxydracae both formally surrendered. Alexander accepted their submission and, after appointing a governor to rule over them, continued his journey down the Hydraotes.

As said above, Ian Worthington suggests that the Mallian campaign was an act of ‘conquest through terror’ because of the wholesale slaughter that took place. But it wasn’t quite like that. Surrenders were taken.

With that said, I still agree with him that this was a ‘conquest through terror’ on the grounds that not only did Alexander conduct the campaign with greater violence than was necessary but that those Indians who survived were not set free but enslaved.

All in all it was certainly his most brutal and repressive campaign. Much more so than even the Bactria-Sogdia campaign of 329-27.


The ultimate purpose of the Mallian campaign was to bring their territory into the empire. This is proved by Alexander’s appointment of a governor to rule over them. Had the Mallians and Oxydracae surrendered at the outset, it would not have happened. This is why, when they surrendered, the Indian ambassadors made a point of explaining why they had failed ‘to treat with him earlier’ (Arr. VI.14).


Did Alexander need to act as cruelly as he did? The answer has to be no. But let’s not say that we see anything new here. The Mallian campaign does not signify the emergence of a new, darker Alexander; he could be very clement, sometimes, but he also had form for great ruthlessness. The razing of Thebes in 335 and despoiling of Persepolis in 330 show this. Also, the mass crucifixions at Tyre (332 – Diodorus XVII.46), destruction of Gaza (332 – Arr. II.27), as well as the judicial murder of Philotas in 330 and murder of Black Cleitus in 328 all speak to his ruthless streak.

I would like to propose that Alexander conducted this ‘conquest through terror’ because that’s what he felt the campaign required in order to succeed. It was a pragmatic decision possibly (or definitely if Arrian’s account is true) based upon false information.

At this point, I don’t believe that his anger and disappointment at having to turn back from the Hyphasis river – though an influence on him – or any damage done to his long term mental health by his injuries had a defining effect on his thinking.

(1) Unfortunately, I don’t have Bosworth’s book in my possession so I can’t look up the context in which he uses the phrase

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