The Anabasis

B.C. 326 TO B.C. 320

"Some talk of Alexander...."

Who does not know the context? Who also does not think that he knows

who Alexander was, who could not, if necessary, reel off a succinct

account of his character, his conquests?

And yet, though most know of his Anabasis, how few have really grasped

the picturesque points of his grand sweep on India. Who, for instan

has properly appraised and inwardly digested, until it remains as a

living picture in the mind's eye for ever, that quaint thirty days'

halt of the Macedonian legions on the western bank of the Indus, while

on the eastern lay, ripe for plucking, the rich harvest of the fertile

plains of India?

It was not a halt of preparation. Hephaistion had already swung the

barges across the tumultuous swirls of the great river, and a bridge,

unstable, yet firm, lay ready for use. The cohorts were eager.

Taxiles, the Indian king, had sent from the Takhsha, or Snake-City,

over the water, half a million of tribute, and an advance guard of

seven hundred horsemen and thirty caparisoned elephants. For he was

wily, and the Western army would aid him against his hereditary enemy

the great Porus, or Puar, a representative, doubtless, of the Rajput

tribe of that name, who reigned beyond the next river--the Jhelum.

So there was no real need for this prolonged rest, for this fateful

pause, ere the West reached out its hand and gripped the East. Still,

Alexander deemed it necessary for the purpose, as Arrian puts it

naively, of "offering sacrifice to the gods to whom he was in the

habit of sacrificing."


He had conquered many other lands. Whence came this hesitation, this

desire for divine guidance? And wherefore did Taxiles, sacrificing to

the gods to whom he was not in the habit of sacrificing, send over

three thousand oxen and ten thousand sheep as victims?

Who can say? All we know is, that the sacrifices were favourable to

the crossing, as they were bound to be since Alexander had made up his

mind to it. Whereupon he "celebrated a gymnastic and horse contest

near the river"; those who took part in it, doubtless, wearing crowns

of the ivy leaves which the Macedonian legions, as Arrian writes, had

found at Mount Merus to their great delight, "for they had not seen

any for a long time. So they eagerly made garlands of it, singing

hymns in honour of Dionysus."

It must have been a pleasant rest, a jolly time, those thirty days of

February and March spent by the sliding river. Those of us who know

Northern India have memories of many such a sojourn in the enchanted

no-man's-land of a Punjab river-bed, where the soil on which the tent

is pitched one year may be deep stream the next, and the great solemn

cranes stalk amongst the young green wheat, and the flocks of

flamingoes show rosy-red in the sunrises. Bright, bracing memories

these, full, as it were, of the wild wings of many quaint aquatic

birds, full of the deep spoors of the heavy black buffaloes, and the

motionless grey logs of bottle-nosed crocodiles.

Alexander's army, however, had no such mise en scene. At

Attock--about which place the bridge must have spanned the Indus--the

river rushes between fixed rocky banks; the uneven country is broken

by ravines, or, rather, deep clefts, which look as though they had

been split open in the barren, undulating valley by the burning summer

heat of the sun. And all around, upon a near horizon, rise, curiously

opalescent at all times, whether red by day or white by moonlight, a

circle of rocky hills. Elusive hills, distant at one moment, seeming

to crush in the valley at another.

One can imagine them rose-red in the dawn, when the order came at

last, and Alexander the Invincible closed in grips with his new


Plain sailing at first, despite the false alarm of the last day's

march to Taxila, when a complete army in order of battle was seen on

the horizon, and startled Alexander into instant dispositions for

attack, until this display of force was proved to be an Indian form of

honourable reception. The Serpent-City, yielded up to him by its

willing ruler without a blow, gave occasion "for more sacrifices which

were customary for him to offer."

Once again, however, not customary to "Taxiles the Indian," who must

have watched this honouring of strange gods with furtive, wily eyes,

thinking the while of Porus, with the whole of his mighty army waiting

on the further side of the Jhelum River for this upstart Western

conqueror as a spider waits a fly.

Here at Taxila, also, "the king of the Mountaineer-Indians sent

envoys, the embassy including the king's brother, as well as the other

most notable men." This is one version of the story. Another is that

Alexander fought a pitched battle with the mountaineers, defeating

them, of course; but this is negatived by Arrian's distinct assertion

that when the conqueror moved Jhelum-wards in May, he left behind him

only "soldiers who were invalided by sickness."

In those days Taxila was a University city, one of the largest in the

East--rich, luxurious, populous--noted as the principal seat of

learning in Northern India. All that is left of it now is some miles

of ruins between Hasan-Abdal and Rawalpindi, and a few copper and

silver pieces, more ingots than coins, punched in quaint, rude

devices. To Alexander it was a hospitable resting-place, where king

vied with conqueror in lavish generosity of mutual gifting. Golden

crowns for the Macedonian and all his friends; caparisoned chargers,

Persian draperies, banqueting vessels for the king and courtiers.

Pleasant rain fell also, laying the Punjab dust, and hastening the

flower-buds to bursting.

But behind all the policy and the pleasure, like a low, distant

thunder cloud, lay Porus, with an army fifty thousand strong, biding

his time beyond the river.

He had to be faced; so, early in May, Alexander, his small force

augmented by a contingent from Taxila, arrived on the banks of the

Hydaspes. Very different weather now from what it had been in March.

The hot winds were blowing, the rocks and sand were all aglow, and in

its widening bed, as the Jhelum debauched from the hills, the river,

swollen by the melting of Himalayan snows, showed a turbulent flood,

separating him from his enemy, who, with all his army and his huge

troop of elephants, could be seen lining the opposite shore.

How to cross to him, how to give the invincible Macedonian cavalry

time to recover and re-form after a forced passage, was the problem

before Alexander.

He set his camp face to face with his enemy's, and sent back for the

boats with which he had crossed the Indus. A veritable burning of the

bridge behind him in a way; but Alexander never considered defeat.

The easiest plan would no doubt have been to wait comfortably encamped

till October chill should have checked the melting of summer snow;

but, once again, Alexander considered no delay.

So there ensued what Arrian terms "the stealing of a passage." Day and

night long the sentinels of Porus were given no rest. Flotillas of

boats went up and down the river, reconnaissance parties were here,

there, everywhere, menacing a ford; and all the while it was being

spread about that Alexander, baffled, disappointed, was fast making up

his mind to wait till winter.

Yet 16 miles upwards, almost among the mountains, behind a wooded

island which shut out the view southward, galleys, rafts, skins

stuffed with hay, everything needful for a forced passage was secretly

being prepared.

Night after night brought a feint of attack. As Arrian writes:--

"The cavalry was led along the bank in various directions, making a

clamour and raising the battle cry ... as if they were making all

preparations for crossing the river.... When this had occurred

frequently ... Porus no longer continued to move about also; but,

perceiving his fear had been groundless, he kept his position."

It was not, however, as Arrian calls it, by "marvellous audacity"

only, that Alexander finally succeeded in his object. As one reads the

minute precautions, the stringent orders, the foresight displayed for

every possible complication, one is forced to acknowledge the master

mind of the commander. Small wonder if the very heavens fought for

him. It was now July, month of torrential rains, fierce storms; and

one of these fell suddenly like a pall over Alexander's forced night

march of 16 miles--"The noise of the thunder," Arrian writes, "drowned

with its din the clatter of the weapons."

Thus, noisily yet secretly, the position was gained by the 11,000

picked troops led by Alexander in person. The storm passed; the dawn

rose, calm and bright, to find the Western soldiers across the stream,

crashing through the low undergrowth of what their general deemed was

the mainland. For it was July now, and the rains had brought that

marvellous luxuriance of sudden life which springs ever from the union

of sun and water. So we can imagine the well-greaved Greeks brushing

aside the low daphne bushes, and crushing under foot the trailing

arches of the ground maidenhair fern. To find disappointment await

them, as, standing on a further shore, they realised that they were on

an island, that before them lay another formidable channel, swollen by

the night's rain. For a while the cavalry could find no ford; when

found, it was but a swimming one. Yet even so, dripping, half-drowned,

the legions were over and deployed in the open, before any attempt at

opposition could be made.

So with Alexander at the head, the West did battle for the first time

with the East.

The result was foregone. Outnumbered as it was by nearly five to one,

Alexander's force was still one of veterans, and Alexander himself the

foremost military genius of his own or any age.

The story, then, of the great battle of the Hydaspes remains as a

lesson in warfare, and soldiers of to-day may pore over the sketch map

of it in admiration. Here, in this attempt to give Indian history in

picturesque form, all minor things, the magnificent charges of the

Macedonian cavalry, the desperate courage of the Indians, even the

awful carnage wrought by the maddened elephants cooped up within

narrow space, all these fade into insignificance before the tale--so

seldom told as it should be told--of the meeting of Alexander and

Porus after the battle was over in the eighth hour of the day. Let it

be told in Arrian's own words.

"When Porus, who exhibited great talent in the battle, performing

deeds not only of a general, but of a valiant soldier, observed the

slaughter of his cavalry ... and that most of his infantry had

perished, he did not depart, as Darius the Persian king did, setting

an example of flight to his men.... At last, having received a wound

... he turned his elephant round and began to retire.

"Alexander, having seen him valiant in battle, was very desirous of

saving his life. Accordingly, he sent to him first Taxiles the Indian,

who, riding up ... as near as seemed safe, bade him ... listen to

Alexander's message. But when he saw his old foe Taxiles, Porus

wheeled and prepared to strike him with a javelin, and would probably

have killed him, if he had not quickly driven his horse beyond reach.

But not even on this account was Alexander angry ... but kept sending

others in succession, and last of all Meroes the Indian ... an old

friend of Porus.

"As soon as the latter heard the message of Meroes, and being overcome

by thirst from his wound, he dismounted from his elephant. After he

had drank water and felt refreshed, he ordered Meroes to lead him

without delay to Alexander....

"And Alexander rode in front of the line with a few of the Companions

to meet him, and stopping his horse, admired the handsome figure and

the stature of Porus, which reached somewhat about 5 cubits (6 ft. 6

in.). He was also surprised that he did not seem to be cowed in

spirit, but advanced to meet him as one brave man would meet another

brave man.... Then, indeed, Alexander was the first to speak, bidding

him say what treatment he would like to receive.

"'Treat me, O Alexander, in a kingly way!'

"Alexander, pleased, said: 'For my own sake, O Porus, I do that, but

for thine, do thou demand what is pleasing unto thee.'

"But Porus said all things were included in that, whereupon Alexander,

being still more pleased, not only granted him the rule over his own

Indians, but also added another country of larger extent than the

former to what he had before. Thus he treated the brave man in a

kingly way, and from that time found him faithful in all things."

A fine picture this; one which does not readily desert the mind's eye

when once it has found place there. And a fine beginning also to the

dealings of the West with the East. Pity that in the years to come the

same policy was not always adopted.

In commemoration of this victory a town was founded on the

battle-field, and another near the present one of Jhelum, in memory of

the horse "Bucephalus," who died there full of years and honour; not,

as Arrian says,

"from having been wounded by any one, but from the effects of toil and

old age; for he was about thirty years old, and quite worn out with

toils. He had shared many hardships and incurred many dangers with

Alexander, being ridden by none but the King, because he rejected all

other riders."

The triumphal progress through the Doabs, which ensued on Alexander's

passage of the Hydaspes, was only checked by the stout resistance of

Sangala, a fortified town as yet unidentified. But with the help of a

fresh contingent brought by Porus, it was razed to the ground as a

punishment for its stubborn and useless resistance.

And now before the conqueror lay the river Beas; beyond it, a nation

by repute brave, well equipped, more civilised than those through

which he had passed like a flaming sword. His own courage rose high;

to him "there seemed no end of the wars so long as anything hostile to

him remained."

But the spirit of the soldiers had begun to flag. It was now

September, the most trying month in Upper India. The lassitude born of

long heat disposed the men to listen to the tales of gigantic heroes

beyond the water, and so the exhortations of their leader fell on deaf

ears. Yet, as given by Arrian, the words were stirring beyond compare.

"If they had come so far, why should they shrink from adding further

lands to their Empire of Macedonia? To brave men there was no end to

labours except the labours themselves, provided they led to glorious

achievements. The distance to the Eastern ocean was not great, and

that must be united to their own familiar sea, since the Great Waters

encircled the earth. If they went back, the races they had conquered,

not being as yet firm in allegiance, might revolt. Oh! Macedonian and

Grecian Allies stand firm! Glorious are the deeds of those who undergo

labours, who live a life of valour, and die, leaving behind them

immortal glory."

But the words only provoked a long silence. And so the flaming sword

turned back; but the great fighting heart of its holder seems to have

been left behind in the old bed of the Beas River, where, on its

furthest bank, as a memorial of what would have happened but for dull

humanity, he erected twelve huge altars--

"equal in height to the loftiest military towers, while exceeding them

in breadth; to serve both as a thank-offering to the gods who had led

him so far as a conqueror, and also to serve as monuments of his own

labours. And after completing them, he offered sacrifices on them" (to

the gods to whom he was in the habit of sacrificing, doubtless!), "and

celebrated a gymnastic and equestrian contest."

A very different festivity this from that upon the banks of the Indus;

and we can imagine the great leader coming back across the wide stream

in his oared galley from the useless, unreal ceremonial, with bent

head and arms crossed like Napoleon on his way to St Helena.

A picture that fittingly may end the story of Alexander in India; for

the record of his retreat is a record of success without aim, beyond

the discovery of the Great Sea which encircles the whole Earth.

There is something intensely pathetic in this story of his choice of

the river Hydaspes as his means of retreat, of the infinite care for

every unit in his force which he showed before that approach of the

dawn in late October, when, without confusion, without disorder, he

poured a libation out of a golden goblet from the prow of his vessel

into the stream, in the name of his gods and the three great rivers,

the Jhelum, the Chenab, the Indus, to whom he trusted; then,

doubtless, flinging the cup of gold far into the sliding water,

ordered the signal for starting seawards to be given with the trumpet.

So in slow, stately, orderly procession (the "noise of the rowing"

mingling with "the cries of the captains, the shouts of the

boatswains," and the choric "songs of farewell from the natives who

ran along the banks, into a veritable battle cry"), he passed down to

the Great Ocean. The voyage took a year, and he reached the sea coast

not very far from where Kurrachee now stands. Practically, Alexander

was in India proper but nineteen months, and the outward result of his

flaming sword had passed almost before his premature death at Babylon,

a year and a half after he left its shores. But, though India remained

outwardly as ever "splendidly isolated," forgetful of the West, she

had felt the Hellenic power; she feels it still. In every little

village "Jullunder" (Alexander) is still a name wherewith to conjure,

and the village doctor still claims, with pride, to follow the Yunani

(Ionian) system of medicine.

That the former should be the case is surely small wonder. India

is ever the slave of vitality, and Alexander was vital to the

finger-tips. What else could be said of the man who, finding himself

checked in an assault on a stronghold, leapt from the bastion into the

fort, and, supporting himself against the wall, kept the enemy at bay

with his sword, till one by one his followers, maddened by the sight

of their beloved leader's danger, followed him in time to rescue him,

wounded, fainting?

But the deed which, of all others, Arrian extols as the most noble

deed ever performed by Alexander, took place in this wise in the

desert. His army, parched with thirst, were stumbling on blindly, led,

as usual in times of distress, by Alexander on foot.

To him, weary and exhausted, returned scouts, bearing with them water

collected in a helmet with great difficulty from some cleft in a

distant rock.

He took it, thanking the bearers, but immediately poured it upon the

ground in sight of all. "As a result of this," Arrian writes, "the

entire army was reinvigorated to so great a degree that any one would

have imagined that the water so lavished had furnished draught for

every man."

Truly, though he left little of sovereignty behind him, Alexander left

enough pictures imprinted on the soil of Hindustan to furnish forth

many a gallery.