Indians: Nearchos, Megasthenes, and Arrian (fourth century BCE-second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indians: Nearchos, Megasthenes, and Arrian (fourth century BCE-second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 29, 2024,

Ancient authors: Nearchos (late fourth century BCE), FGrHist 133, and Megasthenes (early third century BCE), FGrHist 715 (link to FGrHist), as cited by Arrian of Nikomedia, Anabasis, book 8 = Indian Matters (link), various passages regarding peoples of India and their customs.

Comments: Arrian of Nikomedia in Bithynia provides a detailed (second century CE) account of Alexander of Macedon’s expeditions as far as India, based largely on writings by Nearchos (who accompanied Alexander) and Megasthenes (who served under Antigonos I and was an ambassador for Seleukos I). The present book (book 8) often goes by the name of Indian Matters (Indika) and has an extensive digression (expressly stated to be a digression) on the country, people, and customs of India. These materials come from the heart of the conquering Greco-Macedonian power and reflect a conqueror’s perspective. Generally speaking, though, the descriptions of these peoples are not consistently derogatory, which may relate to the fact that the distant Indians were never fully incorporated within the Hellenistic kingdoms and remained beyond the frontier, and therefore their denigration for the purpose of exploitation was not paramount. Below only portions dealing with peoples are presented and the detailed account of the expeditions are not included.


Book 8

[Astakenian and Assakenian sub-groups of Indian peoples]

1  All the territory that lies west of the river Indus up to the river Kophen is inhabited by Astakenians and Assakenians, Indian peoples (ethnē). But they are not, like the Indians dwelling within the Indus river valley, tall in build; nor are they similarly courageous in spirit, nor as black in skin colour as most of the Indians. Long ago these peoples were subject to the Assyrians, then to the Medes, and therefore subject to the Persians. They paid tribute to Cyrus son of Cambyses from their territory, as Cyrus commanded. The Nysaians are not an Indian kin group (genos), but among those who came with Dionysos to India. Possibly they are even among those Greeks who retired from service in the wars which Dionysos waged with Indians. Or, possibly they were also volunteers of the neighbouring peoples whom Dionysos settled there together with the Greeks, calling the country Nysaia from the mountain Nysa, and the city itself Nysa. The mountain near the city, on whose foothills Nysa is built, is called Meros because of the incident at Dionysos’ birth. The poets sang all these things about Dionysos, and I leave it to the narrators of Greek or barbarian accounts to recount them. Among the Assakenians is Massaka, a great city, where the chief authority of the Assakian land resides, and another city Peukela, which is also a great city and not far from the Indus river. These places then are inhabited on this side of the Indus towards the west, as far as the river Kophen. . .

[Megasthenes compares conquests]

5  . . .Yet not even Megasthenes, so far as I can tell, travelled over any large part of India, yet he did so a good deal more than the followers of Alexander son of Philip did. For he states that he met Sandrakottos, the greatest of the Indian kings, and Poros, even greater than the former. This Megasthenes says, moreover, that the Indians waged war on no men, nor other men on the Indians. Yet, on the other hand, he says that Sesostris the Egyptian, after subduing most of Asia and after invading Europe with an army, nonetheless turned back. Indathyrsis the Scythian who started from Scythia subdued many peoples of Asia, and invaded Egypt victoriously. But Semiramis the Assyrian queen tried to invade India, but died before she could carry out her purposes. It was, in fact, Alexander only who actually invaded India. Before Alexander, too, there is a considerable tradition about Dionysos as having also invaded India, and having subdued the Indians. Concerning Herakles there is not much tradition. As for Dionysos, the city of Nysa is no minor memorial of his expedition, and also Mount Meros. There are the growth of ivy on this mountain, then the habit of the Indians themselves setting out to battle with the sound of drums and cymbals, and their dappled costume, like that worn by the bacchic-devotees of Dionysos. But of Herakles the memorials are slight. Yet the story of the rock Aornos, which Alexander forced, namely, that Herakles could not capture it, I am inclined to think a Macedonian boast. Just as the Macedonians called Parapamisos by the name of Caucasus, though it has nothing to do with Caucasus. And besides, learning that there was a cave among the Parapamisadai, they said that this was the cave of Prometheus the Titan, in which he was crucified for his theft of the fire. Among the Sibians, too, an Indian people, having noticed them clad with skins they used to assert that they were relics of Herakles’ expedition. What is more, as the Sibians carried a club, and they brand their cattle with a club, they connected this also to some memory of Herakles’ club. If anyone believes this, at least it must be some other Herakles, not the one from Thebes but either the one of Tyre [i.e. Melqart] or the one of Egypt, or some great king of the higher inhabited country near India. . .

[India compared to Ethiopia]

6  . . . Besides, the mountains of Ethiopia are probably not snow-covered, on account of the heat. But that they receive rain as India does is not outside the bounds of probability. Since in other respects India is not unlike Ethiopia, and the Indian rivers have crocodiles like the Ethiopian and Egyptian Nile; and some of the Indian rivers have fish and other large water animals like those of the Nile, save the river-horse: though Onesicritus states that they do have the river-horse also. The appearance of the inhabitants, too, is not very different in India and Ethiopia. The southern Indians resemble the Ethiopians quite a bit and are black skinned and their hair is also black. However, they are not as snub-nosed or so woolly-haired as the Ethiopians. But the northern Indians are most like the Egyptians in appearance.

[Megasthenes on the lifestyle of Indians with comparison to Scythian nomads]

7  Megasthenes states that there are one hundred and eighteen Indian peoples. That there are many, I agree with Megasthenes, but I am not sure how he learned and recorded the exact number, since he never visited most of India and since these different kin groups do not have much interactions with one another. The Indians, he says, were originally nomads, as are the non-agricultural Scythians. Scythians wander in their wagons moving from one part of Scythia to another. Not dwelling in cities and not revering any temples of the gods. In the same way, the Indians also had no cities and built no temples. But Indians were clothed with the skins of animals killed by hunting, and they ate the bark of trees as food. These trees were called in the Indian language “Tala,” and something that looks like clews of wool grows on these trees, just like the tops of palm trees.

[Dionysos brings civilization to India]

They also used as food what game they had captured and ate it raw, until Dionysos came into India. But when Dionysos had come and became master of India, he: founded cities; provided laws for these cities, and became to the Indians the bringer of wine, as he was also to the Greeks; and, taught them agriculture and gave them seeds. It may be that Triptolemos, when he was sent out by Demeter to sow the entire earth, did not come this way. Or, perhaps before Triptolemus this Dionysos, whoever he was, came to India and gave the Indians seeds of domesticated plants. Then Dionysos first yoked oxen to the plough and made most of the Indians farmers instead of wanderers, and armed them also with weapons for war. Further, Dionysos taught them to revere other gods but especially himself, of course, with clashings of cymbals, beating of drums, and dancing in the Satyric fashion, the dance called among Greeks the “cordax.” He taught them to wear long hair in honour of the god and instructed them in the wearing of the conical cap and the anointings with perfumes. So Indians even came out against Alexander to battle with the sound of cymbals and drums. 8 Then Dionysos departed from India, after making all these arrangements, he made Spatembas king of the land, one of his Companions, being most expert in bacchic rites. When Spatembas died, Budyas his son reigned in his stead. The father was King of India fifty-two years, and the son twenty years. And his son, again, came to the throne, one Kradeuas. And his descendants for the most part received the kingdom in succession, son succeeding father. If the succession failed, then the kings were appointed for some pre-eminence.

[Herakles’ contributions]

But Herakles, whom tradition states to have arrived as far as India, was called by the Indians themselves “Earth-born.” This Herakles was chiefly honoured by the Surasenians, an Indian people, among whom are two great cities, Methora and Cleisobora, and the navigable river Iobares flows through their territory. Megasthenes also says that the garb which this Herakles wore was like that of the Theban Herakles, which is what the Indians themselves record. Herakles also had many sons in his country, for this Herakles too wedded many wives. He had only one daughter, called Pandaia, and the country where she was born and where Herakles taught her to rule was called Pandaia after the girl. Here she possessed five hundred elephants given by her father, four thousand horsemen, and as many as a hundred and thirty thousand soldiers.

Some writers also relate this about Herakles: he traversed all the earth and sea and, when he had rid the earth of evil monsters, he found in the sea a jewel much affected by women. So, even to our day, those who bring exports from India to our country purchase these jewels at great price and export them, and all Greeks in the old days and Romans today who are rich and prosperous are more eager to buy the sea pearl, as it is called in the Indian language for that Herakles. The jewel appeared to him as charming and this kind of pearl was collected from all the sea of India to adorn his daughter. Megasthenes says that this oyster is taken with nets; that it is a native of the sea, many oysters being together, like bees; and that the pearl oysters have a king or queen, as bees do. If anyone by chance captures the king, he can easily surround the rest of the oysters. But if the king slips through, then the others cannot be taken. And with those that are taken, the Indians let their flesh rot but use the skeleton as an ornament. For among the Indians this pearl sometimes is worth three times its weight in solid gold, which is also dug up in India.

[Customs in Pandaia where Herakles was active]

9  In this country where Herakles’ daughter was queen, the girls are marriageable at seven years, and the men do not live longer than forty years. There is a story among the Indians about this: Herakles, who had his daughter in old age, realized that his own end was near. Knowing of no worthy husband for his daughter, he himself became her husband when she was seven, with the result that Indian kings, their children, were left behind. Herakles made her then marriageable, and from this all the royal family of Pandaia arose, with the same privilege from Herakles. But I think that, even if Herakles was able to accomplish anything so absurd, he could have lengthened his own life so as to marry a more mature girl. But really, if this thing about the marriageable age of girls in this district is true, it seems to me to tend to be the same age as the men they marry, since the oldest of them die at forty years. For when old age comes on so much sooner and death with age, maturity will reasonably be earlier in proportion to the end of life. So that at thirty the men might be on the threshold of old age, at twenty men might be in their prime, and manhood would be at about fifteen, so that the women might reasonably be marriageable at seven. For the fruit ripens earlier in this country than elsewhere, and perishes earlier, as Megasthenes himself tells us. From Dionysos to Sandrakottos, the Indians counted a hundred and fifty-three kings, over six thousand and forty-two years, and during this time three times [missing material]. . . thrice . . . for freedom . . . this for three hundred years; the other for a hundred and twenty years. The Indians say that Dionysos was fifteen generations earlier than Herakles. But no one else ever invaded India, not even Cyrus son of Cambyses, even though he made an expedition against the Scythians and, in every other way, was the most energetic of the kings in Asia. But Alexander came and conquered by force of arms all the countries he entered, and he would have conquered the whole world had his army been willing. But no Indian ever went outside his own country on a war-like expedition, since they were so righteous.

10  This is also related: that Indians do not put up memorials to the dead, but regard their virtues and the songs they sing at their funerals as sufficient memorials for the departed. As for the cities of India, one could not record their number accurately by reason of their multitude. But those cities that are near rivers or near the sea, they construct them from wood, because if they were built of brick they could not last long because of the rain, and also because their rivers overflow their banks and fill the plains with water. But cities that are built on high and lofty places, they build using brick and clay. The greatest of the Indian cities is called Palimbothra, in the district of the Prasians, at the confluence of the Erannoboas and the Ganges. The Ganges is the greatest of all rivers and the Erannoboas may be the third of the Indian rivers, itself greater than the rivers of other countries, but it yields precedence to the Ganges when it pours into it its tributary stream. And Megasthenes says that the length of the city along either side, where it is longest, reaches to eighty stadium-lengths and its width to fifteen. And a ditch has been dug round the city, measuring six plethra in breadth and thirty cubits high. On the wall are five hundred and seventy towers, and sixty-four gates. This also is remarkable in India, that all Indians are free, and no Indian at all is a slave. In this the Indians agree with the Lakedaemonians. Yet the Lakedaemonians have Helots for slaves, who perform the duties of slaves. But the Indians have no slaves at all, much less is any Indian a slave.

[The castes of the Indian population, drawing in part on Nearchos]

11  The Indians generally are divided into seven castes. The ones called the sages (sophistai) are less in number than the rest, but highest in honour and regard. For they are not required to do any bodily labour, nor to contribute to the common good from the results of their work. In fact, no sort of restriction whatsoever applied to these sages except to offer sacrifices to gods on behalf of the people of India. Then whenever anyone sacrifices privately, one of these sages acts as interpreter of the sacrifice, since otherwise the sacrifice would not be considered acceptable to the gods. These Indians also are the only experts in prophecy and no one, except the sages, is allowed to prophesy. They prophesy about the seasons of the year or about any impending public calamity. But they do not bother to prophesy on private matters to individuals, either because their prophecy does not condescend to insignificant matter, or because it is undignified for them to trouble about such things. When one has made three errors in prophecy, he does not suffer any harm except that he must for ever be quiet, and no one will ever persuade such a person to prophesy if this silence has been enjoined. These sages spend their time naked during the winter in the open air and sunshine. But when the sun is strong in summer, they spend their time in the meadows and the marsh lands under large trees. Nearchos calculates that these trees reach five plethra all round, and ten thousand men could take shade under one tree, with the great size of these trees. They eat fruits in their season, and the bark of the trees. Thus bark is as sweet and nutritious as the dates of the palm.

Then next to these come the farmers (geōrgoi), which are the most numerous class of Indians. They have no use for weapons of war or actions of war, but they till the land. They pay taxes to the kings and to the cities which are self-governing. If there is internal war among the Indians, they may not touch these workers and not even damage the land itself. But while some engage in war and kill combatants, others close by are peacefully ploughing or gathering fruits or shaking down apples or harvesting.

The third class of Indians are the herdsmen (boukoloi), pasturers of sheep and cattle. They live neither in cities nor in villages. They are nomads and make their living from the hillsides, and they pay taxes from their animals. They also hunt birds and wild game in the country.

12  The fourth class is of artisans and shopkeepers. These are workers who pay tribute from their products, except those that make weapons of war, who are paid by the community. In this class are the shipwrights and sailors, who navigate the rivers.

The fifth class of Indians are the soldiers (polemistai). Next after the farmers in numbers, these have the greatest freedom (eleutheria) and the most spirit (euthymia). They practise military activities only. Other people make their weapons for them, and still others provide horses. Others too serve in the camps, those who groom their horses and polish their weapons, guide the elephants, and prepare and drive the chariots. In time of war, they themselves go to war, but in time of peace they have a good time. They receive so much pay from the community that they can easily support others with this.

The sixth class of Indians are those called overseers (episkopoi). They oversee everything that goes on in the country or in the cities and they report to the King in places where the Indians are governed by kings, or they report to the authorities where communities are independent. It is illegal to make a false report to them, and no Indian was ever accused of making a false report.

The seventh class is those who deliberate about the community together with the King or, in self-governing cities, with the authorities. This class of people is small but, being great in wisdom and righteousness, they are preferred over all others. From this class, they select governors, district governors, deputies, custodians of the treasures, officers of the army and navy, financial officers, and overseers of agricultural works. It is not lawful to marry out of any class, as, for instance, into the farmer class from the artisans, or the other way around. Nor should the same man practise two occupations, nor change from one class into another, as to turn farmer from shepherd, or shepherd from artisan. It is only permitted to join the sages out of any class. For their business is not an easy one, but of all most laborious. . . [a lengthy discussion of animals in India follows].

15  . . . And further Nearchos says that snakes are hunted there, dappled and quick. He states that the type that Peithon son of Antigenes is thought to have caught was upwards of sixteen cubits, but the Indians state that the largest snakes are much larger than this. No Greek physicians have discovered a remedy against Indian snake-bites. But the Indians themselves used to cure those who were bitten. Nearchos adds that Alexander had gathered around him Indians very skilled in medical matters, and orders were sent round the camp that anyone bitten by a snake was to report at the royal pavilion. But there are not many illnesses in India, since the seasons are more temperate than ours. If anyone is seriously ill, they would inform their sages, and they were thought to access the gods’ help to cure what could be cured.

[Lifestyle and customs of the Indians]

16  Nearchos says that the Indians wear linen garments, with the linen coming from the trees which I already mentioned. This linen is either brighter than the whiteness of other linen, or the blackness of the people’s skin makes it appear unusually bright. They have a linen tunic that goes to the middle of the calf. For outer garments, one thrown round around their shoulders and one wound around their heads. They wear ivory ear-rings, that is, the rich Indians do. The common people do not use them. Nearchos writes that they dye their beards various colours. Some therefore have these as white-looking as possible, others dark, crimson, purple, or grass-green. The more dignified Indians use sun-shades to protect themselves from the summer heat. They have slippers of white skin, and these are also made neatly. The soles of their sandals are of different colours, and also high, so that the wearers seem taller.

Indian war equipment differs from ours. The infantry have a bow that is the height of the owner. They position this bow on the ground, put their left foot against it. They shoot this by drawing the bowstring a very long way back, for their arrows are almost three cubits long and nothing can stand against an arrow shot by an Indian archer, neither shield nor breastplate nor any strong armour. In their left hands they carry small shields of untanned hide, narrower than their bearers, but not much shorter. Some have javelins in place of bows. All carry a broad short sword (scimitar) at least three cubits long. When they have a hand-to-hand combat – but Indians do not often fight in this way among themselves – they strike downwards with both hands hitting, so that the blow may be an effective one. Their horsemen have two javelins, like lances, and a small shield smaller than the infantry’s shields. The horses have no saddles, nor do they use Greek bits nor any like the Celtic bits. Instead, around the end of the horses’ mouths they have an untanned stitched rein fitted with fitted bronze or iron spikes (but somewhat blunted) on the inside. The rich people have ivory spikes. Within the mouth of the horses is a bit, like a spit, with reins attached at both ends. Then, when they tighten the reins, this bit controls the horse and the spikes attached to it prick the horse and force it to follow the rein.

17  The Indians are shaped thin and tall, and they are much lighter in movement than the rest of humanity. They usually ride on camels, horses, and asses. The rich ride on elephants. For the elephant in India is a royal mount. Next in dignity to the elephant is a four-horse chariot, and camels come third. To ride on a single horse is considered lowly. Their women who are very modest can be seduced by no other gift except an elephant, for which they yield themselves to anyone. Indians do not think it is a disgrace to yield in this way for the gift of an elephant, but rather it seems honourable for a woman that her beauty should be valued as the equivalent of an elephant. They do not give or receive anything when they marry. Fathers bring girls who are marriageable and allow anyone who proves victorious in wrestling or boxing or running or shows pre-eminence in any other manly pursuit to choose among them.

The Indians eat grains and till the ground, except the mountaineers, who eat the flesh of game. This must be enough for a description of the Indians, being the most notable things which Nearchos and Megasthenes, men of credit, have recorded about them. Since the main subject of my writing was not to write an account of Indian customs but to show how Alexander’s navy reached Persia from India, the above must be considered a digression.

18  For Alexander, when his fleet was made ready on the banks of the Hydaspes, collected together all the Phoenicians and all the Cyprians and Egyptians who had followed the northern expedition. . . . [detailed account of the expedition follows based largely on Nearchos].

40  . . . The Persians dwell up to this point and the Susians next to them. Above the Susians lives another independent people. These are called Ouxians, and in my earlier history I have described them as bandits (lēstai) . . . [continuing description of expedition details].


Source of the translation: E.I. Robson, Arrian: Anabasis Alexandri (books V-VII) and Indica (book VIII), LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1937), public domain (passed away in 1946), thoroughly re-adapted by Harland.

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