Indian wisdom: Naked philosophers and wise diviners in the Alexander Romance (fourth century CE and earlier)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indian wisdom: Naked philosophers and wise diviners in the Alexander Romance (fourth century CE and earlier),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified January 22, 2023,

Authors: Pseudo-Kallisthenes (anonymous authors), Alexander Romance, 3.5-7, 17 – Greek recension A / α (link to Greek text; link to full translation).

Comments: Beyond starting the entire narrative with a royal Egyptian wise man who ends up becoming Alexander’s father (on which go to this link), the Alexander Romance (which came to be written down in the period from 140-340 CE, if not before in some cases) incorporates other encounters between the adult Alexander and legendary foreign wise men, in this case wise men at the edges of the earth in India. The Indian gymnosophists present their wisdom which includes hesitation about Alexander’s conquests. When Alexander encounters the naked philosophers, he is presented as a son to his wise father Nektanebos in being able to talk at their level. In this respect, there are some similarities with Philostratos’ story of Apollonios of Tyana’s journey to these Indian wise men (link).

The narrative then shifts to Alexander’s letter home to Aristotle. In it, Alexander recounts various marvels encountered in India and relates the story of his consultation of Indian experts in divination. The outcome of the messages from the divine realm are not good for Alexander: he will die and will not return home. The theme of Alexander as the ultimate world-conquerer who will nonetheless never return home is an important one throughout the tales as they are woven together, and so we see Alexander encountering the spot that the legendary Egyptian king Sesostris / Sesonchosis (Senwosret) had reached (on which go to this link for Herodotos’ tales of Senwosret and this link for Diodoros’). Alexander as world-conqueror is modelled, to some degree, on the Egyptian Sesostris.

Source of the translation: Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, Pseudo-Callisthenes: The Life of Alexander of Macedon (New York: Longmans, Green, 1955), public domain in Canada (Haight passed away in 1964), adapted by Harland.


Book 3

[Alexander speaks with the Indian naked philosophers]

(5) Now Alexander made a journey to the Oxydrakians (Oxydrakai), not because they were warriors, but because they were naked philosophers (gymnosophistai) who had lived in huts and caves. They wrote a letter to him: “We, the Brahmans, the naked philosophers, have written to Alexander, a human being. If you come to us to make war, you will gain nothing. For we have nothing which you can carry away. But if you want what we have, there is no need to fight for it. For your occupation is to make war, ours is to study philosophy.” (6) Informed about this, Alexander made a peaceful approach to them and saw that all were half-naked. So Alexander asked: “Don’t you live in tombs?” They said: “This is the place where we stay and ours…” And turning to another, Alexander said: “Who are the more numerous, the dead or the living?” They replied: “The dead are the more numerous, but do not count those who no longer exist. For those seen are more numerous than those no longer visible.” And Alexander inquired of another: “Which is stronger, death or life?” He said: “Life, because the sun when it rises has stronger rays but, when it sets, it is clearly weaker.” Alexander said again: “Which is greater, the land, or the sea?” He said: “The land. For the sea is placed upon the land.” Alexander asked: “Which of all creatures is more competent?” And he said: “Man.” Alexander asked: “Who is there whom we cannot deceive, to whom we always present the truth?” He answered, “God, for we can not deceive the one who sees everything.”

(7) Alexander said to them: “What do you want to demand from me?” They said: “Immortality.” Alexander said: “This power I do not have. For I am but a mortal.” They said: “Why, then, being a mortal, do you enter upon such great wars? Is it that, having seized all treasures, you may carry them away to some other place? You again will leave them to others.” And Alexander said to them: “These matters lie on the lap of the gods, that we may be servants of their rule. For the sea is not moved unless a wind blows, and trees are not shaken unless the air stirs, and man is not set in motion except by the will of god. I wish to cease from war, but the tyranny of my mind does not let me. For if we all were of one mind, the cosmos would be inactive, sea not be filled, earth not be cultivated, marriages not consummated, children not produced. How many in the wars instigated by me had the misfortune of losing their possessions? How many others made fortunes from the possessions of others? Yes, all who seize the possessions of all men give way to others, and nothing belongs permanently to any man.”

After this speech, Alexander departed.

[Alexander’s letter to Aristotle reporting his Indian experiences and peoples: Alexander does some ethnography and paradoxography]

(17) Now Alexander wrote a letter to Aristotle about his experiences:

“King Alexander sends greeting to Aristotle. I must relate our astonishing experiences in the land of India. For when we came to the city of Prasias, which is apparently the capital of India, we found near it a conspicuous promontory by the sea. When I went with a few companions to this cliff, we learned by inquiry that human beings with the forms of women lived there, who subsisted on fish. When I called some of them to me, I found that they spoke a barbarian language. And when I inquired about the region, they pointed out to me an island which we all saw far out at sea, and they said it was the burial place of an ancient king and in it there were many dedications of gold. The barbarians vanished leaving behind their small boats, twelve in all. Then Pheidon, my closest friend, Hephaistion, and Krateros and my other companions would not allow me to go across, for Pheidon said: “Permit me to make the voyage before you in order that, if there is any danger there, I rather than you will run the risk of disaster. If there is not, I will later send back the boat. For if I, Pheidon, perish, you will find other friends. But if you, Alexander, perish, the whole world has suffered loss.” So, persuaded by them, I agreed to this plan.

After they landed on the so-called island and an hour passed, suddenly the island appeared to be a monster which plunged into the sea. We shouted and it disappeared, but some of my companions met a wretched death, among them my best friend. I was enraged, but, though I hunted for the barbarians, I did not find them. We stayed eight days on the rock and on the seventh we saw the beast and it had tusks. That was long enough to stay, so we went back to the city of Prasias.

We came upon many remarkable things which I must tell you about. For I saw all sorts of wild beasts and amazing natural phenomena, many kinds of serpents and, most wonderful of all, an eclipse of the sun and moon. The winter was severe. We conquered Darius [III, reigning ca. 336–332 BCE], king of the Persians, and his army and after having subdued the whole region we proceeded on our way, and saw beautiful objects. There was gold. There were mixing bowls decorated with precious stones. One wine mixing bowl held one and a half liquid measures (kotulai), another eight, and there were many other amazing objects.

We started our trek from the Caspian Gates and from there went on. Soon the trumpeter announced it was the tenth hour of the day. For at sunrise the trumpet sounded and we marched four hours. The soldiers were equipped in this manner: the body of each was protected by shoes, leggings, leather coverings for thighs, and breast plates. For the natives had informed us that there were dangerous snakes on these roads. So I issued orders that everyone should be fitted out in this way.

After we had travelled twelve days, we came to a city which was in the middle of the river. Reeds grew around the city, thirty cubits long, and surrounded it and the city was built out of them. It did not lie on the ground, but floated on the reeds I have mentioned. I gave orders to pitch camp here. So, after making camp, in the third hour of the day we went to the river and found the water more bitter than hellebore. When some men wished to swim into the city, hippopotamuses appeared and seized them. The only thing for us to do was to leave the region. So the trumpet sounded and we marched from the sixth hour until the eleventh and we were so distressed by lack of water that I saw soldiers drinking their own urine. Luckily we came to a certain district where there was a fertile swamp with trees. Assembling there, we found water so sweet that it tasted like honey. So while we were in a very happy mood, we saw on the hill a monument with an inscription. These were the words carved on it: “Sesonchosis [i.e. Sesostris / Senwosret], ruler of the world, made this watering-place for those who sail the Red Sea.”

Then I gave orders to make a camp and prepare for a rest and kindle a fire. There was a bright moon and stars. About the third hour of the night, wild beasts from the whole forest near the camp I have mentioned came to the watering-place. There were scorpions, a cubit long, sand burrowers, some white, some flame coloured. And we were not successful in fighting them; in fact, some men were killed. You heard loud cries and groans of those who succumbed. Then four-footed beasts began to arrive at the watering-place. There were lions larger than our bulls and there were rhinoceroses. They all came out of the reeds in the wood. There were wild boars larger than the lions with tusks a cubit long, lynxes, leopards, tigers, scorpions, elephants, wild cattle, bull elephants, men with six hands and crooked legs, and dogbirds and other monsters. We had to fight them at once and we warded them off with our axes. . . and wolves came from the sand, some of them ten cubits long, others eight. And from the wood came crocodiles which destroyed our baggage. There were bats bigger than pigeons, bats with teeth. And near the swamp sat crows which we hunted. It was an amazing sight. . .

(17) After we had organized everything, we came to the natural road which leads to the Prasiakan land. And when I was prepared to start on, about the sixth hour, there occurred a strange phenomenon in the sky. It was in the third day of the month Dios. First suddenly there was a high wind so that the tents were hurled down and those of us who were standing fell to the ground. . . [text missing in manuscript]

Now after thirty days, as the road was passable, we made our way onward and on the fifth day we took the city of Prasias with Poros [king of the Indians who collaborated with the king Darius III elsewhere in the tales] and his men. It was full of treasures, which I have described. When this happened and I was organizing everything properly, the Indians assembled in numbers and addressed me: “King Alexander, you will take cities, kingdoms, mountains and peoples (ethnē) which no king among the living ever approached before.”. . .

[Consulting wise experts in divination and priests]

And some learned men came and said: “King, we have something amazing to show you worthy of your attention. For we will show you inanimate objects which talk like men.” And they lead us to a certain park, where in the centre were the Sun and the Moon. . . And there was a guard for the precinct of the Sun and the Moon. Here stood two trees which I have already mentioned. They were about the size of cypresses. . . And in a circle were the trees mentioned, very like the fragrant chestnut trees in Egypt and their fruit was similar. They said that one was male and produced males; the other female and produced females; and one was called the Sun, the other the Moon. So the natives told the story in their peculiar language. The trees had been hung with various hides of wild beasts, the male with hides of males, the female with females. And there was no iron near, nor bronze, nor tin, nor clay for the potter’s art. And when I asked what the hides seemed to be, they said hides of lions and leopards. It was not possible to have a burial unless the priest of the Sun and the Moon presided. And the hides of the wild beasts were used for the burial cloth.

Now I sought to learn the significance of the trees. They said: “When it is early and the sun rises, the speech of the tree is heard; also when the sun is in mid heaven, and when it is near setting, — the third time. And the same is true of the moon.” And men who appeared to be priests came and said: “Enter with a pure heart and bow down.” I took in my friends Parmenion, Krateros, Philip, Iollas, Machetes, Thrasyleon, (Machaon), Theodektes, Diiphilos, Neokles, ten in all. The priest said: “King, it is not fitting that metal should enter the precinct.” So I ordered my friends to leave their swords outside. From my forces, three hundred men came without weapons. And I ordered all my army to stand guard in a circle around the spot. I selected from the Indians with me some to act as interpreters. I invoked Olympian Ammon, Athena, giver of victory, all the gods.

At the rising of the sun, an Indian voice issued from the tree, which was interpreted by the Indians with me. Because of their fear they did not want to share with me their interpretation. I became anxious and upbraided them, and the Indians then said: “Soon you must die by the hands of your friends.” Now I and those standing by me were stricken by the revelation, and I wished again to secure an oracle from the Moon at its rising in the evening. So, having foreseen the future, I entered and asked if I should again embrace my mother Olympias and the friends dear to me. And again, while my friends stood near me, at the rising of the Moon the tree gave the same oracle in the Greek language: “King Alexander, you must die in Babylon. By your own people will you be killed and you will not be able to return to your mother Olympias.”

Now I and my friends were greatly amazed and I wished to hang beautiful garlands upon the gods. But the priest said: “It is not permitted to do this. But if force is used, do what you want. For there is no law recorded for a king.” Then, as I lay very sorrowful and depressed, Parmenion and Philip urged me to get some sleep. But I could not. I got up wide awake and at sunrise with my ten friends, the priest, and the Indians I went again to the shrine and, issuing special orders, I entered the precinct with the priest and, stretching out my hand to the tree, I made inquiry in these words: “If the years of my life have been fulfilled, I wish to learn from you this: will I be carried back to Macedonia and comfort my mother and my wife, and then depart?” Then the sun rose and cast its light on the top of the tree and a voice was heard, saying: “The years of your life have been fulfilled, and you will not be carried back to your mother Olympias, but you will die in Babylon. And after a little time, your mother and your wife will meet a bitter end at the hands of their people and your brothers too at the hands of your companions. Make no more inquiries about these matters, for you will not hear more about what you ask.”

So I departed from there about the first hour. . . From the Prasiakan land I proceeded to Persia, and hurried to the palace of Semiramis. I considered it imperative to write these matters to you. Farewell.”

(18) After writing this letter to Aristotle, Alexander led his forces to the kingdom of Semiramis [in Assyria / Babylonia]. For he was exceedingly eager to see it, since it was very famous throughout the whole country and Greece . . . [further adventures and letters omitted].

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *