Indian wisdom: Cicero and Plutarch on Alexander, the naked philosophers, and Kalanos (early second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indian wisdom: Cicero and Plutarch on Alexander, the naked philosophers, and Kalanos (early second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 14, 2024,

Ancient author: Cicero (mid-first century BCE), On Divination 1.23 (link) and Plutarch (early second century CE), Life of Alexander 57-69 (link).

Comments: The notion that Alexander of Macedon made it further than any other conqueror and encountered far-off peoples fascinated some ancient commentators, and so stories of his adventures as far as India were prevalent in tales about Alexander. Beyond the stories incorporated within the so-called Alexander Romance (link), there are several others such as these retellings by Cicero (via the charater of Quintus) and by Plutarch.

Cicero’s brother, Quintus Cicero, is presented as having a positive take on forms of prophecy as witnessed in Magians among Persians and in Kalanos among Indians. However, Quintus does wonder whether the story of Kalanos is true.

In his biography, Plutarch focusses on Alexander’s encounter with an extremely war-like people (the Mallians) in India that almost meant his demise. There are also hints of Indian philosophers supporting those who were resisting Alexander’s attempted conquest. Plutarch takes the opportunity to bring in the Indian naked philosophers, or “gymnosophists” (on which also see other posts at this link), with an intellectual face-off with Alexander himself. Also mentioned though not spelled out fully is the tale of Alexander’s close relations with one of the more recluse sages, Kalanos, who ends up accompanying Alexander back west, with Kalanos ending his own life in Persia in dramatic fashion. You can read some of the many other retellings of the Kalanos tales on this website at this link. Plutarch claims to be drawing on a first-hand report by Onesikritos himself, a Cynic philosopher who is said to have accompanied Alexander.

Source of the translation: B. Perrin, Plutarch’s Lives, 11 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-1926); W.A. Falconer, Cicero: De senectute, De amicitia, De divinatione, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1923), all public domain, adapted by Harland.



[Quintus in the dialogue compares the prophetic abilities of Magian Persians and Kallanos among Indians, with a positive evaluation]

(On Divination 1.23) “Why do I need to bring forth from Deinon‘s Persian Matters the dreams of that famous prince, Cyrus, and their interpretations by the Magians? But take this instance: At one point Cyrus dreamed that the sun was at his feet. Three times, so Deinon writes, he pointlessly tried to grasp it and each time it turned away, escaped him, and finally disappeared. He was told by the Magians, who are classed as wise and learned men among the Persians, that his grasping for the sun three times portended that he would reign for thirty years. And so it happened, for he lived to his seventieth year, having begun to reign at forty.

“It certainly must be true that even barbarians have some power of foreknowledge and of prophecy, if the following story of Kalanos of India is true: As he was about to die and was ascending the funeral pyre, he said: ‘What a glorious death! The fate of Herakles is mine. For when this mortal frame is burned, the soul will find the light.’ When Alexander directed him to speak if he wished to say anything to him, he answered: ‘Thank you, nothing, except that I will see you very soon.’ So it turned out, for Alexander died in Babylon a few days later.

I am getting slightly away from dreams, but I will return to them in a moment. Everybody knows that on the same night in which Olympias was delivered of Alexander the temple of Diana at Ephesus was burned, and that the Magians began to cry out as day was breaking: ‘Asia’s deadly curse was born last night.’ But enough about Indians and Magians.



[Taxiles the Indian wise king]

(57) Alexander was now about to cross the mountains into India. . . [omitted sections]. (59) Taxiles, we are told, had a realm in India as large as Egypt, with good pasturage and extremely productive of beautiful fruit. He was also a wise man in his way. After he had greeted Alexander, Taxiles said: “Why do we have to battle and fight with one another, Alexander, if you have not come to rob us of water or of necessary sustenance, the only things that sensible people are obliged to fight for obstinately? As for other wealth and possessions, so‑called, if I am your superior in that way, I am ready to confer favours; but if yours is inferior, I will not object to thanking you for favours conferred.” At this Alexander was delighted, and clasping the king’s hand, said: “Do you imagine that after such kind words our interview will end without a battle? No, you will not get the better of me; for I will contend against you and fight to the last with my favours so that you may not surpass me in generosity.” So, after receiving many gifts and giving many more, at last he lavished upon him a thousand talents in coins. This conduct greatly confused Alexander’s friends, but it made many of the barbarians look upon Alexander more kindly.

[Alexander hangs philosophers supporting revolt]

Now the best fighters among the Indians were mercenaries, and they used to go around to the different cities and firmly defend them, and this caused much harm to Alexander’s cause. Therefore, after he had made a truce with them in a certain city and allowed them to depart, he attacked them as they marched and slaughtered them all. This act is like a stain on Alexander’s military career; in all other instances he waged war according to custom and like a king. The philosophers, too, no less than the mercenaries, gave him trouble, by abusing those of the native princes who made alliance with his cause, and by inciting the free peoples to revolt. He therefore took many of these also and hanged them.

[King Poros]

(60) Regarding his campaign against Poros (or: Porus)​ Alexander himself has given an account in his letters. He says, namely, that the river Hydaspes flowed between the two camps, and that Poros stationed his elephants on the opposite bank and kept continual watch of the crossing. So he himself daily instructed others to make a loud noise and tumult in his camp, and thereby accustomed the barbarians not to be alarmed. . . [omitted story of the battle and victory]. Such then, is the account of the battle which the victor himself has given in his letters. Most historians agree that Poros was four forearm-lengths and a handspan tall [i.e. over six feet], and that the size and bulk of his body made his elephant seem as fitting a mount for him as a horse for the horseman. And yet his elephant was of the largest size; and it showed remarkable intelligence and care for the king, bravely defending him and beating back his assailants while he was still in full vigour. When the elephant perceived that its master was worn out with a multitude of missiles and wounds, fearing he should fall off, it knelt softly on the ground, and with its trunk gently took each spear and drew it out of his body. Poros was taken prisoner, and when Alexander asked him how he would be treated, said: “Like a king”; and to another question from Alexander whether he had anything else to say, replied: “All things are included in my phrase ‘like a king.'” Accordingly, Alexander not only permitted him to govern his former kingdom, giving him the title of satrap, but also added to it the territory of the independent peoples whom he subdued, in which there are said to have been fifteen peoples, five thousand cities of considerable size, and a great multitude of villages. He subdued other territory also three times as large as this and appointed Philip, one of his companions, satrap over it. . . . [omitted section with indication that the Macedonian armies and Alexander were worn out].

[Confronting the Mallians, a war-like people, and Alexander’s major injury]

(63) Being eager to behold the ocean, and having built many passage-boats equipped with oars, and many rafts, he was conveyed from there down the rivers​ in a leisurely course. And yet his voyage was not made without effort nor even without war, but he would land and assault the cities on his route and subdue everything. However, in attacking the people called Mallians (Malloi), who are said to have been the most warlike of the Indians, he came within a little of being cut down. For after dispersing the inhabitants from the walls with missiles, he was the first to climb the wall by ladder, and since the ladder was broken to pieces and he was exposed to the missiles of the barbarians who stood along the wall below – he was also almost alone – he crouched and threw himself into the midst of the enemy, and by good fortune landed on his feet. Then, as he brandished his arms, the barbarians thought that a shape of gleaming fire played in front of him. Therefore at first they scattered and fled; but when they saw that he was accompanied by only two of his guards, they ran at him, and some tried to wound him by thrusting their swords and spears through his armour as he defended himself. This was while one, standing a little further off, shot an arrow at him with such accuracy and force that it cut its way through his breastplate and fastened itself in his ribs at the breast. Such was the force of the blow that Alexander recoiled and sank to his knees, whereupon his assailant ran at him with drawn scimitar, while Peukestas and Limnaios​ defended him. Both of them were wounded, and Limnaios was killed; but Peukestas held out, and at last Alexander killed the barbarian. But he himself received many wounds, and at last was smitten on the neck with a cudgel, and leaned against the wall, his eyes still fixed upon his enemies.

At this instant the Macedonians flocked around Alexander, picked him up when he was already unconscious of what was going on around him, and carried him to his tent. Immediately a report that he was dead prevailed in the camp; but when with much difficulty and pains they had sawn off the shaft of the wooden arrow, and had thus succeeded at last in removing the king’s breastplate, they came to the excision of the arrow-head, which was buried in one of the ribs. We are told, moreover, that it was three fingers broad and four long. Its removal, therefore, made him repeatedly faint and brought him to death’s door. Nevertheless, he recovered. And after he was out of danger, though he was still weak and kept himself for a long time under regimen and treatment, perceiving from noise at his door that his Macedonians were eager to see him, he took his cloak and went out to them. And after sacrificing to the gods, he went on board ship again and dropped down the river, subduing much territory and great cities as he went.

[Testing the naked sages / philosophers]

(64) He captured ten of the naked sages (gymnosophists) who had done most to get Sabbas to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions. So Alexander asked them difficult questions, declaring that he would put to death the first one to answer incorrectly, and then put to death the rest in an order determined in like manner. He commanded one of them, the oldest, to be the judge in the contest.

The first one, accordingly, being asked which, in his opinion, were more numerous, the living or the dead, said that the living were, since the dead no longer existed. The second, being asked whether the earth or the sea produced larger animals, said the earth did, since the sea was part of the earth. The third, being asked what animal was the most cunning, said: “The one that no one has discovered yet.” The fourth, when asked why he had induced Sabbas to revolt, replied: “Because I wished him either to live nobly or to die nobly.” The fifth, being asked which, in his opinion, was older, day or night, replied: “Day is older by one day.” In response to the king’s amazement, he added that hard questions must have hard answers. Passing on, then, to the sixth, Alexander asked how a man could be most loved; “If,” said the philosopher, “he is most powerful, and yet does not inspire fear.” Of the three remaining, he who was asked how one might become a god instead of man, replied: “By doing something which a man cannot do.” The one who was asked which was the stronger, life or death, answered: “Life, since it supports so many ills.” When the last one was asked how long was good for a man to live, answered: “Until he does not regard death as better than life.” So, then, turning to the judge, Alexander asked him to give his opinion. The judge declared that they had answered one worse than another. “Well, then,” said Alexander, “you will die first for giving such a verdict.” “That cannot be, O King,” said the judge, “unless you falsely said that you would first put to death the one who answered most poorly.”

[Kalanos the sage according to Onesikritos’ supposed report]

(65) These philosophers, then, he dismissed with gifts. Now he sent Onesikritos to the ones with the highest reputations who lived quietly by themselves, asking them to pay him a visit. Onesikritos was a philosopher of the school of Diogenes the Cynic. And he tells us that Kalanos (or: Calanus) very harshly and insolently ordered Onesikritos to take off his tunic and listen naked to what he had to say, otherwise he would not converse with him, not even if he came from Zeus. But Onesikritos says that Dandamis was gentler, and that after hearing fully about Socrates, Pythagoras, and Diogenes, he remarked that the men appeared to him to have been of good natural parts but to have lived their lives with too much attention to the laws. Others, however, say that the only words uttered by Dandamis were these “Why did Alexander make such a long journey here?”

Nonetheless, Kalanos was persuaded by Taxiles to pay a visit to Alexander. His real name was Sphines, but because he greeted those whom he met with “Kale,” the Indian word for “greetings,” the Greeks called him Kalanos. It was Kalanos, as we are told, who laid before Alexander the famous illustration of government. It was this: Kalanos threw down upon the ground a dry and shrivelled hide, and set his foot upon the outer edge of it. The hide was pressed down in one place, but rose up in others. He went all round the hide and showed that this was the result wherever he pressed the edge down. Then finally he stood in the middle of it and – look! – it was all held down firm and still. The similitude was designed to show that Alexander should put most constraint upon the middle of his empire and not wander far away from it. . . . [omitted discussion of Nearchos and the journey back towards the west].

[Kalanos’ death while accompanying Alexander back to Persia]

(69) . . . (6) While they were in Persia, Kalanos [here assumed to have accompanied Alexander], who had suffered for a little while from intestinal disorder, asked that a funeral pyre might be prepared for him.​ To this he came on horseback. After offering prayers, sprinkling himself, and casting some of his hair upon the pyre, he ascended it. He greeted the Macedonians who were present and called on them to make that day one of pleasure and revelry with the king, whom, he declared, he should soon see in Babylon. After speaking in this way, he lay down and covered his head. Nor did he move as the fire approached him, but continued to lie in the same posture as at first, and so sacrificed himself acceptably, as the wise men of his country had done from the old days. The same thing was done many years afterwards by another Indian who was in the following of Caesar, at Athens. The “Indian’s Tomb” is shown there to this day. (70) But Alexander, after returning from the funeral pyre and assembling many of his friends and officers for supper, proposed a contest in drinking neat wine, the victor to be crowned. . . [remainder omitted].

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