Indians and peoples on the way: Diodoros on Alexander’s conquests (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indians and peoples on the way: Diodoros on Alexander’s conquests (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 25, 2024,

Ancient author: Diodoros (ca. 36 BCE), Library of History 17.76-105 (link).

Comments: In these passages, Diodoros supplies a narrative about Alexander’s conquests east of Iran (in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan) as far as India itself. While Diodoros’ discussion of the peoples conquered and their customs may not always be as expansive as Nearchos (link) or Curtius Rufus (link), there are nonetheless plenty of peoples mentioned with some explanations of unusual customs along the way.


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of ???, go to this link.]

[Alexander conquers peoples in the east between the Caspian Sea and India, mostly south of Baktria, in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan]

[Mardians and neighbours]

(17.76) . . . Alexander followed the coastline to the west and entered the country of the people known as Mardians. They prided themselves on their fighting ability and thinking little of Alexander’s growth in power sent him no petition or mark of honour, but held the passes with eight thousand soldiers and confidently awaited the Macedonian approach. The king attacked them and joining battle killed most of them and drove the rest into the fastnesses of the mountains. As he was wasting the countryside with fire and the pages who led the royal horses were at a little distance from the king, some of the barbarians made a sudden rush and carried off the best one of them. This animal had come to Alexander as a gift from Demaratos of Corinth and had carried the king in all of his battles in Asia. So long as he was not caparisoned, he would permit only the groom to mount him, but when he had received the royal trappings, he would no longer allow even him, but for Alexander alone stood quietly and even lowered his body to assist in the mounting. Because of the superior qualities of this animal the king was infuriated at his loss and ordered that every tree in the land be felled. Meanwhile he proclaimed to the barbarians through interpreters that if the horse were not returned, they would see the country laid waste to its furthest limit and its inhabitants slaughtered to a man. As he began immediately to carry out these threats, the barbarians were terrified and returned the horse and sent with it their costliest gifts. They sent also fifty men to beg forgiveness. Alexander took the most important of these as hostages. . . [omitted sections].

[Arimaspians / Euergetians, ca. 329/328 BCE]

(17.81) After his hands were free of this affair and he had settled things in Drangine, Alexander marched with his army against those who used to be called Arimaspians [sometimes considered a subset of “Scythians”] but are now known as “Benefactors” (Euergetai) for the following reason: Cyrus, who had transferred the rule from the Medes to the Persians, was once engaged in a campaign in the desert and running out of provisions was brought into extreme danger. The result was that, due to lack of food, the soldiers were forced to eat each other, when the Arimaspians appeared bringing thirty thousand wagons laden with provisions. Saved from utter despair, then, Cyrus gave them exemption from taxation and other marks of honour, and abolishing their former appellation, named them “Benefactors.” So now, when all led his army into their country, they received him kindly and he honoured the people (ethnos) with suitable gifts.

[Gedrosians / Kedrosians]

Their neighbours, the so-called Kedrosians (Kedrōsioi), did the same, and he rewarded them with appropriate favours as well. He gave the administration of these two peoples to Tiridates. While he was occupied with this reports were brought to him that Satibarzanes had returned from Baktria with a large force of cavalry to Areia, and had caused the population to revolt from Alexander. At this news, the king dispatched against him a portion of his army under the command of Erigyios and Stasanor, while he himself conquered Arachosia and in a few days made it subject to him.


(17.82) When this year was over, Euthykritos became archon at Athens and at Rome Lucius Platius and Lucius Papirius became consuls (ca. 328/327 BCE). The one hundred and thirteenth Olympic games were held. In this year Alexander marched against so-called Paropanisadians (Paropanisadai), whose country lies in the extreme north. The country is snow-covered and not easily approached by other peoples because of the extreme cold. The most of it is a plain and woodless, and divided up among many villages. These villages contain houses with roofs of tile drawn up at the top into a peaked vault. In the middle of each roof an aperture is left through which smoke escapes. Since the building is enclosed all around the people find ample protection against the weather. Because of the depth of the snow, they spend the most of the year indoors, having their own supplies at hand. They heap up soil around vines and fruit trees, and leave it so for the winter season, removing the earth again at the time of budding. The landscape nowhere shows any greenery or cultivation. Everything is white and dazzling because of the snow and the ice which form in it. No bird, therefore, lands there nor does any animal pass, and every part of the country is unvisited and inaccessible.

Nevertheless, in spite of all those obstacles confronting the army, the king exercised the customary boldness and hardihood of the Macedonians and surmounted the difficulties of the region. Many of the soldiers and of the camp followers became exhausted and were left behind. Some too because of the glare of the snow and the hard brilliance of the reflected light lost their sight. Nothing could be seen clearly from a distance. It was only as the villages were revealed by their smoke that the Macedonians discovered where the homes were, even when they were standing right on top of them. By this method the villages were taken and the soldiers recovered from their hardships amidst plenty of provisions. Before long the king made himself master of all the population.

(17.83) Now in his advance Alexander encamped near the Kaukasos [confusing Caucasus with Hindu Kush range], which some call Mount Paropanison. In sixteen days he marched across this range from side to side, and founded a city in the pass which leads down to Media, calling it Alexandria. . . . [omitted paragraphs].

[Indians beyond the Indus river, following conquest of territories belonging to kings Mophis, Poros, and Embisaros]

[Adrestians and their customs]

(17.91) As he continued his march, word came to Alexander that king Poros (a cousin of the Poros who had been defeated) had left his kingdom and fled to the people of Gandara. This annoyed Alexander, and he sent Hephaestion with an army into his country and ordered that the kingdom should be transferred to the friendly Poros [i.e. another Poros].

[Kathaians and their customs]

He campaigned against the people known as the Adrestians, and got possession of their cities, partly by force and partly by agreement. Then he came into the country of the Kathaians, among whom it was the custom for wives to be cremated together with their husbands [cf. Strabo, Geography 15.1.30]. This law had been put into effect there because of a woman who had killed her husband with poison. Here he captured their greatest and strongest city after much fighting and burned it. He was in process of besieging another notable city when the Indians came to him with suppliant branches and he spared them further attack.

[Peoples under Sopeithes, with positive evaluations of their customs]

Next he engaged in a campaign against the cities under the rule of Sopeithes. These are exceedingly well-governed cities. All the functions of communal organization are directed toward the acquiring of good repute, and beauty is valued there more than anything. From birth, their children are subjected to a process of selection. Those who are well formed and designed by nature to have a fine appearance and bodily strength are reared, while those who are bodily deficient are destroyed as not worth bringing up. So they plan their marriages without regard to dowery or any other financial consideration, but consider only beauty and physical excellence. In consequence, most of the inhabitants of these cities enjoy a higher reputation than those elsewhere.

Their king Sopeithes was strikingly handsome and tall beyond the rest, being over four cubits in height. He came out of his capital city and gave over himself and his kingdom to Alexander, but received it back through the kindness of the conqueror. Sopeithes with great goodwill feasted the whole army bountifully for several days.

(17.92) Sopeithes presented many impressive gifts to Alexander, including one hundred and fifty dogs remarkable for their size and courage and other good qualities. People said that they had a strain of tiger blood. He wanted Alexander to put the dogs to the test, and he brought into a ring a full grown lion and two of the poorest of the dogs. He set these on the lion, and when they were having a hard time of it he released two others to assist them. The four were getting the upper hand over the lion when Sopeithes sent in a man with a scimitar who hacked at the right leg of one of the dogs. At this Alexander shouted out indignantly and the guards rushed up and seized the arm of the Indian, but Sopeithes said that he would give him three other dogs for that one, and the handler, taking a firm grip on the leg, severed it slowly. The dog, in the meanwhile, uttered neither yelp nor whimper, but continued with his teeth clamped shut until, fainting with loss of blood, he died on top of the lion.

[Phegeus’ people]

(17.93) While all this was going on, Hephaestion returned with his army from his mission, having conquered a big piece of India. Alexander commended him for his success, then invaded the kingdom of Phegeus where the inhabitants cheerfully accepted the appearance of the Macedonians. Phegeus himself met the king with many gifts and Alexander confirmed him in his rule. Alexander and the army were feasted bountifully for two days, and then advanced to the Hyphasis river, the width of which was seven furlongs, the depth six fathoms, and the current violent. This was difficult to cross.

[Alexander consults the king about geographic and ethnographic matters]

[Tabraisians and Gandaridians]

Alexander questioned Phegeus about the country beyond the Indus river, and learned that there was a desert to traverse for twelve days, and then the river called Ganges, which was thirty-two furlongs in width and the deepest of all the Indian rivers. Beyond this in turn dwelt the peoples of the Tabraisians and the Gandaridians, whose king was Xandrames. He had twenty thousand cavalry, two hundred thousand infantry, two thousand chariots, and four thousand elephants equipped for war. Alexander doubted this information and sent for Poros, and asked him what was the truth of these reports. Poros assured the king that all the rest of the account was quite correct, but that the king of the Gandaridians was an utterly common and undistinguished character, and was supposed to be the son of a barber. His father had been handsome and was greatly loved by the queen. When she had murdered her husband, the kingdom fell to him.

Alexander saw that the campaign against the Gandaridians would not be easy, but he was not discouraged. He had confidence in the fighting qualities of his Macedonians, as well as in the oracles which he had received, and expected that he would be victorious. He remembered that the Pythia had called him “unconquerable,” and Ammon had given him the rule of the whole world. . . . [omitted discussion of how tired Alexander’s soldiers were]. . . He delivered a carefully prepared speech about the expedition against the Gandaridians but the Macedonians did not accept it, and he gave up the plan. . . [omitted sections].

[Sibians, ca. 326/325 BCE]

(17.96) Alexander himself embarked with his friends, and sailed down the Akesines river toward the southern Ocean. The bulk of his army marched along the bank of the river, under the command of Krateros and Hephaestion.

When they came to the junction of the Akesines river and the Hydaspes river, he disembarked his soldiers and led them against the people called Sibians. They say that these are the descendants of the soldiers who came with Herakles to the rock of Aornos and were unsuccessful in its siege, and then were settled in this spot by him. Alexander encamped beside a very fine city, and the leading notables of the citizens came out to see him. They were brought before the king, renewed their ties of kinship, and undertook to help him enthusiastically in every way, as being his relatives. They also brought him magnificent gifts. Alexander accepted their goodwill, declared their cities to be free, and marched on against the next peoples (ethnē).


Alexander found that the Agalassians (Agalasseis), as they were called, were drawn up in battle formation. Their strength was forty thousand infantry and three thousand cavalry. He engaged them and, conquering, cut down most of them. Those who escaped into the neighbouring cities he besieged, captured, and sold as slaves. Other groups of natives had collected also. He took by storm a large city in which twenty thousand persons had taken refuge. The Indians barricaded the streets and fought stoutly from the houses, and he lost not a few Macedonians in pressing his victory home. This made him angry. He set fire to the city and burned up most of the inhabitants with it. The remaining natives to the number of three thousand had fled to the citadel, from where they appealed for mercy with suppliant branches. Alexander pardoned them. . . [omitted some sections].

[Sydrakians and Mallians]

(17.98) Next Alexander undertook a campaign against the Sydrakians (Sydrakai) and the people known as Mallians, populous and warlike tribes. He found them mobilized in force, eighty thousand infantry, ten thousand cavalry, and seven hundred chariots. Before the arrival of Alexander they had been at war with each other. However, as he approached, they patched up their quarrel and made peace, giving and receiving ten thousand young women to establish a friendly relationship through marriage. Even so they did not come out to fight together but fell into a dispute over the command and retired into the neighbouring cities. . . [omitted details of attack and triumph].

[Sambastians as superior among other Indians]

(17.102) Alexander gave orders to the army to march beside the river and escort the ships, while he resumed his river voyage in the direction of the ocean and sailed down to the country of those called Sambastians(Sambastai) [also known as Sabarkians in Rufus]. These, in numbers of men and in good qualities, were inferior to none of the Indian peoples. They lived in cities governed in a democratic manner, and learning of the coming of the Macedonians assembled sixty thousand infantry, six thousand cavalry, and five hundred armoured chariots. When the fleet landed, the Sambastians were amazed at the strange and unanticipated manner of its arrival and trembled at the great reputation of the Macedonians. Besides, their own men advised them not to risk a fight, so they sent out fifty of their leading citizens as envoys, begging Alexander to treat them kindly. The king praised them and agreed to a peace, and was showered with large gifts and heroic honours by them.

[Sodrians and Massanians]

Next Alexander received the submission of those who lived on either side of the river. They were called Sodrians (Sodrai) and Massanians (Massanoi). Here he built a city Alexandria by the river [at the junction of the Akesines and Indus rivers], and selected for it ten thousand inhabitants.

[Conquest of other kingdoms]

Next he came to the country of king Mousikanos. Getting a hold of him, he killed him and made the country subject. Then he invaded the kingdom of Portikanos, took two cities by storm, allowed the soldiers to plunder the houses, and then set them on fire. Portikanos himself escaped to a stronghold, but Alexander captured it and killed him, still fighting. Then Alexander proceeded to take all of the other cities of his kingdom and destroyed them, and spread the terror of his name throughout the whole region. Next he ravaged the kingdom of Sambos. He enslaved the population of most of the cities and, after destroying the cities, killed more than eighty thousand of the natives.


Alexander inflicted a similar disaster upon the people (ethnos) of the Brahmans, as they are called. The survivors came supplicating him with branches in their hands. After punishing the most guilty, he forgave the rest. King Sambos fled with thirty elephants into the country beyond the Indus and escaped.

(17.103) The last city of the Brahmans, called Harmatelia, was proud of the valour of its inhabitants and of the strength of its location. Alexander sent a small force of mobile troops there with orders to engage the enemy and retreat if they came out against them. These were five hundred soldiers in number, and were despised when they attacked the walls. Some three thousand soldiers issued out of the city, at which point Alexander’s task force pretended to be frightened and fled. At that point, the king launched an unexpected attack against the pursuing natives and, charging them furiously, killed some of the natives, and captured others.

[Brahmans’ use of deadly snake poison on their weapons]

A number of the king’s forces were wounded, and these met a new and serious danger. The Brahmans had smeared their weapons with a deadly drug, which was their source of confidence when they joined the issue of battle. The power of the drug was derived from certain snakes which were caught and killed and left in the sun. The heat melted the substance of the flesh and drops of moisture formed; in this moisture the poison of the animals was secreted. When a man was wounded, the body became numb immediately and then sharp pains followed, and convulsions and shivering shook the whole body. The skin became cold and livid and bile appeared in the vomit, while a black froth was exuded from the wound and gangrene set in. As this spread quickly and overran to the vital parts of the body, it brought a horrible death to the victim. The same result occurred to those who had received large wounds and to those whose wounds were small, or even a mere scratch.

[Ptolemy and the antidote to the poison]

So the wounded were dying in this way. Regarding the rest, Alexander was not so much concerned but he was deeply distressed for Ptolemy, the future king [Ptolemy I Soter], who was much beloved by him. An interesting and quite extraordinary event occurred in the case of Ptolemy, which some attributed to divine Providence. He was loved by all because of his character and his kindnesses to all, and he obtained help appropriate to his good deeds. The king saw a vision in his sleep. It seemed to him that a snake appeared carrying a plant in its mouth, and showed him its nature and efficacy and the place where it grew. When Alexander awoke, he sought out the plant, and grinding it up plastered it on Ptolemy’s body. He also prepared an infusion of the plant and gave Ptolemy a drink of it. This restored him to health. Now that the value of the remedy had been demonstrated, all the other wounded received the same therapy and became well. Then Alexander prepared to attack and capture the city of Harmatelia, which was large and strongly fortified, but the inhabitants came to him with suppliant branches and handed themselves over. He spared them any punishment. . . (17.104) Now he resumed his voyage down the river and sailed out into the Ocean with his Friends. . . [omitted account of Alexander’s return towards home after reaching the ocean].

[Peoples on the journey back west from India]

[Oreitians and their strange customs]

(17.105) Alexander advanced into the country of the Oreitians (Oreitai) through the passes and quickly brought it all into submission. These Oreitians have the same customs as the Indians in other respects, but have one part which is strange and quite unbelievable. The bodies of the dead are carried out by their relatives, who strip themselves naked and carry spears. They place the bodies in the thickets which exist in the country and remove the clothing from them, leaving them to be the prey of wild beasts. They divide up the clothing of the dead, sacrifice to the heroes of the underworld, and give a banquet to their friends.

[“Completely savage” people in Gedrosia and their customs]

Next Alexander advanced into Kedrosia [i.e. Gedrosia again], marching near the sea, and encountered a people unfriendly and completely savage. Those who resided here let the nails of their fingers and toes grow from birth to old age. They also let their hair remain matted like felt. Their colour is burned black by the heat of the sun, and they clothe themselves in the skins of beasts. They subsist by eating the flesh of stranded whales. They build up the walls of their houses from . . . and construct roofs with whale’s ribs, which furnish them rafters eighteen cubits in length. In the place of tiles, they covered their roofs with the scales of these beasts. . . [omitted the remainder of the return journey towards Babylon].

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of Chaldeans predicting Alexander’s death, go to this link.]


Source of translation: B. Welles, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volume 8, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1963), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.

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