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Megasthenes, Indica

Megasthenes, reconstructed by J.W. McCrindle
1877
Book

J.W. McCrindle, ed., Ancient India as Described by Megasthenes and Arrian (London: Trübner & Co., 1877), p. 81.

The founder of the Maurya dynasty was Chandragupta Maurya. He was the ruler of one of the small states in northern India in the time right after Alexander the Great conquered his empire and then died. Chandragupta Maurya took advantage of the chaos after Alexander’s death to take over lots of the lands that Alexander had conquered. One of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, became the ruler of Persia (the Seleucid Empire, one of the Hellenistic successor kingdoms). Seleucus and Chandragupta signed a treaty making peace between their empires. Chandragupta gave some land and elephants to Seleucus. Seleucus sent presents and also an ambassador, Megasthenes, to Chandragupta’s court. While Megasthenes served as ambassador for the Seleucid Kingdom in the Maurya Empire, he wrote a book (in Greek) called Indica, about life in India. In it, Megasthenes discusses war-elephants. The Hellenistic kingdoms soon began to use elephants in warfare for the first time. What advantage would the elephants give to an army?

Remind students about Alexander’s conquests in India and Central Asia and the division of his conquests after his death into the successor kingdoms. Alexander had wiped out some powerful states in the region around the Indus, and Chandragupta Maurya took advantage of the power vacuum after Alexander’s death to conquer and consolidate his empire. After the establishment of a treaty between the Maurya Empire and Seleucid Persia, India became thoroughly integrated into Hellenistic political and economic networks. A concrete example of that is the spread of elephants to Mediterranean kingdoms. Elephants had been used in warfare in India but were relatively unknown in the West. The advantage of elephants in war was their size and ability to inspire fear in the enemy. Megasthenes’s information on the use of elephants in battle could potentially have been used to guide the Seleucid military, which would have lacked experience in using elephants in war.

The war-elephant, either in what is called the tower, or just on his bare back, carries three fighting men. Two of them shoot from the side, while one shoots from behind. There is also a fourth man, who carries in his hand the goad he uses to guide the animal.… A private person is not allowed to keep either a horse or an elephant. These animals are held to be the special property of the king, and people are appointed to take care of them.