Military conquests have many repercussions. But the desire to conquer does not always spell destruction. While it is all about power and control on the one hand, it is also about union. It is subjugation. It forces entire regions into submission. But it is also about the slow and gradual amalgamation and resurgence of cultures. History is full of victorious kings and their big and small conquests. But only some stand out in the minds of history readers. Mostly because of the extent of their achievement, in terms of territories conquered or plundered! And the resultant effect it had on the culture and economy of the region.
One such ruler is a young man who, in his early-20s, set off from his hometown of Macedonia in Greece with an army of 42,000 people. We know him as Alexander the Great. Historical records state that shortly after ascending the throne, Alexander embarked on his mission to conquer the world.
But history does not say anything about what prompted him to undertake this mission. Was it to expand the Greek empire to the “ends of the world”? Was it to loot and amass wealth for himself and his people? Or was it just a desire to see new lands and cultures? Whatever it was, what’s striking about his reign -- from 336 to 323 BC -- is the grit and passion with which he pursued his goal.
After conquering Persian king Darius III’s provincial capitals closer home, Alexander proceeded to defeat Darius in a series of battles around the regions of Iran and Iraq. He even took control of Persian-occupied Egypt, where he is said to have been welcomed as the liberator of the Egyptians. Darius was finally defeated at Assyria, in northern Iraq. But Alexander moved on to Babylon and later stormed the Achaemenid capital of Susa and amassed wealth from ancient cities in the area around the Zagros Mountains. The capture of Persepolis, the Persian capital, can be said to be the “crowning glory” of the first phase of conquest, that is, 338-330 BC. In the second phase, his troops crossed the ancient regions of Parthia, Bactria and Scythia, all in and around modern Afghanistan and Tajikistan. From 326 BC, Alexander focused his attention and resources on the capture of the Indian subcontinent. How his army crossed the Indus, fought with Ambhi, the ruler of Taxila, and later battled with Porus, the ruler of the Punjab region, in 326 BC, is legendary. Fatigued by years of wandering and campaigning, his army urged Alexander to return to Greece. Finally on the banks of the river Beas he decided to retrace his journey back to Greece.
Three years later, in 323 BC, Alexander died in Babylon. He was only 32 years old. With this ended the Hellenistic Age, a period in civilisation that was a wonderful combination of Greek, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures that flourished throughout Middle East and Central Asia. By the 1st century, most of the territories in the west became part of the Roman Empire. In the east, the gradual disintegration gave rise to independent Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms whose rulers were governors once appointed by Alexander himself.
As a ruler, Alexander is said to have believed in an integration policy. He recruited many foreigners into his army. His own marriage alliances with princesses from the various regions he conquered were not merely strategic moves to strengthen bonds with his new territorial acquisitions. His army, which would have included personal attendants, administrative staff, entertainers and, most importantly, cooks, were all encouraged to marry local men and women.
Alexander founded new cities and rebuilt the old. In fact, the foundation for ancient cities like Heart and Khandahar in Afghanistan, which were rich and bustling trade centres of the east during medieval times, was laid by Alexander. What the vast contingent of Alexander’s Greek army left behind in terms of new cities and economies, culture and tradition, language, art and architecture, is exemplary. I can think of two such major expansionist conquests that influenced integration and the course of Indian history. One, that of the Maurya kings of the 3rd century BC who ventured to consolidate the 16 mahajanapadas, or kingdoms, of north and central India. And the much later conquest of the Mughals from the 15th century onwards. And though we fought the British for years to gain independence we cannot ignore the fact that British colonial rule had a very important political and cultural impact on India and also many different parts of the world.
-- Bina Thomas
(Bina Thomas is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok)
InfoChange News & Features, August 2008