Indo-Greeks: The Greek Buddhist Kings

Aug 2016
Byzantine Empire
The Greek Buddhist Kings

The Indo-Greek Kings who ruled parts of modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are perhaps the most interesting and yet elusive figures of the Hellenistic World. The Indo-Greek states were a fusion of Greek and Indian traditions, their armies were some of the largest and most able of the Hellenistic era, and their Kings patronized Buddhism and influenced the artistic depiction of Buddha.

Political History

Alexander’s conquest of parts of northern India, although fascinating, was short-lived. A later attempt by Seleucus, one of the Macedonian Warlords attempting to carve out a Kingdom of his own, to reassert Greek control over India failed. His invasion of Punjab in 305 resulted in him ceding territories west of Indus to the Indian conqueror Chandragupta Maurya (Sandrokottos). Nevertheless, he was given war elephants by the Indian ruler, which were to prove invaluable as they played a decisive role in the defeat of Antigonus in the battle of Ipsos in 301.

The Seleucid Empire, despite losing its Indian territories, managed to retain Bactria which would later prove to be the springboard from which the Greeks would conquer northwest India. As Seleucus I moved the center of political power of the Seleucid Empire from Iran to Syria, where he build his new capital, his control of the eastern territories became tenuous at best.

Andragoras, Satrap of Parthia, revolted against the Seleucid Empire, but his province was overrun by the Parni, a nomadic people led by Arsaces. This isolated Bactria and allowed general Diodotus to declare his independence from his Seleucid overlord and form the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in c. 255 or 246. It was the Greco-Bactrian Kings who would establish Greek control in northwest India. It should be noted that we do not know much about the Indo-Greeks due to the fact that historical records about them are limited and for many of them we simply know their names and approximate reigns through the coins discovered by archaeologists.

The establishment of the Greco-Indian Kingdom began when King Demetrios I of Bactria invaded India with the help of his brother, Apollodoros, and a general named Menander, who would later on become the greatest of the Indo-Greek Kings. According to W.W. Tarn, Demetrios crossed the Hindukush Mountains in 183, conquered Gandhara and Taxila, crossed the Indus river and took over Patala, which he renamed Demetrias. Apollodoros continued his conquests: Gujarat’s ports, including Bharukacha, were captured by him and he later moved in Gwalior and captured the important city of Ujjain. Simultaneously, Menander (who was still a general of Demetrios) led his army to the Gangetic basin and conquered Pataliputra. His control over this important city was brief and it is known that the Indians recovered the city, maybe a few months later.

A usurpation of the Bactrian crown would lead to the split of this vast Greek realm to two Kingdoms: the Greco-Bactrian and the Indo-Greek. Eukratides usurped the Bactrian crown and Demetrios was forced to return to the north, leaving behind in the Indus valley Apollodoros and Menander. Demetrios was killed and he was succeeded in his Indian holdings by his two sons, Agathocles and Pantaleon. They may have ruled together at first, but Pantaleon soon died and Agathocles ruled the realm on his own. Agathocles made Taxila his new capital. He was succeeded by Apollodotus I, a former general of Demetrios, who died in 165. His successor was Menander, who may have married Agathocles’ daughter to legitimize his reign.

Menander had proved his military genius when he had briefly conquered Pataliputra. As King he expanded his realm to the south, as some Indian records state. Some argue that his brief conquest of Pataliputra took place now that he was King and not when was still a general of Demetrios. Whatever the case, all agree that he was successful militarily. He also repelled the invasion of the Greco-Bactrians, and pushed them back as far as the Paropamisadae. Thus he ruled over a huge realm and his army was enormous for the era (it was almost as numerous as that of the Seleucid Empire at its height).

It is disputed as to whether Menander was Buddhist or not (most likely he was), but it is undisputed that he was a patron of Buddhism. Menander is famous in India due to the Milinda Panha (Questions of Milinda, the Indian name for Menander). The dialogue is between Menander and the Buddhist monk Nagasena. The work reminds Socratic dialogues and raises metaphysical questions. It is generally praised and regarded by Buddhists as equal to the canonical scriptures. Menander was popular among his subjects, including Indians, and when he died the cities of his Kingdom squabbled over where his relics would rest and ultimately decided to share his ashes among them and place them in "monuments" (possibly stupas). This funeral is reminiscent of the one given to Buddha. Some argue that this is a proof that Menander had indeed converted to Buddhism.

Menander’s death meant the end of the Indo-Greek Kingdom as a unified entity. His realm was split into several small ones fighting for supremacy and wasting the resources of their Kingdoms in those wars, thus exhausting their realms and preparing them for their eventual downfall a few generations later. Those Kings are not well known and we rely mainly on their coins, which were of excellent quality, to sketch their history.

It seems that after Menander’s death, his wife Agathocleia acted as regent for their son, Strato. As stated above, Agathocleia ruled only part of her husband’s Kingdom. She was competent but her son was not. When he took the reins of government, he proved to be incompetent, lost territories of his Kingdom and was deposed. One member of the Menander dynasty, Apollodotus II, who reigned either from 85 to 65 or from 80 to 65, was a capable ruler and restored some degree of stability and authority in his realm. Apollodotus II took over Taxila from the Scythians, proving that he was a capable general, and took the designation Soter and Philopator (Savior and Father-loving). Apollodotus was the last great Indo-Greek King. After him, the Kingdom declined rapidly.

Most of his realm fell to foreign invaders, Scythians invading from the north. Zoilos II managed to secure for himself the eastern part of Apollodotus’ Kingdom and his Greek dynasty survived until 10 AD, when the last Indo-Greek King, Strato II, was defeated by the Indo-Scythians.


The Indo-Greek Kingdoms followed the Hellenistic type of governance. That is reliance on the army and Greek cities-colonies. The King was the supreme ruler of the Kingdom. When the King needed to campaign in a faraway place, he usually named a relative of his (brother, son, etch) as Co-King or Viceroy. Although an absolute monarch, being in a foreign land the King had to rely on the army, which ensured the stability and defended the Kingdom from invaders, and the Greek cities-colonies, where the few Greeks of the Kingdom continued living in the same way as their ancestors in mainland Greece had done. Those cities secured strategic regions of the Kingdom. Menander was known to be city-founder.

The Kingdoms were divided in provinces led by “Strategoi” (Generals). From the title, we can assume that the provincial governor had both military and civil responsibilities. The provinces were subdivided into smaller units led by “Meridarchai” (literally meaning ‘leaders of part’). There was no sophisticated bureaucracy and the Kingdoms were essentially military regimes.

The Kings of the Indo-Greek Kingdoms fielded powerful and large armies. Most ancient historians (Justin, Pliny) agree that the Indo-Greek Kingdom, at its height and when it was still unified, could field 60,000 infantry, 1,000 horsemen and 700 elephants. By the standards of that age, 60,000 infantry was a huge army. The Seleucid Empire, in comparison, could field 72,000 men.

The Milinda Panha, the dialogue between Menander I and the Buddhist monk Nagasena, provides us with a glimpse of the Indo-Greek art of war:

-(Nagasena) Has it ever happened to you, O king, that rival kings rose up against you as enemies and opponents?
-(Menander) Yes, certainly.
-Then you set to work, I suppose, to have moats dug, ramparts thrown up, watch towers erected, strongholds built and stores of food collected?
-Not at all. All that had been prepared beforehand.
-Or you had yourself trained in the management of war elephants, in horsemanship, in the use of the war chariot and in archery and fencing?
-Not at all. I had learnt all that before.
-But why?
-With the object of warding off future danger.
-But is there now, O king, such a thing as future danger?
-No, venerable sir.
-Then you are extremely clever to strive after the removal of it!
-Well answered, Nàgasena, you are dexterous in reply.
— Milinda Panha, Book III, Chapter 7


The Indo-Greek Kingdoms had highly developed coinage. While the Maurya Emperors produced punch-marked coins, the coins of even the less powerful Indo-Greeks were of excellent quality and with their image on them. The coins of the Indo-Greeks are of major importance to historians as they have helped them outline the reigns of the Kings and learn their names, being more reliable than literary texts. The coins were not only meant to be means of propaganda, stating the rule of the King, but also fostered interregional trade which was especially important for the Indo-Greek economy. The Indo-Greek style of coinage was adopted by later dynasties, such as the Kushan Empire, and set a pattern for ancient Indian coins.

The Indo-Greeks traded with the southern Indians, the Chinese and the Bactrians in the north.

"When I was in Bactria", Zhang Qian reported, "I saw bamboo canes from Qiong and cloth (silk?) made in the province of Shu. When I asked the people how they had gotten such articles, they replied: "Our merchants go buy them in the markets of Shendu (northwestern India). Shendu, they told me, lies several thousand li southeast of Bactria. The people cultivate land, and live much like the people of Bactria".
— Sima Qian, "Records of the Great Historian"

The many coins found indicate that coin minting was vibrant and we can assume the same for the Indo-Greek economy in general. Gold was important from Siberia while agriculture was highly developed.


The Indo-Greek Kingdoms retained the basic characteristics of Greek culture, somewhat surprising considering that they were cut off from other Hellenistic states and were in far away India. Nevertheless, they were influenced by Indian culture and especially by Buddhism, which the Kings patronized. Menander, whether Buddhist or not, supported and protected Buddhism while many Greeks were converted to that religion. Before the Greek presence, Buddha was not depicted with a human form, but symbolically. The Indo-Greeks changed this and their statues depicted Buddha as a human. They used as inspiration the statues of Greek gods like Apollo and Hercules but at the same time they were influenced by Indian art. Those Gandhara Buddhas were highly influential. Through Sinkiang, this Greco-Buddhist art spread to China and from there to Korea and Japan.

The Greek cities in India were build according to the system of Hippodamus. Walls fortified the cities and temples have been found which were build according to the Ionic and Corinthian orders. The Greek language was used by the educated and aristocrats of later dynasties for some years and the presence of Greeks as a minority in India ended only after 200 AD, after which they seem to have been fully assimilated.


A History of India, Fourth Edition (Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund)

History of the Greek Nation, Volume 12 (The Hellenistic Times)

Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 3 Part 1 (Seleucid, Parthian and Sassanian Periods)

Milinda Panha (English translation)

Records of the Great Historian (Sima Qian – English translation)