Greco-Bactrian Kingdom

Eumenis Megalopoulos | Nov 21, 2023

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The Greco-Bactrian kingdoms are a group of Hellenistic states founded by Greek rulers in Central Asia, centered on Bactria and Sogdiana. They flourished from the middle of the 3rd century B.C. among Greek colonists who had settled in these regions since the conquest of Alexander the Great, when the Bactrian satrap Diodotus I proclaimed his independence from the Seleucids. At their peak, around 180 BC, the Greco-Bactrian rulers also dominated Tapuria, Tranxiana, Ferghana and Arachosia. Following the first conquests of Demetrios I, the Bactrian Greeks established themselves south of the Hindu Kush, in Kapisene (Begrâm region) and in the eastern Punjab, where Indo-Greek kingdoms were founded. Greek domination of Bactria came to an end in the last third of the 2nd century BC, when it fell victim to the invasions of several nomadic peoples, including the Parthians and the Yuezhi. Indo-Greek kingdoms continued to exist until the beginning of our era.

The Greco-Bactrian period is an important stage in the cultural history of Central Asia. The arrival of numerous Greek settlers, the founding of new towns and the development of agricultural territories initiated a phase of prosperity. The region's Greek cities were important cultural centers, blending local traditions with Greek contributions to art, architecture and religion. The cultural originality of this period is revealed in particular through excavations at the urban site of Aï Khanoum (in present-day Afghanistan), which remains one of the main sources of knowledge on the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Greek cultural influence had a major impact on these regions, particularly in terms of art and architecture, as can be seen in the Greco-Buddhist art that flourished during the period of the Kushan Empire, which dominated the former Greek territories of Central Asia and India.

The history of the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms is essentially known through numismatic analysis, which has been used for over a century and a half with remarkable results, but also with errors that have sometimes taken a long time to be admitted by the research community.

Moreover, the confusion of homonymous kings has often led to chronological aberrations. We owe a broader understanding to the archaeological data from excavations, the richest in historical results of which are those at Aï Khanoum carried out under the direction of Paul Bernard. These excavations also led to the discovery of numerous inscriptions (epigraphy).

We also have some Greco-Roman sources (Justin, Strabo), Chinese sources for the final period (Sima Qian) and rare Indian sources.

Parchments found in caves in the Hindu Kush dating from the reign of Antimachus I have completed the chronology of the period, providing indications of the dating systems used.

Many dates are approximate, and scientific criticism must eliminate royal kinships, battles and supposed invasions.

Historical overview

Little documented by ancient written sources, the Greek period of Bactria is known only in general terms. There are many uncertainties concerning the dates of reigns and the succession of rulers, which can only rarely be resolved through the analysis of coin issues, although great strides have been made. In any case, it appears that the Greek colonists who settled in this region following the conquests of Alexander the Great were able to establish political entities that rapidly became autonomous, capable of holding the powerful Seleucid empire in check and then expanding towards the north-west of the Indian sub-continent. After a century and a half of prosperity, this kingdom collapsed under the combined pressure of the Parthians and nomadic groups from the north, including the Yuezhi.

Greek settlement in Central Asia

Bactria came under Greek rule when Alexander the Great's troops entered the region in 330-329 to quell the revolt of the Achaemenid satraps of the Central Asian provinces (Bessos and Spitamenes). After two years of fighting, the revolt was reduced to a trickle. It was during this period that the first Greek cities were founded in the region. After Alexander's death, Greek mercenaries settled in the satrapies of Central Asia revolted to obtain permission to return to their homelands. Little is known about the events of the following years, but it appears that the Greek governors of the region were powerful enough to influence the struggles between the Diadochi and gain a degree of autonomy, as evidenced by the fact that they issued their own currencies). The Central Asian satrapies finally fell to Seleucus I, who confirmed his position with a campaign in 307. But his hold on the region was soon threatened: first by the Indian Maurya Empire, whose ruler Chandragupta took the easternmost provinces from him in 305, then by nomadic peoples related to the Scythians, who devastated the provinces north of Bactria between 290 and 280. Seleucus' son, Antiochus I, settled in Bactria to restore the situation, before taking the throne in 281.

Early Greek kings of Bactria

Around 245 BC, the Third Syrian War turned into a disaster for the Seleucids: Ptolemy III's armies advanced as far as the Tigris, and Seleucus II also had to contend with the secession of his brother Antiochos Hierax in Anatolia. Against this backdrop, the satraps of the eastern Seleucid Empire became restless: Andragoras in Parthia (or Parthiria) and Diodotus in Bactria granted themselves ever greater autonomy in order to best face the invasions of the Scythian nomads. Andragoras' secession was short-lived: he was soon defeated and killed by Arsace I (c. 239-238), chief of the Parni tribe, who settled in the former satrapy of Parthia and took its name: the Parthian Empire was born. Diodotus, isolated from the rest of the Greek world, had already proclaimed himself king before the accession of Seleucus II in 246 (or later in 238). This proclamation marked the success of Greek settlement in the region, where the descendants of the first settlers decided to take their destiny into their own hands in the face of the Seleucid rulers' loss of interest in their region, which at the time was more focused on Western conflicts.

Diodotus' dynasty was short-lived: his son Diodotus II, allied with the Parthians against Seleucus II, was overthrown by Euthydemus (c. 225-190), who in 208 had to face Antiochus III, who was undertaking an Anabasis in the eastern Satrapies. He had just confronted the Parthians and made peace with them. After defeating the Greco-Bactrians on the Arios river in Aria, Antiochos laid siege to Euthydemus in Bactria for two years, but failed to take the city. He finally recognized the kingdom's independence and gave one of his daughters in marriage to Euthydemus' son Demetrios. The Seleucids never returned to Central Asia.

Sogdiana, or at least its northern part (beyond the "Iron Gates" north of Samarkand), which Alexander the Great conquered after two murderous campaigns, escaped Greek domination in those years. The Altai gold route was thus cut off, which no doubt explains why Euthydemus had to stop issuing gold coins) was more successful in the south, since it appears that he brought the province of Arachosia under his control, and probably Drangian as well, and then launched his troops towards the Indus, where his successors continued his conquests.

Expansion towards the Indus

The history of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom itself can hardly be dissociated from that of the invaded Indian territories, which took on a predominant role in the affairs of the eastern Greek kings. While the stages of Greek expansion south of the Hindu Kush and into the Indus Valley remain poorly understood, it is clear that this region represented a major objective. Numismatic sources seem to point to the presence of several figures vying for power after the overthrow of Demetrios I's descendants. Clearly, the political division of Bactria and the conquered Indian territories between several competitors, who founded Indo-Greek kingdoms, must be considered, notably Pantaleon and Agathocles who took the Punjab in the years 180-170, then Menander I (c. 165-135) who carried out major conquests and led expeditions in the Gagne valley. Our understanding of the situation is complicated by the fact that the rulers of the time seem to have associated their heirs or generals with the exercise of power, resulting in the presence at the same time of several people claiming the royal function, without it being clear what links existed between them, including Antimachus I, Appolodotus and Demetrios II.

The little information left by ancient written sources (especially Justin) highlights the figure of Eucratides I (c. 170-145 BC), the last great Greco-Bactrian ruler. This brilliant general overthrew Demetrios II, before re-establishing Greek domination over Sogdiana and leading campaigns to India, where he clashed with the Indo-Greek king Menander I. But he was assassinated by one of his followers. But he was assassinated by one of his sons, whom he had associated with power.

The end of Greek Bactria

Greek domination of Bactria came to an end in the years following the death of Eucratides I, probably during the reign of his son Heliocles, by 130 BC at the latest. The Parthian Empire took over the western provinces of the kingdom, while the north was taken over by various nomadic peoples from the steppes of Central Asia, who settled in Sogdiana and then in Bactria itself, like the Sakas and Yuezhi of Chinese texts (the latter clearly including the ancestors of the Kushans). The capture of Aï Khanoum around 145-140 is probably attributable to them. The Greeks were definitively defeated in the following years.

Bactria "of a thousand cities", a region rich in irrigated plains and mineral resources, was deeply Hellenized, and the invasions probably led to a mass exodus of Bactrian Greeks to the south, where the Indo-Greek territories remained untouched by the invasions. So when the Chinese ambassador Zhang Qian visited Bactria (called Daxia by the Chinese) around 129-128, he described a politically fragmented country, where there was no trace of Greek domination. Greek domination, however, persisted in the regions south of the Hindu Kush and in the upper Indus valley, where Greek monarchs held sway until the beginning of our era.

Numismatic sources

The details of the century-long history of the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom are impossible to define in the absence of literary sources that allow us to analyze its continuity. Nevertheless, the analysis of coin issues can complement ancient literary sources to offer suggestions and shed light on the reigns of the Greco-Bactrian rulers.

François Widemann's most recent and extensive analysis of the subject focuses on economic history and the crises caused by the shortage of precious metals. The author uses, in particular, Osmund Bopearachchi's Monnaies gréco-bactriennes et indo-grecques (catalog raisonné, 1991), but modifies many points of chronology. The historical reconstruction that accompanies this catalog must be stripped of virtually all the history of the 1st century, based on the unverified hypothesis of a Yuezhi invasion around 70 B.C. This hypothesis, which is not based on any textual or archaeological data, leads us to consider all Indo-Greek coins issued during the following century, apart from those from the eastern Punjab, as unofficial issues, which does not stand up to serious numismatic study and the data in Chinese literature.

House of Diodote

Alexander the Great's conquest was immediately followed by the founding of urban settlements for garrison soldiers and demobilized soldiers, creating a significant Greek presence in the region, while the local elites were deported to the west. Greek settlements (apparently mainly from Anatolia) continued under Seleucid rule, during which the inclusion of Bactria in the Hellenistic empire and the establishment of Greek cities and institutions reinforced Greek cultural influence: it was this second wave that played a decisive role in the Hellenization of the region. Despite the break with the Seleucids and isolation from the rest of the Hellenistic world, this Greek presence was able to maintain itself over the long term, above all in the cities.

In fact, analysis of the personal names provided by the epigraphic finds from Aï Khanoum, which for want of a better indicator of the region's ethnic make-up, has shown that they are overwhelmingly Greek. There are, however, a few Iranian names, i.e. people from the indigenous Bactrian background who make up the bulk of the population, particularly in the countryside. Some of these Bactrians occupy secondary administrative posts, which indicates a form of association with the conduct of public affairs, since it is essential that an attempt at symbiosis be established between the two populations, as the regional culture attests. But the ruling elites were Greeks: military, civil servants, magistrates, landowners (the settlers having generally received land on their arrival).

An ostracon written in Aramaic, mentioning people with Iranian names, unearthed in the temple of Aï Khanoum, could however indicate the presence of a parallel administration for the native population, following the legacy of the Achaemenid Empire (whose administrative language was Aramaic). In any case, after the fall of the kingdom, Greek presence and influence faded in the region, a sign that Hellenization had remained limited, or that the local population turned against the Greek elites when the city was taken.

Urban planning and architecture

Following Alexander the Great's brutal conquest of Bactria, Sogdiana and neighboring regions, the various Greek powers implemented a policy of developing cities, initially populated by Greek military settlers. The Seleucid period, particularly under Antiochus I, saw the foundation of new cities, or rather refoundations, insofar as they were set up in the place of former settlements already occupied under the Achaemenids. This is attested in Bactria by the foundation of Aï Khanoum (whose ancient name remains unknown) and the rebuilding of the walls of the capital Bactres (as also attested in neighbouring provinces at Merv and Samarcande on the site of Afrassiab, and also at Koktepe). Archaeological excavations in Bactria (mainly in Uzbekistan, due to the political situation in Afghanistan) have highlighted the fact that numerous secondary towns developed during the Hellenistic period, making this region the "land of a thousand cities" referred to by Strabo. These settlements were often located on major roads, near waterways, served as administrative and economic centers, and sometimes had a primarily military purpose. The dating of these sites is mainly based on the discovery of Greco-Bactrian coins. Few sites appear to have been founded in this period.

Several Bactrian sites therefore feature levels from the Hellenistic period. Kampyr Tepe, located on the right bank of the Amou-Daria, is a secondary site dominated by a 4-hectare citadel defended by a 5-meter-thick wall, which seems to have owed its development to its proximity to a trade route, serving as a relay and perhaps a customs post. The site of Dilbergine Tepe, 40 km north-west of Bactres, underwent further development in Graeco-Bactrian times, when it was equipped with a square enclosure encompassing the earlier settlement on a circular tell. Over its 15-hectare surface area, archaeologists have uncovered private and public buildings from this period, including a temple dedicated to the Dioscuri. This may have been Eucratidea, the foundation of King Eucratide I mentioned by Strabo. Elsewhere in Bactria, several other sites of around ten hectares, already occupied before, show traces of a Hellenistic boom, such as Djandavlat Tepe and Khaytabad Tepe. Among the most important cities, the capital Bactres could not be excavated due to the presence of contemporary dwellings in the modern city of Balkh. However, the site's extension could be approached: its center is the circular tell of Bala Hissar, already occupied under the Achaemenids, but the city expanded to the south, as attested by the new wall dating from the Hellenistic period. At Termez, which may have been another major city of Hellenistic Bactria, the levels of this period have likewise not been well explored.

By far the best-known Greco-Bactrian site is Aï Khanoum, in northeastern Afghanistan, excavated by French teams between 1965 and 1974, the most remarkable example of Hellenism in Central Asia, a testimony to the Greco-Bactrian cultural character blending Greek contributions, Persian influences and innovations. It is strategically located at the confluence of the Kokcha and Amu Darya rivers, on a road leading to mineral-rich Badakhshan (lapis lazuli and gold), a position already exploited by the Achaemenids, who established a fortress 2 km to the east, and perhaps already occupied the site itself. The Greeks developed irrigation and agriculture in the surrounding area. Aï Khanoum covers some 150 hectares, placing it among the royal cities. The site is roughly triangular in shape, bordered on the south and west by the two rivers, with the eastern side naturally defended by a rocky hill on which a citadel has been erected. These are the areas of the lower town, stretching along the Amou Daria on the western side.


Greco-Bactrian coins provide information on the deities promoted by the official cult, showing no obvious traces of Persian deities (perhaps because the local religion was rather aniconic). These are the main Greek deities: Zeus, Poseidon, Heracles, the Dioscuri, Artemis and Athena. A plaque unearthed at Aï Khanoum also depicts Cybele and Helios. Little information indicates the presence of local cults of indigenous origin: two figurines of goddesses found at Aï Khanoum could represent non-Greek fertility divinities, and a statue of Marsyas from Takht-I-Sangin seems to represent the deified Oxus river (Amou-Daria). For the rest, it's possible that Greek divinities were locally assimilated to Iranian divinities (those linked to Mazdeism), following a common pattern in the Hellenistic world: the iconography of Zeus on coins seems to take on the cloak of Mithra, that of Artemis the halo of Anahita.

The places of worship found on Hellenistic Bactrian sites, however, are not architecturally Greek-inspired, but owe more to Middle Eastern traditions. The main temple at Aï Khanoum, perhaps dedicated to Zeus-Mithra, is decorated on the outside with stepped niches (common in Mesopotamia), and is a square edifice built on a stepped podium, with a vestibule opening onto the cella housing the statue of the deity worshipped in the temple, of which a fragment of the foot, sculpted in Greek style, has been unearthed. Another temple outside the site has a similar layout. A third, located on the acropolis, consists of an open-air platform with an altar, a typically Iranian construction. The Dilbergine Tepe temple, adorned with frescoes depicting the Dioscuri who are supposed to be worshipped there, also has an oriental layout. The most obvious example of Iranian-style worship in the region is the Takht-I-Sangin fire temple, built around the end of the 4th century BC or the beginning of the 3rd century BC, i.e. at the end of the Achaemenid or beginning of the Hellenistic period, and active during the Greco-Bactrian period. This thick-walled edifice, organized around a vast courtyard, features a main hall designed to house the fire that must burn there continuously. This sanctuary is the best candidate for being the site of the "Oxus treasure", which may have been assembled in the Graeco-Bactrian period (around 200 BC at the latest), even if most of the objects gathered here date from the Achaemenid era.

Greco-Bactrian rulers contributed to religious worship by building several sanctuaries. They also patronized the cult of Greek deities, and obviously also that of local deities, no doubt with the aim of winning over the various components of the population of their territories. We can also assume the existence of a royal cult in Bactria, as is the case in other Hellenistic kingdoms.

The Greco-Bactrian sites, above all the sanctuaries of Aï Khanoum and Takht-I-Sangin, have yielded numerous objects testifying to the great mastery of the period's craftsmen. Their style owes more to that of the late Classical period than to Hellenistic developments, no doubt because they were cut off from the Mediterranean hotbeds of art of that period and preserved older traditions. This contrasts with the originality and varied influences of their architectural achievements, but this attachment was at the root of the influence of Greek statuary in classical Indian art, particularly in Gandhara.

The mosaic fragments unearthed at Aï Khanoum particularly reflect this use of archaic techniques, since they consist of simple, painted pebbles inlaid in mortar, in two colors, and the motifs are very sparsely detailed, in contrast to the more complex creations of the Mediterranean world.

The stone statuary consists essentially of small-scale creations, in which the concern for realism in anatomical rendering characteristic of the classical period is very much in evidence. Among the most remarkable pieces found at Aï Khanoum is the statue of a naked young man wearing a crown of leaves, or the bust of a bearded old man crowning a pillar. On the other hand, the rise of sculpture in raw clay and stucco, on wooden or lead frames and used to create statues or reliefs, is an original feature of the period, which laid the foundations for Greco-Buddhist sculpture. In particular, it enabled the creation of remarkably realistic portraits in the form of busts and funerary steles. Bronze statuary is rarer among the finds: a statuette of Heracles was unearthed in the main temple of Aï Khanoum.

Sculpted decorative architectural elements include reinterpreted Corinthian-style capitals (using scrolls derived from oriental models), and antefixes with palmettes or wing motifs.

The numerous coins issued by Greco-Bactrian rulers that have come to light testify to the high quality of the engravers, particularly at the beginning of the period. They follow the Attic standard. The metal used is essentially silver, more rarely gold. The gold medallion of twenty staters (169.2 g) issued by Eucratides is the largest known coin of antiquity.

Numerous art forms are also attested: decorative bowls in dark-colored schist, carved ivory objects (furniture elements, dagger handles, etc.), jewelry, and a silver plaque with gilded elements depicting the goddess Cybele on a chariot, in a rare orientalist style that stands out from the rest of Greco-Bactrian art.


  1. Greco-Bactrian Kingdom
  2. Royaume gréco-bactrien
  3. ^ 'Greco-Bactrian Kingdom', 'Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom' and 'Greco-Bactria' are names applied by historians. The actual historical name of the state is unknown, but probably related to the ruling dynasties, which see.
  4. ^ Mentioned in "Hellenism in ancient India", Banerjee, p 140,[full citation needed] to be taken carefully since Orosius is often rather unreliable in his accounts.
  5. Louis Robert, « De Delphes à l'Oxus, inscriptions grecques nouvelles de la Bactriane », Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, vol. 112, no 3,‎ 1968, p. 416-457 (lire en ligne).
  6. Son especialmente significativos los estudios y observaciones dados a conocer por Osmund Bopearachchi (Monedas grecobactrianas e indogriegas, catálogo razonado, 1991)
  7. Boardman "The diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity"
  8. Aviso del Museo Británico sobre un jarrón zhou (2005): "Cuenco rojo de barro, decorado con un resbalón y con incrustaciones de pasta de vidrio. Período del Zhou oriental, siglos IV - III a. C. Este tazón fue probablemente un intento de copia de uno más precioso y, posiblemente, extranjero en bronce o incluso plata. El vidrio se utiliza poco en China. Su popularidad al final del periodo Zhou oriental se debe probablemente a la influencia extranjera.
  9. Las cosas que China recibió del mundo greco-iranio, la granada y plantas chag-kien, el equipo de catafracto, los trazados de influencia griega en el arte Han como los famosos espejos de bronce blanco del periodo Han con diseños greco-bactrianos (...) en el Victoria and Albert Museum. Cf. Tarn: The Greeks in Bactria and India, pág. 363-364
  10. ^ J. D. Lerner, The Impact of Seleucid Decline on the Eastern Iranian Plateau: the Foundations of Arsacid Parthia and Graeco-Bactria, (Stuttgart 1999).
  11. ^ F. L. Holt, Thundering Zeus (Berkeley 1999).

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