Greco-Bactrian Kingdom

Dimitris Stamatios | February 5, 2023


The Greco-Bactrian kingdoms are a group of Hellenistic states founded by Greek rulers established in Central Asia, centered on Bactria and Sogdiana. They flourished from the middle of the 3rd century B.C. in the middle of the Greek colonists settled in these regions since the conquest of Alexander the Great, when the satrap of Bactria 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 Greeks of Bactria settled in the south of the Hindu Kush, in Kapisene (Begrim region) and in the eastern Punjab, where Indo-Greek kingdoms were founded. The domination of Bactria by the Greeks ceased in the last third of the 2nd century B.C., victim of the invasions of several nomadic peoples, including the Parthians and the Yuezhi. Indo-Greek kingdoms remained 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 cities and the development of agricultural territories initiated a phase of prosperity. The Greek cities of the region are important cultural centers, in which local traditions and Greek contributions are mixed, as well as in art and architecture as in religion. The cultural originality of this period is revealed in particular thanks to the excavations of the urban site of Ai Khanoum (in present-day Afghanistan) which remains one of the main sources of knowledge on the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The Greek cultural influence had an important impact in these regions, particularly in its art and architecture, visible in the Greco-Buddhist art that flourished at the time 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 more than a century and a half with remarkable results, but also with errors that have sometimes been slow 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 of Ai 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 back to the reign of Antimachus I have made it possible to complete the chronology of the period by providing indications on the dating systems used.

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

Historical Overview

Little documented by ancient written sources, the Greek period of Bactria is known only in its generalities. Many uncertainties weigh on the dates of the reigns and the succession of the sovereigns, which the analysis of the monetary emissions only rarely allow to lift, even if great advances could be made. In any case, it appears that the Greek colonists established in this region following the conquests of Alexander the Great were able to set up political entities that quickly became autonomous, capable of holding the powerful Seleucid empire in check and then expanding towards the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. After a century and a half of prosperity, this kingdom collapsed under the combined pressure of the Parthians and then of nomadic groups from the north, including the Yuezhi.

Settlement of the Greeks in Central Asia

Bactria passed under Greek domination when the troops of Alexander the Great invested the region in 330-329 to quell the revolt of the Achaemenid satraps of the provinces of Central Asia (Bessos and Spitamenes). This one is hardly reduced after two years of fights. It is of this period that date the first foundations of Greek cities in the area. After the death of Alexander, the Greek mercenaries installed in the satrapies of Central Asia revolt in order to obtain the authorization to return in their countries of origin. The events of the following years are badly known, but it appears that the Greek governors of the area are sufficiently powerful to weigh in the fights between the Diadoques and to obtain a certain autonomy, as the fact that they emit their own currencies attests it). The central Asian satrapies finally fall to Séleucos Ier, which confirms its base at the time of a campaign in 307. But his hold on the region is quickly put in danger: initially by the Indian empire of Maurya, whose sovereign Chandragupta takes away the most Eastern provinces to him in 305, then by nomadic people related to Scythians which devastate the provinces located at the north of Bactria in the years 290-280. The son of Séleucos, Antiochos Ier, established in Bactres to restore the situation, before reaching the throne in 281.

First Greek kings of Bactria

Towards 245 BC, the third war of Syria turns to the disaster for the Seleucids: the armies of Ptolemy III advance until the Tigris, and Seleucos II must also face the secession of his brother Antiochos Hierax in Anatolia. In this context, the satraps of the east of the Empire séleucide are agitated: Andragoras in Parthia (or Parthiène) and Diodote in Bactria grant themselves a greater and greater autonomy in order to face at best the invasions of the Scythian nomads. The secession of Andragoras is of short duration: it is not long in being overcome and killed by Arsace Ier (v. 239-238), head of the tribe of Parni, which is established in the old satrapy of Parthia and takes the name of it: it is the birth of the Parthian Empire. Diodote, isolated from the rest of the Greek world, had already proclaimed himself king before the advent of Seleucus II in 246 (or later in 238). This proclamation consecrates the success of the Greek implantation in the region, where the descendants of the first colonists decide to take their destiny in hand in front of the loss of interest of their region for the sovereigns séleucides more turned towards the Western conflicts at that time.

The dynasty of Diodotus did not last long: his son Diodotus II, allied with the Parthians against Seleucus II, was overthrown by Euthydemus in 237

Sogdiana, or at least its northern part (beyond the “Iron Gates” north of Samarkand), which Alexander the Great conquered at the cost of two murderous campaigns, escaped in those years from the Greek domination. The road of the gold of Altai is thus cut and that undoubtedly explains why Euthydemus must stop the emission of gold coins. Demetrios had more success in the south, since it appears that he made pass the province of Arachosia under his control, and probably also Drangiane, then that he launched his troops in direction of Indus, where his successors continued his conquests.

Expansion towards the Indus

The history of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom strictly speaking becomes then difficult to dissociate from that of the invaded Indian territories, which take from then on a dominating place in the affairs of the Eastern Greek kings. If the stages of Greek expansion in the Indus Valley remain poorly known, it is obvious that this region represents a major objective. Numismatic sources seem to indicate the presence of several characters struggling for power after the overthrow of the descendants of Demetrios I. It is obviously necessary to consider the political division of Bactria and the conquered Indian territories between several competitors, who founded the Indo-Greek kingdoms. The comprehension of the situation is complicated by the habit that seems to have had the sovereigns of the time to associate their heirs or generals to the exercise of the power, what translated by the presence at the same time of several people claiming the royal function without one understanding well the bonds existing between them, among which Antimachus Ier, Appolodote and Démétrios II.

The few information left by the ancient written sources (especially Justin) put forward the figure of Eucratides I (c. 170-145 BC), last great Greco-Bactrian sovereign. This brilliant general overthrew Demetrios II, before re-establishing the Greek domination on Sogdiana and leading campaigns towards India where he clashed with the Indo-Greek king Menander I. But he is assassinated by one of his sons whom he associated with the power.

End of the Greek Bactria

The Greek domination in Bactria ends in the years which follow the death of Eucratide Ier, undoubtedly under the reign of his son Heliocles, at the latest in 130 BC. 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, such as the Sakas and the Yuezhi of the Chinese texts (the latter obviously including among them the ancestors of the Kushans). It is to them that the capture of Ai Khanoum around 145-140 must probably be attributed. The Greeks were definitively defeated in the following years.

Bactria “with a thousand cities”, a region rich in irrigated plains and mineral resources, was deeply Hellenized and the invasions probably led to a massive exodus of Bactrian Greeks to the south, where the Indo-Greek territories were not affected by the invasions. Thus when the Chinese ambassador Zhang Qian goes to Bactria (called Daxia by the Chinese) around 129-128, he describes a politically fragmented country, where there is no trace of Greek domination. This one resists on the other hand in the regions located at the south of the Hindu Kush and in the high valley of the Indus, where Greek monarchs maintain themselves until the beginnings of our era.

Numismatic sources

The detail of the century of history of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom is impossible to draw in the absence of literary sources allowing to analyze it in its continuity. Nevertheless, the analysis of monetary issues can complement the ancient literary sources in order to make proposals and thus shed light on the reigns of the Greco-Bactrian rulers.

The most recent and most extensive analysis of the subject, by François Widemann, emphasizes the economic history and the crises caused by the shortage of precious metals. The author uses, in particular, the work of Osmund Bopearachchi, Monnaies gréco-bactriennes et indo-grecques (catalog raisonné, 1991) but modifies many points of chronology. One must eliminate from the historical reconstruction that accompanies this catalog almost all of the history of the first 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 one to consider all the Indo-Greek coins issued during the following century, apart from those of the eastern Punjab, as unofficial issues, which does not stand up to a serious numismatic study and to the data in the Chinese literature.

Houses of Antimachus and Apollodotus

Greeks and Bactrians

The conquest of Alexander the Great was immediately followed by urban foundations where soldiers from garrisons and others who had been demobilized were installed, thus creating the beginning of a Greek settlement in the region, which was not negligible, while the local elites were deported to the west. The settlements of Greeks (apparently mainly from Anatolia) continued during the period of Seleucid domination, during which the inclusion of Bactria in this Hellenistic empire and the anchoring of Greek cities with their institutions strengthened the Greek cultural influence: it is rather this second wave which played a decisive role in the Hellenization of the region. In spite of the rupture with the Seleucids and the isolation compared to the rest of the Hellenistic world, this Greek presence has thus the means of maintaining itself durably, above all in the cities.

In fact, the analysis of the personal names provided by the epigraphic finds carried out in Aï Khanoum, which remain for want of a better testimony on the ethnic composition of the region, indicated that they are very mainly Greek. One finds however some Iranian names, thus people resulting from the indigenous bottom of Bactria which constitute the major part of the population, in particular in the countryside. Some of these Bactrians occupy secondary administrative positions, which indicates a form of association in the conduct of public affairs, as it is essential that an attempt at symbiosis be established between the two populations, as attested by the regional culture. But the ruling elites are Greeks: military, civil servants, magistrates, landowners (the colonists having generally received land on their arrival).

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

Urban planning and architecture

After the brutal conquest of Bactria, Sogdiana and the neighbouring regions by Alexander the Great, the different Greek powers set up a policy of development of the cities, initially populated by Greek military colonists. The Seleucid period, in particular under the aegis of Antiochus I, was the occasion for the foundation of cities, or rather refoundations insofar as they were installed in the place of former settlements already occupied under the Achaemenids. This is attested in Bactria by the foundation of Ai Khanoum (whose ancient name remains unknown) and the reconstruction of the walls of the capital Bactria (like what is also attested in the neighboring provinces of Merv and Samarkand on the site of Afrassiab, and also at Koktepe). Archaeological excavations (mostly conducted in Uzbekistan due to the political situation in Afghanistan) in Bactria have especially highlighted the fact that many secondary cities developed during the Hellenistic period, making this region the “land of a thousand cities” mentioned by Strabo. These settlements are often located on important roads, near waterways, serve as administrative and economic centers, and sometimes have a primarily military purpose. The dating of the sites is mainly done thanks to the discovery of Greco-Bactrian coins. Few sites seem to have been founded at this period.

Several Bactrian sites thus present levels from the Hellenistic period. Kampyr Tepe, located on the right bank of the Amu Darya, is a secondary site dominated by a citadel of 4 hectares defended by a wall about 5 meters thick, which seems to have owed its development to its proximity to a commercial road, serving as a relay and perhaps as a customs post. The site of Dilbergine Tepe, located 40 km northwest of Bactria, underwent a development in the Greco-Bactrian period, when it was endowed with a square enclosure encompassing the older settlement, on a circular tell. On its 15 hectares surface, archaeologists have found private and public buildings of this period, including a temple dedicated to the Dioscuri. It could be Eucratidea, foundation of king Eucratide I mentioned by Strabo. Elsewhere in Bactria, several other sites of about ten hectares, already occupied before, show traces of an expansion in the Hellenistic period, such as Djandavlat Tepe and Khaytabad Tepe. Among the most important cities, the capital Bactria could not be the subject of advanced excavations because of the presence of contemporary dwellings in the modern city of Balkh. The extension of the site could however 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 dated to the Hellenistic period. At Termez, which may have been another major city of Hellenistic Bactria, the levels of this period could not be well explored either.

The best known Greco-Bactrian site, by far, is Ai Khanoum, in northeastern Afghanistan, which was excavated by French teams between 1965 and 1974, the most remarkable example of Hellenism in Central Asia, a testimony of the Greco-Bactrian cultural character mixing Greek contributions, Persian influences and innovations. It is strategically located at the confluence of the Kokcha River and the Amu Darya, on a road leading to Badakhshan rich in minerals (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 surroundings. Ai Khanoum covers nearly 150 hectares, which places it among the royal cities. The site is roughly triangular in shape, bordered on the south and west by the two rivers, the eastern side being naturally defended by a rocky hill on which a citadel was erected. These are the areas of the lower city, extending along the Amu Darya on the western part


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

The places of worship found on the sites of Hellenistic Bactria are however not architecturally of Greek inspiration, but owe more to Middle Eastern traditions. The main temple of Ai Khanoum, perhaps dedicated to Zeus-Mithra, has an exterior decoration of stepped niches (common in Mesopotamia), and is a square edifice built on a stepped podium, consisting of 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 a Greek style, has been unearthed. Another temple located outside the site has a similar plan. A third, located on the acropolis, consists of an open-air platform with an altar, which is a typical Iranian construction. The temple of Dilbergine Tepe, decorated with frescoes representing the Dioscuri who were to be venerated there, also has an oriental plan. The most obvious example of an Iranian-type cult in the region is the fire temple of Takht-I-Sangin, built towards the end of the 4th century BC or the beginning of the 3rd century BC, thus at the end of the Achaemenid or beginning of the Hellenistic period, and in activity during the Greco-Bactrian period. This thick-walled building, organized around a vast courtyard, has a main hall for the fire that must burn continuously. This sanctuary is the best candidate to be the site of the “Oxus treasure”, which could have been found in the Greco-Bactrian period (at the latest around 200 BC), even if most of the objects gathered there date from the Achaemenid period.

The Greco-Bactrian sovereigns contributed to the religious cult 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 attaching themselves to the various components of the population of their territories. One can also presume the existence of a royal cult in Bactria, as is the case in the other Hellenistic kingdoms.

The Greco-Bactrian sites, above all the sanctuaries of Ai Khanoum and Takht-I-Sangin, have yielded numerous objects testifying to the great mastery of the craftsmen of the period. Their style owes more to that of the late classical period than to the developments of the Hellenistic period, probably because they were cut off from the Mediterranean foci of the art of that period and preserved the older traditions. This contrasts with the originality and varied influences of their architectural achievements, but this attachment was at the origin of the influence of Greek statuary in classical Indian art, particularly in the art of Gandhara.

The fragments of mosaics brought to light at Ai Khanoum reflect particularly this use of archaic techniques, since they are made of simple small painted pebbles inlaid in mortar, two colors, and that the patterns are very little detailed, contrasting with more complex achievements of the Mediterranean world.

The statuary on stone consists essentially of small-scale creations, in which the concern for realism in the anatomical rendering characteristic of the classical period is very strong. Among the most remarkable achievements found at Ai 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. The rise of sculpture in raw clay and stucco, on wooden or lead armature and used for the realization of statues or reliefs, is on the other hand an originality of the period, which must lay the foundations of the Greco-Buddhist sculpture. It allowed the realization of portraits in the form of busts and funeral steles remarkably realistic. Bronze statuary is rarer among the finds: a statuette of Heracles was brought to light in the main temple of Ai Khanoum.

Among the decorative sculpted architectural elements, there are capitals of Corinthian type reinterpreted (use of scrolls from oriental models), and antefixes with motifs of palmettes or wings.

The numerous coins issued by the Greco-Bactrian rulers that have been brought to light testify to the high quality of the engravers, especially 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 moreover the largest known currency of Antiquity.

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

External links


  1. Royaume gréco-bactrien
  2. Greco-Bactrian Kingdom
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ “They are a nation of nomads, moving from place to place with their herds, and their customs are like those of the Xiongnu. They have some 100,000 or 200,000 archer warriors … The Yuezhi originally lived in the area between the Qilian or Heavenly mountains and Dunhuang, but after they were defeated by the Xiongnu they moved far away to the west, beyond Dayuan, where they attacked and conquered the people of Daxia (Bactria) and set up the court of their king on the northern bank of the Gui (Oxus) river”.[33]
  5. ^ On the image of the Greek kneeling warrior: “A bronze figurine of a kneeling warrior, not Greek work, but wearing a version of the Greek Phrygian helmet … From a burial, said to be of the 4th century BC, just north of the Tien Shan range”.[44]
  6. ^ Notice of the British Museum on the Zhou vase (2005, attached image): “Red earthenware bowl, decorated with a slip and inlaid with glass paste. Eastern Zhou period, 4th–3rd century BC. This bowl may have intended to copy a possibly foreign vessel in bronze or even silver. Glass has been both imported from the Near East and produced domestically by the Zhou States since the 5th century BC.”
  7. ^ “The things which China received from the Graeco-Iranian world-the pomegranate and other “Chang-Kien” plants, the heavy equipment of the cataphract, the traces of Greeks influence on Han art (such as) the famous white bronze mirror of the Han period with Graeco-Bactrian designs … in the Victoria and Albert Museum”[45] Its popularity at the end of the Eastern Zhou period may have been due to foreign influence.”[citation needed]
  8. 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).
  9. Bernard 1996a, p. 88-89.
  10. Son especialmente significativos los estudios y observaciones dados a conocer por Osmund Bopearachchi (Monedas grecobactrianas e indogriegas, catálogo razonado, 1991)
  11. ^ J. D. Lerner, The Impact of Seleucid Decline on the Eastern Iranian Plateau: the Foundations of Arsacid Parthia and Graeco-Bactria, (Stuttgart 1999).
  12. ^ F. L. Holt, Thundering Zeus (Berkeley 1999).
  13. ^ Polibio, X.49.
  14. ^ Polibio, XI.34.
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