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Ancient Historians of Ancient India

Early Sources on Indian History > Ancient Historians

Ancient Indian Subcontinent
Ancient India and the Indian Subcontinent
Ashoka
Review of James Romm's Ghost on the Throne

Ancient Greco-Roman Historians of India
Arrian of Nicomedia
Quintus Curtius Rufus
Diodorus Siculus
Plutarch
Justin

Alexander Meets Porus
Alexander Meets Porus © Clipart

Not much is known about the truly ancient history of the Indus Valley, but there is some information. Resources from the Indian subcontinent about its earliest periods are limited to religious texts, notably the Rig Veda, and archaeological finds, especially from Harappa, but decent, if not entirely accurate, written history and geography of what is now India and Pakistan was available in the West from the time of Alexander the Great's conquests. Even before Alexander's invasion (327-324 B.C.) there were historical or quasi-historical accounts in Greece, and one of the Greek authors had even been to India.

The Ionian Greek geographer Hecataeus of Miletus, author of a description of the earth, wrote about India in about 500 B.C. A Skylax of Karyanda in Caria (512-486), who had actually been on the subcontinent, wrote a geographical account of an expedition following the Indus from its headwaters to its mouth [Source: Greeks in India Before Alexander]. The foremost of the ancient historical accounts of ancient India was the "father of history," the imaginative Herodotus. He was another Ionian Greek, from Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum, Turkey, home of the famous queen Artemisia who commanded a naval squadron, in 480, under the Persian king Xerxes, in the Greco-Persian Wars of the fifth century B.C. A passage from Book III of Herodotus's history describes the people of India:

"For in fact even if a man has come to old age they slay him and feast upon him; but very few of them come to be reckoned as old, for they kill every one who falls into sickness, before he reaches old age. Other Indians have on the contrary a manner of life as follows:--they neither kill any living thing nor do they sow any crops nor is it their custom to possess houses; but they feed on herbs, and they have a grain of the size of millet, in a sheath, which grows of itself from the ground; this they gather and boil with the sheath, and make it their food: and whenever any of them falls into sickness, he goes to the desert country and lies there, and none of them pay any attention either to one who is dead or to one who is sick."
Another Greek writer of Indian history was Ktesias of Knidos (405-397) who served as a doctor to a Persian king and met Indian officials while so employed. These sources do not provide us with even a reasonably accurate picture of ancient India. For that we need to look at the accounts provided by Alexander the Great's adventures on the Indian subcontinent.

Alexander didn't conquer very much of the Indian sub-continent, but he did reach the Indus River and defeated King Porus on the River Hydaspes. Many men accompanied Alexander, and wrote about him and the conquered lands. Some went to India with Alexander; others around the same time. For us, such men are important because they provided resources for later writers, not as historians in their own right. Ptolemy, of course, is important for other reasons, as well. [The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great As Described by Arrian Q. Curtius Diodoros Plutarch and Juston, by J. W. McCrindle (1893)] lists them:

1. Ptolemy, future ruler of Egypt as Ptolemy Soter and ancestor of Cleopatra.
2. Aristoboulos of Potidaia, (Kassandreia or Κασσάνδρεια).
3. Nearchos (born in Crete), fleet commander sent by Alexander to scout the coastline between the Indus River and the Persian Gulf. [See Early Sources for Ancient Indian History for information on Nearchos and Megasthenes.]
4. Onesikritos of Astypalaia or Aegina, who went with Nearchus and wrote a book about it and India.
"Shortly afterwards Nearchus and Onesicritus arrived, the men whom Alexander had instructed to proceed some way into the Ocean. They brought reports based partly on hearsay and partly on their own observation. There was an island lying at the mouth of the river, they said, which was rich in gold but without horses.... The sea was full of monsters, they claimed, brought in on the incoming tide, their bodies the size of large ships."
Curtius Rufus, Histories of Alexander the Great, Book 10 By Quintus Curtius Rufus, J. E. Atkinson, John Yardley
5. Eumenes of Kardia, Alexander's secretary, wrote an Ephemerides.
6. Chares of Mitylene, wrote about Alexander's private life.
7. Kallisthenes of Olynthos.
8. Kleitarchos (Clitarchus) of Rhodes, wrote a life of Alexander.
9. Androsthenes of Thasos wrote a Paraplus.
10. Polykleitos of Larissa, wrote a history of Alexander with geographical details.
11. Kyrsilos of Pharsalos.
12. Anaximenes of Lampsakos.
13. Diognetos measured and recorded the distances of Alexander's marches.
14. Archelaos, a geographer.
I5. Amyntas, wrote about Alexander's Stathmoi, i.e. stages or halting-places.
16. Patrokles, a writer on geography.
17. Megasthenes, wrote an Indika and is probably the most valuable of these writers, followed by Strabo, Arrian, Pliny the Elder, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and Justinus.
18. Deimachos, author of a work on India in two books.
19. Diodotos of Erythrai, wrote an Ephemerides, and may have been in India.

These primary sources are available to us through secondary sources, ancient Greek and Roman historians inlcuding Strabo, Orosius, and the elder Pliny, but especially:

1. Arrian of Nicomedia
2. Quintus Curtius Rufus
3. Diodorus Siculus
4. Plutarch and
5. Justin
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