Synopsis: Anabasis

 

Anabasis -  Bactria

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Bactria

 

HELLENISM TRIUMPHANT.

This is a story about a largely forgotten people living out their lives geographically isolated from their parent culture, separated by thousands of miles from the lands whence their ancestors had come.  These people were the successors of Alexander the Great and his followers, at the furthermost tip of his Empire, in modern Afghanistan, then called Bactria,  and the vast lands surrounding  it. Their early centuries are well documented, their exploits known.

They were nominally Greek or Macedonian by descent.  The settlers were not completely cut off from the Hellenistic world bordering the Mediterranean, but they had perforce begun to adapt to the world around them, a world largely ruled before Alexander by a warlike Iranian aristocracy. They were at the hub of transcontinental trade routes, men and caravans crossed the seas, mountains, and deserts.  They read the latest plays from Greece, had their own authors, playwrights, and poets.

Yet as with Hellenistic dynasts everywhere, their rulers had vast ambitions, and had divided them politically from the successor Seleucid Empire and the other Hellenistic Empires and states that Alexander had once ruled or dominated. Once separated from the greater Hellenistic polity, with steppe nomads poised to further divide them from Mesopotamia, our sources begin to fall silent. They were on their own now.

The Seleucids still controlled most of the Asia, centred on Syria and  Mesopotamia, which was once conquered by Alexander, while to the South was the mighty Egypt of the Ptolemies.  Small successor states were gradually carving out new kingdoms around the Aegean, and the now dwarfed Greek city states continued their squabbling in the shadow of the still powerful Macedonian Kingdom.
The Hellenistic world saw a flood of creativity that the new patrons of Hellenistic culture, in the arts and sciences, could now finance. The great new centres of learning  included Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch, Pergamum,  and Syracuse, itself still free from the Roman.  The New Men of the Hellenistic world did not forget older centres such as Athens.  Now the scholars and their teachers travelled widely, criss-crossing the entire Hellenistic World.  Their disciples and their teachings were to reach Bactria, and their works are still to be found in the ruins of Bactrian  libraries, along with much older classical works, including plays.

Books were to be written about these Hellenes in furthest Asia, books now lost, with only a passing reference to be found  today  in another man’s note.  Strangely enough we often know what these otherwise forgotten people looked  like as individuals.  Tens of thousands of coins both large and small, ranging from gold staters to the smallest nickel or bronze.  These show portraits of strong men, ambitious men, of learned and wise men, all snapshots taken at a certain period in their lives.  Their headdress, the symbolism on these coins, the legends on them, a dedication to a god or to a triumph, to a school of teaching, or even to a philosophy, all give us some glimpses of the world they lived in and ruled against all the odds. The legends give us not only words, but tell us much from the language they are inscribed in.  A bilingual coin will reveal who that coin was meant for.  For most of the ruled that coin, and what it said, along with the portrait of the individual on it, would be the closest he would get to his king.  The coins were not merely units of currency, but living propaganda. Statements of belief and intent, and reminders of past success.

Those coins are in fact the most revealing history we have of these people. After a few centuries even the passing references to them cease.  The coins continued to be minted however, striking pictures taken out of time, out of the exact history we are all so used to reading. These glimpses of what they wanted the world to know of themselves are almost all we have.  There are a few garbled travellers tales, a few mentions in Buddhist literature, but beyond that, nothing.  We know something of their eventual fate in Bactria, nothing of what happened to a king named Plato ruling in India, long after the line of the Ptolemies in Egypt ended with Cleopatra, and centuries after the phalanx of Philip the Fifth of Macedon went down in bloody defeat to the Romans.

There are peoples even today who claim descent from Alexander and his men.  Anthropologists and others have  climbed high into the mountains and  driven deep into the desert to search for any hint of Greek or Macedonian  evidence in their speech, appearance, daily life or beliefs.  Ultimately identity is about our desires.  These people, from princely families to whole ethnic units, want to identify with these bold adventurers from the distant waters of the Aegean who had once dreamt a dream and had set out to make it a reality..

Bactria was a land of many contrasts, high snowy peaks, rushing mountain streams and broad rivers running through fertile valleys, lush forests, with broad stretches of grasslands and steppe to the north, while to the south lay barren hills, deserts of sand and rock.  These deserts were not simply waste lands however.  Strong wide rivers often cut through them, with green fertile land on either side.  As to the north, with its dry steppe lands, the inhabitants of the south had long been masters of irrigation.  This was a rich country, with good lands for farming and stock raising, teeming with wildlife and filled with precious  minerals easily mined.  It was also a harsh land, one of contrasts between high cold mountain valley pastures and the  river oases in the southern deserts, between cultured city life and the herdsmen of the steppe.

It was in this beautiful alien land that a relatively few Greeks and Macedonians  settled, not always by choice.  Here they built their cities in imitation of the cities back home, here they built their lives.

They had been ruling and living in this land for six generations when this story opens.  They had lost none of the adventurous spirit that had led their ancestors to Bactria, for they knew, had always known, that beyond the Hindu Kush lay an even richer world, a world that seemed ripe to fall into their  lap.  Lands perhaps greater than even Alexander had conquered.  They were Hellenes, and they would carry the standard of Hellenism and its all embracing culture to the ends of the earth, if they could.