Like many lost works of antiquity, their content can be partially reconstructed through the citations of later authors. This is what happened, for example, with the Phoenician history of Sanchuniaton. And also with the work of Megasthenes titled Indica, where he recounts his journey to India in the 3rd century BC.

Megasthenes was born in 350 BC in the Anatolian Peninsula, witnessing the conquests of Alexander the Great and the subsequent division of his empire by the Diadochi. Little is known about his life until we find him in the court of Seleucus I Nicator, whose reign began in 305 BC.

Seleucus, who had been one of Alexander the Great’s generals, gained definitive control of the eastern part, the largest part of the empire, after the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC. His domains stretched from Anatolia, Babylon, and Persia to the edges of the Mauryan Empire in India.

Megasthenes must have been a trusted person for the Seleucid, as he was sent as an ambassador to India against the Mauryan Empire. The exact date of the embassy is not known, although historians are convinced that it had to be before 288 BC, as Emperor Chandragupta died in that year, and it is known that Megasthenes met him in his capital Pataliputra. Some historians place the visit between 302 and 298 BC.

In any case, Seleucus and Chandragupta had faced each other in a war that lasted two years, between 305 and 303 BC. Hostilities finally ceased with Seleucus’ defeat, and diplomatic relations were restored.

This was likely the setting for the ambassador Megasthenes’ journey around 304–303 BC. If he was the one tasked with negotiating peace (Bosworth believes the journey took place ten years earlier), he did not do too badly: Seleucus married his daughter Helena to Chandragupta, and the latter gifted the Greek with 500 war elephants, which proved very useful in 301 BC in the Battle of Ipsus against Antigonus, and later in the Battle of Corupedium against Lysimachus in 281 BC. Of course, in return, Seleucus ceded extensive territories to the Maurya.

What the sources say, without revealing the date, is that Megasthenes lived in the court of Sibyrtius, the satrap of Arachosia, who ruled under Seleucus, and used to visit Chandragupta frequently:

Again, southern Asia can be divided into four parts, of which Eratosthenes and Megasthenes make India the largest. The latter author lived with Sibyrtius, the satrap of Arachosia, and says that he visited Chandragupta, the king of the Indians, frequently

Flavius Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, V–6.2

As we mentioned earlier, Megasthenes documented his journey or journeys to India in a lost book titled Indica, partially reconstructed by the philologist John Watson McCrindle in the late 19th century, through citations from other authors such as Flavius Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, or Pliny.

His visit to India is then well-documented: he entered the subcontinent through Pentapotamia (the five rivers tributaries of the Indus) in present-day Punjab, leaving a description of them. From there, he followed the royal route to Pataliputra, later deviating south to Madurai and the island of Taprobane (Sri Lanka), possibly returning by the same route.

But not all authors give the same credibility to his accounts. Strabo, for example, refutes many of his claims because Indica contains many more or less fantastic stories about people with strange physical characteristics (upside-down feet, huge ears, etc.).

It is believed that Megasthenes exaggerated some facts because he was trying to demonstrate that India was an impregnable territory, thus justifying Seleucus’ defeat; after all, he was in his service. But there is also the possibility that later authors misunderstood some of his descriptions when transcribing them.

Among the interesting data found in Indica is the calculation that Megasthenes made of India’s size, as cited by Arrian:

For Megasthenes, on the other hand, the latitude of India runs from east to west, that is, what others call longitude, and he asserts that this magnitude is sixteen thousand stadia for its shortest part. In the north-south direction (what he calls longitude) it would measure, according to him, about twenty-three thousand three hundred stadia for its shortest part

Flavius Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander VIII–3.7

The length of 16,000 stadia would equate to 2,786 kilometers, while the latitude of 23,300 stadia would be 4,057 kilometers, measurements quite similar to those provided by Eratosthenes a few decades later.

The preserved fragments include data on fauna, flora, customs, geography, history, and everything that Megasthenes considered of interest to reflect in Indica.

I learned from Megasthenes that in the Indian Ocean there is a small type of fish that is never seen alive, as it always swims in deep waters and only floats on the surface after death. If someone touches it, they faint, and not only that, they even die in the end

Claudius Aelian, On the Nature of Animals, VIII–7

Evidently, this referred to the Electrophorus electricus or electric eel, which can emit shocks of up to 850 volts. He also mentioned that the island of Taprobane (Sri Lanka) was separated from the mainland by a large river, and that abundant pearls and gold were produced there. Regarding gold, we find perhaps the most famous passage of his work:

Nearco says that he has seen with his own eyes the skins of the gold-digging ants, and that they are similar to those of leopards. But Megasthenes, about these ants, says the following: that among the Derdae, an Indian tribe very populous living to the east in a mountainous area, there is a plateau about three thousand stadia in circumference, and that beneath it there are gold mines whose miners are ants, animals no smaller than foxes, extraordinarily swift and living on what they hunt. They dig the earth in winter and pile it up at the entrances, like moles. And the gold nuggets need little smelting. And the neighbors clandestinely go in search of the nuggets mounted on pack animals, for if they do it openly the ants fight and pursue them in their flight, catching up to them and annihilating them and their mounts. To pass unnoticed, they place pieces of meat from game here and there, and when the ants are attracted elsewhere, they grab the nuggets and sell them raw to merchants at any price, not knowing how to smelt it

Strabo, Geography XV.1.44

And of course, he refers to the Himalayan range (Imaus), of which he says that Alexander’s soldiers called it Caucasus, perhaps because it reminded them of the other Caucasus located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

India is bordered on the north, from Ariana to the Eastern Sea, by the boundaries of the Taurus, which the natives call, successively, Paropamisus, Emodus, Imaus, and in other ways, a region that the Macedonians call Caucasus

Strabo, Geography XV.1.11

It is not known exactly how many times Megasthenes visited India (from what Arrian says, it seems he made several visits) or how long he spent there. Nor do we know anything about his life after the famous embassy or the date of his death.

His Indica is considered the first Western description of India and the Ganges plain, and indeed, he is the first foreign ambassador mentioned in the historiography of the subcontinent.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 2, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Megástenes, el geógrafo griego del siglo III a.C. que describió el Himalaya y calculó la longitud y latitud de la India


Megastenes, Indika | J.W. McCrindle, Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian | Megasthenes: Indika | A.B. Bosworth, The Historical Setting of Megasthenes’ Indica | Truesdell S.Brown, The Reliability of Megasthenes | Allan Dahlaquist, Megasthenes and Indian Religion | Wikipedia

  • Share this article:

Discover more from LBV Magazine English Edition

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.