Greco-Bactrian Kingdom

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Approximate extent of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom circa 220 BCE.

The Greco-Bactrians were a dynasty of Greek kings who controlled Bactria and Sogdiana, an area comprising today's northern Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia, the easternmost area of the Hellenistic world, from 250 to 125 BCE. Their expansion into northern India established the Indo-Greek Kingdom, which was to last until around 10 CE.


Independence from the Seleucid Empire (250 BCE)

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The founder of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, Diodotus ca. 250 BCE.

The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom was founded by the Seleucid military governor of Bactria Diodotus around 250 BCE when he wrestled independence for his territory from the Seleucid Empire.

At about the same time in the West, the Parthian Arsacid Dynasty was rising, therefore cutting the Greco-Bactrians from direct contacts with the Greek world. Overland trade continued at a reduced rate, while sea trade between Greek Egypt and Bactria developed.

Diodotus was succeeded by his son Diodotus II.

The Euthydemid dynasty (230 BCE)

Euthydemus overthrew Diodotus II around 230 BCE and started his dynasty. Euthydemus's control extended to Sogdiana, reaching and going beyond the city of Alexandria Eschate founded by Alexander the Great in Ferghana.

Conflict with the Seleucid empire and Parthia

Euthydemus is famous for having repulsed a reconquest effort by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III around 206 BCE. He successfully resisted a two-year siege in the fortified city of Bactra, before Antiochus finally decided to recognize the new ruler, and to offer one of his daughters to Euthydemus's son Demetrius. Classical accounts also relate that Euthydemus negociated peace with Antiochus III by suggesting that he deserved credit for overthrowing the original rebel Diodotus, and that he was protecting Central Asia from nomadic invasions thanks to his defensive efforts:

"...for if he did not yield to this demand, neither of them would be safe: seeing that great hords of Nomads were close at hand, who were a danger to both; and that if they admitted them into the country, it would certainly be utterly barbarised." (Polybius, 11.34 (

Contacts with Eastern Central Asia and China

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Probable Greek soldier, woollen wall hanging, 3rd-2nd century BCE, Sampul, Urumqi Xinjiang Museum.

To the north, Euthydemus also ruled Sogdiana and Ferghana, and there are indications that from Alexandria Eschate the Greco-Bactrians may have led expeditions as far as Kashgar and Urumqi in Chinese Turkestan, leading to the first known contacts between China and the West around 220 BCE. The Greek historian Strabo too writes that:

"they extended their empire even as far as the Seres (Chinese) and the Phryni" (Strabo, XI.XI.I (

Several statuettes and representations of Greek soldiers have been found north of the Tien Shan, on the doorstep to China, and are today on display in the Xinjiang museum at Urumqi (Boardman). Greek influences on Han art have often been suggested (Hirth, Rostovtzeff), and there is a possibility that the 210 BCE Terracotta Army of the first great Chinese emperor Qin, with its colored life-size realism, may have been inspired by Greek statuary.

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Statuette of a Greek soldier, from a 3rd century BCE burial site north of the Tian Shan, Urumqi Xinjiang Museum (drawing).

Numismatics also suggest that some technology exchanges may have occurred on these occasions: the Greco-Bactrians were the first in the world to issue cupro-nickel (75/25 ratio) coins 1, an alloy technology only known by the Chinese at the time under the name "White copper" (some weapons from the Warring States Period were in copper-nickel alloy 2 ). The practice of exporting Chinese metals, in particular iron, for trade is attested around that period. Kings Agathocles and Pantaleon made these coin issues around 170 BCE. Copper-nickel would not be used again in coinage until the 19th century.

The Han Dynasty explorer and ambassador Zhang Qian visited Bactria in 126 BCE, and reported the presence of Chinese products in the Bactrian markets:

""When I was in Bactria (Ta-Hia)", Zhang Qian reported, "I saw bamboo canes from Qiong and cloth made in the province of Shu (territories of southwestern China). When I asked the people how they had gotten such articles, they replied, "Our merchants go buy them in the markets of Shendu (India)."" (Shiji 123, Sima Qian, trans. Burton Watson).

Upon his return, Zhang Qian informed the Chinese emperor Wu-Ti of the level of sophistication of the urban civilizations of Ferghana, Bactria and Parthia, who became interested in developing commercial relationship them:

"The Son of Heaven on hearing all this reasoned thus: Ferghana (Ta-Yuan) and the possessions of Bactria (Ta-Hia) and Parthia (An-Xi) are large countries, full of rare things, with a population living in fixed abodes and given to occupations somewhat identical with those of the Chinese people, but with weak armies, and placing great value on the rich produce of China" (Han Shu, Former Han History).

Numerous Chinese missions were then sent to Central Asia, triggering the development of the Silk Road from the end of the 2nd century BCE.

Expansion (after 200 BCE)

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Silver coin depicting King Demetrius (reigned c. 200-180 BCE), wearing an elephant scalp, symbol of his conquest of India.

See also: Indo-Greek Kingdom

Following the departure of the Seleucid army, the Bactrian kingdom seems to have expanded. In the west, areas in nort-eastern Iran may have been absorbed, possibly as far as into Parthia, whose ruler had been defeated by Antiochus the Great. These territories possibly are identical with the Bactrian satrapies of Tapuria and Traxiane.

Demetrius, the son of Euthydemus, started an invasion of India from 180 BCE, a few years after the Mauryan empire had been overthrown by the Sunga dynasty, under which Buddhism was persecuted.

Demetrius seems to have been as far as the imperial capital Pataliputra in eastern India (today Patna). The invasion was completed by 175 BCE. This established in northern India what is called the Indo-Greek Kingdom, which lasted for almost two centuries until around 10 CE. The Buddhist faith flourished under the Indo-Greek kings, foremost among them Menander I. It was also a period of great cultural syncretism, exemplified by the development of Greco-Buddhism.

Back in Bactria, Eucratides managed to overthrow the Euthydemid dynasty and establish his own rule around 170 BCE. Demetrius is said to have returned to Bactria with 60,000 men to oust the usurper, but he apparently was defeated and killed in the encounter. Antimachus I, brother of Demetrius, also fought against Eucratides, but ultimately lost around 160 BCE.

Greek culture in the East

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Greco-Bactrian stone palette representing an Hellenistic Nereid goddess riding a Ketos sea-monster, 2nd century BCE, Sirkap.

The Greco-Bactrians were known for their high level of Hellenistic sophistication, and kept regular contact with both the Mediterranean and neighbouring India. They were on friendly terms with India and exchanged ambassadors.

Their cities, such as Ai-Khanoum (probably Alexandria on the Oxus), demonstrate a sophisticated Hellenistic urban culture. "It has all the hallmarks of a Hellenistic city, with a Greek theater, gymnasium and some Greek houses with colonnaded courtyards" (Boardman).

Some of the Greco-Bactrian coins, and those of their successors the Indo-Greeks, are considered the finest examples of Greek numismatic art with "a nice blend of realism and idealization", including the largest coins to be minted in the Hellenistic world: the largest gold coin was minted by Eucratides (reigned 171-145 BCE), the largest silver coin by the Indo-Greek king Amyntas (reigned c. 95-90 BCE). The portraits "show a degree of individuality never matched by the often bland depictions of their royal contemporaries further West" (Roger Ling, "Greece and the Hellenistic World").

Nomadic invasions

First Yueh-Chih expansion (c. 162 BCE)

According to the Han Chronicles, following a crushing defeat in 162 BCE by the Xiongnu (Huns), the nomadic Indo-European tribes of the Yueh-Chih fled from the Tarim Basin towards the west, crossed the neighbouring urban civilization of the "Ta-Yuan" (probably the Greek possessions in Ferghana), and re-settled north of the Oxus in modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, in the middle of Greco-Bactrian territory. The Ta-Yuan remained a healthy and powerful urban civilization which had numerous contacts and exchanges with China from 130 BCE.

It is not clear whether the incursion of the Yueh-Chih consisted in an invasion of the Greco-Bactrian territory, or possibly a resettlement in front of the Xiongnu attacks from the north, reminescent of the Roman practice of the foederati. The Yueh-chi certainly did not destroy the Greek settlements of the Ferghana, and later adopted many elements of the Hellenic civilization. When Zhang Qian visited the Yueh-Chih in 126 BCE, trying to obtain their alliance to fight the Xiong-Nu, he described them as living peacefully and content, unwilling to be involved in such a fight.

Second Yueh-Chih expansion (c. 120 BCE)

The Yueh-Chih further expanded southward into Bactria around 120 BCE, apparently pushed out by invasions from the northern Wu-Sun. It seems they also pushed Scythian tribes before them, who continued to India, where they came to be identified as Indo-Scythians.

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Silver coin of Heliocles (r.150-125 BCE)

Around 125 BCE the king Heliocles abandoned Bactria and moved his capital to the Kabul valley, from where he ruled his Indian holdings. He is technically the last Greco-Bactrian king, although the Indo-Greek Kingdom founded by Demetrius continued in northern India until around 10 CE.

The Yuezhi remained in Bactria, where they were to stay more than a century. They became Hellenized to some degree, as suggested by their adoption of the Greek alphabet and by some remaining coins, minted in the style of the Greco-Bactrian kings, with the text in Greek.

Around 12 BCE the Yuezhi were then to move to northern India where they established the Kushan Empire.

Main Greco-Bactrian kings and territories

House of Diodotus

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Gold coin of Diodotos I ca. 250 BC

Territories of Bactria, Sogdiana, Ferghana, Arachosia:

Many of the dates, territories, and relationships between Greco-Bactrian kings are tentative and essentially based on numismatic analysis and a few Classical sources. The following list of kings, dates and territories after the reign of Demetrius is derived from the latest and most extensive analysis on the subject, by Osmund Bopearachchi ("Monnaies Gréco-Bactriennes et Indo-Grecques, Catalogue Raisonné", 1991).

House of Euthydemus

Territories of Bactria, Sogdiana, Ferghana, Arachosia:

  • Euthydemus I (reigned c. 223- c.200 BCE) Overthrew Diodotus II. Coins (
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Demetrius I, founder of the Indo-Greek kingdom (r.c. 205-171 BCE).

The descendants of the Greco-Bactrian king Euthydemus invaded northern India around 190 BCE. Their dynasty was probably thrown out of Bactria after 170 BC by the new king Eucratides, but remained in the Indian domains of the empire at least until the 150s BCE.

The territory won by Demetrius was separated between western and eastern parts, ruled by several sub-kings and successor kings:

Territory of Bactria

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Silver coin of Antimachus I.

Coins (

Territories of Paropamisadae, Arachosia, Gandhara, Punjab

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Apollodotus I, king in India only.
  • Pantaleon (190s or 180s BCE) Possibly another brother and co-ruler of Demetrius I.
  • Agathocles (c180-170 BCE) Yet another brother?Coins (
  • Apollodotus I (reigned c. 175160 BCE) A fourth brother?
  • Antimachus II Nikephoros (160-155 BCE)
  • Demetrius II (155-150 BCE)Coins (
  • Menander (reigned c. 150130 BCE). Legendary for the size of his Kingdom, and his support of the Buddhist faith. It is unclear whether he was related to the other kings, and thus if the dynasty survived further. Coins (

House of Eucratides

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King Eucratides (171-145 BCE)

Territory of Bactria and Sogdiana

Heliocles, the last Greek king of Bactria, was invaded by the nomadic tribes of the Yueh-Chih from the North. He in turn invaded the western part of the Indo-Greek kingdom around 130 BCE, where the House of Eucratides continued to rule until around 50 BCE.

See also:

Seleucid Empire
Indo-Greek Kingdom
Indo-Parthian Kingdom


  • "The Shape of Ancient Thought. Comparative studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies" by Thomas McEvilley (Allworth Press and the School of Visual Arts, 2002) ISBN 1581152035
  • "The Oxford Illustrated History of Greece and the Hellenistic World" by John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, Oswyn Murray (Oxford University Press) ISBN 0192854380
  • "The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity" by John Boardman (Princeton University Press, 1994) ISBN 0691036802

External links

1 Copper-Nickel coinage in Greco-Bactria. (
2 Ancient Chinese weapons ( & A halberd of copper-nickel alloy, from the Warring States Period. ( Königreich


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