Megasthenes and Apollodorus: concluding remarks


A conference on Megasthenes, Apollodorus of Artemita and Isidor of Charax took place in Kiel in late June, organized by Graduate School member Josef Wiesehöfer. The concluding remarks by Giovanni Lanfranchi are now available.

Scholars from various countries came together in Kiel from June 27 to 30 to discuss about ancient Greek historians and geographers.

As is well known, both Megasthenes and Apollodorus are preserved only in fragments quoted by other, later authors. Even archaeology did not help in enlarging the picture, since no papyrus fragments of all three authors have been found so far. This phenomenon applies to Ctesias, who too is known only through fragmentary quotations; and obviously it applies also to Berossus and to Manetho. The modern scholar is thus authorized to conclude that all these texts and authors were lost, or were being lost already in Late Antiquity; the Byzantine philologists may have used partial editions, or also quotations from major authors now definitively lost. Consequently, one is legitimately allowed to ask why no Indikà, no Assyriakà, no Babyloniakà, no Aegyptiakà has been preserved in completeness; or, in other words, why no ethnographic-historical work dealing with what in Classical antiquity was considered to be the “East” / “the Far East” was preserved only partially and through first or second hand quotations. This is a major problem which cannot be answered simply invoking the role of accident in textual transmission. Further research should attempt to establish if there is a common reason for this disappearance – one reason might be that they dealt with the East, a land, a set of peoples and of cultures so deeply differentiated from the West along all Classical antiquity. Further research should also ascertain whether the problem might have been with their content. They were rich in “Mirabilien”, and described many “Fabelvölker” in a fantastic, highly literary way. Ancient authors may have faced these description exactly like many modern scholars did and still do: first, being amazed of their appearance in such a large proportion, then discarding them as products of “fantasy” or of “not-history”; In other words, dismissing them at all. Naturally, there is a basic difference between modern and ancient scholars: the former have as a mission to preserve any written fragment, the latter instead may have acted more “primitively” and have thrown away any unreliable source. In conclusion, with Megasthenes and his colleague historians scholars face the major problem of the credibility of an ancient author, a problem which creates much difficulties also in contemporary research.


Thus, the first and most important task is an intensive application of philological techniques for reconstructing as much as possible the original text. The major difficulties of this task have been indirectly, but very clearly demonstrated in the papers dealing with Apollodorus of Artemita. K. Nawotka, J. Engels, and S. Müller have amply shown how painstaking may be the search for a reasonable and credible original text of this author. The main problems discussed by these scholars were: 1) how to define, and then to distinguish fragmenta and testimonia; 2) how one should select unattributed fragments and attribute them to a specific author (Apollodorus, but also to Megasthenes), considering how much credible may be their insertion in the intellectual and literary milieu surrounding Apollodorus. Generally, all this was applied only very rarely to Megasthenes, and accordingly has not been debated in this workshop. Nonetheless, there is at least one important, much vexed and even emended passage which needs discussion: that dealing with the chronology of king Porus in relation to Çandragupta. Exactly like modern scholars did and do, ancient scholars too may have exerted some arbitrariness or have had some chronological preconceptions while rendering or quoting their source, adapting and emending the text to be quoted according to their own necessities.


A group of scholars (K. Ruffing, R. Bichler, R. Rollinger) dealt with a crucial and basic problem for the study of Megasthenes, but which can be methodologically extended to the study of any other ancient author: the historiographic image of India as it was given by him in his Indikà – i.e., the historiographic image of what any ancient author described in his work(s). For correctly reconstructing any historiographic image, it is necessary to study and establish primarily what general patterns were in the background of the historian, in this case of Megasthenes, and how these patterns informed and influenced his historical work.

K. Ruffing
K. Ruffing studied the development of the descriptions of India before Megasthenes according to formal and to technical literary considerations, and convincingly concluded that it is possible to note both a true evolution and a progressive expansion. For the Achaemenids and the sources stemming from the Persian period, India was the region of Hindus, i.e. the Gandara region, and this was the original basis for the very name of India, retained until modern times and accepted by the Indians themselves. In the Classical period, Skylax introduced the concept and the characteristics of the Fabelvölker in describing the peoples living in the periphery of the Greek cultural world, and also in India. Later, Hekateus from Miletus moved the geographical concept of India from the Gandara to the Indus Valley, where it was maintained for a long time. Herodotus, the inventor of the genre of “ethnogeographical” logos, depicted India as the extreme Eastern periphery, as an extremely rich area and as a territory with specific climatic peculiarities. He did not acknowledge the existence of any local royalty: probably he considered the Achaemenid royalty the only one to be worth of mention (or also of existence) East from Greece. Ctesias, who introduced the genre of Indikà, attributed to India an unitarian royalty (mentioning and describing king Stabrobates), depicted the Indians as a people who esteemed, loved and practiced justice, but also described many Fabelvölker – a fact which caused his being dismissed later. Ruffing concluded that a long chain of studies, of cultural and political concepts and of literary acquisitions was in Megasthenes’ background, so as his approach must be considered not totally independent and innovative, but deeply conditioned by the historians who preceded him.

R. Bichler
In his paper, R. Bichler traced the development of the historical-political images of India and of the Indian power before Megasthenes. Bichler stressed that, at the beginnings and until the Hellenistic period, the Greek authors dealing with India offered generic images of a far land inhabited by various peoples but with only one king. In the times of Alexander, however, the Greeks directly experienced the Far East and India, and consequently learnt and attempted to differentiate its ethnic, political and social entities. In the historiography about Alexander, two main streams can be detected in Greek historiography. The first is represented by Arrian, who evidently followed a specific tendency: he depicted a world of autonomous populations residing in towns and villages, who were commanded by local chiefs to whom he never acknowledges any royal title. Accordingly, he suggested that in the background of these descriptions there was the idea that there could be only one true king, i.e. Alexander. The second is represented but what he called the vulgata, represented by Diodorus and Curtius and by all other scholars and historians who quoted them; all these authors state that there was a king of all the Indians, and tended also to present “Mirabilien” in their descriptions of the local populations. Bichler concluded that, writing his Indikà, Megasthenes was faced with two different concepts. One denied the possibility for India to develop centralized royalty, since it considered India as a possible conquer by the only true empire, that of Alexander. The other presented India as land institutionally and politically united, a fact which allowed to suppose and admit, even obtorto collo, that the Seleucid empire might lose its control.

R. Rollinger
R. Rollinger dealt with the problem of the preservation of Ancient Near Eastern models of universal dominion in Megasthenes’ historical work about India. After describing in detail the Neo-Assyrian, the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid models, he noted that Megasthenes attributes to the Babylonian king Nebukadnezzar a campaign in the most far West, to Hercules’ Pillars – a campaign which is not at all either historical or even credible. He suggested that this campaign is nothing else than the application of a literary topos, and concluded that this topos stems from the application of the long-standing Neo-Assyrian concept of a necessarily continuous imperial expansion. In their progressive expansion towards the West, started with king Ashurnasirpal II, the Assyrian kings first declare dominion of the Mediterranean sea coast (until Tiglat-pileser III); then, to have extended their power amidst the Mediterranean sea (with Sargon); finally, with Esarhaddon, the Assyrian dominion was moves well beyond the sea, to the Biblical land of Tarshish. Rollinger noted that this model can be found also in Neo-Babylonian royal inscriptions like the Nebukadnezar Cylinders: here, the Babylonian king celebrated his dominion as extending between the “two” seas; and that the same topos is to be found also in the royal inscriptions of Darius, where he stated that he had reached such a power so as to be able to “cross the sea” in his campaign against the Sakas “(who are) beyond the sea”, i.e. Classical Scythia. Rollinger concluded that any scholar should only very carefully attempt to reject the reliability of some of Megasthenes’ historical assertions: older, often Near Eastern ideological and political patterns may have been in their background, and could have oriented or modified his perception and his very description of the past events.


A single scholar dealt with the problem of the application of the literary theory to the study of Megasthenes’: work, singling out and discussing the problem of literary development and of later literary reception.

G. Parker
G. Parker dealt with Megasthenes’ reception in Classical Rome and in Latin literature. He centred mainly on the problem of understanding the reasons which moved the Roman historians to use and to quote his historical and literary work. After studying in detail the characteristics of the Latin quotations of Megasthenes’ book, he concluded that the main reason is that since the Roman historians were looking for sources based on autopsia, they believed in his autopsia about Indian things since in the preceding literary tradition he was thought to have really been in India. If this seems to be a mere technical aspect, however, parker moved forward, and stated that the Roman historians used Megasthenes in the context of the contemporary crucial debate about (military, political and economic) conquest and about the increasing wealth acquired by the conquerors. In this debate, the Roman historians used Alexander the Great as the ideal prototype both of the conqueror and of the cultural hero who exports his culture (in this case, the highly esteemed Greek culture) abroad. As a conqueror, Alexander was not necessarily depicted as exclusively “good” and positive, but also as a violent and cruel despot (Parker quotes the episode of the cruel punishment of the Malli). Commenting the stories of Alexander and of his empire, the Roman historians were a talking to the Roman aristocrats, inviting them to deeply ponder on how to manage their new great power, and on how to reach credibility in building and developing an empire. Accordingly, Megasthenes’ work was one of the important, credible and autoptical sources for a reconstruction of the model empire to be studied by the Romans.


The following scholars (H. Brinkhaus, S. Jansari and R. Ricot) dealt with the central problem of sources and “autopsia” in the Classical authors who dealt with India. All of them attempted to answer the methodological old-aged question whether Classical historians, geographers and literates did really see what they described in their works (about India but generally about any other region), or quoted previous authors who had produced descriptions of the same area, or even inserted common and widespread literary and ideological motifs in their reports. Once that autopsia is admitted, always or only in some specific instances, the question moves to the problem of what did they actually see in the lands they described, and further to the problems of the literary and ideological patterns through which they shaped their descriptions. In sum, they dealt with the old-aged, central problem of sources and methods.

H. Brinkhaus
H. Brinkhaus’ paper addressed the old and much vexed question of the possibility that the Arthasastra, usually attributed to Kautilya, may have been a source for Megasthenes. He presented and critically commented the recent progresses of the literary studies about the Arthasastra, and stressed that today it is commonly acknowledged that the Arthasastra was subject to a long literary evolution, to many and successive reworkings and comments, so that its current version must be taken as a deep modification of its supposed original status. Today, the authorship by Kautilya is denied, being considered a later, ideal attribution. Further, today it is acknowledged that Arthasastra is not a description or a comment of contemporary events; rather, it is considered a retroprojection of a late ideal historical and political situation in which the castal system and the Brahmanism are attributed prestige and social power. Thus, today the majority of scholars think that Arthasastra was not a text originally written for Candragupta, but for an a-historical, immanent “ideal king”: it was aimed at offering him an exemplary model of reign in which the correct moral and religious values are exemplified. Brinkhaus concluded that Megasthenes did not have and use contemporary Indian sources (like the Arthasastra) dealing with the Indian royalty. Accordingly, a question arises spontaneously: if any possible original Indian literary influence on Megasthenes is excluded, the value of his elsewhere much discussed autopsia is automatically strengthened. Thus, this paper takes back to that main questions: was Megasthenes ever in India? Did he see what he described in his Indikà?

S. Jansari, R. Ricot
In their joint paper, S. Jansari and R. Ricot, dealing with the same basic question “do Megasthenes’ descriptions reflect (contemporary) reality?”, critically examined a specific instance as an experiment to reach general conclusions in this matter. They considered one of the many Fabelvölker described by Megasthenes (and famous in the later literary tradition): the Astomoi, who were told to be humans without a mouth. Studying in detail Megasthenes’ description and especially his social and religious comments, they considered the possibility that the Astomoi may have represented the Jainists. They commented accurately the alimentary customs and diet of the Astomoi’s as described by Megasthenes, and considered attentively the chronological problem, concluding that Megasthenes’ descriptions may well fit the Jainists. The final result of their paper is similar to that suggested by Brinkhaus: Megasthenes was a good autoptes, and most probably used good Indian contemporary sources in describing contemporary religious phenomena.


The following scholars (D. Potts, B. Jacobs) dealt with archaeology and art, in the attempt to establish whether, how and how much India of Asoka, Çandragupta and of their few successors was connected to the Achaemenid and Seleucidic West studying the architectural remains and the material artefacts excavated in India and in the Western regions including Mesopotamia and Egypt. Both scholars dealt at large with the methodological problem of the transmission abroad and of the internal acceptance of cultural elements, in the background of the much debated and vexed problem of the definition, degree and quality of “cultural influence”.

D. Potts
D. Potts convincingly illustrated the most ancient background of the relations in the commercial network which connected Mesopotamia with India through the Persian Gulf at least from the third millennium BC. He showed that various artefacts excavated in various archaeological contexts in all three regions clearly show their provenance from one of the three foreign lands, and illustrated also some ancient texts containing terms indicating foreign materials. He also illustrated two specific findings of materials and elements which cannot have originated elsewhere than Central Eastern Africa and Indonesia, and suggested that the network and the related long-range trade might have extended even further West and East. Commenting upon the technical framework in which the trade network functioned and expanded, he convincingly demonstrated that the seafaring abilities were very advanced since the late third millennium BC, and that a direct sea-route connecting Oman to India was activated at least since the second millennium BC. Thus, Potts supplies convincing evidence for a continuous stream of commercial exchanges between Africa, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Iran and India. Upon his premises, it must be definitely acknowledged that the empires of the Achaemenids, of Alexander and of the Seleucids simply superimposed upon this large pre-existing network, and used and enhanced it for establishing and keeping contacts between the most different and far regions. Moving to the information given by the ancient authors about foreign lands and especially by the Classical authors about the Western connections with India, he clearly showed how modestly they knew, and relied on the basic knowledge evidently possessed by those who sailed and moved in that network: accordingly, he concluded that in ancient times academy was very far from reality, notwithstanding the insisted academic claim for autopsies by the major and minor Classical historians, Megasthenes included.

B. Jacobs
B. Jacobs cantered his paper on the problem of the presence of well established elements of Achaemenid art and technique in India, focussing on the important archaeological remains excavated in the town of Pataliputra and specifically on the characteristics of the columns in which Asoka had his famous edicts inscribed. After illustrating in detail the morphological and technical peculiarities of both monuments, and after acknowledging the true Achaemenid character of the elements, he discussed thoroughly when and how these elements entered in, and were adopted by the Indian culture: scholarship is still divided between the period of the Achaemenid dominion of Western India and the periods following the fall of the Achaemenid empire. According to him, the much vexed question of the migration of all, or a part of the craftsmen who were working at Persepolis at the fall of the empire is at the end irrelevant, since works of art, artistic elements and artistic techniques can circulate without the circulation of craftsmen. As for India, Jacobs stressed that in their own lands, Indians tended to use adopted specific foreign stylistic elements in new contexts, as it happens with the capitals and the fabulous animals sculptured in Asoka’s columns. On the other hand, the adoption of foreign artistic motifs stemming from foreign consolidated royalty was very useful in the process of establishing a central monumental structure with ideological-propagandistic aims like that built by Asoka in Pataliputra. This process was conscious, and as such it does not at all indicate either the existence or even the Indian acknowledgment of Indian cultural inferiority; it simply shows, however, that some external reality is culturally absorbed, adapted and finally made of one’s own property. Jacobs pointed at important examples in the Ancient Near Eastern cultures of the first millennium BC: the Assyrians kings adopted the Hittite palace portico in architecture and many Egyptian motifs in sculpture and in ivory carving with the aim of celebrating the universality of their dominion – and certainly not their cultural inferiority.


The next group of scholars (J. Wiesehöfer, O. v. Hinüber, H. Kulke) dealt with critical problems in establishing whether between India and the Seleucid Empire there were reciprocal influences in the framework of the general problem of the study of political and cultural interaction, what influences may be detected, and how they may have been favoured, enhanced and transmitted. Accordingly, this group of scholars dealt with the proper reconstruction of historical settings.

J. Wiesehöfer
J. Wiesehöfer’s paper was centered on the reconstruction of historical settings on the basis of the preserved scattered fragments of Megasthenes’ Indikà, and concentrated upon the treaty stipulated between Seleucus and Çandragupta. After stating that scholars generally attempted to attribute to one of the two kings the diplomatic and political prevalence in the treaty formulation, and commenting in detail the numerous and diverging opinions, he accurately dismissed both the pro-Seleucid and the pro-Çandragupta opinions. According to him, the Syrian king and the Indian king stipulated the treaty on an absolutely peer level, both at the diplomatic level and in the textual formulation. He concluded indeed that with that treaty two empires were acknowledging each other a peer level and a peer dignity, an acknowledgment very probably favoured by the conscience in both kings and in the élites of both empires that there was parity at the political, economic and military level. As for Seleucus’ and Çandragupta’s perspectives in the discussion and in the stipulation of the treaty, Wiesehöfer noted that both envisaged common advantages: material advantages, such as a wealth of Indian elephants for Seleucus and territorial expansion to the West for Çandragupta; structural advantages such as stabilising the borders of both realms, protecting commercial traffic and favouring and enhancing reciprocal trade. In addition, wit the treaty both kings satisfy important needs as regards internal propaganda: on the one hand, Seleucus seems to have claimed to have been finally recognised as the true heir of Alexander, on the other hand Çandragupta seems to have claimed to have subtracted some western Indian territories from foreign dominion. Finally, Wiesehöfer stressed how this peer level treaty could have favoured the spread of reciprocal influences in later times: the most important were the adoption of the Greek language in Asoka’s edicts, and Asoka’s successful attempt to export and disseminate the religious concept of the dhamma to the Seleucidic West.

O. v. Hinüber
v. Hinüber’s paper was centered on the reconstruction of historical settings on the basis of epigraphic and literary texts. He stressed that Asoka’s personality was and still is totally exceptional in the Indian context. especially because of the uniqueness of his Edicts in the whole Indian tradition. These very special and potentially innovative characteristics notwithstanding, very soon Asoka was almost completely forgotten in the Indian tradition. V. Hinüber concentrated in the search of Greek influences on the texts of Asoka and discussed the reasons of their having been written in Greek. Both the titulary and the compositional techniques of Asoka’s edicts seem to have been subject to Greek influence. V. Hinüber stressed two important examples. First, the presence of a previously and later unattested title like devanam piya and of a second proper name flanking the principal name like piyadasi seem to depend on Hellenistic influences, albeit rather vaguely. Second. the presence in Asoka’s inscriptions of a very probable adaptation of the “covering letters” Hellenistic of the Hellenistic period, which are in total contrast to the customary Indian epistolographic etiquette. Both examples suggest that Asoka’s scribes effected an important epigraphic and stylistic mutuation from the Hellenistic West, which could take place only in the background of a process of involvement and contacts between the two cultures. V. Hinüber finally asked whether the Greek influences in Asoka’s texts may be attributed to his own, voluntary attempt to be understood in the Hellenistic West, and in general whether Asoka’s may be understood as a conscious attempt to establish relations with a foreign culture. His answer was positive: these relations were at work effectively, since nowadays it is acknowledged that Western cultural elements entered in and influenced the Indian culture in different fields, like numismatics, mathematics, astronomy and astrology.

H. Kulke
Like v. Hinüber’s, Kulke’s paper was centered on the reconstruction of historical settings on the basis of epigraphic and literary texts. In agreement with Hinüber, he stressed the extreme singularity of Asoka’s personality: Asoka was the only Indian king who had inscriptions written upon monuments, who assumed specific royal titles and epithets. Kulke stressed that these aspects almost certainly were taken from the royal model of Seleucus, especially titulary and epithets; although some scholars reduced this which seems to be an imitation (or influence) to an occasional fact such as a familial relation between Seleucus and Asoka, Kulke thinks that this is not proven and unrealistic. He insisted that the Mauryan empire in its general aspects does not fit the Indian political and historical landscape, and that it is and remains exceptional under many aspects. Thus, he concluded that Asoka’s inspiration came from abroad: from Hellenistic Babylonia, and especially Alexander and Seleucus. This reliance on external models produced a somewhat artificial character of the ideological imperial apparatus and of the cultural and political tendencies of the Indian élite, which at the end undermined the empire itself. Kulke stressed that Asoka’s empire and ideology did not fit the Brahman cultural and ideological “landscape” of India in that period, met increasing opposition and eventually crumbled: Asoka’s state was extremely short-lived due to its substantial extraneousness to Indian history, culture, and religion.

M. Olbrycht
The main subject of Olbrycht’s paper was the diffusion of the Greek culture in the Parthian empire and a thorough discussion of the communis opinio of the Hellenisation of the Parthians, taking into account the important argument of their possible (philo)Hellenism and commenting upon the general conviction that the title Philelllenos assumed by Parthian king may reflect a Parthian acculturation to Hellenism. Studying literary, epigraphic and numismatic sources, however, he concluded that the Iranian élite, while accepting some or many aspects of the Greek culture, remained basically Iranian and maintained its Iranian culture (with some hints to a nomadic ancient model). As for the Greeks who were in the Parthian empire, he showed that they remained isolated in some specific towns, that they often enjoyed the direct favour of the Parthian kings, who however always acted according to their specific political and economic needs, and that their limited presence tended to diminish in the progress of time. Olbrycht also demonstrated that the presence of many individuals bearing a double name (Greek, Semitic or local) in the Parthian empire does not necessarily depend on Hellenisation, but on a more general cultural fashion, in which the acceptance of foreign elements (artefacts, concepts, ways of life, but also but also proper names) is a powerful manifestation of wealth. He also stressed that this situation, however, can be easily be reversed if one considers the possibility that Greeks may have adopted Semitic names: his conclusion that a thorough statistical study is necessary for correctly approaching the problem. Olbrycht concluded that further research is needed for better understanding and explaining the various ways in which the Greek culture exerted its impact in the near East.