You are here

After Polity: Hellenistic Networks in Northwestern India (200 BCE – 200 CE)

Jeremy Simmons

Columbia University

Can Hellenistic networks exist without Hellenistic polities? The study of Hellenistic Central Asia and northwestern India, when not focused on broader questions of cultural interaction, has largely been defined by the scholarly pursuit to reconstruct a chronology of political history from limited lines of textual and archaeological evidence. As a result, diplomatic ties between Hellenistic states and those further south in the subcontinent have received extensive scholarly attention because of numerous surviving testimonies, whether it be fragments of Megasthenes, Ashokan Edicts, and the Heliodorus Pillar. However, this narrative of political history overshadows indications that other types of Hellenistic networks existed and even persisted after the decline of Hellenistic political autonomy in the second and first centuries BCE.

This paper explores the evolution of Hellenistic networks in northwestern India after Hellenistic political control over these regions, from those sustained by Hellenistic peoples of Central Asia and the Punjab to a much larger global phenomenon. In particular, it demonstrates how Greek-speaking peoples expanded and maintained networks in the subcontinent by participating in Indian institutions, which in turn laid the groundwork for a much larger “Hellenistic” network spanning the Indian Ocean.

One example of this phenomenon, which serves as the main focus of this paper, is the presence of Greek-speaking denizens of Central Asia and the Punjab at Buddhist monasteries in northern and western India. These monastic complexes served important financial roles as a result of donations from dedications. Importantly, many of these individuals self-identify with the Prakrit ethnonym yona or yavana (a term borrowed from earlier Semitic and Persian terms for “Ionian”), and many Buddhist sites bear accompanying sculptural representations of these foreign dedicators. Such dedications, immortalized by inscription, allowed for Central Asian Greeks to establish links over vast distances and opt in for particular resources, infrastructure, and an institutional framework provided by Buddhist monasteries that developed along the primary land routes of the subcontinent.

These Hellenistic networks receive renewed activity at the start of the Common Era, when new Greek-speaking peoples frequent coastal Sind, Saurashthra, and Malabar in the course of ancient Indian Ocean trade. Buddhist monasteries continue to benefit from the patronage of yavanas, now hailing from larger corporate groups of merchants. It begets the tantalizing possibility that Greek-speakers from the Mediterranean world, hailing from the Egypt or the Syrian Steppe, connected with the well-established heirs of a Far Eastern Hellenistic to form global networks of commerce. The groundwork laid by practitioners of local networks thus allowed for the development of a far-wider Hellenistic commercial network, linking Egypt, the Near East, and northwestern India. The maintenance of these Hellenistic networks is thus paralleled by something much more ephemeral, wherein human bodies serve as vehicles for knowledge and artistic expression, whether it be Greek astrologers in Indian royal courts, the presence of Hellenistic artistic motifs at Buddhist sites, or creative uses of Greek script on Indian coinage.

By looking beyond the political history of eastern Hellenistic states, we can trace the presence of Hellenistic networks in northwestern India well beyond an age of polity—it becomes one of several global networks, maintained by human agents moving hundreds or even thousands of kilometers, propelled by the pursuit of profit, practice of faith, and need for institutional support.

Session/Panel Title

Inter-Regional Networks in Hellenistic Eurasia

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy