How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs (continued from 11/08/09)



INDIA could be reached by land as well as by sea. It is known that there was trade with India in Assyrian times, but it is not clear whether this was by land or sea. Direct evidence of intercourse between India and Western Asia begins in the Persian period after Cyrus broke through the hostile tribes which had hitherto barred the way. Darius, the son of Hystaspes (521-485 B.C.), penetrated into North-West India and annexed the Indus delta which thereafter was claimed as a Persian starapy, as appears from the inscriptions of Persepolis and Naksh-i-Rustam. It was this Darius who in 5I2-510 sent the Greek pilot Skylax, of Karyanda, in Karia, the neighbour and probably the friend of Herodotus, to explore the practicability of a short sea route between the Persian Gulf and-the mouth of the Indus, which seems to imply familiarity with the Indus country. As soon as he knew that there was such a route available he sent a fleet into the Indian Ocean.

Alexander’s invasion of India, which was chiefly intended to secure the easternmost province of Persia after the Persians had been conquered, took place in 327-325 B.C. Before crossing the mountain frontier of India he formed a military base which afterwards became the city of Alasanda or Alexandria Under the Caucasus, its site probably some 30 miles north of Kabul, one of the many Alexandrias which he founded. The term "Caucasus "was applied by the Greeks to what is now known as the Hindu Kush. Alexander died in 323, and at his death his kingdom, for which he left no heir, was fought over by his generals and in 312 was divided between them. In this division the Asiatic province fell to Seleucus Nicator, who founded the city of Antioch in Syria and made it his capital, relegating the extensive provinces east of Syria to the Indus to a subordinate position. He was more concerned with the rivalries between the Greek rulers along the Mediterranean coast than the affairs of the Asiatic hinterland, and left Babylon ancb all that had been the kingdom of Persia to deputies. Seleucus was succeeded by his son Antiochus Soter (280-262 B.C.), and he by his son Antiochus Theos (261-246), all three involved in wars with the Ptolemies of Egypt and so leaving Persia very much to its own devices. Taking advantage of this the Parthian tribes of East Persia (Khurasan) drifted away from Seleucid rule and formed an independent kingdom of Parthia about 250 B.C. This new Parthian state included a large part of the old kingdom of Persia, but by no means all that had been ruled by the ancient Achaemenid kings. About 210 B.C. the Seleucid king Antiochus III "the Great" formally recognized the third Parthian king Artabanes as an independent monarch.

These Parthian kings were not of the Persian royal family of the Achaemenids, but Scythians from Maeotis, though later a legend was circulated to the effect that their founder Arsaces had been born in Bactria. As derived from the semi-barbarous tribes of East Persia the Parthians were despised by the Persians proper and regarded as inferior species: they were the only tribe of their locality not mentioned in the sacred books of the Persians, and seem to have preserved some of the nomadic habits of the tribe from which they were descended. They made their winter capital at Babylon or Ctesiphon, this latter a camp city on the Tigris, avoiding the nearby Greek colony of Seleucia which was left more or less independent under its own Greek constitution and using the Greek language and religion. The summer capital was Ecbatana (Hamadan) or Rhagus. There was also a palace at Hecatompylos in the middle of Parthia, a city which had been enlarged and partly rebuilt by Seleucus. The sixth Arsacid Mithridates I (d. 138-130 B.C.) greatly enlarged the Parthian kingdom, and after extending its boundaries from the Tigris to the Indus assumed the title of "King of Kings", which had been used by the Achaemenid monarchs, and was represented on his coins as carrying a bow like those old kings, and adopted the pearl studded tiara which they had worn. The Achaemenids had been regarded as of semi-divine descent and as possessing a divine spirit emanating from the god Ahura Mazda, and so called themselves "sons of god" and this title was now assumed by the Parthian kings as. Zag Alohin in the inscriptions on their domestic coins, orèåïðÜ“çñ on their Greek coins. The Parthian kings were incorporated in the ranks of the Great Ones" (Ìåãéó“áíåò) or higher nobles of the kingdom and in the fraternity of the Magi or Persian priesthood, all as had been under the ancient Achaemenids, and they and the higher Parthian officials tried to assimilate themselves as much as possible to the Persians, copying their dress and manners and often adopting Persian names.

Alexander had left a number of colonies scattered over what had been his empire, and these lasted and became sources of Greek cultural influence. But quite apart from these colonies Alexander had left a prestige and cultural influence whose effect endured for many centuries, so that the Asiatics of the Near East looked with respect on all that was Greek. Greek was not the official language in Parthia as it was in Egypt, but Greek was very commonly used on Parthian coins, though under the later kings it was so debased as hardly to be intelligible. The oldest coin, which is one of Vologasus I in the time of the Roman Emperor Claudius, gives the full title of the king in Greek, contenting itself with the king’s name abbreviated to VOL in the native Old Persian or Pahlawi. From about 188 B.C. onwards the royal title includes the term öéëÝëëçí. To some extent the Parthian state had a Helienizing character, though this Hellenism became more and more orientalized. National feeling was not developed in its full form, as the ruling dynasty was generally regarded as racially inferior, tolerated in office only because it had been successful in liberating the country from an alien yoke, and supported because it had proved its capacity to secure peace and independence effectually: when it experienced defeat at the hands of a foreign power it lost its hold and people looked for a legitimist king of the original stock descended from the demi-gods.

After the revolt of Arsaces, which led to the foundation of Parthia, the lands of Bactria, Sogdiana, and,Fergana drifted out of the control of the Seleucids and a Greek kingdom was formed in Bactria on the Indian border, though maintaining intercourse with the Greek world. This state lasted until about 128 B.C., its population apparently often recruited by fresh Greek colonists. The city of Antioch Margiana or Marw in Sogdiana was at the end of an important and well travelled route from Syria and Northern Mesopotamia, and connected with Bactra, the capital of Bactria, and with Alasanda or Alexandria "under the Caucasus" on the threshold of India. Through all its history it remained definitely Greek, and was a centre of Greek influence until it fell before barbarian invaders. As independent !Bactria was in revolt against the Seleucid monarchs of Syria, and their rivals, the Ptolemies of Egypt, maintained an agent at the Bactrian court. These central Asian states were intimately involved in the intrigues of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Bactria did not so much revolt as drift away from Seleucid control because the Seleucids neglected it. About 248 Theodotus, the satrap of Bactria, made himself independent: Justin (41, 4) says that he ordered himself to be called king, but evidence of this does not appear on his coinage. Certainly his son Diodotus or Theodotus II did so, and made alliance with Parthia against his suzerain at Antioch, a reversal of the policy of his father, which was unpopular. He was slain by Euthydemus, the husband of the daughter of the widowed queen of Theodotus I, and when the Seleucid Antiochus III blamed him for slaying Diodotus he defended himself by saying that he was no rebel but had killed the son of a rebel (Polybius, 11) 34, 2), which shows that contemporary opinion held that Theodotus had revolted against his overlord. In 208 Antiochus III "the Great" tried to recover Bactria for the Seleucid kingdom, but after two years fruitless siege of Bactra Euthydemus threatened to call in the Sakas (Scythians) and pointed out the disaster Which would follow the advent of these barbarians. Antiochus desisted from his attempt and formally recognized the king of Bactria’s independence. In 190 Antiochus himself suffered a severe defeat at the hands of the Roman Scipio Asiaticus and for some time the threat of Seleucid conquest was averted. In the following year Euthydemus himself died.

The next Bactrian monarch Demetrius had ambitions of extending his kingdom in the Indian direction, invaded India by the Hindu Kush, and in 175 occupied Pataliputra. This was but the first stage of his advance. He then planned a great invasion of the Punjab, dividing his forces into three armies, all of which were to operate in concert. He himself in command of the first army occupied Gandhara and Taxila. This Gandhara was known as "the second Hellas" because so thoroughly Greek and the Greek art which flourished there was destined to spread eastwards and influence the Far East. At the same time it was a "holy land" of the Buddhists, a sanctity acquired by the presence of three out of the four great Buddhist stupas there. Buddha had never visited the country, it had no associations with his life or ministry, its holy character depended entirely on the presence of these monuments which enshrined important relics of Buddha or of his garments. The second army was entrusted to Menander, and this forthwith seized Pataliputra the capital of Sagala (Sialkot), the chief town of the Madras, who also were Buddhists. The third army was led by Demetrius’ brother Apollodotus, who proceeded to Barygaza, which may mean Ujjain. By these operations Demetrius held all North-West India. But the Seleucids did not abandon their hope of recovering Bactria, and in 168 Antiochus IV sent an expedition led by his general, Eucratides, against Demetrius. At the approach of the Seleucid army Demetrius ordered Menander to abandon Pataliputra and himself oined issue with Eucratides on the west of the Hindu Kush and in this encounter the Bactrian’ were defeated and Demetrius slain, Eucratides forthwith took Gandhara and prepared for the invasion of India, but waited for Antiochus, who planned himself to be the leader of the expedition which he hoped would be as glorious as that of his great predecessor Alexander. Before the invasion took place, however, Antiochus died at Gabae in i63 (Polybius, 31, 9, 11). This unexpected event left Eucratides to rule conquered Bactria, but that was only for a brief period; the Pai-thian King Mitliridates intervened and secured Western Bactria for himself, and not long afterwards (in 159-8) Eucratides died. But the third invader Menander was still left and he probably ruled Sagala until 145. Most of his subjects were Buddhists who favoured the Greeks, whom they regarded as friends and saviours from the Hindus who persecuted Buddhism. Menander is described as being very well inclined towards the Buddhists, but there is no proof that he actually embraced their religion. In the Melindapanha there is a legend that he did so, and there is a Buddhist dialogue in which one of the interlocutors is "Melinda", supposed to represent Menander. By this time, however, Buddhism was no longer expanding in Central Asia, its future lay rather in the Far East.

Greek Bactzia came to an end between 141 and 128, an end brought about by the migration of the Saka (Scythian) tribes of the Yueh-chi who came from Northern China. They were, of course, Mongolian tribes, for that is the implication of the term Saka or Scythian. in China their pastures had been taken from them by another Mongol tribe, the Hiung-nu, and so they migrated, some going south where they founded a kingdom in China, others to the west where they fell upon the tribe of Wu-sun, killed their king, and occupied their lands. But before long they were overtaken by their old enemies the Hiung-nu, called in by the defeated Wu-sun and were forced to continue their march westwards. They next attacked the Sai-wong tribes who fled south, but about 160 B.C. they were themselves attacked by the Wu-sun, led by the son of their murdered king, and went farther west. Then for a while they pass out of sight until about 128 when they crossed the jaxartes, then the Oxus, and occupied the provinces of Bactria and Sogdiana, where they founded a group of Saka states. Meanwhile the dispossessed Sai-wong had seized the Greek province of Ferghana and started another Saka principality there. The coming of these semi-barbarous. tribes completely submerged the political and social life of the Central Asian Greek kingdoms, at least for the time being. It did not interfere with the Buddhist religion, for most of the invading tribes turned Buddhist.

The Yueh-chi had come from China, and the Chinese government had followed their subsequent vicissitudes and in 128 the Chinese General Chang-kien overtook them in Bactria and made an alliance between them and China, and for some time afterwards the Chinese endeavoured to exercise some measure of control over them, but about 48-35 they ceased to take any interest in them.

Gradually the nomad tribes settled down and shortly after 25 B.C. Kujala, chief of the Kushan tribe, one of the group composing the Yueh-chi horde, formed a Saka state in Bactria and North-West India, a combination of five older states, and this lasted for two centuries. By that time Bactria or Balkh had become a holy land of Buddhism and this sanctity was developed under the Kushan kings until Buddhist pilgrims came from many parts to visit the numerous topes or relic shrines which abounded there.

For some time Kushan Bactria is of interest chiefly as a factor in the evolution of organized Buddhism. Then it became a rising power in North-West India under King Kadphises I. Already King-hien and other Chinese scholars had visited Bactria when in A.D. 64 copies of Buddhist books wer e sent to the Chinese Emperor Ming-ti, with the result that in the following year Buddhism was added to the religions officially recognized in China. Under Kadphises II (A.D. 85-123) commercial intercourse with the Roman Empire, chiefly by sea rather than the land route through Marw, was greatly developed, as is noted elsewhere (above).

The third Kushan king, Kanishka (A.D. 123-153), was a convert to Buddhism. Conditions had so far changed that Kushan had checked Chinese expansion and many Chinese hostages, including Han, the son of the Chinese Emperor, were taken to Balkh. For them Kanishka built a monastery in Kapisa, and in the cold season they were transferred to a place called Chinapati, whose site is unknown. Under this king the coinage still followed a Greek model and shows a degenerate form of Greek inscription. At the Kushan court there were sculptors, trained chiefly in the school of the frontier province of Gandhara, who followed Hellenistic models. By this time Buddha was deified and worshipped, and statues representing him began to appear and take their place in Buddhist temples in place of the older allusive symbols. The earliest images were produced in Gandhara and so were designed on Greek lines, reproductions of Greek images of Apollo. Gandhara art shows Greek inspiration and carried Greek influence through the great part of the Buddhist corn munity, so that even in China and Japan figures of Buddha show a Greek character, especially in the drapery. True to Greek standards this type of Buddha was simply a handsome man. But there were some Buddhists who were dissatisfied with this Greek type of their deity and wanted a more mystical and spiritualized figure, not a purely human form, however perfect, and so in Mathura on the great high road between Alexandria "under the Caucasus "and Pataliputra another type was devised, at first a clumsy modification of the Gandhara figure, but finally developed as a saintly and spiritualized character which, however, still betrayed its Greek origin.


Our main interest here is with the overland route between the Roman Empire and the Far East. That route led from the Syrian border to Marw, a city founded by Antiochus I (280-240 B.C.) as a Greek colony with surrounding agricultural settlements, all predominantly Greek, both city and rural area frequently recruited by fresh Greek colonists. Under the Parthian kings this became a mart where Roman and Chinese trade met. At the time of the Arab conquest and for long afterwards this was a scene of great prosperity, producing silk and fine cotton when those materials were still rare and costly in the Roman Empire. Before that conquest the western quarter or rabad had much increased in population, and in early Arab times the main business part of the city had removed to this quarter. To Marw the la Persian King Yazdegird III fled on his defeat and there he was overtaken by the Arabs in 651 and killed at a mill in the village of Raziq close by. The Christian (Nestorian) bishop took the deceased monarch’s body to Pa-i-Baban and buried it there (Tabari, Ann., i, 2881), an incident suggesting that the Nestorians formed an important element in the city. There was a great Nestorian monastery at Masergasan north of the quarter known later as Sultan-Qal’a, adjoining Rabad (Tabari, Ann., ii, 1925). Marw seems to have been an outpost of Hellenism, with a considerable proportion of Christians, both Nestorians and Monophysites, in its population, no doubt largely swelled by the many captives taken by Khusraw II from the Romans and sent far east for safe custody.

Marw, Bactria, and Sogdiana were all centres of Hellenism. The Saka conquest of Bactria checked, but did not destroy this Hellenic element. Meanwhile the western end of the route also had its vicissitudes. There the chief barrier between the Greek and oriental world was Parthia which was encroaching upon the Seleucid dominions and about 150 B.C. absorbed Mesopotamia. But Parthian advance was checked. Not long after the invasion of Mesopotamia came the Saka penetration of the eastern provinces. On the other hand the Seleucid monarchy ceased to be a serious obstacle when in 129 B.C. Antiochus Sidetes was defeated and slain by the Parthians, though they were not able to follow up this victory effectively because the Sakas were already menacing their eastern frontier. This defeat left Syria too weak to defend herself from foes gathering round and only waiting for an opportunity to seize her territory. Already Arab tribes were encroaching on the eastern parts of Syria and a native dynasty at Edessa had declared its independence in I32, whilst the whole country was subject to incursions of Arab tribes who before long began preying oil Parthia as well. Thus Mesopotamia became a neutral territory covered by minor native states over which neither the Seleucid king at Antioch nor the King of Parthia could exercise control.

A more formidable foe appeared in 79 B.C. in Tigranes King of Armenia, a land of hardy highlanders which had resisted Greek penetration. Tigranes easily conquered Syria, but at that time the Romans were expanding round the Mediterranean, and before long Pompey defeated the Armenians, took Syria out of their hands and made it a Roman province, with the exception of Commagene in the north-east, which was left as a vassal state under native princes. Pompey so far stabilized existing conditions as to recognize the Euphrates as a natural boundary between Parthia and the Roman Empire, though this did not prevent the Romans accepting Osrohene, with its capital Edessa, as a client state, although it was on the Parthian side of the river.

There was a chain of Arab states extending from the Armenian border to North Arabia, the most important of which was Palmyra. Augustus, who respected Pompey’s recognition of the Euphrates as the frontier between Persia and the Roman Empire, seems to have regarded these Arab settlements as a kind of "buffer states" tending to protect the eastern frontier of the Empire from Parthia.

From the time of Trajan onwards the history of Western Asia centred in the prolonged duel between Rome and Parthia, or Persia, which was only Parthia reorganized under a new dynasty, and this duel had successes varying from time to time between the two combatants. The hinterland of Syria was never thoroughly Hellenized, the church councils there were conducted in Greek, but the bishops from Mesopotamia had to use the services of interpreters (Schwartz, Acta Concil. Oetum., II, i, 184, 193), and the clergy of Edessa sent a petition to the Council of Chalcedon in which more than a third of the signatures were in Syriac (ibid-, 35).

The Sasanid revolution of A.D. 226 placed a new Persian dynasty on the throne which had been that of Parthia. This revolution, like most such movements in oriental lands, had a religious bearing. It not only set on the throne a legitimist claimant who was accepted as descended from the demi-gods of ancient times, but it led to a drastic reformation of the religion founded by Zoroaster. The first Sasanid monarch Ardashir began his reign with a general council of Mazdean clergy which resolved the many sectarian difficulties between the various sections into which the Persian community was divided, and standardized the worship and scriptural canon. In history Mazdeanism appears generally as a tolerant creed, save in dealing with dissenters from itself, such as Mani and Mazdek, but it seems to have passed through a period of active propaganda, of which there are no details, in the course of which the religion of Zoroaster spread over the eastern provinces of the kingdom, so that at the coming of Islam Bactria, Sogdiana, and Ferghana were largely, but by no means entirely, Mazdean, with a strong Buddhist minority which proved rather a problem to the Muslim conquerors. Thus the Barmaks, heirs of the hereditary Buddhist abbots of Nawa Bahar, possessors of great wealth chiefly derived from the offerings of generations of Buddhist pilgrims, are represented as being fire-worshippers until their conversion to Islam.

The Barmakids were especially associated with the city of Marw, whither they had removed from Bactria, and they were pnme movers in the ‘Abbasid revolution. That revolution led to the dominance of Persian influence and to at least a partial Persianization of the Arab state, the Muslim religion, and Arabic literature. It was a ew from Marw, Mashallah ibn Athari (d. 813-820), who was one of the astrologers called in at the foundation of Baghdad and the author of works on astronomy and mathematics which show Greek influence. It was another Jew of Marw Sahl ibn Rabban at-Tabari (c. 8oo) who came to Baghdad and made the first Arabic translation of Euclid’s Elements.


by  De Lacy O’Leary

First published in Great Britain in 1949


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