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Some Other Ancient Greeks in India


The exploits of Alexander the Great in India and the deeds of the other famous Greeks that followed him are well known. Among those famous Greeks who traveled to India , there were Kings, Generals, Diplomats, Philosophers, Historians and a whole tribe of soldiers. Many of whom have written about India and their life in India .
1.1 Apart from these, some other ancient Greeks traveled to India either as individuals or in small groups. They were mostly sailors and explorers. Some of them took the land route while many others sailed to India . The principal interest of their travel was not conquest but trade. Only a small number of these explorers have left behind a record of their travels detailing, among other things, the sea route they took, ports they sailed into, the commodities they traded and their impression of the strange country, its strange people, their customs etc. However, in most other cases the details have come down to us indirectly, through the writings of historians who gathered tales from sailors, merchants etc. who might have accompanied the voyages; or from other sources that are not now extant. The life and work of, what we may call, these other ancient Greeks is not common knowledge, except in History circles. Let us look at a few of them.
2. Before going into that, a mention has to be made of two other ancient Greeks-Skylax of Karyanda in Karia and Pyrrhon the Skeptic- both of whom do not fall in the above category.
2.1 Skylax :
Skylax, the first Greek to set foot in India, lived before Herodotus, who tells that the Persian Emperor Darius Hystargus (512–486) led a naval expedition to prove the feasibility of a sea passage from the mouth of Indus to Persia . Under the command of Skylax, a fleet sailed from Punjab in the Gandhara country to the Ocean. Continuing, Skylax followed the coast and explored the gulf of Oman and the south-eastern side of the Arabic Peninsula . In thirty months, he circumnavigated  Saudi Arabia and reached  Mediterranean through the channels of Nile and Isthmus of Suez . Skylax later wrote a book of geography titled Indika apparently a report of his expedition that set out to follow the Indus from its headwaters to its mouth.
(Source: J.W.Sedler – India and Greek world)

2.2 . Pyrrhon of Elis (365-275 B. C.)

Pyrrhon is one of the earliest Greek philosophers likely to have had a direct contact with India . According to Diogenes Laertios (second cent. A. D.) , the ancient historian of philosophy, Pyrrhon was at first a painter and his works were seen in the gymnasium at Elis . Later Pyrrho took to philosophy influenced by the works of Democritus(c.400BC). He studied philosophy with a teacher of the school of Megara (Magerian dialectics) and then with Anaxarchus (340BC), the pupil of Democritus.

2.2.1. Pyrrhon was one of the philosophers who traveled with Alexander the Great on his expedition to India . He apparently met some Indian philosophers during his stay in India . His experiences in India may have had some effect on him because on his return to India he preferred to live in solitude and in poverty. Yet, he was highly honoured by the Elians and the Athenians, who conferred upon him the rights of citizenship. He did not put his ideas into writing. His ideas have survived only through fragmentary citations in later authors and mainly through the writings of his pupil Timon of Philus. Timon admired his teacher for his modesty and his tranquil way of life.

Pyrrhon is regarded the first skeptic philosopher and the inspiration for a school of thought known as Pyrrhonism founded by Aenesidemus(of third skeptic school) in first century B.C.
(Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition)


The 3rd century B. C. has been rather kind to historians. A good number of reports of Greeks who traveled to India during this period have come down to us, as compared to the later periods. During this period, the rulers of Persia and Greece sent their emissaries to India . It is said, an officer named Petrokles (c.280 BC) visited India and returned with some useful geographic information. However, nothing much is known about Petrokles.

3.1. Pliny, the historian, in his Naturalis Historia VI 36 mentions Patrokles. He attributes the statement, that the Caspian Sea is as long as the Black sea to Patrokles. He also mentions that Aristobulus [who accompanied Alexander the Great] stated that the Oxus is easy to navigate and that large quantities of Indian merchandise are conveyed by it to the Hyrcanian [Caspian] Sea and then transferred into Albania by the Cyrus and through the adjoining countries to the Euxine [Black Sea]. Pliny, then, adds a remark to the effect that Aristobulus and Eratosthenes -(276-194BC- the Greek mathematician known to have calculated the Earth’s circumference and to have drawn the map of the world) – borrowed this idea from Patrokles. This is Eratosthenes’s map. India is on your right hand side.
3.2. Patrokles’s name appears four times in the fragments of Megasthenes’s Indika. On all those occasions, it was in connection with measuring the size of India , the length (breadth?) of India and distance of places in India from the south sea. Patrokles, on each occasion differs from the measurements calculated by Megasthenes, Eratosthenes and by Deimachos (envoy to the court of king Bindusara).  Hipparchos (the Greek astronomer who drew up the first catalog of the stars) remarks that two competent authorities’ viz. Deimachos and Megasthenes opposed Patrokles; and that even Eratosthenes discredited the calculations of Patrokles.
3.3. Evidently, Patrokles along with Eratosthenes and Hipparchos visited India and he had some knowledge of India . All these were highly eminent persons. Obviously, the Greeks, in those times, valued their relation with India .

(Source :


4.Eudoxos of Kyzikos (Eudoxus of Cyzicus ) :

The later half of the first century and the period thereafter in the second century BC did not witness frequent contacts between India and the Greek world because the land route was blocked by the Parthian empire (successor to the Seleukids). As regards the sea route via the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean , the sea captains had not yet learned to utilize the monsoon trade winds and had forgotten the route found by Skylax. There was, however, some improvement in the traffic following the movement of the Bacterian kings into the Indus valley. This rendered the land route less dangerous.


4.1. The beginning of the second century saw an upsurge in the sea travel between Egypt and India . This continued until the third century. It all began with the voyage undertaken by one Eudoxos of Kyzikos

4.2. By all accounts, Eudoxos of Kyzikos was a remarkable person. He was a highly cultured sea captain who was described as a geographer, fighter, diplomat and intrepid trader and one who explored uncharted lands beyond the Mediterranean . He left behind the story of his expedition from Egypt to India . He is the hero of popular novels and films.

4.3. Eudoxus (c.130BC) was born in Cyzicus an ancient town of Mysia in Asia Minor , situated on the shore side of the present peninsula of Kapu-Dagh (Arctonnesus). Nothing much is known about Eudoxus’early life. There are some references to his unhappy married life and to a series of voyages across the Indian Ocean seeking wealth for his family shipping concerns.

4.4. According to Strabo (64BC to 24 AD -a Greek historian), quoting Posidonius (135BC to 51 BC -a Greek philosopher and historian), while Eudoxus was in Alexandria , he met a nearly dead shipwrecked Indian rescued from the Red Sea shore. After the seaman recovered and learnt a smattering of Greek, he informed that he was the sole survivor of a ship that sailed from India . Eudoxus was exited with this piece of news and thereafter convinced the Egyptian king Ptolemy VIII (Physkon) to sponsor an expedition to India , with the rescued Indian seaman as the guide. Eudoxus set sail in 118 BC from Berenice Harbor with the Indian as the guide. The voyage after having reached Muzuris in South India , Kerala , located below Calicut , returned to Egypt after 70 days. Eudoxus returned with a rich cargo of precious stones and aromatics. Ptolemy VIII promptly confiscated the cargo. Ptolemy VIII, not long after, died in 116BC; bequeathing Kyrenaika to his illegitimate son Ptolemy Apion and Egypt to Kleopatra III’s son with herself acting as the regent.

4.5. Posidonius recounts that the second voyage of Eudoxus to India came about in 116 BC at the command of Kleopatra III because she was desirous of procuring more precious gems and perfumes from India . The second voyage was, however, not as smooth as the first one. On his return voyage, Eudoxus was blown off-course and stranded on a shore below Ethiopia (perhaps below Cape Guardafui , Somalia ). After a series of misadventures, Eudoxus finally returned, with his precious cargo, to Egypt in around 114 BC. By which time Ptolemy IX had become the pharaoh. Yet again Eudoxus met with the same fate when the Pharoah Ptolemy IX confiscated the cargo just as his father did earlier.

4.6. What followed thereafter was a most wonderful adventure story. Eudoxus intending to embark on a third voyage to India by circumnavigating Africa ( Alexandria ) built a big ship. As a true showman, he gave wide publicity to the voyage, put music girls on board along with physicians and artisans, and set sail to India in great style. Because of a number of mishaps on the way, Eudoxus abandoned the voyage to India and eventually landed in Cadiz in what is now Spain . Strabo remarks that Eudoxus was always attended by good fortune.

4.7. Long after Eudoxus voyage Ptolemy XII (80 to 51 BC) created a special post titledCommander of the Red and Indian Seas to organize and encourage trade with India . The best-known occupant of this office was Callimachus the epistrategos, who was the Commander between 78 BC and 51 BC.

4.8. Pliny complained that the Indian luxury trade was depleting the Roman treasury to the extent of 50 million sesterces annually. The Roman Senate even contemplated banning the use of Indian cotton in the clothing Toga that Roman citizens wore, because it was too expensive to import. Evidently, the trade with India was flourishing.

Incidentally, the captain of Eudoxus of Cyzicus’ship that sailed to India , according to some, was Hippalus. Who was this Hippalus?Was he real?

(Sources:*.html#3.4 )


5. Hippalus : 


The contents of the book titled Periplous of the Erythraean Sea (“Circumnavigation of the Erythrean i.e., Red Sea”), written in around 75 to 90 AD by an unknown author presumed to be a Greek merchant sailor, indicates, the author had access to first-hand information about the ports in western India .The book mentions a series of ports along the Indian coast, including Muziris (Pattanam?), Colchi (Kochi?), Poduca, and Sopatma.  The book is narrated on a navigation itinerary basis, stopping at every point (a ‘port of call’) to enumerate merchandises, details about the local routes of trade, information about the natural environment, the political establishment, and the cultural and religious affairs and/or traits of the port in question. According to M.S. Megalommatis, a scholar, judging by the language of the text one could say Greek was not the mother tongue of the author. Most probably, he was an Alexandrian Egyptian captain and merchant who voyaged these seas and had intimate knowledge of the areas mentioned in the text.

5.1.The book also records the accomplishment of a certain Hippalus who, it says, understood the patterns of the Indian monsoons and discovered a sea-route from the Red Sea to Southern India . The book also makes a special references the port of Kodanganallur (anglicised to Cranganore, and also known as Muziris or Shinkli), in present day Kerala on India ‘s West coast. Pliny refers to this port as primum emporium Indiae.

5.2. There are two issues concerning Hippalus that are debated (a) the Sea route from the Red Sea to the Indian ports were  already known to the earlier Greeks. Hippalus did not discover them; and (b) Hippalus was not a real person and that the term was coined to represent a system of trade winds or to the sea/sea route.

5.3.As regards the first issue, we know that Skylax as far back as in fifth century BC traced a sea route to and out of the Red Sea . Further, as recorded in Arrian’s Indica ( 21, 1)Nearchus, a Macedonian General and a friend of Alexander, commanded a fleet to carry the men back from India to Persia and Mesopotamia . It is said, he was the first to realize the importance of the monsoon winds for sailing in that region, he, therefore waited for the commencement of the northeast monsoon to begin the voyage from India .After his conquest, Alexander sent out voyages of exploration to Arabia and the Caspian Sea but he died soon thereafter. (Apart from this ,the Arabians and Indians must, of course, have known and made use of the monsoon winds for centuries.)


Perhaps, because these events were too far back in time, they were either forgotten or lost in antiquity.


5.4. The other issue, which questions the existence of Hippalus, is a little more debatable. To start with, Pliny (79AD) does not mention him ; and in Ptolemy (c.168AD), Hippalus is the name of a sea. The French historian Andre Tchernia explains that Pliniy’s contention was because in the earlier times, the name of the wind was written as Hypalus and it was only in the Roman times the spelling Hippalus came into use . Some historians, therefore, wonder if Hippalus were to be a real person, then it is strange that his exploits were hardly known to the succeeding generations

5.5. Regardless of the view one might take on the above issue, the fact is that after the first century there was an upsurge in the sea traffic between Greece/Egypt and India . This was mainly on account of the drastic reduction in the time and the risks involved in sailing to India .The sailors setting out of Egypt ,now, went from the Red Sea to India over open sea , instead of hugging to the African coast as had been the practice till then. This made it possible to sail confidently for days without sight of land. The new route was shorter and free from the Arabian pirates. The Greek sailors also introduced a new shipping calendar and planned their voyages accordingly. These practices soon turned the Egypt-India sector into a major sea route and the Greek merchants sailed further crossing the Bay of Bengal on to the Southeast Asia region. Naturally, the trade between Egypt and Southern India flourished during this period. “Previously, not twenty vessels … dared to peep outside the straits…but now, great fleets are sent as far as India and the extremities of Aethiopia, from which the most valuable cargoes are brought to Egypt and thence sent forth again to other regions.’ ; so runs Strobes oft-quoted remark (Strabo, 17.1.13. [798]). Emperor Tiberius (42BC to 16AD), was however concerned over Rome ‘s increasingly adverse balance of payments. He complained, “The ladies and their baubles are transferring our money to foreigners”.
5.6. The key to this success story was the Greeks’ coming to understand the phenomenon of monsoon, the Indian monsoon. What is this monsoon? Let us see.
Monsoon is an anglicized form of Mausum, an Arabic/Hindi term meaning weather or season. It is specially refers to the heavy rainy season that commences in June, dies away in September, each year, and is very vital to the climate, the economy and to the life on Indian subcontinent.
The south-west monsoon is born off the Madagascar coast to Somalia due to a high-pressure area .The wind direction at this point is south easterly. The moisture-laden winds from this high-pressure area around Madagascar travel northwards to Somalia . As soon as they cross the equator, south-easterlies turn right to assume a south-westerly direction.
It is in Somalia that south-west monsoon assumes its true character. It becomes a jet stream by May. That jet drives the south-west monsoon from Somalia to India . The Jet streams are relatively strong winds concentrated within a narrow stream in the atmosphere. The Somali jet-stream helps the south-west monsoon gain force and hence it hits the Indian subcontinent with great force
5.6.1. The two key ingredients needed to create a successful monsoon in India are a hot land mass and a cooler ocean. In India , for instance, the landmass of the Great Thar Desert , the adjoining areas of north and central India , in addition to the Deccan plateau absorb much heat from the sun during the summer months; while the temperatures over the Indian Occasion remain comparatively lower.
[Prof. A L Basham , in his “The Wonder That was India ” gives a graphic description of Indian Monsoon:
The most important feature of the Indian climate is the monsoon, or “the Rains Except along the west coast and in parts of Ceylon rain rarely falls from October to May, when cultivation can only be carried on by carefully husbanding the water of rivers and streams, and raising a winter crop by irrigation. By the end of April growth has practically ceased. The temperature of the plains rises as high as 1lO° F. or over, and an intensely hot wind blows. Trees shed their leaves, grass is almost completely parched, wild animals often die in large numbers for want of water. Work is reduced to a minimum, and the world seems asleep.
Then clouds appear, high in the sky; in a few days they grow more numerous and darker, rolling up in banks from the sea. At last, in June, the rains come in great down pouring torrents, with much thunder and lightning. The temperature quickly drops, and within a few days the world is green and smiling again. Beasts, birds and insects reappear, the trees put on new leaves, and the earth is covered with fresh grass. The torrential rains, which fall at intervals for a couple of months and then gradually die away, make travel and all outdoor activity difficult,and often bring epidemics in their wake; but, despite these hardships, to the Indian mind the coming of the monsoon corresponds to the coming of spring in Europe. For this reason thunder and lightning, in Europe generally looked on as inauspicious, have no terrors for the Indian, but are welcome signs of the goodness of heaven]

Since the Indian Ocean is bound on the north by a large land mass, the effects of “differential heating” are intense. The air mass over the subcontinent, consequently, heats up, expands, and rises up in to the air. This causes a low-pressure area over the northern and central Indian subcontinent. To fill up this void, the cooler, heavier and moisture-laden winds from the Indian Ocean rush on to the subcontinent. The damp, chilly layer that hangs Over India will be as thick as three miles.

As the cool air arrives, the winds also shift. During the dry season, the winds blow offshore – from land to sea. Then, as the monsoon begins, the winds blow onshore – from sea to land. This phenomenon perhaps explains why the early Arabs named the monsoon “Mausin,” or “the season of winds.” The southwest Monsoon generally begins around the middle of June and lasts until September.



5.7. The real impotence of this phenomenon to the Greek/Egyptian sailors was that in the Indian winters the winds blow from the Sea on to the subcontinent; While in the Indian dry season, the winds reverse and blow from land to the sea. The Greeks could, therefore, sail into India during the Indian winter and sail back to Egypt during the Indian summer; thus taking advantage of favorable winds  on both occasions .This rendered the sea crossing a lot easier and faster than before. It is said, Hippalus set out in August sailing into the wide Arabian Sea directly towards the Malabar Coast . Further, Dr. Lionel Casson in his recent translation and commentary on “The Periplus Maris Erythraei,” says the ships left Egypt in July to take advantage of strong winds out of the north in the Red Sea and while returning, the ships usually departed in December or January to catch a favorable shift in winds.

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea primarily focuses on two trade routes originating at Egyptian ports: one, on the East African coast as far as Tanzania, and the other via the Arabian peninsula and Persian Gulf to western India. The author writes in detail of numerous cities, ports and harbours on these routes but India’s western coast, from Karachi down to Kanyakumari on the southernmost tip, accounts for nearly half the narrative.


5.8. Dr Lionel Casson says , a round trip to India covered about 3,500 miles. Dr. Casson, in his another book Rome’s Trade with the East: the Sea voyage to Africa and India, says that in those times the ships could make between four to six knots with fair wind. Accordingly, the mariners of those days could do about 100 miles per day, if they sailed through the night. That means to say the voyage from Egypt to Malabar might have taken about three weeks or a little less. According to Pliny, Eudoxus voyage to India and back took seventy days. In one-step, voyages were reduced from months to weeks, and profits soared.
5.9.One of the fallouts of Greeks’ increased trade with Southern India was, the perspective they gained of India ’s geography. The Greek geographers till then thought the Indian coast stretched from West to East. Now they could recognize the North _ South direction of India ’s West coast and its projection into the Indian Ocean .
5.10. Finally, Hippalus, real or otherwise, continues to hog the limelight. A crater on the moon is named after him .He is also a prominent character in Sprague de camp’s bestseller The Golden Wind.
 6. Pantainos (c.180 to 200AD) :
Very little information is available about Pantainos’s early life. It is said, to start with, he was a stoic philosopher. He later became a Christian. He established, in 180 AD, the famous Catechetical School in Alexandria (which later became the first Christian University ) to teach the beliefs and the philosophy of the new religion. He is regarded as the teacher of Clement of Alexandria , the first member of the Church of Alexandria . Clement called him “Sicilian bee” while Pantainos called himself “teacher of gentiles”. He is believed to be the author of the well-known Letter to Diognetus or atleast of its conclusion.
 6.1. Because of his zeal and learning, Pantainos was sent as a missionary to Malabar Coast, in South India, to preach Christianity. The Church in Kerala believes that Pantainos while in India came across Matthew’s Gospel in Aramaic.
(Source: J.W.Sedler – India and Greek world)
7.Frumentios of Tyros:
Frumentios in his childhood accompanied his uncle to India on what seems to have been a tourists’ trip, but remained there for many years as  the household superintendent under an Indian king. On his return to Alexandria , he was appointed Bishop of India in the year 336, and presumably returned to India to spread the Christian gospel.
7.1. Interestingly, the Ethiopian Christian tradition states that a certain Frumentios of Tyros was in Ethiopia in around 360 AD. While on a visit to India , he along with his brother Aidesios of the Äthiopiern was imprisoned but was later released and appointed as teacher to the prince. He preached Christianity while in India . On return to Alexandria , he was appointed Bishop of Ethiopia and was called “Apostel Abessiniens”.

Were they both talking about the same person?







According to Philostorgios (c.368 to 433AD)who is described as lateantique church historian, the Roman Emperor  Constantine (fourth century AD) dispatched a certain Theophilos to India to preach Christianity and that while in India he found some Christian followers of the Apostle Bartholomew. There is also a tradition that says Theophilos visited India and Maldives in AD 354, Mar. However, the details of his life are unknown and what little is known is disputed.
8.1.It is believed he came from one of the islands near Somalia . There is also an opinion that his travels were in connection with to trade and politics and were not related to religion.

Philip Mayerson in his essay A Confusion of Indias: Asian india and African India in the Byzantine Sources , says that after the fourth century the term India came to be applied rather loosely to refer to the subcontinent India , Axum/Ethopia or even to South Arabia and this has lead to much confusion. Mr. Mayerson says, Theophilos was not sent to India but was sent to perform missionary work among Homerites in Arabia Felix.


9. Kosmas Indikopleustes (Indian voyager):


He was a Greek traveler and Geographer who lived in Alexandria during the first half of the sixth century. He was a contemporary of Emperor Justinian I .He came from a family of traders and in his early years was trained to become a merchant. His business took him to various regions around Egypt . He voyaged in the Mediterranean , the Red Sea , and the Persian Gulf . The farthest he traveled was to the Cape Guardafui . He gathered information about these and other surrounding regions. It is not certain that he actually visited India .
9.1. The sub title “Indicopleustes” meaning “Indian voyager” stuck to him perhaps because in those days the entire region of Arabian Sea , the Red Sea and its sublets fell under the broad name Indian Ocean .
9.2. In his later years (ca. 540), he became a monk and entered the monastery of Raithu on the peninsula Sinai. In around 550AD, he wrote a richly illustrated twelve volume monumental work titled Christine Topography. One copy of the manuscript is in the Vatican Library while the other is in the Laurentian Library of Florence . A feature of the book is the cosmology the author projects. According to that, the earth is flat and heavens are in the shape of box with a curved lid. Cosmos aimed to disprove the pre-Christian geographers who asserted the earth was spherical in shape.
  9.3. If the cosmology is set aside, the book is an interesting and reliable guide to the world that has since disappeared.

In the words of Philip Meyerson , Christian Topography is the work of an anonymous Alexandrian merchant and an aspiring theologist who centuries later was given the name Cosmos and soubriquet of Indicopleustes although he never visited India .



It is sad that the Greek/Egypt trade with India collapsed after third century AD. The fall of the Roman Empire , and the succeeding dark ages brought instability to Western Europe and caused a near collapse of the trade network leading to a massive contraction of interregional trade. The Greek/Egypt and India trade was one of its early causalities.


Posted by on August 31, 2012 in History


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