Alexandria

Revisiting Porus and Alexander: Who did really win?

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

On evenings these days we have a television serial “Porus” on Sony channel. It’s a lavishly mounted production; the costliest-ever at Rs 500 crores. The producers retain the IP rights of the serial, Sony is a mere first broadcaster of it. The makers of the show have a global audience in mind.

The serial has reached a critical stage. Alexander is about to engage Porus in the battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum), 326 BC. The most popular version of Alexander’s story is by Arrian, a general during the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian. We in India have grown up on the story how Porus valiantly went down to Alexander but was restored to his kingdom by the conqueror, impressed as the winner was by Porus’ bravery. Alexander then turned on his heels, his hands forced by his weary army, abandoning his plan to dig deep into India’s heartland where the mighty Magadha empire, ruled by Chandragupta Maurya, would certainly have brought him to grief. He couldn’t reach home, dead in the city of Babylon (Iraq) from a raging fever though there are also different accounts of him being poisoned or succumbing to alcohol-induced issues.

This story of our childhood lacks credulity. We all know that neither Alexander nor Porus died in the battle. Alexander’s generosity is beyond belief for he was an exceptionally cruel invader. He rose to the Macedonia throne killing his father and brothers; there are mentions of him killing his friends around the dinner table; the entire citizenry of a country being butchered by his frenzied sword. Why would he leave Porus standing on his feet?

Alexander massacred the complete male population at Tyre and Gaza, razed the royal palace at Persepolis and as per a doyen historian of his, A.B. Bosworth, “he spent much of the time killing and directing killing, and, arguably, killing was what he did best”

The modern historians have trouble believing the account of Arrian. After all, his seven books on Alexander were written some 400 years after Alexander was dead and buried. Arrian borrowed hugely from Alexander’s contemporary Ptolemy’s account which is widely regarded as hugely unreliable. Sure there is material in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander and Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History but the legend of Alexander as it has come down to us in the last few centuries is a lot of baloney for authentic historical records on the man are missing. The Journals of Alexander is pure forgery.

The tale of his “weary army” is unauthentic too: it is proven beyond doubt that he kept replenishing his army with fresh legs from home, replacing his dead and tired soldiers regularly. Mercenaries and young men from his conquered territories also served the purpose. The truth is: there is no contemporary, authentic historical record of Alexander prevailing over Porus.

The fact is that Alexander’s military exploits concern just 10 years. He did capture Persia and he did travel 3000 miles to the doors of India. But most of it was unplanned. He wanted to outdo his father Phillip, began with minor raids in neighbourhood, claimed Persia and kept pressing on before he was made to turn his back by the Indian challenge. Not for a second though anyone must doubt that Alexander wasn’t one of the greatest military commanders the world has ever seen.

Historians have noticed a thread in the making of “Alexander industry”. He was contemporary to the Roman civilization but could never set his foot in Italy. Quite a few Roman emperors, generals and their “historians”, built up his legend and measured themselves against him to add halo around own greatness. The term “Alexander the Great” was first used in a Roman comedy by Plautus in second century BC, some 150 years after Alexander’s death. In 51 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero drooled at prevailing over a minor local insurgency only because the field of action happened to be one where Alexander once fought. “Pompey the Great” was hailed as the Alexander of his age after he returned victorious from Africa in the 80s BC. Julius Caesar similarly visited the tomb of Alexander in Alexandria during his times which was described by Roman poet Lucan as a stunt: “one demented despot paying home to another.”

Successive generations have built up the legend of Alexander. One of Alexander’s great admirer was Napoleon. He once commissioned a table which had Alexander’s profile at the center surrounded by other military giants of the ancient world. This stunning piece in porcelain and gilded bronze ended up in Buckingham Palace.

True, Alexander was a great military general but Roman historians have tended to soak his legend for the benefit of their own great generals and emperors. When colonialism and imperialism of the West spread its dark shadow across the East, the image of Alexander was further refurbished to show an all-conquering hero from the West taking on the chaotic East.

The great Russian general Marshal Zhukov for one was convinced that Alexander never defeated Porus. Addressing the cadets of Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun in 1957, the great Russian general who chased Hitler’s army down over 2000 kms from Stalingrad to Berlin during World War II, was emphatic that Alexander had been beaten by Porus. He compared Alexander’s defeat no better than Napoleon’s own reverse in Russia. When an invader is chased out of a country it’s defeat, pure and simple. Both Alexander and Napoleon had their armies decimated by local forces.

Nobody knows how serial “Porus” would turn out in coming weeks. There is little doubt though that he was one of India’s earliest defenders against foreign invaders who chose the northwestern route to eye, loot and pillage our exceptional country. At a time when Lutyens media and corrupt academicians and politicians are hell bent on diluting the spirit of nationalism and patriotism, “Porus” is a welcome presence in our drawing rooms.