India’s First Emperor

Okay, I’m a little slow.  India’s Independence Day was yesterday.  Still, I think a bit of South Asian history is in order as a belated celebration:

Cyrus the Great built the Persian empire on those of the Medes and the Babylonians.  Alexander the Great began his empire by taking over Persia.  Chandragupta Maurya created the first pan-Indian empire from a patchwork of small states in northern India and Afghanistan.  At its height, the Mauryan empire included most of modern Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan–an area larger than any other Indian ruler would command.

Chandragupta’s rise to power began with Alexander the Great’s abortive invasion of India in 326 BCE.*  Sometime between 324 and 313 BCE, when he was no more than twenty-five years old,  Chandragupta took advantage of the political confusion caused by Alexander’s withdrawal to seize Magadha, the largest and most influential kingdom in northern India.  With Magadha under his control, Chandragupta drove Alexander’s remaining garrisons out of India and into Afghanistan.  One of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus Nicator, invaded India again in 305 BCE.  Within two years, Chandragupta had forced him to retreat. In the resulting peace treaty, Seleucus ceded parts of what is now Afghanistan to Chandragupta in exchange for five hundred war elephants and a marriage alliance with the Mauryas.

According to legend, Chandragupta abdicated in favor of his son Bindasura in 301 BCE and retired to a Jain monastery, where he fasted to death.  Bindasura ruled for thirty-two years and expanded the empire by conquering large portions of the Deccan, but he is best known for a letter he wrote to Antiochus, the Seleucid king of Syria.  He asked the Syrian ruler to sent him figs, wine, and a sophist.  Antiochus sent the figs and wine, but told him that philosophers were not available for export.

The Mauryan empire reached its height under Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka.  But that’s a story for another day.

* The short version:  Once in India, Alexander’s troops mutinied and demanded to back to familiar territory.  Alexander reluctantly led his army back to his new capital at Babylon, leaving behind garrisons to rule the conquered Indian provinces.  He later claimed that the only military defeat he ever suffered was at the hands of his own men.


  1. Ashoka: The Buddhist Emperor of India on August 24, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    […] recently blogged about Chandragupta Maurya, who created an empire out of the chaos that followed Alexander the Great’s invasion of India. […]

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