Why Was There an Ancient Greek Kingdom in Afghanistan?

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

21 May 2019

Following the death of Alexander the Great his empire would never be the same again. Almost immediately his kingdom began to fragment between rival, ambitious commanders – the so-called Wars of the Successors.

After many years of fighting Hellenistic dynasties emerged throughout what had once been Alexander’s empire – dynasties such as the Ptolemies, Seleucids, Antigonids and later, the Attalids. Yet there was another Hellenistic kingdom, one situated far away from the Mediterranean.

‘The Land of a Thousand Cities’

The region of Bactria, now divided between Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

In the distant East was the region of Bactria. Having the bountiful Oxus River flowing right through its heart, Bactria’s lands were some of the most lucrative in the known world – rivalling even those on the banks of the Nile.

Various grains, grapes and pistachios – these rich lands produced all in abundance thanks to the fertility of the region.

Yet it was not just farming that Bactria was well-suited for. To the east and south were the formidable mountains of the Hindu Kush, in which silver mines were abundant.

The region also had access to one of the most formidable pack animals of antiquity: the Bactrian camel. Truly Bactria was a region rich in resources. The Greeks that followed Alexander were quick to recognise this.

Seleucid satrapy

Following Alexander’s death and then fifteen years of internal turmoil, Bactria finally came under the firm hand of a Macedonian general called Seleucus. For the next 50 years the region remained a rich outlying province in first Seleucus’, and then his descendants’, control.

Progressively, the Seleucids would encourage Hellenism in Bactria, erecting various new Greek cities throughout the region – perhaps most famously the city of Ai Khanoum. Tales of exotic Bactria and its potential for lucrative farming and wealth soon reached the ears of many ambitious Greeks further west.

To them, Bactria was this far-flung land of opportunity – an island of Greek culture in the East. In a time epitomised by great travels and the spreading of Greek culture far and wide, many would make the long journey and reap rich rewards.

A Corinthian capital, found at Ai-Khanoum and dating to the 2nd century BC. Credit: World Imaging / Commons.

From satrapy to kingdom

Very quickly, Bactria’s wealth and prosperity under Seleucid rule blossomed and Bactrians and Greeks lived harmoniously side by side. By 260 BC, so magnificent was Bactria’s riches that it soon became known as the ‘Jewel of Iran’ and the ‘land of 1,000 cities.’ For one man, this prosperity brought great opportunity.

His name was Diodotus. Ever since Antiochus I ruled the Seleucid Empire Diodotus had been the Satrap (baron) of this wealthy, eastern province. Yet by 250 BC no longer was Diodotus prepared to take orders from an overlord.

Bactria’s wealth and prosperity, he likely realised, gave it great potential to become the epicentre of a great new empire in the East – a kingdom where Greeks and native Bactrians would form the nucleus of his subjects: a Greco-Bactrian kingdom.

After seeing Seleucid attention starting to focus more and more on the West – in both Asia Minor and Syria – Diodotus saw his chance.

In c.250 BC both he and Andragoras, the neighbouring satrap of Parthia declared their independence from the Seleucids: no longer would they submit to a royal family far away in Antioch. In this act, Diodotus severed Seleucid subjugation and assumed the royal title. No longer was he simply satrap of Bactria; now, he was a king.

Preoccupied with their own internal problems the Seleucids initially did nothing. Yet in time they would come.

A gold coin of Diodotus. The Greek inscription reads: ‘basileos Diodotou’ – ‘Of King Diodotus. Credit: World Imaging / Commons.

New kingdom, new threats

For the next 25 years, first Diodotus and then his son Diodotus II ruled Bactria as kings and under them the region prospered. Yet it could not last without challenge.

To the west of Bactria, by 230 BC, one nation was becoming disturbingly powerful: Parthia. Much had changed in Parthia since Andragoras had declared independence from the Seleucid Empire. Within a few years, Andragoras had been overthrown and a new ruler had come to power. His name was Arsaces and he quickly expanded Parthia’s domain.

Desiring to resist Parthia’s rise under their new leader, both Diodotus I and the Seleucids had united and declared war on the upstart nation and it appears this quickly became a key part of Diodotid foreign policy.

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Yet in around 225 BC, the young Diodotus II radically altered this: he made peace with Arsaces, thus ending the war. Still this was not all as Diodotus went one step further, making an alliance with the Parthian king.

For Diodotus’ Greek subordinates – who held great sway – it is likely this act was very unpopular and culminated in a rebellion led by a man called Euthydemus.

Like many others before him, Euthydemus had travelled from the West to Bactria, desiring to make his fortune in this far-flung land. His gamble had soon paid off as he had become either a governor or a frontier general under Diodotus II.

He thus owed much to the Diodotids for his rise in the East. Yet it seems likely Diodotus’ Parthian policy proved too much.

Coin depicting the Greco-Bactrian king Euthydemus 230–200 BC. The Greek inscription reads: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΕΥΘΥΔΗΜΟΥ – “(of) King Euthydemus”. Image Credit: World Imaging / Commons.

Soon after Diodotus agreed to the ill-fated Parthian alliance, Euthydemus revolted, had Diodotus II killed and took the throne of Bactria for himself. The Diodotid line had come to a swift and bloody end. Euthydemus was now king.

Like Diodotus had before him, Euthydemus saw Bactria’s great potential for expansion. He had every intention of acting on it. Yet to the West, Bactria’s former rulers had other ideas.

Featured image credit: Gold stater of the Seleucid king Antiochus I Soter minted at Ai-Khanoum, c. 275 BCE. Obverse: Diademed head of Antiochus. Rani nurmai / Commons.