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Megasthenes (* around 350 BC; † around 290 BC) was an ancient Greek diplomat, historian and geographer. He traveled as an envoy to Pataliputra , India , to the court of King Chandragupta , the first ruler of the Maurya Empire , and wrote a famous historical and ethnographic work on India under the title Indicá , which has only survived in fragments.


Megasthenes was likely born in Greek Asia Minor . According to the historian Arrian , he lived for some time in the area of ​​the Seleucid part of Gedrosia - Arachosia : “ Megasthenes, who was with Sibyrtios, the satrap of Arachosia, and who often claims to have come to see Sandrokottos, the king of the Indians. “It is possible that Megasthenes took part in the Alexanderzug and was already traveling to western India at that time. Since Arrian also reports that Megasthenes also visited King Porus , an earlier legation cannot be completely ruled out. Arrian lived over 300 years after Megasthenes, but still had access to his historical work. Sibyrtios, with whom Megasthenes was connected, played a not unimportant role in the period immediately after the death of Alexander the Great .

At a time that cannot be exactly determined, perhaps several times, Megasthenes traveled as an envoy to the court of the Indian king Sandrokottos (Chandragupta Maurya) in Pataliputra. The research usually assumes that Megasthenes was on the road on behalf of the Seleucid ruler Seleukos I. Nikator . If so, the embassy was not before 305 BC. BC, because in this year there was a peaceful compromise between Seleucus and Sandrokottos. What role Megasthenes played in the diplomatic relations between the Seleucid and Maurya empires cannot be precisely determined. According to another interpretation of the sources, it is assumed that Megasthenes did not travel to India for Seleucus, but for Sibyrtios' orders and that this happened shortly after Alexander's death.

Nothing is known about the later life of Megasthenes. The diplomatic relations between the Seleucids and the Mauryas apparently remained. A certain daimachos seems to have been envoy at the Mauryahof as the successor to Megasthenes.


During his delegation, Megasthenes collected material about India that appeared to the Greeks to be a semi-mythical wonderland. Megasthenes later published his memoirs in what was probably a four-volume work entitled Indicá , which was written in Ionic Greek. He was one of the very few Greeks who got to know India, at least partially in its eastern parts, first-hand. His indicators were based mainly on information that he himself had obtained from his own observations, explorations and conversations with local people (including Brahmin priests); They were based only to a small extent on older Greek reports about India, which often had Roman-like features ( Herodotus , Onesikritos and Ktesias of Knidos ). Megasthenes was not the only Greek who wrote about India after the Alexander procession; The records of daimachus , the successor of Megasthenes as envoy at the Mauryahof, and of a certain Dionysius are known, for example, which have in fact been completely lost . The work of Megasthenes, however, was apparently the most extensive and was used relatively frequently by later authors. Diodorus , the aforementioned historian Arrian and Strabo (though only indirectly through Eratosthenes ) apparently used it.

The first book of the Indicá dealt with the geography, flora, fauna and ethnography of India. This also included a description of the river systems of the Indus and Ganges, a catalog of 118 names, descriptions of the Himalayas and Sri Lanka . The second book was devoted to the description of local customs, including (for the first time by Greek authors) the Indian caste system and finally the civil service. This representation was concentrated on the Maurya empire located on the middle Ganges, in whose capital Pataliputra Megasthenes lived during his embassy. In the third book he dealt with Indian social conditions and Indian philosophy . Finally, in the fourth book, archeology, myths and history of India up to the present day are described.

Megasthenes seems to have gathered some valuable material; some errors are also due to misunderstandings. He did not always report from his own experience, since he mainly stayed at the royal court, but also relied on information from local Indian sources, which were not always reliable. Some specifically Greek ideas have clearly flowed into Megasthenes' image of India. These include B. Comments on the Indian civil service (fragment 31). The myth of the Indian procession of Dionysus played an obviously important role : Megasthenes traced the development of Indian religion back to Dionysus, who, coming from the west, conquered the country with his troops, civilized the people and, because of these achievements, finally achieved immortality (fragment 4 and 12). Heracles was said to have been the second bringer of culture (fragments 4 and 13). Megasthenes also handed down clichéd narratives traditionally used in the Greek description of India, for example by the "one-eyed", and even extended it to include the "mouthless". In addition, he partially transfigured Indian society in various places; so he praised their alleged honesty, love of truth, justice, simplicity, celibacy, etc. (fragment 32) and denied the existence of slaves (fragments 4, 16 and 32). An idealization of foreign lands was not unusual in Greek historiography, as the example of Herodotus and Hecataeus of Abdera shows with regard to Egypt.

Legendary material in the Indicá apparently came to a large extent from Indian sources, which Megasthenes took over and reproduced quite uncritically. Other rather implausible stories corresponded with the canon of Greek ideas regarding India, such as the descriptions of Dionysus, who appears more as a mythical king than as a god, founded cities and civilized the country. But Megasthenes also provides a lot of valuable and historically accurate information at first hand, so that he can by no means be described as a "lying author". Nevertheless, it was judged very critically even in antiquity, although it apparently served as the main source for Indian history. In addition to the not always reliable source material available to Megasthenes, it should be noted that his description is only available to us in very brief summaries by later authors; it is also not always clear in this regard how exactly these authors proceeded.

In any case, the fragments of the historical work are the most important source for Indian history around 300 BC. And are also often used by Indologists. They are also an important source of the Greek image of India, which was considerably expanded by the Alexanderzug and the following developments.



Overview representations


  • Albert Brian Bosworth: The historical setting of Megasthenes' Indica . In: Classical Philology 91, 1996, pp. 113-127.
  • Albert Brian Bosworth: Arrian, Megasthenes and the Making of Myth . In: Juan Antonio López-Férez (ed.): Mitos en la literatura griega helenística e imperial. Madrid 2003, pp. 299-320.
  • Klaus Karttunen: India and the Hellenistic world. Finnish Oriental Society, Helsinki 1997.
  • Richard Stoneman: The Greek Experience of India. From Alexander to the Indo-Greeks. Princeton University Press, Princeton / Oxford 2019, ISBN 978-0-691-15403-9 , pp. 129-285.
  • Josef Wiesehöfer , Horst Brinkhaus, Reinhold Bichler (eds.): Megasthenes und seine Zeit / Megasthenes and His Time. Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden 2016.


  1. Arrian, Anabasis 5,6 (= The Fragments of the Greek Historians , No. 715, Testimonium 2a); Translation after Wilhelm Capelle .
  2. Arrian, Indicé 5.3.
  3. See Waldemar Heckel: Who's Who in the Age of Alexander the Great: Prosopography of Alexander's Empire. Oxford 2006, p. 159.
  4. See on the person Waldemar Heckel : Who's Who in the Age of Alexander the Great: Prosopography of Alexander's Empire. Oxford 2006, pp. 248f.
  5. See Duane W. Roller: Biographical Essay. In: Brill's New Jacoby , No. 715.
  6. See as an overview Otto Lendle: Introduction to Greek historiography. From Hekataios to Zosimos . Darmstadt 1992, pp. 272f.
  7. See article Megasthenes. In: The Oxford Classical Dictionary . 4th ed. Oxford 2012, p. 925.
  8. cf. generally John Duncan Martin Derrett: Megasthenes. In: The Little Pauly . Vol. 3, 1969, col. 1150-1154.
  9. ↑ A balanced assessment also in the article Megasthenes. In: The Oxford Classical Dictionary . 4th edition, Oxford 2012, p. 925.