Demetrius I of Bactria

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Silver coin depicting the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius (r.c. 205-171 BCE).
Obv. Draped and wearing an elephant scalp, symbol of his conquest of India.
Rev. Youthful, naked Heracles, crowning himself with right hand, with lion skin and upright club resting on his left arm. Greek legend: BASILEOS DIMITRIOU "King Demetrius".

Demetrius was almost certainly the name of twoGreek kings of Bactria and India. Demetrius I (reigned circa 200-180 BCE)was the son of Euthydemus and succeeded him around 200 BC, after which he conquered extensive areas in what now is eastern Iran, Pakistan, Punjab and northern India, thus creating an Indo-Greek kingdom far from Hellenistic Greece, that was to last until around 1 BC. Demetrius II was a latter king and possible relative who reigned in India only.


Invasion of India

Demetrius started the invasion of northern India from 190 BCE, following the destruction of the Mauryan dynasty by the general Pusyamitra Sunga, who then founded the new Indian Sunga dynasty (185-78 BCE). The Mauryans had had diplomatic alliances with the Greeks, and they may have been considered as allies by the Greco-Bactrians.

The Greek campaigns eventually went as far as the capital Pataliputra in eastern India (today Patna): "Those who came after Alexander went to the Ganges and Pataliputra" (Strabo, XV.698) The Indian records also describes Greek attacks on Saketa, Panchala, Mathura and Pataliputra (Gargi-Samhita, Yuga Purana chapter). However, the campaigns to Pataliputra are generally attested to the later king Menander I and Demetrius I probably only invaded areas in Punjab, Kashmir and Pakistan, the latter including areas taken from the Seleucid kings, who were weakened after their defeat to the Romans in 190. Other kings may have expanded the territory as well.

By ca 175 BCE, the Indo-Greeks ruled various part of northern and northwestern India until the end of the 1st century BCE, while the Sungas remained in the east.


Demetrius I died of unknown reasons, and the date 180 BCE, is merely a suggestion aimed to allow suitable regnal periods for subsequent kings, of which there were several. Even if some of them were co-regents, civil wars and temporary divisions of the empire are most likely.

The kings Pantaleon, Antimachus, Agathocles and possibly Euthydemus II ruled after Demetrius I, and theories about their origin include all of them being relatives of Demetrius I, or only Antimachus. Eventually, the kingdom of Bactria fell to the able newcomer Eucratides.

Demetrius II was a later king, possibly a son or nephew of his namesake, and he ruled in India only. Justin mentions him being defeated by the Bacrtian king Eucratides, an event which took place at the end of the latters reign, possibly around 150 BCE. Demetrius II left behind his generals Apollodotus and Menander I, who in turn became kings of India and rulers of the Indo-Greek Kingdom following his death.

According to Ptolemy, a Demetriapolis was founded in Arachosia.

Demetrius is a legend as well as an enigma. He was a hero of Indian folklore under the folk-etymological name Dharma-Mithra, and was mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer ("D, lord of Ind").

Demetrius and Buddhism

Missing image
The other main coin type of Demetrius.
Obv: Rejoincing young elephant with bell, within the royal bead and reel contour.
Rev: Caduceus, representing concord between two serpents. Greek legend BASILEOS DIMITRIOS "King Demetrius".

There are many records of the Sunga empire persecuting Buddhism, but on the contrary Buddhism flourished under the Indo-Greek kings, and it has been suggested that their invasion of India was not only intended to show their support for the philhellenic Mauryan empire, but also to protect the Buddhist faith from the religious persecutions of the Sungas.

Coinage & connection with Buddhism

The coins of Demetrius are of four types. One bilingual type withGreek and Kharoshthi legends exists: it is naturally associated with the Indian Demetrius II. A series with the king in diadem are likely to be early issues of Demetrius I.

More interesting are the "elephant" coins: The first type shows Demetrius (I) with elephant-crown, a well-known symbol of India and an allusion to Alexander the Great. These coins prove he really invaded India.

The other "elephant" type of Demetrius I represents a rejoicing elephant, depicted on the front on the coin and surrounded by the royal bead-and-reel decoration, and therefore treated on the same level as a King. The elephant, one of the symbols of Buddhism and the Gautama Buddha, possibly represents the victory of Buddhism brought about by Demetrius. The reverse of the coin depicts the caduceus, symbol of reconciliation between two fighting serpents, which is likely a representation of peace between the Greeks and the Sungas, and likewise between Buddhism and Brahmanism. It might also be a symbol of Asklepios, the Greek deity of medicine.

Alternatively though, the elephant has also been described as a possible symbol of the Greek Indian capital of Taxila (Tarn), or still as a symbol of India. Unambigous Buddhist symbols are scarce even on later Greek coins, and it seems rather unlikely that Demetrius I, who was born in the Greek milieu of Bactria and struck coins with Olympic gods, personally was a buddhist. His conquests did however influence the Buddhist religion in India:

Missing image
Greco-Buddhist representation of Buddha, Gandhara, 1st-2nd century CE.

Indian sources

A king Demetrius is named Dharmamita ("Friend of the Dharma") in the Indian text of the Yuga-Purana, a name which probably both reflected phonological approximation of the name Demetrius and an expression of what the King stood for.

Greco-Buddhist art

There are several parallels between Demetrius and the first representations of the Buddha in human form.

The deified likeness of Demetrius, including facial features and physical proportions, may have influenced some of the first representations of the Buddha in Greco-Buddhist art, typically depicted in a manner reminescent of the Greek king.

Also in another parallel, the characteristic protector deity of Demetrius (Herakles standing with his club over his arm, as seen on the reverse of his coins), was represented in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara as the protector deity of the Buddha.

Preceded by:
Euthydemus I
Greco-Bactrian ruler
(205-171 BCE)
Succeeded by:
(possible sub-kings)

(in Bactria)
Euthydemus II

(in Paropamisadae)

(in Arachosia, Gandhara)

External links

  • Coins of Demetrius (
  • More coins of Demetrius (

See also


  • "The Shape of Ancient Thought. Comparative studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies" by Thomas McEvilley (Allworth Press and the School of Visual Arts, 2002) ISBN 1581152035
  • "Buddhism in Central Asia" by B.N. Puri (Motilal Banarsidass Pub, January 1, 2000) ISBN 8120803728
  • "The Greeks in Bactria and India", W.W. Tarn, Cambridge University Press.

sv:Demetrios I av Baktrien


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