The Nomad Invasions

  December 23, 2023   Read time 7 min
The Nomad Invasions
The complex and disturbed succession of the later Indo-Bactrian rulers was to a large extent the consequence of a far-reaching event which took place in approximately 130 B.C. This was the nomad invasion of the Bactrian kingdom. The movement of peoples which swept away the Greek rulers on the Bactrian plain had its origins in disturbances far away.

The story has often been told of how the Hsiung-nu (a tribe from which subsequently originated the Huns of European history) rose to become a great power and a threat to the rulers of north China. Their kingdom reached its zenith under the great Maotun (c. 209-174 B.C.) who defeated the neighbouring tribes and established himself as the overlord of the steppes. To the south-west of the Hsiung-nu in Kansu province, there pastured another tribal confederacy of rather mixed composition known as the Yueh-chih. These too were defeated by Maotun, whilst further to the north he impinged upon their neighbours the Wu-sun, and drove them also towards the west. After the death of Maotun his son, Giyu, also known as Lao-shang, again attacked the Yueh-chih, routing them, and killing their king in battle. The survivors of the Yueh-chih, being pastoral nomads like the Hsiung-nu, were finally driven to trek away towards the west, passing, it seems, down the valley of the Hi river and along the southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul. From this region they expelled a group of Saka tribes, designated in the Chinese chronicle (the Ch'ien Han Shu)1 by the term Sai-wang (meaning "Saka king"), and drove them away to the south-westwards. On their march, however, the Yueh-chih had collided with the Wu-sun, who now returned to attack them in the rear, and drive them headlong into Farghana on the heels of the Sakas. Thus soon after 160 B.C. two powerful hordes, the Sakas and the Yueh-chih, were poised on the Graeco-Bactrian frontier of the river Jaxartes.

At this point western sources take up the story of the nomad conquest of Bactria. Scholars generally agree that the Yueh-chih of the Chinese sources are in fact identical with the tribe named as the Tochari in the western texts. Subsequent happenings are described in a well-known passage of the Geography of Strabo (xi. 511): "The nomads who became the most famous were those who took away Bactriana from the Greeks - the Asii or Asiani, the Tochari, and the Sacaraucae, who set out from the far bank of the Jaxartes adjoining the Sacae and Sogdiani, which the Sacae had occupied." The doings of the Asiani are also mentioned in two of the Prologues of Pompeius Trogus. Prologue XLI contains the statement "The Scythian tribes of the Saraucae [read: Sacaraucae] and the Asiani seized Bactra and Sogdiana." This passage corresponds closely with the account given by Strabo, whilst Prologue XLII, referring to later events, includes the sentence "The Asiani became kings of the Tochari, and the Saraucae [read: Sacaraucae] were destroyed." It will be seen that although the names may not be etymologically identical, the historical role played by the Asiani is precisely that of the people who later came to be known as the Kushans, founders of the Kushan empire. It is, moreover, evident that these displaced nomad groups quickly overran the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom lying to the north of the Hindu Kush range. Tarn's deduction seems to be correct that the invasion took place at a date between 141 B.C. and 129 B.C, when a wave of nomad invaders is reported by Justin (XLII, 1-2) to have burst into Parthia.

Direct evidence is lacking for the subsequent movements of the nomad tribes. It is likely, however, that the Sakas travelled to the south by way of Herat, passing through Drangiana and the region of the Helmand bend, which subsequently became known as Sakastan, from which derives the region's modern name of Sistan. Later, following in the tracks of Alexander, they would have passed northeastwards through Arachosia, before turning east towards the Indian plain through the various passes in the Sulaiman range and the Northwest Frontier. Meanwhile the Tochari bequeathed their name to Tukharistan, the region of Qunduz and Baghlan in modern Afghanistan, which commands the northern approaches to the passes of the Hindu Kush. They too will ultimately have made their way to Gandhara by the more direct, but arduous, route of the mountain passes. However, the march of the Tochari lasted nearly a hundred years longer than that of the Sacaraucae, who were thus left in almost undisputed control of the Punjab throughout the 1st century B.C.

The theory that the Sacaraucae turned westward after their sack of Bactra is confirmed by the sensational finds of gold treasure excavated in the summer of 1979 by the Soviet archaeologist V. I. Sarianidi at Tilla Tepe, near Shibarghan in Afghanistan. These rich burials around the remains of a prehistoric temple were shown by numismatic and other evidence to be much later, 1st century B.C. to 1st century A.D., and were characterized by their massive offerings of gold. The brief reports so far available1 suggest that the objects belonged to two distinct styles. The first, represented by at least one golden libation-bowl (phiale) of strictly Classical form, is presumably to be interpreted as a relic of the Hellenistic civilization of Bactria. Yet the bulk of the finds reflect a specific "Animal style", already known from a bracelet of the Oxus Treasure,2 and a pair of gold armlets in Peshawar and at Cologne.

These southerly finds are manifestly related to the goldwork of the Siberian collection of Peter the Great, now at Leningrad. Yet similar contorted forms, and polychrome inlays in turquoise and garnet, are typical of the gold pieces from Shibarghan. There, however, one remarkable piece, a gold clasp based on a rendering of the Greek god Dionysus in his leopard-chariot, though similarly decorated, was obviously inspired by a Hellenistic prototype. In all probability the Shibarghan burials reflect a westward movement of the Sacaraucae from the pillage of Bactra, loaded not only with any surviving Hellenistic treasure, but also with surplus gold that had been melted down, and reworked according to their taste. Evidence not only for the route of the Sacaraucae, and for the fantastic opulence of the spoils of Bactra, the excavations also cast light on the origins and inspiration of the various schools of Scythian art. A sensitive analysis is likely to show that just as many objects from Siberia illustrate Achaemenian themes remodelled to the taste of the tribal craftsman, so the finds of Shibarghan illustrate a comparable metamorphosis of Hellenistic subjects. For the immediate narrative, however, the impression which results from these new finds is of the astonishing affluence of the Saka chiefs, who, after the capture of Bactra, led their peoples to the conquest of Southern Asia.

Yet if the Sakas travelled, as seems most likely, by the Arachosian route, it is surprising that the first Saka ruler to issue coins was Maues in the heart of the Indo-Bactrian kingdom at Taxila. This circumstance led Narain1 to resort to a theory that Maues and his Sakas had reached Taxila by travelling southwards from Kashghar over the "Hanging Pass " into Indus Kohistan. It is indeed scarcely credible that a cavalry force should have travelled by such precipitous routes; but the problem remains, and its solution could well be that Maues was a commander of Saka mercenaries in the service of the Greek kings, who gained control of the kingdom from within at a moment when an external Saka onslaught was pending. It is notable that according to Jenkins' analysis2 the subsequent Saka rulers, such as Vonones, Spalirises and Azes I, issued coins first in Arachosia, as might have been expected in the case of invaders coming from the west. Yet an even more important point which emerges from Jenkins' study is that the immediate successors of Maues at Taxila were not Sakas but Greeks. It was only after the intervening reigns of ApoUodotus II and Hippostratus that Saka rule was once more restored by Azes I.

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