Alexander the Great’s incursions into the Indian subcontinent brought him into conflict with local rulers unwilling to submit to Macedonian rule. One of these rulers is known to history by the name Porus. The sources are vague and contradictory, but he apparently controlled the Punjabi region bordered by the Jhelum and Chenab rivers.
Alexander and his army confronted Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 B.C. The account of the battle and its aftermath that appears in Quintus Curtius Rufus’s history (VIII.14) is the source for the anecdotes related here. As was his custom, Alexander prepared for the battle with great care. Porus’s army made use of war elephants, a spectacle that would have unnerved a lesser commander, but not Alexander. As he surveyed the array for forces, he said,
Finally I see a danger on a level equal to my spirit. For the contest is, at the same time, one with beasts and extraordinary men. [VIII.14.14]
The Greek king then gave instructions to his subordinates on how they should deploy their forces during the battle. He told them not to fear the elephants; they should target the riders of the animals and bring them down, and then stab the elephants themselves. Alexander was not impressed with Indian war elephants. He considered them unreliable, and just as dangerous to one’s own army as to the enemy. “It is a dubious type of supporting resource,” he said, “and rampages more destructively against its own troops. For it is propelled against the enemy by command, and against its own men by panic.”
The battle did not go well for Porus and his men. Contending with Alexander and his disciplined army was never an easy proposition in the best of circumstances, of course; and although he fought bravely, Porus soon found himself in an untenable position. But there are stirring lessons in valor and bravery from this battle that have come down to us. When further resistance was clearly hopeless, Alexander sent the brother of Taxiles (one of his Indian allies) as a messenger to Porus, asking him to surrender himself. Porus, exhausted and covered with bloody wounds, would hear none of this, however. His contemptuous answer was this:
I recognize the brother of Taxiles, traitor to his kingdom and nation. [VIII.14.36]
And as he said this, Porus flung a spear at the man, which passed clear through his chest and emerged from his back. With this last defiant act, Porus then tried to make his escape. Alexander and his men caught up with him, however; he was eventually forced from the elephant he was riding, and delivered over to Alexander. Believing Porus to be dead, Alexander ordered the armor stripped from his body; but Porus’s elephants intervened to protect their master, and attacked many of the despoiling Greeks before finally being slain.
Porus, it so happened, was still alive, despite being grievously wounded. Alexander approached the immobile Porus as he was stretched out on a chariot. There then transpired one of those beautiful and edifying dialogues between victor and vanquished that occasionally garnish the pages of history. Alexander, moved by pity, said to Porus:
What evil impulse obliged you—with full knowledge of the fame of my deeds—to such folly as to test your fortune in war against me, when your neighbor Taxiles already existed as an example of my generosity to those who surrender?
To this question Porus responded:
Because you want to know, I will respond with the candor you have shown in asking me. I thought no one was stronger than I was. Although I knew my own power, I had not yet tested yours. The results of war have taught that you are the stronger. But in fact I am not unhappy in the least to be second to you.
Alexander was deeply moved by these gracious and manly words; he then asked Porus how he, Alexander the victor, should treat him, Porus the vanquished. Porus spoke as follows:
You should treat me as this day counsels you—this day in which you have learned how fleeting good fortune may be.
In other words, here lies my broken body, O king, stretched out in ignominious defeat. Today it is I who am in this position. Remember that tomorrow it may be you. Be not too arrogant in victory. These were exceedingly wise words, directed more to the future than the present. Yet it was the kind of advice that Alexander was perhaps incapable of grasping fully. Our cynical age may suspect the reliability of this anecdote, but it does not matter. Moral truths transcend historical truths, making the latter subservient to the former. We are told that Alexander was so moved by the nobility and sublime truth of these sentiments, that he treated Porus not just with empathy, but with honor. He had Porus looked after as if he was one of his own commanders. When he had recovered, he assigned Porus a kingdom that was, we are told, even larger than the one he ruled over previously.
“There was no more reliable or unchanging feature of his [Alexander’s] personality,” says Quintus Curtius Rufus in his history of Alexander, “than his veneration of true worth and glory. Yet he assessed fame more directly in an enemy than in one of his own countrymen. For he believed that, while his greatness could be diminished by his own people, the greater those had been whom he conquered, the more eminent his own greatness would be.”
Read more on valor and the transitory nature of fortune in the new translation of Sallust’s Conspiracy of Catiline and War of Jugurtha:
2 thoughts on “Alexander And Porus Speak On Fortune And Glory”
Makes sense Brother Q
In Punjab Porus is called Purushotum, and as a Kshtriya (of the warrior caste) he would have followed that Dharma and as written:
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.”
Still prefer the simpler response to Alexander’s question:
“As a king.”
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