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Nearchus


Amphipolis, seen from the southwest. Photo Jona Lendering
Amphipolis, seen from the southwest.
Nearchus (c.360-c.300): admiral of Alexander the Great, famous for his exploration of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.

Nearchus was born on Crete, but his father Androtimus moved to Amphipolis in Macedonia; here, Nearchus grew up. Androtimus must have been an important man, because his son was educated together with the crown prince, Alexander, the son of king Philip of Macedonia (356-336). At some point in around 337, probably as a result of the Pixodarus affair, Nearchus was banished by Philip. He shared his exile with Ptolemy, Harpalus, Erigyius and Laomedon. It is likely that they remained in exile until after Alexander's accession in 336.

When Alexander invaded Asia in May 334, Nearchus was with him, and at the beginning of the next year, he was appointed as satrap of Lycia and Pamphylia. This meant that Nearchus was responsible for the ports in southern Turkey; as long he held them, the Persian navy was forced to sail from Cyprus to the Aegean Sea through open waters, which was very risky. He did his job well: during 333, the Persian commanders Memnon of Rhodes and Pharnabazus were active in the Aegean waters, but they received no reinforcements. A town that revolted, Telmessus in Lycia, was reduced without much violence.

Meanwhile, the naval war ended when Alexander conquered Phoenicia, the Persian naval base. He went on to Egypt and Babylonia, took the Persian capitals of Susa, Persepolis, Pasargadae and Ecbatana, pursued the defeated Persian king Darius III Codomannus and went on to the northeastern provinces of the former Achaemenid empire, Bactria and Sogdia.

It was at this stage of the war, in the first months of 329, that Alexander  recalled Nearchus, who was to come to the east bringing reinforcements of Greek mercenaries. The former satrap of Lycia and Pamphylia shared this command with Asander, who had been satrap of Lydia. It is likely that Nearchus was surprised to see how his youth friend had changed: he was now calling himself Son of Zeus and King of Asia, and wore a diadem and the Persian royal tunic.

We do not know what Nearchus did during the Sogdian campaign; during the invasion of India (327/326), however, he was one of the two commanders of the Shield bearers, a heavy infantry unit. He was almost immediately replaced by Seleucus, who commanded these men during the battle on the Hydaspes (May).

Although they were victorious, the Macedonian and Greek soldiers refused to go any further and Alexander decided to return to Babylonia. He ordered the construction of a large fleet, which was to be commanded by Nearchus. The voyage down the Indus lasted from November 326 to July 325. It was not an easy cruise: several times, the Macedonians had to fight their way past resisting native towns. Finally, the reached Patala (Old Indian for 'camp for ships'), modern Bahmanabad, 75 kilometers north-east of Hyderabad.
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The Olympias, a modern reconstruction of an ancient Greek war ship ('triere').
 A triere (!!!)
Not all soldiers continued to the Ocean. The army was too big to remain united. In June, general Craterus had already left the main force and had gone to Carmania with a third of the soldiers. In August, Alexander and three quarters of what remained of the army set out for a long and difficult march through the Gedrosian desert. Nearchus was to ship the remaining quarter of the soldiers, 17,000 - 20,000 men, to Carmania and Babylonia. He was not the first westerner to make the expedition: one Scylax of Caryanda had made the same voyage in the late sixth century BCE.

Later, Nearchus wrote a book about the naval expedition, which was also to be a voyage of discovery. The Indik is now lost, but its contents are well-known from several sources, especially the Indik by Arrian of Nicomedia and the Geography by Strabo of Amasia. It seems to have consisted of two parts: the first half contained a description of India's borders, size, rivers, population, castes, animals -especially elephants-, armies and customs; the second half described Nearchus' voyage home.

On 15 September, Nearchus' set out from Patala, having waited for the Southwest monsoon to subside. It is not easy to reconstruct the voyage in detail, because it was impossible for the ancients to measure distances at sea; all Nearchus' indications of distance are, therefore, merely guesswork and can hardly be relied upon to reconstruct his expedition. Nonetheless, the information in the Indik is sufficient to have a general idea of the route and the troubles encountered. (All places mentioned below can be found in The Times Atlas of the World.)

Almost immediately after leaving Patala, it was clear that the Macedonian fleet had set out too soon. (Perhaps the native population had forced Nearchus to leave earlier than he wanted to.) The ships encountered adverse winds and it took them almost a week to reach Ocean. Then, they headed for the North, through the lagoon between the mouths of the rivers Indus and Hab. This was easier, but when they turned to the East, the renewed Southwest monsoon proved too strong to continue. The Macedonians had to wait and fortified their camp with a wall of stone, fearing enemy attacks. They soon discovered that their supplies were running out. They were forced to hunt for mussels, oysters, and razor-fish and had to drink briny water.

They remained there for twenty-four days, but were eventually able to continue and after several days reached a place called Morontobara or Woman's Harbor (modern Karachi) and reached the mouth of the Hab. They continued along the coast through the Sonmiani Bay. One night, they camped on the battlefield where Leonnatus, one of Alexander's generals, had defeated the native population, the Oreitans ('Mountain people'). He had left a large food deposit for Nearchus' men - enough for ten days.

With the wind behind them and sufficient supplies, they were able to speed up their journey and reached the Hingol river. At this point, the Indik describes how a native village was destroyed and its inhabitants were killed (text). It is remarkable that the author (Arrian/Nearchus) makes no attempt to justify the attack. Continuing their voyage, Nearchus and his men arrived in the country of the Fish eaters. (It was a common practice among the Greeks to describe people not by their own name, but by one of their most remarkable customs.) These were very poor people living on the sandy strip of land between the Ocean and the Gedrosian desert, and the Macedonians had big difficulties finding supplies. Fortunately, they found an excellent harbor, called Bagisara (modern Ormara).

The next stage of the voyage is well-understood: they put in at Colta, Calima (Kalat) and an island called Carnine (Astola), where, according to Nearchus, even the mutton had a fishy taste. They continued and passed Cysa (near Pasni) and Mosarna (near Ras Shahid). Here, a Gedrosian pilot joined them, who led them in two days to modern Gwadar, where they were delighted to see date-palms and gardens. Three days later, Nearchus' men surprised Cyisa, a town near modern Chh Bahr and took away its supplies. Next, they anchored near a promontory dedicated to the Sun, called Bageia ('dwelling of the gods') by the natives; it is probably identical to Ra's Kh Lab.

From now on, the Macedonians were really hungry, and they must have been happy to see that they could cover large distances. The places that Nearchus mentions in his account of the voyage (Talmena, Canasis, Canate, Taa, Dagaseira) can not be identified, although it is plausible that the last mentioned town is modern Jsk. Now Nearchus had reached Carmania and was approaching the Straits of Hormuz. In the Indik, he notes that the country produced corn, vines and many cultivated trees, except the olive tree that the Greeks loved so much. The sailors saw the Oman peninsula, and Nearchus describes how the helmsman of the flagship, Onesicritus, said that they should go over there, and that Nearchus replied that he did not want to expose the fleet to new dangers (text).

Nearchus describes Onesicritus as a fool and also mentions that Onesicritus had (later) falsely claimed to have been the fleet-commander. Most scholars accept Nearchus words, but there may be more to it than meets they eyes. Alexander had started to give important commands to two people at the same time, who had to act as colleagues (e.g., Nearchus had shared the command of Alexander's Greek mercenaries with Asander and had been in charge of the Shield bearers with one Antiochus). It is possible that Onesicritus was not just the helmsman of the flagship, but Nearchus' equal, and it is also possible that Alexander had ordered his navy to conquer the Oman peninsula, which was a Persian satrapy, Maka. Perhaps we should not believe Nearchus' own words.

Two days later, the Macedonian navy reached Harmozeia (modern Mnb), one of the largest ports in the Persian Gulf. Here they had a rendez-vous with Alexander, who had marched through the Gedrosian desert (text). Nearchus had believed Alexander was lost and Alexander had believed that he had lost his navy, so it was a happy encounter. 

It was January 324 when the Macedonian fleet continued its voyage along the coasts of Carmania and Persis. But now, they were traveling along familiar shores and made progress. Among the identifiable places they visited are the island Qeshm, Cape Ra's-e Bostneh, the island Qeys, Band-e Nakhl, the island Lzeh (where they watched pearl divers), the Bandar-e Sh promontory, Ny Band, Kangan, the river Mand, Bsher, the river Dasht-e Palang, Jazireh-ye Shf and the river Marun, which is the border of Persis and Susiana. Here, the ships could no longer continue along the coast because of the breakers. However, they finally reached the mouth of the Tigris safely. 

Diadem from one of the Macedonian royal tombs at Vergina. National archaeological museum, Thessaloniki (Greece).
Macedonian diadem, from Vergina; c.360-335 BCE (Archaeological Museum, Thessaloniki; !!!)

When Nearchus heard that Alexander was approaching from the east, he decided to wait for his king at Susa, the capital of Susiana. Here, Alexander celebrated the homecoming of his army and navy. Nearchus, Onesicritus and several others received a golden diadem as a reward for their deeds.   It was Alexander's wish that his friends, and then other Macedonians, should marry native women; therefore, Nearchus married to a daughter of Alexander's Persian mistress Barsine. It is not known whether they had children, but it is notable that during the conflicts after Alexander's death, Nearchus backed Heracles, the son of Alexander and Barsine, and stayed with his wife. He might not have discarded his wife, at least not immediately, as most of the other Macedonians appear to have done.

Coin of Alexander the Great, showing the goddess Nike ('victory') with a ship's mast.
Coin of Alexander, showing the goddess of Victory (Nike) holding a ship's mast, commemorating Nearchus' expedition (!!)

In the last months of Alexander's life, Nearchus was usually with him, which may have something to do with the fact that Alexander was making plans for a naval expedition against the Arabs of modern Yemen. However, Alexander died on 11 June 323, in Babylon. This was the beginning of the era of Alexander's successors, the Diadochi.  In the argument over the succession, Nearchus backed his wife's half-brother, Heracles, but the boy and Barsine were probably killed by Polyperchon, one of the generals fighting for a share of Alexander's inheritance (309). Nearchus spent some time with another general, Antigonus Monophthalmus, and educated his son Demetrius. When Demetrius had his first independent command in a war against Ptolemy, Nearchus assisted him. The two were defeated near Gaza (312). 

Nearchus' year of death is unknown.

Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2009
Revision: 1 Jan. 2009
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