One of the earliest, if not in fact, the earliest identifiable documentary mentions of the lands that are now Bangladesh can be found in one of the most famous tales from ancient Greece; the immortal, epic poem that is the story of Jason, his Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece.
This famous, archaic work of literature, known as Argonautica, is probably the best known of its era, and of the small anthology of the poet’s writings. It was, in fact, a rewrite of a much more ancient legend from the Homeric Period, around the eighth century BCE. Probably one of the most famous and enduring of Greek heroes, even in modern culture, Jason and his companions live on, finding fame in film and video games.
Challenging for his murdered father’s throne, Jason, one of the greatest of the Greek, semi-mythical, half god-like heroes, is sent to recover the famous Golden Fleece; even Tom Clancy, the modern American author of dramatic, military fiction, has been clearly as obsessed by the legendary trophy, explaining it in his masterwork The Bear and The Dragon, as sheep fleeces left to wash in streams carrying gold dust which, collecting on the fleece, crust it with gold.
Like most such legendary epics, there may well have been some real world substance in the origins of the story; such stories were told, not written, until much later, for both entertainment, but also to share the drama of real history. It is a form of entertainment found across the world, the legends of the past, usually somewhat romanticised.
Such, “legendary” literary romance, is mirrored, perhaps, in that other, more modern epic in British tradition, the stories of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. It is only in recent times that sufficient archaeology had accumulated in Britain to support the view that the myths were probably based on a real life Romano British warrior chieftain.
However, it does seem unlikely that the part of the legend that suggests that Arthur and his Knights sleep, ready to emerge when the lands of Britain lie in peril, were any more than pure fiction; where were they in the 1940s, or even now, post Brexit?
How, in the 3rd century BCE, Apollonius would have come to add a warrior from a distant land to his recreation of the famous legend is not clear, but Datis, ‘a chieftain, leader of the Gangaridai,’ duly makes his appearance
It may, of course, also be notable that both Arthur and Jason were set a challenge, to secure a throne ... The one to draw Excalibur, the sword in the stone; and the other, find Golden Fleece.
How, in the third century BCE, Apollonius would have come to add a warrior from a distant land to his recreation of the famous legend is not clear, but Datis, “a chieftain, leader of the Gangaridai,” duly makes his appearance.
He is written into the army of “Perses lll,” one of the protagonists in the civil war being fought in Colchis, located in modern day Georgia, on the Black Sea, between Perses, and his brother, Aeetes, for the throne of the Taurian tribe. Jason, and his Argonauts, joining him in his endeavours.
The inclusion of such a character in the drama invites speculation, especially the reason for doing so.
On the face of it, the inclusion in a drama, presented by travelling entertainers, seems likely to presuppose awareness, at least, of what we are only now beginning to recognise as the “kingdom” at the very heart of the Ganges delta, that of Gangaridai. But we may well wonder how the addition would enhance the dramatic appeal of the narrative.
Two centuries or so later, soldiers of Gangaridai merit another mention in the famous “Georgic” poems of one of Rome’s greatest poets, Virgil, attributing the victory of the Roman general, Quirinius, in Asia Minor, probably in the closing decades before the Common Era, especially to, “the Gangaridai,” a victory the poet would “represent in gold and ivory ...” possibly a significant association with Gangaridai at that time?
There are, of course, signs of the prowess of the people of the lands around the Ganges delta, in the literature of much earlier times; the Mahabharata, another epic drama, with origins in lands around the north east of the sub-continent itself, probably about the period contemporary with that of the earlier, Homeric Jason, which includes stories of the heroic achievements of peoples from these lands.
It may, therefore, be considered possible at the very least, that the adventurousness of the early peoples of the lands was well-established by the time of Apollonius. And it may also be of significance that, working as he did in the famous library at Alexandria, he could probably have had ready access to written references to Gangaridai and its people.
However, since the telling of such epics demanded drama, we may, also, be entitled to consider that it was the very remoteness of the, perhaps, near mythical lands of the east, that lent drama to the tale.
It is evident from the map made by the Libyan-born cartographer Eratosthenes in the second century BCE, who also subsequently worked in the Library of Alexandria, that the well known shape of the Indian sub-continent, with the Ganges, together with its origins, clearly marked, was believed to fringe on Scythia, to the exclusion of most of China and the East.
In that world view, the Ganges was considered to be the very limit of the world that, even two or three centuries earlier, Hecataeus of Miletus had remarked so in his cartography.
It may, therefore, be reasonable to suppose that, at the time, the Ganges and Gangaridai enjoyed almost mythical status to such as Apollonius, and enhanced both the drama, and the exotic sense of international appeal to his poem.
Equally, of course, the inclusion of Datis may well derive from the perhaps more prosaic, real knowledge of the people living in the lands around the Ganges delta.
Megasthenes, the roughly contemporary, Greek commentator on Alexander’s humiliating rebuff by the Gangaridai, a century or so before the time of Apllonius, himself appears to attribute Alexander’s ultimate defeat to the people of Gangaridai.
What is, therefore, fairly clear is that the people of Gangaridai, the lands that, today, lie at the very heart of Bangladesh, had, even before the famous Greco Roman geographer, Strabo, wrote of the opportunities for trade at the mouth of the Ganges, around the year 1CE/AD, had become famous, not only for trade, but also for the prowess to undertake, and protect, their trade and sovereignty.
The significance of this, of course, is that the increasing documentary, empirical, and archaeological evidence of a well developed centre of trade, in, around, and through the lands of today’s Bangladesh, was well known to writers like Apollonius, Virgil, and Strabo, who were themselves neither travellers, nor traders.
The Ganges was considered to be the very limit of the world that, even two or three centuries earlier, Hecataeus of Miletus had remarked so in his cartography
But it appears from the Argonautic poem that the people of the delta, a little like today’s Army of Bangladesh, had secured for themselves an outstanding reputation as soldiers.
And, of course, it takes wealth and courage to acquire such a reputation.
That so many famous Greek and Roman commentators liked to endow, in their commentaries, the armies of Gangaridai with ever increasing levels of military strength, including war elephants, mounted cavalry, war chariots, and large numbers of trained infantry, might leave us wondering where the appeal of the enigmatic transformed into some degree of historic fact. Or vice versa.
Apollonius, himself, remains someone with his own somewhat enigmatic history.
Whilst we may begin to understand how today’s Bangladesh entered his famous epic, we may also wonder about him, and his world.
There is little doubt that burgeoning trading relationships between the Middle East, ancient Mediterranean lands, and even Africa, saw a growing knowledge of the more remote corners of the “known” world.
And Apollonius, although, in fact, it is hard to tell quite how he acquired the Rhodes epithet, appears to have been born and lived, as far as we know, in Egypt. At the time, Egypt was continuing to emerge as a great centre of, especially, international maritime, trade. It may well be, too, that the canal built about 1,000 years BCE from the Nile to the Red Sea, facilitated both that trade, and communication with such as the lands of the Ganges.
Working, as he did, in the great library of Alexandria, he would have had access to, not only the more famous tracts written about their “mystic” East, but probably many other, perhaps long lost, similar pieces.
Indeed, it is clearly possible that a military mercenary, named Datis, really did exist, and actually did take himself and his people to fight as mercenaries in improbable corners of the contemporary world. Who knows, perhaps, taking the “highway of the ancient world,” the waters of the sea, Datis may, himself, have been encountered by Apollonius, in Egypt!
If Virgil is to be believed, it was only two centuries later that mercenaries from Gangaridai were fighting in a Roman army in today’s Syria.
And the list of Greek, Greco Roman, and Roman writers familiar with the lands, now those of Bangladesh, is a long and distinguished one. Documentary evidence, indeed, of an interesting early period in the history of the nation.
Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.