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360 b.c.-312 b.c.

Greek Military Commander

Acommander under Alexander the Great, Nearchus served as admiral over a fleet that sailed from the coast of the Indian subcontinent to the Euphrates river in distant Mesopotamia. In so doing, he proved that a sea route between India and the Near East existed, and thus made possible later Greek and Roman trade with India.

Nearchus apparently came from Crete, and at some point in his career gained naval experience. It is likely that if he did serve on a ship, this must have happened before the time he joined the forces of Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.): in conquering his vast Greco-Macedonian empire, Alexander relied on land troops, using his navy almost solely for transport.

Nearchus's role as admiral would come much, much later; but from the outset it was clear that as a longtime friend of Alexander, he was one of his commander's most trusted aides. Early in his conquests—and thus long before he acquired huge territories that he could distribute lavishly—Alexander made Nearchus satrap, or governor, over two choice provinces in Asia Minor, Lydia and Pamphylia.

The grant occurred in 333 b.c., when Alexander was in the process of moving from Asia Minor into the Levant, and thence to Egypt. In the years that followed, he defeated the Persians, absorbing their empire and eventually placing under Greek dominion a realm that stretched from Sicily to India. Eventually, however, his troops grew weary of conquest and longed to see their families, from whom they had been separated for a decade.

In July 326 b.c. Alexander began the long westward movement, separating his force into three groups. One returned via a northerly route, while a second—led by Alexander himself—would take a southerly path through Iran. The third would sail under Nearchus, whom he had appointed admiral. That appointment, in fact, may have occurred prior to the decision to head for home; in any case, Alexander directed Nearchus to find a sea route, if such existed, that would connect the Indus and Euphrates rivers.

Alexander also placed at Nearchus's disposal all troops with seafaring experience. Under Nearchus's leadership, Indian shipwrights built for the Alexandrine navy some 800 vessels, many as large as 300 tons, and Nearchus procured the services of Indian pilots who would serve as guides. Finally, in September of 325 b.c., the fleet departed from the mouth of the Indus.

The first month of journey was a difficult one, beginning with a long period of delays and concluding with a storm in which three ships were capsized. At Ras Kachari in what is now Pakistan, the fleet anchored and met up briefly with a portion of Alexander's forces. Then they continued on to the Hingol River, where they waged a successful battle against hostile inhabitants, and thence to Makran in the area of the present-day border between Pakistan and Iran.

At Makran, the expedition underwent hardships as they searched for fresh water supplies, and later they ran short of food, a situation that forced them to hunt for wild goats on the shore. At Pasni, a town today in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, they were able to take on fresh supplies, and as they continued westward they found that the land was more fertile.

During his voyage, Nearchus appears to have seen whales, which must have been an unusual sight that far south, and provided the first known written reference to sugar cane. He also fought an apparently pointless battle at the town of Gwadar, where in spite of the locals' willingness to trade, he chose to attack the city. After this effort ended in a stalemate, however, he was content to trade with the townspeople for fishmeal.

In time his fleet met up with Alexander in Persia, then continued through the Strait of Hormuz and up the Persian Gulf. They finally landed at the mouth of the Euphrates, having proven that it was possible to sail from India to Mesopotamia. Later Nearchus and his fleet rejoined Alexander in the capital city of Susa, but the commander did not have long to live: he died in June 323 b.c., leaving behind a massive power vacuum. In the ensuing struggle between generals, Nearchus most likely lost his satrapies in Asia Minor.