It is speculated that Nearchus, although senior to Alexander the Great, was educated alongside him. After being exiled by Alexander’s father, Nearchus was invited back to the court shortly after Alexander took the throne in 336. He joined Alexander in the invasion of Asia in 334, fought with him in multiple battles, and was put in charge of several conquered areas, including Telmessus, where he crushed a revolt. Alexander called him to join him in his conquest of India in 329. Despite successes, Alexander’s army eventually refused to travel further east. Alexander decided to return to Babylon and put Nearchus in charge of the construction of a large fleet, meant to voyage down the Indus River to meet the rest of the army at the ocean. It is generally believed that the voyage down the Indus lasted from Novemeber 326 to July 325. (Livius) Due to the monsoons and resisting native towns, the fleet had a series of delays traveling down the river. Eventually, Alexander and his men met up with what was left of the fleet and victoriously departed (Arrian).
However, the route Nearchus took on the river remains debated. Popular understanding dictates that Alexander took the eastern water route on the Indus back, but in his article entitled, “Some Passages in Arrian Concerning Alexander” N.G.L Hammond argues that the work has been mistranslated and thus has resulted in an inaccurate understanding of Nearchus’s route back to meet Alexander. He says, “If we translate the Greek correctly, there is no ambiguity. ‘The Indus outlet on this side’ is the western outlet, the nearest to the writer’s viewpoint” (Hammond).
Additionally, Hammond argues that his interpretation makes more sense with Alexander’s actions, “First, he went down the ‘right-hand’ river, i.e. to the western outlet…Next he returned to Pattala. From there he sailed down the other arm of the Indus to the other mouth, the eastern one. His aim was to learn which mouth gave easier access to the sea…As he went down the eastern arm, Alexander came to a great lake, something which did not exist on the western arm; he left his main force at the lake and went on himself to the outlet. He then rowed out to see. Thus he learnt that the mouth of the Indus on this side was the easier, i.e. the western outlet. The expedition of Nearchus, then, was to sail from the Western arm of the Indus” (Hammond). Thus, Hammond argues that Alexander only explored the Eastern route to check if it was an easier route. When Alexnader encountered rough waters, he surely must have sent word to Nearchus to take the western route, and thus, Nearchus sailed on the western route.
(The map above shows Alexander’s possible routes the Perisan sea).
However, scholar J.R. Hamilton in his article entitled, “The Start of Nearchus’ Voyage” explains his firm academic belief that there is no mistranslation, and Arrian meant to describe Alexander taking the eastern route, “it is clear from what follows in Arrian that he (Arrian) intends the reader to understand that it was the eastern arm that Alexander found easier to navigate.” Hamilton additionally argued that Alexander’s actions indicated he took the eastern route, “he relates that the king (Alexander) landed and with some of his Calvary explored the coastline to see what kind of country it was for the coasting voyage, and ordered wells to be dug to provide water for the fleet…If Alexander had in mind to sail down the western arm, what was the point of all this activity? Moreover, it seems clear from Arrian’s description of Alexander’s voyages down the two arms that the king found the eastern easier to navigate.”
Thus, the exact route of Nearchus while he traveled down the Indus River to meet with Alexander is still up for debate. Until any artifacts are found that can shed more light on the matter, it will probably maintain uncertain.
Goold, A. G. (1983). Arrian Indica. Cambridge: Harvard College.
Hamilton, J. R. (1994). The Start of Nearchus’ Voyage. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 501-504.
Hammond, N. G. (1980). Some Passages in Arrian concerning Alexander. The Classical Quarterly, 455-476.
Lendering, J. (2009, January 1). Nearchus. Retrieved from Livius.org: http://www.livius.org/ne-nn/nearchus/nearchus.html