This painting, by the French artist Charles-André Vanloo (aka. Carle Van Loo, c. 1705 – 1765), was inspired by a battle won by Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE) near the end of his impressive career of conquests. Vanloo’s artwork is set in the year 326 BCE, by which point Alexander had arrived at the borderlands of India, following years of pushing his way through Anatolia, trekking down the Mediterranean coast to Egypt, and then relentlessly piercing his way through the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, ultimately defeating its King of Kings and claiming its land as his own. By 326 BCE, after the Achaemenid Dynasty was toppled and other vestiges of Persian resistance were crushed, Alexander the Great set his sights on the borderlands of India, where he eventually clashed with a local king who was known to the Greeks as Porus. The opposing forces met in the Battle of the Hydaspes, named after a river commonly identified with the modern Jhelum River.
As told in an account of the battle written by the historian, Arrian (c. 90-173+), Alexander launched a three-pronged assault across the river and was able to successfully maneuver his cavalry and infantry to encircle Porus’ army. Porus had elephants on his side, but these creatures had a reputation for being fickle in battle, sometimes posing just as much of a threat to their own army as to the opposing side. Whatever the case, Alexander was able to contain and overcome the challenge posed by the elephants during the foray. Arrian described the battle:
“Among the [Indian] dead were two sons of Porus, Spiaces the local Indian governor, all the officers in command of the elephants and chariots, and all the cavalry officers and other commanders of high rank. The surviving elephants were captured…Throughout the action Porus had proved himself a man indeed, not only as a commander but as a soldier of the truest courage…It was only when he was himself wounded that he turned the elephant on which he rode and began to withdraw” (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, 5.18).
It is difficult to say what particular part of the battle Charles-André Vanloo wished to re-create in his painting. Perhaps the artwork shows the death of one of Porus’ sons, or maybe the figure being lowered to the ground is meant to be King Porus, himself, who suffered a non-fatal injury during the battle. Whatever the case, Alexander the Great evidently admired the Indian king and, after accepting his surrender, Alexander let Porus continue to govern the local area.
Written by C. Keith Hansley