Coin of the Indo-Greek ruler Demetrios I, from the first decade of the 2nd century B.C.
The Elephant has long been considered a potent symbol of sovereignty and royal, even imperial power within the Indian/Dharmic iconographic lexicon. Hence, in part, why Lord Indra rides one [Airavata – ‘Storm Cloud’ … the other major reason being because an elephant somewhat resembles one]; and, as I explored within the GHOST DIVISION series, part of why Lord Ganesha is depicted with an elephant head. [A similar choice in headgear was also to be found on some coinage of Alexander the Great]
It should therefore come as little surprise that Demetrius would choose to portray himself in such a manner – it’s perhaps somewhat equivalent to the later development of Roman laurel wreaths in the popular imagination: something that an Emperor or seriously senior regal/imperial figure would wear. In this, it can also be compared to the contemporary ‘diadem’, as well as the subsequent ‘crown’, common in the lands to the West and the Further West [i.e. the Iranian and European domains].
Interestingly, the figure on the opposite facing is Herakles/Hercules – as can be told from both the knotted wooden club, and lion-skin held in one hand; which, in addition to forming one of the Greek ‘comparative mythography’ equivalents to Lord Indra, can also be thought of as here standing for something of a ‘self-made man’ – one who has overcome adversities and trials in order to secure justifiable status amongst the figures of myth and immortality.
We can tell this, as Hercules’ *other* hand and arm is engaged in an act of self-coronation. Which, while it might potentially be suggested to be something a little improper to do in public, is also from memory what an array of other great men – including Napoleon I Chakravartin … and, as it happens, the coronial rite introduced by Charlemagne (albeit this latter for rather different reasons, symbolizing the voluntary assumption of duty) – have done under the circumstances.
In the Herculean context, this would also represent something else – not merely the “adoption”, still worse the “assumption” of the mantle of greatness. But rather, that something innate to the man – indeed, the *more-than-a-man* – in question had been recognized, and finally given expression as a justly earned acclaim. The “divine nature” of a monarch, in other words, being not something that can retrospectively nor retroactively be encoded into one’s personal genome. [Except when it *can* … but this is another matter, and another debate, for another time]
Now, often when we see some ruler comparing themselves directly to a particular mythic figure – and *especially* to Hercules, there is a presumption that maybe, just maybe, they are being somewhat hubristic. That they are garbing themselves with the eminence earned by another, occasionally somewhat literally [think Commodus, and his quite literal LARPing as Hercules in the Arena or in sculptuary]; or perhaps, at the very least, attempting to look good via association – reflected, rubbed off glory, and the idea that there is some legitimacy that has been thusly transferred, perhaps even (mytho-)genetically.
Yet in Demetrios’ case, it appears that he *did* at least somewhat earn the comparison; not only reportedly being personally instrumental in securing the ongoing reign of his father after a military imperilment by Antiochus III of the Seleucids, but also taking the Greco-Bactrian kingdom over which he assumed rulership at a young age from the aforementioned dire situation to a height of imperial power.
After his death, he was awarded the sobriquet “Aniketos” – The Unbeatable One, The Unconquerable One, The Invincible. And it is true to state that he never lost a battle so far as we know, instead massively expanding his father’s domains with successive campaigns in just about all directions; potentially reaching as far as Bihar in India, and up into the Northern Steppes beyond modern-day Afghanistan – where a Greek inscription upon an altar in modern-day Tajikistan speaks glowingly of the son of Euthydemus, “the glorious, victorious and remarkable Demetrius” and asks for Tyche to bless him and his Dad.
As a further measure of the man’s reputed greatness, it is often thought that he was personally responsible for the term “Yavanarajya”, the Yavana Era [‘Yavana’, as a potential calque of “Ionian”, meaning “Greek”], being promulgated within India to describe the comparative ascendancy of the Indo-Greeks thereabouts even for some centuries afterwards.
His Sanskritized name was “Dharmamita” – Friend to Dharma, and also with a “Mitra” connotation; yet the Greek form, Demetrios, would derive from ‘Devoted to Demeter’; which puts a bit of a different spin upon attempts to claim that “Dharmamita” may have meant he was an early proponent of Buddhism rather than Hellenized religion amidst the Indo-Greeks and Greco-Bactrians, as this would instead represent a direct calque and phonetic near-equivalency rather than the later symbollistic connotation that some scholars have thusly sought to ascribe to it.
In any case, it appears he was indeed a rather great man, if imperial actions are to be held to be the measure of such things; and while not *quite* “Ozymandian”, it is nevertheless interesting to me that so little is known about him personally *other* than the fact that he apparently once conquered much. Not even the precise extent of his territories, or whether it was he or another Indo-Greek monarch who made it as far as certain sites within India and the further horizon.
Still, for what it’s worth – and it is, indeed, worth much – having a legacy sufficient to be referred to as the Unconquerable, and to be widely known upon this earth in both span of distance and more immesurably, that of time, is something.
We also know, from quite an array of coinage and other such materials, that he appears to have *really* liked elephants.
Probably not hard to see why 😉