He is one of the few Bactrian kings mentioned by Greek authors, among them Apollodorus of Artemita, quoted by Strabo, who claims that the Greeks from Bactria were even greater conquerors than Alexander the Great, and that Menander was one of the two Bactrian kings, with Demetrius, who extended their power farthest into India:
The Indian records also describe Greek attacks on Mathura, Panchala, Saketa, and Pataliputra. This is particularly the case of some mentions of the invasion by Patanjali around 150 BC, and of the Yuga Purana, which describes Indian historical events in the form of a prophecy:
In the West, Menander seems to have repelled the invasion of the dynasty of Greco-Bactrian usurper Eucratides, and pushed them back as far as the Paropamisadae, thereby consolidating the rule of the Indo-Greek kings in the northern part of the Indian Subcontinent.
The Milinda Panha gives some glimpses of his military methods:
His reign was long and successful. Generous findings of coins testify to the prosperity and extension of his empire (with finds as far as Britain): the finds of his coins are the most numerous and the most widespread of all the Indo-Greek kings. Precise dates of his reign, as well as his origin, remain elusive however. Guesses among historians have been that Menander was either a nephew or a former general of the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I, but the two kings are now thought to be separated by at least thirty years. Menander's predecessor in Punjab seems to have been the king Apollodotus I.
Menander's empire survived him in a fragmented manner until the last Greek king Strato II disappeared around 10 AD.
Menander was the first Indo-Greek ruler to introduce the representation of Athena Alkidemos ("Athena, saviour of the people") on his coins, probably in reference to a similar statue of Athena Alkidemos in Pella, capital of Macedon. This type was subsequently used by most of the later Indo-Greek kings.
According to tradition, Menander embraced the Buddhist faith, as described in the Milinda Pañha, a classical Pali Buddhist text on the discussions between Milinda and the Buddhist sage Nāgasena. He is described as constantly accompanied by a guard of 500 Greek ("Yonaka") soldiers, and two of his counsellors are named Demetrius and Antiochus. This type of discussion was known to ancient Greeks as a "sozo", it is important for Buddhists to understand the cultural context in which this discussion was held.
In the Milindanpanha, Menander is introduced as
"King of the city of Sâgala in India, Milinda by name, learned, eloquent, wise, and able; and a faithful observer, and that at the right time, of all the various acts of devotion and ceremony enjoined by his own sacred hymns concerning things past, present, and to come. Many were the arts and sciences he knew--holy tradition and secular law; the Sânkhya, Yoga, Nyâya, and Vaisheshika systems of philosophy; arithmetic; music; medicine; the four Vedas, the Purânas, and the Itihâsas; astronomy, magic, causation, and magic spells; the art of war; poetry; conveyancing in a word, the whole nineteen. As a disputant he was hard to equal, harder still to overcome; the acknowledged superior of all the founders of the various schools of thought. And as in wisdom so in strength of body, swiftness, and valour there was found none equal to Milinda in all India. He was rich too, mighty in wealth and prosperity, and the number of his armed hosts knew no end." (The Questions of King Milinda, Translation by T. W. Rhys Davids, 1890).
Buddhist tradition relates that, following his discussions with Nāgasena, Menander adopted the Buddhist faith:
He then handed over his kingdom to his son and retired from the world:
There is however little besides this testament to indicate that Menander in fact abdicated his throne in favor of his son. Based on numismatic evidence, Sir Tarn believes that he in fact died, leaving his wife Agathocleia to rule as a regent, until his son Strato could rule properly in his stead. Despite the success of his reign, it is clear that after his death, his "loosely hung" empire splintered into a variety of Indo-Greek successor kingdoms, of various size and stability.
These elements tend to indicate the importance of Buddhism within Greek communities in northwestern India, and the prominent role Greek Buddhist monks played in them, probably under the sponsorship of Menander.
Menander has left behind an immense corpus of silver and bronze coins, more so than any other Indo-Greek king. During his reign, the fusion between Indian and Greek coin standards reached its apogee. The coins feature the legend (Greek: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΣΩΤΗΡΟΣ ΜΕΝΑΝΔΡΟΥ (BASILEOS SOTEROS MENANDROU)/ Kharosthi: MAHARAJA TRATASA MENADRASA).
These alterations were possibly an adaption on Menander's part to the Indian coins of the Bactrian Eucratides I, who had conquered the westernmost parts of the Indo-Greek kingdom, and are interpreted by Bopearachchi as an indication that Menander recaptured these western territories after the death of Eucratides.
A second king named Menander with the epithet Dikaios, "the Just" ruled in the Punjab after 100 BCE. Earlier scholars, such as A.Cunningham and W.W.Tarn, believed there were only one Menander and assumed that the king had changed his epithet and/or was expelled from his western dominions. A number of coincidences led them to this assumption:
However, modern numismatists as Bopearachchi and R.C. Senior have shown, by difference in coin findings, style and monograms, that there were indeed two distinct rulers. The second Menander could have been a descendant of the first, and his Buddhist symbols a means of alluding to his great ancestor's conversion. With this distinction, the numismatical evidence for the Milinda panha is all but gone. The first Menander only struck a rare bronze series with a Buddhist wheel (coin 3).
Despite his many successes, Menander's last years may have been fraught with another civil war, this time against Zoilos I who reigned in Gandhara. This is indicated by the fact that Menander probably overstruck a coin of Zoilos.
The Milinda Panha might give some support the idea that Menander's position was precarious, since it describes him as being somewhat cornered by numerous enemies into a circumscribed territory:
a) The traditional view, supported by W.W. Tarn and Boperachchi, is that Menander was succeeded by his Queen Agathokleia, who acted as regent to their infant son Strato I until he became an adult and took over the crown. Strato I used the same reverse as Menander I, Athena hurling a thunderbolt, and also the title Soter.
According to this scenario, Agathocleia and Straton I only managed to maintain themselves in the eastern parts of the kingdom, Punjab and at times Gandhara. Paropamisadae and Pushkalavati were taken over by Zoilos I, perhaps because some of Agathocleia's subjects may have been reluctant to accept an infant king with a queen regent.
b) Against this, R.C. Senior and other numismatics such as David Bivar have suggested that Straton I ruled several decades after Menander: they point out that Straton's and Agathocleia's monograms are usually different from Menander's, and overstrikes and hoard findings also associates them with later kings.
In this scenario, Menander was briefly succeeded by his son Thrason, of whom a single coin is known. After Thrason was murdered, competing kings such as Zoilos I or Lysias may have taken over Menander's kingdom. Menander's dynasty was thus dethroned and did not return to power until later, though his relative Nicias may have ruled a small principality in the Kabul valley.
After the reign of Menander I, Strato I and several subsequent Indo-Greek rulers, such as Amyntas, Nicias, Peukolaos, Hermaeus, and Hippostratos, depicted themselves or their Greek deities forming with the right hand a symbolic gesture identical to the Buddhist vitarka mudra (thumb and index joined together, with other fingers extended), which in Buddhism signifies the transmission of the Buddha's teaching. At the same time, right after the death of Menander, several Indo-Greek rulers also started to adopt on their coins the Pali title of "Dharmikasa", meaning "follower of the Dharma" (the title of the great Indian Buddhist king Ashoka was Dharmaraja "King of the Dharma"). This usage was adopted by Strato I, Zoilos I, Heliokles II, Theophilos, Peukolaos and Archebios.
Altogether, the conversion of Menander to Buddhism suggested by the Milinda Panha seems to have triggered the use of Buddhist symbolism in one form or another on the coinage of close to half of the kings who succeeded him. Especially, all the kings after Menander who are recorded to have ruled in Gandhara (apart from the little known Demetrius III) display Buddhist symbolism in one form or another.
Both because of his conversion and because of his unequaled territorial expansion, Menander may have contributed to the expansion of Buddhism in Central Asia. Although the spread of Buddhism to Central Asia and Northern Asia is usually associated with the Kushans, a century or two later, there is a possibility that it may have been introduced in those areas from Gandhara "even earlier, during the time of Demetrius and Menander" (Puri, "Buddhism in Central Asia").
The anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha is absent from Indo-Greek coinage, suggesting that the Indo-Greek kings may have respected the Indian an-iconic rule for Buddhist depictions, limiting themselves to Buddhist symbolism only. Consistently with this perspective, the actual depiction of the Buddha would be a later phenomenon, usually dated to the 1st century, emerging from the sponsorship of the syncretic Kushan Empire and executed by Greek, and, later, Indian and possibly Roman artists. Datation of Greco-Buddhist statues is generally uncertain, but they are at least firmly established from the 1st century.
Another possibility is that the Indo-Greeks may not have considered the Buddha strictly as a God, but rather as an essentially human sage or philosopher, in line with the traditional Nikaya Buddhist doctrine. Just as philosophers were routinely represented in statues (but certainly not on coins) in Antiquity, the Indo-Greek may have initiated anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha in statuary only, possibly as soon as the 2nd-1st century BC, as advocated by Foucher and suggested by Chinese murals depicting Emperor Wu of Han worshipping Buddha statues brought from Central Asia in 120 BC (HanWudiBuddhas.jpg) ). An Indo-Chinese tradition also explains that Nagasena, also known as Menander's Buddhist teacher, created in 43 BC in the city of Pataliputra a statue of the Buddha, the Emerald Buddha, which was later brought to Thailand.
Stylistically, Indo-Greek coins generally display a very high level of Hellenistic artistic realism, which declined drastically around 50 BC with the invasions of the Indo-Scythians, Yuezhi and Indo-Parthians. The first known statues of the Buddha are also very realistic and Hellenistic in style and are more consistent with the pre-50 BC artistic level seen on coins.
This would tend to suggest that the first statues were created between 130 BC (death of Menander) and 50 BC, precisely at the time when Buddhist symbolism appeared on Indo-Greek coinage. From that time, Menander and his successors may have been the key propagators of Buddhist ideas and representations: "the spread of Gandhari Buddhism may have been stimulated by Menander's royal patronage, as may have the development and spread of Gandharan sculpture, which seems to have accompanied it" (Mc Evilly, "The shape of ancient thought", p378)