Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 38.

Alexander in Afghanistan

Frank L. Holt, Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions. Hellenistic Culture and Society XLIV. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2003. Pp. xv + 198, incl. 3 maps, 14 plates and 6 line illustrations. ISBN 0-520-23881-8. US$17.95.

Frank L. Holt, Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Pp. xiii + 241, incl. 4 maps. ISBN 0-520-24553-9. US$24.95.

John Atkinson
School of Languages and Literatures, University of Cape Town

This review will treat these books in their date order, though in some ways it would be better to begin with Into the Land of Bones because of its broader scope and the nature of the (limited) overlap between the two. Indeed The Mystery of the Elephant Medallions opens with a scene set in Bactria.

1. The Mystery of the Elephant Medallions.

Holt's story begins with the Oxus Treasure, a hoard which may have been buried by Zoroastrian priests at a place called Takht-i Sangin on the Amu Darya, perhaps in the mid-second century BC (pp. 35f.). The contents of the hoard began to wash into the river in 1877, and in the context of the Second Afghan War, British officials operating in the area were well placed to acquire items from the hoard that turned up in the bazaars of Peshawar and Rawalpindi. One of these collectors was Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, a Keeper at the British Museum, who later, in 1887, donated a large silver 'medallion' or decadrachm to the Museum, with the bare information that it had been 'found at Khillum Bokhara', which was taken to mean that it had been part of the Oxus Treasure. It featured on the obverse a horseman attacking from the rear an elephant with two mounted fighting men, and on the reverse a figure who might be described as a warrior king, but with a thunderbolt in his right hand as the attribute of Zeus. Percy Gardner identified the king as Alexander,[[1]] but argued that the coin was minted by a Greek king of Bactria, perhaps Eucratides, in the second century BC, who used the obverse image to celebrate a battle that had recently taken place in the area.

Holt notes that B. V. Head was the first to claim that the elephant decadrachm referred to the battle of Hydaspes in 326. But in his description of the coin,[[2]] as Holt shows, Head mistranslated the crucial participle in Arrian 5.18.7 as meaning that Porus turned himself round on his elephant to attack Taxiles, whereas the Greek must mean that Porus wheeled his elephant round for the attack (pp. 56f.). This is crucial to the case which Holt develops later (pp. 128f.).

The second medallion of this type came to light in 1926, and its publisher, G. F. Hill, noted significant differences from the earlier specimen, and argued that the attacking horseman was Alexander, and not Taxiles.[[3]] The appearance of this second coin allowed Head, and now Holt, to begin the analysis of the minting of this coin type in terms of mass, standard, and die axes.

In Chapter 4, 'Whose Pachyderm?' (pp. 68-91) Holt critically reviews the history of the diverse interpretations of these coins in the twentieth century, as more specimens came to light. Thus he covers Kaiser's line that the reverse image depicted Alexander in Homeric guise (pp. 70f.), Pandey's case that the battle scene referred to Alexander's victory over Darius at Gauagamela (pp. 73-76), and Michiner's attempt to attribute the series to a mint in Bactria long before the campaign in India (p. 77). Holt illustrates the dangers in privileging an isolated statement in a literary source, and not allowing a coin issue to stand as an independent source. He also shows how forgeries have added to the pitfalls through the forgers' inaccurate copying, enhancement of the original design or wilful addition.

Chapter 5, 'Another Treasure' (pp. 92-116) opens with an account of the discovery of a large hoard of coins near the site of Babylon in the winter of 1972/3, which yielded more specimens of the elephant medallion, and a number of coins of a distinct but related type, combining a riderless elephant on the obverse and an Indian bowman on the reverse. I commend this chapter as a most interesting and valuable contribution to Alexander studies in respect of numismatics, source analysis, and the Nachleben of Alexander in modern scholarship. In the following chapter, 'A Closer Look' (pp. 117-38), he establishes his own case that the reverse figure is Alexander, carrying a thunderbolt in one hand, and the obverse image shows Porus as the front rider or driver of the elephant. Again Holt goes way beyond the immediate numismatic issues, as in this case he draws in a comparison with the image of Alexander and Darius on the Alexander Mosaic to challenge Badian's influential reinterpretation. He does not accept that the Mosaic was intended to belittle Alexander in any way. This in turn leads Holt to comment, as in the preceding chapter, on the appropriate criteria for judging Alexander. Holt would side with those who insist that he should be judged by the values by which he lived, which he takes to be 'the Homeric code' (pp. 134, 151). That point calls for some debate.

The final chapter, 'A Dark and Stormy Night' (pp. 139-65), deals first with numismatic issues, to show that few dies were used for these types; relatively few coins were minted; weights, die axes, designs, and quality of workmanship were uneven. Bringing all the evidence together, he concludes that they were not minted as coins, but as 'commemorative medallions, or aristeia' (p. 147, that is, awards for valour), and were produced in less than ideal field conditions in the Punjab, not long after the battle of the Hydaspes. Holt would then see the figure of Alexander with the thunderbolt of Zeus as a direct reference to the stormy night which provided cover for Alexander's final manoeuvres before the battle. This in turn leads into conclusions about Alexander's divine pretensions, and a final claim that the elephant medallions take us 'as deep as we may enter into the mind of Alexander the Great' (p. 165).

The plates and illustrations are adequate for their purpose. Appendices provide brief catalogues of the published elephant medallions, some possible forgeries of the large medallion, and a summary of the contents of the 1973 Iraq hoard. The only obvious corrigenda are where the computer clearly lacked the fonts to render the Greek words properly (pp. 56 and 57).

The history of the discovery of the elephant medallions offers a fascinating and instructive narrative, and Holt's analysis of the numismatic issues is masterly[[4]] and very persuasive. This is a book which specialists in Alexander studies need to read, and which the general reader will follow with great pleasure.

2. Into the Land of Bones

Invocation of the events of 9/11 has unfortunately become a cliché in self-justificatory comments of writers, artists, performers, ad-men, and whoever else has a message to sell. The image is called up in the opening sentence of the preface to Into the Land of Bones, but here with every good reason, as the book reflects on the déja-vu elements of the American retaliatory raids into Afghanistan that began in 2001. Furthermore, Holt was already well qualified to write on the military history of Afghanistan by virtue of a long list of relevant earlier publications.[[5]]

In the Introduction (pp. 1-22) Holt suggests the continuities between Alexander's campaigns in 329-327 and the British campaigns of 1838-1842 and 1878-1880, the Russian occupation of 1979-1989, and the American invasion that began soon after the events of 11 September, 2001. President Bush justified his invasion with much the same line as Alexander would have taken; it was to root out the terrorists and warlords, who were the enemies of civilization (p. 15). Here we seem to have crossed a parallel too far.

Later he equates the hyparchs, men like Spitamenes, Dataphernes, and Catanes, with the insurgent warlords of modern Afghan history (see, for example, pp. 41, 51f.). He likens Spitamenes and his men to the mujahideen who resisted the Soviets and then went to war with each other (p. 81). He hesitates to follow A. S. Shahbazi,[[6]] in thinking that they were motivated by religious fervour, but he is sure that Spitamenes and his group matched the mujahideen in terms of 'charismatic leadership, fierce local loyalties, shifting alliances, guerrilla tactics, gritty endurance, and inborn xenophobia' (p. 81); likewise there was the complete absence of any national purpose and coordinated planning. But the political complexities and dimensions of the situation since 2001, and perhaps more so since 2003, cast some doubt on the value of drawing such parallels. There is some danger of ennobling Bush's war by giving it millennia of history.

On the campaigns of 328 Holt commends Alexander for realizing that he had reached the point where hammer and anvil tactics would not work, and chose instead to split his army up, with four brigade commanders operating in Bactria, probably under Craterus' overall command, while he crossed into Sogdiana, and likewise divided his contingent into five operational units, before he headed south into Margiana, the area around Merv. Thus Alexander avoided the sort of humiliating failures that the Americans suffered at Tora Bora and in the Shah-i Kot Valley (pp. 66-68). Alexander's strategy also meant that he was able in due course to win over the minds, if not the hearts, of the local populace. Holt cites the case of the village of Xenippa, which refused to allow Bactrian rebels to shelter in their community when the Macedonian army approached (pp. 79 and 84; Curtius 8.2.14-18).

Problems abound in fixing Alexander's movements geographically, as few of the places named by the sources can be positively identified, and the sources could be sadly confused, as, for example, when Curtius seems to imagine that Maracanda (reasonably well identified as close to modern Samarkand) lay to the north of the Tanais/Iaxartes/Syr-Darya (7.5.36 with 6.10). The problems of establishing a chronology for these campaigns are no less severe, and Holt has to make choices. He is not convinced by Bosworth's revision of the chronology for 328, and thus stays with the idea that Alexander personally led a campaign into Margiana.[[7]] He has also changed his mind on some details since his earlier treatment of the war. Thus for example he now would put Sisimithres' Rock in the vicinity of the Iron Gates on the Shurob River (p. 83), whereas earlier he suggested somewhere beyond Pendzhikent.[[8]] He notes in support the recent find of a stone catapult ball in the area of the Gates (p. 83). Earlier in his narrative Holt similarly draws in archaeological evidence of pottery finds as somewhat tenuous support for the idea that Alexander crossed into Sogdiana not at Kerki nor at Termez, but at Kampyr-Tepe (pp. 38f.), which would indeed seem to have offered a more direct route to the Iron Gates.

Chapter 5, 'Love and War' (pp. 85-104), leads into the campaigns of 327, and Alexander's meeting with Roxane/Rauxnaka, which Holt brings to life by suggesting a likeness between the Bactrian and the Afghan girl whose image was immortalised by the photograph which appeared on the front cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic. She was tracked down in 2002 and identified as Sharbat Gula, who at the time of the original photograph was about 11 years old, an orphan, living as a refugee in Pakistan. Her interviewers found her 'devout and defiant' and angry at the photographer's first 'presumptive intrusion' into her life (pp. 88f.). Holt suggests that Roxane, who as a child fell victim to an invading army and was forced into a marriage that cut her off from her own people and country, became similarly resentful. He may well be right in thinking that Aetion's romantic painting of the marriage of Alexander and Roxane, as described by Lucian (Herod. 4-6), was a travesty of the truth.

While Holt makes much of the constants (especially the geographical determinants) and 'ageless pattern[s]' (p. 163), he also emphasizes the discontinuities, as, for example, in Alexander's policy of massive settlement in Bactria, which he contrasts with the strategy of modern British, Soviet, and American invaders (p. 97). Of particular interest is his reference to dendrochronological evidence that there was a concentration of some of the coolest summers since c. 5400 BC in the period 330-321 BC. Thus he suggests that while Alexander was in Afghanistan in the period 329-327 he had to contend with abnormally severe winters (p. 34, cf. p. 92). In the same vein he picks up on a claim in a medical journal that the wound which Alexander suffered at Cyropolis in 329 was 'the first reported case of transient cortical blindness' (p. 50).

Chapter 7, 'The Legacy' (pp. 125-48), begins with a brief survey of Seleucid attempts to control Bactria and with new generations of warlords. He then covers the rediscovery of Hellenistic Bactrian history in modern times, which leads into the sorry tale of the looting of treasure from Afghanistan that has gone on particularly over the last two and a half centuries. The scale of the destruction of Afghanistan's cultural heritage since 1989 is horrendous, and as Holt shows, the blame can not be heaped just on the Taliban.

There is a great deal of value and interest in this book, which should be welcomed by those engaged in Alexander studies and also those who follow affairs in modern Afghanistan.


[[1]] P. Gardner, NC 1887.

[[2]] B. V. Head, NC 6 (1906) 8-9; Historia Numorum (1911[2]) 833.

[[3]] G. F. Hill, BMQ 1 (1926-1927) 36f.; NC 7 (1927) 204-06.

[[4]] His work on these coins will now replace the brief commentary provided by M. J. Price, in The Coinage of Alexander the Great and Philip Arrhidaeus. Vol. 1 (London 1991) esp. 452f.

[[5]] Frank L. Holt, Alexander the Great and Bactria (Leiden 1988) and Thundering Zeus: The Making of Hellenistic Bactria (Berkeley 1999).

[[6]] A. S. Shahbazi, 'Iranians and Alexander', AJAH 2.1 (2003) 19-29.

[[7]] A. B. Bosworth, 'A Missing Year in the History of Alexander the Great', JHS 101 (1981) 17-39; Holt (1988) 60 n. 41 follows rather P. Goukowsky, REG 96 (1983) 239f.

[[8]] The earlier reference is at Holt (1988: 66), cf. n. 5 above. I have commented on the range of identifications of the Rock in my commentary on Curtius Rufus 8.2.18-20.