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Book Review


Holt, Frank L. Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallion. (Berkley: University of California Press, 2003). 217 pp, $17.95.


     Who doesn't love a good mystery?  Especially one based on fact!  This is what author Frank Holt presents to us in his book, Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions.  He describes for us a longstanding passion to find the origin and purpose of these unusual coin-like medallions that portray Alexander the Great battling elephant-mounted men.

     The author begins with a  synopsis of Alexander's life and military career as he establishes his empire from Asia Minor across Central Asia to the Indus River in India. He reminds us of the controversial man that Alexander was eliciting passionate responses of hate as well as adulation. Alternately grouped by noteworthy authors and historians with the worst of murders and tyrants and by those in positions of power who commissioned paintings of his inspirational deeds to adorn their homes, Alexander himself remains a mystery.

     One frustrating fact about Alexander is the limited amount of accurate first hand information that we have at hand with which to evaluate his life and actions.  Most of what we have are second hand histories written hundreds of years after his death. While these accounts may be based on eyewitness accounts, they are certainly colored by the times in which they are written and obscured by the passage of time.

     Dr. Holt chronicles the discovery of the mysterious medallions.  In 1880, in the midst of the First and Second Afghan War between the Russians and the British, a great horde of antiquities was discovered in the Oxus River (border of ancient Bactria and location of a Greek settlement of Alexander's time).  Through a series of thefts, smugglings, and ambushes, as the author states, ˙worthy of an Indiana Jones movie" (p.34), the Treasure of Oxus makes its way from the mountains, to the market places in central Asia, and eventually, to the British Museum. It is here that a particular coin donated by Sir Augustus Wollastor Franks, a museum official, attracts the interests of archeologists.

     The coin depicts a figure adorned as Zeus on one side   It is believed to be a representation of Alexander because of his identification with Zeus as his father.  The other side of the coin shows Alexander doing battle with two men mounted on an elephant.  The men are hurling spears; and as the elephant is in retreat, one of the men is falling from it. This is generally held to represent the defeat of Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes River in 326 B.C.E., an event that of itself has raised questions concerning Porus' fate after the battle.  There are no words, numerals, or other identifying marks on the medallions. While coins today are generally taken for granted, the designs on all coins are chosen with care to make them representative documents of a society.  In the case of a time lacking documentary evidence such as Alexander's, the coins take on an increased importance.

     The coin, and then others like it later located, raised questions as to exactly who is portrayed, who minted the coins, how were they created, and why were they produced as there does not seem to be enough of them to represent an issuance of currency.  These questions are the substance of Holt's inquiry.  He painstakingly researches and analyzes all of the many theories and possibilities and then draws his own conclusions, thus in his mind, ˙solving the mystery". He includes photographs and drawings to help the reader follow his reasoning..

     This book presents not only an interesting glimpse into the life and times of Alexander the Great but also into the archeological process and the science of numismatics.  It takes highly technical information and presents it in a way so that the non-scholar can understand and enjoy it making it appropriate for an audience with a variety of backgrounds. This look at the study of coins is eye-opening, and not something for which most students would have an appreciation.

     While the book deals with a very specific topic and a limited time period, the methodology described;  and the use of sources and other types of research would make it appropriate for the World History classroom as a supplemental text to address a particular student's interest in the history of Alexander and his times, archeology, or numismatics.  It is a different approach to the study of history and an interesting study. One, I believe  that students will find enjoyable.



Mary G. Saracino
Brewster High school


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