Review: Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions

Frank L. Holt, Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Hb. 198 pp., illus., 5 b/w pls. ISBN 0-520-23881-8. $24.95

Alexander the Great is a virtual industry unto himself. Scholars publish on average some forty new books and articles about the man every year. Now even Hollywood is getting into the act with two forthcoming films dramatizing the life of the Macedonian conqueror. With all of this academic and popular attention, one might imagine that we know all that we can know about Alexander and that another new book on the subject would be superfluous. However, Frank Holt’s Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions shows that because of the sources and the foibles of modern historians in many ways Alexander is unknowable and remains a man of mystery. One important and independent piece of evidence for an event in the king’s career survives in a series of remarkable silver medallions that began to appear in the late nineteenth century. The adventure of their discovery and the quest to properly interpret them as clues to understanding the real Alexander form the main subject of the present work.

The first chapter (pp. 1-22) is an excellent condensed biography of Alexander the Great from his youth in Macedonia to his untimely death in Babylon after conquering what was then most of the known world. However, this overview of thirty years in the late fourth century BC is not simply used to introduce the reader to the man responsible for the so-called elephant medallions that are the main subject of the rest of the book. It also serves to establish Alexander as a mysterious figure constantly subject to the changing interpretations of his historians, admirers, and enemies, thus, a figure worthy of an investigation after the manner of Sherlock Holmes.

In the chapters that follow, the mystery unfolds in a pattern reminiscent of one of Holmes’ most famous cases, The Sign of the Four (1890), in which the discovery of a peculiar document triggers an epic historical enquiry into important events on several continents before it can be properly understood and the mystery solved. Holt begins the second chapter (pp. 23-46) with the story of the discovery and travels of the Oxus Treasure, which included the first known silver medallion (the Franks medallion) bearing the types of Alexander the Great holding a thunderbolt and a battle between a cavalryman and a mounted Indian elephant. Although it is customary for most Holmsian adventures to begin with a murder, the mystery of the elephant medallions opens with the somewhat lesser crime of smuggling that ultimately brought the Oxus Treasure and the Franks medallion by a hair-raising and circuitous route from Afghanistan to India, and thence to Great Britain, where the latter was ultimately donated to the British Museum in 1887. It was first published by Percy Gardner, who recognized the identity of the figure holding the thunderbolt, but rather than connecting the elephant battle with an event from Alexander’s Indian campaign, he suggested an otherwise unrecorded conflict between one of the Graeco-Bactrian kings and invading Yueh-chi tribesmen. Holt argues that while this interpretation seems laughable to modern scholars, when Gardner came up with it he was confused by circumstantial evidence, such as a “pedigree” coin of Agathocles carrying Alexander’s portrait, and a belief that the medallion was struck around the same time that the hoard was closed (c. 150 BC).

Moving from the long and treacherous journey that first brought the Franks medallion to the attention of the West, in chapter three (pp. 47-67) the story continues with the great intellectual adventure that ensued following Gardiner’s initial publication. While there was general agreement that the reverse type depicted a deified Alexander, there remained some question about what event the obverse elephant battle represented. Barclay Vincent Head, thought an episode from Alexander’s Indian campaign more probable than Gardner’s Graeco-Bactrian theory, and like many of his contemporaries sought confirmation in a textual description in the classical sources. As Holt shows, by misconstruing the Greek text of Arrian (5.18.6-7) on the battle of the Hydaspes, Head was able to make a case for the cavalryman as Taxiles (Omphis), an Indian ally of Alexander, and the elephant as the mount of the Rajah Porus. The appearance of a second specimen of the medallion in 1926 led Sir George Francis Hill to take another look at the type, arguing that similarities in dress between the cavalryman and the reverse figure of Alexander indicated that the former must represent Alexander as well. Because Hill was an early student of the technology of ancient coin production, Holt closes this chapter with a brief digression on how coins like the elephant medallions were made, as well as the value of die studies.

Following this technical intermission, the mystery continues in chapter four (pp. 68-69) with the appearance of a third medallion in 1959 (currently on display in the ANS “Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars” exhibit at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) and the new round of academic enquiry that it entailed. Although by this time it was generally agreed that the combatants were Alexander and Porus, Holt shows that the pitfalls that troubled the earlier interpretations of Gardiner and Head still plagued a new group of scholars. As Gardiner willfully turned away from the context of the battle of the Hydaspes, Deena Pandey and Michael Mitchiner associated the medallion types with Porus’ unlikely presence at the battle of Gaugamela (331 BC) and with Alexander’s alliance with Taxiles, respectively. Salvatore Settis, on the other hand, looked to the classical sources, this time finding evidence for the typology in lines from Plautus’ Curculio and an anecdote about Aristobulus, one of Alexander’s court historians. However, the close link proposed between the medallions and these new literary references seems to have been just as illusory as the one that Head found between them and Arrian’s account.

It is an unwritten rule that every good mystery must include at least a few red herrings in order to add interest to the plot and keep readers guessing until the detective can find the correct solution. The case of the elephant medallions is no different, for as Holt shows, as early as 1926 forgers were already complicating the story with their fabrications. An example of one of these forgeries, influenced in part by an early and imperfect sketch of the Franks medallion published in 1887, is illustrated in the plates (pl. 13). Nine possible forgeries in museums and private hands are detailed in an appendix at the end of the book.

In chapter five (pp. 92-116), the mystery of the elephant medallions takes a fresh and unexpected twist with the recounting of the discovery of the 1973 Iraq Hoard, which not only contained further examples of the large medallions depicting the elephant battle, but also included smaller medallions bearing two new type pairs, that of an Indian archer r./ riderless elephant r. and an Indian chariot galloping r./ elephant r. with mahout and rider. The full contents of the hoard, as variously reported by Michael Duerr, Coin Hoards 1 (1975), Martin Price, and Peter van Alfen, as well as descriptions of all published elephant medallions are listed in two appendices.

As on previous occasions, this surprising new discovery touched off a flurry of study and interpretation among numismatists and ancient historians, but Holt argues that in most cases the tendency was to resurrect old theories and to follow the traditional pattern of seeking direct confirmation from the classical sources. Thus, A.N. Oikonomides and M.C.J. Miller tried to link them to the foundation of Nicaea and Bucephala, N.G.L. Hammond to an elephant hunt, and Wilhelm Hollstein thought that they represented money paid to Alexander by Taxiles, all events recounted by ancient historians. Martin Price came to the rather implausible conclusion that the medallions were struck before the war against Porus in order to celebrate the alliance with Taxiles and express the “supposed policy of concord and community within [Alexander’s] empire.” The most popular recent attempt to associate the medallions with a classical text is probably the linkage of their control monograms (? and AB) to an anecdote about Xenophilus and Abulites in Plutarch (Alex. 68.7). This possibility was first mentioned in passing by Price but later endorsed by Andrew Stewart and Robin Lane Fox. Holt, however, raises some doubt as to why these Macedonian governors of Susa should be connected with what appears to be an explicitly Indian issue. The chapter concludes with a scathing criticism of A.B. Bosworth’s view that the medallions all served to promote Alexander’s megalomania and to warn others that the terrible defeats that he had inflicted upon the “outlandish and formidable” Indians could be visited upon anyone who opposed his rule. This is used as a springboard for an important digression on how the study of Alexander the Great has often tended to be hijacked by the personal opinions and theories of scholars, regardless of the evidence. The reader is left with the distinct impression that with the passage of time the medallions and Alexander himself have actually become more mysterious than when the Franks medallion first appeared in the late nineteenth century.

Lest we begin to despair that the mystery might never be solved, in the final two chapters Holt puts on his Inverness coat and deerstalker cap and applies his own deductive powers to finding a viable solution. As its title suggests, in chapter six “A Closer Look” (pp. 117-138), the author applies the detective’s magnifying glass to the physical evidence of the medallions in order to begin to, “(a) determine what are the precise images on each of the denominations, drawing upon corroborative evidence whenever possible; (b) establish as reasonably as we can where the medallions were made, how many were produced, and under whose authority; and (c) interpret the function of this entire mintage as a group in terms of its intended audience and message, learning from this what we can about the king and his contemporaries (p. 117).” The main focus in this chapter is on determining the correct description of the several medallion types. Here the author takes apart older descriptions piece by piece and reexamines the iconography of the medallions, in order to squeeze out as many details as possible from their worn surfaces. Five pages of photographic plates of the various types and two composite line drawings of a large medallion aid the discussion.

In chapter seven (pp. 139-165), Holt takes the clues gleaned from the close analysis in the preceding chapter to form a new interpretation of the medallions and their types. He argues that the most likely occasion for the issue of the elephant medallions was shortly after the battle of the Hydaspes, and that they served as commemorative pieces (aristeia) awarded to soldiers for distinguished service in the battle, rather than as proper coins intended for circulation. In short they were the equivalent of modern military campaign medals, except that they also had intrinsic cash value. While the idea that the medallions were presented shortly after the Hydaspes campaign is very appealing, the suggestion that their value as coinage was a secondary concern is undermined by the fact that many of the medallions show signs of wear and several even bear test marks (see pls. 8 and 12), both features that point to circulation. If they served primarily as commemorative aristeia, but only as money when their owners were low on cash of the more common variety, it seems a little surprising that there should have been so many in the Iraq Hoard (6-7 of the large medallions, 11 archer and 3 chariot medallions). Perhaps a better analogy for the medallions may be the high value coins and medallions struck as donative payments to the army by later Roman emperors. These too often carried special types, but it was expected that their recipients would spend them.

The case for a mobile military mint striking the medallions in the immediate aftermath of Alexander’s victory over Porus seems plausible, considering the poor quality of the striking and the general failure to adhere to a strict weight standard. However, if Alexander did have a military mint in his train, it is a little surprising that he does not appear to have used it to issue any of his imperial coinage during the course of the campaign. We must also wonder at the wisdom of weighing down troops with such heavy tokens of honor while the projected conquest of India and the long march home lay ahead. Thus it still may be that the mint for the medallions should be sought at Susa or Babylon and that the medallions were connected to an award ceremony that took place after the return from India.

Holt convincingly argues against the typological interpretations of earlier numismatists and historians, but his own solution to the mystery of the elephant medallions ultimately turns out to be far more elemental than elementary. It also falls into the trap of trying to connect them to details in the classical texts. He argues that the types depicting Indian troops and elephants all represent forces said to have been defeated by the wet and muddy conditions created by a rainstorm on the eve of the battle of the Hydaspes. The depiction of Alexander as Zeus Keraunophoros on the large medallions was thus intended to give credit for the fortuitous rains, and hence the victory that it enabled, to the Macedonian king alone. There can be no doubt that this is an ingenious and unexpected solution to the problem, seemingly worthy of a Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately it does not quite tie up all the loose ends.

For one thing, there is no reason to assume that the image of Alexander as Zeus must be specifically related to the natural events that occurred in connection with the battle. The ancient historians make it very clear that Alexander’s obsession with his own divinity and with his relationship to Zeus began well before he had even set foot on the borders of India.

The theory of Alexander as storm-bringing Zeus is supported by numerous ancient accounts of battles influenced by divinely sanctioned storms, ranging from the torrential downpour that brought victory to the Israelites at the battle of Megiddo in the Song of Deborah to the thunderstorm that Marcus Aurelius directed against his Germanic enemies, commemorated on the Antonine Column. We would add to the list of examples by pointing out that the Achaemenid Great Kings, whom Alexander replaced, were also believed to have power over the weather. The Greek sources tell us that Darius I (Polyaen. 7.11.12) called down rain to quench the thirst of his troops and Artaxerxes II (Ctesias, Ind. 4) twice deflected storms by means of his sword. However, while Alexander, particularly in his role as the successor to Darius III, might seem a prime candidate for the storm god responsible for the victory at the Hydaspes, this interpretation of his image on the elephant medallions is seriously problematized by its total absence from the surviving accounts of the battle. The ancient historians mention that the noise of the storm covered the sound of Macedonian preparations for crossing the river and that the muddy conditions hampered the fighting prowess of the Indians, but none of them even hint that Alexander was rumored to have been somehow responsible for the weather. Even Pseudo-Callisthenes, who includes such unlikely episodes as the occasion when the very waves of the sea offered Alexander obeisance, appears to have no idea that the storm on the Hydaspes was anything miraculous. Surely if Alexander had used the weather as a prop for his increasing desire for deification, we could expect at least one of the historians to have known about it. After all, he could not have done so in secret. Although the storm certainly helped the Macedonians to defeat Porus, from the perspective of the ancient historians, and presumably also that of their eyewitness primary sources, it seems not to have played the crucial role that Holt suggests.

Besides, it is not so clear that a claim of control over the storm would have gone over especially well with Alexander’s troops. The monsoon conditions on the eve of the battle was a nightmare for the Macedonian troops and more than one soldier is said to have met his death through lightning strikes. It is hard to imagine Alexander, even as the Bosworthian arch-despot, intentionally taking responsibility for a natural occurrence that no doubt most of his troops would have far preferred never to have experienced at all. The heavy rains in India took a major toll on Macedonian morale and ultimately contributed to the mutiny on the Hyphasis, which forced Alexander to give up further eastern conquests. If he had claimed to invoke the storm at the battle of the Hydaspes, Alexander must have seemed a remarkable failure in his later inability to drive off the bad weather that afflicted his men.

Holt’s view is further shaken by the detailed depiction of the Indian troops on the small medallions. Unlike their larger cousins, which clearly show a retreating elephant chased by Alexander on horseback, there is little indication that the Indians and elephants of the small medallions have been defeated and absolutely no sign that a storm invoked by Alexander was involved. The Indian archers are shown with longbows drawn and ready to fire, despite the fact that the muddy conditions prevented their proper anchoring. Likewise, the horses pulling the Indian chariots appear to gallop at a pace much faster than would be possible if the chariot wheels were mired in the mud. The drivers and archers who ride in the chariots also show no sign of realizing that they have been defeated by the elements. It is suggested that the types paired with the archers and chariots both indicate defeat because they depict a riderless elephant and a swiftly moving elephant with one rider looking behind him, respectively. This is based on the presumption that the men absent from the riderless elephant were killed in battle, and that the rider looking to the rear watches nervously for an unseen pursuer. But there is no evidence that the riderless elephant was ever mounted, for he lacks the rope harness depicted on other medallions and used by riders to maintain their balance on the animal’s back. As for the rear facing elephant rider, it is worth noting that he is also a standard bearer and as such might be looking back to exhort Indian troops advancing behind him just as easily as he might be watching for pursuing enemies.

Because of these various problems, it is difficult to accept Holt’s argument that the storm on the Hydaspes is the unifying theme for the typology of all of the elephant medallions. While his association of the medallions with the great battle against Porus is quite convincing, it might be prudent to seek a more general interpretation of the medallion types. If we do not require the iconography to be tied directly to the ancient accounts of the battle, then it may be possible to accept the depiction of elephants and Indian troops as a simple celebration of the mighty and alien forces defeated by Alexander at the edge of the known world.

Despite our doubts about some of the conclusions, there can be no question that Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions is a gripping intellectual adventure that will appeal to those already familiar with the story and the scholarship, as well as to those new to this rare and perplexing series. The prose is accessible and artful, making the book one of the most entertaining works of scholarship that this reviewer has read in several years. We are also compelled to add that the use of Charles Darwin’s theory of worms as the protective custodians of archaeological remains to connect the twists and turns of the mystery through each chapter is nothing short of brilliant. Thus we congratulate Holt, not only for offering new insight into the history and study of the elephant medallions, but also for presenting a novel approach to the writing of numismatics and ancient history for a broad audience.

—Oliver D. Hoover