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

By (author) Frank L. Holt

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To all those who witnessed his extraordinary conquests, from Albania to India, Alexander the Great appeared invincible. How Alexander himself promoted this appearance - how he abetted the belief that he enjoyed divine favor and commanded even the forces of nature against his enemies - is the subject of Frank L. Holt's absorbing book. Solid evidence for the "supernaturalized" Alexander lies in a rare series of medallions that depict the triumphant young king at war against the elephants, archers, and chariots of Rajah Porus of India at the Battle of the Hydaspes River. Recovered from Afghanistan and Iraq in sensational and sometimes perilous circumstances, these ancient artifacts have long animated the modern historical debate about Alexander. Holt's book, the first devoted to the mystery of these ancient medallions, takes us into the history of their discovery and interpretation, into the knowable facts of their manufacture and meaning, and, ultimately, into the king's own psyche and his frightening theology of war. The result is a valuable analysis of Alexander history and myth, a vivid account of numismatics, and a spellbinding look into the age-old mechanics of megalomania.

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  • Paperback | 217 pages
  • 144.8 x 221 x 17.8mm | 340.2g
  • 01 Feb 2005
  • University of California Press
  • Berkerley
  • English
  • 2nd Revised ed.
  • 14 b/w photographs, 6 line illustrations, 3 maps
  • 0520244834
  • 9780520244832
  • 879,208

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Author Information

Frank L. Holt is Professor of History at the University of Houston. He is the author of Thundering Zeus: The Making of Hellenistic Bactria (California, 1999) and Alexander the Great and Bactria: The Formation of a Greek Frontier in Central Asia (1988) and editor of The Greeks in Bactria and India (1985).

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Review quote

"Fascinating detective work...A chilling psychological profile of Alexander. Holt's scholarship is superb, his prose style elegant and crystalline." - Peter Green, Times Literary Supplement (tls)"

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Back cover copy

"Frank Holt probably knows more than anyone alive about the mysterious Greek kingdoms in Bactria and on the frontiers of India that were one of the odder legacies of Alexander's Eastern conquests. The literary evidence is sparse, the coins remain ambiguous, the topography defeats all but the toughest. Holt's forays into this world are those of a clever and persistent detective: he loves cracking problems, and the tougher they are, the better. This time--very properly beginning by invoking the name of Sherlock Holmes--he has given us what Conan Doyle would probably have called 'The Adventure of the Elephant Medallions.' Debate has raged over the scene these portray ever since the first was discovered. A cavalryman with a lance confronts an opponent on an elephant. Who are they? What is the occasion? Guesses have ranged from Alexander to the Greco-Bactrian monarch Eucratides, from Porus at the Jhelum to Darius at Gaugamela. Using his numismatic and historical skills like a Holmesian magnifying-glass, Holt takes us through the theories, deftly explodes the fallacies, and comes up with a (for me) entirely cogent and satisfying solution. He has also, somewhere along the way, acquired a really marvelous prose style. Not only is the problem in itself a page-turner; Holt also throws in, by way of introduction, the best short impressionistic account of Alexander's career I have ever read. This is high scholarship at its most exciting."--Peter Green, author of "Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B. C.: A Historical Biography"[This book] brings to a wider audience one of the few contemporary pieces of evidence for the image and ideology of Alexander the Great. While relatively well known to experts inthe field, the 'elephant medallions' of the title are far less well understood, and have thus played a smaller part, in popular accounts of Alexander than they probably should. Holt's book offers a well thought out introduction first to Alexander and the Alexander story, second to the entrance of the 'medallions' into modern scholarship, and third to the medallions themselves."--Andrew Meadows, Curator of Greek Coins, British Museum

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Flap copy

"Frank Holt probably knows more than anyone alive about the mysterious Greek kingdoms in Bactria and on the frontiers of India that were one of the odder legacies of Alexander's Eastern conquests. The literary evidence is sparse, the coins remain ambiguous, the topography defeats all but the toughest. Holt's forays into this world are those of a clever and persistent detective: he loves cracking problems, and the tougher they are, the better. This timevery properly beginning by invoking the name of Sherlock Holmeshe has given us what Conan Doyle would probably have called 'The Adventure of the Elephant Medallions. Debate has raged over the scene these portray ever since the first was discovered. A cavalryman with a lance confronts an opponent on an elephant. Who are they? What is the occasion? Guesses have ranged from Alexander to the Greco-Bactrian monarch Eucratides, from Porus at the Jhelum to Darius at Gaugamela. Using his numismatic and historical skills like a Holmesian magnifying-glass, Holt takes us through the theories, deftly explodes the fallacies, and comes up with a (for me) entirely cogent and satisfying solution. He has also, somewhere along the way, acquired a really marvelous prose style. Not only is the problem in itself a page-turner; Holt also throws in, by way of introduction, the best short impressionistic account of Alexander's career I have ever read. This is high scholarship at its most exciting."Peter Green, author of "Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B. C.: A Historical Biography" "[This book] brings to a wider audience one of the few contemporary pieces of evidence for the image and ideology of Alexander the Great. While relatively well known to experts in the field, the 'elephant medallions' of the title are far less well understood, and have thus played a smaller part, in popular accounts of Alexander than they probably should. Holt's book offers a well thought out introduction first to Alexander and the Alexander story, second to the entrance of the 'medallions' into modern scholarship, and third to the medallions themselves."Andrew Meadows, Curator of Greek Coins, British Museum"

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