The Treasures of Alexander the Great

The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World
Frank L. Holt
Oxford University Press 330pp £19.99

Frank Holt has form in the crowded field of Alexander studies. Good form, too: among the many virtues of his Into the Land of Bones (2005), an account of Alexander’s impressive campaigns in what is today Afghanistan, was its even-handedness, its avoidance of blackwashing or whitewashing a wholly Bad or wholly Good Alexander. His specialist 2003 numismatic study of what are known as Alexander’s ‘elephant medallions’ was particularly strong on how views of Alexander tend to vary from generation to generation, depending on changing moral and political evaluative climates.

We historians all have an (avoidable) tendency to become the obedient servants of our point of view and most of us historians of Alexander tend somehow to project upon him or through him our dreams of wish fulfilment. It is disappointing, therefore, to have to report that on the evidence of this latest Alexander venture Professor Holt seems to have fallen victim to the zeitgeist, the Geist, that is, of our post-empire, anti-imperialist, knock-em-off their pedestal, social-mediated times. Although he does acknowledge the mantra that, in theory, one must judge historical past behaviour and personalities in accordance with the dominant nostrums of their own times, not ours, his text seems to have bought quite intensively and expensively into what he himself describes as today’s scholarly communis opinio on Alexander and his career. Without going quite as far as to endorse the view of those for whom Alexander was ‘a murderous, rage-filled, paranoid, alcoholic, religious fanatic’, Holt does state that ‘Atrocity followed atrocity’ and does nothing to counter ‘the current orthodoxy’ among scholars, according to which he laboured under ‘staggering defects’, being ‘a reckless alcoholic, a vicious psychopath, and a destructive barbarian’. 

Admittedly, the existing ancient literary sources are very far from satisfactory: either they are too biased pro or con, or they are too far removed in time or space or culture from the events and personalities they purport to relate to be able to construct a realistically plausible account or narrative. In principle, the material sources, archaeological and numismatic, are objective, but still have to be interpreted, and our knowledge of or access to them is terminally inchoate and incomplete. 

What Holt does extremely well is to gather together between two covers much of the available extant data – literary and material – and subject it to the proper historiographical critiques in terms of method. However, he does not give Alexander a fair crack of the evaluative whip. Interpretative charity is in singularly short supply here. 

As far as the book’s title goes, Holt gives us a powerful account of the ‘treasures’ that Alexander the Great variously, through war and by other means, amassed, garnered, usurped, plundered, looted or extorted – slaves, livestock and real estate as well as coin or bullion and precious artefacts. Rightly, he concentrates on those material goods that in any way ‘enhanced the power, prestige, influence and/or independence of their owner’, or at least possessor, though whether that amounts to telling ‘the truth’ about them, as claimed, is another matter. Certainly, it cannot be the whole truth, since the available sample set of data is biased, not random. Holt does strongly suggest that Alexander’s overall supervision of them was often far from immaculate, being, at best erratic, at worst irresponsible, and points the finger especially at the gross croneyist overindulgence of which he was guilty towards his Macedonian childhood buddy – and High Imperial Treasurer – Harpalus.  

However, Holt’s book does not adequately address its official subtitle – showing how that management or mismanagement ‘shaped’ even his own and the immediately succeeding ancient worlds, let alone ‘the world’. Here, Alexander is accused of not living up to a higher standard even than that of what passed for the best economic thought or theory in his own day, as displayed to sometimes risible effect in the work entitled Oeconomica (‘matters to do with the management of a household’, literally, but with wider, ‘national’ or even empire-wide scope in practice) that was attributed rather damningly to Aristotle or his school. The art of persuasion may well reside, as stated, in selection, but Holt has not persuaded me here that his emphasis on the negative yields the best possible kind of history of Alexander.

Paul Cartledge is the A.G. Leventis Professor Emeritus of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge and author of Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past (Macmillan, 2005).

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week