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Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions

Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions

Frank L. Holt
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 217
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnz9m
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  • Book Info
    Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93878-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. LIST OF MAPS AND ILLUSTRATIONS
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. ONE Man of Mystery
    (pp. 1-22)

    Few men have transcended their moment in history more than Alexander the Great of Macedonia (356–323 B.C.E.).¹ He reigned as king from the time he was twenty, had conquered most of the world he knew to exist by the time he was thirty, came to be seen as a living god, and then died before he was thirty-three.² His short life cast a shadow so long that it has eclipsed over one hundred generations of famous generals from Caesar and Charlemagne to Napoleon and Eisenhower. Admired and despised, he has always evoked strong passions. St. Augustine considered Alexander a...

  6. TWO A Treasure
    (pp. 23-46)

    On August 20, 1877, Charles Darwin attended a local excavation on the lands of his good friend Thomas Henry Farrer of Abinger Hall, Surrey. The famous naturalist wished to test his theory that the castings(ejecta)of earthworms constantly formed a fresh vegetative surface on the earth, a subject to which he devoted his last book,The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits(1881). Through assiduous labors that some still consider beneath the dignity of so great a scientist, Darwin observed and measured the minutiae of the worm-world.¹ At that time, earthworms...

  7. THREE Picking a Fight
    (pp. 47-67)

    Percy Gardner, who considered himself “one of the prophets of Schliemann,”¹ missed the famous meeting of the Society of Antiquaries in 1877 in order to travel with Sir Charles Newton to examine Schliemann’s finds in the Aegean world firsthand. Thus, while Schliemann lectured on these discoveries in London, Gardner was studying them in Greece. For Gardner, a future professor of archaeology at both Cambridge and Oxford, this “little expedition to Greece” had special meaning. His enthusiastic reports won him the gratitude of Schliemann, and through him the acquaintance of Gladstone. It also opened his eyes to the delights of digging...

  8. Plates
    (pp. None)
  9. FOUR Whose Pachyderm, Whole or Halved?
    (pp. 68-91)

    The mystery of the elephant medallions consumed the energies of more and more investigations during the tumultuous twentieth century. At mid-century, the matter was addressed at an international numismatic congress held in Munich. D. E. Stauffer expressed the opinion that the medallions had been minted at Babylon in 324 B.C.E. and probably bore the designs of Alexander’s master gem-engraver, Pyrgoteles.¹ Stauffer pressed further, identifying an expansive range of topics for which he considered the medallions a significant primary source; these included Alexander’s political ideology, mythology, apotheosis, policy of fusion, military organization, war aims, portraiture, religion, and so on. This was,...

  10. FIVE Another Treasure
    (pp. 92-116)

    In September 1973, Martin Price and Nancy Waggoner, curators at the British Museum and the American Numismatic Society respectively, attended the prestigious International Congress of Numismatics held in New York and Washington, D.C. During a lunch break, they suddenly heard from Nicholas Duerr the astonishing news of a major find in Iraq.¹ Duerr, a numismatist based in Geneva, related to his colleagues that during the winter of 1972/73, a hoard of some 1,800 silver coins had been unearthed near Babylon.² The cache had apparently been buried in two deposits, giving one portion a reddish patina distinct from the other. Duerr...

  11. SIX A Closer Look
    (pp. 117-138)

    The elephant medallions must be more than another Rorschach test in which to see, with equal claims of propriety, Alexander the Beatified or Alexander the Beast. How, then, should we handle these mysterious artifacts in order to reach reliable conclusions about Alexander’s reign? The key is to avoid, as far as possible, any forms of special pleading based upon preconceived notions about Alexander. Our views of the king must conform to the evidence of the medallions and not vice versa. So let us begin with the physical objects, allowing them first to speak for themselves rather than for one modern...

  12. SEVEN A Dark and Stormy Night
    (pp. 139-166)

    The impressive artwork on the elephant medallions provides us a fine series of images straight from the scrapbook of Alexander’s campaign against Porus. No other great victory in his career so strikingly involved these elements of Indian archers, chariots, and elephants. Most of the details known from ancient texts and art about the military dress and equipment of the Indians can be seen with unexpected fidelity on these medallic coins, just as they capture in miniature the descriptions that have come down to us of the rival kings Alexander and Porus. The extraordinary nature of this numismatic art program also...

  13. APPENDIX A THE PUBLISHED ELEPHANT MEDALLIONS
    (pp. 167-170)
  14. APPENDIX B SOME POSSIBLE FORGERIES OF THE LARGE MEDALLION
    (pp. 171-172)
  15. APPENDIX C THE 1973 IRAQ HOARD
    (pp. 173-174)
  16. SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 175-190)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 191-198)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 199-202)