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Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions

Frank L. Holt

Publication Year: 2003

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.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: Hellenistic Culture and Society

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii-viii

List of Maps and Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xv

This book aims to solve a great puzzle from the ancient past, like some mystery unlocked by the relentless logic of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Because it is a real and not imaginary case, all of its strands can never be tidied up as neatly as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might have done; nonetheless, the solution offered here does seem to be the only hypothesis that ...

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1. Man of Mystery

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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 ...

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2. A Treasure

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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 ...

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3. Picking a Fight

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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 ...

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4. Whose Pachyderm, Whole or Halved?

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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 ...

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5. Another Treasure

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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 ...

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6. A Closer Look

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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 ...

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7. A Dark and Stormy Night

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pp. 139-165

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 ...

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pp. I-1-I-5

Unnumbered pages

Appendix A. The Published Elephant Medallions

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pp. 167-169

Appendix B. Some Possible Forgeries of the Large Medallion

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pp. 171-172

Appendix C. The 1973 Iraq Hoard

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p. 173-173

Select Bibliography

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pp. 175-189


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pp. 191-198

Further Reading

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pp. 199-202

E-ISBN-13: 9780520938786
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520244832

Page Count: 217
Publication Year: 2003

Series Title: Hellenistic Culture and Society