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  • The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World by Frank L. Holt
  • Paul Properzio
Frank L. Holt. The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World. Onassis Series in Hellenic Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xvii, 295. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-19-995096-6.

Much has been written about Alexander the Great and his conquests. Of the more than four thousand books and articles devoted to Alexander’s career published in the past sixty-five years, fewer than twenty-five actually have the words “wealth,” “treasure,” or “spoils” and the like in their titles. Most works about Alexander ignore his wealth; works about ancient economy ignore Alexander; works about coins ignore other forms of property; and works about military history ignore numismatics. Holt’s book is intended to facilitate a conversation among all interested specialists across the disciplines of history, classics, economics, archaeology, and numismatics. The author produces a picture of the conqueror’s income and expenses, assesses the strengths and weaknesses of his fiscal policies, illuminates the economic impact of his conquests, and even arrives at some conclusions about Alexander’s character. This study changes the way we look at Alexander.

In seven chapters, Holt attempts to demystify the persona of one of the most studied personalities in history to discover another side of Alexander. Chapter 1 looks at the phenomenon of all that was achieved over so many territories in so short a time by the human dynamo that was Alexander (356–323 bce)—one young, ambitious, and able beyond his years. It is little wonder that he tapped into the legends of Midas and other golden heroes who advanced to the ends of the earth and plundered countless nations. Chapter 2 follows the story of the Macedonian boy who, though his family was of relatively modest means, went on to become the richest man in the world. Chapter 3 assesses the cost of all the plunder realized in warfare by Alexander in terms of adults of both sexes to be sold as slaves, the point being that when a city falls the victors own all that lies within, people and property alike.

Chapter 4 recounts how much Persia lost to Alexander in his conquests of that country’s royal wealth, especially in the fiery climax of his sack of Persepolis. Archaeological evidence reveals and consolidates the sequence of events leading up to the destruction of the Persian capital. Chapter 5 looks at Alexander’s priorities when he controlled an incredible portion of the world’s resources. His personal gifts and patronage reveal someone who was by nature exceedingly generous, especially as his successes mounted. His liberality (poly-doria) marked him (at least in terms of his personal legend) as great in power and good in spirit. Religion played a role in all ceremonies of state, so that the gods enjoyed their fair share of Alexander’s wealth. He also budgeted vast sums for the building of cities in the East, as well as for his armies and navies. Yet chapter 6 reveals that Alexander mismanaged many of his resources, and it has been shown that men of all stations complained about this mismanagement. The total amount of the army’s debt is staggering, although it is less clear whether responsibility for the debt lay with the king himself or with his soldiers. He died a very wealthy man but had no obvious heir and in consequence the empire was left fragile at his death.

By way of conclusion, chapter 7 tackles the question of whether Alexander was a worthless plunderer or remarkable hero. Who benefited from his legacy? Did he harm or help the Greeks? Ancient authors are of both views. Many scholars today describe him as a reckless alcoholic, a vicious psychopath, and a destructive barbarian. The moral of Alexander’s story has changed over the [End Page 584] past few millennia, not least in its suggestiveness as a cautionary tale: he was a charismatic military leader but not a conscientious caretaker of his spear-won wealth. The book has useful appendices of ancient measures and their modern conversions...


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