Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallion
By Frank L. Holt
University of California Press, 2003, Paperbound
If you happen to be looking for a numismatic subject in which to get absolutely lost and totally bogged down, coinage related to Alexander the Great will probably do.
According to an article on this particular book in the journal of American Numismatic Society, on the order of 40 new books appear each year featuring the Macedonian conqueror. Though certainly only a few of those relate directly to coinage, they all have bearing.
No great knowledge of ancient history is required to enjoy a trip through this book. For those who have not delved to any depth into the life and times of Alexander, Holt provides a brief biography before moving to specifics relating to the medallion, including details of the greatest battle of a career consisting of battle upon battle.
At the same time the book offers insight into ancient coinage and modern study of that field, snapshots which may stimulate the reader to further exploration.
Should that happen, there will be no shortage of reading material. The coinage aspect alone fills quite a number of books. It wasn’t only that Alexander carried a mobile mint in his military entourage, producing tons of coins in the process of promoting himself to a god. The field also includes rulers since who have joined in, as have various others hoping to benefit by association, or out of admiration.
So, while Holt argues convincingly that the medallions were issued by Alexander, there is also expert opinion they were done after his death by a ruler wishing to identify with the great one.
The medals in question depict a cavalryman with a lance apparently attacking two figures mounted on an elephant. All the “w’s” come into play: who, what, when, where and why?
Quite a few experts have weighed in from various perspectives. Holt, professor of history at the University of Houston, is an authority, possibly the authority, on Alexander’s forays into Bactria and India. Bactria today would include parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
In modern times the medal first came to public attention in 1887 with two articles published in numismatic journals. The first example to surface was thought to have come from the Oxus treasure, a huge ancient hoard of gold and silver artifacts found by locals along the Oxus River at the border of present-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan. (Culturally the artifacts would be termed Iranian but that opens up a new area of discussion which would lead us astray of the matter at hand).
Other examples of the medallion have since turned up, some being suspect. The popularity of any coinage related to Alexander makes it probable that among the new finds are fakes and copies.
Because many of Alexander’s coins were produced “on the run” they are the forgers’ dream -- there is no standard of weight, image quality or particular metal composition to judge them by.
The primary question surrounding the elephant medallions, though, concerns the event they depict. Conclusions have layered up with each new round of scholarship over the years.
Various clues led to Holt’s reasonable certainty that the depiction is of a battle between Alexander and the Rajah Porus, ruler of portions of what is now Punjab. This was one of the most fierce of Alexander’s many battles on his long journey to the edge of the known world, taking place in 326 BCE.
Though victorious, Alexander’s troops had by that time been on the road for many years under arduous conditions, engaging time and again in gory hand-to-hand combat, suffering travails of travel and supply, further and further from home. The monsoon-season battle with Porus took place some 3,000 miles away from where Alexander’s campaign began.
Historians depict a situation ripe for mutiny. Things had to have been very bad because Alexander allowed no second chances when it came to even suspicion of disloyalty.
Holt concludes that the medallions were issued as a morale booster. Nonetheless, the mood of the troops is said to have brought on Alexander’s turn-about.
Not long afterward he was dead, at the age of 32.
Ancient coin expert and prolific author Oliver Hoover, writing in the ANS magazine, proposes that the medallions depict not the Porus battle but a more general situation. He supposes the images represent Alexander’s military approach versus that of his adversaries, men on horseback opposing men on elephants (war elephants being termed “the panzers of antiquity,” in Holt’s words).
While among those disagreeing with Holt on this and some other conclusions, Hoover terms the book “one of the most entertaining works of scholarship that this reviewer has read in several years.”
That seemed a recommendation worth passing on. For my part, I would say Holt’s very readable book will likely inspire one to monitor further scholarship in regard to the elephant medallions. And, of course, to learn more about the great Alexander, who, as biographer Robin Lane Fox put it, “did not believe in impossibility…”