Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.06

Frank L. Holt, Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan. Hellenistic culture and society, 53.   Berkeley; Los Angeles; London:  University of California Press, 2012.  Pp. xxi, 343.  ISBN 9780520273429.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Rachel K. L. Wood, University of Oxford (


This volume provides a valuable appraisal of Bactrian studies and the developments in numismatic methodologies that shaped often-conflicting interpretations. The clear and accessible presentation, in which Frank Holt has brought together numerous disparate sources, including archaeological and epigraphic material, is especially useful for the articulation of distinctions between known material and speculation.

The first chapter relates the beginnings of the collection and study of ancient coins in the 17th century in its form as ‘checklist numismatics’. This became a pastime for members of the European elite who would scour ancient literature for mention of Bactrian kings and tick off each ruler once they acquired a numismatic portrait to illustrate the name. The author makes an astute point that the effect of ‘survival by association’ this caused is still felt in modern scholarship on the period, whereby Greco-Bactrian kings mentioned in ancient literature when in contact with the Seleukids, Parthians and India receive far more attention. This chapter includes an extremely useful summary of the literary sources, including those more obscure texts used or epitomized by the more famous and surviving works.

The daring exploits and tribulations of those involved in the ‘Great Game’ is the focus of the next chapter, where the author’s ebullient style is aptly evocative, such as the description of the Revd. Joseph Wolff as an ‘itinerant dumpling of a man’. The narrative of the espionage and coin collecting by famous characters such as Arthur Conolly, Alexander Burnes and Charles Masson balances effectively with explanation of the evolving proposed king lists. This process consisted of the application of ‘framework numismatics’ to piece together a basic chronological jigsaw of Greco- Bactrian rulers, which mutated, often extremely quickly, upon the discovery of new kings, whose identification upturned previous assertions and assumptions.

Chapter 3 concerns the discovery of the gold Eukratidion, the largest ancient coin ever discovered. The author concedes the melodramatic nature of the story of the 20-stater piece’s mysterious appearance and arrival in the Cabinet des Médailles, worthy of a Dorothy L. Sayers novel. Chapter 4 assesses the contributions of the heavyweights W. W. Tarn, A. K. Narain and E. T. Newell and warns of the excesses of narrative numismatics, in particular the dangerous habit of identifying character traits of kings from their portraits.

A brief digression is made in Chapter 5 to provide an account of archaeological work in Afghanistan. This chapter will be particularly useful to undergraduate students since the excavation reports, mostly in French and Russian, are scattered among disparate journals rather than published in any single coherent study. Holt does not confine himself to material from the third and second centuries BC, but includes relevant discussion of Begram, Balkh, Dilberdjin Tepe, Takht-i Sangin and Tillya Tepe as well as Gandharan Taxila and Butkara.1 The bulk of this chapter naturally focuses on the excavations at Ai Khanoum, not only due to the character of the site but also since the aim here is to accentuate the search for a ‘Greek city’ and the problems of western emphasis on the period of Greco-Bactrian rule at the expense of its Islamic heritage. The author refreshingly emphasizes the commercial and military importance of the site, considering the site’s immediate surrounds, such as the fortified Khuna Qal’a to the north, and situation in the wider Bactrian landscape, particularly in light of the work by J.-C. Gardin on the ceramics and irrigation systems.2 Of particular interest is a tetradrachm die of Demetrius reputedly found at Ai Khanoum, which would attest to Demetrius’ rule outside India. Also refreshing is the author’s discussion of the last phases of Greek occupation at Ai Khanoum and its sudden abandonment, which supports the thesis of the final chapters of this book.

Chapter 6 emphasizes that, just as for archaeology, modern discoveries have disproved early scholarship’s assumption there had never been any Greek inscriptions in Bactria. This chapter provides a survey of epigraphic material discovered across Bactria on numerous media, from small Greek inscriptions on potsherds, jewellery and silver plate to the Asoka rock edicts. Once again, it is particularly useful for undergraduates to have an account of these inscriptions in English, including those of Aristonax, Sophytos, Heliodotus, Heliodorus, the Ai Khanoum texts, and Hyspasines at Delos. The use of Greek script to write Bactrian language is discussed briefly, as are Aramaic inscriptions. The evidence that epigraphy provides of a polyglot region with Greek and non-Greek names of non-kings as well as known and unknown kings, of varied pantheons and established administrative and economic systems perfectly elucidates the far broader range of society the author wishes to demonstrate in his numismatic study.3 In light of modern political crisis and military conflict, Chapter 7 discusses the recent developments in rescue numismatics necessitated by the vast influx of new coins on the antiquities market, the product of looting driven by economic desperation, the lack of policing and the lucrative market for such items. This has created the need for intricate work piecing together the hoards fragmented by sale across the world and identifying their origin, and subsequent revisions to our interpretation of the end of Greco-Bactrian rule. The author provides useful critical appraisals of the recent work and developments made by Osmund Bopearachchi, Peter Mittag and Olivier Guillaume in revisionist numismatics, and the resistance against them in the creation of new narratives. Contradictions and illogical steps are highlighted in many recent works, such as the supposition that Bactria had a ‘penury of precious metals’ despite the extraordinary number of gold and silver Greco-Bactrian issues. The author points out that these narratives, just as those of Tarn, cannot be confirmed and uses the example of Demetrius I to set out and distinguish between the facts and assumptions.

The final chapters offer an alternative to these new narratives, in ‘cognitive numismatics’. This method uses observations of mistakes on particular strikes to make deductions concerning the production process, such as that a die-engraver could read and write Greek since he wrote the mirror-image retrograde rather than mindlessly copying it out from a model. From assessment of the number of errors in coin production, Holt concludes that ‘a period of increasingly corrupted engraving, either tolerated or unnoticed, was under way in Bactria’s mints before the fall of Ai Khanoum’ (p.180). This strain on the workforce and production system is paralleled by? the use of worn or cracked dies in addition to errors in the creation of the dies.4 The author identifies two ‘waves’ of increase in errors: the first when Euthydemus I was under attack by Antiochus III and coins were needed quickly to fund the military situation. The second wave is identified just before Ai Khanoum was abandoned, supporting the idea that the city was in trouble before its abandonment, rather subject to a sudden and unexpected disaster. Holt proposes that the nomadic invasions ‘may have been the consequence rather than the cause of Bactria’s collapse’ after internal political strife. The mints still had a proper supply of assayed bullion, but there was not a preoccupation with high standards of Hellenism (a modern preoccupation) and instead the priority was to produce coinage to pay for military requirements rather than to propagate an ideological message.

Supporting his conclusions drawn from the errors and deterioration of dies, Holt notes that ‘the small but significant cluster of unreclaimed hoards from Ai Khanoum and Kuliab suggests a regional crisis of some complexity’ (p.191), whereby those who suddenly abandoned their homes had the intention to return, not a ‘nomadic blitzkrieg’. Additionally, the monumental building program at Ai Khanoum under Eukratides indicates prosperity and confidence in the stability of rule. Consideration of systems approaches provides a far more nuanced interpretation of the political and social situation, allowing for ‘multiple and sometimes disproportionate causation’ that produces ‘aggregate reactions to any variety of such stimuli, large or small’ (p.192). This ‘complexity growth’ in Bactria is visible also in the increases in the speed of king-making, number of monograms, and the more intricate iconography. Such complexity was unstable due to the stretched resources: the region was undergoing socio-political crisis rather than ‘declining’ due to its distance from the cultural centres of the Mediterranean or a lost enthusiasm for Hellenism.

This book presents a strong case for identifying renewed urban development, prosperity and trade in Bactria under the Yuezhi and Kushans, giving more credit to the ‘barbarians’ rather than the default position of the majority of scholarship in seeing the end of Greco-Bactrian rule as the consummate decline of the region. The author emphasizes local agency in tracing the nomads’ ‘new cognitive maps’, illustrating their own meanings and tastes for Greek iconography, such as the re-use of Greco-Bactrian coins and creative of imitative pieces as jewellery, suggesting the association of a certain level of prestige. Given the lack of certain provenance for many of these coins, however, it is unclear how the date of the piercings of these issues is ascertained. Holt emphasizes the economic use of these objects over any ideological message, but immediately seems to contradict this by saying the coins ‘stretched the long Greek shadow across Central and South Asia.’ The book concludes with demonstration of Eukratides I, the ‘Golden King’, as a prime example of the twisting and turning story of the interpretation of Greco-Bactrian rulers.

Errors in this book are scarce. The maps are excellent, but it is a shame the other illustrations do not maintain this standard. For example, pl.1, a satellite photo of the region, is unclear. Similarly, line-drawings of the various collectors and scholars may be more economical than reproducing portraits or photographs of the subjects, but add little to the argument and distract the reader. In contrast, the line-drawings of coins are useful, especially where they assist in the explanation of production techniques and errors. The photographs of coins are very informative, though inclusion of scales would have been beneficial.

The balanced discussion of this extensively researched book makes compelling arguments to illustrate that we can now discern more about Bactrian society and culture outside of the royal circle, and hope for further progress. This book is a valuable addition for any reader interested in the development of numismatic study and its application to historical interpretation and use alongside archaeological and epigraphic material, as well as those specializing in the Greco- Bactrian period. It is also highly accessible to a ‘lay-reader’. This book is heartily recommended as an excellent introduction to the problems and material for any researcher, student or interested party.


1.   Consideration of archaeological material outside the usual references to monumental architecture would have been welcome, particularly since interaction with such smaller-scale objects was far more accessible to the wider populace than reading an inscription.
2.   See Gardin, J.-C., Gentelle, P. and Lyonnet, B. Prospection archéologiques en Bactriane orientale, 1974- 1978 (Paris).
3.   For a study so careful and measured in its treatment of numismatic studies, it is surprising that the author accepts Bernard’s interpretation of the Atrosokes dedication from Takht-i Sangin as a factual alignment of Marsyas and Oxus (Bernard, P. 1987, 'Le Marsyas d'Apamée, l'Oxus et la colonisation séleucide en Bactriane', Studia Iranica 16, pp.103-15). Furthermore, he relates the ‘atros’ inscribed on a sherd from Tepe Nimlik to ‘Atrosokes’, despite his illustration of the sherd suggesting preceding letters.
4.   It would be useful to see how this study could be supported or put into context by comparison with die errors in other Hellenistic kingdoms.

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