Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.01.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.01.18

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.  ISBN 9780199950966.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by William D. Barry, University of Puget Sound (


Ever since Badian dismantled Tarn’s “brotherhood of man” thesis, it has been increasingly difficult to find anything nice to say about Alexander the Great. One of the last refuges for sympathizers has been the alleged salutary effect Alexander’s distribution and monetization of Persian plunder had on the economies of the eastern Mediterranean. Alexander may have been a megalomaniacal sociopath, but at least he introduced a vast amount of treasure and coin into those economies, facilitating trade and stimulating economic growth. Alas, with the publication of this very fine work, The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World, Frank Holt has helped to remove even this support of pro-Alexander studies.

Treasures explores the economics of Alexander’s conquest from multiple perspectives. Holt is interested in Alexander’s motives, his policies, his use and abuse of his wealth, and just how much wealth the great king acquired. He is also interested in the economic effects of Alexander’s conquest on both the conquered and the conquerors. He seeks to address these issues from an interdisciplinary perspective, borrowing insights and methodologies from history, classics, economics, archaeology, and numismatics.

In general, Holt has little positive to say about either Alexander’s acquisition and use of plunder or about the economic effects of his conquest. After an excellent first chapter (“Introduction”) surveying the problems in the evidence and possible ways around those problems, Holt (Chapter 2, “Poor Alexander?”) challenges the image—well-attested in the sources—of Alexander the self-made man. In his speech at Opis, Alexander recalls that he was nearly out of money when he set off for Persia in 334 BCE, thanks to his prodigal father. The claim to humble beginnings has largely been carried forward into the secondary literature. Holt provides, however, a compelling argument that such self-presentation was political propaganda and that Alexander, in fact, had access to a variety of sources of wealth in the form of treasure and dependable revenue streams. To suggest otherwise “is not altogether fair to Philip or Darius” (43).

In Chapters 3 and 4 we meet Alexander the great plunderer. He and his army—“an insatiable juggernaut chewing through thousands of miles of conquered territory” (64)—destroyed tens of thousands of lives and seized the wealth of both obscure tribes and great kings in the Empire. This story of destruction is well known, but it is made newly compelling by Holt’s particular thematic focus on loot and looting. Chapter 3 (“Conquest, Up Close and Costly”) focuses on the devastation done to peoples of the Persian Empire. Urban economies were gutted by Alexander’s destruction or enslavement of human populations and by his carting off of plunder. Rural economies suffered similarly but were also crippled by the destruction, consumption, or capture of animal populations (Holt offers an interesting excursus on the destruction or capture of horses during Alexander’s campaign, 60-62).

Chapter 4 (“Reciting the Sword’s Prayer”) shifts the focus to royal wealth, in particular the coin and bullion that Alexander seized from Babylon, Susa, Persepolis, and Ecbatana. In this chapter, the real numbers game begins. The figures in the sources for the wealth Alexander plundered from these palaces are fragmentary and imprecise, but through some creative cross-checking, Holt arrives at some plausible sums for Alexander’s haul from the royal palaces—ca. between 180,000 and 200,000 talents (89-91), and that does not even count works of art and other forms of material riches. It is worth noting in passing that by dividing the story of Alexander’s plundering into two chapters, Holt can condemn Alexander’s most famously shameful treatment of Persepolis not once but twice: the first time the sacking of the city (in Chapter 3), the second the burning of its royal palace (in Chapter 4).

Chapters 5 and 6 explore how Alexander used and abused all the wealth he had acquired. It is clear from the case that Holt lays out for its uses (Chapter 5, “A King’s Priorities”), that Alexander did not have economic growth or stimulus on his mind. His wealth was rather “deployed as an extension of his power and personality” (95). Kings needed wealth to create “bonds of benefaction and obligation” (97), and Alexander as in everything else would not be outdone in liberality. He spent much of his wealth on gifts to individuals, on athletic contests, and on religious celebrations. He built or rebuilt temples and founded at least thirteen cities (the costs of which Holt deems “incalculable,” 111). And he sustained an army at war for over twelve years. Such liberality and network building did have its downside, however, especially for the army. Alexander’s gift-giving sparked resentment among the recipients and an increase of “indulgence and greed” (105) that helped to put the troops in debt. Holt cites a few anecdotes that, though they are “the most outlandish of examples,” nevertheless “seem to represent a consensus about the army’s growing love of extravagance” (105).

Chapter 6, “(Mis)Management,” examines how well Alexander protected his plunder. The evidence suggests “Not very well at all.” Holt approaches the problem from two angles. First, imagining the fates of a Thessalian Cavalryman and Macedonian soldier, Holt explores the economic effects of Alexander’s conquests on his army. The Thessalian fares far better as he is discharged with bonuses before Alexander orders the army to burn all its loot in Bactria (an act to be repeated in crossing the Gedrosian desert). The Macedonian soldier, under the command of Meleager, may never have fully recovered from this self-inflicted wound: if he made it back to Babylon, he probably arrived deep in debt. Second, Holt examines Alexander’s financial managers, and chief among them Harpalus, an embezzler and spendthrift of the highest order who robbed Alexander of thousands of talents. Though Harpalus was the agent of much financial corruption and worse, Holt holds Alexander ultimately responsible for his lack of attention to his wealth. Alexander seemed “hopelessly venal or helplessly uninformed” (137) regarding the management of his plunder.

In Chapter 7 (“Conclusion”), Holt provides a fascinating and learned overview of the historical judgment through the ages of Alexander’s plundering. Most recently, his impact on the economy of the ancient world, and especially his monetization of tons of Persian gold and silver, has come in for high praise as a stimulant to the stagnant Persian economy. Holt pushes back against this interpretation, arguing that Alexander was not particularly interested in his own coinage and was, in fact, slow to change the Persian system or local currencies. Further, he did not come close to monetizing all of the gold and silver bullion he seized from the empire. Finally, those who would argue that Alexander’s monetization stimulated the economy of the eastern Mediterranean misread the nature of the ancient economy. The persistence of barter economies, the use of land giveaways rather than cash to attract colonists, the dedication of coins to temples, even the act of hoarding, all signal a culture not yet ready to adopt or to treat coinage as the primary currency of exchange.

The book concludes with four appendices on monetary units (and modern conversions) (I), assets (II), debits (III), and where all of Alexander’s wealth is today (IV).

In short, no one really fared very well from Alexander’s campaign of plundering: not the peoples of the Persian Empire, who, if they survived the Alexandrian juggernaut, after Alexander’s death lived a life in slavery or, if free, faced daunting challenges in rebuilding their lives amid the wars of the successors; not Achaemenid royalty stripped of their wealth if not their lives; not Macedonian troops many of whom two years after Alexander’s death were still demanding back pay or had turned to banditry. Though he died spectacularly rich, Alexander appears to have brought few economic benefits to the Near East and ancient Mediterranean. Thus, next to Alexander the Megalomaniac or Alexander the Sociopath, we may now add Alexander the Mismanager of Plunder, the Ruiner of Economies, and perhaps, for his pretense to poverty, Alexander the Poseur.

This book is in many ways a compelling study of the economics of conquest. Nevertheless, it seems at times trapped in a moral framework of the good Alexander vs. bad Alexander, and as such looks for a judgment on the Macedonian king. Indeed, towards the end of the book, Holt explicitly frames the elements of that judgment as a balance sheet of economic ruin vs. economic improvement of people’s lives (176). Though the framing reminds one of the Tarn/Badian debate, in this instance it would appear to be more a response to the “Big History conversation” about the balance sheet of war in general that Ian Morris’s recent book, War! What Is It Good For? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) engages and that Holt discusses in his “Preface” (xv). But whether Holt’s approach is to be traced back to Tarn and Badian or to Morris, its application here carries with it a hint of “presentism”: Why couldn’t Alexander be like us and care more deeply about the economic effects of his actions? Moreover, preoccupation with whether Alexander had a positive or negative effect on the economies of the Near East deflects pursuit of other questions that might deepen our understanding of Alexander in his context--for example, questions that might engage a larger debate in the secondary literature about the nature of the ancient economy or the expectations of kingship. It is not that such questions are ignored, but they surely take a back seat to the tally of economic gains and losses.

The book is extremely well-written and a pleasure to read throughout, no small achievement given that Holt’s story is at least in part a story of numbers and calculations rather than of battles and murderous drinking parties. Holt is creative in his use and presentation of those numbers and restrained when the evidence is not sufficient to resolve debate. The book will be an excellent addition to undergraduate or graduate courses on Alexander as well as an important contribution to discussions among specialists on Alexander and more broadly the effects of war.

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