BMCR 2004.06.34

Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions

, Alexander the Great and the mystery of the elephant medallions. Hellenistic culture and society ; 44. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xv, 198 pages, 5 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN 9780520938786 $24.95.

This is an intriguing book, and not just for its title. It combines several fields of interest, ranging from the literary tradition on Alexander the Great to the history of archaeological exploration in the middle East, but its main focus is a numismatic question. In the age when Schliemann was presenting his amazing discoveries about the Mycenaean Greeks, an extremely valuable piece of evidence was also brought, through trade, to the attention of the Society of Antiquaries in London. It consisted in a minted medal, weighing not much less than a decadrachm (about 43,6 grams), and showing on one side a god or a divinised hero holding a thunderbolt in his right hand and a spear in the other. On the other side was figured a scene of battle between a knight, also armed with spear, and two men riding an elephant. Various interpretations have been given of this battle scene. Holt (hereinafter H.) has a gift for dramatizing each new scholarly contribution (this sounds rather odd for very recent papers, as on pp. 102-107) as if they were clues in the plot of a mystery. One of the most interesting digressions is the report of Darwin’s studies on worms, contemporary to the discovery of this medallion. Darwin’s observations showed how objects fallen to the ground become very quickly “earthed” by the worms’ castings, thus preserving them for archaeologists of subsequent ages.

After showing how many different interpretations had been given of the ever-increasing evidence (not only other copies of the medallion were found but also a series of tetradrachms, showing an elephant on one side and soldiers armed in Indian fashion on the other), H. is finally ready to offer his convincing solution to the riddle he has so brilliantly built up. The divinised hero on this side of the medallion can be no other than Alexander himself. The reason he holds a thunderbolt in his hand is his harnessing the very strength of nature on the occasion of the battle fought against the Indian ruler Porus, when he was able to cross the river Hydaspes protected by a stormy night. The Indian weapons (especially the long bows and the light chariots, which are depicted on the reverse side of the tetradrachms) were rendered useless by the muddy ground on which the battle took place. Therefore the battle scene on one side of the medallion is taken to represent an encounter between Alexander himself and Porus. However, since there is no hint of direct fighting between the kings in the literary traditions (rather, Alexander had to send some of his Indian allies, Taxiles and Meroes, to present friendly terms of surrender to the fleeing Porus), this is probably just an idealizing, symbolic representation of what might have happened — the historian Aristobulus, indeed, was reproached by Alexander for including in his histories a false report of a skirmish between himself and Porus. The whole series of medals ought to have been coined at some point in Alexander’s life, probably to reward the veterans of that battle and at the same time to remind them of Alexander’s divine powers.

H. brilliantly compares the battle scene on the medallion with that of the battle of Arbela, represented in a famous mosaic from Pompeii. Although the last is a much more crowded scene, it too shows, according to H., three main characters, king Alexander, king Darius and a Persian dignitary who, in the action of protecting his king, is being killed by Alexander’s spear. The third man, therefore, would play a key role both in the medallion (where he is also shown in the act of diverting Alexander’s spear) and in the mosaic: in a way he is the symbol of the whole nation subjugated by Alexander’s conquest. In this author’s modest opinion, if there be indeed a striking similarity between the two representations, the other man riding the elephant (a ‘mahout’ according to some interpretations) is more obviously paralleled in the mosaic from Pompeii by the chariot driver beneath Darius. Finally, it is to be regretted, since much of the discussion concerns figured representations, that the photos are not of a very high quality, rather small in size and also difficult to locate when needed.

In general, however, H.’s interpretation so convincingly solves the riddle he so very patiently posed that there is not really much room left for doubt or scepticism. Certainly the book is a welcome contribution, enriching not only the field of numismatics but also that of iconography and of many other areas related to ancient art and history. There is not much Greek in the text, the medallion itself being without inscriptions (except for monograms), but the quotation from Arrian on pp. 56-57 is erroneous, and repeatedly so. One may doubt whether the form of a book appealing to a general reader (its title being reminiscent not only, declaredly, of Sherlock Holmes but also, inadvertently, of Harry Potter) is the most fitting way to present H.’s brilliant insights into the elephant medallions but, in the opinion of the reviewer, publication in a numismatic journal would probably have precluded the fascinating digressions that make the book such pleasant reading. H. is in fact to be credited for telling insights into contemporary history (as for example on p. 14) and for providing the reader with highlights of humor and literary brilliance.1


1. I would like to thank F.X. Ryan, Dresden, for reading the typescript and suggesting improvements.