BMCR 2005.08.35

Into the Land of Bones. Alexander the Great in Afghanistan

, Into the land of bones : Alexander the Great in Afghanistan. Hellenistic culture and society ; 47. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xiii, 241 pages) : maps.. ISBN 9780520940314 $24.95.

There is a sense of urgency behind Into the Land of Bones, in which Frank Holt describes the campaigns of Alexander the Great in Bactria and Sogdia. To understand this urgency, it is relevant to note that the author is American. His country is currently fighting a war in Afghanistan and Holt wants to explain that, although the troops are fighting with “skill, dedication, honor, or heroism”, they “simply do not have history on their side” (page xii).

The present reviewer, who lives in a country that has also sent troops to Afghanistan, fully agrees with Holt that historians have a duty to explain the risks of a theater of operation. Whatever one may think about the justification and causes of the current war, we owe it to the soldiers who are risking their lives that those at home can understand what is happening. A historian, even an ancient historian, can contribute something important, and Holt’s book is compulsory reading for anyone who tries to understand the events in Afghanistan.

Holt knows that he takes a risk. He is the first to admit that events are unique and history never repeats itself, but “meaningful patterns do exist and ought to be examined for the insights they can offer” (page xii). An imaginary skeptical reviewer might object that this will not do. There is a subjective element in any comparison, because there is no fool-proof, objective method to establish which historical phenomena are comparable and which are not. The existence of meaningful patterns can not be taken for granted, our reviewer might object, and the validity of a parallel can not be assumed without explanation

Social scientists have written a lot about the theory of comparison, and our skeptic’s remarks are fair criticism, especially since Holt makes himself vulnerable. From a geographical point of view, his comparison is, to put it bluntly, invalid. Alexander’s theater of operations, Sogdia and Bactria, is not the ancient equivalent of Afghanistan. The unhappy modern country covers the territory of ancient Aria, Arachosia, western Gandara, and Bactria. There is an overlap but at first sight, Holt’s comparison seems unconvincing.

However, our imaginary skeptic is a bit too pessimistic. Although Holt writes that the comparison is based on topography, suggesting that the landscape determines the cultural character of the country (the “extreme level of volatility seems, literally, to go with the territory”, page 137) and putting this suggestion in the book’s subtitle ( Alexander the Great in Afghanistan), his comparison is in fact based on something else: the structure of society. Both ancient Bactria/Sogdia and modern Afghanistan are tribal societies, inhabited by people who want to be left alone, and are willing to fight — and fight fiercely — for their independence. Although the definition of a tribe is a notoriously difficult problem, most social scientists will agree that Holt remains within the limits of comparison. When a scholar is drawing parallels, intersubjectivity is the closest he can get to objectivity.

So there are meaningful patterns, and lessons can be learned from Alexander’s experiences. Holt writes that the war in Bactria and Sogdia is typified by “charismatic leadership, fierce local loyalties, shifting alliances, guerilla tactics, gritty endurance, and inborn xenophobia”, and he states that the strategy and tactics of Alexander’s enemy Spitamenes “anticipated those that have distinguished the campaigns of modern Afghan militants: the element of surprise, the avoidance of warfare waged from a fixed position, the use of terror, the exploitation of weather and terrain, the application of primitive technologies to achieve unexpected results” (pages 81-82). The implied lesson is that the Coalition troops in Afghanistan today can be the master of any battlefield, and still lose the war. A tactical victory can be a strategic defeat. The soldiers who invaded Afghanistan to liberate it from the Taliban do not have history on their side.

Hopefully, this book will find its way to the general public, one of the two audiences for which Holt is writing. The other group he has in mind is the community of scholars. Specialists will find much in Into the Land of Bones that they already know from Holt’s earlier publications, such as Alexander the Great and Bactria. The Formation of a Greek Frontier in Central Asia (1988), which the present reviewer once called “the best monograph on Alexander in half a century”. The old book, however, is now superseded by Into the Land of Bones.

There are some differences, however. Holt can take new scientific advances into account, like the anomaly in the climate that coincided with Alexander’s reign (page 34), and the discovery of new coin hoards. He also introduces a charming and convincing parallel between Alexander’s bride Roxane and the famous green-eyed Afghan woman Sharbat Gula (page 88-89). Apart from these updates, the analysis itself has also changed a bit. In Alexander the Great and Bactria, Holt stressed socio-economic factors as the main cause for the Sogdian resistance against Alexander. The founding of Alexandria “the furthest” was unacceptable to the native population, and Alexander’s campaign of terror showed the strength of the Macedonian state apparatus, which merely added fuel to the fire. These arguments return in Into the Land of Bones, but there is a difference in emphasis. This time, Holt stresses the religious factor a bit more, a shift that may have to do with the fact that economic history is now less popular than it was twenty years ago and with the fact that the United States soldiers are in Afghanistan to fight against fanatics living among the native population. The title of the book refers to Strabo’s famous description of the funerary practices of the Bactrians, who tossed the bodies of the dead to special devourer dogs, a religious practice that profoundly shocked the Macedonian invaders.

Perhaps Holt could have stressed the religious factor a bit more. In Zoroaster in History (2000), Gherardo Gnoli has offered strong arguments for giving up the now common dating of the Bactrian prophet in the second half of the second millennium, and has argued that we should return to a date in the early sixth century. If Gnoli is right, Zarathustra’s spiritual revolution and the composition of the Old-Avestan hymns (the Gatha’s and Yasna), were less remote from Alexander’s age than has been assumed until recently, and religious motives may have played a bigger role than Holt thinks. However this may be, it is a tantalizing fact that Alexander’s main adversary Spitamenes has almost the same name as the famous prophet, whose family was called Spitama.

Any book written about a foreign and past culture is bound to contain minor errors that no reviewer can refrain from mentioning. The oxen mentioned on page 102, although based on Arrian’s Anabasis 4.25.4, are undoubtedly buffaloes; the printer of the book appears to have experienced problems with two final sigmas at page 135; it is almost certain that Artaxerxes III Ochus was not murdered (page 195);1 Alexander died on 11 June, not 10 June (page 115).2 To the sources on the death of Lysimachus and Seleucus Nicator (page 122) the Babylonian End of Seleucus Chronicle could have been added.3 None of this, of course, really distracts from the quality of this book.

Although small in size, Into the Land of Bones is a great book. It offers an account of Alexander’s wars in Central Asia that supersedes Holt’s own Alexander the Great and Bactria. Even more important, it brings the results of scholarship to a larger public. The commanders of the Coalition forces in Afghanistan should be under orders to read it.


1. A list of solar eclipse possibilities that is published with the Astronomical Diaries (volume 5, #11, reverse, column iii, lines 8-10) mentions that “U’akush, died [NAM.ME] and Arshush, his son, sat on the throne”. The expression NAM.ME can only refer to a natural death; had the king of kings been assassinated, the word GAZ would have been more appropriate. Cf. C.B.F. Walker, “Achaemenid chronology and Babylonian sources”, in J. Curtis (ed.) Mesopotamia and Iran in the Persian Period. Conquest and Imperialism (1997), page 22.

2. Leo Depuydt, “The Time of Death of Alexander the Great: 11 June 323 BC, ca. 4:00-5:00 PM” in: Die Welt des Orients 28 (1997) 117-135.

3. This interesting cuneiform text was published in 1975 by A.K. Grayson ( Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, #12), but a new edition with improved readings is now being prepared by I. Finkel and R.J. van der Spek. Although their Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period is still unpublished, many new texts (and new readings of old texts) have been preliminarily published online.