Ancient War and the Mismanagement of Wealth: The Treasures of Alexander the Great by Frank L. Holt

Most people have heard of Alexander the Great, λέξανδρος Μέγας, son of Philip of Macedon. He was born in 356 BCE at Pella in Macedon in what is today northern Greece, and when Philip was assassinated in 336 BCE, on the eve of launching a military campaign against the Persian empire, Alexander inherited both kingdom and campaign. His ambitions outstripped his father’s, and when he himself died—without an obvious heir—in 323 BCE, he had cut a bloody swathe from the shores of the Adriatic to the banks of the Indus, razed more than one city entirely to the ground (like Thebes, in 335 BCE), and had plundered, to paraphrase Diodorus Siculorus, “unimaginable wealth.”

Did the wealth of Alexander of Macedon shape the world? Perhaps, but wealth was never the primary interest of Philip of Macedon’s son: glory and conquest was. The Treasures of Alexander the Great, by University of Houston professor Frank L. Holt, is about what Alexander won by war, how reliable the evidence for Alexander’s wealth is, who managed it, and what Alexander spent it on. (More war is the answer, mostly.)

An analysis of how that wealth shaped the world—an economic analysis of Alexander’s effect on Central Asia and the Mediterranean, or how it contributed to the polities that succeeded the short-lived empire of Alexander the Great? That The Treasures of Alexander the Great is not—although its final chapter does contain quite an excellent lot of snark about interpretations of Alexander that cast him in the light of a CEO, or an economic visionary “releasing” hoarded capital into circulation.

But if The Treasures of Alexander the Great doesn’t do exactly what it says on the tin, then why read it? Well, how interested are you in war and wealth, and how the conquering kings of the ancient world (mis)managed the wealth they won through conquest? Because Holt’s scholarly prose is light, assured, and very, very readable.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter provides an introduction to Holt’s overall project, and the sources and methods at his disposal for investigating the economics of Alexander. Merely quantifying Alexander’s wealth provides its own set of problems, given the fact that ancient sources put numbers to his income and expenses but rarely, and given the issues with taking large round numbers (such as 30,000 talents of silver or 120,000 soldiers) provided by ancient sources at face value. A precise accounting is beyond anyone’s ability to recover, but Holt goes as far as is cautiously possible in analysing—and in using—the numbers that survive, and in providing a picture of the scale of Alexander’s plunder.

In Chapter Two, Holt takes on some of the narratives around the young Alexander, narratives that contrast his virtuous poverty as a young king with the decadent luxury of Persian wealth. Holt points out many of the flaws with seeing Alexander as in any sense poor, assessing the wealth left behind by Philip—who had been about to start a campaign against Persia—and the resources available to Alexander in the first year of his reign. These were, if not yet the “unimaginable” wealth that he acquired later, still considerable, thanks in part to the silver mines of Macedon.

Chapter Three discusses the plunder of the young king’s early successes: a campaign in the Balkans and the destruction of Thebes before he launched the invasion of Asia Minor, and the fruits of his victories at the battles of Granicus (334 BCE), Issus (333 BCE), and Gaugamela (331 BCE). This chapter also makes an attempt to sketch out the human cost of Alexander’s campaigns from the Balkans to the Punjab, although it doesn’t focus with any particular closeness on “history from below,” remaining mainly concerned with generals and royalty.

Chapter Four takes on in some detail the transfer of wealth from the Persian king Darius to Alexander. Holt analyses the figures given in the sources (Plutarch, Arrian, Curtius, Justin, Diodorus) for the loot from Babylon and Persepolis, and discusses how and why Alexander sacked and burned Persepolis. Chapter Five looks at Alexander’s spending priorities as a king: religious expenses, the founding of cities, gifts to allies and enemies, soldiers’ pay, other military expenses. It analyses briefly the evidence for these expenses, and what happened to the loot Alexander took from Darius. (Some of it Alexander burned.)

Chapter Six discusses in brief some of the people who (mis)managed Alexander’s wealth. Like Alexander’s boyhood friend Harpalus, who enriched himself, fled, and yet was later received back by Alexander and put back in charge of vast sums. (Our man Alex seems to have really liked his boyhood friends. And his horse.) And then Chapter Seven looks at what other people have thought, and said, about Alexander’s approach to financial matters. (And some of them have had some very strange ideas.)

The Treasures of Alexander the Great is a solid and accessible overview of the scale of the wealth plundered in Alexander’s campaigns, and of the social, as much as economic, significance of wealth in warfare in the 4th century BCE. Holt’s treatment of these matters is brisk and assured, his scholarship foregrounded but also refreshingly easy to read. While there are some areas I wish he had treated in more detail (or explained his lack of treatment better), this is still one of the better histories I’ve read in the last few years. If you’re remotely interested in war and wealth and Alexander the Great? This book’s well worth reading.

The Treasures of Alexander the Great is available from Oxford University Press.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. She holds a PhD in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter.

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