Posts Tagged With: Frank L. Holt

Boning Up On Bactria

Into the Land of Bones is a brief – 165 page – account of the Bactria-Sogdia phase of Alexander’s expedition. The Macedonian king entered Bactria in the spring of 329 BC in pursuit of Bessos, murderer of Darius III and pretender to Alexander’s Persian throne. Bessos was captured soon after. At that point, all was well. Bactria had offered no resistance to the Macedonians and a quick departure to India must have seemed probable.

However, it was not to be. Sogdia and Bactria rose up in revolt. Their rebellion was lead by a Persian nobleman named Spitamenes who, for the next year would lead a semi-guerrilla campaign against the Macedonians. His part in the rebellion ended in the autumn of 328 when he was murdered by his own men. Before then, however, Spitamenes would score some impressive victories against Alexander’s army. After he died, the revolt continued for nearly another year.

The Sogdian-Bactrian campaign brought out the best and worst in Alexander. It forced him to adapt his military tactics, which he did, to ultimate success; but it also lead him to take a bloody revenge against the native people far beyond anything that was proportionate or necessary.

And perhaps the uprising had deeper consequences as well for it was during the Bactrian-Sogdian campaign that Alexander and Black Cleitus quarrelled drunkenly leading the king to run his friend through with a spear (Autumn 328), and it was during the campaign that Alexander’s pages conceived their plot to assassinate him (Spring 327).

Alexander finally left Bactria and Sogdia in the summer of 327 BC. Officially, he had pacified both countries. Unofficially they were tinder boxes waiting to explode, which – even in Alexander’s lifetime – they did.


Frank L. Holt’s book is very readable. I finished it in just over a week. Had I dedicated my spare time to it I could have read half that time easily.

In his Preface, Holt says he wrote the book with both ‘professional historians and the general public’ in mind. In my view, Land of Bones offers more to the latter as Holt does not dive deeply into Alexander’s actions; instead, he is content to simply describe what happened and give his thoughts as he does so.

The book ‘grew out of a public lecture’ that Holt gave not long after the 11th September attacks in 2001 and throughout the book he compares and contrasts what happened to Alexander with what happened to the British army during its Afghan campaigns in the late 1830s, to the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the USA and her coalition partners when they did the same in 2003.

(By way of clarification – Afghanistan now encompasses the ancient countries of Bactria and Sogdia, hence the connection. Actually, Sogdia also lies in three other countries – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan – but as they are politically stable we do not hear much of them in the book).

For me, Holt never really nails the comparisons down. Indeed, in the Preface he admits that history ‘never repeats itself’ directly. As a result, Britain, the USSR and Coalition all come and go in rather an ethereal fashion. It felt to me like he was using the experiences of these modern invaders as hooks to gain the interest of his publisher. I hope and trust that this is a misreading.

In my opinion, Into the Land of Bones does not contain any outstanding revelations. Only one statement in it has made a lasting impression on me, and that is a citation from another book. Early on, Holt states that every day Alexander had to find ‘the equivalent of 255 tons of food and forage, plus 160,000 gallons of water, just to keep his army alive and moving forward’. This fact comes from Donald W. Engel’s Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (For more on this point, see my post here).


I’d like to conclude with something I really liked about the book and a couple of things that I didn’t. I’ll start with the latter so that I can end on a positive note.

Firstly, I really did not care for the way that Holt consistently (especially at the beginning) referred to the ‘Greeks and Macedonians’ as if either the Greeks lead the invasion or even that the two were equal in it. They did not, they were not. This was a Macedonian led invasion. If you want to be charitable, you could call it a coalition army, but only at the expense of accuracy. It was a Macedonian army with foreigners – Greeks and others – attached.

To be sure, Holt is not the only historian who gives the Greeks an importance in Alexander’s army that they did not have – in fact, I think most if not all historians do it – but they really ought not to. To be fair, you could argue that the Macedonians were in a sense Greek in that they came to Macedonia from there but by Alexander’s day they were almost entirely sundered from the Greeks; they hated them, and the Greeks themselves did not even think of the Macedonians as one of them. At the least, I wish Holt, and all historians, would talk about the Macedonian led invasion rather than imply that it was something other.

Secondly, the price of the book. It’s publisher, the University of California Press is currently selling Into the Land of Bones for £52.95 (here). This is an absolute disgrace. Which member of the general public will pay that much for a slender volume like this? I enjoyed Land of Bones and am very grateful to the person who gave me a copy of it because even I would not pay that much. And if I would not then someone who has only a part time interest in Alexander never will. If universities insist on charging such ridiculous prices for their books I really don’t know why they bother to publish them in the first place. I am sure they have their reasons, but really, there’s no point. No one will buy them. NO ONE.

If anyone knows how many copies of Into the Land of Bones have been sold – especially if it is a lot – I would love to know it and be proved wrong.

Oh, one more point – £52.95 is the hardback price. The paperback costs £24.95. For heaven’s sake, that’s still the price of a hardback work of fiction! The UCP also sells an e-book version. It costs $29.95. The website does not sell the e-book in pounds. An exchange rate website tells me that $29.95 is £23.95 which is surely a joke on the publisher’s part.

Well, you have seen me come as close to losing my temper in a blog post as ever I have, so let’s finish with my plus point. There are two. Firstly, I appreciated the way in which the book refreshed my memory of this part of Alexander’s expedition. Secondly, and most of all, I really, really appreciated the final chapters which covered what happened in Bactria-Sogdia in the centuries after Alexander waged war there. They are not happy chapters but they are fascinating ones, especially when Holt talks about the discoveries of archaeological expeditions. Once upon a time we knew of about seven Bactrian kings. Thanks to locals and archaeologists discovering coin hoards, however, that figure has risen, and risen, and risen.

To conclude, would I recommend Into the Land of Bones? Yes, I would, but I would have to say, borrow it from a friend or the library as the retail prices are wholly unreasonable.

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The Powers Behind the Sarissas

In my last post, I started discussing Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt, which I recently finished. Here, I am going to share any passages from Frank L. Holt’s Into the Land of Bones, which I have just started reading, and which jump out at me.

First up is this:-

No matter what the climate or circumstances might be, Alexander had to procure every day the equivalent of 255 tons of food and forage, plus 160,000 gallons of water, just to see his army alive and moving forward.
(Into the Land of Bones, p.32)

This passage comes with an end note – Holt is quoting from Donald W. Engels’ Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (University of California 1978), which I have a copy of but have yet to read (Soon! Soon!),

I read the above yesterday and it still bowls me over. 255 tonnes and 160 thousand gallons. That’s an awful, awful lot of food and water. It brings into very clear view the fact that Alexander benefitted from an absolutely brilliant logistics operation during his invasion of Asia. In fact, I read a while ago that it failed him only twice during his ten year anabasis – and that was when he was half way up the Hindu Kush and in the Gedrosian desert.

Who is the unsung hero of Alexander’s expedition? Whose hard work enabled the Macedonian army to remain fed and fit? Hephaestion is the name that comes first to mind because we often see him carrying out logistical work on behalf of the king.

Among his missions are picking a vassal king for Alexander in Sidon (Curtius 4.1.16-26), sailing to Gaza with siege engines (Ibid 4.5.10), and building a bridge across the Indus (Arrian IV.28). However, I don’t get the impression that Hephaestion was the chief logistician. What he was, or rather, who he was, was someone Alexander could trust to get these kind of unglamorous but absolutely necessary jobs done and so was used often in that capacity.

I’m coming round to the view now that there was not a chief logistician – not beyond Alexander himself. The way I see it happening is that Alexander said ‘I want this done’ then told whichever officer he wanted to complete the job to do it. Sometimes – often?-  it would be Hephaestion; other times, someone else. Hence, we see other senior officers also engaged in logistical work. For example, Craterus, when Alexander ordered him to gather supplies in preparation for what he thought would be a long siege at the Aornos Rock (Arrian IV.29), and again when the king ordered him and Coenus to forage in the territory on the near side of the Hydraotes river (Ibid V.21).

There is the saying ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ but it seems to me that the Macedonian officers were not only jacks-all-trades but masters of their work as well. How else could they manage to keep finding the 255 tonnes and 160 thousand gallons in diverse territories and sometimes difficult conditions for ten years on the trot, and, of course, keep winning battles under the direction of their king, a genius, it seems, on and off the battlefield?

Categories: Books, Historians of Alexander | Tags: , | 3 Comments


Yesterday I read Alexander the Great and Bactria by Frank L. Holt. The book is published by E. J. Brill and I can confirm that for me it was. Holt offers some very valuable insights into Bactria’s pre-Alexandrian history. He also has a few words to say about what happened after Alexander left; though, as the title indicates, the focus of the book is on the Macedonian king’s visit (329 – 327 B.C.).
Ever since I became interested in the life and times of Alexander the Great the temptation for me has been to focus on the first half of his expedition – all that happened between Greece and Babylon. That was where he fought his three major battles, and won the Persian Empire, after all; what could that most strange and unknown part of the world, the ancient far-east, have to offer to compete with that?
Firstly, it had Alexander’s fourth major battle that I had conveniently forgotten about. It also had some of his most intense personal dramas; for example, the murder of Black Cleitus and his seemingly inexplicable marriage to a barbarian princess; it also had some serious military dramas, too – Alexander was injured more times after Babylon than ever he was before*.
The east also gave the Macedonian king some of his most fabulous triumphs; for example, the crossing of the Hindu Kush and scaling of the Sogdian Rock – as well as most serious reverses; e.g. the crossing of the Gedrosian desert. Therefore, the far-east most certainly deserves to be remembered, read and written about. So, that is why I am writing this post. I must also give credit, though, to Alexander’s Army for putting the thought of Bactria in my head in the first place, (thanks, specifically, to this discussion). It isn’t the first time Alexander’s Army has inspired me and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
Back to Bactria. A wild and primitive place? Poor and inconsequential? Before reading Alexander the Great and Bactria that is what I might have said about it. Holt put me right, though.
According to Holt ‘[s]ome scholars’ (Holt, p. 39) believe that Darius I’s parents were ‘former Bactrian rulers’ (Ibid). Whether they were or weren’t, Bactria was of sufficient interest to Darius (549-486 B.C.) that he made his son, Ariamenes, its satrap. I’m not clear as to whether Darius’ son and heir, Xerxes, held that office prior to becoming the Great King, but after succeeding his father as Great King he appointed his son as satrap.
What did Bactria offer that made it so important? As Alexander found when he marched from Bactra to the Oxus River, part of the country is desert. But, citing Ammianus Marcellinus, Holt notes that it was ‘a fertile region with good grazing lands along the higher plains and in the mountains’ (Holt, p. 18). Marcellinus also praises ‘the quality of Bactrian flocks, including their proverbially strong camels’ (Holt, pp. 18-19). They must have been strong indeed to get a proverbial reputation for it!
Holt (p. 35) notes how Plutarch in his De Alexandri Magni Fortuna aut Virtute (L. 328C-329D) gives Alexander the credit for civilising the Bactrians,

Alexander… taught the Arachosians to till the soil, and persuaded the Sogdians to support rather than slay their parents… He induced the Indians to accept the Greek gods, and the Scythians to bury rather than eat the dead… He taught the Gedrosians the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles… Thanks to Alexander, Bactria and the Caucasus peoples worship the gods of Greece… He planted Greek institutions all across Asia, and thus overcame its wild and savage way of living… His enemies could not have been civilized if they had not been beaten… Greekness was marked by excellence, but wickedness was the way of the barbarians.

I have to confess I had never heard of this text before. However, I have now found (a different translation of) it here.
Plutarch is almost amusing in his bias. As I see it, the fertile countryside and close attention of senior Persians is as strong an indication as I can think of that the country that was in its own way civilised**.
We need not limit this statement to the period of Darius I and afterwards – Holt points out that archaeological surveys have discovered ‘ample evidence for the early development of irrigation, commerce, and fortified cities in ancient Central Asia’ (Holt, p. 27). ‘Palatial architecture’ (Ibid) has been discovered – which I take to mean either the remains of palaces or high status homes – and ‘temple structures’ (Ibid).  The region went through its ups and downs (much like Greece with its own dark age) but we certainly do not appear to be dealing with primitive peoples here.
How did Bactria achieve its developed state? Holt says that archaeologists are coming to the view that a ‘Bactrian miracle’ occurred rather than a Persian or even Median one (Holt, p. 33). This suggests to me that not only did Bactrians have the right amount of food to live on but they also enjoyed the peace and cultural life necessary for a country to be able to develop.
After crossing the Hindu Kush, Alexander marched to Bactra unopposed. From there, he made his way to the Oxus River, this time opposed only by the fierce heat of the desert. It seems that Bactria, like Egypt, was a country ready and waiting to join his empire.
Things went wrong, though. Holt puts the blame on Alexander’ construction of Alexandria-Eschate (Alexandria the Furthest) on the Bactria-Sogdiana border. The natives regarded this as an intolerable infringement upon their way-of-life and took up arms. Eighteen months of bitter fighting followed.
How did it end? Holt says that while the death of (the principle rebel leader) Spitamenes, was ‘significant’ it was not ‘decisive’ (Holt, p. 67). Rather, ‘[i]t was rather the king’s treatment of the remaining Sogdian chieftains which ameliorated the situation’ (Ibid). What did Alexander do? Well, stop killing them for a start, then he gave them their previous positions of power back.
One other important thing also happened to bring peace to Bactria-Sogdiana: Alexander married Roxane, daughter of Oxyartes, a Bactrian nobleman. Curtius says she was ‘a woman of remarkable physical beauty with a dignified bearing rarely found in barbarians’ (8. 4. 23). And, indeed, prejudiced Roman writers! Her marriage to Alexander, though, is best understood as being of the same kind as Philip II’s to his various wives – a wholly political affair.
By-the-bye, Curtius says that their first meeting took place at a banquet and not after the capture of the Sogdian Rock. He also says that the banquet was arranged by Oxyartes with ‘typical barbaric extravagance’ (Ibid); a final piece of proof that Bactria – for all the political upheaval that had affected it – and Oxyartes were both very wealthy.
* If you would like to read more about Alexander’s injuries, I wrote about them here and here

** NB Bactria’s economy did not rely on Bactrians. Holt mentions the historian Arnold Toynbee who visited the region in 1960. In Toynbee’s eyes,

Bactria provides a classic example of a geographical ’round-about’ where “routes converge from all quarters of the compass and from which routes radiate out to all quarters of the compass again.”
(Holt, p. 31)

An obvious example of the international trade that Bactria must have engaged in is that in the beautiful jewel, lapis lazuli, which made its way (I’m sure amongst other places) to the Egyptian court.

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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