Wow! That’s the one word that comes to my mind after reading The Treasures of Alexander the Great by Frank Holt (ISBN 978-0-19-995096-6). It is fabulous, meticulous, and breathtaking from cover to cover. Nobody tackled Alexander’s finances before and that is not surprising given the relatively limited facts and figures that are available.
As always, Frank Holt’s painstaking research is remarkable and the huge amount of books he consulted to extrapolate pertaining information is absolutely breathtaking.
He starts, of course, with a general overview of Alexander’s campaigns making a number of pertinent statements often overlooked by the casual reader. There is, for instance, the fact that rural economies suffered as much if not more than the cities taken by Alexander since the army helped themselves to consume the food and livestock in their path leaving the local population totally depleted; or the fact that Alexander had no intention to stimulate economic growth in the lands he occupied. A true eye-opener is the way in which he managed or mismanaged his plunder. Money as such was not important to Alexander but the reaping of treasury was. Frank Holt is able to prove that all the gold and silver amassed by the king was not turned into coinage, far from it. In antiquity, money did not play the role we know today and payments persistently were made by barter and gifts of land (for instance to the new colonists) and others.
From this study, it transpires that Alexander’s money management is far beyond comprehension and that the appointment of his boyhood friend Harpalus as treasurer was not a success (rather a disaster) since he fled just before the Battle of Issus for reasons unspecified. Alexander trusted him a second time in Ecbatana and with a treasury far beyond any amount of money anyone had ever accumulated! There are limits, even to friendship, one would say and it is hard to believe that Alexander did not exercise any form of control over his financial managers of which Harpalus is only one example – yet the worst one – as he robbed Alexander of thousands of talents and led a life that might have served as model for the Roman Emperor Nero.
The army had lost and disposed of their wealth on two occasions and after crossing the Gedrosian Desert all was lost again and money became meaningless to the soldiers. How can Alexander not have been aware that his men were broke when they emerged from that hell? He made amends in Susa but it seems that once these soldiers reimbursed their own debts they had nothing left.
The sad conclusion is that nobody fared very well from Alexander’s campaigns, neither the Persians who lost their kings and livelihood to be ruled by foreign successors, nor the Macedonian soldiers who ended up fighting each other and were still demanding their salaries two years after the king’s death.
This great book concludes with carefully gleaned facts and figures arranged in four separate Appendixes: (1) Ancient Measures and Modern Conversions; (2) Summary of Reported Assets, from inheritance and homeland revenues, from war and diplomacy, and from tribute in conquered territories; (3) Summary of reported debts, inherited debts and specific losses and expenditures; (4) Where is it now, listing the known numismatic collections of Alexander coins. These tables are extremely useful to whoever wants to know every tiny detail and show, if needed, how thorough Frank Holt studied Alexander’s treasures.