Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan

Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan

by Frank L. Holt

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Drawing on ancient historical writings, the vast array of information gleaned in recent years from the study of Hellenistic coins, and startling archaeological evidence newly unearthed in Afghanistan, Frank L. Holt sets out to rediscover the ancient civilization of Bactria.
In a gripping narrative informed by the author’s deep knowledge of his subject,


Drawing on ancient historical writings, the vast array of information gleaned in recent years from the study of Hellenistic coins, and startling archaeological evidence newly unearthed in Afghanistan, Frank L. Holt sets out to rediscover the ancient civilization of Bactria.
In a gripping narrative informed by the author’s deep knowledge of his subject, this book covers two centuries of Bactria’s history, from its colonization by remnants of Alexander the Great’s army to the kingdom’s collapse at the time of a devastating series of nomadic invasions. Beginning with the few tantalizing traces left behind when the ‘empire of a thousand cities’ vanished, Holt takes up that trail and follows the remarkable and sometimes perilous journey of rediscovery.

Lost World of the Ancient King describes how a single bit of evidence—a Greek coin—launched a search that drew explorers to the region occupied by the tumultuous warring tribes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Afghanistan. Coin by coin, king by king, the history of Bactria was reconstructed using the emerging methodologies of numismatics.
In the twentieth century, extraordinary ancient texts added to the evidence. Finally, one of the ‘thousand cities’ was discovered and excavated, revealing an opulent palace, treasury, temple, and other buildings. Though these great discoveries soon fell victim to the Afghan political crisis that continues today, this book provides a thrilling chronicle of the search for one of the world’s most enigmatic empires.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Holt has done a service in summarizing the scholarship about this outpost of Hellenism. Well written [and] of interest. . . . Recommended."--Choice
Choice - K. W. Harl
“Holt has done a service in summarizing the scholarship about this outpost of Hellenism. Well written [and] of interest. . . . Recommended.”

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
Hellenistic Culture and Society Series
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

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Lost World of the Golden King

In Search of Ancient Afghanistan

By Frank L. Holt


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95374-1


The Adventure Begins

Checklist Numismatics

Jean Foy Vaillant (1632–1706) could not endure another four months of slavery in the hands of Algerian pirates, so he took matters into his own mouth. The desperate Vaillant was in the midst of a dangerous numismatic journey when, about to be captured again, he swallowed his cargo of ancient gold coins. This gallant French physician had developed an insatiable interest in old Greek and Roman medals soon after he was shown a hoard freshly dug from a farm near Beauvais. Vaillant quickly became famous as one of the first savants to demonstrate the value of coins for the illumination of history. His erudition attracted the attention of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's finance minister, who commissioned Vaillant to expand the king's collection by searching abroad for rare specimens. In 1674, while on the second of his several Mediterranean voyages, this intrepid numismatist and his fellow shipmates fell into the clutches of an Algerian corsair. The French government negotiated Vaillant's release, and the return of the twenty gold and two hundred silver coins he had painstakingly gathered for the royal collection. It was on his way back to the port of Marseilles that Vaillant, his ship laboring to outrun yet another pirate attack, gobbled down his twenty gold treasures to keep them safe. The French vessel ran aground, and the numismatist escaped, though he suffered miserably from the gold still lodged in his gut. Well-meaning acquaintances suggested various purgatifs and vomitifs to speed the process of recovery. When an avid collector heard a description of what had been swallowed, he immediately purchased one of the pieces and then patiently waited with Vaillant for the hoard's final passage so that he could claim his prize. Such were the perils and payoffs of numismatics in its heroic age, at a time when—as Vaillant himself said—a collector could not always lounge comfortably in his study far from the dangers of shipwreck and slavery.

Over the course of his career, Vaillant explored Italy, Greece, Sicily, Persia, and Egypt. He also traveled to nearly all the major collections of Europe, where he gathered material for his extensive and often groundbreaking publications on the coinages of ancient Rome, Seleucid Asia, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Arsacid Parthia. Vaillant's work answered the strong antiquarian impulses of his age. Men and women of means—kings, queens, nobles, ministers, merchants—collected and studied artifacts as a matter of personal pleasure, enlightenment, and profit. Private cabinets of curiosities, the nuclei of future museums, could be found all over Europe. These were fed by feverish methods of acquisition, sometimes destructive, since there were as yet no professional standards of education or ethics for would-be archaeologists and numismatists; the material remains of the ancient world lay at the mercy of these well-meaning amateurs. In those times, Vaillant and his contemporaries acted the part of pioneers whose courage, energy, and genius are not to be slighted simply because their methods do not exactly square with practices not yet invented. To borrow a remark of Sir Mortimer Wheeler's: "One may as well condemn Napoleon for not using nuclear submarines at the Battle of Trafalgar."

Vaillant pursued a kind of numismatics that we might now describe, but not disparage, as checklist numismatics. This approach to coins, still popular today, tends to satisfy the concerns of collectors and art connoisseurs; it treats coins as individual objects, using them to validate or illustrate some list derived from other sources. In the early stages of studying any ancient topic, this straightforward methodology can be productive even if quite rudimentary. Vaillant and his patrons aimed first and foremost to match the rulers of ancient empires to the coins they minted, checking off each member of a given dynasty as his or her money came to hand. In Vaillant's last great opus, his Arsacidarum Imperium, which appeared posthumously in 1725, he devoted two seminal volumes to the Parthian empire. He set forth a detailed chronology of the dynasty, followed by a reign-by-reign history, all supported by quotations from ancient texts. Pulling together these scattered Greek and Latin sources was itself a task of commendable erudition, marking Vaillant as an historian and philologist as well as a numismatist. For each Parthian ruler, Vaillant tried to provide drawings of a portrait coin taken either from his own collection or from that of another antiquarian such as the French king. This simple checklist approach illustrated the line of Parthian dynasts, without elaborate commentary on the coins themselves, much as some collectors still endeavor to own one coin representing each of the Twelve Caesars or to fill every slot in a notebook of U.S. state quarters. This proved to be an important beginning, even though it relegated coins to a secondary role subservient to the texts. Money did not write the story; it merely put faces to the names found in dynastic lists derived independently from ancient literature.

Among the kings discussed by Vaillant were a few from Bactria whose histories touched in some way upon his treatment of neighboring Parthia. Vaillant worked these shadowy figures into his narrative, although he naturally did not illustrate any of them since no coins from Bactria were yet known. From ancient writers, Vaillant deduced the existence of kings named Diodotus I and II, Euthydemus, Menander, Demetrius, Eucratides the Great, and Eucratides II. The posthumous publication of Vaillant's book in 1725 returned these monarchs to the realm of scholarly inquiry for the first time in centuries.

Ten years later, on May 1, 1735, another numismatist posthumously gave new life to the lost world of the Bactrian kings. The deceased was Comes Iakov Vilimovich Brius (Count Jacob Daniel Bruce; see fig. 1). Born in Moscow the son of a Scottish mercenary, Bruce (1670–1735) rose to fame as a military and scientific adviser to Peter the Great. An expert in all manner of practical pursuits, Bruce associated with Sir Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley; he assembled a vast personal library to support his overlapping careers as a soldier, collector, scholar, and diplomat. No foreigner anywhere in the Russian empire outranked him until he quietly retired in order to spend his remaining hours in uninterrupted study. Count Bruce died on the last day of April 1735, with one remaining good deed to perform.

By prior arrangement, on the day after his death the count's considerable accumulation of antiquities passed into the collections of the Imperial Museum, in St. Petersburg. Bruce had made preparations for this bequest only a few days earlier, while meeting with a brilliant scholar named Theophilus Siegfried Bayer (1694–1738). One small item in this benefaction profoundly impressed Bayer, and from it he derived at once the bold plan to find what he could of the vanished Bactrians. Bayer published the results of this research in 1738, the year of his own premature death, in a long Latin treatise with a title to match: Historia Regni Graecorum Bactriani in qua simul Graecarum in India Coloniarum Vetus Memoria ("History of the Bactrian Kingdom of the Greeks, Together with the Ancient Tradition of Greek Colonies in India"). This work was perhaps the most important of Bayer's career, and it would not have been undertaken but for the fortuitous bequest of Bruce.

The catalytic discovery in the dead count's collection was a unique silver coin that set Bayer on his mission (fig. 2). Bruce had acquired the tetradrachm some years earlier in either Astrakhan or Kasan, and Bayer had no doubts about its authenticity. The coin showed in profile the bust of a king wearing a diadem and a plumed helmet adorned with a bull's horn and ear. The monarch also wore a Greek cavalry cloak. On the other side (the reverse), Bayer identified two cavalrymen on galloping horses, each soldier armed with a long Macedonian lance called a sarissa; Bayer failed to recognize in these figures the mythological heroes Castor and Pollux, twin sons of Zeus who were savior gods among the Greeks. What most excited Bayer were the three words stamped into the coin's design: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "[a coin] of King Eucratides the Great." This tangible evidence of a long-lost king on Vaillant's list sent Bayer rummaging for clues about the man on the coin.

Theophilus Bayer consulted the work of Vaillant to guide him toward the scattered ancient sources for the history of Bactria. Building on the basic king list and chronology compiled by Vaillant, Bayer expanded the topic into a richly documented treatise that reached back to the legendary travels of the god Dionysus and included considerable detail on geography and languages. For the period following Alexander's death, the so-called Hellenistic Age (a term not yet invented in Bayer's lifetime), Bayer found evidence of eight Greek kings who ruled in Bactria and neighboring India from about 255 to 142 B.C.E. Like Vaillant, Bayer argued that Bactria gained its independence from Alexander's successors through the agency of a rebellious regional governor named Theodotus (Diodotus) I, who was succeeded by his son, Theodotus (Diodotus) II. In about 221 B.C.E., a usurper named Euthydemus ascended the Bactrian throne and later foiled an attempt by Antiochus the Great to repatriate Central Asia as part of the Seleucid empire. During the war between Euthydemus and Antiochus, Euthydemus's son Demetrius impressed the invading king and was promised a Seleucid princess as his bride. This Demetrius, it was believed, never ruled Bactria. Instead, he governed in India for many years. Meanwhile, the Bactrian throne allegedly passed directly to Euthydemus's supposed brother Menander in 196 B.C.E. About fifteen years later, the warlike Eucratides took power in both Bactria and India, but he was eventually assassinated in 146 B.C.E. by his own son, presumably a Eucratides II—the sixth and last of these Greek kings of Bactria; two other Greeks (Demetrius and an Apollodotus) ruled only in India. Bayer put Eucratides II's death in about 142 B.C.E.

Bayer's numismatic contribution lay in checking off a coin issued by one of these kings from Vaillant's list. In his zeal to mark off another, Bayer illustrated a second specimen, which he erroneously attributed to Diodotus (fig. 3). This overpowering compulsion is one of the inherent dangers of checklist numismatics. The small bronze coin in question showed a bearded figure of Hercules (Herakles in Greek) on the obverse and the hero's club on the reverse. The legend read [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Dio Diou) rather than the expected [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Diodotou, "of Diodotus"). As a result, the association of this coin with King Diodotus has rarely been accepted by other numismatists. One scholar writing more than a century after Bayer's death dared briefly to place this specimen alongside the name of Menander on the Bactrian king list but soon thought better of it.

King Eucratides, on the other hand, at last had a portrait to accompany his name, in spite of the many unfortunate factors that had conspired against the survival of either. Living as we do in a world drowning in documents and computer data, we too often forget how easily history loses track of things. In the premodern world, essential written sources could not be mass-produced or instantly replicated; every copy of every volume had to be penned by hand, often at great expense. Papyrus, the paper of the day, was furthermore a frail custodian of the written word, because it was constantly threatened by fire, flood, decay, and—because of its rarity—relentless recycling. Thus, only a sampling of ancient literature was ever handwritten in sufficient copies to escape total eradication over time. For example, only seven of the 120 plays crafted by the wildly popular Sophocles of Athens managed to survive this winnowing effect. Weighty historical works, some of them longer than a hundred volumes (i.e., rolled papyrus scrolls), faced even greater odds. Compounding these risks was the tendency over time to abridge long works to make them cheaper and more palatable for less dedicated readers. The success of this strategy often doomed the original versions, which were essentially replaced by an abbreviated product. This practice created an inevitable historical shrinkage, with less and less useful information trickling down to later generations.

The history of a king like Eucratides had to endure these caprices of man and nature, plus another major obstacle specific to his realm: the obvious remoteness of Bactria from the main centers of classical civilization. Even the pettiest of princes living close to Greece and Rome stood a better chance of being noticed by historians working there than did a great king reigning thousands of miles away in Central Asia. Thus, even now Eucratides the Great makes no appearance in the index of one standard history of the Hellenistic Age, whereas every Ptolemy in Egypt (down to the nonentity brothers of Cleopatra VII) rates attention. We might call this survival by association: persons entangled in any way with a Cleopatra or Caesar are more likely to be mentioned than the mightiest who were detached from the main dramas of the Mediterranean world. Whatever may or may not have been written about the Bactrian kings for their own sake, their continued literary existence depended largely on their connections to neighboring Parthia and India. In fact, if not for Eucratides' association with Mithridates and the Parthians, who in turn were important to Roman history, Vaillant and Bayer might never have found the name Eucratides surviving anywhere in ancient literature.

In the first century B.C.E., for example, a writer named Apollodorus of Artemita composed in Greek a magisterial multivolume history called Parthica ("On the Parthians"). Sadly, this work no longer exists, but it was occasionally quoted in other ancient works for the relevance of its subject matter. The geographer Strabo (64 B.C.E.–21 C.E.) therefore cites Apollodorus's Parthica when describing the eastern edges of Greek civilization. Strabo complains:

Not many who have written about India in recent times, or who sail there now, report anything that is accurate. In fact, Apollodorus who wrote the Parthica, when referring to the Greeks who broke Bactria free from the Syrian kings descended from Seleucus Nicator, does say on the one hand that they grew in power and attacked India as well; but, on the other hand, Apollodorus discloses nothing new, and even contradicts what is known by reporting that these Greeks conquered more of India than the Macedonians [under Alexander]. He actually says that Eucratides ruled a thousand cities.

In another passage, the same geographer mentions the growth of Parthian power:

They also annexed part of Bactria, having overpowered the Scythians and, still earlier, those around Eucratides. At present, the Parthians rule so much territory and so many peoples that they have become, so to speak, rivals of the Romans.

Strabo adds that the earlier independence of Parthia coincided with the rebellion of Diodotus against the Seleucids, and that Bactria soon prospered:

Because of the excellence of the land, the Greeks who rebelled in Bactria grew so powerful that they conquered both Ariana and India as well, according to Apollodorus of Artemita. And so they subdued more peoples than Alexander had done, especially Menander if indeed he crossed the Hypanis River toward the east and advanced as far as the Imaus; for some were subdued by Menander himself, and some by Demetrius son of Euthydemus, the king of Bactria. They took over not only Patalene but also the rest of the coast, which is called Saraostus and the kingdom of Sigerdis. In sum, Apollodorus says that Bactria is the jewel of all Ariana, and moreover its authority stretched all the way to the Seres and Phryni.


Excerpted from Lost World of the Golden King by Frank L. Holt. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Frank L. Holt, Professor of History at the University of Houston, is the author of
Into the Land of Bones
, Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions, and Thundering Zeus, all published by UC Press.

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