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4.0 out of 5 stars Greek Bactria, 5 Jan. 2014
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This review is from: Thundering Zeus: The Making of Hellenistic Bactria (Hellenistic Culture and Society) (Hardcover)
This is another of Frank Holt's books focusing on Bactria, his second one published a few years after "Alexander in Bactria" (1993) and before "Lost World of the Golden King" (2012) which focuses on the latter period of the Greek Kings of Bactria. Given the scant written resources we have on Bactria, he focuses on archaeology and even more on numismatics, his speciality.

The book's title - "Thundering Zeus" - refers to the figure of Zeus holding thunder in his hand and which appears on the coins issued by the Greek Satraps and Kings of Bactria. "Thundering Zeus" focuses on the early days of Greco-Macedonian Bactria, after the death of Alexander and up to the last years of the third century BC. As such, it covers the crucial period of nearly half a century during which the frontier province was organised and developed under the two first Seleucid Kings (Selucos I Nikator and his son Antiochos I Sôter).

It also covers a second period during which the satraps of Bactria became progressively independent from the Seleucid Empire. This took place under Diodotos I, who never seems to have proclaimed himself King and to have formerly broken away, and his more reckless son Diodotos II, who definitely did break away with both his overlord and his father's more cautious policies. It also covers the overthrow of Diodotos II and his replacement by Euthydemus I who managed to maintain himself as King of Bactria despite the aggressive comeback of Antiochus III the Great, the Seleucid monarch.

Despite the rather technical details the author goes into when delving into numismatics, the author manages to tell a rather fascinating story in an engaging way. In particular, he shows to what extent these technical details are crucial because studying of these coins is the main way - and the most reliable one - that allows us nowadays to reconstitute a rough chronology of events. They also allow for glimpses of some of the main policies of the Diodotids and the issues that they were confronted with.

A fascinating section shows that the monetisation of Bactria started to take place under the first two Seleucids, and under Antiochus I in particular when he was his father's co-regent and viceroy for Asia. It did not take place under Alexander who barely had time to conquer this province and Sogdia and was anyway more interested in making them into marches to protect the northern frontier before he moved into India. This monetisation was further developed by the Diodotids and the first one in particular who issued more bronze coins and was clearly walking in the footsteps of his Seleucid overlords in doing so. This is where the author shows that while gold and silver coins were used for prestige purposes, large payments and to pay troops, it is the smaller bronze denominations that were really used in everyday transactions and it is these that would have been the most useful for the population and which would have circulated the most.

Another very interesting section (which is not to say that other sections are not interesting!) is the one where the author shows the drop in the quality and the rise in quantity of minted coins during the reign of Diodotus II. He links this to the increasing problems that he was confronted with, and the rebellion of Euthydemus who would end up by overthrowing him in particular.

There is much more contained in this book, including some interesting insights on the mints 5on Ai Khanoum in particular) used to produce the Bactrian coins, how these have been found since the mid-nineteenth century and the precautions that need to be taken when analysing them - there are many forgeries around. I will stop there for the purpose of this review and just add a few limits.

First, I did not fully appreciate the author's claims about being the first to establish the reigns and chronology of the Bactrian Kings. This is not quite correct, even if the author believes quite correctly that his predecessors either "made things up" (as Tarn typically did) and may have worked on inadequate samples of coins. Second, despite all his qualities, the author's narrative and analyses are also to some extent based on assumptions. However valuable these may be, I somewhat regret that he has not outlined them more clearly.

My third criticism is perhaps the most important one. The author sees the monarchs of Bactria as partaking in Alexander's aggressive heritage "unleashed at Babylon in BC 323 after his death" in the straight line of the Diadochi. In other words, he seems to want to believe that they imitated Alexander's Macedonian warlords in their free-for-all wars after the death of the Conqueror. This is a bit of a problem because in believing this, Frank Holt does something similar to what he blames (quite correctly) Tarn for. He jumps across most of the third century and ascribes to Greek mercenary officers the attitudes and mind sets of the Macedonian warlords, believing that what the Greco-Bactrians wanted above all was to be independent.

The problem here is that he omits alternative and perhaps simpler explanations that are better rooted in the local context. One of these is that with nomad pressure growing on the borders, and little help to expect from their Seleucid overlords embroiled in succession wars in the west during the second half of the third century, the Diotodids could only count on their own forces, and on shoring up whatever support they could within Bactria. Rather than trying to explain the breakaway by some lofty ideal of independence, a more simple explanation for their breakaway would be one couched in terms of survival against foreign attacks, and those of the Parthians in particular.

Anyway, despite these glitches, this is a superb and very interesting book well worth reading. Four solid stars.
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