Ancient Afghanistan

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The biggest gold coin of ancient times

Who could resist a tale about a colossal gold coin?

In this book, the tale is even better because it is real. Frank Holt, Professor of History at the Univ. of Houston, clearly relishes writing about the greatest numismatic find of all time, “the largest gold coin ever minted in the ancient world.”

Big enough to span the palm of a man’s hand, the coin was found in Afghanistan in the 1860s but was minted by King Eucratides the Great, who ruled Bactria from 170 to 145 BC. This mysterious kingdom, founded by Greeks in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death, was lost in the mists of time until coins starting surfacing in the 1700s.

As Holt details in this book, nearly everything we know about the kingdom of Bactria derives from the thousands of coins that have been unearthed in what is now Afghanistan. The wars that have ravaged that country for the past few decades have severely hampered efforts to learn more about the ancient kingdom.

Now, back to the gold colossus and its melodramatic history. A story is related that “a French gentleman, an expert of the British Museum” interviewed a man in London said to have “black, snaky eyes.” He related the following about the discovery of the coin by himself and six others.

“We quarreled over it. It was worth a fight. We fell on one another with knives and daggers. After a while five of the men rolled dead in the dust.” He sold the coin to the Frenchman for 1,000 pounds, which was $5,000 at the time.

The buyer believed that “even at the cost of five lives and a small fortune, he firmly believed that the coin was a bargain even had fifty or one hundred lives been sacrificed.”

That, says Holt, “is the famous story. Can a single word of it be true?” Many scholars have denounced it as a fabrication. According to Holt’s investigation, it is largely true. In any case, the coin is very real, and people can now see it at the Cabinet des Medailles in Paris.

Holt decries the use of “narrative numismatics” to create a history of Bactria. Too many authors, he says, “still cling to the worst enticements” of this method of reconstructing which rulers were related to one another and in what time sequence. Vivid imagery of what happened in Bactria has been created by some scholars on no firm evidence, making them little more than fairy tales.

The sad fact is we still know little about this kingdom that flourished for centuries on the northwest border of India. Holt has done a great service to archeology by sifting through the professional literature and presenting to the general reader what we do know Bactria, and how we came to know it.

Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan (343 pages, including 107 pages of notes and bibliography) is $39.95 from University of California Press. Visit their website:

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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