Although the title includes only Bactria, one should see this book in the broader context of Bactria + Sogdiana, generally reunited under the label of Central Asia. Beside his Introduction, Frank Holt divides his book in three distinct parts: before the arrival of Alexander; during Alexander’s occupation; and what became of the area after his death. All in all a far from easy task.
I was aware of Frank Holt’s account of Alexander’s campaign through today’s Afghanistan in Into the Land of Bones, a fascinating and captivating voyage in the wake of the Macedonian King. I expected to find the same in this book about Bactria, but this is an entirely different ballgame.
In Alexander's days, Bactria was at the far end of the known world where nobody “civilized” wanted to go and where nobody really knew where it started or where it ended. Even a meticulous geographer as Strabo got confused between Bactria and Sogdiana on many occasions, and Arrian and Curtius were no great help either as they managed to give contradictory accounts using Bactria and Sogdiana randomly. As it turns out, modern historians are not more successful in their endeavours. Rivers are not exact frontiers but seem rather to bring the desert peoples together, and the same goes for mountains where passes serve to commute between different peoples instead of separating them.
So far, I had a rather confused view of Central Asia and I was hoping that Frank Holt would shed some light on the subject. In a way he did, as besides Strabo, Arrian and Curtius, he closely analyzed all available ancient authors like Pliny (National History), Claudius Ptolemy (Geography), Ammianus-Macellus (on Persia), and Stephanus the Byzantine (Ethnika). Yet in spite of his thorough study, and consulting other modern writers the end result is rather disappointing. Facts and dates are so much intertwined that there seems to be no way to clarify the situation.
I assume that this explains why Frank Holt talks about Alexander AND Bactria instead of Alexander IN Bactria. It makes sense. Pending new discoveries, new excavations, and new theories, Frank Holt is the best we have for now to get a good overall view of Bactria and Sogdiana, roughly of Central Asia.
The book is not easy to come by, the latest print dates back to 1989, but it is an extremely useful tool for those who want to understand the complexity and the genius of Alexander’s maneuvers. After all, he spent three years of his short life in Central Asia – three years out of the ten during which he marched through Asia!