|Lysimachos lifetime silver tetradrachm from Amphipolis, Macedonia, c. 288-281 BC, 16.7g, Sear 6815, SNG Cop. 1114, SNG Hart 351, Thompson 193, Mørkholm 178, Müller 106.
The obverse of this coin depicts a deified portrait of Alexander the Great wearing a Horn of Ammon (ram's horn, symbolic of the Greco-Egyptian composite god Zeus-Ammon) and diadem (headband of cloth and ivy leaves worn as a sign of royalty). Alexander believed he was the son of Zeus, or at least tried to promulgate this belief to support his military and political objectives. The reverse depicts Athena sitting on a backless throne and wearing a chiton (tunic), peplos (robe), and crested Corinthian helmet. She's holding in her right hand Nike, who's crowning Lysimachos' name with a laurel wreath. In her left hand Athena is holding a lance, with her left arm resting on a shield that has at its center a lion's head. In the reverse left and right field of this particular specimen, a caduceus (walking stick) and K serve as mint marks. The inscription on the above and other Lysimachos tetradrachms, as well as on less commonly seen drachms, translates into "Of King Lysimachos."
The most striking feature of this coin is Alexander's fiery gaze. The large, wide-open eye stares out of a deep shadow cast by the heavy brow, creating the image of a bold and aggressive leader animated with divine inspiration. Looking at this coin, it's not difficult to imagine Alexander entering battle, leading his men in a charge, victorious. This coin was issued after Lysimachos invaded Macedonia c. 288 BC, shortly before Lysimachos died c. 281 BC in battle against another of Alexander's successors, Seleukos I. Unlike Ptolemy I and Seleukos I, whose coins are pictured below, Lysimachos founded no dynasty. But like the coins of Alexander, the coins of Lysimachos because of their widespread acceptance continued to be minted by others for many years after his death, into the first century BC. These coins were also imitated by silver coins of Kalchedon/Chalcedon, Skostokos, Paerisades III, and local Thracian and/or Celtic tribes. What's more, the seated Athena on the reverse of Lysimachos coins was the prototype for the seated Roma on Roman coins, which in turn was the prototype for both the seated Britannia on British coins beginning in 1672 (and continuing to the present with the United Kingdom's Britannia silver bullion coins) and the seated Liberty on U.S. trade dollars from 1873 to 1885. The Alexander portrait on the obverse of these coins was the prototype for modern Greece's 100 drachmas coin minted from 1990 to 2000, an example of which is pictured as the last coin on this page.
|What did Alexander the Great look like? Nobody knows with any degree of certainty.
What we do know is the great diversity of portraits of him on coins, from ancient times to the present. The coinage
after Alexander's is the main focus of this investigation, though answering this question also requires an analysis
of the coinage preceding his and his own.
A small minority of coin dealers describe Alexander the Great's own coinage as depicting an image of himself, perhaps as a way of selling up their wares, but the numismatic and historical evidence argues against it, along with weight of expert opinion, which is virtually unanimous. The issue involves more than just coinage. It also involves the larger issue of how humankind has viewed itself in relationship to what we consider deity.
The single most incontrovertible piece of evidence that the obverse portrait on Alexander's lifetime imperial silver coinage and most of his local bronze coinage is Herakles is that in the majority of cases this is the very same portrait that appeared on other Macedonian coins before Alexander, including those before he was born.
The same young (clean shaven) Herakles image on most of Alexander's coins struck during his lifetime, particularly those struck in his homeland of Macedonia, appeared on the coins struck by previous Macedonian kings, including Philip II c. 359-336 BC (Sear Greek 6686), Perdikkas III c. 365-359 BC (Sear Greek 1514), Amyntas III c. 393-369 BC (Sear Greek 1510), Aeropos c. 396-392 BC (Westermark 14), and Archelaos I c. 413-399 BC (SNG Cop. 507).
According to legend, this Macedonian royal line, the Argead dynasty, was descended from Herakles. As the personification of physical strength and courage, Herakles was frequently appropriated for foundation myths in the ancient world. It only follows that Alexander's choice of the Herakles image was a proclamation that he was assuming his rightful place as King of Macedon.
Before the time of Alexander and his father Philip II, many Greeks considered Macedonia a barbarous non-Greek nation, though the Macedonians felt otherwise about themselves and worked hard to be accepted as Greeks. Just as Philip II hired Aristotle to be Alexander's teacher, Archelaos I, who reigned c. 413-399 BC, reached out to the great playwright Euripides, inviting him to his court. Archelaos was also the first Macedonian ruler to use Herakles' image on his coinage, a practice made famous by Alexander, as well as the first Macedonian ruler to use Apollo's image on his coinage, a practice made famous by Philip II. The purpose of this Greek iconography, which marked a sharp change from previous practice, was to proclaim the Greekness of Macedon.
Some have speculated that the coinage of Philip II with an Apollo obverse and a horse and rider reverse depict on the reverse Alexander riding his horse Bukephalos. But these coins are commonly described, and rightfully so, as depicting a boy on horseback or a jockey on Philip's horse, Philip having taken great pride in winning a race at the Olympic games with his horse. These coins were issued too early for this figure to have been Alexander as a boy.
Ancient fourree counterfeit Lysimachos tetradrachm, 14.1g.
|The model for the first Macedonian Herakles coins was a tetradrachm from
Kamarina, Sicily, c. 450-420 BC (Sear Greek 758) that depicted a bearded Herakles, according to Charles Seltman
in his 1949 book Masterpieces of Greek Coinage. Kamarina also issued a similar coin depicting a young Herakles (Sear Greek 759),
which is an even more likely candidate. Both coin types more clearly show the lion's jaws wrapped around the back
of Herakles' head than Alexander's coins. Even earlier coins depicting Herakles include a stater from Dikaia, Thrace,
c. 515-490 BC (Sear Greek 1345), a Thraco-Macedonian tetrobol c. 480 BC (Leu Auction 91 Lot 109), an electrum hekte
from Lesbos, Asia Minor, c. 480-450 BC (Sear Greek 4239), and an electrum hekte from Erythrai, Ionia, Asia Minor,
c. 6th century BC (SNG von Aulock 1942).
Rulers after Alexander issued the same Herakles/Zeus type as Alexander but with their own inscriptions, including Philip III, Seleukos I (and his successors Antiochos I, Antiochos II, and Seleukos II, who sometimes used Seleukos' inscription, sometimes their own), Lysimachos, Demetrios Poliorketes, Antigonos Gonatas, the Paeonian dynast Audoleon, and the Thracian dynasts Kersibaulos and Kavaros. Seleukos I issued one unusual issue in Alexander's name that's identical to a standard posthumous Alexander tetradrachm except that it features Zeus holding Nike instead of an eagle.
Other rulers, regions, and peoples, before, during, and after Alexander's time, issued coins featuring a portrait of Herakles on the obverse but with different reverses, including but undoubtedly not limited to Herakleia c. 433-400 BC, the Sindi c. 425-400 BC, Selinos c. 415-409 BC, Evagoras I c. 411-373 BC, Philotas c. 400-380 BC, Kyzikos c. 400-330 BC, Mallos c. 385-333 BC, Kephaloidion c. 350 BC, Metapontion c. 350-300 BC, Kroton c. 333-331 BC, Pergamon c. 330-284 BC, Kassander c. 316-306 BC, Karystos late 4th century BC, Siculo-Punic c. 300-289 BC, Erythrai c. 300-250 BC, Caria c. 285-258 BC, Aitolian League c. 279-260 BC, Messana c. 278-275 BC, Pyrrhos c. 278-275 BC, Taras c, 278-272 BC, Carthage c. 241-238 BC, Roman anonymous Aes grave c. 240-217 BC, Roman anonymous AE double litra c. 230-225 BC, Brettian League c. 211-108 BC, Lucania c. 210-203 BC, Adaeus c. 200 BC, Kallatis c. 3rd-2nd centuries BC, Cn. Gellius 138 BC, M. Volteius c. 78 BC, Decopolis-Gadara c. 64 BC, and Faustus Cornelius Sulla c. 56 BC.
|Lysimachos Mithradates the Great-portrait tetradrachm, Byzantion, Thrace, c.
75-70 BC, 15.2g, Sear 1589, SNG Cop. 1142, Müller 175.
The obverse of this coin depicts a similarly adorned portrait as on other Lysimachos-type tetradrachms, with a Horn of Ammon and a diadem, but this portrait appears to be of Mithradates VI (the Great) rather than Alexander the Great. The reverse depicts the traditional Athena holding Nike who's crowning Alexander's name along with the inscription "Of King Lysimachos." As with similar varieties, this specimen also depicts the letters "BY" for Byzantion under Athena's throne, a trident (spear) in the exergue, and is struck in low relief on a large flan.
The Mithradates the Great portrait on this coin is similar to the portraits of Mithradates on some of the late posthumous Alexander the Great tetradrachms from Mesembria and Odessos. This coin was likely minted by Mithradates during the Second Mithradatic War as part of his effort to free Asia Minor from Rome, an effort that ultimately failed. Byzantion would become Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, which would become Istanbul, Turkey's largest city.
|A few Roman emperors or their family members issued coins or medallions portraying
themselves as Hercules, wearing a lion skin headdress, including Hadrian, who reigned from 117 to 138 AD, Commodus,
who reigned from 180 to 192 AD, and Maxentius, the son of Maximianus, who reigned from 286 to 310 AD. Maximianus
issued coins depicting a portrait of himself on the obverse and a portrait of a bearded Hercules on the reverse.
Still more coins, both Greek-era and Roman-era, depict Herakles in other ways. See Hercules from Beast Coins for more about Herakles and Herakles on coins.
Some Roman Provincial coins (Nero, Ortho, Vespasian, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, etc.) of Alexandria, Egypt, a city founded by Alexander, feature a reverse portrait that looks as if it could represent Alexander. The figure is adorned with an elephant skin headdress, similar to the elephant skin Alexander portrait on the obverse of earlier Egyptian coins of the Ptolemies. This figure, however, is commonly identified as the city goddess Alexandria. Though the sex of the figure with some coins is unclear, it's clearly female with others that depict Alexandria with hair curls or drapery covering her breasts.
With Alexander the Great's own coins, the picture gets somewhat muddy with some of his later lifetime issues, from a handful of cities, that appear to incorporate some of what are likely his facial features in the Herakles portrait, based upon later images of Alexander on coinage and artwork. With these, you can detect the protruding brow, long and narrow nose, pursing upper lip, strong jaw, thick neck, and fiery eyes. This contrasts sharply with the Herakles image on most of his lifetime coins, a portrait with a wider face, higher cheekbone, and duller eyes.
It's likely that this melding of Alexander's facial features with those of the traditional Herakles image was done unofficially by mint magistrates or die engravers, not through an official directive from Alexander, as it was done far from universally.
It would have been politically unwise for Alexander to be the first Greek ruler to officially place his own image on his coins in democracy-minded Greece, particularly during the early years of Alexander's reign before he established his authority. Greeks at the time abhorred the Eastern tradition of deifying kings during their lifetime and the Eastern practice of putting portraits of rulers on coins. Greece in general was as different in lifestyle and philosophy from Persia and the indigenous peoples of the East in ancient times as Western society in general is from the Moslem and Arab worlds today.
Macedon during the fourth century BC was firmly entrenched as part of the Greek world. This is true despite the unconvincing attempts in recent years by some of the Slavic people of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia to appropriate the ancient Macedonian heritage and divorce the ancient Macedonians from their Greekness. Ancient Macedonians of this period considered themselves Greek (though some Athenians didn't -- snobbery existed back then too), worshipped Greek gods, celebrated Greek festivals, used Greek names and the Greek alphabet, spoke a dialect of the Greek language, and participated in the Olympics with other Greeks. The Persians and other indigenous peoples of the East, on the other hand, lived beyond the Greek world, didn't consider themselves Greek, didn't worship Greek gods, didn't use the Greek language, didn't participate in the Olympics, and were not in fact Greek. It was the Greeks who gave Western civilization such bedrock ideals as individualism, democracy, rationalism, and the separation between political and religious authority.
|Lysimachos Alexander-portrait gold stater from Kallatis, Thrace, c. 44-42 BC, 8.3g, Sear 1661, SNG Cop. 1089v. (different mint mark under Nike).
The portrait on this coin is thought by some to depict the most realistic portrait of Alexander the Great on late posthumous Lysimachos-type staters and by others, such as SNG Cop., to depict what may be a portrait of Mithradates the Great instead of Alexander the Great. The reverse depicts the traditional Athena holding Nike who's crowning Lysimachos' name along with the inscription "Of King Lysimachos." As with similar varieties, this specimen also depicts a thunderbolt, symbol of Zeus, under Athena's throne and is characterized by rough, bumpy surfaces.
There's debate over the when and by whom this and similar Lysimachos-type staters from Tomis, Istros, and Byzantion were minted. Some believe they were minted by Brutus c. 44-42 BC to pay mercenaries during the Roman civil war following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Others believe they were minted earlier by Mithradates the Great, c. 88-86 BC. The former is the more plausible attribution. The unevenness of the coin's surfaces, evident on all of these coins, was caused by die rust. The dies used to strike these coins were likely left over from the time of Mithradates the Great, about 40 years before this coin was struck. These are among the most affordable of all ancient Greek gold coins. Lysimachos himself struck similar gold staters more than two centuries earlier, and after Lysimachos others struck Lysimachos-type staters as well.
|The first human portraits to appear on coinage appeared on coins from the
East. Likely candidates include coins of the Persian satraps Themistocies and Tissaphernes in the middle or late
fifth century BC (the most interesting coin of the latter is a tetradrachm in which Tissaphernes replaced the image
of Athena with his portrait on a Persian imitation of an Athenian Owl). Other candidates were coins of the Lycian
dynasts Kheriga and Kherei, who were under Persian domination, in the third quarter of the 5th century BC.
On the other hand, the possibility exists that Alexander gave his tacit approval to the practice of others incorporating his features into the Herakles image of his coinage near the end of his life. (With a scarce electrum sixth stater from Mytilene, Asia Minor [Sear Greek 4252], a similar phenomenon may have happened, with some of Alexander's facial features incorporated into obverse image of a beardless Zeus). This was a time when, after Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, the greatest the world had yet seen, he began acting more like a Persian than a Greek dynast, wearing Persian as well as Greek clothing and encouraging the Persian practice of obeisance (proskynesis), of his subjects kissing his hand or prostrating themselves before him, much to the consternation of the Greeks.
The picture is complicated further by the fact that after Alexander's death, it's likely that at least in some cases people regarded the Herakles portrait on Alexander-type silver coinage as that of Alexander himself, given coinage issued in the East after his death that clearly depicted Alexander as Herakles, including a second century BC tetradrachm of the Bakrian king Agathokles featuring a traditional Herakles head with an obverse inscription that translates into "Alexander, son of Philip" (Sear Greek 7553). But in all probability Herakles wasn't intended as Alexander with the majority of Alexander's lifetime coinage, on which the posthumous coinage was based. Some of what are likely his facial features also appeared on some posthumous Alexander-type silver and gold coins in the guise of Herakles or Athena as well as some posthumous Philip II-type gold coins in the guise of Apollo or Herakles.
|Ptolemy I Alexander-portrait silver tetradrachm from Alexandria, Egypt, c. 310-305 BC, 15.7g, Sear 7750v., SNG Cop. 30, Svoronos 169, Anthony 207.
The obverse of this coin depicts another deified portrait of Alexander the Great, this one, as with other Ptolemaic Alexander-portrait coins, with his head covered by an elephant skin headdress, including tusk and trunk, and a Horn of Ammon, with an aegis (cloak) of Zeus tied around his neck. The elephant imagery is thought to have symbolized eternity and commemorated Alexander's victories in India. The reverse depicts Athena Alkidemos wearing a crested Corinthian helmet, peplos (loose robe), and mantle (loose sleaveless coat). Athena is carrying a sword in her right hand and a shield in her left. In the reverse right field, the eagle standing on a thunderbolt, symbolic of Zeus, was a personal device of Ptolemy I and was later used as the main reverse device on most Ptolemaic coinage. The Macedonian helmet and delta-iota on this particular specimen are mint marks. The inscription translates into "Of Alexander." These coins were imitated by gold coins of Seleukos I and Agathokles of Syracuse.
Ptolemy I, known as Soter (Savior), was the first of Alexander's successors to stop minting Alexander's Herakles coins and start minting coins bearing Alexander's explicit portrait, c. 321 BC (scholars differ on exactly when this happened), which he may have done to stress his connection to the great emperor from whom he derived his power (according to the ancient historians Curtius and Pausanias, Ptolemy was an illegitimate child of Philip II, Alexander's father). The first of these coins featured the traditional Zeus reverse of Alexander's coins, then the reverse was changed as well, to the Nike reverse, c. 315 BC. Drachms and hemidrachms were minted as well as tetradrachms. The above coin, which has a more urbane portrait of Alexander than Ptolemy's earlier Alexander-portrait coins and Lysimachos' Alexander-portrait coins, is part of a large volume of reduced-weight tetradrachms minted in the years shortly before Ptolemy I introduced coins bearing his own image, c. 305 BC, the first of Alexander's successors to do this as well, which he did after proclaiming himself king. The Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt lasted until 30 BC when Cleopatra VI, "Queen of the Nile," took her own life or was murdered after she and Marc Antony were defeated by Octavian, who would become the first emperor of Rome in 27 BC.
|The first explicit, official portrait of Alexander the Great to appear on
standard circulating coins appeared on some of his successors, or diadochi: Ptolemy I (who was the first to do this), Lysimachos (the most beautifully rendered
portrait), and Seleukos I. With Seleukos, scholars differ on whether the image on his silver coins is Alexander,
Seleukos, the god Dionysos, or some combination of the three. Seleukos also issued gold and bronze types that are
described as depicting Alexander, though with the bronzes the obverse figure is sometimes identified as Medusa
or Alexander as Medusa. To my eyes, the image on the tetradrachms and other silver denominations closely resembles
the Alexander portraits on the coins of Lysimachos and Ptolemy.
Other portraits of Alexander the Great appeared later in Macedonia on Aesillas tetradrachms of the fist century BC and Koinon of Macedonia bronzes of the 3rd century AD (Macedonia was under Roman control in both cases), on bronze coins of Ptolemy I, II, III, IV, V, VI, and VIII from the late 4th century to the late 2nd centuries BC, and on other less voluminous coinage, including 2nd century BC tetradrachms of the Baktrian king Agathokles, 1st century BC Roman Provincial Asia Minor bronze coins from Alexanderia-ad-Issum and 3rd century AD Roman Provincial Asia Minor bronze coins from Apollonia Mordiaeum and Aigeai (cults in which Alexander was worshipped as a god flourished in the Greek cities of Asia Minor after his death), 3rd century AD Roman Provincial bronze coins of Elagabalus from Gerasa in present-day Jordan, rare Roman 3rd century AD gold medallions found in Abukir, Egypt, and Tarsus, Turkey (a number of Roman emperors, Caracalla and and Severus Alexander in particular, styled themselves after the great Alexander), and Roman 4th century AD bronze contorniates (medallions with raised rims).
|Ptolemy II Alexander-portrait bronze (AE-23) from Alexandria, Egypt, c. 285-246 BC, Sear 7780v., Svoronos 424, SNG Cop. 158v. (delta instead of A.
The above coin depicts one of three different obverse portraits on Ptolemaic bronze coins that have been identified as Alexander the Great. The portrait on this coin portrays Alexander similarly adorned as on Ptolemy I's silver coins, wearing an elephant skin headdress and a Horn of Ammon. The same Alexander portrait also appears on some of the bronze coins of Ptolemy I, Ptolemy III, Ptolemy IV, and Ptolemy VIII. The reverse of the above coin, as with most Ptolemaic bronzes, depicts an eagle standing on a thunderbolt, both symbols of Zeus, with the eagle this case standing left and spreading its wings. The inscription translates into "Of King Ptolemy."
Ptolemy II, known as Philadelphus (Loving His Brother), also loved his sister. After marrying the daughter of Lysimachos, he then married his own sister, which was common practice among royalty in Egypt but shocked the Greek public. Ptolemaic Egypt grew to its greatest prosperity and influence under the reign of Ptolemy II. Among other things he built the famous library at Alexandria and the Pharos lighthouse, considered one of the “seven wonders of the world.”
During the Renaissance, upon the rediscovery of the marvels of classical
times, medals were struck in the likeness of ancient coins, indicating that people at that time believed that Alexander
the Great put his own image on his silver and gold coins. Included here were works of the 16th century Italian
medalists Alexandro Cesati and Valerio Belli. But this was before the advent of modern numismatics and the widespread
knowledge of coins struck during and before Alexander's lifetime.
Some scholars feel that all surviving images of Alexander, including those on coinage, were either too idealized or too far removed from his times for us to know with any degree of confidence what he looked like. My view is that despite the idealization, the core of Alexander's likeness comes through in the repetition of common elements on coins, statues, and other artwork, a likeness that differs substantially from the Herakles on the majority of his lifetime coinage.
|Ptolemy I Alexander-portrait bronze (AE-19) from Alexandria, Egypt, c. 310-305 BC, Sear 7766v., Svoronos 155, SNG Cop. 38.
The portrait on the above coin is sometimes identified as Alexander the Great, sometimes as Apollo. The figure has long hair and wears a Horn of Ammon and diadem but no elephant skin headdress. Along with an eagle, the reverse of this particular specimen depicts an aplustre (ornamental piece of wood at a ship's stern). This coin was minted before Ptolemy I, along with Alexander's other successors, proclaimed himself king c. 305 BC, and it thus features the inscription "Of Ptolemy" rather than "Of King Ptolemy," though it's difficult to see it on this specimen. This specimen has an attractive earthen or "desert sand" patina.
|On posthumous Alexander-type coinage, a full and clear portrait of a recognizable
person finally did appear, but it wasn't Alexander. Instead, it was Mithradates the Great, with his portrait appearing
on tetradrachms minted in the Black Sea area near the end this coinage, almost three hundred years after it began.
It's clear that these coins represent Mithradates as Herakles because of a very similar portrait of Mithradates,
without the lion skin headdress, that appeared on other coinage of his. Mithradates VI was the last Hellenistic
ruler to challenge the power of Rome, waging three wars, unsuccessfully.
On earlier Black Sea Alexander-type tetradrachms, those depicting a "fat Herakles" portrait (the same portrait on each) and a lion skin headdress with the fur on the lion's face depicted as dots or speckles, the image diverges so greatly from the traditional Herakles that it may well depict a local dynast. I could find no direct evidence of this, however, and the only discussion in the literature that I've found about this is a 1968 Numismatic Chronicle article by Martin Price in which he says that the portrait is "possibly a local ruler." Given the rich heritage of coinage in Thrace, though still largely unexplored, I'd have no hesitation in attributing these portraits as "Thracian dynast."
Apparently more work needs to be done before these coins can be attributed to a specific dynast. Here's one possibility: These coins are dated 175-65 BC, according to Martin Price (Price 1039-1101 and 1177-1181), and 175-100 BC, according to Ivan Karayotov in his 1994 book The Coinage of Mesambria (Karayotov 232-680). Kotys II (sometimes referred to simply as Kotys) was king of the Odrysae, the most powerful Thracian tribe, during the second century BC. He allied with Perseas/Perseus of Macedonia in its war against Rome, which culminated in Macedonia's defeat c. 168 BC. Kotys is known to have minted bronze coins, according to Yordanka Youroukova in his 1974 book Coins of the Ancient Thracians. Perhaps these "fat Herakles" tetradrachms depict Kotys as Herakles just as later coins depicted Mithradates as Herakles, with the "fat Herakles" design used as a type during and after Kotys' reign.
There's some additional variation in the portraits of Black Sea tetradrachms after the "fat Herakles" types and before the Mithradates types, so perhaps one or more other Thracian dynasts are depicted on some of these latter coins as well, with one possibility being Mostis, who reigned during the late second and early first centuries BC, is also known to have minted coinage, and also fought the Romans.
A "fat Herakles" also appears on a number of the posthumous tetradrachm varieties from Arados. No doubt local dynasts elsewhere as well assimilated the Herakles iconography in portraying themselves to their subjects as a heroic figure on their Alexander-style coinage.
|Ptolemy V Alexander-portrait bronze (AE-21) from Alexandria, Egypt, c. 204-180 BC, Sear 7883, Svoronos 1236, SNG Cop. 250, Weiser 143.
The elephant-skinned portrait on the above coin, as with similar bronzes of Ptolemy VI, has a slightly effeminate appearance, and it's sometimes suggested that it could represent the king's wife, Cleopatra I, rather than Alexander, though the facial features look similar to the portrait on Ptolemy I's bronzes that feature a long-haired Alexander. Along with Alexander, the Ptolemies issued bronze coins depicting on the obverse Zeus, Ptolemy I, Ptolemy III, Ptolemy V, Ptolemy VI, Berenike II, Arsinoe II, Arsinoe III, Kleopatra VII, Isis, Aphrodite, Ares, Apollo and Artemis, Herakles (bearded), a ram, and an elephant. Ptolemy V was known as Epiphanes (Illustrious).
Every bona fide numismatist writing in depth about Alexander the Great over the past half century agrees that there's no proof or convincing evidence that he put his own portrait on his coins.
Martin Price, the single greatest Alexander III numismatic scholar of the last half century, wrote in his mammoth 1991 book The Coinage in the Name of Alexander the Great and Philip Arrhidaeus that the "only certain portraits of Alexander on lifetime coins are those of the bronze issue of Memphis (3960) and the figure on the five-shekel (dekadrachm)." [Note: These are very rare coins.] Price continues, "Attempts to show that the head of Herakles [on his common imperial coinage] was intended to disguise a portrait of the king are at best conjectural. There was no fashion of using portraiture on regal [imperial] coinage in the time of Alexander."
In his earlier 1974 book Coins of the Macedonians, Price wrote that the reason Alexander's portrait did not occur on his coins "may have been due in part to some religious taboo which made the coins the rightful property of the gods who had provided the metal for the state."
|Seleukos I silver tetradrachm from Susa, Persia, c. 305-295 BC,
16.7g, Sear 6833v., Houghton-Lorber 173(5), Mørkholm 139, Franke-Hirmer 740, Newell ESM 424.
The obverse depicts a portrait that some scholars interpret as Alexander the Great, some as Seleukos I, some as the god Dionysos, and some as a combination of two or more of the above. The portrait is adorned with a panther skin helmet, which likely refers to Alexander's or Seleukos' victories in India, and a bull's horn and ears, with the ears acting as cheek pieces. A panther pelt encircles his neck, with its paws tied under his chin. The reverse depicts Nike crowning with a laurel wreath a trophy of arms (victory memorial). The trophy consists of a tree trunk, with a sprig of leaves sprouting to the right on which a helmet, cuirass (armor), and shield are hung. Mint marks appear under Nike's right wing and between Nike and the trophy. The inscription translates into "Of King Seleukos."
Unlike the Alexander-portrait tetradrachms of Lysimachos and Ptolemy I, this tetradrachm of Seleukos I was issued in relatively small numbers (and these coins are consequently pricier in today's numismatic marketplace) because Alexander-type Herakles and Zeus coinage remained popular in the East. These coins, which also appear less commonly as drachms, hemidrachms, and obols, were issued after Seleukos proclaimed himself king, c. 305 BC, the same year as Alexander's other successors. The Seleukid dynasty ruled over Syria, Asia Minor, Palestine, Persia, and Babylonia before losing the eastern provinces of Baktria and Parthia, then Pergamon, then Judea to the Maccabees, and finally as a small fraction of its former size being absorbed by Rome in 64 BC. The Roman Empire in the East, the Byzantine Empire, would in turn experience a similar fate, gradually losing territory before it was finally absorbed by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
|Christopher Howgego agreed with Price's conclusions in his 1995 book Ancient History From Coins: "Portrait
heads are not found on coins of Philip II or Alexander, with the possible (if not plausible) exception of the supposed
head of Alexander on some small bronze coins from Memphis in Egypt."
In his 1990 book Ancient Greek Coins, Kenneth Jenkins offered similar sentiments: "The possibility that [Alexander's] coins sometimes at least feature Alexander in [the form of Herakles] has been much discussed. However, it can only be said that there is no certainty about this, and that a recognizable portrait can only be identified on coins of another type minted after Alexander's death."
In his 1989 A Catalogue of the Calouste Gulbenkian Collection of Greek Coins, Jenkins said there's no justification for equating the Herakles image on Alexander's coins with Alexander's image because "the Herakles image had already appeared on the Macedonian royal coinage before Alexander's time, and clearly it has a dynastic significance."
Same with Otto Mørkholm in his 1991 book Early Hellenistic Coinage: From the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea (336-188 B.C): "It is unlikely that the well-known head of Herakles on Alexander's silver was regarded as a portrait of the king during his lifetime."
|Ancient fourree counterfeit Seleukos I tetradrachm, 14.1g.
This is another silver-plated bronze that was minted in ancient times in an attempt to pass the piece off as circulating currency. This specimen is also lightweight, but the breaks in the plating occur only near the coin's rims and on its edges. Fourrees are considered collectable by many, and they typically sell for about 25 to 40 percent of what the same official ancient coin would sell for.
|David Sear in his 1979 book Greek
Coins and Their Values felt likewise: "The names of the Macedonian
kings had appeared regularly on the coinage from the first half of the fifth century B.C., but no effigy had ever
been produced by the die-engravers, not even of the great Alexander himself. Several of Alexander's successors,
however, placed their own portraits on their coins, and once this tradition was established, the heads of kings
and queens became a regular feature of much Greek coinage from the third to the first century B.C." In a column
titled "The Legacy of Alexander the Great" in the December 2003 Numismatist, Sear wrote, "The myth
that the head of Herakles represented a disguised portrait of Alexander himself dates to ancient Greek times. However,
in the world of Alexander, there was no such fashion of regal portraiture on coinage, and in any case virtually
identical effigies of the hero appeared on the coins of Alexander's predecessors Philip II ... and Perdiccas III."
Same with Wayne Sayles in his 1997 book Ancient Coin Collecting II: Numismatic Art of the Greek World: "Prior to the death of Alexander it was not considered fashionable among the Greeks for a living ruler to place his or her own portrait on coins.... Alexander did not place his portrait directly on his own coins. The portrayal of Herakles certainly takes on the features of Alexander at times, but it is difficult to say how much of that was intention and how much was simply the byproduct of idealization."
|Seleukos I bronze (AE-13) from Antioch, Karia, c. 312-280 BC,
Sear 6852, SNG Cop. 36, SNG Spaer 23-24.
As with a number of other coins that may depict an image of Alexander the Great, the portrait on this coin is ambiguous. Sometimes it's described as Alexander the Great, sometimes as a winged Medusa, sometimes as Medusa with the features of Alexander the Great. The reverse depicts a bull butting right. The inscription translates into "Of King Seleukos."
Sekeukos I issued similar bronzes with a butting bull reverse but featuring on the obverse a portrait of Athena or a portrait of Apollo. He also minted other bronze coins and gold distaters with the obverse imitating the coins of Ptolemy I, featuring Alexander in an elephant headdress. Some of the bronzes and the gold distaters retain on the reverse the standing Nike of Alexander's own gold coins, though the bronzes show Nike crowning a Seleukid anchor, while other bronzes feature a reverse depicting as its principal type a Seleukid anchor.
|Colin Kraay offered the same balanced approach in his 1966 book Greek Coins: "The head of
Hercules has often been seen as a portrait of Alexander himself, and later antiquity certainly so regarded it;
that it was originally intended is perhaps unlikely, though the god was no doubt represented in his youthful rather
than his more elderly form out of conscious compliment to the young king."
The premier Alexander numismatic expert before Price, Edward T. Newell, also acknowledged the presence of some of Alexander's features in some of the Herakles images. In his 1937 book Royal Greek Portrait Coins, he wrote, "The silver coins invariably bear the head of the youthful Heracles covered with the lion's skin -- the features frequently resembling those of Alexander himself. The type proclaims Alexander's reputed descent from the most popular of all the Greek heroes, a dauntless protagonist and the conqueror of numerous fabulous monsters."
|Aesillas tetradrachm from Pella, Macedonia, c. 90-75 BC,
16.5g, Sear 1463, SNG Cop. 1330, SNG Ash. 3306.
The obverse of this coin depicts yet another portrait style of Alexander the Great, with long hair and Horn of Ammon. The facial features are similar to the Alexander portrait on the Ptolemy I, Ptolemy V, and Seleukos I bronzes. The obverse inscription is in Greek and translates into "Of the Macedonians." The reverse inscription is in Latin and reads "Aesillas," which was the name of the Roman quaestor, an official responsible for financial matters, in Macedonia at the time. The reverse also depicts a club, a money chest (cista or fiscus) to the left of the club, a quaestor's chair (sella) to the right of the club, and Q (looks like an English P) for "Quaestor" above the chair, all within what's sometimes identified as a laurel wreath, sometimes an olive wreath. (Two varieties of this coin type include other inscriptions for the names of two other Roman officials.) The club was symbolic of Herakles, which harkens back to Macedonia's heritage, and the money chest and quaestor's chair were symbolic of Roman power in Macedonia. On this specimen, a theta mint mark appears in the obverse left field.
This coin type, which was issued in tetradrachms and rare drachms, is typically catalogued as a Greek coin, but it's actually a Roman Provincial coin (previously called Greek Imperial), issued past the time when Greece was independent and well past ancient Greece's glory days. Macedonia under Perseus was defeated by Rome c. 168 BC, ending its independence, and annexed by Rome c. 148 BC. Rome dealt harshly with Macedonia, its most formidable foe, exiling its elite, confiscating its treasury and mines, decimating its economy by dividing the country up, stripping it of its foreign possessions, and sending spoil and slaves back to Rome. This coin is one of a number of coin types minted in the first century BC by Rome in Greece, Macedonia, and Thrace for payment to local inhabitants and Thracian tribes as part of Rome's wars against other Thracian tribes ("barbarians") as well as Mithradates the Great, the last Hellenistic ruler to challenge Rome. After Mithradates' death, Rome replaced Aesillas and similar tetradrachm-size coins, including New Style Owls, Macedonian Shield tetradrachms, and Thasos tetradrachms, with Roman denarii. One odd legacy of the Aesillas coinage is an Albanian one lek coin, which is the second to last coin pictured on this page.
|Others besides numismatists who've studied this issue in detail have also
weighed in. I've found four books that deal specifically or largely with Alexander the Great's appearance, and
none support the view that the Herakles image on Alexander's coinage was intended as Alexander.
In her 1995 book Royal Portraits in Sculpture and Coins, Blanche R. Brown discussed in detail the evolution of numismatic images from Alexander's coinage to his successors' and concluded, concerning Alexander coinage, "There is no real evidence at all that the Herakles head was considered a portrait of Alexander during Alexander's lifetime."
In his 1993 book Faces of Power: Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics, Andrew Stewart thoroughly evaluated the historical, archeological, and numismatic evidence and described the notion that Alexander put his own portrait on his coins as a "myth." Among the evidence against this he cited was Ptolemy's introduction of explicit Alexander-portrait coinage to replace the traditional Herakles-portrait coinage.
|Koinon of Macedonia bronze (AE-26) from Beroea, Macedonia, c. 222-235 AD, Sear Greek Imperial 4808v. (that specimen has an A beneath the reverse inscription), SNG Cop. 1360v.
(with this specimen, the horse is galloping with a star underneath it), Pozzi 2128v. (star underneath).
This is one of a sizeable number of similar Roman Provincial bronzes minted during the third century AD, under Elagabalus, Severus Alexander, Gordian III, and Philip I. These are the last ancient coins that portrayed Alexander the Great. His portrait on the obverse of these coins appears in three main styles: wearing diadem, Attic helmet, and lion skin. Subvarieties exist too, with the diademed portrait appearing with or without a Horn of Ammon and with neat or tousled hair and with the Attic helmet portrait sometimes depicting a griffin on the helmet. One subvariety depicts a diademed head and bust of Alexander along with part of a shield. The heads usually but not always face right. The above coin, which was minted under Severus Alexander, depicts Alexander wearing a diadem. The next two depict him wearing an Attic helmet and a lion skin. Alexander also appears on the reverse of some of these coins, which feature more than two dozen different reverse varieties. The above coin for instance portrays Alexander riding his horse Bukephalos. As with most of these coins, the obverse inscription translates into "Of Alexander," the reverse inscription into "Koinon of Macedonia."
A koinon was a confederacy of Greek city-states, with Koinon of Macedonia being only one of about 30 such confederacies. These coins are considered "semi-autonomous" (also known as "quasi-autonomous" or "pseudo-autonomous") because they don't portray the name or portrait of the reigning Roman emperor or other member of the imperial family, but Macedonia at the time was firmly under the control of Rome, so the term Roman Provincial applies as well. At the time these coins were struck, Macedonia was experiencing a period of relative prosperity. Macedonians continued to speak Greek and cherished their heritage, as epitomized by these coins. Rome likely permitted the minting of these and other Alexander-portrait bronzes because of official admiration for the legendary conqueror, an admiration that with some emperors reached the level of cult worship and pathological fixation.
|In his 1986 book Art in the
Hellenistic Age, J.J. Pollitt insightfully discussed the evolution
of the Herakles portrait on Alexander's coinage. He pointed to Alexander's early lifetime coinage, which he agreed
depicted the traditional Herakles of previous Macedonian coinage, and described how it evolved into the latter
lifetime coinage, some of which depicted Alexander as Herakles. This coinage, according to Pollitt, was a bridge
to Hellenistic coinage, with its explicit royal portraits, which followed.
And in her 1964 book Alexander the Great in Greek and Roman Art, Margarete Bieber wrote, "[Alexander] probably did not himself introduce his effigy on his coins, but allowed the head of Herakles to be made in his likeness... particularly the coins of Sicyon, Sidon, and Babylon." Other scholars have found likenesses in some of the coins of Rhodes, Ake, and Memphis/Alexandria. (Alexander coinage was minted from 26 different cities during his lifetime and 107 in all, based upon the work of Price and others.)
|Koinon of Macedonia bronze (AE-25) from Beroea, Macedonia, c. 222-235 AD, SNG Cop. 1357v. (that specimen has a diademed portrait).
The obverse of this coin depicts Alexander wearing an Attic helmet and the inscription "Of Alexander." The reverse depicts Alexander the Great teaming his horse Bukephalos and the inscription "Koinon of Macedonia." This coin, like the previous, was minted under Severus Alexander. This is one of the more desirable and pricey Koinion of Macedonia varieties.
Soon after the minting of this and other Koinon of Macedonian bronzes, Macedonia was invaded by Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Avars, and other "barbarians." The minting of these coins actually ended c. 246 BC as the result of such an invasion. These raids continued for several centuries, with the Slavs beginning their incursions in the sixth century. Macedonia was subsumed by the Byzantine Empire, though part of it fell under control of the Bulgarians and Serbs during the Middle Ages before Macedonia was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century. Turkish domination of Macedonia lasted until 1913. Today much ill will exists between the Hellenic Macedonians living in Greece's three northern provinces of Macedonia Central, Macedonia West, and Macedonia East and the Slavic Macedonians living north of them in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Bulgaria also claims a part of Macedonia with its Blagoevgrad province.
|On the other hand, a small minority of numismatic writers have made a strong
Herakles/Alexander portrait connection. In his 1983 book Collecting
Greek Coins, John Anthony wrote, "Hercules was usually depicted
as a bearded mature man... On Alexander's coins he is young and beardless and is, in fact, Alexander himself."
Describing Alexander's lifetime tetradrachms in his 1959 book An
Outline of Ancient Greek Coins, Zander Klawans wrote, "The
obverse is that of Alexander as represented by Herakles."
Neither of the above two writers covered this issue in any more depth than the above statements, however, and neither provided any support for his position. And Anthony's statement that Herakles was usually depicted as bearded isn't supported by the numismatic evidence.
Sometimes you see in general historical books or general encyclopedias the statement that the image on Alexander's silver coinage is Alexander, without any qualification or support. Sometimes the statement is also made that the image on Alexander's gold coinage is Alexander as well. It's clear in these cases that these statements are based on the faulty assumption, at odds with the numismatic and historical evidence, that the obverse must be a portrait of Alexander just as with later coins and coins today that depict an actual person on the obverse and a mythological or symbolic figure on the reverse.
|Koinon of Macedonia bronze (AE-26) from Beroea, Macedonia, c. 222-235 AD, Lindgren II 1384, AMNG III 416.
This is a variety that doesn't appear in SNG Cop., which is the best commonly available attribution reference for Koinon of Macedonian bronzes, illustrating 30 different varieties. This variety does appear in Ancient Greek Bronze Coins: European Mints, From the Lindgren Collection by Henry Clay Lindgren (Lindgren II) and in Die antiken Münzen Nord-Griechenlands, unter Leitung von F. Imhoof-Blumer, Band III, Makedonia und Paionia by Hugo Gaebler (AMNG III). The latter is the most extensive reference for Koinon of Macedonia bronzes but is in German and is otherwise difficult to use as well. The obverse of this coin, which was minted under Severus Alexander, depicts Alexander wearing a lion skin headdress and the inscription "Of Alexander." The reverse depicts Alexander's mother Olympias feeding a serpent and the inscription "Koinon of Macedonia." The reverse may refer to the belief that Olympias was an enchantress and participated in Orphic rites with snakes or to one of the legends of Alexander's birth, that his father was Nektanebo, the last pharaoh of Egypt, who approached Olympias in the form of a serpent. A similar reverse appeared on a 4th century AD Roman bronze contorniate (medallion with raised rims).
|Some early numismatists also made the mistake of indicating that Alexander
put his own image on his coins. In his 1963 book Essays on the
Coinage of Alexander the Great, A.R. Bellinger suggested that
the reason for their making this mistake was the lack at the time of abundant illustrations of Alexander's and
previous coinage. After lengthy discussion, Bellinger concluded that Alexander selected the traditional Herakles
iconography because of its suitability for his imperial coinage, that in some cities the die engravers imparted
his likeness to his coins, and that eventually some in ancient times came to regard Alexander and Herakles on this
coinage as one.
Recently, Michael E. Marotta and Ann M. Zakelj, in a long article titled "Portraits and Representations of Alexander the Great" in the July 2002 issue of the Celator, took the contrarian position that it's "obvious" that the obverse image on all of Alexander the Great's lifetime silver imperial coinage was Alexander himself. This followed a similar statement of Marotta's online that this was "all but certain." In their article Marotta and Zakelj supported their position with their novel interpretations of ancient literature and archeological findings. But they failed to discuss earlier Macedonian coins or later coins minted in regions far from Alexander's influence that depicted the same Herakles image, and they oddly dismissed the stylistic variations in the Herakles image on Alexander's lifetime coinage from different cities as resulting from some die engravers being more skilled than others.
Marotta and Zakelj's position, that Alexander depicted himself on his silver imperial coins, was consequently rejected by, among others, David Sear, T.V. Buttrey, Wayne Sayles, and Oliver Hoover, based on a number of grounds, including the reality that the same Herakles image that they contend is Alexander appeared on previous coins.
Regarding these earlier coins, Marotta subsequently contended that they actually depicted the ruler who minted them and that it was the same image because these rulers all share a "family resemblance." But the likelihood of five rulers from four generations who weren't even direct descendants -- Alexander, his father Philip II, his uncle Perdikkas III, his grandfather Amyntas III, and and his grandfather's uncle Archelaos I -- looking similar enough to be mistaken by everybody as the same is infinitesimally small. (Aeropos, the regent of Archelaos I's infant son, also issued Herakles silver coins before seizing the throne for himself, but his coins were of the same type as those of Archelaos I.)
Regarding later coins depicting the same Herakles image, Marotta subsequently contended that they actually depicted Alexander the Great and that he and not Herakles was worshipped in the cities that issued these coins. But this runs counter to the history, from ancient sources as well as modern scholars.
Regarding the historical improbably of the Macedonians placing a living ruler on a coin, Zakalj subsequently contended that they emulated the Persians in this. But the two peoples were mortal enemies, and the presumption that one enemy emulated another is absurd. Alexander did adopt Persian ways, but only after defeating them, with some Alexander's later lifetime coins in the East likely picking up some of his facial features in part for this reason. His coins in his homeland of Macedonia and elsewhere maintained the traditional Herakles iconography.
Regarding the fact that every numismatist and historian writing in detail about this subject over the past half century has said that there's little or no likelihood that Alexander placed his own image on all of his silver imperial coins, Marotta subsequently contended that scholars just march in lockstep behind one another. Marotta and Zakalj continue to promote their position in coin show presentations, in coin club journal articles, and on the Internet.
Finally, though not definitive, more support that the Herakles on the bulk of Alexander's lifetime coinage was Herakles and not Alexander was a fairly recent decision of the modern Greek government. When it wanted to honor Alexander the Great by featuring his portrait on the Greek one hundred drachmas coin, which was minted from 1990 to 2000, it chose the Alexander portrait on Lysimachos' coins, not the Herakles portrait on Alexander's own coins.
|Apollonia Mordiaion bronze (AE-31) from Apollonia Mordiaion, Pisidia, c. 211-217 AD, Sear Greek Imperial 5138, SNG Aulock 4988, Lingren 1260, BMC 19 202 1.
This is one of a number of Roman Provincial bronze coins from Asia Minor that portray similar Alexander portraits as Koinon of Macedonia bronzes and that were minted at about the same time. The obverse of this coin depicts Alexander the Great wearing a lion skin headdress along with an inscription that translates into "Alexander, Founder of the Apollonians." The reverse depicts the river god Hippophoras reclining, holding a reed and cornucopia, and resting on an urn from which water flows. The reverse inscription reads "Hippophoras."
This coin was likely struck under the Roman emperor Caracalla (an alternative attribution of this coin is that is was struck under Elagabalus c. 218-222 AD). Caracalla was obsessed with and imitated Alexander the Great in his dress and manner, even equipping his soldiers with armor in the style of Alexander's troops in an attempt, as Alexander had, to conquer the "East." Caracalla's brutal, undisciplined, and unpredictable rule eventually led to his assassination by his own troops. Other Romans emulating Alexander, less eccentrically, included Pompey, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Caligula, Nero, and Trajan.
It's impossible to know, 2,340 years after the fact, what Alexander III was thinking. There's no surviving contemporaneous written evidence dealing with his coinage, and there's no surviving contemporaneous sculpture or other larger artwork portraying him, only later only latter Greek and Roman copies. What's more, during his lifetime, Alexander would have been motivated for military and political purposes to have images created of him that idealized his appearance rather than depicted him in the most realistic manner. All of this creates a situation marked by uncertainty.
Nonetheless, taking into consideration the substantial body of indirect numismatic, archeological, and historical evidence, the following emerges as a credible scenario.
Alexander used the same image of Herakles on his coinage as previous Macedonian kings. As he accumulated military successes, he began to think and act like his vanquished, Darius III, the Great King of Persia, Persia at the time being the greatest empire that the world had yet seen. With Memphis bronzes (Price 3960) and Poros dekadrachms (Price Plate CLIX, G-H), issued in very small numbers far from democracy-minded Greece in Egypt and Persia, he tested the waters by placing images of himself on coins. One of the latter coins sold for $57,750 in 1990, according to Frank Holt in his excellent 2003 book Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions.
More importantly in terms of the number of coins, on certain issues of his imperial coins, Alexander quietly but appreciatively approved the practice of some mint magistrates in the East portraying his facial features in the guise of Herakles to honor their great king. The image was still Herakles, but it was now Alexander as Herakles, with the demigod assimilating the conqueror whose unparalleled successes made him appear to his ardent supporters as a demigod.
This hybridization was a transition in ancient Greek coinage. After Alexander died, his successors first placed an explicit portrait of the great Alexander on their coins, an idealized portrait, the era of realistic portraiture on coinage not having started yet, but a portrait nonetheless. Then they began the practice of placing their own portraits on their coins, announcing their greatness, a practice that has continued to this day.
|Apollonia and Lycia Alliance bronze (AE-32) from Apollonia Mordiaion, Pisidia, c. 211-217
AD, Sear Greek Imperial 5139, SNG Aulock 4989, BMC 19 204 9.
This coin is similar to the previous one, with the same obverse device and inscription, from the same city, and minted at the same time. The reverse is different, depicting two female figures, personifications of Apollonia and Lycia, standing face to face, clasping right hands and each resting on a scepter. This, along with the inscription "Unity of the Apollonians and Lycians," celebrates the alliance of the provinces of Apollonia and Lycia. Other cities in Asia Minor besides Apollonia Mordiaion that minted bronze coins depicting a portrait of Alexander the Great include Aigeai (SNG France 2347-2350), Epiphaneia (SNG France 2393), and Alexandria ad Issum (SNG France 2405-2416).
Some scholars believe that "quasi-autonomous" Roman Provincial coins such as these, which depict Greek imagery rather than the head of a Roman emperor or family member, reflected greater autonomy on the part of the cities that minted them, but this doesn't appear to be the case, as they were struck by both Greek cities and Roman colonies and as some autonomous cities struck coins with Roman imperial portraits. The quasi-autonomous coins such as this one, from the third century AD, were struck on larger and flatter flans than earlier quasi-autonomous coins. Though the obverse inscription of this and the previous coin reads "Alexander, Founder of the Apollonians," it's likely that this reflects a foundation myth rather than history, similar to other foundation myths that placed Herakles as the founder of a city or dynasty. Alexander passed through Psidia in 333 BC but left no garrisons there.
|The placing of the image of a man on a coin was no small matter in human
history. It speaks to how humankind views itself in relation to what we perceive as deity. It speaks to man vs.
God. Alexander didn't engage in this practice with the vast bulk of his coinage because the Greeks until him believed
that the face of a coin was a place for the gods.
After Alexander's world-changing conquests, the man vs. God relationship changed. In Macedonia, cults worshipping kings as divinities sprang up after their deaths. Alexander, following his father, sought to have himself worshipped as a god during his lifetime, perhaps because he believed it, perhaps to further his military and political aims, perhaps as self-aggrandizement, perhaps as a combination of two or more of these reasons. Alexander's accomplishments were great enough, or nearly great enough, to prevent this from being regarded as blasphemous. It only follows that Ptolemy I, ensconced in a land with a history of worshipping rulers as gods, was the first of Alexander's successors to place his own portrait on his coinage. About 13 years later, c. 292 BC, Demetrios Poliorcetes, King of Macedon, became the first European to do the same.
|1926 Albanian one lek coin.
In 1926, 1927, 1930, and 1931 Albania minted one lek coins depicting a portrait of Alexander the Great on the obverse and Alexander riding his horse Bukephalos on the reverse. This coin has been described as being based on Aesillas tetradrachms minted two thousand years earlier, though there's no Horn of Ammon and the reverse is different. The coin is even more similar to Koinon of Macedonia bronzes, particularly SNG Cop. 1360 and similar diademed portrait/horseman varieties), such as the one pictured above. Regardless, this wouldn't be the only instance in which modern coins have honored their ancient predecessors. What's odd about this particular coin is Albania's attempted appropriation of Greece's heritage, which isn't the only instance in which this has happened either. Albania's claim stems from the fact that Alexander's mother Olympias was from Epeiros, which is currently split between Albania and Greece.
|This change, the deification of living rulers, was no less significant than
the contemporaneous and associated subordination in the ancient Greek world of city-state to empire. Rome would
go through a similar transformation with coin portraiture, from the primacy of deity to the primacy of man, as
it transformed itself from republic into empire three centuries later. It was only after the great expansion of
Roman influence that Caesar became the first Roman ruler to place his own portrait on his coins. Beforehand, Brutus
put a portrait of one of his ancestors on a coin he minted, and even before this the general T. Quinctius Flamininus
put his own portrait on his own coins. But these weren't coins of Roman rulers. Afterward, Octavian and successive
Roman emperors continued this practice that Caesar started, with Rome now a great empire, succeeding long-term
with its territorial conquests as Alexander had succeeded over the short term during the brief span of his 13-year
Interestingly, the United States first placed a ruler, albeit a deceased ruler, on its regular circulating coinage after it began to feel its imperial oats. The Lincoln cent was first issued in 1909, shortly after the U.S. won the Spanish-American War in 1898 and acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, annexed Hawaii that same year, acquired American Samoa in 1899, and acquired the Panama Canal Zone in 1903.
Yet in modern times, the conquests we celebrate are less often territorial than scientific and technological, and they're far more consequential. Today, two millennia after the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, as a civilization and a species, we've taken the place of the old gods with ever greater mastery, in coinage as elsewhere.
|1992 Greek 100 drachmas.
This is the only modern Greek coin that depicts a portrait of Alexander the Great, with the portrait based on the Alexander portrait on Lysimachos coinage. These 100 drachmas pieces, which are composed of nickel and brass, were minted from 1990 to 2000. The face value of this 1992 coin at the time of its minting was about 50 cents. The obverse inscription translates into "Alexander the Great, King of the Macedonians." The reverse depicts a Star of Vergina, a 16-pointed star believed to be an emblem of Alexander's father Philip II or a symbol of ancient Macedonia, along with the inscription "Greek Democracy." Vergina is the location of excavated ancient Macedonian royal tombs and a city in northern Greece on which was situated the ancient city of Aigeai, a capital of Macedonia.
As have others, Slavic Macedonians of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia have sought to appropriate Alexander for purposes of ethnic pride, with some claiming Alexander and his father Philip as their ancestors, despite the fact that the Slavs arrived in the Balkans nearly a millennia after Alexander's time. The Republic of Macedonia even used one of Philip's symbols, the 16-pointed Star of Vergina, for the design of its flag in 1991, much to the consternation of Greece, before agreeing to remove it and replace it with an eight-rayed sun in 1995.
|This material on Alexander the Great portraiture is an elaboration of letters to the editor of mine that appeared in the September 2002 and March 2003 issues of The Celator magazine.|
Other glomworthy coins:
Coin Collecting: Consumer Protection Guide
Glomming: Coin Connoisseurship
Bogos: Counterfeit Coins
© 2013 Reid Goldsborough
Note: Any of the items illustrated on these pages that are in my possession are stored off site.