Coins of Alexander the Great

Coins of Alexander the Great

The Coins of Alexander the Great


To better understand Alexander the Great's coinage, it's essential to discuss his father, Philip II of Macedon. Although Macedon had kings for centuries before Philip, his coins offer insights into his son's reign. Surprisingly, Alexander followed a similar protocol regarding coinage, using the Attic weight and the motif of Zeus, just like his father.

Philip II ruled the Macedonian Kingdom from 359 to 336 BC and was the father of Alexander the Great. During his reign, Tetradrachm types were minted with care and precision, representing the culture and society of his time. Philip's only Tetradrachm variety features the head of Zeus on the obverse and a youth on horseback on the reverse. While each variety is relatively the same, the horse can face left or right depending on the year and place the coin was minted.

Philip was a complex historical figure who successfully expanded Macedon's borders beyond its limits. As a war general, his interests lay in dominating huge armies for glory and wealth. However, his coinage is considered relatively uneventful through the eyes of numismatics, with no significant types or odd varieties known. These coins were all struck at the Pella or Amphipolis mint. There were also types struck after his death by his successors, Antipater or Polyperchon, at the Pella or Amphipolis mint.

Despite his accomplishments, most people have never heard of Philip. He is considered more of a textbook historical figure than a famous one. During his reign, Macedon was a great European power, whose conquests included neighboring city-states and countries like Thrace and Illyria. Theopompus, a well-known ancient scribe, documented Philip's life and regarded him as "the greatest man that Europe had ever given."


Tetradrachm of Philip II

Tetradrachm of Philip II (359-336 BC)

Courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group


Alexander the Great is widely regarded as one of the greatest military leaders in recorded history. He achieved unparalleled success in a short amount of time, conquering century-old empires and re-establishing kingdoms as far as the eastern block. His dominance not only kept a vast empire organized and sound, but also facilitated a well-connected society through commerce that was not replicated for nearly three hundred years. From a numismatic standpoint, his contributions to the world of coinage expanded a fast network of trade that spread throughout the ancient world, with hundreds of millions of coins produced during and after his lifetime, making it a universal standardized coinage.

After Alexander's sudden death, his generals and troops had no allegiance with anyone of the previous regime, since there was no heir to inherit such a vast expanse of an empire. Subsequently, many of Alexander's most trusted generals went to war with each other in a period known as the Wars of the Diadochi. The Diadochi, representing the six generals who fought to split up the empire, are often regarded as the beginning of the height of the Greek Hellenistic period. Hundreds of nations split from the empire after the war, with four major empires emerging: General Antigonus Monophthalmus took over Macedon, Ptolemy took over Egypt, Seleukos took Syria, and Lysimachos took the Satrapy of Thrace. Smaller nations such as Baktria, Skythia, Pergamum, and Rome branched or separated from the "big four."

During the height of Greek prosperity and the slow growth of the Roman Republic, Alexander type coins (coins minted under his name) were being circulated across the known world. It was rare for a nation not to issue some imitation or type of the Alexander coin under his modified Attic standard. If nations issued some other type, it was intended only for local use. Most, if not all, of the coins issued under the name of Alexander up until the first century were intended for trade and commercial use. Even the Roman Republic had an imitation of the Alexander coin in the form of the early Quadrigatus, with similar portraiture and flan size.

Alexander's coins remain popular among collectors, particularly his lifetime and posthumous issues and those issued by his successors. The obverse of most specimens show the head of Herakles wearing a lion skin, symbolizing his victory over the Nemean lion. The reverse of the coin depicts a bearded Zeus, who frequently changes poses throughout the years of the design's issue. According to numismatic author Martin Jessop Price, there are 1,269 officially issued tetradrachms, with 1,054 confirmed varieties. However, since new coins are frequently found, it is likely that there are many more that exist. Price has issued an extensive, two-volume catalog on every major Alexander coinage variety during his life and posthumously, making him the leading figure in Alexander coinage.

Collecting Alexander coins can be challenging, with new numismatists usually sticking to the basic drachms and affordable posthumous issues. Identifying whether a coin is lifetime or posthumous can affect its value, and many cases show misrepresented coins and dates. Price's approach to identification and attribution can be problematic, with some coins and die pairings listed that do not exist, or referenced coins that 'probably' exist. Therefore, caution is necessary when referencing rare coins that may exist.


Lifetime Tetradrachm minted under general Menes

Lifetime Tetradrachm minted under general Menes (330-323 BC)


The majority of Tetradrachms were minted by regions other than Alexander the Great after his death. However, some were also produced before his death in 336 BC and continued to be minted afterwards. These types of Tetradrachms are referred to as "transitional issues' ' or "possible lifetime issues' '. During Alexander's lifetime, Tetradrachms were typically smaller in size, with a diameter of about 25mm and an average weight of 17.2 grams (the Attic standard). The size of these coins gradually increased over time. Additionally, the size of lifetime issues varied depending on where they were minted. For instance, Tetradrachms struck at the posthumous mint in Tarsos have a smaller diameter of 21mm.

Although Tetradrachms are the most popular and easily recognized coin minted in the name of Alexander the Great, there were additional fractional and multiple denominations issued. Alexander coinage became the standard in the ancient world for a brief period of time, being issued in a plethora of regions and denominations. The most abundant denominations issued under the classic design, other than Tetradrachms, came in the silver Obol, Drachm, and Dekadrachm. Dekadrachms, being the largest denomination, were used for major transactions and are often regarded as ceremonial issues used to pay officials and generals.


Dekadrachm of 40 grams

Dekadrachm of 40 grams (336-323 BC)

Courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group


Alexander the Great also issued an abundance of gold coins. Multiple and fractional denominations issues represented the heavy gold Stater. Staters became the standard for gold coinage, similar to the attic Tetradrachm for silver coinage, and were thus issued in a variety of designs. This denomination translated into the gold Aureus used during the Roman empire. Staters minted by Alexander feature the beautiful motif of helmeted Athena on the obverse and victory on the reverse. These coins were issued in great abundance, and just like all Alexander coinage, they were issued lifetime and posthumously. All known types are referenced in Price, and exhibit different weight standards depending on where they were issued. They were a very trusted type, circulating throughout the entirety of Greece.


Gold Stater minted by his general Lysimachos

Gold Stater minted by his general Lysimachos (305-281 BC)

Courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group


Despite Alexander's death, his coinage and legacy continued to flourish. His successors and the cities he had conquered continued to mint his coins until the Roman Empire took over. Due to the widespread popularity of this coin type, they were minted in many different locations. After Alexander's death, there were also many changes made to his coinage. Posthumous cities added monograms and control marks behind Zeus' throne, including symbols such as a lightning bolt, a palm tree, and two eagles. Some later kings even replaced Alexander's name on the reverse with their own name. Thus, through his coinage, the legacy that Alexander left behind prevails more than two millennia later.


Article By Colby J. Abele

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