According to historian N.G.L. Hammond, no individual changed the history of civilisation more than Alexander the Great. Yet, Alexander as a person is still a topic of discussion: was he a military genius or rather a murderous conqueror? High time, therefore, to put this deified general and his coins ‘in the spotlight’.
Alexander the Great was born in 356 BC as Alexander III of Macedon. His father, Philip II, had brought most of the city-states of the Greek mainland under Macedonian hegemony. As a young child, Alexander joined him on his campaigns. Furthermore, Alexander also received a thorough academic education; his private teacher was the famous philosopher Aristotle. At the age of 20, Alexander succeeded his murdered farther and pursued his plans of conquest. First, he subjected Anatolia (Asia Minor), the Lebanon and Egypt and next the entire Persian realm. From then onwards, Alexander ruled over an immense empire, from the Adriatic Sea up to the Indus River. Subsequently, Alexander the Great dreamt of reaching ‘the end of the world and the Big Outer Sea’. In 326 BC, he put words into deeds and invaded India with his troops. Despite military successes, at a certain moment his men refused to go any further. On the journey home, 32-year-old Alexander died in Babylon. After his death, his empire disintegrated into several states, ruled by his generals, the Diadochi. Alexander’s lasting heritage was the Hellenic culture in the regions he conquered. Even during his short life, numerous legends about him arose, which contributed to the divine status he received after his death.
The campaigns of Alexander the Great created wide stability and uniformity in the field of coinage. During the conquest of the Persian empire, Alexander laid hands on some 300 tonnes of gold and 2000 tonnes of silver, which was used in the first place to mint coins. Moreover, he had the existing coins remelted into his own money in the coin workshops of the conquered regions. Consequently, his coins circulated in a much larger area than any other coin ever before. Indeed, this was the first time that so many different areas were united and paid with the same currency. Alexander’s best known coins are the gold stater, the silver drachm, the silver tetradrachm and the bronze hemiobol. Within a few decades, Alexanders’s tetradrachms and staters superseded the existing currencies in all the conquered regions. This tetradrachm deliberately had the same weight and, consequently, the same value as the Attic tetradrachm, which previously had the status of an international currency. After Alexander the Great had conquered Athens, no more Attic tetradrachms were minted. His tetradrachms became so popular that they were accepted everywhere. As a result, copies of these coins were made even outside Alexander’s empire.
The depictions on the tetradrachms of Alexander are definitely Greek. The silver tetradrachm, which can be seen in the temporary Museum, depicts the head of Heracles on the front. Heracles or Hercules is the heroic demigod mainly known for his Twelve Labours. The first of these perilous missions was to slay the Nemean lion. This lion could not be wounded by any weapon. Eventually, Hercules strangled it with his bare hands. Next, he skinned the lion and decided to wear its impenetrable hide as a sort of armour. The lion’s head served as a hood. Hercules is depicted on the tetradrachm of Alexander the Great wearing this headgear. The lion’s mane and ear are represented in detail. In Macedon, Hercules was worshipped as the ancestor of the dynasty of the kings. Thus, Alexander’s choice of Hercules as the effigy for his coins was not at all a coincidence.
On the silver coin’s reverse, supreme deity Zeus is depicted, sitting on a throne with an eagle on his hand and carrying a sceptre in the other. Behind Zeus’s back, there is the vertical inscription “Of Alexander”, which indicates the moneyer’s identity. Near his knee, one can see a monogram. Given his enormous empire, Alexander the Great had to meet a lot of different expectations and requirements. As a result, the most important characters such as Athena, Zeus and Hercules appeared on his coins.
Furthermore, there is also a connection between the front and the reverse of the coin, for Zeus was Hercules’s father. Indeed, according to one of the legends that were already circulating during his life, Alexander was not the son of Philip II, but of Zeus himself. When Alexander visited the Amon oracle in an oasis in the Egyptian desert, he was greeted by the high priest with the words ‘oh, son of Zeus’.
Presumably, this was a slip of the tongue of the high priest, who actually wanted to say ‘oh, my son’. It is often said that the head of Hercules on these coins has the features of Alexander the Great. Undeniably, the brave and strong Hercules was a major example for Alexander and his personal hero. Although Alexander considered himself increasingly to be a son of a god, most likely it is not his portrait. After all, according to the Greeks, such conceitedness would only arouse the wrath of the gods.
When Alexander’s empire disintegrated, the structure of the coinage in the Hellenic realms remained fairly uniform. More than 100 years after his death, these coins still played a leading role in the circulation of coins. The last coins bearing Alexander’s name were minted around 65 BC.
Not long after the death of Alexander the Great, his portrait appeared on the silver coins of Diadoch Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt. In fact, it was the head of Hercules which increasingly showed the features of Alexander. Possibly, a cult idol of Alexander in Alexandria served as a model for this. The Alexander head was later depicted by the Hellenic sovereigns, such as Seleucus I of Syria, on their gold and silver coins. This way, they legitimised their power towards their opponents and the subjected nation. In actual fact, they had received this power from the divine Alexander.
In 305 BC, Ptolemy I of Egypt was the first to depict his own portrait on his currency, both as a legitimisation of his power and as a propaganda instrument. Moreover, this was part of the dynastic cult, since the monarch was worshipped as a god during his life. Other dynasties were to follow his example. Through the Roman emperors, this tradition of depicting portraits on coins reached us in the West. Indeed, today the King of Belgium still features on our euro coins.
Nina Van Meerbeeck
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