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Alexander the Great Tetradrachms: Lifetime vs. Posthumous

By Reid Goldsborough

One of the most common and collectible series of ancient coins are those of Alexander the Great, for reasons both numismatic and historical. Alexander III was the perhaps the greatest conqueror of all time. At his premature death from illness at about the age of 83, he ruled over lands from Egypt to India.

But his military conquests are just one part of his timeless allure. He transcended the inevitable brutality of war through the study of philosophy and poetry and through not subjugating his victims but elevating them, letting them continue to govern themselves, letting them continue to worship their gods as they saw fit.

Alexander's military adventures should be judged by the standards of his age, when such activities were esteemed, not by the standards of our age. Who among us would not choose to expand our domain, our influence, and our power through means available to us and acceptable to our peers, conquering our known world?

In governing his huge empire, Alexander minted coinage whose output in relative terms was among the greatest the world has ever seen. So great was his influence and his legend that after his death, coins in his name and following his style continued to be minted for nearly three centuries.

Various denominations of Alexander coinage are available to collectors today -- from rare gold distaters that can cost $15,000 (2009) in aEF condition to common bronzes that typically carry prices ranging from $15 to $150 (2009). The most common denomination, however, and perhaps the most visually impressive of them all, is the large silver tetradrachm, which ranges in diameter from that of a U.S. quarter to that of a Morgan dollar but is much thicker and, as with most ancient Greek coins, is of stunningly high relief.

Unlike bronze Alexander coinage used in the marketplaces of Macedonia, tetradrachms were international, imperial coins that were used in state transactions, to pay mercenaries and other soldiers, and as tribute to keep Celtic invaders at bay. A tetradrachm, worth four drachms, was probably the equivalent of about four day's wages of a common laborer, or about $200 (2009) in today's money. Ironically, this is about the cost of a worn Alexander tetradrachm (tet) today, though they can be had at anywhere from $100 (2009) for beat-up specimens in About Fine condition to $3,000 (2009) and up for an eye-popping specimen in Fleur-de-Coin condition (near perfect strike and condition).

One of the challenges of collecting Alexander tetradrachms (tets) is buying them correctly attributed. You see a lot of posthumous Alexanders, those minted after his death, being sold as lifetime issues, through online auctions such as eBay and on bourse floors. The lifetime issues are rarer and worth more than those coins issued in his name after his death. More important, they represent Alexander's presence and power. Posthumous Alexanders are still cool, representing his legacy and legend, but not as cool.

Typically with misattributed Alex tets, the seller simply lists the dates of Alexander's reign, 336 to 323 BC, in the coin description, creating the impression that it's a lifetime issue when it's not. Sometimes the dealer provides this misinformation more directly, incorrectly stating that the coin was struck from 336 to 323 BC. This may not be deliberately deceitful but may simply result from ignorance.

In the past, people believed that you could distinguish between Alexander lifetime tets and posthumous tets by examining the legs of Zeus on the reverse. Those with open or parallel legs were thought to be a lifetime issue, while those with crossed legs, with one tucked behind the other, were thought to be posthumous.

It's now known that this is not a reliable test. According to Otto Morkholm's 1991 book Early Hellenistic Coinage: From the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamaea (336-188 BC), the first Alex tets featuring Zeus with crossed legs were struck around 326 to 325 BC in Egypt, before Alexander's death in 323 BC. Georges Le Rider, on the other hand, believes that the first crossed-leg tets were minted in Sidon in 325 BC, still before Alexander's death. What's more, tets with open legs were struck at various mints in the years shortly after his death. It wasn't until c. 315 to 310 BC, according to Morkholm, that nearly all Alex tets featured Zeus with crossed legs. As you'll see, however, open legs on an Alex tet do increase the likelihood the coin is a lifetime issue.

A second test is the presence or absence of the royal title, ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ, written in English as "Basileos" and translated as King, on the reverse of the tet. Here too this provides some attribution help but is far from foolproof. The absence of the royal title just increases the likelihood that the tet is a lifetime issue. According to Morkholm, who reported the opinion of an earlier scholar Edward T. Newell, the first Alexander tets to feature the royal title appeared in 329 BC, six years before his death. And many posthumous tets don't feature a title. Le Rider, on the other hand, feels that all royal-title tets are posthumous.

A third test is the size of the flan, with coins having smaller flans more likely to be lifetime than those with larger flans. Yet many small-flan tets are posthumous. Flan sizes were used heavily to date coins by Ludvig MŁller in his groundbreaking 1855 book Numismatique d'Alexandre le Grand, suivie d'un appendice contenant les monnaies de Philippe II et III, which was the first systematic attempt to attribute the multitude of Alexander varieties, but the flan-size test has been shown to be unreliable in too many instances.

A fourth test is the weight of the coin, with coins appreciably less than the Attic standard of 17.2 grams more likely to be posthumous. Yet a fair percentage of lifetime coins weigh slightly less than 17 grams, particularly those from Babylon.

The best way to attribute Alexander coinage today is by using the two-volume catalog of the British Museum's Alexander coinage holdings, titled The Coinage in the Name of Alexander the Great and Philip Arrhidaeus and written by the late Martin Jessop Price. The book was published in 1991 and is still in print. But like most reference books about ancient coins, it's on the pricey side, at about $350 from the Swiss Numismatic Society.

The ancient coin Web sites Wildwinds and ACSearch can sometimes help, but they're inevitably far from complete with Alexander coinage. And even with Price, there's no certainty. Price is considered the greatest Alexander the Great numismatic scholar of the past half-century and is the ultimate Alexander attribution authority today, but he wasn't infallible. Just as he corrected misattributions of previous numismatists, future numismatists will correct his misattributions.

Georges Le Rider's 2007 book Alexander the Great: Coinage, Finances, and Policy is the most comprehensive source for corrections to Price. Other important post-Price works includes Hyla Troxell's 1997 book Studies in the Macedonian Coinage of Alexander the Great, papers by Charles A. Hersh as well as by Richard Ashton and Silvia Hurter in the 1998 book Studies in Greek Numismatics in Memory of Martin Jessop Price, R.H.J. Ashton's article "Kaunos, not Miletos or Mylasa" in the 2004 Numismatic Chronicle, and Andrew P. McIntyre's article "The Alexander Tetradrachms of Termessos Major" in the 2006 Numismatic Chronicle.

To better understand attribution issues related to the tetradrachms of Alexander the Great, I undertook a small study that may shed light on the subject. I analyzed and categorized the 1,054 unique official varieties of Alexander tets illustrated in Price's magnum opus. I've based my conclusions on the varieties illustrated in Price and on his attributions, not on coins encountered in the ancient coins marketplace, but I believe there's enough correlation between the two to make my conclusions helpful in making purchasing decisions. This is true despite the caveat that not all emissions of any given Price variety were of the same size.

If you see an open-leg Zeus, there's about a 59 percent chance it's a lifetime issue or about a 77 percent chance that it's either a lifetime or possible lifetime issue (coins of a variety that were issued both during and after Alexander's lifetime).

The absence of the royal title, ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ, helps your odds. If you see an open-leg Zeus without a royal title, there's about a 70 percent chance it's a lifetime issue and about an 85 percent chance that it's either a lifetime or possible lifetime issue.

The flan size can also provide clues. Typically, lifetime tets have diameters of 25 to 26mm, but in a few cases, lifetime or possible-lifetime tets are as large as 30mm. What's more, many small-flan tets are posthumous. But all large-flan tets, with diameters greater than 30mm, are posthumous.

If you see a tet featuring crossed legs and royal title, there's virtually no chance that it's a lifetime issue. Of the 1,054 varieties of tets illustrated, there were no definite lifetime tets with crossed legs and royal title and only two possible-lifetime tets with crossed legs and royal title.

By far the most common type of tet is posthumous with crossed legs and no title. Starting with this type, here's a list of types in ascending order of rarity:

Posthumous tets are much more common than lifetime tets and possible-lifetime tets combined, making up 72.5 percent of all varieties illustrated.

Open-leg Macedonian tets from Price 104 to Price 121 are in all likelihood posthumous, not lifetime issues. Price groups them as posthumous in the body of his catalog, but he labels them as lifetime in the "Periods of issue" listing on page 72 of volume 1. Some people believe that this reflects Price's ambivalence toward whether or not they're lifetime, but I believe he would have stated this ambivalence directly, and therefore I conclude that the "Periods of issue" listing is erroneous.

Hyla A. Troxell believes that the hoard evidence suggests that Price 108 to Price 121 are indeed posthumous. In fact, she doesn't even attribute these as coins of Alexander III at all but rather as those minted in the name of his son, Alexander IV, agreeing here with the earlier conclusions of Newell.

These coins all bear the royal title. Newell reasoned that despite Alexander the Great's military successes, it would have been politically unwise for him to use a title so abhorrent to the democracy-minded Greeks on coins minted for use in Greece. After his death, according to this reasoning, the royal title was used to proclaim that his infant son was the rightful successor to his father along with Alexander the Great's brother, Arrhidaeus, who was renamed Philip III.

Bottom line is, if you're looking to buy a definite lifetime issue from Alexander's homeland of Macedonia, it's best to avoid Price 104 to 121 and in particular Price 108 to Price 121.

You can apply the open legs/crossed legs test definitively with only two major mints: Babylon and Lampsacus. With tets struck there, all lifetime varieties have open legs and all posthumous varieties have crossed legs.

Memphis is the only major mint that struck both lifetime and posthumous tets in which all the tets have crossed legs. (Le Rider believes Alexander's Egyptian mint was his newly founded city of Alexandria, not Memphis.)

Alexander the Great is a fascinating figure in world history, and his fascination has carried over into numismatics. Greece is a wonderful place to visit to learn more about him. You can even visit the site which is believed to be the great ruler's tomb