Alexander the Great

Silver tetradrachms and drachms of Alexander III of Macedon

As has become common on these weekly Features, this week's coin brought several 'friends'. In fact, it was a last minute choice that decided which coin would be illustrated in the large photo and which would follow below. All of these coins are representatives of the truly massive issues in the name of the most successful general in all of history, Alexander the Great. Conquering the world required issuing huge quantities of coins form mints spread across his empire but even all of these make only a small part of the 'Alexander' coinage. After Alexander died in 323 BC, coins bearing his types and inscriptions continued to be issued by various authorities for many years. Like the Owl of Athens from preceding centuries, the silver coinage of Alexander was the most widely accepted of its day. The man on the street liked the coins and trusted their fine metal content.

The obverse of 'Alexander' coins show the head of Herakles wearing a lion skin while the reverse has Zeus seated holding an eagle. Issues are distinguished from one another by letters or symbols placed in the reverse fields or under Zeus' throne. The only coins of this type that I have seen that do NOT have these 'minor types' or field letters have been barbaric or unofficial (though ancient) copies. Early or 'lifetime' issues usually are struck on thick, chunky flans and show the legs of Zeus parallel to each other. Most later coins used a wider, thinner flan and show Zeus with legs crossed at the ankles. These rules are not 100% reliable and exact attribution of all of these various coins is very much open to further study. Recent (1991) publication of Martin Price's great work on the subject, The Coinage in the Name of Alexander the Great and Philip Arrhidaeus, has provided collectors with much information and a catalog of known types but the cost of the book will keep it from being owned by most collectors. Similarly, the coins themselves are not low priced. Attractive large silver tetradrachms are popular among coin collectors and for the jewelry trade. While there are probably hundreds of 'Alexander' coins available for each person who collects, there are certainly individual varieties that are quite rare. Finding an example of even a specific common type can take a great deal of searching simply because there are thousands of minor varieties. The rest of this page will examine a few examples from these thousands. They were selected not because they are particularly interesting or valuable but because they are the ones of which I have photographs. Perhaps they will serve to illustrate some of the terms used and the large classes of coins available.

Phaselis, Lycia - Silver tetradrachm - 'Alexander' types - 214-3 BC
Head of Herakles - countermark of anchor/ Zeus seated
A lambda E xi AN delta POY (at right) - E(?) phi (in field) O - (under throne)
16.5g, 29mm diameter

The wide flan and crossed feet of Zeus suggest this is a later issue. The mint name is abbreviated as the letter phi but this could be any of hundreds of cities. In fact, the type was assigned to Philomelium, Phrygia, (as # 1183) in Muller, The Coins of Alexander the Great. The date (E=5) is part of a series running 1 to 31. Some coins were issued with dates relating to a known dating era but the significance of the dating sequence on this coin is not known to me. I am equally ignorant of the meaning of the 'O' under the throne. The countermark of an anchor is a symbol associated with the Seleucid empire and is found on many coins of this period. Note the flat spot on the reverse produced by the striking of the countermark.

Alexander III (the Great) - 336-323 BC
(lifetime issue?)
Bow in field - Salamis mint? - test cut
17.2g, 25mm
Seleucos I? 312-280 BC
sigma E lambda EYKOY
BA sigma I lambda E omega sigma
monograms in field and under throne
16.7g, 25mm
This earlier (most likely 'lifetime') tetradrachm was struck on a thick, chunky flan and shows the legs of Zeus parallel. There is no letter to identify the mint but assignments have been made based on style and other research data published in Price and other references. Not all sources will agree with every attribution. The 'minor type' is a bow in the left field and the legend is limited to the name Alexander. Also on a chunky flan with parallel legs, this tetradrachm bears the legend of 'King Seleukos' placing the coin years after the death of Alexander. Note the feet of Zeus rest on a stool. Monograms in the field or under the throne (here both) could identify the mint or officials responsible for the issue.

Arados, Phoenicia - Fourree tetradrachm - 185 BC
Palm in field - AP under throne -OE in exergue off this flan
13.8g, 27x30mm diameter
Silver drachm - Perinthus, Thrace mint - 336-323 BC
soldier in field
delta I under throne
3.3g, 15mm diameter
The above coin was dated to year OE (=75) by comparison to a die duplicate specimen consigned to two different dealers in 1989. Lighter weight than this one, it was also fourree but being sold as solid silver. It is unknown if and by whom that coin was ever sold .
Buyer beware.
Silver drachm - uncertain mint (Muller 612) - after 323 BC
Pegasus in field
monogram under throne
3.9g, 17mm diameter
Wide spread flan and crossed feet place this coin to a later period. The mint city is abbreviated by the ligate AP under the throne and is also symbolized by the minor type of a palm tree in the left field. Even though the flan seems large, the date found in the exergue is completely lost. The die break across the reverse made it simple to die match this coin to another specimen on a more complete flan that provided the date information. The date sequence begins with the city's regaining of its freedom in 259 BC. I would be interested in hearing of other late Arados coins and whether they are also plated. I do not have ther references to answer all my questions about this coin or to comment with certainty if this is an ancient counterfeit or if the official mint produced plated pieces. This is the latest date Arados coin I have seen personally. Two drachms represent the second most often seen denomination of these coins. At one fourth the size and weight of the tetradrachms, drachms provide a 'budget' answer to collectors who find the larger silver too expensive. The same dating guidelines apply to the smaller coins. Shown are an early coin of smaller diameter and uncrossed feet (above) and a later coin on wider flan and with crossed legs. Several other denominations exist but the one and four drachm coins are by far the most common.

Coins of Alexander, both struck during his reign and after his death, provide collectors with nearly endless varieties of the same basic type. Whether one considers them all the same or all different is merely a matter of opinion. Any general ancient coin collection will need to contain at least one of these coins. It is quite possible to study these for a lifetime, collect nothing else and not have all the answers. The decision of which path to follow is for each collector to make. Obviously, I know very little about these coins as a speciality but it is hoped that the above examples will prove useful to beginning collectors. My apologies go to specialists in this field who must find this short overview totally useless.

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(c) 1997 Doug Smith