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2 December 2010
The Coinage of Alexander the Great
The media plays a huge role in modern day politics. It is the ultimate way for would-be and current politicians to spread their face and their ideas to a large audience in a very short period of time. However, politics has been a major world player far longer than media such as television and the internet. So what type of publicity was available to politicians and rulers hundreds or even thousands of years ago? How did they make themselves known throughout vast empires? How did they spread the political message that they were invincible and their rule inevitable? Many methods were attempted, from word of mouth to erecting monumental structures, but perhaps the most effective was by controlling the imagery on coinage. Coins were the one object that nearly everyone in the ancient world came in contact with, a trend that continues to this day. Therefore coinage made the perfect vehicle for ancient publicity. One of the first people to make widespread use of this technique was Alexander the Great. Alexander’s portraiture and imagery were purposely crafted political tools used by Alexander and his successors to make a statement using coinage as a vehicle for distribution.
In regards to coinage, Alexander already had a decent foundation to build upon when he ascended to the Macedonian throne in 336 BCE. Before his death, Alexander’s father, King Philip II, had begun to increase the potential of Macedonian coinage by altering the coin types to reflect a more philhellenic attitude and by matching the silver weight standard to the one currently used in Athens. This was a smart move because it made Macedonian coinage easier to use in the international market. Alexander continued this trend of monometalism – having the same standard for all coins in order to make them more comparable – by changing the rest of Macedon’s coinage to match the Attic standard (Seltman 206). This, along with Alexander’s eventual fame, contributed to the rise in popularity of his Imperial Coinage and its eventual replacement of the Athenian Owls as the international coinage (Arnold 27).
The first coin Alexander designed was a perfect example of coin types being used as political propaganda. This coin depicted the helmeted head of Athena wearing a Corinthian helmet on the obverse, or front, and full bodied picture of Nike wearing a laurel wreath and holding a stylus on the reverse, or back (Price 1993 172). There are a number of possible reasons why Alexander chose Athena to grace the obverse of his gold drachm. It may be a case of following in his philhellenic father’s footsteps and attempting to stay on the city of Athens’ good side (Seltman 205). It might also have been a nod to the Hellenic League of Corinth, who backed Alexander in his war against Persia and whose patron goddess was Athena (Arnold 34). As for the reverse, the figure of Nike, the goddess of victory, holding a stylus – a mast-like structure – refers to a naval victory. However, at this point in time Macedonia had never won a major naval victory. There are two assumptions which may be made considering the information available. Either the scene is meant to be reminiscent of the famous Nike of Samos, commemorating the Greek’s victory over Persia at the Battle of Samos (Seltman 204). In which case this is another attempt by Alexander to stay in the Greek’s good graces. Or, this is a political statement on Alexander’s part, proclaiming that he would be victorious in his, then, newly launched campaign against Persia.
Alexander made good on his implied promise and conquered the mighty Persian Empire, along with the rest of Asia Minor within three years. In order to begin the process of assimilation of these many conquered countries into a single kingdom, Alexander created an Imperial Coinage to provide a common currency for his new empire. Alexander’s Imperial Coinage was the symbolic way in which he unified the vast territory under his dominion and fostered the feeling of a cohesive empire (Seltman 206). Whenever he conquered a new city or nation, he immediately ordered his coinage to be struck en masse and reduced the amount of that area’s common coinage being stuck (Price 1993 173). This practice has both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, whenever anyone looks at the new coinage they will be reminded that they now are ruled by King Alexander of Macedon. Conversely, it is a symbol of drastic change for a people who may be resentful towards being conquered. Alexander was aware of this dichotomy and did his best to resolve the situation before it even began. He did this by carefully designing the types for the gold and silver drachms of his Imperial Coinage.
The type Alexander chose for his gold drachms was the Athena/Nike coin described above. The symbolism on this coin was Pan-Hellenic in nature and therefore appealing to the vast majority of the Hellenic world. Conversely, his silver coins were designed with a more wide-ranging audience in mind. On the reverse of these silver drachms, Alexander put a picture of Zeus Olympios on a stool-throne holding a scepter in his left hand, with an eagle perched on his right hand (Price 1991 30). Zeus was chosen for this image because he was considered to be the father of the first Macedonian. Later in Alexander’s reign and after his death, Zeus Ammon was also considered father to Alexander personally, instead of just the father of his people (Kiilerich 89). Therefore, the image of Zeus on the Imperial Coinage was a constant reminder of Alexander’s reign (Arnold 30). More cunningly, this image of Zeus was also highly adaptable. Thus, when Alexander conquered Persia it was not difficult for the Persians to envision the seated Zeus as their primary god, Ba’al of Tarsus. The same was true of the other civilizations he conquered, and eventually the figure came to represent the main god of whatever area in which it was being minted. This made the coins equally as appealing to anyone in the empire (Seltman 205). It also provided a bit of normalcy after the upheaval of Alexander’s take-over.
The obverse of Alexander’s silver coinage was decorated with the head of Herakles. This was another example of Alexander’s multifaceted iconography. Firstly, Herakles represented the Macedonian royal house since they claimed to be direct descents of his son Tenemos of Argos (Arnold 28). Heracles was also a Pan-Hellenic hero who was sure to be popular with most if not all of the cultures the coins came in contact with. Eventually, this image of Herakles also came to be associated with Alexander himself, though there is debate as to whether this happened after he was deified in 331 BCE or later in Roman times (Arnold 33). Regardless of when certain connotations came into being, Alexander’s silver drachms were perfect for his Imperial Coinage. The imagery was distinct and yet flexible, all containing the Greek legend “coinage of Alexander.” It went a long way towards unifying, in some way, the hodgepodge of cultures which fell under his rule (Seltman 205).
Alexander’s association with Herakles was in no way accidental. It was the product of his personal imagery, created by himself and his court sculptor Lysippos in order to symbolically demonstrate the ideal qualities of kingship and heroism which Alexander claimed to possess. As such, Alexander’s image had very little to do with his actual looks and personality. Instead it reflected those traits he felt were most important: courage, determination, and ambition. This was in keeping with the Greek belief that a person’s inner traits were reflected in their physical looks. In order to show Alexander’s image as beautifully as the attributes which were meant to be reflected, Lysippos decided to depict a leonine type Alexander. The leonine type was considered the most perfect male type at the time and was made even more famous by Alexander. It had a specific set of characteristics: a clean shaven face, anastolé style hair, a cloudy brow, and gleaming eyes (Kiilerich 87). To this, Alexander also added a slightly turned head and uplifted eyes (Kiilerich 90). The clean shaven face was a symbol of youth and vigor, different from the bearded elder-statesman look which was popular in Greece at the time. The anastolé – riotous curly mop of hair – style and cloudy brow were both associated with heroism and courage; the anastolé because it was reminiscent of a lion’s mane and the brow because it was a commonly depicted feature of Greek heroes such as Herakles. The gleaming uplifted eyes were signs of Alexander’s connection to the gods. The deep-set bright gleaming eyes were also a traditional symbol of wisdom and courage (Kiilerich 88). In addition to all this, Lysippos combined the leonine type with the traditional kouros type. This archaic Greek style was used to depict extremely idealized young, god-like, figures. The connotations associated with this type were the attributes of eternal youth, strength, vigor, and divinity – perfect for Alexander’s needs (Kiilerich 87).
Alexander’s use of the leonine type for his imagery also served to associate him with the sun gods Apollo and Helios. These two were already commonly depicted in the leonine type by Hellenistic artists of the high Classical period. Consequently, the leonine Alexander easily joined the ranks of these established figures. Another reason for Alexander’s quick assimilation was the tendency for Near Eastern cultures to view their ruler as a sun god or the descendant of one, like in Egypt where the pharaoh is believed to be the son of Ra, the eagle-headed god Horus. When Alexander conquered these countries and effectively became their king, he inherited this deification (Kiilerich 89).
Whether or not Alexander the Great was deified before or after his death and whether he had any part in the decision is a topic of hot debate (Arnold 33). As mentioned previously, it is highly likely that Alexander was connected with the sun, since many of the cultures he conquered traditionally believed their ruler to be descended from, or himself the sun god (Kiilerich 89). Some scholars assert that Alexander and Lysippos’ use of the leonine type was a deliberate attempt to foster this association. These same scholars also believe that Alexander purposefully started, or at least confirmed, the rumor about being the son of Zeus Ammon through his famous pilgrimage to the Oracle of Zeus at Siwa, Egypt in 331 BCE (Fredricksmeyer 199). Conversely, it was against Greek tradition for heroes or rulers to be deified during their lifetime and Alexander never tried to put his own image on his coins, another space commonly reserved for deities and semi-divine heroes only (Arnold 33). It is possible that Alexander the Great was just so famous that the people began to view him as a mythical or god-like figure of their own free will, without any instigation from Alexander himself. Although, whether Alexander initiated the situation or not, he certainly did not discourage the idea that he was divine in nature.
Though Alexander’s coinage did not blatantly allude to his deification during his lifetime, the coins, commonly called Alexanders, which his successors minted after his death, certainly did. After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE his empire rapidly disintegrated. Each of his generals, the diadochoi, then claimed a different territory to govern (Arnold 32). In an attempt to prove the legitimacy of their rule, these new monarchs continued to use the Imperial Coinage. This reminded their subjects that they were given the right to rule by Alexander the Great, who was by now worshipped as a god himself. The coinage continued unchanged until 321 BCE. At this time Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt introduced the first wave of Alexanders. This coin contained a picture of Alexander, very similar to the Herakles of the Imperial Coinage, wearing an elephant scalp headdress with a ram’s horn protruding from behind his visible ear. In keeping with Alexander’s own imagery, this coin was full of implied information. The elephant scalp signified that Alexander was the conqueror of India, a far off exotic place which most people had only dreamed of. There may have also been some parallel between Alexander’s elephant scalp headdress and Herakles’ iconic lion scalp. The ram horns were a traditional sign of divinity and as well as a direct reference to Alexander’s claim to be the son of Zeus Ammon (Price 1991 34). This coin was also unique in that it was the first Greek coinage to put a mortal ruler’s image where previously only depictions of the gods were permitted. The coin was labeled with both the legend “King Alexander” as well as Ptolemy’s own name (Arnold 35).
The next of the diadochoi to switch to Alexanders was Seleucus I Nicator, who was in charge of the kingdom which he named for himself, the Seleukid Empire. In 305 BCE he struck a coin which was a blatant imitation of Ptolemy’s Alexander dressed in an elephant scalp headdress. The reverse, Nike holding a crown and/or stylus, was another plagiarized image, this time, from Alexander the Great’s gold coins. It was not until four years later, in 301 BCE, that Seleucus designed his own original coin type. Yet this too was similar to coins which had been struck previously (Stewart 314-315) and is only one of many examples of Alexander imagery being reused and recycled continuously in the years after his death.
The Seleukid silver coins from 301 BCE showed Alexander with a bull’s horn and ear wearing a panther skin headdress on the obverse. On the reverse, was a picture of Nike erecting a trophy. Once again, the headdress alludes to Alexander’s conquest of India. However, unlike the ram horn, the bull horn represents Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and theater (Arnold 37). This may seem to be a bit incongruous in comparison with the other mighty and heroic gods that Alexander was associated with. Yet, in Greek mythology, Dionysus was actually credited with conquering India, so the parallels there are rather obvious (Bauslaugh 36). Furthermore, Dionysus was extremely popular during this time period; his cult could be found everywhere, from the Seleukid Empire to Egypt to the Roman Republic.
Ptolemy followed this coin up with yet another Alexander coin type 300 BCE. Like the previous coinage, this was another attempt to secure his throne using Alexander’s memory and image. The reverse of the coin was decorated with a picture of Alexander in the heroic nude wearing a chalamys over both shoulders and a laurel wreath on his head. He is also holding a thunderbolt in one hand and the reins for his elephant chariot in the other. Many common aspects of iconography are once again seen on this coin. Alexander being in the heroic nude emphasizes his inner beauty as per the Greek ideal. Elephants symbolize Alexander’s conquest of India and the chariot itself refers to the funeral games. Likewise, the wreath alludes to both the funeral games and Alexander’s numerous victories. The thunderbolt is a borrowing from Zeus’ iconography which in this context is a nod towards Alexander’s role as the son of Zeus Ammon. Overall, the scene is a reference to the funeral games which Ptolemy held when he buried the body of Alexander the Great. This was another of Ptolemy’s ploys to establish himself as Alexander’s rightful successor. This particular scheme was influenced by the Macedonian belief that a man must first bury the previous king in order to be considered the legitimate ruler. Interestingly, it is doubtful that the body Ptolemy buried was actually Alexander’s. However, since most people had never seen Alexander the Great in person and knew only his idealized image from coinage, the ruse most likely worked nonetheless (Arnold 37).
At first, many of the coins minted right after Alexander’s death differed only in the name of the issuer on the coin. This is likely because after the chaos and upheaval involved in the carving up of the once great empire, the newly made kings didn’t want to “rock the boat” as it were (Bauslaugh 36). However, gradually, all of Alexander’s generals began to change their coinage, first to various forms of Alexanders and then to coin types more suited to commemorating themselves and their exploits. For example, Ptolemy was the first of the former generals to put his own portrait on a coin. However, unlike the portraits of Alexander, Ptolemy’s portrait was more true to reality instead of idealized (Arnold 38).
Alexanders were the most popular style of coinage type for nearly 200 years until the Roman’s conquered the Greek world and the coins fell out of favor. However, the imagery designed by Alexander and his successors continued to be used for centuries more (Arnold 39). Alexander’s leonine style of imagery, in particular, was copied by numerous Roman politicians, Pompey “the Great” and Augustus Caesar being two of the most famous.
Even in more recent times, Alexander has surfaced as a political message on coinage. For example, in 1545 a coin was minted whose obverse depicts Pope Paul III and whose reverse shows Alexander kneeling before the Jewish high priest. This picture is obviously meant to show the superiority of a God even to one such as Alexander the Great. Furthermore, the image of Alexander with ram horns was used on Greek coins even as recently as 1990; although this coin was meant more for historical value and bragging rights than as a political statement (Dahmen 155). Still, it is yet another instance where the coinage conveys meaning rather than simple decoration.
Alexander the Great created an ingenious style of imagery which he himself, his successors, and even politicians centuries later, employed in order to spread political messages throughout the great extent of their nations. His cunningly crafted imagery both succeeded brilliantly in its intended purpose and far outlasted Alexander himself. It was a truly innovative system deserving of just as much praise as any of Alexander’s other numerous accomplishments.
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Stewart, Andrew. Faces of Power. Berkley: University of California Press, 1993. Print.