Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, Pharaoh of Egypt, King of Persia, and Lord of Asia, is considered by historians to be one of greatest military commanders in all of history. Within his empire there was an unprecedented level of economic prosperity and this allowed for the minting of a considerable number of coins. Coins in ancient Greece often reflected the political aims of the ruler who was minting them and the iconography of coins can tell us a great deal about the propaganda aims of those who had them minted as they were used to portray a certain image or legitimacy about the ruler(s) to their subjects. One way to distinguish themselves was through a particular mythical episode or hero. Although many of the Greek myths and mythical figures were relevant only to the people of one particular place, Herakles was a common to all areas of the Greek-speaking world.
The Reign of Alexander
During the reign of Alexander the Great an immense number of coins were issued. At the height of his reign, Alexander ruled an empire that stretched from Greece to India and so his coins were minted in numerous cities and lands, each having a minute but distinguishing feature. After his untimely death in 323 BC, Alexander’s empire was divided amongst his successors, usually his generals or close family, who continued to mint Alexander coins. Successors who were most notable for minting coins in the name of Alexander were Seleucus I, Ptolemy I, Lysimachus, Cassander, and Phillip III. Only after around two decades did these rulers feel secure enough in their positions to mint coins with their own names.
Alexander as Herakles
On the obverse of the majority of Alexander coins, the king is portrayed as the mythical hero Herkales, adorned with the Nemean Lion’s skin as a headdress. The slaying of the lion was the first of Herakles’ famous twelve labours and after the defeating the lion and skinning it, he wore its skin as a cloak as it was impervious to all conventional weapons. Thus later depictions of Herakles frequently depict him with the skin. For completing these labours Herakles attained divine status and for this reason he would have been an attractive deity for Alexander to imitate, wanting also to achieve this divine status himself. This depiction of Alexander as Herakles was a powerful propaganda weapon and presented his self-image to his subjects. The style of Alexander as Herakles was so influential that the Roman Emperor Commodus’ coinage also featured him as Herakles with the lion skin.
Zeus on the Reverse
Seeing Herakles on one side of the coins, it is unsurprising that we should commonly find Zeus Aëtophoros, king of the Gods and Herakles’ father, on the other side. There are two main styles in which Zeus is depicted on the reverse of the Alexander coins. In one depiction Zeus has his legs side by side and in the other style he has one leg behind the other. As a general rule, the former depictions of Zeus were minted during the lifetime of Alexander, while the latter were usually minted posthumously. However there are exceptions to this rule. To the left of Zeus are the Greek letters, ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟY, meaning Of Alexander, and there are commonly a number of other decorative motifs and monograms surrounding Zeus, or under his throne. From these we can deduce where the coin was struck as each marking, or combination of markings, relates to a certain mint.
Other Alexander Coins
The three most common precious metal denominations of Alexander coins were Silver Tetradrachms, Silver Drachms, and Gold Staters, the Tetradrachms being the most prolific, followed by the Drachms and then the Staters. As stated above, the successors of Alexander continued his tradition of coin minting, however sometimes changing the images that were used. For example, Tetradrachms and Drachms struck by Ptolemy I in Alexandria often display Athena armed with spear, shield and helmet. Other successors, however, did not change the images of the coins as much as Ptolemy. Alexander’s successor as King of Macedon, Phillip III Arrhidaeos, continued to use the same Herakles and Zeus imagery, changing only the inscription to the Greek word ΦIΛIΠΠOY, meaning Of Philip. This can be observed on the coin to the left. Also notice how the monograms differ from the coin above.
Gold staters, together with silver tratradrachms, were the principle denominations under Alexander the Great. However, unlike the tetradrachms, which depicted to the reverse and obverse two powerful male gods, Herakles and Zeus, the gold staters hold the depictions of the goddesses Athena and Nike. Athena appears usually portrayed facing right, with crested Corinthian helmet, decorated with a coiled serpent. Nike, on the other hand, appears winged and standing, facing left, wearing a long-draped chiton and holding in her left hand a stylis and a laurel wreath with her right hand, a Classical symbol of victory. The stylis, a part of the stern of a Greek ship, might have alluded to the victory of the Greeks against the Persians at Salamis in 480 BC.