Alexander the Great Tetradrachms, c. 325-323 BCE
Various denominations of Alexander coinage are available to collectors today -- from rare gold distaters that can cost $10,000 in aEF (Almost Extra Fine) condition to common bronzes that typically carry prices ranging from $10 to $100. The most common denomination, however, and perhaps the most impressive of them all, is the silver tetradrachm, a large coin that ranges in diameter from that of a U.S. quarter to that of a Morgan dollar but is much thicker and, as with many ancient Greek coins, is of stunningly high relief.
The tetradrachm was Alexander's silver stater, or standard denomination, with more of them minted than any other Alexander denomination, and more of them likely minted than any other single ancient coin type during their run of nearly three centuries. Alexander's silver coinage was minted from native mines in Macedonia and Thrace as well as from the huge stock of bullion that he captured from the Persians.
The complete range of Alexander's Herakles silver denominations is dekadrachm (rare), tetradrachm, didrachm, drachm, fifth tetradrachm (rare denomination used in Babylon), hemidrachm, diobol, obol, thirtieth tetradrachm (rare denomination used in Babylon), hemiobol, and quarter obol (also called tetartemorion), with some of the smaller fractions featuring different reverses than the larger denominations.
Unlike Alexander's bronze coinage, which was largely used in local marketplaces, 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 in today's money. Ironically, this is about the cost of an average Alexander tetradrachm today, though they can be had at anywhere from $60 for beat-up Fines to $2,000 and up for an eye-popping specimen in Fleur-de-Coin, or As Struck, condition.
Alexander the Great lifetime tetradrachm from Amphipolis, Macedonia, c. 325-323 BC, 17.2g, M.J. Price 93, Troxell E8, SNG Cop. 675.
The reverse of this beautifully preserved and centered coin depicts a bucranium (ox head) as a mint control mark. Alexander's principal Macedonian mint, which most scholars identify as Amphipolis, was the most prolific of all Alexander mints, with Babylon being the next most prolific. Most, though not all, lifetime Alexander III tetradrachms (minted during his lifetime), like this one, portray on the reverse Zeus with open legs and a reverse inscription that reads "Of Alexander," not "Of King Alexander" (no royal title).
It's not certain whether Amphipolis, Macedonia's main trading center, or Pella, the capital, was the site of Alexander's principal Macedonian tetradrachm mint. Edward Newell believed it was Amphipolis, based upon the numerous later coinages that can conclusively be attributed to Amphipolis, as did A.R. Bellinger, Georges Le Rider, and Otto Mørkholm. Bellinger wrote that few Alexanders attributed to Pella turn up in hoards outside Europe, which argues for Pella being primarily a local mint and Amphipolis being Alexander's large international mint. Amphipolis was also close to the rich mining area near Mount Pangaion. Many symbols were used on tetradrachms attributed to Amphipolis, but the bucranium symbol on the specimen illustrated above may have referred to Artemis, the patron goddess of Amphipolis.
Martin Price, on the other hand, expressed doubt about Amphipolis as Alexander's principal Macedonian tetradrachm mint, preferring Pella instead, among other reasons because Amphipolis produced meager coinage before the time of Alexander's father, Philip II. But Price decided as others before him to attribute the bulk of Alexander's Macedonian coins to it, though on a tentative basis until someone undertakes a die study of the relevant coinage. Price also speculated that Philippi may have been the location of Alexander's principal stater mint, not Amphipolis, though he maintained the Amphipolis attribution here as well. Though she also expressed uncertainty, Hyla Troxell also retained the traditional Amphipolis attribution for the location of main mint in Alexander's homeland of Macedonia because no convincing evidence supports the claim of any other city.
The obverse of these coins depicts a young (beardless) Herakles/Hercules. As is discussed later on this page and on the Alexander Portrait page of this site, the Herakles image varies significantly depending when and where the coin was minted, with the face sometimes picking up what are likely Alexander's own facial features and later on morphing into the face of other rulers. Herakles is facing right except with unusual varieties from Pella (three) and Cyrene (one) in which he faces left, which Martin Price believes were a brief experiment after Alexander's death at the beginning of the reign of Philip III, Alexander's half brother, to distinguish his coins from Alexander's.
Herakles, as he typically does on coinage, wears a lion skin headdress, which refers to his victory over the Nemian Lion in his First Labor. The lion's gaping mouth is covering the back of Herakles' scalp, while its paws are tied at his neck. Sometimes you can clearly see the lion's tooth near the bottom of Herakles' ear and the lion's ear at the top of the lion's mane (about 10:30 on the coin). Much less frequently you can clearly see the lion's closed eye and eye lashes near the top of Herakles' head.
Herakles' own hair appears in wavy tufts only at his hairline, which is typically the highpoint of the coin and the first area to show wear. Infrequently the short fur of the lion's face is depicted as speckled, though typically the metal there is rendered smoothly.
Alexander the Great lifetime tetradrachm from Amphipolis, Macedonia, c. 336-326 BC, 17.1g, M.J. Price 5, Troxell A2, SNG Cop. 659.
This was likely among the first imperial coins Alexander issued. This and similar coins may have been issued by Alexander for recruiting his army in preparation for the invasion of the Persian Empire. All lifetime Alexander tetradrachms from Amphipolis feature Zeus with open legs. Some regard the posing of Zeus in this way as stiff and unnatural, but it adds an archaic charm that the crossed-legged Zeus doesn't have. The reverse of this variety depicts a ship's stern as a mint control mark.
This slightly off-center specimen emphasizes how ancient coins, unlike modern ones, were struck by hand, and frequently imperfectly. Ancient coins with striking defects like this aren't valued higher by the market, as modern coins are, but typically lower. Nonetheless, there's visual interest, as well as a bargain, to be had in the imperfection of a coin such as this.
The reverse depicts a bearded Zeus, usually muscular, sometimes skinny, usually with long hair, sometimes with hair rolled at the back. Zeus wears a crown that's probably a laurel wreath but on a small number of coins looks more like either a turban or a headdress of horns. Zeus is naked from the waist up, with a himation (linen or woolen cloak) covering his lap and legs. Sometimes his torso archaically faces front, though usually it's more naturalistically angled to the side in the direction of his gaze. Zeus' legs represent a key variation, as is discussed below, and they can be angled in different positions.
Zeus sits on a throne, which is sometimes backed, sometimes backless, sometimes elaborately decorative, sometimes plain. Infrequently his feet rest on a stool. He holds a scepter, symbol of his authority, in his left hand. With some posthumous tetradrachms the scepter is shaped like a spear, with a blade at the bottom. An eagle, one of Zeus' attributes, perches on his right hand. Sometimes all the fingers of Zeus' right hand are shown, sometimes only the side of his hand. An exergual line may appear beneath Zeus' throne, typically solid or dotted, sometimes as a corn ear (wheat grain, one of Zeus' attributes) or as a meander pattern, though often there's no exergual line. The obverse or reverse, both, or neither may have a beaded border, often partly off the flan.
The reverse inscription typically translates into either "Of Alexander" (usually, in Greek letters, ALEXANDROY, infrequently without the ending Y) or "Of King Alexander" (in Greek letters, BASILEOS ALEXANDROY). Sometimes the name of the city, ruler, or mint magistrate is included as well. Mint marks -- symbols or letters or both -- usually appear on the reverse to the left of Zeus, under his throne, or in both places and less commonly in the reverse right field or exergue. Sometimes numerals appear that refer to a dating system used in a particular city.
Alexander the Great lifetime tetradrachm from Amphipolis, Macedonia, c. 325-323 BC, 17.2g, M.J. Price 78, Troxell E2, SNG Cop. 676.
The mint mark on the reverse is an ithyphallic (sexually aroused) herm, an object strange to our sensibilities today but commonplace in ancient Greece. Herms, which first appeared in the sixth century BC, were typically ithyphallic statues depicting a bearded head of Hermes. They were often used as boundary markers, as a way of saying this is the beginning of my turf -- keep out if you mean any harm. Most herms were later destroyed by Christians.
The most plausible explanation of the origin of herms that I've read refers to a practice by some species of monkeys in which males acting as guards present their erect phallus, signaling that the group consists not only of females and children but also of powerful males. Ancient Greece may have been the cradle of Western civilization, but it wasn't that far removed from barbarous pre-civilization, temporally or geographically, and it sometimes exhibited a fascinating "otherness," as epitomized by herms.
Alexander's own sexuality has long been the subject of debate, and among casual observers, titillation. He had male sexual partners but took one wife (Roxane) and possibly two others (Stateira and Parysatis), and he fathered one child legitimately (Alexander IV, with Roxane) and at least one illegitimately (Herakles, with Barsine, a mistress). His sexuality is best understood in the context of ancient Greek (and Roman) sexuality. Both the Greeks and Romans looked at sexuality not primarily in terms of heterosexual or homosexual but active and passive. You penetrated or were penetrated, with the former regarded by society as proper for those who were senior and socially dominant and the latter, whether male or female, as proper for those who were socially inferior and of lesser status. A male could lose status but only if he were sexually passive (penetrated) with a male of lesser status. Age played a role, with adolescents not stigmatized for being passive. The belief that the Greeks accepted homosexuality and the Romans repudiated it is a myth, according to David M. Halperin, professor of literature at MIT, in the 1996 book Oxford Classical Dictionary.
There's considerable debate over what model Alexander used for the reverse's seated Zeus, if any. Some numismatists feel he used the Baal obverse on the coins of Tarsos, Cilicia, Asia Minor, which as you can see is very similar. But a similar seated Zeus appeared on the early fifth century BC coins of the Arkadian League (Sear Greek 2672-2677). Others feel he used existing statuary, such as the statue of Zeus at Olympia, at Pella, or at Mount Lykaion, which depicted a similarly seated deity. The most compelling argument I've read is from A.R. Bellinger in his 1963 book Essays on the Coinage of Alexander the Great, Bellinger in turn echoed the thoughts of Charles Seltman in his 1933 book Greek Coins: A History of Metallic Currency and Coinage Down to the Fall of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, contending that Alexander chose this reverse because he believed it would appeal both to his subjects in the Greek world and to his future subjects, as yet unconquered, in the Persian world. This reasoning still rings true today.
Much of the Zeus/Baal debate depends in turn on the debate over just when Alexander began minting his imperial coinage. Some scholars, such as Georges Le Rider, Hyla A. Troxell, Zoë Sophia Kontes, and Orestes H. Zervos, feel he began minting it only after the Battle of Issos, where Alexander captured a large amount of Persian booty, in 333 BC and that Alexander in the interim continued to mint the types of his father and his "Eagle" silver and bronze coins, depicting Zeus or Herakles on the obverse and one or two perched eagles on the reverse. But the latter coins, in silver, are rare today, and there's no hoard evidence of large emissions of Philip coinage in Asia Minor. There is the possibility that the Eagle silver coins were later melted down en masse for the striking of Alexander's Herakles and Zeus coins, but it's more likely that they were brief transitionary issues. I believe Alexander initiated his imperial coinage not long after his ascension to the throne in 336 BC in preparation for the invasion of Asia, as do others, including Martin Price, Otto Mørkholm, David Sear, Christopher Howgego, David Vagi, Patrick Marchetti, and Edward Newell. Alexander must have been as bold with his coinage as he was with everything else in his life.
Alexander's purpose in life was to conquer the world. That's what he sought to do, and he almost succeeded. He did conquer the Persian Empire, the greatest the world had yet seen, over a period of six years. Alexander's Macedonian Empire comprised 2.1 million square miles, slightly smaller than the Persian Empire that preceded it, which was 2.4 million square miles in size. The Seleukid Empire, its largest successor, was 1.3 million square miles. In contrast, both the Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire at their zeniths were 2.2 million square miles. At 12.8 million square miles and comprising 24 percent of the Earth's land surface excluding Antarctica, the Mongol Empire of the 13th century was the largest contiguous land empire in history. The largest noncontiguous land empire was the British Empire between 1918 and 1922, at 14.2 million square miles, which comprised 27 percent of the Earth's land surface excluding Antarctica. The Soviet Empire of the later 20th century was 9.9 million square miles. (Numbers from Bruce R. Gordon and his associates).
At the time of his death, Alexander had plans to conquer Arabia, and he likely would have gone on afterward to capture the West, including Rome, which at the time was a small backwater republic. In his intriguing if utopian counterfactual essay, "If Alexander the Great Had Lived On," which appeared in his 1969 book Some Problems in Greek History, the renowned British historian Arnold Toynbee speculated that if Alexander had lived a full life, he would have achieved a world state from present-day Spain to Japan that he benevolently administered, with all citizens of the world afforded basic human dignities, with neither Rome nor Christianity becoming a historical influence and Hellenized Buddhism becoming the world's dominant religion, with the Greek ideals of freedom and intellectual inquiry not needing to be rediscovered in the Renaissance, with civilization, science, and technology all advancing more quickly than they did, and with all of us today still living in a unified Alexandrine world.
Toynbee's essay is utopian, of course. How could an empire last more than two millennia? Following Oswald Spengler, I believe that all empires and all civilizations, like all people, are born, flourish, plateau, decline, and die. But just as coins can incite the imagination, so can alternate history such as Toynbee's. If Alexander had lived on, the chasm that separates East from West today likely wouldn't exist, and there would be no need for a war on terrorism.
Alexander the Great lifetime tetradrachm from Tarsos, Asia Minor, c. 333-327 BC, 16.9g, M.J. Price 2995.
Alexander's Tarsos tetradrachms were among the first of his imperial Herakles and Zeus coinage minted outside Macedonia, minted during his conquest of the Persian Empire. The small, compact flan of this coin is typical of Tarsos coinage, and the extremely small flan of this particular specimen, only 21mm in diameter, makes it among the smallest and thickest of all Alexander the Great tetradrachms. In his 1991 book The Coinage in the Name of Alexander the Great and Philip Arrhidaeus, Martin Price didn't mention the order that cities initiated the minting of Alexanders, but he did so in his paper "Alexander's Policy on Coinage" in the 1993 book Alexander the Great: Reality and Myth, edited by Jesper Carlsen et al. He felt that the first cities, in order, were Amphipolis, Aegae, Sardis, Tarsos, and Sidon. Mørkholm, on the other hand, believed that Alexander initiated his Asian coinage at Tarsos, a position supported by David Vagi.
Alexander's Tarsos coins were struck with the enormous booty of silver and gold bullion captured from the Persians in large part beginning with the Battle of Issos near Tarsos c. 333 BC. Based upon the writings of such ancient authors as Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, and Plutarch, the total booty captured between 333 and 330 BC has been variously estimated to be worth 180,000 to 400,000 talents or the equivalent of 270 million to 600 million tetradrachms. Issos was Alexander's first of two main victories over the Persian Great King Darius III. Two years later, in 331 BC, Alexander defeated Darius again, at the Battle of Gaugamela, occupying Babylon and taking control of the Persian Empire. Tarsos, a very old city thought to have been founded at the end of the Neolithic Period c. 8000-5500 BC, was called Tarza by the Hittites, Tarzi by the Assyrians, and later Tarsus by the Romans. It was the city where Anthony met Cleopatra and the birthplace of the Apostle Paul.
One of the challenges of collecting Alexander tetradrachms is buying them correctly attributed. You see a lot of posthumous Alexanders, coins of Alexander's style and inscribed with his name but minted by others after his death, being sold as lifetime issues, through online auctions such as eBay and on bourse floors. The lifetime issues, supporting his achievements, are seen less and worth more than those coins issued as his empire was fracturing. More important, they represent Alexander's presence and power. Posthumous Alexanders are still evocative, representing his legacy and legend, though not as much so.
Typically with misattributed Alexander tetradrachms, 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.
Alexander the Great possible lifetime tetradrachm from Side, Asia Minor, c. 325-320 BC, 17.0g, M.J. Price 2949.
A fair percentage of Alexander the Great tetradrachm varieties, such as this one, are thought to have been issued during the years immediately preceding and immediately following his death in 323 BC. Zeus' legs are still open, but the royal title "Basileos," or "King," now appears under Zeus' throne.
Price expressed caution in attributing this and similar issues to Side, though he suggested no alternate city where it could have been minted. This coin was likely minted as payment to Alexander's veterans as they were returning home to Macedonia. In terms of eye appeal, this specimen exhibits very high relief and virtually no wear, though there's minor surface porosity on reverse. The porosity was caused by the conditions in which the coin was buried during the past 2,400 years, possibly acidity in the soil.
In the past people believed that you could distinguish between Alexander lifetime tetradrachms and posthumous tetradrachms by examining the legs of Zeus on the reverse. Those with open legs (parallel or roughly parallel) were thought to be lifetime, while those with crossed legs (right leg drawn backward behind left) were thought to be posthumous.
It's now known that this is not a reliable test. According to Otto Mørkholm in his 1991 book Early Hellenistic Coinage: From the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea (336-188 BC), the first Alexander tetradrachms featuring Zeus with crossed legs were struck around 326/325 BC in Egypt, before Alexander's death in 323 BC. Martin Price believed that Zeus first appeared posed this way on the coins of Sidon in 325/324 BC, still during Alexander's lifetime. What's more, tetradrachms with open legs were struck at various mints in the years shortly after his death. It wasn't until 315 to 310 BC, according to Mørkholm, that nearly all Alexander tetradrachms featured Zeus with crossed legs. Price identified opened-leg Alexanders that were minted in Macedonia as late as 286 BC. As you'll see, however, open legs on an Alexander tetradrachm do increase the likelihood of the coin being a lifetime issue.
A second test is the presence or absence of the royal title "Basileos," or "King," on the reverse of the tetradrachm. Here too this provides some attribution help but is far from foolproof. The absence of the royal title just increases the likelihood that the tetradrachm is a lifetime issue. According to Mørkholm, who reported the opinion of an earlier scholar, Edward Newell, the first Alexander tetradrachms to feature the royal title appeared in 329 BC, six years before his death. According to Price, the first royal title coins appeared later, in 325 or 324 BC, still during Alexander's lifetime, on coins minted as payment to soldiers who were being sent home. What's more, many posthumous tetradrachms don't feature a title.
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 tetradrachms are posthumous. Flan sizes were used heavily to date coins by Ludvig Müller 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 17.2g more likely to be posthumous. Yet a fair percentage of lifetime coins weigh slightly less than 17g, particularly those from Babylon.
A fifth test is the presence of tiny decorative elements on the back of Zeus' throne (some tetradrachms feature Zeus sitting on a full-backed throne, others on just a stool), which appear on a small percentage of coins. Some of the tetradrachms attributed to Corinth, Sicyon, uncertain Peloponnese, Babylon, Memphis, Parion, Mesembria, and Arados feature on the back of Zeus' throne such figures as Nike, two eagles, two sphinxes, a thunderbolt, or a palm tree. These elements occur only on posthumous coins.
Alexander the Great possible lifetime tetradrachm from Byblos, Phoenicia, c. 330-320 BC, 17.2g, M.J. Price 3426.
This is another possible lifetime issue, though on this one, Zeus' legs are crossed and there's no royal title. The A mint mark in the reverse left field is thought to stand for King Adramelek, a Phoenician ruler at the time.
This coin was minted at some point after the Siege of Tyre c. 332 BC as Alexander marched through Phoenicia. That siege took six months and required Alexander to build a causeway a half mile long out into the Mediterranean Sea to reach the island city of Tyre, a technological feat that had never been accomplished before. This was a key event in establishing the legend of Alexander's invincibility. Byblos, a Phoenician city where this coin was minted just north of Tyre, supported Alexander in this fight.
The Phoenicians, a Semitic language-speaking Canaanite people, are among history's great seafarers, occupying coastal lands in present-day Lebanon, Israel, and Syria but establishing numerous colonies throughout the Mediterranean region, including Carthage in North Africa. The Phoenician alphabet, based on symbols for sounds, replaced the more primitive cuneiform and hieroglyphic systems that originated in Sumer and Egypt. It was adopted and modified by the Greeks, with the Romans later adopting and modifying the Greek alphabet and the English later adopting and modifying the Roman alphabet. Phoenicia was absorbed by the Persian and Hellenistic cultures. Some Lebanese, Syrians, Maltese, Tunisians, and Algerians, among others, consider themselves descendants of the Phoenicians.
The best way to attribute Alexander coinage today is by using the 1991 two-volume book The Coinage in the Name of Alexander the Great and Philip Arrhidaeus, written by the late Martin Jessop Price. The book is a catalog of the British Museum holdings as well as other varieties not owned by the museum. Price based his attributions of the Alexander coinage on his own work as well as on the work of other numismatists. Price's work is still in print, but like most reference books about ancient coins, it's on the pricey side.
Price is available in many university libraries. Another option, if you're a member of the American Numismatic Association, is to borrow it from its library through the mail for just the cost of round-trip postage and insurance (every serious coin collector should be an ANA member if only to take advantage of this mail-order book-borrowing service). Price is well organized, though attributing any given coin using Price can still take some time because of the huge number of Alexander coins included, more than four thousand in all. Another reason it's better to attribute coins yourself is that you'll likely do a more careful and accurate job than others, including dealers and auction houses. This applies to all ancient coins, not just Alexanders.
The Web site WildWinds can often help, grouping Alexander coins according to their Price attribution numbers. WildWinds is extensive and easy to use -- the best way to attribute Alexanders online -- but it's far from complete.
Alexander the Great lifetime tetradrachm from Memphis, Egypt, c. 332-323 BC, 16.8g, M.J. Price 3964.
This specimen is an example of an atypical lifetime issue that features Zeus with crossed legs. All tetradrachms from Memphis, both lifetime and posthumous, feature Zeus posed in this way. Large bellcovers decorate the legs of Zeus' throne. The mint mark in the reverse left field is a ram's head with a crown of Isis (the Egyptian goddess of fertility). The features of Alexander's own face begin to appear in coins from Memphis, Babylon, and a few other cities during the last years of his life.
Alexander proclaimed himself son of Zeus in Egypt during 331 BC. Coins from Memphis are among Alexander's lifetime issues that feature a Herakles image incorporating what appear to be some of Alexander's own facial features. Coins currently attributed to Memphis by Price and others today were attributed to Alexandria by Newell and others in the past. Alexander's Egyptian coinage was considered by Newell to be among his most beautifully styled, and it's still considered this way today.
Egypt's golden age, the height of her power, occurred about a thousand years before this coin was minted, during the New Kingdom from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasties, c. 1567-1085 BC. Egypt's power and influence were greatest during this time. Amenophis IV/Akhnaton may have established the world's first organized monotheistic religion during the 14th century BC, and passed his beliefs on to Moses. This golden age of ancient Egypt, in turn, occurred about a thousand years after the age of the great pyramids, which were built during the mid-third millennium BC. Egypt was briefly independent before Persia reconquered it c. 343 BC and wouldn't regain its independence again until 1952.
Even with Price, there's no certainty. Price is numismatics' greatest Alexander III scholar and is the ultimate Alexander attribution authority today, but he wasn't infallible. Like all serious numismatists, he based his research on such things as die studies, hoard analyses, stylistic comparisons, mint marks, ancient literary works and epigraphs, and historical events. But this evidence is often scant, and significant deduction is often needed to move from evidence to conclusion. Ancient numismatic scholars often debate one another on logical grounds, reaching different conclusions from the same evidence. Price frequently disagreed with colleagues and predecessors.
As an indication of Price's scholarship, when he felt a particular city attribution was questionable, he placed that city's name within single quotation marks or appended a question mark after it. I'm following the convention of most others, however, by not using these qualifying marks and instead regarding Price's attributions, with the below corrections, as the best available working knowledge we have of these coins. Price also illustrated Alexander coins, including 88 tetradrachms, that he couldn't attribute to a specific city, with these tetradrachms representing 6.9 percent of the British Museum's holdings of 1,269 official Alexander tetradrachms.
At least two collections of errata of Price's work have appeared in print so far, papers by Charles A. Hersh and Arthur Houghton in the 1998 book Studies In Greek Numismatics In Memory of Martin Jessop Price. The most important corrections by Hersh were the changing of the attribution of Price 3091-3099 from Amathus to Soli and Price 3688-3690 from Babylon to Susa; the most important corrections of Houghton were the changing of the attribution of Price 3303-3332 from Aradus possible lifetime to Aradus lifetime and Price 3435-3449 from Maranthus to Aradus. I offer several corrections as well. As explained below, Price's "Periods of issue" section with regard to the dating of Price 104 to Price 121 tetradrachms is likely incorrect. As explained in detail in the Modern Forgeries section of this site, I believe that the Price 237 tetradrachm from Pella is likely a modern forgery. Tetradrachms attributed as Price 3449 from Aradus and Price 3548 from Tyre are listed in Price as having the royal title but don't. As explained in the Alexander Staters section, Price's analysis of the weights of Alexander's staters doesn't take into consideration Black Sea issues.
Just as Price consolidated the up-to-date Alexander attributions of his own and other numismatists in his work, future numismatists with access to new die studies, new hoard data, and new finds will in all likelihood do the same. This may happen when the next great Alexander the Great numismatic scholar, following the tradition of Ludvig Müller, Edward T. Newell, and Martin J. Price, undertakes a comprehensive study of the Alexanders in the huge collection owned by the American Numismatic Society, the largest collection of Alexander coinage in the world. This collection is made up in large part as a result of a bequest by Newell, who was the president of the ANS from 1916 to 1941. Another large collection of Alexanders is at the Bibliothèque National in Paris.
Alexander the Great lifetime tetradrachm from Babylon, Babylonia, c. 325-323 BC, 17.1g, M.J. Price 3620.
Babylon, the world's most populous city at the time, was likely the site of Alexander's most prolific mint outside Macedonia and the single most prolific during his lifetime. This coin falls into the second group of coins that Price tentatively attributed to Babylon, but with this second group, he believes there's a possibility that they may be issues of Susa, further east, because of stylistic similarities. For this and similar coins to be Babylon issues, Price believes that die engravers must have moved from Babylon to Susa a year or two before Alexander's death. Along with Susa, Price believes that another city that could have been site of Alexander's principal eastern mint was Ekbatana. Price may have been overcautious here. Babylon was the city Alexander chose as the capital of his new empire, and it was the city where he died in 323 BC.
Alexander the Great is often described as dying at age 33. But because of uncertainties involving the ancient Greek calendar, it's not clear exactly when he was born, meaning he could have died shortly before reaching his 33rd birthday. It's also not clear exactly what he died from, though one of the most frequently postulated causes of death is malaria. But the possibility also exists that he died of bird flu, poisoning, overmedication, alcoholism, or a combination of two or more of these causes. Ptolemy I, one of his bodyguards and sucessors, hijacked Alexander's corpse on its way back to Macedonia, taking it to Egypt in support of his authority there. Alexander's tomb has never been found, despite well over a hundred officially sanctioned searches for it and plenty of theories. For more on Alexander's death and particularly the mystery of his tomb, see Andrew M. Chugg's site Alexanderstomb.
Babylon, capital of Babylonia, was one of the most celebrated cities in the ancient world. According to the Bible, it was the site of the mythological Tower of Babel, as described in the parable about human arrogance. It was also the city where Abraham, the first patriarch and progenitor of the Jews, was born and where the Jews were held captive after the Babylonians, under King Nebuchadnezzar II, destroyed Jerusalem c. 587 BC. The Jews were freed when the Persians captured Babylonia, with Alexander the Great later defeating the Persians. The earliest known inhabitants of Mesopotamia were the Sumerians, who are generally regarded as building the world's first civilization during the fourth millennium BC and who gave us writing, the wheel, and how we tell time. The Babylonians were the first people in the world to formulate sophisticated laws, known as the Code of Hammurapi. The concept of a state-guaranteed currency, the exact system of "Babylonian" weights, and probably the technology of processing gold all originated in Babylon. The ruins of Babylon are situated in present-day Iraq.
To better understand issues related to all Alexander coinage, I parsed the data in Price beyond what Price himself did, hugely insightful as it was. I focused primarily on the official Alexander coins that Price illustrated, which represent the British Museum holdings at the time the book was written. The Alexander coins listed but not illustrated by Price, which reside elsewhere than the British Museum, lack the same data. With the tetradrachms, for instance, there's no data on whether Zeus' legs are open or on the flan size.
An exact correlation doesn't exist between the coins Price illustrated and the universe of Alexander coins minted in ancient times or extant today. Not all emissions of any given Price variety were of the same size and not all have the same survival rate. New hoards, finds, and studies can change our understanding. And the varieties in the British Museum represent a fraction of those minted, albeit a fraction that likely is a large one. Still, because of the sheer size of the British Museum's holdings of Alexanders and the diverse hoards and other means used to acquire them, I believe there's a strong enough correlation between Price and Alexander to shed more light on the subject, as follows.
Price illustrated 1,269 official Alexander tetradrachms, as well as ancient imitative Alexander tetradrachms, modern forgeries of Alexander tetradrachms, Alexander-style tetradrachms minted in the name of Philip III and Lysimachos, other Alexander denominations, and supplementary and comparative material. Tetradrachms were the most numerous of Alexanders denominations. Compared with 1,269 official tetradrachms, Priced illustrated 434 official drachms and 349 official staters.
Alexander issued tetradrachms from 25 different cities -- seven in Europe, 17 in Asia, and one in Africa. This includes two cities that issued tetradrachms not illustrated in Price. Alexander also issued bronzes from Curium, Cyprus, making a total of 26 different cities issuing his coinage during his lifetime. After his death, his successors as well as later rulers wanting to associate themselves with Alexander or his coinage issued tetradrachms from an additional 64 cities. This makes for a total of 87 different cities that issued Alexander tetradrachms illustrated in Price. Twenty other cities issued tetradrachms not illustrated in Price or issued other denominations without issuing tetradrachms, making for a total of 107 different cities that issued Alexander-style coinage.
Just as Houghton concluded that the coins Price attributed to Maranthus and Aradus were all issued at Aradus, others feel that this happened elsewhere as well. But until convincing evidence is presented in the literature, it makes little sense to further reduce the number of Alexander mints.
Alexander the Great posthumous tetradrachm from southern Asia Minor, 17.1g, c. 320-280 BC, M.J. Price 3083.
The late Martin J. Price, the world's premier authority on attributing Alexander the Great coinage, was able to attribute some varieties, such as this one, only to a broad region rather than a specific city, which is indicative of the tentativeness of many ancient coin attributions in general. Just as Price corrected some of the attributions of his predecessors, his successors, with access to new die study and hoard data, will likely correct some of his attributions.
This specimen features on the bottom of the reverse the royal title "Basileos," or King. The presence of this title increases the likelihood that an Alexander tetradrachm is a posthumous issue, but some lifetime and possible lifetime issues feature the royal title as well. The royal title was thought to be distasteful to the democracy-minded Greeks, and it wasn't included on tetradrachms minted in Macedonia until after Alexander's death, though it was used elsewhere beforehand, and as with this specimen, afterward. The practice never became universal, however.
The 1,269 official tetradrachms illustrated in Price represent 1,054 different varieties. Of the tetradrachms illustrated, 215 were duplicates of the same variety. Most of the specimens illustrated are the only example of that particular variety. The one variety in the British Museum with the most duplicates was Price 2949 from Side, with eight different examples.
As numismatic commentary on the geographic scope of Alexander's influence, 464 or 36.6 percent of his tetradrachms were issued in Europe (includes the regions of Macedonia, Greece, Thrace, and Cyprus), 777 or 61.2 percent were issued in Asia (includes the regions of Asia Minor, Syria, Phoenicia, Babylonia, Media, Susiana, and Arabia), and 16 or 1.3 percent were issued in Africa (includes the regions of Egypt and Cyrenaica). Price attributed some coins not to a specific city but more loosely to a general region. He was uncertain of the region with 12 tetradrachms. Egypt is underrepresented here because of the tight control Ptolemy I and later kings took over the numismatic and other affairs of Egypt.
The ten most prolific cities minting Alexander tetradrachms were, in order, Amphipolis (176), Babylon (135), Pella (73), Aradus (57), Mesembria (49), Tarsus (46), Miletus (38), Ake (38), Chios (30), and Aspendus (29). The five most prolific cities minting tetradrachms during Alexander's lifetime were, in order, Babylon, Amphipolis, Pella, Tarsus, and Aradus. As indicated in Price's "Periods of issue" section, no cities in Greece outside of Macedonia and Cyprus minted tetradrachms during Alexander's lifetime, and no Black Sea cities in Thrace, Bithynia, or Paphlagonia did so either. The Black Sea cities of Mesembria and Odyssus were the last to mint Alexander tetradrachms, as late as c. 65 BC, ending with the defeat of Mithradates the Great, the last Hellenistic ruler to challenge the power of Rome.
Alexander the Great posthumous tetradrachm from Temnos, Asia Minor, c. 175 BC, 16.6g, M.J. Price 1676v. (mint mark different), SNG Cop. 742, Müller Plate XIV No. 956.
Alexander the Great tetradrachms, minted for nearly three centuries, come in many varieties. Price illustrated 1,269 official tetradrachms and catalogued still others, and though Price's magnum opus is encyclopedic in its scope, it's not complete, with some varieties, such as this one, not listed.
This is among the wildest Alexander varieties, with a huge 40mm wide flan that was hammered in ancient times to spread it out, perhaps to make the coin appear to be more valuable. Over time, as with other Hellenistic coinage, the diameter of Alexander tetradrachms gradually increased while their weight gradually decreased. This was one of the last Alexander tetradrachms minted in Asia Minor. The mint mark in the reverse left field is an oenochoe (single-handed wine jug) beneath a vine.
The majority of Alexander tetradrachms, 72.0 percent, are posthumous, while 21.1 percent are lifetime and 6.9 percent are varieties that were issued both during and after his lifetime, a category I'm calling possible lifetime issues. The majority, 65.9 percent, also feature Zeus on the reverse with crossed legs (right leg drawn backward behind left), while 34.1 percent feature Zeus with open legs (parallel or roughly parallel). And the majority, 76.3 percent, lack the royal title "Basileos" in the reverse inscription, while 23.7 percent have the title. As numismatic commentary on the Greek distrust of royalty, only one Alexander tetradrachm from Greece or Macedonia that may have been issued during his lifetime featured the royal title, Price 804, a possible lifetime tetradrachm attributed to an uncertain Greek or Macedonian city.
With any given unattributed Alexander tetradrachm, if Zeus' legs are open, 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. The absence of the royal title helps the odds. If Zeus's legs are open and there's no 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.
With any given unattributed Alexander tetradrachm, if Zeus' legs are crossed and there's a royal title, there's little chance that it's a lifetime issue. Of the official 1,269 tetradrachms illustrated, there are no definite lifetime tetradrachms and only two possible-lifetime tetradrachms like this.
Despite the unreliability of Zeus' legs as a foolproof attribution test, Price appears to have used Zeus' legs as help in designating tetradrachms as lifetime or posthumous. At Babylon, Lampsacus, Sardes, and Salamis, 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 tetradrachms in which all the tetradrachms have crossed legs.
Alexander the Great countermarked posthumous tetradrachm from Aspendos, Asia Minor, c. 195-194 BC, 16.1g, M.J. Price 2897, SNG Cop. 771.
Along with its 33mm wide oblong flan, this tetradrachm distinguishes itself with its obverse countermark, a Seleukid anchor, which dates from c. 172 BC. The impression of the countermark is seen on the reverse as well -- over the inscription and extending into the right field. Many Alexander tetradrachms from Asia Minor were countermarked in Syria during the second century BC with the official mark of the state, the Seleukid anchor, to grant them status as legal tender. The bottom two coins on this page also depict Seleukid anchors. Countermarking was employed since the very first coinage, as the second coin on this page illustrates, but they likely were used then as marks of ownership rather than as certifications of value. Countermarked coins are often well worn, which follows from the purpose of countermarking -- extending the circulation of the coin. According to hoard evidence, some Alexanders were still in circulation a century and a half after their issue, which would be the equivalent of a U.S. coin from the time of the Civil War still being in circulation today.
The terms "countermark" and "banker's mark" are often used interchangeably for symbols, letters, or numbers that are engraved into the coin's surface after it has been minted for an official purpose, as distinguished from graffiti, which are engraved markings created unofficially. The term "punchmark" is sometimes used for a smaller official engraved mark, as distinguished from a larger "countermark." Countermarks, large or small, are distinguished from test cuts, which are crude slashes into the metal to determine whether the coin was silver- or gold-plated. Sometimes these differences blur, when punchmarks appear to have been used also to reveal the metal in the coin's core or when test cuts appear to have been used also as a simple marking system.
The metrology of flan size and weight also provide useful information. Over time, Alexander tetradrachms gradually increased in size. Typically, lifetime tetradrachms have diameters of 25 to 26mm, but in a few cases lifetime or possible-lifetime tetradrachms are as large as 30mm, as I discovered in measuring the 1,269 official tetradrachms that Price illustrated. What's more, many small-flan tetradrachms are posthumous. But all large-flan tetradrachms, with diameters greater than 30mm, are posthumous. The largest tetradrachm I've seen, the one pictured above from Temnos, has a diameter of 40mm. The smallest tetradrachm I've seen, the one pictured above from Tarsos, has a diameter of 21mm.
Over time, Alexander tetradrachms gradually decreased in weight. Price indicated that after 317 BC there was a tendency to strike a greater percentage of tetradrachms weighing less than 17.0g, that by 200 BC a tetradrachm weighing less than 17.0g was perfectly acceptable, and that posthumous issues in general exhibit a much greater spread of weights than lifetime issues. Price believes the Alexander tetradrachm weight standard was 17.25g to 17.30g and that most early specimens were minted with a weight within 2 percent of this figure, or between about 17.6g and 16.9g. Price believes that less than 1 percent of a typical tetradrachm's weight was lost due to circulation or ground corrosion. Based on Price's own weight tables, a more useful figure is that most official Alexander tetradrachms, early as well as later, today weigh between 17.2g and 16.6g, with several geographical exceptions.
Some official Alexander tetradrachms were lighter, which has important authenticity applications. The Black Sea cities of Mesembria and Odessus and the Southern Asia Minor cities of Perga and Aspendus have the greatest number of very low-weight tetradrachms. Of the official coins illustrated in Price, 12 of 49 tetradrachms from Mesembria, or 24.4 percent, were under 16.0g and one was under 15.0g (Price 1129b, weighing 14.61g). From Odessus, 6 of 28 tetradrachms, or 21.4 percent, were under 16.0g. From Perga, 7 of 26 tetradrachms, or 26.9 percent, were under 16.0g and one was under 15.0g (Price 2935a, weighing 14.14g). From Aspendus, 5 of 29 tetradrachms, or 17.2 percent, were under 16.0g and one was under 15.0g (Price 2895, weighing 14.51g). The heaviest tetradrachm illustrated in Price was an anomalous late posthumous coin from Rhodes, Price 2424b, weighing 17.75g.
Alexander the test-cut posthumous Great tetradrachm from Amphipolis, Macedonia, c. 315-294 BC, 16.7g, M.J. Price 447.
The above coin was cut with a chisel in ancient times to determine whether it was solid silver or only silver plated over a base metal interior. With silver coins, bronze, lead, and lead alloys were used to make counterfeits, which are called "fourrees" today (these are covered in detail in the Ancient Counterfeits page of this site). Sometimes money changers, merchants, or others made these in the obverse or reverse surface, sometimes on the edge, as with the above specimen. Typically the result was only metal displacement, with negligible amounts of metal lost, so the weight remained the same.
Confusion exists whether some of the tetradrachms from Alexander's homeland of Macedonia are lifetime or posthumous. Price groups open-leg Amphipolis tetradrachms from Price 104 to Price 121 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 I therefore conclude that the "Periods of issue" listing with these particular varieties is erroneous. Open-leg Amphipolis tetradrachms from Price 104 to Price 121 are in all likelihood posthumous, not lifetime.
In her 1997 book Studies in the Macedonian Coinage of Alexander the Great, Hyla A. Troxell states that the hoard evidence suggests that Price 108 to 121 are indeed posthumous. She believes, in fact, these were minted not in Alexander's name but 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 half brother, Arrhidaeus, who was renamed Philip III.
Troxell does believe, however, that Price 102 to 106, her Group F, are lifetime. But the bottom line is, if you're looking to acquire a definite lifetime issue from Alexander's homeland of Macedonia, it's best avoid Price 104 to 121 and in particular Price 108 to 121.
Alexander the Great posthumous tetradrachm from Odessos, Thrace, c. 280-225 BC, 16.8g, M.J. Price 1174.
Thrace was the last region to mint Alexander the Great tetradrachms, though the above specimen is one of the first Black Sea varieties. It features the royal title plus an additional word in the exergue under Zeus' throne, EYIIPRO, which is thought to be the name of the local magistrate responsible for this issue. Other Black Sea issues include the word "Of the Odessians" or "Of the Mesembrians" in the exergue.
Unlike latter varieties from Odessos and Mesembria, this one retains the traditional Herakles image. Coins such as this from Greek Black Sea colonies were frequently used as peace offerings for the invading Celts. The Celts had their own nation within the Thracian interior c. 279-211 BC before it was destroyed by the indigenous Thracians.
Of the Alexander tetradrachm categories I'm using, by far the most common is posthumous with crossed legs and no title. Starting with this one, here's a list of categories in ascending order of rarity:
Posthumous, crossed legs, no title: 50.6%
Lifetime, open legs, no title: 16.9%
Posthumous, crossed legs, title: 13.6%
Posthumous, open legs, title: 4.3%
Possible lifetime, open legs, no title: 3.7%
Posthumous, open legs, no title: 3.5%
Possible lifetime, open legs, title: 2.4%
Lifetime, open legs, title: 3.2%
Lifetime, crossed legs, no title: 0.9%
Possible lifetime, crossed legs, no title: 0.7%
Possible lifetime, crossed legs, title: 0.2%
Lifetime, crossed legs, title: 0%
Alexander the Great posthumous tetradrachm from Mesembria, Thrace, c. 165-125 BC, 16.6g, M.J. Price 1066.
This is one of a series of related second century BC tetradrachm varieties from Mesembria and Odyssos that feature the same "fat Herakles" portrait and a lion skin headdress with the fur on the lion's face depicted as dots or speckles. This speckled lion skin variation appears frequently with the coins of Mesembria and Odessos but rarely elsewhere (in some unusual issues of Amphipolis, for example). The mint mark in the reverse left field of the above superbly struck and preserved Mesembrian specimen is a Corinthian helmet. Many late Black Sea issues are crudely engraved, likely struck by tribal people in the Thracian interior, but this one exhibits fine styling.
The Herakles image on coins of this and similar varieties differs so much from the standard Herakles image that it almost requires the hypothesis of this image depicting an actual person, possibly a local Thracian dynast. One possibility is that the portrait depicts Kotys II (sometimes referred to as Kotys), king of the Odrysae during the second century BC -- see the Alexander Portrait page of this Web site for more detail about this.
Estimating the number of Alexander tetradrachms minted and extant, like all estimations of this type, involves more or less educated guesswork but can be revealing nonetheless.
Of the 1,269 official Alexander tetradrachms Price illustrated, 1,054 were unique varieties. More varieties exist than Price illustrated, and more varieties were minted than exist. For the sake of calculation, let's use the conservative figure of 1,500.
Troxell discovered 879 obverse dies used to strike 79 varieties of Alexander's Macedonian tetradrachms (Troxell Groups A to L) and estimated that 1,075 dies were used in total. That's nearly 14 obverse dies per variety. Some mints used only a few dies per issue, while prolific mints such as Amphipolis and Babylon more. For the sake of calculation, let's use the conservative figure of 7. The total number of Alexander tetradrachm varieties, 1,500 times 7, equals 10,500.
Michael Crawford estimated that the average coin die lasted for approximately 20,000 coins, and even though he focused on Roman Republican coins, this is a reasonable estimate of the life of any ancient coin die and is a number frequently used. Price used a figure of 30,000 coins per obverse die in estimating the number of Babylon tetradrachms. G.G. Aperghis used a figure also of 30,000 coins per die for Seleukid tetradrachms in his 2004 book Seleukid Royal Economy: The Finances and Financial Administration of the Seleukid Empire. Nancy M. Waggoner suggested that each Alexander obverse die could produce 6,000 to 10,000 tetradrachms. Obverse dies lasted longer than reverse dies, and dies for smaller coins just as denarii and drachms lasted longer than dies for larger coins such as tetradrachms. What's more, not all dies were used until they broke. For the sake of calculation, let's use the conservative figure of 10,000.
Multiplying 10,500 by 10,000 equals 105 million Alexander tetradrachms struck, or 100 million rounded down. This is a conservative figure and at the other extreme could be an order of magnitude higher, or 1 billion. However many coins were minted, the number was huge, resulting not only from the cost of waging war and the universal acceptance of Alexander-type coinage as good money but also from the opening of trade and the increased standard of living that Alexander brought about.
Harlan Berk estimated that about 0.25 percent of all ancient coins minted survive today, a figure that some regard as conservative. Multiplying 100 million and 0.25 percent equals 250,000 extant Alexander tetradrachms. This is also a conservative figure, and the number of extant Alexander tetradrachms could easily be 1 million.
Most of the extant Alexander tetradrachms are likely in private rather than museum or hands, given the lower priority of coins in the minds of most museum curators and museum goers. Not all ancient coins turn over every year or every decade, but a fair percentage do, given how those who inherit coins seldom have the same enthusiasm as their forbears. And new hoards are still surfacing, despite the slowdown from the heyday of the 1990s when Eastern Europe was first opening up. Barry Murphy reported recently inspecting a hoard of about three thousand Alexander tetradrachms and before this two other hoards of about two thousand Alexander tetradrachms each. The most famous Alexander tetradrachm hoard, the Demanhur Hoard found in Egypt in 1905 and used by Newell for his groundbreaking die studies, consisted of about eight thousand pieces.
At a random point in time, 188 Alexander tetradrachms were for sale on VCoins, with many more on the market through eBay, other Web sites, European auction houses, and dealers selling through coin shows.
Alexander tetradrachms were bountiful coins during their run of nearly three centuries over two millennia ago, and they continue to be today.
Alexander the Great posthumous tetradrachm from Odessos, Thrace, c. 70 BC, 16.1g, M.J. Price 1193.
This and similar Black Sea tetradrachms are among the very last coinage minted in the name and style of Alexander the Great. Nearly three centuries after the inception of this coinage, a clearly recognizable portrait of a person finally emerges: Mithradates the Great. His portrait appears on some Alexander-type tetradrachms from Odessos and Mesembria as well as on some posthumous Lysimachos tetradrachms.
Mithradates VI was the last Hellenistic ruler to challenge the power of Rome. He was a ruthless warrior, reportedly ordering the killing of 80,000 Roman citizens in Asia Minor in one night. Mithradates ultimately failed, and in 63 BC, after three wars against the Romans, he took his own life.
This material on Alexander the Great tetradrachms is an elaboration of an article of mine that appeared in the January 2002 issue of The Celator magazine.#Macedonia #Greece #AlexanderTheGreat
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