Types in the coinage of Alexander the Great

Types in the coinage of Alexander the Great

Inherited debt, and his own ambition, meant money was destined to play a huge part in Alexander’s tenure. The acquisition of enormous sums from plunder and tribute meant thousands of talents became available to fund his armies and on-going campaigns, but for specific payments coinage was required. Plutarch tells us that Philip II personally chose coin types that celebrated his success at the Olympics. What do the coin types of Alexander suggest about what he considered important?



The Gold Coinage:

Athena. The go-to goddess of the Ancient World. Goddess of wisdom, warrior, symbol of Athens the cultural giant, but also of Corinth and it was after that city that the league of Greeks which joined together to challenge the Persians was named. Perhaps this type was intended to have a dual purpose therefore, with Athena as protector and with political homage duly paid to the spirit of the league which  Alexander now led.


Nike. Obviously reflecting the desired victory. But by including the stylis, the devotional placard borne by ships in battle, the reference is to the Battle of Salamis and the Greeks’ history of victory over the Persians.



The Silver and Bronze Coinage:

Herakles. Venerated by Alexander, and the strongest man who ever lived. A warrior-hero and a continuation of the numismatic iconography of Philip II, fittingly supports Alexander’s claim to leadership and is a suitable image for a military campaign.


Zeus. King of the Gods, just as Alexander was now leader of the Greeks. Again, prominent on the coinage of Philip and cementing the Macedonian dynastic claim to leadership. Moreover, a formidable piece of numismatic propaganda proclaiming Alexander’s position and his intentions to the world he was about to conquer.


And the Bronze Coinage, again, for the most part celebrates the cult of Herakles. Were these coins, used for everyday transactions, decorated with Herakles because the concept of a hero might have been more easily relatable than that of a god? Or was a god too important for these lower value denominations?



Images of Alexander himself, in the coinage:

There are thought to be only two coin-types minted during Alexander’s lifetime which carry his portrait. There is the Five-shekel (Price plate CLIX.G-H) always associated with Alexander’s victory over Porus in India. This depicts Alexander, full length, as well as a magnificent elephant scene. The other is a small bronze issue from Memphis (Price 3960). That coin has Alexander’s portrait, and also depicts Pegasus, so closely associated with Bellerophon the great hero of Corinth. Again, perhaps here we see the importance bestowed on Alexander’s role as head of the League of Corinth and its members, to balance his own portrait. Posthumously, his portrait is famously depicted on the tetradrachms of Lysimachus, and Ptolemy I. The latter’s elephant headdress, recalls the style of Herakles’s lionskin but, in the ancient world, is related to themes of deification and permanence too. It also reminds us of Alexander’s victory in India. Both coins depict the horn of Ammon the symbol of Alexander’s own deification. For now, the extent to which some lifetime issue types might be based on portraits of Alexander will unfortunately have to remain conjecture but it is tempting to think that die-cutters may have flattered their leader, and that Hellenistic portrait ideals may have some basis in the features of Alexander himself.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.