When Alexander the Great, or Alexander III of Macedon, came to power, he entered into an already expansive empire of Greek city-states built by the expeditions and military successes of his father, Phillip II. Alexander followed his father on campaigns, received the best education from tutors, such as Aristotle, and successfully gained the throne at the age of 20 after his father’s murder. Unfortunately, at the beginning of his reign, he inherited both the land his father had conquered as well as the great amount of debt his father acquired while trying to enforce his claim as hegemon of Greece. For this reason, Alexander had to borrow money early in his new reign in order to provide the financial means to secure the borders of his empire. He pursued his father’s legacy of conquest and after much warring, more debt, and victories against the Persian realm, Asia Minor, and various other territories, he finally gained the resources he needed to continue his military efforts and pay his debts. Alexander then ruled a massive empire that reached from the Adriatic Sea up to the Indus River. He wanted to extend his rule all the way to the end of the world. So, he required great sums of money to afford his expensive troops, pay for supplies, and provide presents to significant cities and persons in order to maintain important ties. His need for coined money was great while he was trying to fund his campaign, so be began introducing his own currency, the date of which is under dispute. This currency system would unexpectedly gain validity in years to come.
The most prevalent coins of Alexander’s reign were the drachm and tetradracm. While coins struck in that time often had minor differences because of the sloppiness of technique by which they were created, the drachm was usually about 18 mm wide and made of silver. The process of striking the coins, commonly believed to have been made of smelted silver and gold gained from Alexander’s campaign, involved “an oven for heating blanks (flans), tongs for handling hot flans, a table or bench on which an anvil was mounted, and a pair of dies struck with a heavy hammer to impress the design into the flans” (Classic Coins). Dies were made of hard bonze or iron. One (the obverse die) would be mounted on the anvil while the other (reverse die) would be struck to make the impression as the punch. There has been some debate about the techniques used for both creating the flans as well as the actual striking of the coins since artisans wanted to protect the security of the coins so they could not be illegally copied. To learn more about how we believe blanks and coins were most likely created in Alexander’s time, take a look at this video:
Similar to the coins made before his time, Alexander’s drachm portrayed the head of Hercules on the obverse (front) and Zeus, father of Hercules sitting in his throne holding a scepter and eagle on the reverse (back). There are many theories as to why Alexander chose the image of Hercules for this coin. Some contend that it was a way, in keeping with previous tradition, to proudly link the possible lineage of the Argead dynasty to the profound hero. Others believe it was to show the pronounced physical likeness between Alexander and the hero Hercules. Yet others believe Alexander wanted to portray himself as a symbolic figure of heroism to the people he was exchanging and trading with (Kampmann). Hercules was a renowned hero in Greek mythology, and the lion headdress he wears on the drachm is believed to have portrayed his heroic slaying of the Nemean lion. Lions were also an important symbol for Macedonia, where this specific coin is believed to have been created.
Coins created during Alexander’s reign were believed to be sound money because those who exchanged them knew they were regulated by magistrates and thoroughly inspected by their creators. Often these magistrates marked the coins with their official symbols or monograms, and it was not uncommon to find test cuts made in coins where a person had checked to make sure they were of good quality silver. During his lifetime, there were 26 mints producing his coins. After his death at the age of 32, there were nearly 52 mints, representing the peak of coin production for the Alexandrian Empire. Alexander’s empire devolved into many city-states after his death, and they were warred over by his generals. These conflicts were called the Wars of Diadochi, and they lasted until finally they decided to crown Alexander’s brother as king until Alexander’s son could come of age. In this time after his death, there are many who argue that the head of Hercules on coins began to show characteristics of Alexander’s features. This is believed to show both the prominence and acceptance of the coins in the Greek and non-Greek worlds as well as a way of remembering the legacy of the king who created them. However, coins differed across different regions and varied based on the reasons they were used. In any case, it is evident that the coins of Alexander the Great of Macedon left a great and lasting impression on the field of numismatics.
Art Institute of Chicago
2012 Launchpad: Coin Production in the Ancient Greek World. Facebook. https://youtu.be/naA87x15MiU
N.D. How Ancient Coins Were Made. Classical Coins. Kampmann, Ursula
2015 The Coins of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. CoinsWeekly.
2007 Coin of Alexander the Great, III. Self made, Photographed at the British Museum. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/cm/s/coin_with_head_of_alexander.aspx
2014 Alexander the Great: between god and man. Museum of the National Bank of Belgium. http://www.nbbmuseum.be/2014/04/alexander-the-great-between-god-and-man.htm