Alexander the Great gold stater, silver tetradrachm, and bronze hemiobol
|Today, two rulers from ancient times stand out above all others: Alexander
the Great and Julius Caesar. Alexander III was the greatest conqueror of all time. He never lost a battle, and
at his premature death at about the age of 33 in 323 BC, he ruled over lands from Egypt to India. Despite his having
lived more than two millennia ago, people remain facinated with Alexander, with forty new books and journal articles
written about him each year, as reported by numismatist Oliver D. Hoover.
Alexander's allure stems from his success as well as his complexity. In his excellent 1997 book The Genius of Alexander the Great, the historian N.G.L. Hammond discusses Alexander's intellectual brilliance and statesmanlike vision, as well as referring to his unbridled lust for conquest and drunken debauchery, and concludes that Alexander "did more than any other individual to change the history of civilization." His empire building strongly influenced Rome, and through Rome, us.
The question of Alexander's character has long been debated. Some feel he was a brute and a cold-blooded murderer, others a visionary whose goal of a benevolent world unity was thwarted only by his premature death. Still others, myself included, have views in between. I believe he had visionary goals and sought to achieve them in sometimes less than visionary ways. I don't believe that he was corrupted by power in an absolute way but that he succumbed to some extent to hubris, which was only human given his unprecedented success.
Alexander's military adventures should be judged by the standards of his age, when such activities were seen as the highest form of achievement, not by the standards of our age. Who among us would not choose to expand our domain, our influence, and our power through means available to us and acceptable to our peers, conquering our known world?
Alexander's military conquests are just one part of his timeless allure. He transcended the inevitable brutality of war though the study of philosophy, literature, and science, using the spoils of war to fund Aristotle's great library in Athens. Typically, Alexander didn't obliterate or subjugate his vanquished but instead tried to elevate them, bringing them Greek culture while letting them continue to govern themselves, worship their gods, and maintain their traditions, customs, and self-respect. Unlike the Romans later on, he prohibited ravaging and looting among his soldiers, seeing himself as much a unifier as a conqueror.
Power is multifaceted. Today we often think of power in terms of military might or political authority. But power can also be economic, cultural, intellectual, spiritual, physical, familial, or personal. With regards to military and cultural power, few people in history have had greater influence than Alexander the Great. The same applies to his coinage.
These were powerful coins. They not only influenced the future of all subsequent coinage on three continents, they also depicted some powerful symbols, most notably Herakles (Hercules to the Romans), the ancient world's most powerful mythological hero, Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, Athena, the goddess who combined within her sphere both wisdom and warfare, and Nike, goddess of victory.
The coins of Alexander the Great, like other ancient coins, are history in your hand. They're tangible, and tactile, documentation of Alexander's life and times, a way to hold a part of the man, his power, his foibles, and his legacy. Alexander's coins, like all ancient coins, are a portal into the past, to a time when we as a civilization were beginning. The past isn't dead. It informs the present, providing a deep perspective on what's happening today and may happen tomorrow, helping us understand more clearly and make better decisions. There's also intrinsic interest in looking at where we've come from and what we've done.
People have collected coins since the beginning of coinage about 2,600 years ago. They're more than just money.
Coins are political propaganda, messages rulers sent to subjects and enemies alike. Coins are historical documents, windows through which you can see the people who bought and sold with them and the times in which they lived. And coins are works of art, miniature sculptures on a typically circular metallic surface considered by some a minor art form, considered by others a popular art form that can by stunningly evocative.
Like perhaps no other objects, coins have a yin-yangy duality. They pair the commercial with the artistic, the crass with the ethereal, the mundane with the transcendent, the present with the past, the mass produced with the unique. When glomming a beautiful historical coin, the awe can be overpowering. These pieces of monetary metal, through their beauty and history, can transcend mere materialism.
As a culturally enriching pastime, coin collecting offers three main pleasures: landing, looking, and learning.
You thrill to the hunt, seeking out that specimen or deal, perhaps a coin that through its beauty, history, or rarity can stand alone, perhaps a coin that's desirability comes from being part of a set with other coins, and you revel in the satisfaction of landing it.
You look at what you now have, glomming the coin's physicality, the beauty or quirkiness of its design, strike, and state of preservation, following the coin's lines and curves, its raised devices and depressed fields, tilting the coin for different perspectives, marveling at the light's aesthetic revelations.
And beneath the coin's pristine or worn surfaces, beyond the metal and how it has interacted with its environment, you learn about the coin's background and history, the story it tells about itself, its age, and the people who whose hands have touched it, people who may be very much alike you and me in some ways, very much different in other ways. Because each coin has a story to tell, I include sometimes long captions with the coins illustrated here.
Ancient coin collecting, in some circles, is controversial. Many ancient coins on the market today come from the ground, buried there some two millennia ago. Some were put in the ground deliberately for safekeeping and then lost when the city or village was sacked during war. Some were buried by accident, lost in a marketplace and covered by thickening layers of earth.
Ancient coins surface today primarily through the work of metal detectorists, farmers tilling their fields, and construction workers digging foundations. Relatively few surface through the work of archeologists at approved digs. It's true that some coin hunters in source countries have damaged archeological sites in search of profits, but most coin hunters stay away from such sites.
Some archeologists and some people in the source countries where ancient coins are found believe that ancient coins are cultural heritage and don't belong in private hands. But the fact is that ancient coins for the most part aren't a scarce resource, unlike ancient artifacts. Billions were minted and millions exist, many times more than could be displayed by all the museums in the world.
Collectors have done far more to preserve the historical record gleaned from coins than archeologists and museums, which typically relegate coinage to the level of pottery shards because of their numbers. Many museums that have coins, with too many to display, keep most of them in storage in dank basements, where they're corroding away.
Museums typically give short shrift to coins not only because of their huge numbers but also because many museum goers regard them as small, unimpressive pieces of metal whose features are often difficult to make out. This is the reason that coins are referred to, by some, as a minor art form. Coin collectors, on the other hand, preserve, share, and celebrate the record of the past that coinage represents.
Cultural patrimony laws in source countries for the most part are irrational, an overreaction to the large-scale exporting of artifacts by foreign archeologists in past centuries. These laws now prohibit or greatly restrict the export of "national heritage." But many ancient coins have little if any connection, historically or culturally, with the people controlling the lands where the coins are found today. The Turks, a noble people, migrated to Asia Minor in large number many centuries after the flowering of ancient Greece and the huge output of ancient Greek coinage where Turkey is today. The same is true with the Slavs, Bulgars, and other peoples who migrated to the Balkans. Often ancient coins traveled widely with the people who traded with them, winding up far from their place of manufacture. Ancient coins should properly be regarded as the heritage of all those who feel a connection to the people who struck and used them.
Because these laws for the most part are irrational, notable exceptions existing in Great Britain and the Netherlands, they're routinely ignored. The current legal milieu does little if anything to stem the outflow of ancient coins but instead has created a black market where the people closest to ancient coin hoards and finds bring coins to the market in secrecy. Because they don't record details about hoards and finds, much important historical and numismatic information is lost. We know less about the past than we would if the governments of other source countries followed the lead of countries such as Great Britain and the Netherlands by allowed finders operating legally to be rewarded for their good fortune instead of having it confiscated.
The following is a site on Alexander the Great coinage. Included are coins whose minting Alexander authorized during his lifetime, coins minted in his name and of his style after his death, and coins, medals, and tokens (and paper money) minted through the years depicting his portrait. You don't have to be an Alexander nut, or a coin nut, to find these matters compelling. The material here is targeted toward experts as well as newcomers, history buffs as well as those who just recognize Alexander's name, numismatic scholars as well as those who've never held one of these impossibly old objects in their hand. After basic information, you'll find in-depth information that's based on primary and secondary research of others as well as my own.
To make this as readable as possible, I'm not using footnotes, but I've tried to attribute important information to its source within the paragraphs that follow, and I include a selected bibliography. In spelling Greek names or words, I've tried to remain faithful to the original Greek while using the English/Roman alphabet (e.g., Tarsos), rather than using the British/Latinized spelling (e.g., Tarsus). But in some cases I use the British/Latinized spelling, and in other cases when referencing someone who uses the British/Latinized spelling I use both. As John Melville Jones wrote in his 1986 book A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Coins, "At the present time there is no accepted and universal standard for the spelling of Greek names in English; it is difficult to follow either of the two possible systems ruthlessly."
The coins illustrated here, aside from some of the modern forgeries and other coins whose owner is credited, are in my collection. They represent not the rarest Alexanders nor the most exquisitely preserved but rather with a few exceptions those coins that were most used in ancient times and are most frequently seen today. I don't illustrate all the coins I refer to, but with the more important that aren't illustrated, I provide a reference to a coin attribution catalog. You can also find photos of almost all of the coins mentioned here at one or both of the two best free online catalogs about ancient coins, WildWinds and Acsearch.info, both of which are searchable.
Other glomworthy coins:
Coin Collecting: Consumer Protection Guide
Glomming: Coin Connoisseurship
Bogos: Counterfeit Coins
© 2014 Reid Goldsborough
Note: Any of the items illustrated on these pages that are in my possession are stored off site.