Miniaturization:
Alexander the Great
Fractions

FACE OFF

On the left, Alexander the Great lifetime silver drachm minted in Sardis, Lydia, Asia Minor, c. 334-323 BC, 16mm in diameter, 4.2g in weight, nearly pure silver, depicting Herakles.

On the right, U.S. dime minted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2000, 18mm in diameter, 2.5g in weight, copper-nickel surface over copper core, depicting Franklin D. Roosevelt.


Alexander's silver imperial Herakles and Zeus coinage exists in a number of denominations, from rare dekadrachms and common tetradrachms to incrementally smaller fractions. The entire range of fractions includes didrachm, drachm, fifth tetradrachm (rare denomination used in Babylon, not pictured here), hemidrachm, diobol, obol, thirtieth tetradrachm (rare denomination used in Babylon, not pictured here), hemiobol, and quarter obol (also called tetartemorion, not pictured here). Most fractions feature the same seated Zeus reverse as the larger silver coins, but some of the smaller fractions feature the weapons reverse of Alexander's principle bronze coin type (one type features the same thunderbolt reverse as Alexander's gold eighth staters).

Silver fractions were the pocket change of the ancient Greeks before the advent and widespread use of bronze coinage. Some people today contend that the ancient Greeks carried fractions like this in their mouths when going to and from the marketplace, based on the plays of the Aristophanes, including
The Birds, c. 414 BC, and Ekklesiazusae (The Assemblywomen), c. 392 BC, both of which survive, and Aiolosikon, which survives only in fragments or later quotes. In The Birds, a character describes himself looking up in surprise and accidentally swallowing an obol. In Ekklesiazusae, a character describes himself going off to market with a jawful of coppers to buy some flour. In Aiolosikon, a character describes himself carrying a two-obol piece in his mouth. But Aristophanes was a comic playwright, and elsewhere in The Birds he talks about purses or money bags. Greek garments didn't have pockets. Instead of people carrying small change in their mouths, which would have been unsafe and uncomfortable, a more credible scenario may have been that they carried coins in purses.

Because fractions represented less buying power, they were hoarded less in ancient times than larger coins. They're also generally considered less impressive and less collectable than larger coins, particularly fractions smaller than drachms. For these reasons, their frequency in many collections today underrepresents their frequency of minting and use in ancient times. Extrapolating from the numbers of smaller or rarer Alexander fractions seen is even less secure than with Alexander tetradrachms, drachms, and staters, so I'm not doing so with these other denominations.

The weights of smaller Greek fractions, in general, are not nearly as standardized as those for larger silver coins. This has led to much speculation. Were standards changed frequently for these coins? Were they weighed with transactions, as bullion, nullifying the convenience of standardized denominations? The best explanation I've read, from David MacDonald in his 2005 book
An Introduction to the History and Coinage of the Kingdom of the Bosporus, is that small fractions were treated much like bronze coinage, as fiat currency whose value was artificially set by the ruling authority that issued them and whose money or face value was significantly higher than its bullion or intrinsic value. Others have discussed this as well, including Colin Kraay in his 1976 book Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, offering the view that fractions may have been accepted on trust in local retail commerce while larger denominations had to more consistently and closely adhere to their bullion value to be accepted in international trade.

The smallest Alexander fraction listed in Price is a quarter obol weighing 0.15g. Perhaps the smallest of all ancient Greek fractions was an Athenian silver sixteenth obol, weighing about 0.045g. This isn't the smallest or lightest coin in history, however. The lightest, according to Alan Herbert, was the 1/512 mohar, or jawa, of Nepal, weighing 0.01g, a coin that the
Standard Catalog of World Coins calls "easily the smallest coin in the world." It was issued by King Jaya Prakash Malla, who ruled from 1736 to 1768.

The lightest U. S. coin, weighing 0.80g and measuring 14mm in diameter, was the three-cent silver piece minted from 1851 to 1873. The smallest, with a diameter of 13mm, was the Type 1 gold dollar minted from 1849 to 1854. In comparison, a current U.S. dime weighs 2.27g and is 17.9mm in diameter.

Doug Smith has an interesting page about
Greek Fractional Silver Coins.
   

Alexander the Great lifetime didrachm, 8.4g, Babylon, Babylonia, c. 325-323 BC, M.J. Price 3603.

This lifetime didrachm from Babylon depicts two mintmarks common to Alexander's Babylon coinage, from dekadrachm and stater down to obol, an M and a symbol that combines a small O with a line through it and an upside-down M.

   

Didrachms, half the weight of tetradrachms, twice the weight of drachms, are scarce denominations. As part of the British Museum's holdings at the time, Price illustrated seven specimens issued from five cities compared with 1,269 tetradrachms issued from 87 cities.
                   
Alexander the Great lifetime drachm, 4.2g, Sardis, Lydia, Asia Minor, c. 334-323 BC, M.J. Price 2553.

The open-leg lifetime drachm from Sardes pictured above depicts as mint marks a rose under the throne and a symbol that looks a bit like a double E in the reverse left field. Sardes is the most frequently suggested location for the invention of coinage, by the Lydians, about three centuries before the above coin was minted.

Next to tetradrachms, drachms were the second most common Alexander silver denomination. Price illustrated 434 official Alexander drachms compared with 1,269 official tetradrachms that he illustrated. Though Price didn't estimate the number of tetradrachms minted, he did estimate the number of Alexander drachms minted in Asia Minor (where the vast majority of their production occurred) at 55 million, using a figure of 20,000 coins per die. This figure compares realistically to my earlier estimate of 105 million Alexander tetradrachms.

Cities in Asia Minor accounted for 94.0 percent of drachm production. Greece, Macedonia, and Cyprus accounted for 2.3 percent, Syria and Phoenicia 1.8 percent, and Babylonia, Media, and Susiana 1.8 percent. No drachms illustrated in Price were from Thrace or Egypt. Hoards of drachms have been found in far-flung areas, indicating that they circulated widely. Mørkholm speculated that the reason for the concentration of drachm production in Asia Minor was a governmental decision to specialize. Price mentioned that Alexander's drachm mints in Asia Minor likely followed the precedent set by previous Perian mints there that struck small rather than large silver denominations.

Fewer cities minted Alexander drachms than tetradrachms or staters. Of the British Museum's holdings, drachms were minted in 11 cities during Alexander's lifetime and 24 cities in all. Price could attribute 6.7 percent of the drachms only to the general regions of Greece or Asia Minor. The five most prolific cities minting Alexander drachms, all from Asia Minor, were Colophon (107), Lampsacus (68), Magnesia ad Maendrum (45), Sardes (45), and Abydus (40).

Unlike tetradrachms, which were long used as commonly accepted international currency, drachms and other fractions ceased to be used in substantial quantities after the establishment of Alexander's successor kingdoms, as local coinages took their place. In comparison with his tetradrachms, which were minted in the Black Sea area until c. 65 BC, Alexander drachms were minted in the Asia Minor cities of Temnos, Erythrae, and Alabanda until c. 170 BC.

Despite being minted for a shorter period of time, a higher percentage of Alexander drachms are posthumous than tetradrachms, 85.7 percent versus 72.0 percent. Compared with 21.1 percent of tetradrachms, 13.4 percent of drachms are lifetime, while 0.9 percent of drachms are possible lifetime.

As with tetradrachms, the open leg test isn't foolproof. It is true, as with tetradrachms, than a drachm with an open-leg Zeus is typically lifetime and crossed-leg Zeus is typically posthumous, but Price attributed some open-leg drachms as posthumous and some crossed-leg drachms as lifetime.
                   
   
   
   

Alexander the Great Eagle drachm, 4.0g, Amphipolis, Macedonia, c. 336-326 BC, M.J. Price 153, Thompson I 28-31, SNG Alpha Bank 482, SNG Ash. 2515.

Alexander's Eagle silver coinage is much less commonly seen than the Zeus coinage. Hyla Troxell showed convincingly that Alexander's Eagle drachms and fractions were minted in Macedonia along with the larger Zeus tetradrachms. Margaret Thomson attributed the above piece to Miletos based on the reverse monogram, which looks a bit like a house, though Price convincingly argued against this. An Eagle tetradrachm with a bearded Zeus obverse, using the weight standard of Alexander's father Philip II, is even rarer than the drachms. The same type, Herakles obverse and eagle with reverted head reverse, was used by Amyntas III and Perdikas III, Alexander's grandfather and uncle.

   
                   
Alexander the Great possible lifetime hemidrachm, 2.1g, Arados, Phoenicia, c. 328-320 BC, M.J. Price 3318, SNG Cop. 1009, SNG Berry 269.

                   
    Among the British Museum holdings are Alexander hemidrachms from eight cities, all of which were in Asia. Price illustrated 24 specimens. The above variety is an example of one not in the British Museum but included, without illustration, in Price.    
                   
    Alexander the Great posthumous diobol, 1.23g, Susa, Persia, c. 311-305 BC, M.J. Price 3869.

Along with Ekbatana, Susa was the easternmost of cities minting official Alexander coinage, with Susa being the easternmost city minting Alexanders during his lifetime, though Mørkholm following Bellinger felt the evidence supporting lifetime issues at Susa was slim. The easternmost of all Alexanders, crudely struck barbarous issues from Arachosia, are described in the Ancient Imitations section of this Web site.

Susa, in present-day Iran, was the capital of the Persian Empire during the time of Darius the Great, who Alexander defeated in battle twice and whose life was taken by his own soldiers in 330 BC. Darius was the last ruler of Persia's Achaemenid dynasty. The first was Cyrus the Great, who ruled c. 550 to 529 BC and who conquered Babylon, Media, Lydia, Arachosia, and Bactria, among other kingdoms. Like Alexander, Cyrus was tolerant toward his subjects in religious matters, allowing the worship of native gods and permitting the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem c. 537 BC, as described in the Bible. Susa was the city where Alexander's attempt at cultural fusion climaxed, the mass wedding of 10,000 Macedonian soldiers with 10,000 Persian women. Alexander himself married two Persians in Susa, a daughter of Darius and a daughter of Darius' predecessor, Artaxerxex Ochus.
   
   
   
                   
    Price illustrated only one diobol, the above variety, depicting as mint marks in the reverse left field a wreath and a horned horse head. This coin includes the royal title in the exergue, and as with a number of fractions that do so, it's abbreviated.    
                   
    Alexander the Great possible lifetime obol, 0.4g, uncertain city in East, c. 325-300 BC, M.J. Price 4009v.    
                   
   
   
                   
Price illustrated 32 obols from six cities, all in Asia. He was able to attribute four of the obols only to an uncertain city in the East. This one has similar styling to one such obol in Price, particularly Herakles' face, though this one lacks a mint mark.
                   
    Alexander the Great hemiobol, 0.25g, c. 325-300 BC. Variety unrecorded in Price.    
   
   
                   
    Price illustrated one hemiobol with the seated Zeus reverse, five hemiobols with the weapons reverse of Alexander's bronze coinage, and one quarter obol with the weapons reverse. The above variety, unrecorded in Price, has a thin, wide flan that looks as if it had been hammered in ancient times, perhaps to try to pass the coin off as an obol. An I mint mark appears in the reverse left field.    

Intro

Alexander Tets

Alexander Staters

Alexander Fractions

Alexander Bronzes

Alexander Portrait

Alexander Copies

Alexander Currency

More Info

Other glomworthy coins:

Oldest Coins

 Athenian Owls

Alexander the Great Coins

Medusa Coins

Thracian Tetradrachms

House of Constantine

Draped Bust Coins

Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles

Coin sites:
Coin Collecting: Consumer Protection Guide
Glomming: Coin Connoisseurship
Bogos: Counterfeit Coins
Pre-coins

© 2014 Reid Goldsborough

Note: Any of the items illustrated on these pages that are in my possession are stored off site.