Within the palm of your hand, one of the most renown leaders of men, Alexander the Great, can again come alive through the study of a historic and beautiful coin from his day.

The Man

Alexander, son of Philip II and Olympias, became king of Macedonia, part of present-day Greece at the age of twenty, shortly after the assassination of his father in 336 BC. Although he was schooled for a time by Aristotle, he remained uneducated in the strict sense of the word, though a natural brilliance shown when discussing politics and war. Alexander was warm-hearted and generous, even to acquaintances and enemies, and his chivalrousness and diplomacy are legendary. He was highly respected by friend and foe alike, and on many campaigns, a city under tentative siege would open their doors to him and his troops, knowing they would be treated well. At times, he was easily swayed by the praise of those around him, and possessed an uncontrollable temper that occasionally appeared when he became frustrated or drunk (although remorse usually followed shortly afterward.)

Within the thirteen years of Alexander's rule, the territories under his influence grew from the consolidation of Greece to include most of southern Europe, Egypt and India. His battles were decisive, and he could successfully conquer forces ten times the size of his own.

His goal was to drive out the Persian influence brought by previous wars, but in the end he adopted many of their ways, to the disillusionment of his men. Upon returning to Babylon in 323 BC, the consumption of drink consumed him, and Alexander died at the age of 33 of alcohol poisoning, leaving no one man to secede him.

(One notable influence Alexander had on history is the custom of shaving the beard, on the grounds that whiskers offered too ready a handle for an enemy to grasp.)

His Coinage

The coinage of Alexander was highly respected in its purity and design by most of the civilized world and was used in trade throughout the countries and city-states he had brought under his reign. They were struck at many official mints scattered across his kingdom, although the largest and most prodigious was the mint at Amphipolis in Macedonia. Coin was struck primarily in gold and silver, in denominations ranging from a double stater, stater, 1/2 stater, and 1/4 stater in gold, and the ten- (deka), four- (tetra), two- (di), one-drachm, 1/2 (hemi) drachm, and two-, one-, and 1/2 obols in silver. Bronze coinage was also minted, although most denominations were issued long after the death of Alexander.

The tetradrachm pictured above was struck at the Amphipolis mint sometime between 315 BC and 294 BC. The obverse carries a likeness of Heracles (the Greek name for the more familiar Roman Hercules) adorned with the head of the Thespian Lion, the killing of which was one of his first great feats. The reverse shows Zeus enthroned with an eagle perched on his outstretched right hand and a sceptre in his left. His legs are crossed, indicating this is a posthumous issue (struck after the death of Alexander.) In the right field,


meaning (Money of) Alexander is included, while the left field contains the marks or symbols of the mint's Magistrates.

This coin would have likely been about two weeks' wages for a skilled worker, such as a mason or a blacksmith. It's present value lays between US $450 and $550.

How could these coins of the ancient world survive through two millennia and remain in such pristine condition? The answer lays underground, where the heads of households would bury their savings in sealed terra cotta jugs for safe keeping. If a battle raged and the male was killed, or the family taken as slaves, the buried hoard remained an eternal secret treasure. That is, until men with shovels and luck stumbled across one or two. Nowadays, with the advent of the metal detector, more of these finds are being unearthed. Hence an ancient bronze coin that was spent by a young Greek for a loaf of bread over twenty centuries ago might only be worth US $25.00 today. Supply and demand has brought owning one of these fascinating little pieces of history within reach of almost anyone.

References: The Story of Civilization - The Life of Greece, Will Durant, 1939; Greek Coins and their Values, Vol. 2, David Sear, 1979; Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, Colin Kraay, 1976


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