Alexander the Great’s coins

Often, those of us who are interested in antique coins tend to think first about the coins with owls, issued in Athens. They are the most easily recognizable ancient Greek symbol of our time. We can still see the owl symbol on the €1 coins issued by Greece.

But the Hellenistic era of ancient Greece, which began with the conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, is characterised by a completely different coin design. It became the dominant one for the centuries that followed.

The Hellenistic design of the coins was especially encouraged by those conquests. During his short life, Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world at the time, and he also issued a wide range of coins for propaganda purposes. He minted coins for propaganda from treasures that had been seized in Persia and elsewhere. The coins minted by Alexander allowed him to continue his conquests by paying the army’s salaries and providing supplies. The coins were also used as gifts to important individuals, which allowed the expansion and strengthening of Greek cities in the newly conquered territories.

At the beginning of Alexander’s reign, in 336 BCE, no one could have even imagined that the young king of Macedonia would conquer most of the known world at that time and that his coins would serve as a benchmark of trade for centuries. On the contrary, the beginning of Alexander III’s rule was fraught with difficulties. All that he inherited from his father Philip II was debts and high costs for various years of military campaigns that his father had begun against other Greek kingdoms and cities. At the beginning of Alexander III’s reign, the Macedonian treasury was completely empty. Moreover, as soon as he took the throne as king, Macedonia was attacked by the adjacent Kingdom of Thrace, and the young king was forced to borrow huge sums of money to maintain the army and protect the borders of his empire from the invading Thracians.

After winning the war against Thrace and completing Philip II’s wars, Alexander III’s financial situation improved slightly, but it was far from good. The young king still had before him a military campaign against the world’s most powerful empire at the time, Persia, further widening the hole in the Macedonian royal treasury. At the beginning of the war against the Persians, Alexander III had only 70 silver talents in his treasury and was 200 talents in debt. Also, his army had reserves for only 30 days. Taking this into account, we can assume that Alexander’s military campaign against Persia was not based on stable financial preparation or a large reserve, but rather on adventure and courage. To remain in power, he desperately needed a quick victory and great spoils of war to use to pay the army.
Alexander III defeated Persia in May of 334 BCE and received enough money to continue his military campaigns. Just from victories in Asia Minor, in the territory of modern-day Turkey, he earned so much that the Macedonian treasury was filled, all the debts of the young king were covered, and the army was fully provided for. From the treasures gained in the city of Sardis in 333, Alexander was able to pay off all his outstanding debts at once. In 332, his spoils from Damascus exceeded 2,600 talents – 13 times more than the king’s total debt. Victories in Susa provided 50,000 talents, 120,000 talents – in Persepolis, and 180,000 silver talents in Ecbatana. These victories formed a strong economic basis for further conquests, especially the military victories in the ethnic centre of the Kingdom of Persia, which permanently changed Alexander’s life. 

Alexander of Macedonia could have minted 1,080,000,000 silver drachmas out of 180,000 silver talents. However, he devoted most of the spoils of war to his army. Retaining the troops cost huge sums. According to modern estimates, one day of a campaign cost Alexander III 20 talents, equalling 7,500 talents a year – an unbelievable amount at the beginning of his rule. Of course, the king didn’t pay his soldiers every day. They were paid once a month, or when they left the army, upon returning home. However, the need for money was great. It is estimated that the total cost of Alexander the Great’s campaigns today would be 80,000 talents, which is more than 1,300 times the amount of his treasury when he began his reign. With his victory in Ecbatana, the war paid off completely.

The exact time when Alexander began to mint his own coins is unknown. Some scientists believe that it was in 332 or 333 BCE. When the new coins appeared is still the subject of scientific disputes. Whatever it may be, the new coins of Alexander the Great enabled the creation of a new coin reference system that remained in force for centuries.

On the obverse of the new gold coin minted by Alexander, the head of the goddess Athena was depicted, while the reverse featured Nike, the goddess of victory. Athena’s helmet as presented on these coins may have appeared strange to the people of that time. It was in the style of Corinth, and such a helmet design was not common in Macedonia and the rest of Greece. During the military campaigns of Alexander III, it was already out of fashion. However, for Alexander III, the helmet was of special importance. The goddess Athena was regarded by the king as the patron goddess of Corinth, the home of the League of Corinth. Both Alexander and his father invested a lot of money and made great efforts to be appointed as commanders of the League of Corinth, and when they eventually decided to launch a retaliatory military campaign against Persia, the Macedonian Philip II and his son Alexander were to lead the campaign. Therefore, the choice of depicting Athena on the reverse of coins should not surprise us. On the one hand, she was considered the one who inspired military leaders to use clever tactics and manoeuvres to defeat the enemy, while on the other hand, she was the goddess with the greatest grievance against the Persians, who burned Athena’s city to the ground 100 years before Alexander’s birth, and as the city burned, so too did her temple. As a result, Athena, of all the deities, was most invested in helping Alexander in his war against the Persians. 

On the reverse of the gold coins minted by Alexander, we can see Nike, the goddess of victory, who holds a wreath in one hand and a stylus (an ancient writing instrument) in the other. 

For his silver tetradrachms and drachmas, Alexander the Great chose a completely different design than for the gold coins. The obverse of the tetradrachms and drachmas depicted Hercules, and on the reverse – the Greek god Zeus. In her article, Ursula Kampmann raised three possible reasons why Alexander chose images of Hercules and Zeus for his silver coins. 

The first reason to explain how Hercules appeared on Macedonia’s most important and widespread coins may be that he was already depicted on Macedonian coins in Alexander’s father’s time. Philip II’s coins depicted Zeus a little less often, only on smaller denominations. According to the theory of the origin of the Macedonian royal family, to which Alexander belonged, all the kings of Macedonia considered themselves descendants of Hercules.

The second reason for choosing to portray Heracles on silver coins may have been the young Alexander’s personal hero-worship, which he expressed quite publicly, of the Greek mythical demigod Hercules. 
The third reason – Hercules was considered a saviour, a determined and courageous hero in the fight against evil. Alexander the Great, who began to defend the Greeks from the barbarians, to free them, considered Hercules a great symbol in the fight against the Persians.

In the old coin catalogues, we can find false statements about the silver coins of Alexander III. It was said that not Hercules, but Alexander himself, was depicted on them. This is certainly not true, because the Greeks did not portray live people on their coins. Live people were depicted on coins only by “barbarians,” that is, by the Persians. While Alexander was alive, it was certainly Hercules who was depicted on the coins. We can see that the portrayal of Hercules on silver coins changed only after Alexander’s death – it was then that the image of Hercules on the coins became more like Alexander III.    

It was not by chance that Alexander chose Zeus, Hercules, and Athena. These deities helped him in the military campaign against the Persians and protected him. They had a very clear connection with Alexander’s family, or there was a clear propaganda message to other Greek city-states to unite the often-dissenting poleis in the fight against the Persians. Alexander the Great paid a lot of attention to these gods, giving them offerings constantly, and even building temples and altars to them in the newly conquered territories.

The tetradrachms forged by Alexander the Great flooded his great empire. Due to how wide they spread, they gained great popularity in the Greek and non-Greek world and were easily accepted everywhere. For this reason, Alexander III’s tetradrachms were minted long after his death. They were primarily used in international trade. More specifically, many cities had two currencies: coins with local symbols for intra-city trade and coins for trade with more distant cities – tetradrachms produced in accordance with the model developed by Alexander the Great. By the 1st century CE, coins were circulating around the ancient world according to the coin model created by Alexander III. No other person left such a mark in numismatics as the king of Macedonia – Alexander the Great.


Ursula Kampmann, The coins of Alexander Ill the Great of Macedonia, 2009.