A Silver tetradrachm of Alexander the Great

This silver tetradrachm was minted in the reign of Alexander the Great of Macedon, in Amphipolis, the site of the mint in Europe under the direction of Antipater, Alexander’s chosen regent while he was on campaign in Asia.

This coin does not depict Alexander himself, in fact in this period very few living humans were depicted on coins. The exception to this is Persian coinage, which depicted the Achaemenid king on the gold darics and silver sigloi, although even then this was a depiction of Achaemenid kingship itself rather than an individual ruler because it did not change when a new king took the throne.

On the obverse, is a bust of Heracles whom Alexander claimed as an ancestor, as had his father Philip II. Philip also depicted Heracles on some of his coins, and both kings allegedly changed the profile of Heracles to look more like themselves towards the end of their reigns.

Alexander’s depiction of Heracles is interesting because he was fascinated with the mythical character during his Persian campaign. For example, Alexander besieged the city of Tyre because the inhabitants refused him entry so they could remain neutral in the ongoing war. The king was desperate to enter the city so he could sacrifice at the Temple of Heracles, which was supposedly the oldest one in the world. When he was refused Alexander grew furious and started a siege that took seven months and many Macedonian lives to win.

Later in his life, Alexander also sought to outdo Heracles, by capturing the rock of Aornus, which the hero failed to. This also sent a message to the locals and cemented his claim to divinity, as he had exceeded even a god.

The reverse of this coin depicts Zeus on a throne, holding a sceptre and an eagle, with a thunderbolt on the bottom left. This image was also used by Alexander’s successors like Ptolemy and Seleucus, as they sought to legitimise their new claims to kingship by their association with Alexander.

In Alexander’s case, the depiction of Zeus carried a second meaning. After the visit to the Oracle of Ammon at Siwah, he claimed Zeus as his father. In this way, this coin can be seen as subversive, as Alexander was claiming divinity via his alleged father. Depicting Zeus on coinage was not new but it took a new tone due to Alexander’s claims.

This demonstrates how coins are more than just a medium of exchange, they can communicate complex propaganda messages.

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