A BRONZE COIN OF ALEXANDER III

The imagery of both Herakles and Zeus was extremely popular for furnishing types for Alexander's coinage in both silver and bronze. His most well recognized type, however, is that illustrated above. The head of a youthful Herakles had a long tradition on the coinage of the Macedonian kings. His image first appears on the issues of Archelaos I (413-399 BC) and continues through those of Alexander's father, Philip II (359-336 BC). The type alluded to the claim that the Macedonian royal house was descended from Temenos, a powerful son of Herakles. During the reign of Alexander Herakles became intimately linked with the young king. Alexander was fond of emulating the heroic acts of the demigod and felt that he was in competition for glory with his heroic ancestor. It is possible, although very difficult to prove, that some of the Herakles' heads that appear on Alexander's coinage bear the physical features of the king himself. In short Alexander was being cast as the new Herakles, an image that can be seen to have had a profound effect on his subjects by the time of his death. Already on the famous 'Alexander Sarcophagus' commissioned for king Abdalonymos of Sidon around 320 BC, Alexander is shown in battle wearing the unmistakable lion headdress of Herakles.

Detail of the Alexander Sarcophagus showing Alexander's lion skin headdressThe Alexander Sarcophagus in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum

This remarkable sculptured sarcophagus can still be seen in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

Because of the close relationship between Alexander and Herakles, the Successor kings, including Seleukos, often struck coins with the image of young Herakles. The type was extremely popular in the Hellenistic period and was even adopted for use on the civic coinages of cities like Lysimacheia in Thrace.

The reverse type of Zeus Olympios was no doubt chosen in part because of the god's popularity in Macedonia, the land in which Mount Olympos was situated. At the same time Zeus was also a great panhellenic deity who was recognized throughout the Greek speaking world. This fact cannot have been missed by Alexander who invoked the war against Persia with the claim that he wished to avenge the wrongs committed against all of Greece during the Graeco-Persian Wars.

The coin illustrated above is easily recognized as a modern forgery for many reasons. Most notable are the numerous air bubbles that mar the types, indicating that the piece was cast and not struck. The reverse type was engraved by an especially inept forger. His Greek lettering is poor and he seems to have completely misunderstood the monogram beneath the throne of Zeus. The forger has also bungled the lotus flower that should terminate Zeus' scepter. Instead, the flower looks more like the tip of a trident. On top of all of these stylistic problems, the coin's low weight of 3.54g (drachms on the Attic standard weighed around 4.25g) also gives it away as a fake.


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