The Dating of the Coinage of Alexander the Great by Zoe Sophia Kontes 01

Alexander the Great, only twenty years old when he became king of Macedonia in 336 B.C., was perhaps the greatest general of all time. He was certainly a great empire builder. In the course of just thirteen years before his death at Babylon in 323 B.C., he changed the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world forever by bringing the territory of the Persian Empire under Greek rule. This vast region stretched from the borders of India and inner Afganistan in the east to the Adriatic Sea in the west and from Egypt in the south to the coasts of the Black Sea in the north. The Hellenistic Near East and the Hellenistic world beyond the Near East were the product of Alexander's adventure. The repercussions of his reign were thus profound, and nowhere more so than in the history of money. Alexander's coins, the most familiar being the silver issues bearing a head of Herakles on one face and a seated Zeus with the king's name on the other, were struck throughout the empire.
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Silver tetradrachm (17.28 gm.) diam. 2.5 cm., Brown University Collection, gift of Capt. John R. Lewis.
Such coins were not only minted during Alexander's lifetime but their issue was continued in the two decades following his death by the Macedonian generals who divided the empire between them and created the Hellenistic kingdoms. Even as the successor kings initialed coinages in their own names and with their own types the "Alexanders" lived on for two centuries during which time they were issued by independent cities as an international coinage.

Today "Alexanders" still exist by the thousands. Their very number, however, and the large array of monograms and symbols used to identify the mints where the coins were struck and the mint officials who supervised the work, make this one of the most challenging series for the numismatist. A Sir George Hill wrote in 1909:

There are few series which present more difficulties in the way of chronological classification than the 'Alexanders.' The mass of material is so vast and the differences between the varieties so minute, so uninteresting to anyone but the numismatic specialist, and so difficult to express in print, that very little progress has been made since the publication of L. Müllerr's remarkable work in 1855. . ,

But at that moment the study of the Alexander coinage was about to be revolutionized by a young American collector and scholar, Edward T. Newell. Newell graduated from Yale in 1907 and took an MA two years later. He always remained a private scholar, laboring in his work rooms at the American Numismatic Society in New York where his collection of Greek coins today forms the backbone of the Society's world-famous collection. After his premature death in 1941, his obituary in the American Journal of Archaeology characterized him as "America's greatest numismatist."

To understand the revolution in our knowledge of the coins of Alexander's lifetime and the posthumous Alexander's that began with Newell's Reattribution of Certain Tetradrachms of Alexander the Great of 1911, one must go back to the mid nineteenth century. Ludvig Müller, to whom G.F. Hill was referring in the quote above, was a Danish scholar whose work of 1855, Numismatique d'Alexandre le Grand, suivie d'un appendice contenant les monnaies de Philippe II et III, was the first comprehensive study of the coinage. Müller was able to distinguish between the early and later coins of Alexander by examining the size of the flans, which no scholar had previously done. His observation that the flans became progressively wider and flatter was an indication of evolvement over time, thus he was able to establish a general chronology.In addition, Müller carefully studied the reverse symbols and ligatures found on nearly all of the coins, and assigned them to mints accordingly. While accepting the possibility that they might refer to different magistrates as opposed to mints, he believed that this was not the case. His theory was in fact plausible, since there are indeed some reverse marks which do repeat well-known city types. For example, posthumous issues marked with a sphinx are attributed to Chios, while those with a lion looking back at a star were minted at Miletus.Though Newell's work, based on a far larger corpus of coins than Müller knew called into question the general approach of his predecessor, many of Müller's mint attributions remain uncontested today.

Newell utilized the technique of identifying coins struck from a common die (called "die linkage") to show that coins attributed by Müller to different mints were, in fact, the products of the same mint because they shared a common obverse die, even though the symbols and monograms of their reverses were different. The main body of evidence that permitted Newell to achieve the reconstruction of the minting of the Alexanders was the Demanhur hoard. This cache of over 8,000 Alexander tetradrachms was found in Egypt in 1905. Newell himself originally came into possession of some 400 of these, and had personally examined over 2,000 for his discussion of the coins in Reattribution. By the time he published Alexander Hoards I2. Demanhur, 1905 in 1923 he had compiled, from his own collection and other sources, a record of close to 6,000 coins from the hoard. On the basis of his observation of die links, he divided the tetradrachms into eleven groups, each of which had 3-12 different control marks.Such control marks on Greek coins are often interpreted as identifying officials responsible for a particular issue. In Newell's system, relying on the objective evidence of the obverse die links, it was apparent that they had a similar function in the Alexander coinage.

Tetradrachms, of course, formed only a part of the Alexander coinage, and this is the time to review all the types in silver, gold and bronze. All of the coins were minted on the Attic standard (unlike his father's coins, of which only the gold was of Attic weight, while the silver was struck on the local Macedonian standard).The following are the most common types.

For the gold, obverse: Athena wearing crested helmet decorated with serpent; reverse: Nike standing facing left, holding wreath in extended right hand, stylis (a naval standard) in left, vertical legend ALEXANDROU.
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Gold stater (8.67g) diam. 1.8 cm.,Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, ex Henry Augustus Greene.
For the silver (tetradrachms and drachms), obverse: head of Heracles wearing lion skin facing right; reverse: Zeus seated on throne facing left, holding eagle in outstretched right hand, scepter in left, vertical legend ALEXANDROU.
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Silver tetradrachm (17.11g) diam. 2.5 cm., Brown University Collection, gift of Capt. John R. Lewis.
Alexander's coinage continued to be struck after his death in 323 B.C.. His immediate successors continued to use his types, although eventually substituting their own names for that of Alexander. Both lifetime and posthumous Alexanders were struck in Macedonia, as well as in mints throughout the empire. During Alexander's lifetime, twenty-five mints were producing his coins: two in Macedonia, one in Egypt, and twenty-three in Asia.In the years immediately following his death that number increased to thirty-one, possibly including a Peloponnesian mint at Sicyon. In the last quarter of the third century, over a hundred years after his death, fifty-one mints were still producing Alexanders, mainly the tetradrachms.Thousands upon thousands of these coins are extant, found in a multitude of hoards. Approximately forty-six hoards containing silver and thirteen containing gold from the main mint in Macedonia have been documented in greater or lesser detail.

Newell divided the Alexander tetradrachms into groups, and assigned his groups the letters A-K, basing his chronology on style, die links between groups, and the addition and subsequent removal of the title BASILEOS to the coinage. This title appeared first on coins of Babylon around 325 B.C., became widespread, then disappeared just a few years later. The basis for putting group A first was that this group's reverse control marks include some also found on coins of Philip II: a prow, stern, janiform head and sometimes a rudder.His hypothesis is still accepted today. In addition, he was now able to offer conjectures about mint location on a new basis. The late Philips (Georges Le Rider's Group II B, see footnote 15) were closely die linked, indicating to Newell that indeed they must be from the same mint. Since Philip's lifetime coins were most likely only minted in Macedonia, the earliest Alexanders, group A, must have also been minted there. Newell placed the first Alexanders in 336 B.C., at the beginning of the reign. Newell's chronology depended on evidence from the great Demanhur hoard in another respect. In this hoard were found Alexander coins bearing dates. These are the coins minted at Sidon and Ake where issues made before Alexander's conquest bore Phoenician numerals dating the coins according to the regnal year of the local king. Alexander's issue continued this system.During the siege of Tyre Alexander had his base in Sidon, which had a well-established mint. In addition, Alexander was in possession of great sums of money seized from the Persians at the Battle of Issus. These two factors, along with the necessity of clearly establishing himself as the leader of a new empire, immediately led to the minting of coins. Two Alexander coins of Sidon bear Phoenician letters which signify Year 1 and Year 2. These first two years of the Sidonian era refer to either the first two years of Alexander's power in Asia Minor (beginning with his success at Issus) or the rule of the local king Abdalonymos, whom Alexander appointed at this time. These would have been the years 333-332 and 332-331.Thus, the inauguration for the minting of these Alexander coins at this time is historically appropriate, and supported by numismatic evidence. The dated obverse dies of the tetradrachms of Sidon and Ake continue until 319/318 B.C., giving us a fixed point for the lifetime and early posthumous coinage of Alexander up to that year.Newell's chronology for these coins has stood the test of time and is not likely to be affected by any further discoveries. However, his dating of the actual beginning of Alexander coinage overall to 336 B.C., long accepted by most scholars, has become the subject of great debate.


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