If Alexander the Great had a nickel for every empire he conquered, they would probably look like this.


Normally, I don’t really dig on coins, but I’m making an exception here because, I have to admit, he was pretty great. His movie sure sucked, I’ll tell you that much. Anyway, this is a silver Tetradrachm, which as everyone knows, is worth 4 drachms. It probably had a fair bit of purchasing power back in the day, somewhere in the neighborhood of several days wages. This little sucker may have even bought you a goat. You know what’s cool? I bet I could still get a goat for it today. Take that, inflation! I’m converting my dollars to tetradrachm. Gold is for wingnuts and Art Bell fanboys.

Silver Tetradrachm 336-323BC / Alexander the Great

Silver Tetradrachm 336-323BC / Alexander the Great

So, as I was saying, the guy on the front is none other than Alexander the Great. What makes this neat is that it was minted in Babylon, where he died, right around the time that he died, +- a few years. That would put it somewhere between 331, and 315BC or so. The relief on this thing is incredible, the hair stands out a full 2mm from the flat surface. It’s downright bulbous. Poison ain’t got nothin’ on Alex. Ok, bad example.

Silver Tetradrachm 336-323BC / Alexander the Great

Silver Tetradrachm 336-323BC / Alexander the Great

And, here on the reverse we have an image of Zeus, kickin’ it on his throne, posing like some sorta Greek God. In his right hand (on the left) is an eagle, and in his left hand (on the right) would have been a sceptre, but it’s kinda cut off.

It turns out they weren’t all that careful about minting coins back then. They pretty much just threw a slug of hot metal between two halves of a mold, whacked it with a hammer, and went on to the next one. They didn’t bother to center it, they didn’t really care if part of it was missing, they probably didn’t even notice. They were just trying to bang out coins as fast as they possibly could. This is actually a pretty decent strike. I saw many that were way, way off. As long as the coin was identifiable, that’s all that really mattered.

Underneath his throne are the letters “MI”. I’m not sure what they mean. The letters on the right side are too faded to read clearly, but they used to say “King Alexander” in Greek (I assume).

I’d like to get a similar gold stater someday from the same period. It’s really weird to look at a big-ass box of ancient coins in various conditions, from barely recognizable lump of bronze to gleaming 300BC bling. The thing that stands out is that the gold *always* looks fantastic, as shiny as the day it was made. Everything else can be tarnished, and mangled, but gold just glows. I can see why people have been so fascinated by it. It’s neat stuff.

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3 thoughts on “If Alexander the Great had a nickel for every empire he conquered, they would probably look like this.

  1. This should probably not have a Babylon tag. It more likely was minted in Miletos or Mylasa. Your years are slightly off. It should be c. 300-280 BC. The image is Herakles, and the reverse is Zeus with an eagle. The coin is, however, in the name of Alexander. I cannot read Greek, but the letters should transliterate to: ALEEANDROY. Source: Graham Shipley’s The Greek World After Alexander, p 25.

  2. It looks like part of the hair on Alexander is actually the pelt of the Nemean lion. That’s not surprising: from what I understand, technically the image on these coins is something of a composite of Alexander and Heracles, so it was pretty common to include the lion’s pelt.

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