Coin with head of Alexander

Contributed by British Museum

Click on the image to zoom in. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

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This coin was issued by Lysimachus, the former general of Alexander the Great. After Alexander's death, Lysimachus ruled part of Alexander's empire in Bulgaria, northern Greece and Turkey known as 'Thrace'. Lysimachus used Alexander's portrait on his coins to emphasise his position as Alexander's successor. Alexander was worshipped as a god after his death. Here he sports the ram's horns of the god, Zeus Ammon, whom Egyptian priests claimed was Alexander's father. On the reverse of the coin is the goddess Athena.

Who was Alexander the Great?

Alexander was born in the kingdom of Macedon in 356 BC. By the age of 25 he had conquered Greece, Egypt and Persia, creating an empire spanning 2 million square miles. Following his death in 323 BC, Alexander's generals began to squabble over his legacy. Since they could not claim a blood-tie, these generals tried to legitimise their rule through other connections with Alexander. Eventually they divided the empire into three main kingdoms in Macedon, Egypt and Persia and went on to form powerful dynasties.

Lysimachus was a great hunter and it was said that Alexander shut him in a cage with a lion to test his prowess

Heads or tails?

With this startling image of Alexander the Great we are at the beginning of a tradition of portraiture on coins that extends to the modern day. But why does such portraiture begin only around 300 BC, three centuries after the invention of coinage, and why with Alexander the Great?

The clues lie in the portrait itself. Alexander is not portrayed as a man, but as a god. He bears the attribute of Zeus Ammon, an allusion to the claim that he was this god's son. As such, the 'portrait’, in fact fits into a tradition that had existed since the birth of coinage.
The head of a deity was an entirely appropriate subject for depiction on a coin, and thousands of examples exist in the corpus of Greek coinage. So Alexander the 'god', not Alexander the 'man' is the design of Lysimachus' coin. And this fact explains too why it was only now that the head of someone we would regard as a man could appear on a coin. For it is with Alexander the Great that the Greek process of deifying once mortal men begins in earnest. In the case of Alexander this portrayal began only after his death, but within a generation of this living kings would be portrayed on coins, albeit initially with attributes that suggested their deification.

At one level, it strikes the modern eye as odd that the Greeks should have been so reluctant to portray a man on their coins. We are used today, especially those of us who live in monarchies, to seeing the current head of state depicted on our coinage.

Yet the impact of such images, although perhaps muted to those who see such portraits on a daily basis, is still powerful in some cultures. One has only to think of the coinage of one of the world’s largest democracies, to see the taboo in action in the modern world. No living individual is yet portrayed on the circulating coinage of the United States, which uses instead a gallery of dead presidents where other nations acknowledge the living.

Andrew Meadows, Deputy Director, American Numismatic Society

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Comments

  • 18 comments
  • 1. At 22:04 on 4 March 2010, Keith Arbuthnot wrote:

    Thank you, Neil McG, for the first 30 objects. your quiet enthusiam for the subjects is inspiring and your explanation and illustration of the (pre)history and meaning of the objects is quite outstanding and has given us a whole raft of understanding of the evolutionary path of mankind and society. My wife, stepdaughter and I visited the BM a couple of weekends ago and our treasure hunt for the first 30 objects gave us a huge new perspective of the BM collections that we had not appreciated on previous visits and the hunt culminated with the most stunning piece of art that I have ever seen, the swimming reindeer. At 14000 years old, even the Mona Lisa has been usurped! I look forward to the next tranche and N McG should be put forward for a knighthood or at least one of the high honours for service to our heritage. Thank you BBC R4 and the BM, Keith Arbuthnot

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  • 2. At 17:09 on 5 March 2010, james squires wrote:

    just like to say what a enjoyable and informative series it has been so far. Very well researched and delivered. A very innovative project for 2010. Look forward to the next instalment. Thanks.

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  • 3. At 23:13 on 19 March 2010, El Pfaff wrote:

    Not until 17 May? I recently went through the first 30 and found all fascinating. I know the wait will be worth it.

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  • 4. At 17:30 on 17 May 2010, David_Jago wrote:

    Striking, how closely British coin designers followed the figure of Athena Nikephoros (May 17th) on the old penny and the later 50p piece, showing Britannia ruling the waves! The penny showed her with her left arm resting on the shield (now bearing the Union Flag) and her right leaning the trident forward; the 50p piece reverted to an older form of this, in which the trident rested against her left shoulder, leaving her right hand free to extend the olive branch of peace. What a pity this age-old design is now (I believe) being discontinued on our coinage, which is becoming as cheap in concept as it is in value!

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  • 5. At 19:01 on 17 May 2010, Lyf wrote:

    I agree that it regrettable that we are discontinuing the use of Britannia/Athena. But then we are losing all our heritage slowly or rather giving it away or denying it.

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  • 6. At 19:13 on 17 May 2010, Nick wrote:

    Contrary to Mr Meadows' statement India is the world's largest democracy, not the United States.

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  • 7. At 21:40 on 17 May 2010, trev wrote:

    Informative ...must make a plea for more careful grammar however: e.g. "whom Egyptian priests claimed was Alexander's father." That should be "who" subject of "claimed"

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  • 8. At 22:32 on 17 May 2010, Papamuso wrote:

    I have a professional qualification in fine art,and I am really interested in the basic content of this series of programmes.In spite of this I find it excruciating to listen to.It is the trite and superficial way that incidental music is used that makes it( once again) unlistenable for me.It is as if V.Ashkenazy never delivered his excellent Reith lecture .
    I wonder if it could be that radio programmes are often now made as 'pitches' for TV possibilities,with the result that producers are neither committed nor skilled in sound radio as a medium.
    I have hardly ever been moved enough by a dissatisfaction to complain like this,but I find the repetitive,predictable and arbitrary use of music in this series a serious fault for anyone with musical sensibility.
    I would be interested to know if anyone else finds the use of music in AHOW (I am am recalling listen with mother now!) as seriously detracting from the interesting content .

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  • 9. At 22:37 on 17 May 2010, Papamuso wrote:

    PS sorry, that should have been Daniel Barenboim (reith 2006) ,not V.ashkenazy.

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  • 10. At 22:30 on 18 May 2010, Rionna wrote:


    Sorry, but I have to disagree with Trev(comment 7). The subject of "claimed" is "Egyptian priests" so "who" is correct.

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About this object

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Location

Lampsakos (modern Turkey)

Culture
Period

305-281 BC

Theme
Size
W:
3cm
Colour
Material

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