CoinWeek Podcast #140: What Made Alexander Great?

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“This is Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek, asking: what made Alexander so Great?”

With these words, ancient coin expert and CoinWeek Podcast guest host Mike Markowitz begins to spin an exciting and informative look at the life of Alexander the Great and what made him such a towering figure in ancient history.

When Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BCE at the age of 32, his empire covered two million square miles and included an estimated 50 million people of many different languages, religions, and cultures. Today, the span of Alexander’s kingdom encompasses modern Greece, Northern Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and a bit of India.

His story is one that shaped the region for centuries, told with great enthusiasm and passion by CoinWeek’s esteemed writer.

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The CoinWeek Podcast is brought to you by PCGS.

This episode of the CoinWeek Podcast is brought to you by PCGS.

PCGS is proud to announce the upcoming dates of its next PCGS Members Only Show, which will be held from Tuesday to Friday, August 4-7, 2020 at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The PCGS Members Only Show is a great event with many of your favorite PCGS dealers represented. Also on site are PCGS’ world-class graders, who will be there to grade your coins on-site!

Of course, you will want to take all necessary COVID-19 precautions and the organizers will be following enhanced health and safety measures. To learn more about this important event, go to www.pcgs.com to learn more.

The following is a transcript of Mikes’ essay:
 

Charles Morgan: This episode of the CoinWeek Podcast is brought to you by PCGS. PCGS is proud to announce the upcoming dates of its next PCGS members-only show, which will be held from Tuesday to Friday, August 4 through August 7, 2020 at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. I personally attended the PCGS members-only shows in the past, and it's a great exclusive event with many of your favorite PCGS dealers present. And of course, PCGS’s world-class graders will be on hand to grade your coins. Of course, you will want to take all necessary COVID-19 precautions, and the staff and dealers present will be following enhanced health and safety measures. To learn more about this important event, go to www.pcgs.com.

Mike Markowitz: This is Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek asking the question, what made Alexander so great?

Well, if you want to be remembered as great, it helps to be born to royalty, whether your name is Alfred or Catherine, Frederick, or Alexander. Since Alexander is one of the most famous figures in history, many collectors, even if they don't know much about ancient history, are very curious about the coins were issued in Alexander's name. Like most things in classical numismatics, it's complicated.

[intro]

If you want to be remembered as great, it helps to be rich.

Alexander's father, King Philip II of Macedon, was the richest man in the Greek world, thanks to the gold and silver mines that he controlled. And he left Alexander the best trained and equipped army in the world. Philip also invested a bit of that cash in hiring the most brilliant mind that Greece ever produced, Aristotle, as the tutor for his son. From the age of 13 to about 17, Alexander and his boyhood companions, who went on together to conquer about half of the known world, were instructed by Aristotle, who gave Alexander a precious annotated copy of Homer's great epic poem, The Iliad, which he carried with him and cherished for the rest of his life.

If you want to be remembered as great, it really helps to be lucky.

If King Philip had lived to a ripe old age, Alexandra might have been limited to the typical career of a crown prince, as a cavalry officer and party animal. But the assassin's dagger that ended Philip’s life at the age of 46 in 336 BCE, made Alexander king at the age of 20 before middle-aged responsibilities could dull his adolescent dreams of glory and conquest. Alexander was personally very reckless. He was wounded 20 times in combat.

In 324 BCE, when his army mutinied and refused to go any further, Alexander got up, stripped off his cloak, and gave this little speech: “There is no part of my body but my back, which has not a scar. No weapon a man may grasp or fling that has not left its mark upon me. I have sword cuts from close combat. Arrows have pierced me. Missiles from catapult bruised my flesh. Again, and again, I have been struck by stones or clubs. For you, for your glory, for your wealth.”

Well, that ended the mutiny. This guy was hard to kill.

When Alexander died in Babylon 323 BCE at the age of 32, his empire covered two million square miles, and it included an estimated 50 million people speaking many different languages and belonging to many different religions and cultures. To run down the list, that's all or part of modern Greece, Northern Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and a bit of India.

Above all, if you want to be remembered as great, you have to get the historians on your side. Here, Alexander really got lucky.

Plutarch, who lived from 46 to about 120 CE, and Arrian of Nicomedia, who lived a generation later, were both Romanized Greeks, who had access to primary sources that were lost to us when the Great Library of Alexandria burned. They both wrote detailed and dramatic accounts of Alexander's life in campaigns, which helped to create his legend in the centuries that followed.

Some collectors find that the coins issued in the name of Alexander are monotonous because there are only a few basic designs that were repeated over and over for centuries, and they differ only in tiny details. The standard reference book on the coinage of Alexander lists over 4,000 types. And new varieties still turn up from time to time. The differences are mostly in little symbols and monograms.

We'll talk more about that later. Let's start with some basics.

Alexander's common collectible coins include one denomination in gold and two in silver. Remember that ancient coins work like the medals in the modern Olympic Games. There is gold, silver, and bronze. Now, the precious metals in ancient coins were as pure as the technology of the time could get, 97% to 99% fine. Also, ancient coins were not decimal like modern currency. Ancient denominations were simple multiples or fractions of a basic unit. And you should also keep in mind that classical numismatics is a metric world. It's handy to recall that a brand-new US nickel weighs exactly five grams and is 21.2 millimeters in diameter. One inch is 25.4 millimeters.

Alexander's main gold coin is called the stater. It weighs 8.6 grams. It's about 18-and-a-half millimeters in diameter It represented a month salary for a mercenary foot soldier. I like to think of it as an ancient $100 bill. There are some very rare double staters. That's like a $20,000 coin when one comes on the market. And there are scarce fractional gold coins, the half stater quarter, and even a tiny one-eighth weighs about a gram.

Alexandria's main silver coin is called the tetradrachm, weighs about 17 grams, about 25 millimeters in diameter. It's a substantial piece of silver. You can think of it very roughly as the ancient equivalent of a $20 bill. In Harlan Berk’s excellent book, 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, the tetradrachm of Alexander is listed as number 20. The drachm, the name in Greek is drachma, is about 4.3 grams, 18 millimeters in diameter. You might think of it as the ancient equivalent of a $5 bill.

Now, there are also very rare silver decadrachms, a 10-dram piece, and there is a scarce didrachm, a two-drachm piece. And fractions, a hemidrachm, which is the half, and even tiny obols, one-sixth of drachm.

At the prevailing silver to gold ratio, which was 10 to 1, five silver tetradrachms would exchange in the market for one gold stater. In reality, you'd get a little less because the money changers charged a 3% commission on the transaction.

There are very common bronze coins of Alexander, but they're not collected very much. It seems there are three denominations. That might be one, two, and four units, like two, four, and six grams. They're very inexpensive, $30 for a nice example. A loaf of bread would have cost one or two bronze coins. A skilled worker’s daily wage was two or three drachms. A lamb could be purchased for two tetradrachms. A gallon of olive oil, five drams. Pair of shoes cost 8 or 12 drachms. You could buy a javelin for two drams, a bow and quiver for 15, maybe 20 for a basic shield, or plain helmet.

Let's take a closer look at the gold stater of Alexander.

You'd expect to pay about $2,000 for a very fine example or for a really nice extremely fine coin, $3,000 to $5,000. The least you would expect to pay for a worn coin with problems these days might be about $1,200. Describing the coin, let's look at the head or obverse side. It's a helmet image of the head of the war goddess, Athena. She's facing right and wearing a so-called Corinthian helmet pushed up on her head so that you can see her face. Her hair hangs down in three or four short twisted braids, or in some examples, loose curls. The bowl of the helmet is ornamented with a coiled serpent. Or on some coins, you see a winged griffin.

Turning the coin over, tails, the reverse side. We see a standing figure of Nike, the goddess of victory. A young female with wings stands facing left and a long, pleated gown. She holds the wreath of victory in her extended right hand and a staff, sometimes described as the mast of a ship, is cradled in her right arm. A symbol, and often a monogram which is a couple of Greek letters squished together, appears in the field on either side sometimes. The monogram is thought to be the mint official responsible for that particular issue of coins. There's one word in Greek letters down the right side of the coin, Alexandrou, meaning “of Alexander”.

Let's take a look at the silver tetradrachm. You'd expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $500 for a very fine silver tetradrachm. And for an extremely fine example, well centered, boldly struck, maybe $500 to $1,500. A nearly mint state coin, flawless, perfectly centered, could go for many thousands of dollars.

The silver drachms, the smaller coin in silver, same basic design, they go for considerably less but they're very hard to find in high grade because small coins tended to get beat up in circulation and they stayed in circulation for decades, or sometimes even for centuries.

Taking a look close look at the heads or obverse side. It's the head of Heracles, the mythical hero called Hercules by the Romans. He's wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion as a hoodie. The Nemean Lion was a ferocious supernatural creature. Its skin was so tough that no weapon could penetrate it. It was terrorizing the area around the Greek city of Nemea. Hercules, being a superhero, stunned the creature with his mighty club, strangled it with his superhuman strength, and skinned it with its own razor-sharp claws. And he wore the skin of that lion as his armor for the rest of his life. On really well-struck examples of the coin, you can see the lion's paws knotted together under the chin of Hercules.

Now, the consensus of most classical numismatists is that this image is not a portrait of Alexander the Great. The most authentic, existing image of Alexander that was created during his lifetime is a tiny ivory sculpture that was found in the tomb of his father when it was excavated by a Greek archaeologist miraculously not looted in antiquity in 1977. It's thought to be based on a sculpture of Alexander in marble by the Greek sculptor, Lysippos. He was so pleased with the portraits of himself created by Lysippos that Alexander forbade any other sculptor to craft his image.

Now, several of Alexander's successors after his death, did place his idealized portrait on their coins.

Notably, King Lysimachus in Thrace and King Ptolemy in Egypt. Turning the tetradrachm over to see the reverse or tails side, we can see a bare-chested image of Zeus enthroned, the King of the Gods.

This image is based on the great gold and ivory statue of Zeus in the temple at Olympia that was crafted about the year 435 BC, a century before the time of Alexander by the famous sculptor, Phidias.

It stood over 40 feet tall, 12.4 meters, and was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The image of Zeus on the coin is slightly different. On the coin, Zeus is holding in the palm of his outstretched right hand, his companion animal, the eagle. On the famous statue, Zeus is holding a little image of Nike standing on a globe.

On the coin, a symbol representing the mint and one or two monograms of officials are in the field below the eagle or between the legs of the throne. And again, the inscription down the right side of the coin is just the name, Alexandrou (“of Alexander”). But sometimes the word basilios, meaning King, is squeezed in below the legs of the throne.

One of the most important distinctions in the coinage of Alexander is between the coins that were struck during his lifetime and those that were issued posthumously by his successors after his death.

On the lifetime coins of Alexander, the legs of Zeus are usually straight and parallel to each other. On posthumous issues, Zeus’s legs are crossed as he sits on the throne. Like most things in classical numismatics, there are exceptions, but as a general rule, that's the quick way to identify lifetime issues, which most collectors consider the most desirable.

Well, where did all this gold and silver come from? For the first two years after he became king, Alexander was in Macedon consolidating his power, and the bullion came from the local gold and silver mines. But when Alexander invaded the Persian Empire and began conquering it, he started seizing enormous amounts of treasure.

In the ancient world, large sums of money were usually expressed as talents. The Athenian talent, which was used as a measure in Alexander's time, weighed about 25.8 kilograms, nearly 57 pounds of silver. That would be enough metal to strike 1,500 tetradrachms. At today's silver prices, it's over $19,000. We know that Alexander's famous horse, Bucephalus, cost 13 talents. That's probably more than the colt weighed in silver. When Alexander discharged some of his troops in 329 BC, each cavalryman got two talents in cash, and each foot soldier half a talent. That was a lot to carry home.

For centuries, the Persian Empire had hoarded precious metal in vaults. The sources carefully recorded some of the amounts of bullion that Alexander captured. Damascus, 2,600 talents. Babylon, 20,000. Sousa in Southern Iran, 59,000 talents. Persepolis, the Persian royal capital, that was the big score, 120,000 talents. Ecbatana, now the town of Hamadan in Northern Iran, 12,000 talents. The total comes to about 12 million pounds or 6,000 tons of silver.

When Alexander had all this hoarded precious metal struck into coinage and put into circulation, the global money supply increased, wages and prices rose, and it sparked an economic boom that lasted for over a century. There was a vast expansion of trade and commerce throughout the ancient world.

For an economic historian or a classical numismatist, that's what made Alexander so great.

Now, millions of these coins survive today. Why?

Because in the years after Alexander's death, his successors, a very rowdy bunch of warlords, carved up his empire into kingdoms and fought constantly among themselves. And during periods of unrest, people bury their money. If they never came back to get it, it's still there.

So, all across the ancient world, hordes of Alexander's gold and silver coins have turned up, and that's how they come to be available to collectors today.

We know that about 26 different mints struck coins for Alexander during his lifetime, and most mints used a little symbol of some kind on the reverse of the coin as a mintmark. Some mints used multiple symbols, and some symbols were used by more than one mint at different times. So, it becomes a little bit confusing.

For example, Memphis in Egypt used a little image of a rose flower. Amphipolis, the most important mint back in Macedonia, used a torch.

Some of these mints are very familiar like Damascus, Beirut, Babylon. Others are obscure place names or even places that still haven't been identified. By the time the very last coins in the name of Alexander were struck about the year 65 BCE at Mesembria, which is now the Bulgarian seaside town of Nesebar on the coast of the Black Sea, more than 90 different mints have been identified.

Why did coins in Alexander's name continue to be struck long after he was dead? Well, money is conservative.

People were skeptical of changes in the circulating coinage, often because they suspect the government is trying to put one over on them. And because these coins were good silver and they circulated widely, they were popular, they were accepted everywhere in trade. So, when original coins weren't available, local mints and towns and cities that were semi-independent from their local kings struck their own Alexanders. Over time, the workmanship deteriorated, the coins became thinner and broader. Some of the last coins in the name of Alexander, silver tetradrachms, are 40 millimeters across rather than 25. The workmanship is crude, but they continued to be produced.

There's a saying in numismatics that you should buy the book before you buy the coin. In auction catalogs, the coins of Alexander are listed under the kings of Macedon. But in auction listings, you'll often see the word Price followed by a number in the description of a coin of Alexander, a three or four-digit number. That's not the “price” of the coin. It's a reference to a book [by] the great British numismatist, Martin Jessop Price, who lived from 1939 to 1995.

The book is enormous. It's called The Coinage in Name of Alexander the Great and Philip Arrhidaeus: A British Museum Catalogue, two volumes, almost 800 pages. Just over 4,000 different types, 1,200 different monograms that appear on the coins. If you can find one, a secondhand copy goes for $300 or $400. A more recent book that updates some of Price is Hyla Troxell, Studies in the Macedonian Coinage of Alexander the Great, published in New York by the American Numismatic Society in 1997. And you can find a secondhand copy for about $55.

But it turns out, you don't really need the book because there are wonderful online resources for researching the coins of Alexander. The one I'm going to tell you about is Pella, P-E-L-L-A. Pella was the ancient capital of Macedon. And you can find out on numismatics.org, the website of the American Numismatic Society. It was a project that was funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities called Hellenistic Royal Coinages.

And there's also databases for Ptolemaic and Seleucid coins and others. But the current version of Pella lists and illustrates over 20,000 examples of the coinage in the name of Philip II, Alexander the Great, and Phillip Arrhidaeus, Alexander's younger half-brother. He had some kind of developmental disability. The sources describe him as feebleminded. Sadly, he was a figurehead or puppet king manipulated by Alexander's successors until one of them just had him murdered. He retained the types of Alexander the Great but put his own name, Philip, on the reverse.

In closing, we need to talk a little bit about fakes, a sensitive subject.

Unfortunately, Alexander fakes are very common, and they range from cheap-cast tourist souvenirs in white metal or plated copper to very sophisticated pressed forgeries in good metal, often originating from Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

How do you avoid fakes if you're a collector? Buy only from a trusted professional dealer and avoid buying ancient coins on eBay unless you know exactly what you're doing because many ancient coins offered on eBay are either fakes, overpriced, or incorrectly described. Remember, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it's probably neither good nor true.

Wishing you good hunting, this is Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek.

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