Tetradrachm of Alexander the Great


Not on view

Numismatists – the scholars who study coins – refer to the ‘front’ side of the coin, which usually features the head of a person or god, as the ‘obverse,’ and the ‘back’ side as the ‘reverse.’

On the obverse of this silver tetradrachm coin, a youthful bust of Herakles faces right. He has a large nose, a prominent chin, pursed lips, and a slightly furrowed brow. He wears a headdress made of a lion’s pelt, with the paws tied around his neck. A border of dots surrounds the image.

The reverse shows the seated figure of Zeus facing left. He is naked from the waist up, and holds a staff in his left hand; an eagle perches on his outstretched right hand. He sits on a high-backed throne with his legs slightly splayed. The Greek name ‘AΛEΞANΔPOY’ (in English, 'Alexander’) is behind him. A ship’s prow is in front of him; this is probably a mint mark indicating who was responsible for making this coin.

The images of the youthful Herakles and enthroned Zeus that appear on this coin are the standard types used in the silver coinage of Alexander the Great during his lifetime. As a member of the ancient Macedonian royal family (the Argead dynasty) he claimed to be descended from Herakles, and Zeus, as king of the gods, was a meaningful image for all Greeks, over whom Alexander aspired to rule. After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., his general Seleucus continued to mint coins with these types, including this one, struck at the mint at Susa in southwestern Iran. It was only after he proclaimed himself king in 305 that Seleucus introduced his own types on a broad scale.

This coin was excavated at Pasargadae, about 55 miles northeast of Shiraz, Iran. Pasargadae was founded by Cyrus the Great (reigned ca. 550-530 B.C.) as the first capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. This coin is one of several objects from the site showing that it continued to be inhabited after the empire’s final defeat in 330 B.C.

Tetradrachm of Alexander the Great, Silver, Seleucid

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