This silver coin, called a Tetradrachm, was worth about 4 days’ pay for the average citizen. Each one was individually hand struck. Thus, the labor needed for the proliferation of this symbol of power was considerable.
The inscription of this coin by the artist was probably initiated with the onset of Alexander’s attempt to essentially capture the known world. As his power and influence spread, so did the morphing of his identity with the Gods. For example, he declared that he was a son of Zeus after occupying Egypt.
Depending on where the coin was struck, Alexander’s portrait blended with Herkales (Hercules). As can be seen in this example, the artist (no doubt with Alexander’s approval) incorporated gross and subtle symbols to send a clear message of Alexander’s influence, prestige and lineage.
For example, close inspection reveals what appears to be a lion’s tooth near the ear of Alexander. This is part of the lion’s body that is worn as a headdress. It represents Herakles’ victory over the Narnia lion. This victory set the stage for the myth of his strength and invincibility. The accentuated side profile is highlighted by Alexander’s steely open-eyed gaze forward, suggesting a look into the future.
On the reverse side of the coin is a depiction of Zeus on a throne. He grasps a complex scepter. As with similar Egyptian carvings, this identifies him as a deity/authority figure. The eagle, perched on his arm, is an attribution of Zeus and similar to Egyptian gods and their birds of prey. Various mint marks were inscribed to imply the far reaching authority of Alexander’s conquests. As also observed in the nude and anatomically correct male statues, the Greeks displayed sexual behavior in a unique cultural context. Some mint marks, such as the ithyphallic (sexually erect) god Hermes, suggested sexual arousal. However, this mark more served as a warning of territorial boundaries and power as opposed to a depiction of sexual exhibitionism.
Zeus’ head adornment changed over time from a laurel wreath crown, to a horned headdress or wrapping suggestive of a turban. As different territories were captured, local conventions may have been used.
The position of Zeus’ legs changed from an open to closed position and may indicate whether the coin was a lifetime issue of Alexander if the legs were open. The use of the royal title on a coin most likely guarantees that it was struck after Alexander’s death, since the royal title would be an anathema to the concept of democracy in Greece at the time. Therefore, this coin is likely minted during his lifetime.
In summary, this small disc of silver, intricately carved in high relief, is probably one of the most important examples of how artistic expression can influence the world. Coins with his representation were struck in 1 city in Africa, 7 in Europe and 17 in Asia during his lifetime. It is estimated that 105 million examples were struck over 3 centuries. Its dissemination across vast territories gave credence to Alexander’s ever widening conquests, helped establish a stable and acceptable form of payment, and allowed for the manipulation of much of the world’s currency. Without the artistic interpretation of a myriad of symbols and figural representations, the power of this coin would not have been as great. It is little surprise that the United States Quarter of today bears an amazing similarity in size and symbols.