Carol L. Lawton

Although some cities managed to remain independent in the Hellenistic period, the Hellenistic world was above all characterized by kingdoms, first the immense empire of Alexander the Great, and after his death the smaller kingdoms carved out of it by his closest associates, the Diadochs or Successors. Out of the political concerns of these kings came the single most important development in Hellenistic coinage, the appearance of the ruler portrait on the obverse of many of their coins, providing us with our first relatively realistic look at the historical figures of the ancient world. The portraits are masterpieces of Hellenistic art, depicting in fine detail not only the features of the men (and occasionally women) about whom we often know so little, but also indications of how their subjects were intended to regard them.

The Hellenistic practice of using portraits on coins was in sharp contrast to Greek custom, which primarily used deities, heroes, and their attributes as coin types. Ruler portraits had in fact appeared earlier in the East, in Lycia and in Persia, where as early as the late fifth century B.C. coins of some local dynasts and provincial governors bore relatively realistic-looking heads identified by inscription, and these may have influenced the later kings of the area, but the primary inspiration for the coin portraits of Hellenistic kings were the portraits of Alexander the Great. Alexander III (356-323 B.C.), who became king of Macedon in 336 B.C. and who by the time of his death in 323 B.C. had conquered much of the world known to the West, followed the example of his father Philip and depicted Greek deities and heroes on his coins. His coins depicting the hero Herakles, from whom the Macedonian royal family claimed descent, are particularly significant in the development of the Hellenistic coin portrait. The head of Herakles appeared on Alexander's bronze and silver coins, the most important of which were his tetradrachms (no. 41), which soon eclipsed Athenian tetradrachms (no. 30) as the most widely circulated and authoritative coins in the ancient world. Although there is no evidence to suggest that Alexander regarded these images as portraits of himself, it appears likely that in parts of his empire where he had acquired the status of a hero or even a god and where his achievements were equated with those of his patron hero, the image was widely regarded as an image of the king himself. And after Alexander's death, the Successors continued to issue the coins without changes of type, undoubtedly because the prestige of the coins was so great and because the use of Alexander's types strengthened their claims to be the legitimate heirs of his kingdom.


[LU Home] | [Bearers of Meaning] | [Contents] | [Essays] | [Catalogue] | [Glossary]

The coin depicted above is No. 45 in the catalogue, tetradrachm of Lysimachos of Thrace, c. 297-81 B.C. Obverse: Head of Alexander the Great with the hours of Ammon.

All contents copyright (c) 1996.
Lawrence University
All rights reserved.