As he conquered, Alexander brought his money with him. His coins did not just serve as a medium of exchange and store of wealth, but also as an important tool of propaganda. Early coins were minted from mines in Macedonia and Thrace, but, as he conquered, he plundered and then minted coins from the huge bullion stocks he captured, especially in Persia. The Persians were ancient rivals. Alexander took their gold and silver, melted it down and then struck new coins emblazoned with the Greek goddesses Athena and Victory (Nike), and the gods of strength (Herakles) and power (Zeus). It must have been somewhat demoralising for the conquered Persians to see their own myth, legend and history, literally, struck off.
Alexander established 26 mints across his vast empire – seven in Europe, 18 in Asia and one in Africa. He had coins minted everywhere, and the instruction was that his coins should all look the same. He wanted people across his empire using the same coin. He was standardising money and creating an internationally recognised currency.
Nor did he skimp on the job. There was no coin clipping here. Alexander’s money was true.
His Stater, one of the highest denomination coins, has a gold purity of around 98%, among the purest found in ancient coins. (It beats the old English sovereigns, which are closer to 90%).
His silver Tetradrachms were similarly pure. These became the most widely used coins of al;, international, imperial money used in state transactions, to pay his armies, and to pay off Celtic invaders from the North.
The stature and value of his coins were such that his successors continued to mint coins with the same design for the next 250 years.
The gold Stater weighed about 8.67 grams, just over a ¼ ounce – a fraction larger than an English sovereign. On the front was the helmeted head of Athena, goddess of wisdom, and on the reverse the standing figure of Nike, goddess of victory. Nike holds out a wreath in one hand and a naval standard in the other. Behind her we read the word “Alexandrou” (of Alexander).
Drachma became the name of modern Greek currency, before Greece joined the euro. But a drachma meant a handful: a handful – a measure in other words – of Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, one of the most successful military commanders in history. He lived in the 4th century BC, and was just 33 when he died, having spent most of his adult life it seems, on military campaigns in Asia and northeast Africa.
Having been tutored by Aristotle as a child, he became king at the age 20, and by the time he was 30 had created one of the largest empires ever known, stretching from Greece all the way through Persia and Pakistan to north-western India. Despite often being outnumbered, he never lost a battle. His 13 years of rule really did change the face of the world.
Though better known for his military exploits, his contribution to the evolution of money and coinage should not be underestimated.
His coins replaced the metal rods formerly used as money in earlier centuries, and by the time of Alexander the Tetradrachm was one of the most widespread coins in the eastern Mediterranean. A drachma would amount to about a day’s wages for a common labourer – a Tetradrachm would thus be about four days’ wages. They weighed around 17grams (a bit over ½ an ounce) of silver. The Athenian owl Tetradrachm was common, but Alexander’s innovation was to strike his coins everywhere he went. As a result these Tetradrachms coins are seen as the world’s first global currency. Judas, later, was almost certainly paid in Tetradrachms to betray Jesus.
Alexander’s silver Tetradrachm was his standard denomination and so many were minted that thousands still exist today, many in excellent condition and not trading at as great a premium as you would expect to the spot value of the underlying metal. More were minted than any other ancient coin – and they were minted for over 300 years. On the front they had the head of Heracles, founder of Macedonia, wearing a lion skin. On the back they had Zeus seated on a throne, holding a sceptre in one hand and an eagle in the other. As with the Stater, behind Zeus we read that word again, “Alexandrou” – of Alexander.
Another innovation of Alexander was that the depiction of Heracles – usually beardless and young – showed a remarkable likeness to his own self. Thereby did he open the door to the custom of imprinting coins with the heads of rulers, rather than gods.
The lowest denomination coins, and the ones that had the most variation in both denomination and design, were his bronze coins, made from tin and copper. The most common bronze Alexanders feature the head of Heracles, again depicted in likeness to Alexander, on the front, and a quiver and club on the back.
Alexander’s empire, in terms of land mass, was one of the greatest the world has ever seen; only the Mongol, British and Soviet empires were definitely larger. He might have conquered with armies, but he consolidated with his currency – and his coins became the world’s first international currency, used for over 300 years.
* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.