One of the really wonderful things about coin collecting is that behind every coin is a story. Coins are art, coins are instruments of commerce, but above all, coins are history. In this article we’ll highlight Alexander the Great’s quest to conquer the world and how coining money helped him achieve that goal.
The coins that Alexander III minted would become standard currency for hundreds of years, but when his father, Philip II, died, what he inherited was not wealth, but debts. In the treasure chambers of the Macedonian crown were only 60 talents and some gold and silver objects that could be melted down. Alexander couldn’t rule Macedonia on that budget, so he borrowed money - 800 talents. He needed it to fund an army to fight off the Thracian invasion of his father’s empire.
The advantage of winning battles, however, is that the resulting booty the soldiers take from conquered peoples serves as payment for their efforts. As Alexander expanded the boundaries of his empire, he laid his hands on the money he needed to continue. After he defeated the Thracians, he moved to crush rebellion in Greece, destroying the city of Thrace. Then he moved on to Asia Minor.
By this time Alexander’s army consisted of 25,000 Macedonians, 7,600 Greeks, and 7,000 Thracians and Illyrians. He also left behind 13,500 Macedonian soldiers to watch over his existing empire so that things would not fall apart in his absence. In 334 BC, Alexander and his army defeated the Persian satraps at the Granicus River. With the money he seized in that victory he was able to pay his troops for their service. When he seized Sardes in 333 BC, he then had enough money to pay off all of the remaining debts of the crown. His victory in Damascus gained him 2,600 talents, Susa brought him 50,000 talents, Persepolis 120,000 talents and Ecbatana 180,000. There was tremendous wealth for Alexander in making war.
His troops cost him 20 talents a day, however, or 7,500 talents a year, and they had to be paid monthly or whenever they left his army to return home. Alexander needed coined money to do this, so he had coins made. The gold staters minted featured the Greek goddess Athena on the obverse and the goddess Nike on the reverse.
Athena, of course, is the goddess of war and wisdom. Alexander believed that because the Persians had burned her city, Corinth, to the ground 100 years previously, that she would be invested in helping them defeat them. After the Battle at the Granicus River, Alexander gave her thanks for her assistance in their victory and dedicated a portion of the loot to her - 300 Persian suits of armor. The helmet that Athena is wearing on the gold stater coins’ obverse is a Corinthian helmet. Nike’s inclusion also makes thematic sense - she is the goddess of victory.
This was not the only coin Alexander had minted. For his tetradrachms and drachms he chose a design with Herakles on the obverse and Zeus on the reverse. He associated Herakles with the Argead dynasty of Macedonian rulers, of which Alexander and his father were two. Herakles had appeared on previous coins Philip II had produced. The tetradrachms would go on to become a universal form of currency throughout Alexander’s empire, and after Alexander’s death, coin makers would shape the face of Herakles on the coins to more closely resemble Alexander.
Alexander died in 323 BC, only 10 years after the victory at Sardes, richer than he could have ever imagined when he took the throne in 336 BC with only 60 talents in his treasury. He had built an empire that spanned most of the known world and a currency that was used everywhere he had conquered. These beautiful coins are still available for history and wars buffs (as well as coin collectors, of course) to collect. If you’d like to locate some Alexander the Great history for yourself, give Grand Rapids Coins a call. We would love to be of assistance.