Alexander the Great (356–323 b.c.)

If the Greek city-states perfected the coinage that Lydia invented, Alexander the Great spread Greek coinage throughout an empire that stretched from Egypt to India, and north to Samarkand. The Egyptians had not coined money before Alexander, and the Romans did not begin coining money until after his death.

Macedonia, the country of Alexander, began its rise to world leadership with vast holdings of mineral deposits, including iron, copper, silver, and—unlike the Greek city-states—gold. The king of Macedonia owned these resources as personal property under his sole authority. Macedonian coinage made its appearance around 479 b.c. Over a century later King Philip II minted a golden stater bearing an image of the head of Zeus on one side and a depiction of his kingly victory in an Olympic chariot race in 356 b.c. on the other side. These coins found their way to the Celtic tribes of central and northwestern Europe, and are among the oldest coins discovered in England. Some observers saw Philip himself in the image of Zeus, and these coins helped raise the prestige of Macedonia in the Greek world. Before his death, Philip had accumulated a large stock of gold philippeioi and silver tetradrachms to finance an invasion of Persia.

Alexander ascended the throne in 336 b.c. already commanding this huge stock of gold and silver coin, which he could use to pay mercenaries. The chief Macedonian mints were at Pella and Amphipolis, and these mints began to rival Athens as the largest source of coinage in the Mediterranean world. Alexander put both the gold and silver coins on the Attic standard, and he used his large reservoirs of gold to maintain a ten-to-one ratio between silver drachmae and gold drachmae. Alexander’s own golden stater bore the head of Athena wearing a Corinthian helmet on one side, and on the other side a winged Victory with a wreath and a stylus. His silver tetradrachm bore the head of a young Hercules with a lion-skin headdress, and the other side a Zeus, complete with throne, scepter, and eagle. Alexander never struck coins bearing an image of himself, but after his death coins with his image appeared in parts of his empire.

Perhaps Alexander’s greatest contribution to the spread of coinage was his practice of paying his soldiers in cash. Cavalrymen averaged two drachmae a day, infantrymen one drachma, and a common mercenary two-thirds of a drachma. Midway through his Asia Minor campaign, Alexander was spending 20 talents (half a ton of silver) per day paying and rationing his army. The Persian campaign brought virtually unlimited supplies of gold and silver bullion under Alexander’s control. He coined bullion that he found hoarded in temples and royal treasuries.

Amphipolis was the most prolific of the mints in Alexander’s empire, minting some 13 million silver tetradrachms alone over an 18-year period. Alexander turned the mint of Babylon into the most productive in Asia, second only to Amphipolis in his empire, and he established lessor mints at Tarsus, Sicyon in the Peloponnese, Lampsacus, Sardis, Miletus, and Sidea in western Asia Minor, at Ardaus and Sidon in Phoenicia, at Citium in Cyprus, at Alexandria in Egypt, and at Ecbatana, now in Iran. Alexander’s army accepted the Attic standard, which acted to spread that standard throughout the empire.

In the course of Alexander’s coinage, the image of the head of Hercules on his coins began to resemble an idealized engraving of Alexander himself, marking a departure from the emphasis on religious themes of the more democratic Greeks. Under the influence of the example set by Alexander, the Romans would be the first to put the head of a living person on a coin. Alexander also paved the way to making coinage a jealously guarded sovereign prerogative, and he infused coinage into the economies of the ancient world on a greater scale than had ever been seen before. One of his legacies was a vast increase in the use of coins as a form of money.