Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.08.58

Carmen Arnold-Biucchi, Alexander's Coins and Alexander's Image.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Art Museums, 2006.  Pp. 84.  ISBN 10: 1-891771-41-8.  ISBN 13: 978-1-891771-41-5.  $20.00.  

Reviewed by Andrew Stewart, University of California at Berkeley (
Word count: 1215 words

Table of Contents

A student should be reviewing this book also. Written to accompany an exhibition of coins at the Sackler Museum, it and the show that it documents are intended to accompany David Mitten's undergraduate course on "The Images of Alexander the Great", taught annually as a part of Harvard University's core curriculum. In this reviewer's opinion, it will succeed very handsomely, and the students whom I have consulted enthusiastically agree--with some minor reservations, for which see below.

Beautifully produced on glossy paper with color illustrations of the coins both at actual size and at 2-10x magnification (depending upon their denomination and placement), the book is limited only by the scope of the Sackler's own collection, which includes many of the main Greek types but apparently only one of the Roman. Photographs and discussions of three more coins are appended at the end, and the inside covers are illustrated with striking, full-color maps of Macedonia, Alexander's empire, and the Hellenistic kingdoms. The book thus nicely complements Karsten Dahmen's The Legend of Alexander the Great on Greek and Roman Coins (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), which has a far more detailed text and exhaustive coverage of all relevant types, both Greek and Roman, but poor to (at best) mediocre pictures at 1:1 scale only, and in hardcover is extortionately priced at $110 ($35.95 paper)!

After a timeline (covering Greece and the Hellenistic world only) and a useful glossary, the book begins with an admirably concise, 5-page introduction to ancient coinage that briskly defines the medium; discusses its method of manufacture, invention, diffusion, patrons, chronological framework, and utility for archaeological, historical, and art-historical studies; and finally explains (using an excellently annotated illustration of the reverse of a silver tetradrachm of Mithradates VI of Pontos) how to describe a coin.

Next comes the main text (pp. 27-43), somewhat misleadingly entitled "Alexander's Coins and Alexander's Image: The Beginnings of Realistic Portraiture." In fact, the narrative addresses not only Alexander but also the entire previous numismatic history of the Argead dynasty (pp. 27-31), and then takes the story down to the end of the Hellenistic period. Moreover, the mention of realism in the subtitle hardly describes either Alexander's own coins (which do not feature his portrait) or the Hellenistic ones (which do, but not in a realistic manner). And although Arnold-Biucchi takes pains to stress (surely correctly) that Alexander indeed never put his own portrait on his coins (pp. 33), the first question that any student new to the field would immediately ask is: why? One would dearly like to hear her response, but she refrains from offering any.

But these are quibbles. For the most part the explanations are admirably clear and lucid, particularly of such old chestnuts as Alexander's silver Herakles issues (p. 33: rightly rejecting them as crypto-portraits of him) and the Nike-with-stylis reverses of his gold issues (p. 34: adducing his command of the sea after the capture of Tyre).

As to the Successors (pp. 34-37), the narrative is again well up to date,1 incorporating (for example) Catharine Lorber's slightly lowered chronology for Ptolemy's elephant-scalp silver.2 This adjustment may seem trivial, but has the important consequence that Ptolemy almost certainly financed his defense against Perdikkas with standard Alexander issues--particularly appealing to mercenaries--and introduced his new ones only afterwards, when his position was secure. So this reviewer's arguments in Faces of Power 231-33 perforce now require revision. And in keeping with what appears to be a growing trend, the "Porus" coinage is assigned to Babylonia and "one of the local satraps who fought with Alexander in the Indian campaign" (p. 37), and dated implicitly after Alexander's death (thus, also, Dahmen pp. 7-9, against, e.g., Martin Price3 and, most recently, Frank Holt's lively and ingenious Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 2003]). So do the satraps Xenophilos and Aboulites, suggested by Martin Price and this reviewer, now belatedly come back into play (p. 76)?4

When the text finally gets around to royal "Physiognomic Portraits" (pp. 37-39), the discussion correctly focuses upon Ptolemy's own pioneering self-image, contrasting the heavily idealized Seleukid and Lysimachean Alexanders. Yet the blunt assertion that with the former, "individualized portraiture is born" (p. 38), is misleading, to say the least. As Arnold-Biucchi well knows, such portraiture begins in the fifth century in sculpture (Themistokles; the Porticello "philosopher"), gems (Dexamenos), and last but not least on coins as well (Tissaphernes). I suspect that the students in my own museum seminar will be receiving this quotation as a "support and/or criticize" essay topic next year.

The text proper ends with "Myth and Afterlife: Rulers Representing Themselves as Alexander" (pp. 39-43). Most of this section, featuring Demetrios I of Baktria, Aesillas, Mithradates VI of Pontos, Agathokles of Baktria, the mint of Odessos, and the Roman imperial-period Alexander revivals from Macedonia and Aboukir, is again unexceptionable.5 The discussion of the Aesillas coins, however, proffers the startlingly heterodox opinion that they feature not Alexander but the quaestor himself, "portrayed with long wavy hair and the ram's horn of Zeus Ammon, like Alexander, but without the royal diadem, a noteworthy difference" (p. 40). This puzzling statement is directly contradicted in the coin's catalogue entry (p. 71), where the head is identified unequivocally as Alexander's (correctly, in my view), with the standard explanation that "the choice of the portrait of Alexander sent a clear political message in opposition to that of Mithradates: the Romans would follow the legendary conqueror of Asia and be victorious." One wonders what students will make of all this--those few who read the book carefully enough to notice.

This brings us to the catalogue itself (pp. 43-73), which is a fully professional job, as one would expect from a numismatist of Arnold-Biucchi's stature: beautifully illustrated (see above), concise, accurate, and informative. Three additional coins (pp. 74-79) not represented in the Harvard collections and thus not included in the exhibition round out the selection: a "Porus" dekadrachm and an Agathokles tetradrachm on the Swiss market, and the Alexander medallion from Aboukir in Baltimore.

The volume concludes with a carefully selected bibliography (pp. 82-84), which itself ends on an intriguing note: "O. Bopearachchi and P. Flandrin, Le portrait d'Alexandre le Grand. Histoire d'une découverte pour l'humanité, Monaco 2005, has not been taken into account because the authenticity of the new gold coin presented in the book, which forms the basis of the authors' arguments on the portrait of Alexander the Great, is doubtful" (p. 84). This cryptic remark will certainly intrigue students and others unfamiliar with this particular field. The reference is to the spectacular gold double daric reportedly from the Mir Zakah hoard, featuring a fearsome Alexander with elephant scalp, Ammon's horn, and scaly aegis on the obverse and a strolling elephant on the reverse, with monograms ΑΒ and Ξ that link it to the "Porus" silver. Dahmen (The Legend of Alexander p. 9) and others agree with Arnold-Biucchi;6 Holt, in a paper read at a conference on the coin at the École des Hautes Études in Paris in March 2007, strongly disagrees.

In sum, then, with minor reservations I can enthusiastically recommend this book as a primer on Alexander's numismatic image. Those who wish to delve further into this fascinating field must consult Dahmen.


1.   Though the account of the share-out at Babylon in 323 is misleading, since Macedonia did not go "to Antigonos Monophthalmos (One-Eye) and his son Demetrios Poliorketes" (p. 34). It went to Antipater, and Antigonos received most of Western Asia Minor; Antigonos never ruled Macedonia, and Demetrios (b., 336), a mere stripling at the time, had to wait until 294 and the deaths of Antipater and Cassander for it to fall to him.
2.   Dodging the problem of whether the mint was first located at Memphis and only transferred to Alexandria around 315, as inter alios Martin Price and this reviewer have argued (see Faces of Power 239, with references).
3.   "Circulation at Babylon in 323 B.C.", in William E. Metcalf (ed.), Mnemata: Papers in Memory of Nancy M. Waggoner (New York, 1991) 63-72.
4.   See Faces of Power 205, with references.
5.   One small slip: ancient Greek for "the Great" is megas, not megalos.
6.   E.g., Silvia Hurter, reviewing Bopearachchi and Flandrin in Swiss Numismatic Review 85 (2006) 185-95.

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