BMCR 2007.07.55

The Legend of Alexander the Great on Greek and Roman Coins

, The legend of Alexander the Great on Greek and Roman coins. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. New York: Routledge, 2007. 1 online resource (xi, 179 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9780203967997. £19.99 (pb). ISBN 0-203-96799-2 (ebk).

For a number of decades Alexander the Great has been something of a growth industry, with substantial scholarly works on topics as varied as the man himself and his campaigns, his successors across the Hellenistic world, the coinage issued in his name, and the mythology that grew up around him as historical reality was blurred into legend. In many respects Dahmen’s book, which goes back to his research project, Sehnsucht nach Alexander, combines elements of all these within the ambit of his investigation into the portraiture of Alexander on ancient coins produced between c. 320 BC and AD 400, discussing not only the nature of that portraiture, but also, where possible, the motivation behind its use by rulers and cities across the ancient world. As such, this is a very welcome distillation in terms of both approach and information.

Dahmen divides the main part of his work into three key chapters followed by an excursus and conclusion, covering in all some sixty pages. The first, and by far the longest chapter is a survey of Alexander’s image; then come discussions of Alexander’s changing portraits, and the various uses made of the Alexander legend. Prefacing the whole is an Introduction in which Dahmen examines the usefulness of coin evidence for the study of Alexander. Here he briefly points out how, in stark contrast to the paucity of securely established sculptural iconography, the survival of coins, often in a well preserved form, allows detailed study not only of the fabric itself and the image it bears, but also in many cases the political and cultural agenda that the issuer, be it individual or civic authority, evidently wished to present.

In chapter 1 Dahmen surveys the actual images of Alexander found on coins, beginning with the problem of the arguably lifetime Poros medallions, which some have seen as Alexander’s Indian-victory issue. Dahmen himself puts forward serious counter-arguments on a number of fronts, preferring instead to attribute them (and related pieces1) to Mesopotamia. Equally intriguing are bronze coins from Naukratis and perhaps Memphis in Egypt on which Martin Price identified the head of Alexander2 and which, if they are lifetime issues, were clearly civic productions, in contrast to Alexander’s own official panhellenic coinage.3 It is with Ptolemy, though, that the political use of Alexander’s image begins, and to an extent unseen among the other immediate successors. Here Dahmen examines the detailed development of the now deified king’s portrayal with elephant head-dress and horn of Ammon. Alexander was by this stage clearly a weapon in the arsenal of a ruler seeking to legitimise himself as successor, and continued to be so in parts of the Hellenistic world for decades to come. From Egypt Dahmen widens the sphere of influence as others followed Ptolemy’s example: Seleucus I in some surprisingly brief issues, Agathocles of Syracuse, Lysimachus in Thrace, and Agathocles of Bactria in the early years of the second century BC. Dahmen carefully examines the nuances of iconography involved, adducing some interesting and thought-provoking ideas on the thinking behind subtle changes and emphases.

But it was not only the Greek magnates themselves who exploited what was now the idea, rather than the reality, of Alexander for political purposes. An interesting hybrid of Greek and Roman was produced in the first half of the first century BC in the name of the Quaestor Aesillas: Macedonian tetradrachms with a new-style Alexander on the obverse, while the reverses bear the Roman motifs of chair and chest combined with the club of Heracles. But, as Dahmen points out, it is not only the iconography of Alexander that is of interest here; the rationale behind the motif seems to point to using Alexander as a weapon against the threat from Mithradates VI of Pontus.4 In later centuries civic coinage often made propagandist use of Alexander as founder: the coins issued at Alexandria kat’ Isson, for instance, now confounding Alexander’s image with that of Heracles, but more generally the Hellenistic style portrayed the king simply with royal diadem or in the standing pose of a founding hero, whether or not the claim to an Alexander foundation was actually valid.5 In dealing with this section Dahmen discusses in detail the changing portrayal of Alexander at a wide range of individual mints in the imperial period, especially the issues for emperors in the 2nd and 3rd centuries who sought to emphasise some form of link with Alexander, or from cities that wished to remember their essentially Greek heritage as perhaps a counterbalance to their subservience to Rome. Here he includes cities in Cilicia, Bithynia, the Decapolis, Pisidia, Cappadocia, Syria, and of course Macedonia itself, which was prolific in its Alexander-motif issues. An important point raised is the possibility that the poses adopted on some issues may reflect contemporary, but now lost sculpture, a topic that has often been raised in the past but to little effect, as Dahmen shows. There are probable exceptions, of course: the quadriga representations by Ptolemy, an issue from Nicea, and some bronze coinage of the Macedonian koinon (p.60-3). In many of these cases, however, the text cries out for illustration, and for some the interpretation given must remain hypothetical.

The changes that Alexander’s portrayal underwent between the Hellenistic and the imperial periods is the core of chapter 2, with Dahmen discussing aspects such as the depiction of Alexander wearing the lion-scalp, an iconography that curiously only became popular on the contorniates of late antiquity, Alexander with elephant-scalp, Alexander with Horn of Ammon, Alexander with diadem, Alexander with helmet. Much of the information in this chapter occurs also in chapter 1, and one wonders if integration of the two would not have been possible, but as it is, the evidence is usefully drawn together for ease of access.

In chapter 3 Dahmen turns to a discussion of the function Alexander was given at the hands of those who used his image to legitimise power: in the case of Hellenistic kings like Ptolemy the purpose being not to portray an individual but to exploit his ideological potential, and not as a human being but more as a divinised protector. In other instances the emphasis is upon Alexander as Macedonian, whether these were issued by the koinon of Macedon itself, harking back to its glorious past, or those cities that claimed the king as founder, or wished to curry favour with emperors like Caracalla, who identified themselves with him. Again there is overlap with chapter 1.

In chapter 4, the excursus, Dahmen deals very briefly with Alexander in disguise, either the result of renaissance errors of interpretation or the invention of history to underpin contemporary 15th and 16th century propaganda. Significantly, Dahmen shows in the illustrations he inserts how this aspect continues even now with Alexander employed in the aftermath of the break-up of Jugoslavia.

This first section of the work is followed and augmented by 41 pages of notes, no small achievement considering the length of text to which they refer. Then comes a lengthy section of plates in which the images are accompanied by explanatory text. While it cannot be doubted that Dahmen’s volume fills a useful gap in the literature of Alexander, it is an overall weakness of the volume both that the arrangement of discussion in the initial chapters lends itself to repetition of detail, and that this extends to the plates section as well, when a closer integration of material would have produced a less diffuse treatment and saved space. It must also be said that the number of coins actually illustrated under the 28 headings used (and formally described in yet another separate section) falls far short of those discussed in the text and is a major lost opportunity. One cannot but welcome the insertion of the spectacular medallions from Tarsus and Aboukir, but there is clearly other, less splendid, material that would undoubtedly have given added weight to Dahmen’s observations.

To end on such a note, however, would be churlish. In his survey Dahmen has undertaken a valuable study of Alexander’s portraiture on coins spanning some 700 years. In this he provides an analysis of how depictions changed with time and purpose, a potential supplement to our knowledge of parallel artworks now lost, and an insight into the thought-processes of issuing authorities seeking to use a figure who had unknowingly founded a whole era, in order to say something about themselves.


1. These include similar, if smaller, coins showing an archer and standing elephant, and a chariot and elephant with its riders.

2. ‘A Portrait of Alexander the Great from Egypt’, NNF – NYTT (The Norwegian Numismatic Journal) 10 (1981), pp. 24-7.

3. The fact that Dahmen (p. 40-1) needs to rehearse the arguments against interpreting the head of Heracles found on Alexander’s tetradrachms as a crypto-portrait is testimony to the idea’s enduring, romantic appeal. We cannot doubt that with time such identification came to be current in antiquity, but in the late fourth century such a practice was not to be expected.

4. Ironically, Mithradates’ own coin portraiture was to make use of the Alexander effect in the mane of hair that the king sports.

5. Dahmen is careful to qualify identification of the standing figure as Alexander himself rather than the stock founder-hero since there is nothing inherent within the image to produce the equation, except the fact that the cities involved claimed him as their origin. In some cases, like Nicea , Nicomedia or Smyrna, the claim is clearly nebulous or patently fictitious, but it was a useful tool in the armoury of city praise in the years of the second sophistic.