NGC Ancients: Coins from the Hellenistic Successors of the Persian Empire

Posted on 6/13/2023

After the fall of the Achaemenid Empire, Greek coinage flooded the region.

In our previous column, we discussed the coinage of the Achaemenid Empire. This month, we’ll examine the numismatic history of the region after the defeat of the last Persian king by the Greek invader Alexander III "the Great" (336 to 323 B.C).

This gold double-daric was made c.328 to 311 B.C., soon after the collapse of the Persian Empire in 330 B.C. Its design mimics the coins used in the empire for more than two centuries. The obverse shows a Persian hero-king running while holding a bow and spear. The reverse has a patterned incuse punch.

The new Hellenistic king, Alexander III, didn’t change everything overnight. He continued to use some of the governmental institutions of the Persians, such as the taxation system to keep money flowing and the use of regional satraps.

He also continued to produce the main Persian coin types while also introducing his own distinctive types beside them, which eventually replaced the older Persian types.

Alexander III died in 323 B.C. at the city of Babylon. Supposedly when the question of succession arose, Alexander III said the kingdom would go “to the strongest.” After his death, Alexander’s generals took this to heart, and each rushed to secure their section of the kingdom. In doing so, they carved Alexander’s once-massive kingdom into numerous smaller ones.

The above silver tetradrachm was made by one of these generals, Seleucus I (312 to 281 B.C.), who claimed Babylon and the eastern reaches of Alexander’s kingdom. The obverse copies Alexander’s familiar coin type, showing Heracles wearing a lion skin. The reverse is a new type, which perhaps shows Alexander as the god Dionysus riding his trusty horse Bucephalus.

These successors initially used the title of satrap, not daring to take the title "king" with the memory of Alexander being so fresh. However, eventually they declared themselves kings and waged war among themselves, doing anything they could to strengthen their positions. This included tying themselves to the legacy of Alexander III to legitimize their use of the title "king." In this effort, coin designs were an important tool of propaganda.

We’ll now review some of these coin types.

This massive silver decadrachm, weighing more than 40 grams, was issued at Babylon during the last phase of Alexander’s life. The design is his standard type for silver, showing on the obverse the Greek hero Heracles wearing a lion scalp, and on the reverse the god Zeus enthroned, holding an eagle.

This silver stater is one of the most distinctive and familiar coin types issued by the Greek rulers in Babylon. It was issued c.328 to 311 B.C. under the Satraps that Alexander III left to rule the city, one of whom was the future king Seleucus I. The obverse shows the god Ba’al enthroned, holding a scepter. On the reverse, a lion prowls.

The design on this tiny silver hemiobol of the Satraps of Babylon is nearly identical to that found on the larger stater above.

The above gold double-daric was made under the Satrap of Babylon, Mazaeus (c.361 to 328 B.C.). The obverse shows Ba’al seated holding a scepter, grain ear and vine with an eagle perched upon it. The reverse shows a lion attacking a bull.

Mazaeus is an interesting character. He was the Persian satrap of Babylon under the last Achaemenid king, Darius III (336 to 330 B.C.). Initially, Mazaeus fought with Darius III against Alexander III in open battle. But as the Persian king retreated, Mazaeus surrendered the city of Babylon to Alexander without contest. In gratitude, Alexander allowed Mazaeus to remain as satrap of the city.

The above silver tetradrachm is absolutely stunning. Made during the reign of Seleucus I, the obverse shows the head of an unknown hero, although most likely Alexander III or Seleucus I, wearing a panther skin helmet with the horns and ear of a bull. The reverse shows the goddess Nike crowning a war trophy. It is believed this coin was issued to celebrate a military victory.

This tetradrachm was made under the satrap Ptolemy I (323 to 305 B.C.). After the death of Alexander III, one of his generals, Ptolemy, claimed the area around Egypt as his own. This coin pays homage to Alexander by featuring him on the obverse wearing an elephant scalp. The reverse shows the god Zeus holding an eagle.

At this stage, Ptolemy was careful to honor Alexander more so than himself, to the point of portraying the deified king on the obverse and using his name on the reverse.

To help fortify his personal claim to Alexander’s legacy, Ptolemy I stole the body of Alexander III and enshrined it in Egypt. There was a prophecy that wherever Alexander’s body rested, that nation would flourish. Perhaps this was true as the Ptolemaic Kingdom was the most enduring of the kingdoms created after the death of Alexander.

One of the territories Ptolemy I and his successors ruled was Judaea, where this silver triobol was created. Made under Ptolemy II (285 to 246 B.C.), the obverse shows the diademed head of the founder of the dynasty, Ptolemy I. The reverse shows an eagle standing with its wings open, before the legend ‘Yehudah.’

After the death of Alexander, the general Lysimachus (305 to 281 B.C.) would lay claim to Thrace, Asia Minor and Macedon. This silver tetradrachm mimics the design that Alexander III used on his coins. The obverse has Heracles wearing a lion skin. The reverse bears the name of Lysimachus and shows Zeus seated holding an eagle. Its field is decorated with a variety of minting symbols: a lion, a torch and a pentagram.

Our final coin is a tetradrachm of Lysimachus, who also tried to legitimize his rule by featuring Alexander on his coins. Made from 297 to 281 B.C., this coin shows the head of the deified Alexander wearing the horn of the god Ammon. The reverse has the goddess Athena seated, resting her arm on a shield while holding Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.

All images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group and Numistmatica Ars Classica.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here.

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