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Independence and Identity After Alexander: The Regional Coinage of The Hellenistic Greek World

The conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander III of Macedon was a prolonged and geographically widespread military campaign, that not only catalysed the beginning of the Hellenistic period but also caused a huge shift in the monetary landscape of the ancient world. This was largely due to the fact that the king had to open a series of mints along his campaign trail to pay his vast numbers of troops, and it has been suggested that between Ca. 333-290 BC these mints struck around 138 million coins of different materials and denominations, a value large enough to build 182 Parthenons! [1]

Figure 1. Alexander The Great Ar. Tetradrachm. 336-323 BC. Harvard Art Museums, Object Number: Object Number 1.1965.1120. Credit: Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Loan from the Trustees of the Arthur Stone Dewing Greek Numismatic Foundation.

Alexander reportedly sent 110 triremes worth of Persian bullion back to Macedonia's mint at Amphipolis, which led to a massive injection of his coinage into the economy of the Greek world.[2] The saturation of the economy with these silver “Alexanders” (Fig. 1) had significant implications for the 1000's of Greek city-states that existed in the region.[3] Alexander’s coinage effectively became the international currency of the Hellenistic world, forming a recognizable and neutral alternative for the Hellenistic kings, who then went on to mint individualized coinage in his image (Fig. 2). "Alexanders" became so commonplace that the Greeks themselves began to coin similar types (Fig. 3) with cultures as fringe as the Celts minting their own imitations in the 3rd Century BC.[4] This upswing in civic "Alexanders", among other things, ultimately led to the suppression of many pre-existing civic coinages.

In light of all this, we are going to look into how the proliferation of these "Alexanders" impacted the identity, independence, and monetary output of various Greek states, and then use that information to draw some broad conclusions on the socio-political workings of the Hellenistic world.

Alexander's Economic Policy, Or Lack Thereof

Firstly, it is useful to consider how far Alexander was actually planning on suppressing the civic issues of the Greek world with his “Alexanders”. Was it conscious economic policy, or pure accident? Some have argued that the decline in Greek civic coinages occurred due to a top-down decision by Alexander and the Hellenistic Kings to close local mints. This is underpinned by the idea that striking silver coinage signals a city-state’s political independence, and could only be done by the free.[5] This theory has become increasingly unpopular in recent years, with scholars such as Meadows veering more towards the idea that Alexander was mainly concerned with churning out enough coins to pay his soldiers and veterans, with questions about long-term economic policy falling by the wayside.[6] Martin writes in relation to the mints of Asia Minor:

"The large-scale production of Alexander’s coins in the mints of "free" cities of Asia Minor had the indirect effect of making the production of local types largely superfluous. So much money was being produced by Alexander’s agents that the cities could close their mints if they wished, saving themselves the trouble of running a municipal operation... this was probably a decision imposed by the nature of the marketplace." [7]

It would not be unreasonable to argue that a man who thought it was wise to put half of the GDP of the Persian Empire on a boat and sail the vessel across the stormy Aegean Sea was perhaps not the greatest economic mind the Hellenistic world had to offer.

The Persistence of Civic Coinage

Now that we have established the sentiment behind this huge overhaul of the monetary economy, we are going to analyse a few examples of Greek cities that continued to mint their own civic types during this period and examine what this means for the question of political independence (Fig. 4).

Ephesus (Fig. 5)

The cities of Western Asia Minor minted their own coinage in abundance during the 4th Century BC, and the city of Ephesus was no exception.[8] The city existed under the remit of the Attalid Empire from 188 BC, and was famous for its magnificent Temple of Artemis (Ca. 550 BC). The ritual celebrations of the patron goddess of Ephesus drew exceptionally large crowds for 100s of years, marking the city as one of the most important locations in Ionia.[9] The symbols of Ephesian Artemis, the stag, bee, and torch all appear on the coinage of the city-state, which persisted until Ca. 133 BC until Attalus III donated his territories to Rome upon his death.

The example below was coined under the authority of Seuthes, a local magistrate, between Ca. 202-133 BC, and depicts a bee on the obverse and a stag on the reverse. In including these symbols of Ephesian Artemis on the coin, one could argue that the Ephesians were still keen to use their coinage to display their unique identity to the Greek world, despite the loss of political independence under the Attalids. The choice to identify the local magistrate is also testament to the persistence of civic institutions during this time.

Cyme, Aeolis (Fig. 6)

Cyme was the largest of the Aeolian cities, located off the coastline of Asia Minor. According to legend, the city was founded by an Amazon of the same name. Cyme also continued to mint its pre-existing types during this period, and in the 250’s BC the city minted the royal coinage of Antiochus II alongside their own coins, some of which were issued on the old Persian standard.[10] The coin pictured below from our collection shows the civic type, which features the mythical Cyme on the obverse, with her head wreathed in a taenia. The reverse bears a horse prancing, which likely references the thriving equine industry of the region.[11] This coin is particularly interesting due to the inclusion of a wreath, which surrounds the horse on the reverse. This reflects influence from Athenian stephanephoroi, or ‘wreath-bearer’ coins, issues that were widely copied across the Aegean during the 2nd Century BC. "Wreathed" coins such as this are typically struck from very high-quality dies on broad flans in order to show off the die engravers’ artistic achievement to the greatest extent.[12] Therefore, some regional coinages not only retained the unique identifiers of the minting city, but also participated in artistic developments occurring outside of the wider affairs of the Hellenistic world.

Metapontum, Lucania (Fig. 7)

Metapontum was an ancient Greek colony, located on the Gulf of Taranto, Italy. The city was founded by the Achaeans and re-colonised in the 7th Century by Leucippus, whose portrait frequently appeared on coinage of the city-state.[13] Metapontum was a wealthy city known for its agricultural prosperity and its wheat industry in particular. It was for this reason that an ear of wheat was included on its coinage from Ca. 550 BC. Around 430 BC, the ear of wheat was moved to the reverse and the obverse often bore the portrait of a god, usually Demeter, as we can see on the coin below. Production of this coinage continued until 207 BC, when the city was devastated by the Second Punic war. It again demonstrates the continued impulse to use coinage to project the identity of the city-state, perhaps less affected by Alexander's coinage due to their location in Italy.

We can therefore see that the decision to keep minting civic coinage instead of “Alexanders” was not in all cases driven by political independence, as most of these city-states were subject to a king or eventually the Roman Republic. Thonemann even goes as far as arguing that those cities that do mint civic “Alexanders” were using the type as another way to demonstrate local identity. He believes that, as “Alexanders” quickly lost meaning as a Macedonian royal coinage, the Greek city-states that minted such coinage did so to signal their participation in the common ideals of the Hellenistic world, rather than their subordination.[14]

How far the coinage discussed here advertises the independence of different Hellenistic city-states is still up for debate, but one cannot deny that these examples do brilliantly demonstrate the vitality of the Greek city-state in the Hellenistic period. These socio-political units were varied and complex, but seem to function as entities that were simultaneously self-governing and subordinate to the larger powers around them.[15] It is undoubtable that they still had working institutions and a fierce sense of local pride, as is evidenced by the design choices of their civic coinages.

Want to find out more about how different Greek city-states displayed their identities? Check out the Greek coins available on our website.

Written by Ella Wakefield


Glenn, S., 2016, Exploring localities: a die study of Alexanders from Damascus. Oxford.

Hansen, M. H. and Nielsen, T. H., 2004, An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis. Oxford.

Johnston, A., 1990, “The Coinage of Metapontum, Part 3,” American Numismatic Society, Numismatic Notes and Monographs 164.

Ma, J., 2002, Antiochos III and the cities of Western Asia Minor. Oxford.

Martin, T. R., 1985, Sovereignty and Coinage in Classical Greece. Princeton.

Meadows, A.B., 2014, The Spread of Coins in the Hellenistic World. Oxford.

Mørkholm, O., 1984a, “The chronology of the New Style coinage of Athens”, ANSMN 29, 29-42.

Sayles, W. 2007, Ancient Coin Collecting II: Numismatic Art of the Greek World, KP Books.

Thonemann, P., 2016, The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources. Cambridge.

[1] Thonemann 2016, 16.

[2] Diod. 18.12; Glenn 2016. [3] Hansen and Nielsen 2004, 53-4. [4] Meadows 2014. [5] Thonemann 2016, 48. [6] Howgego 1995, 39-44; Meadows 2014.

[7] Martin 1985, 128. [8] Thonemann 2016, 46. [9] Pliny. NH. 35–93 [10] Thonemann 2016, 46. [11] Sayles, 2007, 88. [12] Mørkolm 1984a, 29-42; Thoneman 2016, 57. [13] Johnston 1990. [14] Thonemann 2016, 51-2. [15] Ma 2002, 150-74.

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