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History 2701 Object

Silver coin with the head of Alexander. Minted at Lampsakos(305-281 BCE).

Brief Identification:

This silver coin with the head of Alexander III of Macedonia (336-323 BC) dates back to 308-281 BC. The coin was minted in Lampsakos under King Lysimachus (305-281 BC), one of Alexander's generals who divided his vast empire after his death in 323 BC.

Known as the Silver Tetradrachm of Lysimachus, this coin is currently housed in Room 22: Alexander the Great in the British Museum. This particular coin weighs about 17.25 g and is 3 cm in width. Technical Evaluation:

The depicted coin is classified as a tetradrachm according to the Attic weight standard, which was adopted by Philip of Macedon and later by Alexander. The Attic weight standard became the "dominant weight standard for international trade coinages" [See Morkholm 1991, 8]. During the time of Alexander, the standard weight of the silver tetradrachm was 17.28 g, but by 300 the weight had been slightly reduced. As previously mentioned, this specific coin weight 17.25g.

Coins during the Hellenistic age were made when blanks or flans were produced by casting. Casting occurred after the fineness and weight of a coin series had been decided. Silver and gold flans were often cast individually in order to ensure that the weight was accurate. One method that became increasingly popular was the use of flat disk-shaped flans. When looking at the Alexander and Lysimachus tetradrachms, one can determine the disk-shaped flans were used due to the coins' fairly steady weight [See Morkholm 1991, 12].

In terms of visual description, each side of the coin acts as a testament to the rule of Lysimachus. On the front of the coin is the image of Alexander the Great. He is depicted wearing a diadem and with the horns of a ram. The horns represent Alexander's divinity by conveying his lineage as the son of the Greek god Zeus Ammon [See Morkholm 1991, 81]. As the British Museum notes, the emphasis on the divine quality of Alexander was important because--in a sense--he would be connected to the gods through his association with the deceased.

On the back of the coin is Athena, seated, and holding the god Nike. Athena, known best as the goddess of war, is holding Nike, an attribute of Athena whose function was a testament of success in war as well as in other endeavors. In addition, Nike is seen as "a sort of mediator of success between gods and men." The wording on the coin, according to the Brish Museum, is a Greek legend, which translates to "Of King Lysimachus."

Although there were already similar bronze types of Ptolemy (315-304 BC), their regional restriction to Egypt has provided scholars with the certainty that Lysimachus' coin type was a genuine invention by his court artist [See Dahmen 2007, 17].

Local Historical Significance:

Alexander's death in 323 BC left the empire without a designated heir or rightful successor. Therefore, the empire was divided among Alexander's generals who later began to take the title of king. Lysimachus was assigned to govern Thrace in northern Greece, and in 301 BC at the Battle of Ipsus, Lysimachus overthrew the successor Antigonous Monophthalmus and became a leading power. Before Ipsus, Lysimachus did not have a mint and did not strike any coins. However, with his victory he acquired western Asia Minor along with its many important minting cities, including Lampsakos, Abydus, Teos, Colophon and Magnesia [See Morkholm 1991, 81].

The mint at Lampsakos, as well as many mints in Asia Minor, was supplied with gold by the mine on Mount Ida in the Troad. The mine's supply accounts for the fairly large production of Alexander gold in Abydus and Lampsakos. Furthermore, the mint was active for a long period of time, which can be determined due to its large amount of autonomous coinage [See Thompson 1991, 11].

Lampsakos was strategically located on the Hellespont, whose cities served as communication hubs between Asia and Macedon [See Thompson 1991, 11]. For Lysimachus' purposes, Lampsakos was a practical choice given "its long tradition of coinage, its supply of skilled workmen and available bullion."

Lysimachus had this particular coin created for political purposes. The depiction of the diadem on Alexander rather than the mitra, which was an attribute of Dionysos, the nature of the Alexander changed to express the will to power, or to rule [See Dahmen 2007, 17]. Lysimachus, by using the portrait of Alexander as a figurehead, "is able to hide behind Alexander's universal invincibility and finally adopt some of his qualities" [See Dahmen 2007, 17].

World Historical Significance:

The Hellenistic period "witnessed a raised awareness of being part of a shared Greek cultural identity" due to the political fragmentation after Alexander's death [See Dahmen 2007, 4]. A city's age as well as its prominence were significant factors during that time, and Alexander's fame and legend were essential for the Greek people, looking to portray the importance of their noble city. Each of the rulers that used the image of Alexander chose to "transform his already existing legend for their own purposes, thus creating a corpus of representations depending on and varying according to geographical and cultural preferences" [See Dahmen 2007, 5].

Rulers used the image of Alexander on coins after his death in order to prove themselves the legitimate successors of the deceased king. After a period of time, however, rulers such as Ptolemy began replacing images of Alexander on coins with images of themselves after they took a royal title.[See Dahmen 2007, 13].

Lysimachus stands out among the other rulers because he chose to use the portrait of Alexander the Great when other rulers had already begun using self-portraits. According to Dahmen, this move by Lysimachus represented an explicit claim that he was the legitimate successor. Lysimachus was also the only one of the successors to produce "such a uniform coinage bearing Alexander's image in the latter half of his reign" [See Dahmen 2007, 49].

The appearances of Alexander's portraits on Ptolemy's tetradrachms and Lysimachus' coinage have been considered "the most prominent and artistic rendering of Alexander" in the Hellenistic age [See Dahmen 2007, 59]. However, despite Alexander's prevalence in ancient art, there is no sculpture that links these two pronounced prototypes. Dahmen believes one explanation of this could be that the artist who created Alexander's portrait for the coin series was not working in stone sculpture. This lack of sculpture shows that this version of Alexander's portrait has endured centuries due to its presence on coins alone.

Although Lysimachus was the third former lieutenant to make use of the king's portrait on coins, his type was responsible for changing the former Ptolemaic prototype into one of the most successful representations of the king and one of the most popular coin designs of the Hellenistic period. The coin design continued to be copied in Roman times as well as by modern Albanian and Greek coins of the 20th century AD [See Dahmen 2007, 42].

Bibliography:

Britannica Online, "Antigonous Monophthalmus" http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/28052/Antigonus-I-Monophthalmus

Britannica Online, "Athena" http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/40681/Athena.

Britannica Online, "Lysimachus (king of Macedonia)" http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/353123/Lysimachus.

Britannica Online, "Nike" http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/415189/Nike.

Dahmen, Karsten. The Legend of Alexander the Great on Greek and Roman Coins. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Morkholm, Otto. Early Hellenistic Coinage from the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

The British Museum. "Coin with the head of Alexander." Accessed April 15, 2011. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/cm/s/coin_with_head_of_alexander.aspx

Thompson, Margaret. Alexander's Drachm Mints II: Lampsacus and Abydus. New York: The American Numismatic Society, 1991.

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