Review: Alexander’s Coins and Alexander’s Image and The Legend of Alexander the Great on Greek and Roman Coins

Carmen Arnold-Biucchi. Alexander’s Coins and Alexander’s Image. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 2006. Pb., 84 pp., b/w illus. throughout, 2 color maps, bibliography. ISBN 978-1-891771-41-5. $20.
Karsten Dahmen. The Legend of Alexander the Great on Greek and Roman Coins. London/New York: Routledge, 2007. Hb./Pb., 179 pp., b/w illus. throughout, bibliography, index. ISBN 978-0-415-39452-9. $110 (Hb.)/$35.95 (Pb.).

If there is any proof that the ghost of Alexander the Great still haunts the world, as certain Greek fishermen would have us believe, it is in the vast academic (and popular) industry of producing books and articles on the Macedonian king. There are very few years that have not seen at least one book or article on some facet of his life and impact, but 2007 has been extremely fortunate to see the almost simultaneous release of two valuable new books on Alexander’s numismatic image.

Carmen Arnold-Biucchi’s Alexander’s Coins and Alexander’s Image was produced to accompany an exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and to serve as an introductory numismatic text for Harvard undergraduates, while Karsten Dahmen’s The Legend of Alexander the Great on Greek and Roman Coins is essentially an updated and expanded version of the numismatic component of Theodor Schreiber, Studien über das Bildnis Alexanders des Grossen (Leipzig, 1903). Both look at similar material to pursue and achieve their goals, while remaining works that complement each other very well.

The two books make themselves accessible to the nonspecialist by providing introductory sections on the technology of ancient minting and numismatic terminology that might be unfamiliar to those outside the discipline. As Dahmen’s primary focus is on the development and perpetuation of Alexander’s personal iconography and it is well known that the king was never depicted on the regular coinage during his lifetime, only a brief overview of Alexander’s imperial coinage is provided in The Legend of Alexander the Great. This subject is treated more fully by Arnold-Biucchi, who charts the evolution of Alexander’s money from its roots in the coinage of his Argead predecessors Alexander I, Amyntas III, and his father Philip II. Throughout the discussion she stresses that the royal personages depicted on these early coins represent the king on a generic level and should not be considered portraiture, which she considers to have first appeared on Greek coinage with the posthumous images of Alexander and the Successors. There is, however, room for doubt in this assertion. Numismatic portraiture surely goes back to the early fourth century when the satrap Tissaphernes placed his own image on coins, while the clear differentiation of facial features (e.g., the royal horseman on issues of Alexander I is clean shaven while on issues of Philip II he is bearded, etc.) on the Macedonian coinages must certainly leave the question open as to whether individual kings might not be represented.

In addition to providing the background to Alexander’s coinage and a clear overview of its origins, Arnold-Biucchi also discusses the widespread dissemination and imitation of Philip’s and Alexander’s types. Imitative examples illustrated in the catalogue include an abstract stater of the Catuvellauni tribe of Celtic Britain and—not surprisingly—a northeastern Arabian tetradrachm of the native dynast Abyatha, as well as a posthumous Alexander tetradrachm produced by the Greek cities of Odessus.

Both works deal at some length with the formation of the two greatest Alexander types of the Hellenistic age: the portrait with horns of Zeus-Ammon as pioneered by Lysimachus of Thrace and the equally influential Alexander with elephant skin headdress type developed by Ptolemy I of Egypt. The latter is somewhat more complex than the former because it was developed in several phases, as Ptolemy slowly distanced himself from the Attic standard of Alexander’s imperial coinage and established a closed monetary system for his Egyptian and insular possessions. Although Dahmen (69 n. 26) is aware of the lowered dates recommended by Catharine Lorber, “A Revised Chronology for Ptolemy I’s Silver,” NC 165 (2005), 45-64, he still prefers the older chronology for his main text and catalogue. Arnold-Biucchi, on the other hand, has accepted Lorber’s chronology and employs the revised dates for the several series in question.

The impact of Alexander’s numismatic portraits on the development of portraiture (primarily Hellenistic) at large is an important theme of Alexander’s Coins and Alexander’s Image and allows for the inclusion of coins with portraits of Demetrius Poliorcetes, Antiochus I, Seleucus I, Philetaerus, and Mithradates VI of Pontus, although only the latter consciously draws from Alexander’s personal iconography. This is of somewhat less interest to Dahmen, for whom it is a greater concern to identify and chart the courses of Alexander types through the Hellenistic and Roman periods, although he also touches upon the use of Alexandrine iconography for the portraits of Hellenistic monarchs such as Mithradates VI and Tryphon, and Roman emperors like Caracalla.

The Macedonian king’s image in the Roman period is hardly mentioned by Arnold-Biucchi, with the exception of some general remarks and the inclusion of an issue of the Macedonian Koinon depicting Alexander as well as a fabulous Aboukir medallion from the Walter’s Art Museum, Boston. Dahmen, however, provides a wealth of information. His discussion ranges from the manipulation of the king’s image by cities founded (or supposedly founded) by Alexander and by the Macedonian Koinon to its use on the gold medallions of Tarsus and Aboukir and its reuse on late Roman contorniates. However, while the author gives a good survey of the Roman images of Alexander, more material could have been taken into account. For example, the Republican issues depicting Pompey with his Alexandrine anastolé (i.e., Crawford, RRC 483/1-2 and 511/3) might have been included, as well as additional imperial and provincial issues showing the emperor armed for battle in the same manner as Alexander (i.e., Aurelian [RIC V, Siscia 219-225], Probus [RIC V, Siscia 634], Carinus [RIC V, Siscia 284], etc.). Caracalla and to a lesser extent Severus Alexander are used as the primary case studies for the “Alexandermania” of the Roman emperors, but the numismatic expression of this predilection seems far more frequent than the text would imply.

Particularly interesting here is the argument of dual purpose behind the use of Alexander’s image for the Koinon of the Macedonians and cities like Alexandria-Troas, Cilician Aegeae, and Alexandria near Issus. For them it is suggested that Alexander was not only a famous ktistes who could be invoked in intercity diplomacy and rivalry, but also a tool for flattering Alexandrophile emperors. In an excursus, the author brilliantly juxtaposes this usage with the resurrection of Alexander the Great for medals of Pope Paul III (1534-1549) and the coinage of the modern Greece. Just as in Hellenistic and Roman periods, in modern times the image of the world conqueror still serves as a vehicle for legitimizing national and religious aspirations—a theme that is also addressed in the treatment of the late Roman contorniates.

Following the monumental work of Andreas Alföldi, Dahmen essentially characterizes the presence of Alexander’s image (and that of his mother) on the contorniates as a late Roman elite expression of nostalgia for a noble pagan past while a triumphant Christianity battered down the gates. However, one wonders whether the greatness of Alexander even managed to transcend the Late Antique struggle between pagan and Christian. While the use of his image as a talisman was certainly criticized by such Christian authors as St. John Chrysostom, it seems probable that the Macedonian’s appearance among the emperors depicted on the contorniates was dictated more by his status as the archetype of world ruler than because of his pagan religious background. Otherwise, it is peculiar to find Constantine the Great adopting Alexander’s upward gaze for coins struck after his conversion to Christianity (e.g., RIC VII, Sirmium 56, etc.) as a means of illustrating his new faith. That Alexander was seen as the yardstick against which Roman emperors were measured is indicated by Julian the Apostate’s satirical Caesares, which features the Macedonian king as a judge of emperors at a symposium held at the Saturnalia—precisely when contorniates are thought to have been given as gifts. In any case, the fact that contorniates are known for such Christian emperors as Honorius, Theodosius II, and Anthemius tends to undercut the view that the medium—and Alexander’s frequent appearance on it—was strictly aimed at a pagan audience. The evidence provided by works like the Syriac Christian Legend, attributed to Jacob of Serug, suggests that Alexander’s character had already been thoroughly Christianized before the sixth or seventh century AD.

Dahmen’s concluding remarks will also be of some special interest to ancient art historians outside of numismatics proper, as he takes the time to discuss the probability of relationships between the numismatic representations of Alexander and sculptural representations. Nevertheless, some may possibly find his conclusions on which types might have derived from, or influenced, sculptural works overly conservative in spots.

While much of the same material is dealt with in both books, they would not be proper Alexander studies if there were not some disagreement with respect to interpretation. Even the Macedonian king’s contemporaries could not agree on whether he was the son of a god and the greatest thing that ever happened to the human race or the greatest tyrant in history, whose death in the East would be made known in Greece by a corpse-stench enveloping the world. Modern historians are similarly divided in their eulogies and condemnations of Alexander. The relatively few divergences of opinion between Arnold-Biucchi and Dahmen are not nearly so stark, but they are still worth looking at.

Both authors express their doubts—almost certainly rightly—about Frank Holt’s recent suggestion that the famous Porus medallions, featuring the earliest numismatic representation of Alexander, were struck in the immediate aftermath of the battle of the Hydaspes River (Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions [Berkeley, 2004], 139-165). However, Arnold-Biucchi tends to accept Holt’s interpretation of the typology as reflecting an issue celebrating Macedonian victory over the Indians, whereas Dahmen strongly critiques it. However, he offers little in the way of an alternate explanation. His remark that “the possible influence of Persian pictorial tradition should be examined in much greater depth” is infuriatingly tantalizing. We should like to know whether this means that the author sees the apparently undefeated Indian warriors who appear on issues connected to the Porus medallions as advertisements of the new exotic peoples added to Alexander’s empire after the manner of the tribute panels of the Persepolitan Apadana reliefs, or something else.

Arnold-Biucchi and Dahmen disagree somewhat more strongly in their views of the use of Alexander’s image by the early Seleucid dynasty. The former, following an influential line of reasoning initiated by R.A. Hadley (“Seleucus, Dionysus, or Alexander?” NC 14 [1974]: 9-13), identifies an enigmatic helmeted portrait on Susian tetradrachms of Seleucus I as that of Alexander the Great, whereas the latter accepts the more recent argument that this portrait actually represents Seleucus himself, as do Georges Le Rider and François de Callataÿ (Les Séleucides et les Ptolémées [Paris, 2006], 44 n. 1). It is perhaps unnecessary to point out that the present reviewer also tends to favor this interpretation. Neither author seems to be aware of the very latest thoughts on this problem of identification presented by Panagiotis Iossif (“Les monnaies de Suse frappées par Séleucos Ier.: Une nouvelle approche,” NAC 33 [2004]: 249-271). Although Alexander does appear on rare occasions on the coinage of Seleucus I, he is not commonly depicted on early Seleucid coinage. The influence of Alexander’s image is somewhat more visible on the eastern coinages of the later Seleucids, which tended to trot out his elephant and lion-skin headdresses for contemporary rulers whenever there was a new offensive against the Parthian menace. These Alexandrine attributes also feature prominently on issues of the two not-so-great Alexanders, who ruled the Seleucid Empire from 150-145 and 128-123 BC, as a means of presenting these pretenders in a better light (e.g., SNG Spaer 1448-1457, 2308-2309, and 2348-2353). Unfortunately, Dahmen treats none of these examples, although they provide good Hellenistic models for the imitatio Alexandri of the Roman emperors such as Caracalla and Severus Alexander, which he does discuss at some length. The nonexistent Seleucid Alexander VI mentioned on page 43 with respect to his windblown hairstyle is actually an error for Antiochus VI Dionysus and representative of the occasional typographical errors that mar the text (i.e., Françoise for François [67 n. 2], Mir Zadah for Mir Zakah [67 n. 13], etc.).

There is also some difference of opinion about the nature of Alexander’s image on the enigmatic Macedonian silver issues of Aesillas the quaestor. For Dahmen, this is a straight Alexander portrait based on the old prototype of Lysimachus used to appeal to the national pride of the Macedonians and perhaps as a foil to the Alexandrine iconography of Mithradates VI of Pontus. Arnold-Biucchi, while agreeing with the Macedonian and anti-Mithradatic appeals, goes on to boldly, but rather unconvincingly, argue that the portrait on the Aesillas issues was meant to represent the quaestor himself with the attributes of Alexander. The lack of any diadem is used as evidence that this is not the Macedonian king, but surely the presence of the horn of Zeus-Ammon is a strong hint that we should understand this image as an intended representation of Alexander. Although both authors focus on the Macedonian ramifications of the type, it is also worth considering that it was also intended to have an appeal in Thrace, a region that had long preferred Lysimachi and in which the bulk of Aesillas’ silver has been found.

Black-and-white photographs lavishly illustrate both works, but Arnold-Biucchi’s images are far superior in their tonal quality and detail. With the exception of the enlargements of the bronzes of Naucratis and Memphis, all of the coins in The Legend of Alexander the Great are in 1:1 scale, while all of the coins in the Harvard collection are shown at both their natural size and enlarged. In Alexander’s Coins and Alexander’s Image, the gold and bronze specimens, such as a stater of Ptolemy I and a Severan issue of the Macedonian Koinon, are printed in sepia tone rather than black and white in a somewhat misguided attempt to mimic the natural color of the coins. Dahmen’s plates are also somewhat curious because they are not actually plates in the traditional sense at all, but commentaries on specific coins or groups of coins—often concluding with a quotation from a primary source—followed by an illustration of the coins in question. Despite the unorthodox use of the term “plate” to describe this sort of textual-illustrative arrangement, it is nice to have coin and commentary on the same page (in most cases), although the flow might have been better if the coins were illustrated at the head of each commentary rather than at the end. The two books also include up-to-date select bibliographies that will be of great use to students new to the discipline or veteran scholars of Alexander and his iconography. Arnold-Biucchi even lists the recent and very controversial Le portrait d’Alexandre le Grand. Histoire d’une découverte pour l’humanité (Paris, 2005) by O. Bopearachchi and P. Flandrin (see in ANS Magazine 5.2 [Summer 2006]), but points out that its arguments have not been taken into account in her text because of the dubious authenticity of the new gold double daric presented therein. It is probably for similar reasons that this work has been omitted from Dahmen’s extensive bibliography, although he also adds his voice to the growing chorus of doubt on page 9 and in note 13. It must be pointed out that his voluminous endnotes (taking up some forty-two pages), which often include important additional discussion as well as source citations, are alone worth the asking price of the softcover edition of The Legend of Alexander the Great (the hardcover price is almost beyond justification).

As mentioned above, Alexander’s Coins and Alexander’s Image is not only the companion to a coin exhibit, but it was also written with an eye toward use in the undergraduate classroom. Indeed, the manuscript has already seen use in a course on “The Images of Alexander the Great” taught by David Mitten. We hope that in time this book may become the first in a series of similar thematic introductions to Greek coinage. Arnold-Biucchi’s broad knowledge is certainly up to such a task, and anyone who has ever tried to introduce numismatics to undergraduates knows that there is a dearth of scholarly resources designed for this important purpose. Indeed, it is really only in the last few years that similar attempts have been made to assist archaeology students through the publication of such unassuming but much-needed works as Kenneth Harl’s Roman and Byzantine Guides for Coins Commonly Found at Anatolian Excavations (Istanbul, 2001). Further examples of Arnold-Biucchi’s exhibition catalogue / introductory text genre would be most welcome.

Once Alexander’s Coins and Alexander’s Image has thoroughly hooked the student on the development of Alexander’s numismatic image through the Hellenistic period it is almost unavoidable that he or she will also seek out the deeper discussion in The Legend of Alexander the Great that continues the story through the Roman age and into modern times. No doubt both books will be partnered together frequently in course syllabi in the years to come, with each playing Hephaestion to the other. It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate relationship for these two useful new works on the Macedonian conqueror.

—Oliver D. Hoover