Alexander III The Great – 339-323 BC

Monetary History of
Macedonia

Alexander III The Great

(339-323 BC)


Alexander was born to the Olympias and Philip II. According to legend, Alexander was born on the same day as the Temple to Artemis at Ephesus (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.) was burned down. No one knows for certain, but it was perhaps during the same year in the summer of 356 BC.

Alexander was said to be blonde, grey(?) eyes, clean shaven and short 5′ 3″? He apparently learned quickly and his tutor during his teenage years was none other than the learned Aristotle. One interesting story of this period concerns a bet he made with his father that he could ride a rather difficult horse. Alexander is said to have realised that the animal was freightened of its own shadow and turned it into the sun. From then on, Alexander cherished that horse for the next 20 years which he named “Bucephalas”.

Alexander was a good scholar by most accounts and apparently and loved Homer. It is also said that he slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow. Alexander’s love of Homer most likely fueled his vision of world conquest.

When Alexander was 16, he was made regent of Macedonia by his father Phillip II. Alexander was soon to prove his military ability deciding to attack some border tribes who had sold some Macedonian sailors as slaves. Within a few weeks, his first city, modestly called ‘Alexandropolis’ was founded.

Alexander’s next deed was to join his father, Philip II, in battle. As the story goes, Alexander saved an ‘unconscious’ Phillip from an angry mob. Years later Alexander would still claim that Phillip was playing dead as Alexander risked his life to save him.

Alexander followed his father south where in a bold conquest of Greece itself. The Athenians were the major military power as they confronted Philip and Alexander in a battle for total control of mainland Greece. It was a crushing defeat for the Athenians who never retreated, and fought to the very last man. Alexander was sent to Athens to offer terms of surrender.

Alexander was only 17 years of age at the time of the final battle at Chaeronea. The city Thebes, which had betrayed a treaty with Philip and supported the Athenians, was besieged and totally destroyed with some 6,000 killed, and the remaining 30,000 sold into slavery. The brutality of the conquest of Thebes marked a policy of Philip, which was adopted by his son Alexander. If a city accepted conquest peacefully, then it was spared and absorbed into the new Greek Empire. If the city resisted, it would be absorbed at a some cost. If the city betrayed a treaty, it was completely destroyed.

Following the Battle of Chaeronea, Phillip marched deep into the heart of the Peloponnese. Philip was then voted Supreme Commander of the Greek Defence Forces, with only Sparta boycotting the meeting. After such an amazing conquest of Greece, Phillip led his troops back to Macedonia.

With his new found worldly power, Philip remarried to a proper Macedonian woman, of which Olympias, mother of Alexander, was not. During the wedding feast, a rather memorable event transpired. Phillip’s new inlaw, Attalus (his wife’s uncle and guardian), presented a toast where he expressed his desire that a new legitimate heir to the Macedonian throne would be born of this great union. Alexander clearly knew that this was an insult directed at him being the half Macedonian son of a now divorced queen. Attalus appears to have considered Alexander to be a bastard. Understandably, Alexander responded by throwing his goblet at Attalus’s head. As the incident erupted, Phillip rose to his feet and staggered toward Alexander with his sword drawn.

As history records, Alexander quickly departed taking his mother and fleeing to her native home in Illyria. This incident has been highly debated for centuries. Nonetheless, Phillip eventually made peace with Alexander, but never forgave by him. Alexander eventually returned to his father’s court, but was shortly thereafter, Phillip was murdered. Alexander was the only possible heir and seized the throne of Macedonia. It is because of thiis series of events, that some have speculated that Alexander may have played some role in his father’s assassination. Nevertheless, Alexander did continue to strike coinage postumously in his father name for several years after his death. This at least suggests that he did not arogantly take the throne trying to suppress his father’s accomplishments.

Before Phillip’s death, he was planning the invasion of Asia Minor under the pretense of liberating the Greek cities which had been taken by the Persians. Alexander continued his father plan and crossed the Hellespont in 334 BC embarking on what would earn him the title The Great, Upon landing in modern Turkey, Alexander is said to have thrown a spear into Asian soil as he led the way ashore in full armour.

There were several battles fought on his way to Babylon. Eventually, Alexander faced King Darius at Issus on the north-east Mediterranean coast. Although Alexander was advancing south, Darius circled around and approached from the North. Alexander managed to reorient his troops and prepared for battle. Darius had in fact slaughtered hundreds of wounded soldiers whom Alexander had left. Alexander succeeded in routing the Persians, despite being outnumbered, forcing Darius himself to flee. Darius had been so confident that victory would be his, that he had a luxurius throne tent filled with his personal comforts alone with a complete entourage including his mother Sisygambis, his wife Stateira, several princesses and most importantly – 3000 talents of gold (talent = 27kg).

Alexander retained all the women and apparantly treated them with great respect. Sisygambis is said to have refused to be returned to Persian hands, preferring to stay with Alexander. As for Darius, he was finally murdered by his own troops after the battle of Guagamela (Assyria). The Persians then tied his body to a cart and presented it as a gift to Alexander.

Following the conquest of Persia, Alexander visited Egypt. Alexander was welcomed by the Egyptian people as a liberator and made Pharaoh. Alexander visited the then famous oracle at Siwah. His journey to Siwah took the course inland across the desert. The blaring sun nearly killed his party along the way. No one knows for certain Alexander’s question. Before leaving Egypt, Alexander took the time to found a new great city – the city of Alexandria near the mouth of the Nile.

Alexander then had conquered the known world around the Mediterranian. He then prepared to move beyond Persia and into Asia itself. Alexander invaded Afghanistan where he met his wife Roxanne. Alexander came upon Oxyartes who had built a fortress on top of a very steep cliff known as Sogdian Rock. Oxyartes believed that no army could capture his fortress and taunted Alexander find men with wings. Alexander sent up 300 experienced mountain climbers during the middle of the night. In the morning, Oxyartes was confronted by Alexander’s soldiers and surrendered. Alexander and Oxyartes then became good friends and Alexander married his sister Roxanne.

Alexander then invaded India. Here he met King Porus who confronted Alexander with his army which included 200 elephants. The armies faced each other on the opposite banks of the Hydapses river. Alexander cleverly tormented Porus by staging an attack every night with one third of his army who pretended to be preparing to cross the river. Alexander staged these mock attacks for weeks allowing Porus to grow accustom to their regularity. Finally, on a dark, rainy night, Alexander did launch a full attack. Alexander sent half his army up river and attacked Porus’ army from both sides. Once again, Alexander seems to have become good friends with King Porus as well.

Alexander’s troops had by now grown tired. They did not share their leader’s quest for exploration. Alexander was forced to turn back departing from India for Babylon. This march across the desert in southern Iran was a disaster. Alexander lost thousands of his men to heat and lack of water. Alexander himself was injured – shot by an arrow of unknown origin. Undoubtedly, some of his troops may have turned against him given the dire situation. Eventually,Alexander’s army found its way back to Babylon, but Alexander’s days were numbered.

Alexander appears to have taken some time to die and the cause of his death is not certain. Upon his death civil war broke out. One of his generals, Ptolemy, took Alexander’s body which was intended to be returned to Macedonia. Instead, Alexander was taken to Egypt where Ptolemy had a great tomb built for the now mummified body of Alexander. His tomb survived for more than 300 years in Alexander. Many people visited his tomb and later some helped themselves to some of its artifacts including the Roman Emperors Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) and Caligula (AD). Of the items stolen from his tomb, history has recorded some such as his cloak, ring, breastplate, shield and even his nose. Caligula loved to adorn himself with Alexander’s breastplate in public. It is not known what happened to it following his assassination. Alexander’s solid gold sarcophagus was evetually melted down for coinage and replaced with glass. Recorded history seems to have lost track of Alexander’s tomb some time during the 4th century AD.

Alexander is believed to have been homosexual with his male companion Hephaestion, his closest friend. They are said to have been inseparable during Alexander’s life. Still, Alexander did produced a few children and certainly did marry Roxanne.


Silver Tetradrachm Pella Mint

The monetary system of the world was indeed changed by Alexander the Great. The coinage became standardize by both denomination as well as by design. Here we have Alexander clad in a lion skin. Mint marks were employed to show which city was responsible for the minting.

Gold Stater

Monetary System

AU Double Stater
AU Stater
AR Tetradrachm (17 grams)
AR Didrachm (8.5 grams)
AR Drachm (4.25 grams)


Postumous Coinage

For many years following his death, the image of Alexander continued to appear on the coinage around the world. The most common denomination for the commemorative issues continued to be the silver tetradrachm.


Monetary History of the World
© Martin A. Armstrong