So, is it really Alexander or just Herakles?

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Pavlos, Apr 12, 2021.

  1. Pavlos

    Pavlos You pick out the big men. I'll make them brave!

    I think this is a long debate and has most likely been discussed many times with different opinions and facts. Some say the Herakles on the obverse of Alexander the Great his coinage is Alexander himself. Most say it is not him as presuccessors also struck coinage with Herakles on the obverse. I even read in a book by Professor Peter Thonemann that even the average citizen mistakenly saw the obverse of Alexander the Great his coinage as Alexander himself.
    This made me go more to the side that this is in fact Herakles.

    Then I was looking at this presentation on YouTube and the presenter says "the profile of Alexander and his features is clearly depicted on his coins".

    Please see it here:
    Skip to the time 42:35


    It is said by Marina Fischer, a Numismatics Specialist and Instructor at the University of Calgary.

    My question is now, is Alexander really depicted on his coins wearing a lion head? Or was it Herakles, but perhaps with the features of Alexander the Great? Or did the ancient population who made that sarcophagus mistakenly saw the obverse of Alexander the great his coinage as him and imitated it on the sculpture?
    I really wonder now because I see so many different views regarding this topic.

    Please also share your examples of coin types you have of Alexander the Great to keep it even more coin-related :)

    Kingdom of Macedon. temp. Philip III – Antigonos I Monophthalmos. Circa 323-310 BC. Æ Unit. Uncertain mint in Western Asia Minor.
    Head of Herakles right, wearing lion skin.
    Reverse: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ. Bow-in-bowcase and club; torch below.
    Reference: Price 2800.
    6.19; 19mm
    Ex. Dr. W. R. Collection.
    Ex. CNG Electronic Auction 350, Nr. 10

    Alexander III. "the Great". AR Tetradrachm. Civic issue, Mesembria mint (100-72/1 B.C.). Struck in the time of Mithridates VI.
    Head of Herakles wearing lion's skin right, with the features of Mithradates VI.
    Reverse: BAΣIΛEΩΣ / ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ / MEΣAM, Zeus seated left, holding spear and eagle; to left, ΔIO.
    Reference: Price 1128; Karayotov I 316; HGC 3, 1570.
    16.10g; 33mm
    Last edited: Apr 12, 2021
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  3. Andres2

    Andres2 Well-Known Member

    Heres a lifetime statue of Alexander the Great, does not look the same as on his coins imho ?

    P1180357.JPG P111 overview tets2.jpg
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  4. Only a Poor Old Man

    Only a Poor Old Man Well-Known Member

    It is my opinion, and also think the most widespread one, that it is Alexander the Great in a Heracles cosplay. The facial characteristics are simply too characteristic and the period where this portrait became dominant coincides with his late life. But for me the most compelling evidence is that it was straight after him that it became acceptable for rulers to put their face on coinage as it is evident from the coins of the diadochoi. It is like they said 'if he can do it, so can we'.


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  5. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    I haven't seen any lifetime coins that convincingly portray Alexander – though maybe we'll see some in this interesting thread! – but I do think the features of Herakles were modelled to look like Alexander soon after his death. There's a consistent wide-eyed look with a prominent orbital that matches the depiction on the Alexander sarcophagus (which I've seen in person). In combination with @Only a Poor Old Man's point (that soon after rulers started depicting themselves, e.g. Ptolemy) the betting is that this portrayal is meant to suggest Alexander - a sort of assimilation/syncretism between the man and the demi-god. Both of the coins below have the look, I think.

    philip arrhidaeus.jpg
    Drachm of Philip Arrhidaios issued soon after Alexander's death (Sardis, Price P66)

    Lysimachos tetradrachm, also IMO depicting Alexander (Lampsakos mint). The Horn of Ammon refers to his visit to the oracle at the Siwa oasis, where he was proclaimed the son of Ammon (=Amun, equated to Zeus as Zeus Ammon).
    Last edited: Apr 12, 2021
  6. 7Calbrey

    7Calbrey Well-Known Member

    This bronze coin was struck at Alexandria long after the death of Alexander the Great. That was under Ptolemy II to commemorate the Greek Leader who gave his name to that beautiful city. Obverse shows definitely the face of Alexander. Svoronos 467.

    AlexdenPt 2.JPG Alexd R           Svor 467.JPG
  7. Herodotus

    Herodotus Well-Known Member

    It is Alexander portrayed as Hercules. Much how Commodus did the same on coinage some 500 years later.

    Hercules is often portrayed as more of a 'meathead'(for lack of a better word) traditionally on Greek coinage...Whereas, Alexander was more of a 'pretty boy'.

    Another example of Greek Coinage that prominently displayed founders of the empire, was that of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Descendent rulers continued to display the portrait of Ptolemy I on their coinage for quite a number of years.

    Utilizing the image of the Patriarch(s) of empire(s) solidified future rulers as being legitimate.

    The Romans, instead, employed titles such as 'Caesar' and 'Augustus' to do the same.
  8. medoraman

    medoraman Supporter! Supporter

    I agree. I was skeptical of it actually being Alexander at first, but upon looking at the entire corpus of the coins, they bear way too much similarity than would normally be expected from so many mints, unless they were intentionally copying a bust that was given to them. Now, if this was Alexander's intentionally stylized bust, (like Augustus), we will never know. But I agree its intended to be Alexander and is copying the official likeness he wanted portrayed. Herakles was portrayed more wildly, and like @Herodotus stated, more of a "meathead". His resemblance to a wildman was actually part of his mythos, overly muscular, overly testosterone laden. Remember his 10 (later 12) Labors was due to him going insane and killing his entire family. He was supposed to be semi-civilized.

    I LOVE the Commodus hercules types. I buy them whenever I can.
  9. Ryro

    Ryro They call me the 13th Caesar Supporter

    Excellent and thought provoking thread @Pavlos! Some look like him a lot too me and then some don't at all. Last time I saw ATG we were so staggeringly drunk that I could've mistaken Bucephalus as the man. So, I'll trust comparing his image as Ammon, like she did in the video, to tell me if the particular coin is based on the man or not. Furrowed Cro magnon forehead, strong nose and pursed lips:
    20190326_140125_5CCAFDA4-7F83-4C1E-B272-325191995DC3-406-000000AF818F6F98.png 20190326_101513_DD7D513A-5724-42F6-8438-B8877701B389-406-0000007282F110D4.png 20190326_172150_ACE5DBD0-870B-4974-9441-1B8D7515863A-406-000000E6E32D723A.png 20190628_185337_FBE96F3C-2808-4530-BBFA-F68DC8DFA1A6-985-00000125FE2BDE01.png
  10. Shea19

    Shea19 Supporter! Supporter

    Very interesting...I had not seen the sculptures on the sarcophagus, definitely a resemblance.

    Here’s my favorite Alexander/Herakles.

    04182601-4F55-4887-9BA4-5B6AD3354E81.jpeg 8D68DA36-9E74-4F61-B7D5-3EB94DC9E52C.jpeg

    Antigonos I Monophthalmos, As Strategos of Asia, AR Tetradrachm (24.5mm, 17.10 g). In the name and types of Alexander III of Macedon. Susa mint, circa 316-311 BC. Head of Herakles right, wearing lion skin /Rev. BAΣIΛEΩΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ Zeus Aëtophoros seated l.; in l.field, wreath; below throne, PO above strut, ΠP monogram below. Price 3855.
  11. ominus1

    ominus1 Supporter! Supporter

  12. dltsrq

    dltsrq Grumpy Old Man

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  13. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

  14. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    My only example, a drachm issued under Philip III Arrhidaeus that I bought 35 years ago. I can't tell who it looks like.

    Macedon, Alexander III (under Philip III Arrhidaeus), AR Drachm, Miletos mint, 323-319 BCE. Obv. Head of beardless Herakles to right, wearing lion skin headdress / Rev. Zeus seated left on stool-throne, holding long scepter in left hand, with eagle standing right with closed wings on his right hand; KH monogram (Price Monogram 476) in left field; in right field, ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ. Price 2121 [Price, M., The Coinage in the Name of Alexander the Great and Philip Arrhidaeus (London, 1991)]; Pella database at; Müller 847 [Müller, L., Numismatique d'Alexandre le Grand; Appendice les monnaies de Philippe II et III, et Lysimaque (Copenhagen, 1855-58)]. 16 mm., 4.21 g. Purchased from Harmer Rooke Numismatists, Ltd., New York City, 21 Feb. 1986.

    COMBINDED Alexander III drachm Miletos.jpg
  15. Orielensis

    Orielensis Supporter! Supporter

    I can see the resemblance to the sarcophagus pointed out in the video. I'm not an expert on Greek art, thus I just take this as a more informed opinion than mine.

    Yet couldn't the resemblance also be a caused by overdetermination? It seems reasonable to assume that both Alexander and Herakles were portrayed not mimetically but rather as young men who embody contemporary ideals of male beauty. It thus makes a lot of sense that their depictions look similar.

    Makedonien – Alexander, Tetradrachme, Herakles Zeus (neuestes Foto).png
    Alexander III "the Great," Kingdom of Macedonia, AR tetradrachm, 325–323 BC, Amphipolis mint (under Antipater). Obv: Head of Herakles right, wearing lion skin. Rev: ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ, Zeus Aëtophoros seated left; in left field, rooster standing left. 26mm, 17.17g. Ref: Price 79; Troxell 1997, issue E3. Ex CNG, e-auction 376, lot 47; ex Tiberius collection; ex AMCC 1, lot 39.

    Makedonien – Alexander der Große, AE unit, Bogen und Keule, Alexandroi.png
    Alexander III “the Great,” Kingdom of Macedonia, AE unit, 336–323 BC, unknown Macedonian mint. Obv: head of Heracles right, wearing lion skin headdress. Rev: AΛEXANΔΡOY, between club and quiver with bow; below, dolphin (mostly off flan). 16.5mm, 5.50g. Ref: Price 323.

    Makedonien – Alexander, Drachme.png
    Alexander III “the Great,” Kingdom of Macedonia, drachm, 334–323 BC, Sardes mint. Obv: Head of Heracles right, wearing lion skin headdress. Rev: AΛEXANΔΡOY, Zeus seated left, holding eagle and sceptre, monogram left, club right. 16.5mm, 4.02g. Ref: Price 2550.

    Makedonien – Alexander der Große, AE unit, Bogen und Keule, Basileos, mit Gegenstempel.png
    Alexander III “the Great” (postumous issue), Kingdom of Macedonia, AE unit, 323–310 BC, unknown mint in Asia Minor. Obv: head of Heracles right, wearing lion skin headdress. Rev: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ, between club and quiver with bow; below, torch (countermarked). 20.5mm, 5.65g. Ref: Price 2800.
  16. Terence Cheesman

    Terence Cheesman Supporter! Supporter

    There is one slight problem to all of this and it is this coin, 1024px-Coin_of_Perdiccas_III_with_figure_of_Herakles.jpg I must report that THIS is NOT my Coin I believe this one is in the BM Looking at this coin one might assume that it is is one of the numberless versions of the Alexander III coinage but you would be wrong. It is a stater of Perdikkas III which according to Hoover in the HGC was minted circa 365-359 BC which would make it a full 10 years before Alexander was even born. The Argead Dynasty of Macedon claimed decent from Herakles thus that deity does appear very frequently on the coinage.
    The Alexander sarcophagus which was found in the necropolis of ancient Sidon is unusual in that it is the only more or less contemporary depiction of Alexander in a helmet made to look like the head of a lion. Being in a necropolis this image was not meant for mass consumption. This depiction furthermore is different from the coins as the the forepaws of the lion are absent. Thus the coins are clearly depicting the lionskin emblematic of Herakles.
    One must always remember that art prior to the advent of other mediums such as photography was the primary means of spreading information using a visual medium. Thus it become extremely important to make certain that the information given can be easily understood and appreciated by the target audience. However a problem does emerge when dealing with a number of individuals who do look very similar to each other. This issue was solved by the Greeks by adding an adjunct object or familial animal. Thus Zeus a mature male coupled with his eagle and lightning bolt can be distinguished from Poseidon with his trident. Athena is a helmeted female with an owl. Apollo is a young male wearing a laureate crown and with a lyre. This concept is carried on in Christian art as the usual depiction of St Peter is a mature man with keys St Paul with a book Mary with a blue veil and the four evangelists with familial animals. This standardization is important as an individual could go into any church in Christendom and without knowing how to read could figure out who was on the walls.
    A very short time ago on another thread I presented this coin an Ae 22 minted by Hiketas in Syracuse. syracuseae9.jpeg At first glance one would expect to see this as an depiction of Apollo. He is a clean shaven younger man laureate. However one would be incorrect. This individual is actually Zeus Hellanios. To make certain that the target audience would correctly interpret who this deity is, his name DIOS HELLANIOS (I do not know how to put Greek letters in this thread so bear with me:() is inscribed on the obverse. The identity is further cemented by the presence of the familial animal of Zeus an eagle standing on a thunderbolt his adjunct symbol. None of this was done on the coinage of Alexander.
    So in conclusion there is little chance that we are looking a a portrait of Alexander. The obverse of his silver coin is well within the lexicon of images used by his predecessors and there is no effort to identify him as such on the coin. The lion helmet is more or less unique and is clearly different from the lion skin depicted on the coins. I should note that this theory :banghead:like a bad penny, about every 10 year or so emerges and then dies .
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2021
  17. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    This of course rules out these lion-skin headdress depictions on Macedonian coinage as generally being depictions of Alexander. They're all depictions of Herakles. But I think the question is whether any of them have assimilated Alexander's features into Herakles' portrait. My suggestion above is that this did indeed happen, at least posthumously. (But maybe you're not intending to dispute that.)
    Last edited: Apr 13, 2021
  18. svessien

    svessien Senior Member Supporter

    Alexander III.jpg

    The sculpture on the picture is from the National Museum in Rome. Not sure if it is a lifetime portrait, or if the artist took some liberties with it, but I think it has close similarities to many of the ATG coins

    Then again, I can think of several Herakles/lions skin coin portraits that look nothing like the sculpture above.
    Last edited: Apr 13, 2021
  19. Terence Cheesman

    Terence Cheesman Supporter! Supporter

    I guess the question that @SeverusAlexander is asking is did whether or not ancient die cutters incorporated the features of Alexander into their designs. This is a problem in that there has been a continuous effort to see the features of Alexander in everything from the Herakles head coinage in the name of Alexander to the head of Helios on the coinage of Rhodes. The central problem is the question of intent.
    To illustrate one need only look at the mathematical question of ... If you had an infinite number of monkeys on an similar number of typewriters would you end up with Shakespeare's play Hamlet. A similar question could be posed given that there are probably tens of thousand of dies do any of them have the features of Alexander? I guess it is entirely possible however one has to be very careful about whether or not the image was meant to convey that Alexander in one way shape or form the embodiment of Herakles.
    One coin that suggests that the Herakles head coinage of Alexander was consider to be an image of him is this tetradrachm minted by Agathokles of Baktria circa 185-180 BC Triton XI Lot 358 January 7 2008 77000358.jpg THIS is NOT my COIN It is clear that the inspiration of this coin is that of a standard issue tetradrachm of Alexander. Is this an example of the Herakles head coinage being thought as an image of Alexander? Or is it simply that there was very limited penetration by the portrait coins of Alexander minted by Ptolemy or Lysimachos in this region. Thus this would be all they would have to work with. However what is interesting about this coin is the care to which Alexander is being identified as the "son of Philip" Because of this care one could just as easily make the case that the standard issue in the name of Alexander was not considered to be that of his image.
    I now come to this coin Philip III Av Stater Kolophon 323-319 BC Obv Head of Apollo right laureate Rv. Charioteer driving prancing biga right. Le Rider 93 26 8.53 grms 18 mm Photo by W. Hansen philipII-12.jpeg Almost invariably this coin is described in the trade "with the features of Alexander" The problem is.... Was this intentional? As far as I can tell this obverse is known from only one die. That would make a reasonably strong case that it wasn't.
    To summarize; While I suspect that there might be some coins with some of the features of Alexander hiding in the corpus of his coinage in order to prove that this was intentional one would have to find that a consistent and exclusive image was maintained over a period of time employing multiple dies.
  20. medoraman

    medoraman Supporter! Supporter

    I would respectfully disagree. Alexander struck coins from a great variety of mints, many more than say Constantine. However, if you look at similarities between them I see much more consistency between likenesses of Alexander than I do Constantine, even though we know the imperial bust was created and circulated amongst the Roman mints. My only conclusion must be the depiction of the bust on Alexanders case must be very intentional, and that this intentional likeness so closely mirrors official images of Alexander cannot be a coincidence.

    Sure, Alex looked somewhat like personified Greek youth, Apollo, etc. from earlier coins, but I believe this is part of Alexander's intentional desire. He was a master tactician the likes the world has never seen, he knew politics was just like war, and used every angle to give himself the advantage. So, we know this is how he wanted the world to see him. That will probably be the closest we ever get.
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  21. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    I agree with this general logic. (Though I might quibble about "exclusive": some dies in the workshop might be intended to represent Alexander, while others not - so a preponderance that couldn't be explained by chance would be enough to demonstrate intentionality.) This is the reason why I doubt there are any lifetime issues intentionally engraved with the features of Alexander. However I do see lots of posthumous coins with the wide-eyed/heavy orbital look which is especially characteristic of the Lysimachus tets – which I think you're acknowledging as being intentionally Alex-like, @Terence Cheesman? I don't know for sure whether this "look" I'm identifying is present on multiple dies from the same mint... I'd have to put in some work I'm not about to do at the moment. :D
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