A gold stater of Seleucus

In Alexander’s name A gold stater of Seleucus

A gold stater of Seleucus
A gold stater of Seleucus

The Macedonian king Alexander the Great is considered to this day to be a great general and conqueror. At the head of his army, he invaded the Persian Empire, the largest and most powerful of its time, which stretched from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent. In the decisive battles at Issus (333 BC) and Gaugamela (331 BC), Alexander the Great and the Persian king, Darius III, faced each other in person. Alexander succeeded Darius III after the latter was slain while fleeing in 330 BC. Within the space of a few years, the Macedonian king had created an empire which he intended to expand even further. However, Alexander died unexpectedly in 323 BC in Babylon without leaving a successor. He was just 32 years old. Alexander the Great’s empire continued to exist formally, but in reality the diadochi, his successors and heirs, divided the empire among themselves. The result was many years of conflict.

Seleucus I Nicator, Bronze bust, 3rd century BC
Seleucus I Nicator, Bronze bust, 3rd century BC

Seleucus I Nicator was one of these diadochi. Seleucus was able to secure areas of Alexander’s empire in Anatolia, the Middle East and Central Asia and establish the Seleucid empire and dynasty there. The Seleucid empire was the largest after Alexander’s death. When the diadochi began to style themselves kings in 306–305 BC, Seleucus also elevated himself to king over his dominion. This consequently destroyed the legal basis for a unified empire.

Alexander also achieved great things in his minting policy. When he conquered the Persian Empire, the vast treasures of the great Persian kings fell into his hands. The weight of all of the treasure captured is estimated to have been 180,000 talents (around 4,700 tonnes). For Alexander, this precious metal served as a basis for large-scale coin minting. Masses of new gold and silver coins were issued from numerous newly-built mints. Not only were these coins uniformly minted using the Attic coinage standard – the wide variety of coin types also came to an end. All of the mints across this huge empire produced gold coins bearing the images of Athena and Nike.

Alexander’s achievement was to create a uniform currency for an empire that stretched from the pyramids in Egypt to the mountains of Afghanistan. The significance of these coins went far beyond the actual borders of Alexander’s empire. By ancient standards, Alexander’s “imperial money" was a genuine world currency. The diadochi continued his way of minting coins, initially without any changes. They did not even have their own names inscribed on the coins.

Corinthian helmet, which is decorated with a magnificent plume

Our showpiece coin is a stater, minted by Seleucus I after Alexander’s death in Babylon. The obverse side shows the head of the goddess Athena. Athena was a daughter of Metis and Zeus, the father of the gods. According to myth, she was born fully armed from her father's head. Not only is she the goddess of wisdom, but also a militant and fierce divinity. Homer characterises her as the goddess who “likes disputes and war".

Athena is wearing a Corinthian helmet, which is decorated with a magnificent plume. Worn correctly, the helmet nearly covers the head entirely. The cheek and nose protection only leave a very small area of the face unprotected. In this portrayal, Athena has pushed the helmet up. In addition to the plume, the helmet is also decorated with a griffin, a mixed creature with the body of a lion and the head of a bird of prey. The griffin was known in many ancient oriental cultures and was also incorporated into the Greek mythology.

Nike, the winged goddess of victory

Nike, the winged goddess of victory, is shown on the reverse side. In her right hand she holds a branch symbolising victory and in her left hand the flagstaff (stylis) of a ship. Researchers interpret this as an allusion to the victory in the naval battle of Salamis against the Persians and to the Greek's superiority at sea. Alexander himself had never achieved a naval victory.

The inscription is notable because even though Alexander the Great had died long before and his vast empire was de facto divided up, the myth of a unified empire was upheld. The inscription does not name Seleucus I, who actually had the coin minted, but Alexander: "BAΣIΛEΩΣ AΛEΞANΔΡΟΥ“ (Basileos Alexandrou) means “[coin] of King Alexander".

Dating the coin and determining

The mintmarks are important when dating the coin and determining where it was minted. Mintmarks, small images that were not part of the coin's main image, like the Greek letters "MI" and the "monogram in the wreath" here, were a means of control for the coin administration. They identify where the coin was minted, to which issue it belonged and who oversaw the minting. If any discrepancies occurred, eg because the gold content was too low, it was possible to identify the persons responsible.

The empire of Alexander the Great
stater, approx 311–305 BC
minted by Seleucus I after Alexander's death

Mint: Babylon
Material: Gold
Weight: 8.55 g
Diameter: 18.8 mm