Silver tetradrachm of Lysimachus, King of Thrace

c. 297 - 281 BC

Gallery 37, Heberden Coin Room


Focus on the Object

Portraits of Alexander

Among the portraits of Alexander the Great that survive from antiquity, those on Greek coins provide some of the earliest and most interesting examples. On the coins of Lysimachus, king of Thrace (c. 306 - 281 B.C.), appears a portrait of Alexander in which he is depicted with ram’s horns emerging from his temples. The horns symbolise his divinity and are a direct reference to
his visit to the oracle at the sanctuary of Zeus Ammon in Siwa, Egypt in 331 B.C.. It was at this sanctuary that Alexander was proclaimed the son of Zeus Ammon, and thus divine. As Zeus Ammon was depicted with ram’s horns (see related item no.2), so too was Alexander (see related item no. 3).

Hellenistic coins that feature Alexander’s portrait are among the earliest portraits in the history of Greek coins. Prior to the coins of the Diadochoi, portraiture is rarely encountered on coins. Even Alexander did not place his own image on his main silver and gold coins, choosing instead images of gods. It is only in the years following Alexander’s death that portraits began to appear regularly on coins.

The first to do so was Ptolemy I who, as governor of Egypt, placed Alexander’s portrait on the coins he produced in Alexander’s name (related item no.1). On these coins, Alexander is depicted wearing an elephant’s scalp, in reference to his defeat of the Indian king Poros. At the time these coins were first issued, Ptolemy was attempting to consolidate his position by establishing a hero cult to Alexander, based on his possession of Alexander’s remains and the creation of the city of Alexandria. When the Diadochoi finally claimed kingship in 306/5 B.C., portraiture spread widely. While Lysimachus chose Alexander’s image for his coins, others including Demetrius Poliorcetes and Ptolemy I, placed their own images on their coins.