First global currency before the Roman Denarius: the tetradrachms of Alexander the Great and his successors




My name is Ursula Kampmann, and I am a numismatist. Today, I would like to tell you the third part of the history of our money. In this podcast, I am going to introduce you to the first really supra-regional currency in the Mediterranean world.


You certainly remember the fact that Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire. Of course, he couldn’t do it all by himself. He needed an army and his army consisted mainly of mercenaries. Some came from Greece, others from virtually every part of the then known world. Mercenaries insist on regular and sufficient payment, which posed a little problem to Alexander. In May 334, when he crossed the Hellespont, his war chest recorded 70 talents of silver and almost 200 talents of debt. Furthermore, Alexander’s army had only provisions for 30 days. Hence, Alexander was doomed for success. The plan was to lead a campaign that funded itself.


The plan worked. The victory at the Granicus yielded enough booty to continue the war for a few months. The conquest of Sardeis cleared Alexander’s debts. The 2,600 talents of silver stored in Damascus enabled him to hire much more mercenary soldiers. But it took the conquest of the Persian motherland to relieve Alexander of any financial problems for the rest of his life. In Susa he captured 50,000 talents, in Persepolis another 120,000 and in Ecbatana 180,000.


These huge amounts of silver were the result of the sophisticated tax system the Persian kings had developed. For centuries, the subjected peoples had offered their provinces’ surpluses to the royal treasure. However, only little was spent, as the provinces had to pay themselves for their infrastructure and defense. The royal treasure did not provide any financial help for fighting Alexander. In the end, it was Alexander who took the Persian gold and used it for his own purposes.


All the gold, all the silver was melted down and coined into gold staters and silver tetradrachms. After all, a campaign was expensive. According to the calculations of modern historians, the army of Alexander cost 20 talents per day. 20 talents equal 120,000 drachmae or 30,000 tetradrachms.


Tetradrachms were silver coins in the weight of four drachms. At the time of Alexander, they were the most important coins in international trade. Every mercenary knew these coins and gladly accepted them. Alexander therefore had these coins minted everywhere where his troops were based. The city where these coins were produced can be inferred from the small mint mark on the coins’ reverse. This plough, for example, represents the city of Tarsus. The Greek letters ‘DA’ on this coin refer to Damascus. And this specimen from the Egyptian city of Memphis depicts a rose bud.


Coins like these flooded the Greek world. They arrived with the mercenaries. They came as donations of Alexander. They were offered to the gods. These coins circulated in each and every city. They were virtually omnipresent.


When, after the death of Alexander, a city or a ruler wanted to issue a coin which would certainly be accepted throughout the Greek world, then a coin of the Alexander type was the logical choice. These are a few examples: This coin was issued by Philetaerus of Pergamon. You will recognize the likeness of Athena, the main deity of the city. This coin was struck more than 130 years after the death of Alexander, in the trade city of Rhodes. It features the city’s coat of arms, the rose, as well as the initial letter of the mint. And this coin was struck by Mithradrates VI, at the beginning of the 1st century BC, in the Odessa mint. Even Celtic tribes produced imitations of the tetradrachms of Alexander. You can see such an imitation here.


Coins of the Alexander type used to be the internationally accepted money for more than 200 years. They were struck by many cities which, however, issued coins bearing their own imagery to be used on the local market at the same time.


Do you see the difference between the tetradrachms of Alexander and the tetradrachms of Athens? The tetradrachms of the city of Athens were circulating because Athens had produced such vast amounts of tetradrachms. But her attempts to compel the subjected cities to produce money modeled on the Athenian coinage failed. Alexander, on the other hand, did not even have to resort to pressure. His coins had permeated the market to such an extent that everybody gladly accepted this familiar currency. All these cities and rulers who were engaged in long-distance trade used that fact and struck their coinage according the model of Alexander. There was no political pressure, only economic benefits.


The tetradrachms of Alexander were the most important tender in the Greek world until they were replaced by the Roman denarii. That, however, is another story.

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