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A Soldier's Share of Alexander the Great's Plunder

A Soldier's Share of Alexander the Great's Plunder

Alexander the Great, born in the autumn of 356 BC and taught by the famous Aristotle, was one of the most successful military generals of all time, conquering a large part of Asia and ruling a kingdom that spanned from the Ionian sea to the Himalayas before he was thirty. In the year 336 BC, Alexander ascended the Macedonian throne after his father, Philip II. Two years later, he began his campaign against the Persians, whom he completely defeated. But this success wasn't enough for Alexander: sources tell us that he was motivated to outdo the mythological Hercules. The goddess Athena was the protector Hercules and other heroes, and Alexander adopted her image on his gold coinage, wearing a Corinthian helmet decorated with a coiled snake.

In addition to his prolific military prowess, one of Alexander's many achievements was the establishment of a single currency in his huge realm. These coins replaced the wide variety of local issues with an official, imperial coinage. Alexander the Great's conquering of the Persians produced a massive volume of gold bullion, plundered from their treasuries at Sardes, Susa, Persepolis, and Babylon. At the beginning of his reign in 336 BC, the Macedonian kingdom was in debt 500 silver talents. This was rectified when from the treasury of Susa alone, Alexander claimed 50,000 talents of silver and 40,000 talents of gold.

The significant influx of precious metals prompted him to strike the largest Greek gold coin issued up to that time: the gold distater. With a value of 40 silver drachms, it was likely used to pay Alexander's veteran soldiers who were awarded for their labors with a silver talent (6,000 drachms). This new denomination meant that a talent could be paid out as 120 gold distaters.

The daily wage of the average citizen was about two drachmas so these gold distaters were extremely valuable. This proved to be inconvenient for normal spending, so they were nearly all melted down after a relatively small mintage, causing their significant rarity relative to the high availability of the smaller staters which feature the same design.

The reverse is a representation of Alexander's victory, depicting Nike, the goddess of victory, holding a wreath (representing his success on land) and a stylis, the mast cross-arm of a ship (his success at sea). A thunderbolt is shown to her left, and below, the mint mark of Aigai, the old Macedonian capital which was eventually abandoned in the third century BC.