Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The seal of Alexander the Great -- part four

Coin from Myriandros in Cilicia. Image courtesy
of Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
All over Asia Minor, the image of a walking lion serves as the icon for kingship. Examples can be found from many times and places but I will start with the time just before and after Alexander. The first example is this small silver coin (obol) from Myriandros in Cilicia. It was struck by Mazaios who was satrap of Cilicia (361/0 – 334 BC). Although the end of this range of dates overlaps the reign of Alexander by a couple of years, it was struck at least three years before Alexander adopted the walking lion motif.

Coin of a satrap of BabylonImage courtesy
of Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
After Alexander took Babylon, he continued the tradition for the local coinage and the satraps were allowed to issue their own coins. The next coin illustrated was struck circa 328 – 311 BC, and thus might have been issued during his lifetime. It was minted at Babylon, which he had entered in 331 BC.

Coin of SeleukosImage courtesy of Classical
 Numismatic Group Inc.
The type with Baal seated on the obverse and the walking lion on the reverse was continued by Seleukos, one of Alexander's officers who became satrap of Babylon upon the death of Alexander. The Seleucid Dynasty ruled Syria until it was captured by the Romans and Seleukos was the first king in that line. Unlike Seleukos' coins issued for Syria, the Babylonian coins did not bear his name but the identification is certain as they also bear the image of an anchor, which was Seleukos' own badge.

The knowledge of the design of Alexander's seal was likely very widespread, but for some reason, it did not last beyond the Roman Empire. Perhaps the knowledge died out because whenever it had been used, it was not identified as the seal design. Perhaps the knowledge of its use was so common that no one felt the need to label it as such. It is ironic that “common knowledge” can die out so easily – but it is, after all, only the relatively obscure facts that have to be recorded!

Image courtesy of Richard Plant
The walking lion motif with the name of Alexander as is depicted on the seal, also appears on an apparently unique small silver coin in the collection of Richard Plant and is illustrated as a line drawing in his book: Greek Coin Types and their Identification, Seaby, London, 1979, No 1332, which he gives as a 3rd century BC commemorative issue. Although the coin is in rather poor condition, the styles of the lion and the epigraphy certainly seem to support this dating.

Roman "Koinon" issue in gold. Image courtesy of
Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
A Roman period “Koinon” issue in the name of Alexander continues the type. These “Koinon” issues do not identify the ruler or place of issue and are mostly attributed on stylistic grounds. This apparently unique gold example is dated thus to either Caracalla, 198-217, or Severus Alexander, 222-235 AD. The latter seems most likely to me, only on account of the name.

Next, we must turn our attention to some related iconography which appears on the bronze coins of Kassander. The history of the period is far too complex to deal with in this article, but it would help the general reader to understand that upon the death of Alexander, two seats were made vacant: the kingship of Macedon and the leadership of the Alexandrine Empire. Kassander seemed mostly interested in the latter – but contemporary explanations differ, one even suggesting that he left Macedon with the intention of poisoning Alexander. He arrived in Babylon the very year that Alexander died.

By most modern standards, Kassander was a villain – he ordered the execution of Alexander's wife Roxana, and their thirteen year old child Alexander (IV), as well as arranging the murder of Herakles of Macedon whom he had been told was Alexander the Great's illegitimate son. Of course, in that time, all of this was the usual sort of “dynastic business”.

Kassander's reclining lionImage courtesy of
Ancient bronze coins often give us a window into the “PR” of the time – their types are often aimed at the general population, just like modern advertising campaigns, in the hope of influencing the people in certain ways. When Kassander was regent in Macedon (317-305 BC), he issued this coin showing a reclining lion – the rule was not yet established, so the lion was not walking. Perhaps it also signified that Alexander was “at rest” – it is difficult to assess the exact meaning that an ordinary person of the time might have have inferred from the motif. One thing is certain, and that is that it had a specific meaning, and this fact is established by the change in motif after Kassander styled himself “king” on his coins.

The lion breaks the the spearImage courtesy of
Kassander issued another bronze coin type after he became king, and this shows the walking lion motif, but with a difference. This time, the head is facing the observer and his right claws are grasping a spear or javelin which he appears to be breaking with his jaws.

Next episode: the making of a myth (any more information would give it away!) Special thanks goes to Mark Fox of Michigan for his valuable input and for arranging the communication with Richard Plant, and to Richard Plant for his help and discussion.


  1. Quite interesting point of view. It would be wonderful to find out more about Alexander's actual seal. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Thank you, Argyraspid. I expect that a few more might show up. Perhaps Alexander, himself, had a larger version -- we can only speculate about such things.

    All the best,