Thursday, 8 August 2013

The seal of Alexander the Great -- part three

The most puzzling part of the research into the seal of Alexander the Great was the epigraphy. In particular, the Greek letter xi (Ξ ). The form I give here is the one most familiar to collectors of the coins of Alexander.

But there is another, archaic, form of xi shown in the illustration to the left. It is mostly encountered in the coins of Egypt down to about 305 BC in Alexander's name before Ptolemy became king of Egypt. The difference being that the archaic form has a vertical line in the middle of the three horizontal lines that form the letter.

On the seal, the middle horizontal line is absent
and this makes it look like a form of the Greek

letter zeta often seen on provincial coins of Severus Alexander, as on the coin from Ephesus illustrated on the right. This would appear to be an eastern dialect where “Alexander” would be pronounced “Alezander”.

I was confident that the unusual letter form on the seal was due to the small size of the inscription.

If the central horizontal line was included, the letter could appear smudged if it filled with superfluous molten lead. But confidence is not proof, and it took me quite a long time to find an image of a coin of Alexander the Great which had an identical letter form. That coin is illustrated below. Again, we must assume that the die engraver was concerned about legibility in the small coin.

Small coin (hemidrachm) struck in Babylon during Alexander's lifetime. Image courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
A special “thank you” goes to Kyriacos Kyriacos of London for his valuable help with the epigraphical features of the seal.

The next episode will be about the iconography– stay tuned!


  1. thanks for the mention john but you did %99.9 of the work.very intresting piece and very rare.its allways nice to find something that the seller,who is supposed to know what his got ,really knows nothing.mind you,a very famous man once said "the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing"socrates.

  2. Thanks, Kyri, but I did find your help most useful. I can understand that auction houses often cannot spend the same time on research as the collectors who buy from them, but sometimes they miss important things -- that object deserved more research, but had it been done by the auction house then I probably would not have been able to afford it -- so I can't be too harsh on them ;-)