Among the rarest and most desirable of all ancient Greek coins, the famed decadrachms of Alexander the Great were struck at Babylon from the bullion seized after the city’s conquest from the Achaemenid Persians. The types follow the huge emissions of Alexander’s tetradrachms, sporting the head of the mighty Herakles wearing his lion’s skin on the obverse, and the father of the Olympian pantheon, Zeus, seated on the reverse. There has long been speculation that the portrait of Herakles features the likeness of Alexander himself, but there is no sure evidence that this is the case. There are only twenty or so Alexander decadrachms known to exist, and most of those were discovered in 1973 in what has become known as the ‘Babylon Hoard’. The known examples suggest there was at least three separate emissions, and the paucity of remaining pieces suggest that the denomination may have served a ceremonial purpose – perhaps given as presentation pieces to high ranking officers or possibly even to soldiers who had distinguished themselves in the conquest of Persia. Alexander was known for giving largesse, and it is tempting to think that he may have taken a personal role in their distribution. Today these surviving decadrachms are a tangible example of one of the greatest treasures in ancient numismatics.
In all of human history, there have been but very few individuals whose accomplishments are recounted again and again undimmed by time, whose legends have grown only brighter with the passing of the years, and whose names can stir fierce emotion and wonder at a distance of millennia. Alexander is perhaps the greatest of all such paragons of humanity, whose life and exploits are the near-incredible stuff of myth and fable.
Silver dekadrachms, be they of Athens, Syracuse, Akragas or Carthage, have ever been amongst the most desired and sought-after of ancient coins by virtue of their impressive size and weight, and the large canvas they presented for the showcasing of the engraver’s art. Though considered ‘rare’, the surviving dekadrachms of Syracuse number in the high hundreds or low thousands, and those of Athens in the dozens. Fewer than twenty dekadrachms of Alexander are known to exist today – figurative grains of sand on a beach amidst the hundreds of thousands of surviving tetradrachms, drachms, staters and other fractions. The extreme rarity of Alexander’s dekadrachms has therefore contributed an aura of unobtainability to the mystery of this most iconic coinage. Missing from most of the world’s major institutional collections, the majority of the examples known today originated from the 1973 ‘Babylon’ Hoard (sometimes also referred to as the Mesopotamia Hoard), and a smaller 1989 find that Martin Price believed to be a part of the original 1973 deposit. The eight coins that are known to have come from these two groups form the backbone of the Dekadrachm corpus.
Struck in three emissions from a mint generally considered to be at Babylon, but possibly Susa or Ekbatana, the dekadrachms formed part of a massive conversion of bullion seized from the Persian Royal treasuries at Susa and Persepolis – some 180,000 Attic talents (4,680 metric tons) were liberated from those vaults, converted by decree of the King into ready coinage to meet the expenses of his vast empire and to pay his beloved soldiers. That so few examples of this large denomination survive today is potentially indicative of a special significance or purpose for these coins. It is certainly tempting to think – as many often have – that they represent presentation pieces intended for certain men of rank, and that Alexander, who was well known for his love of giving gifts, may have distributed them personally. In reality though, their low survival rate is probably due to the impracticality of the denomination, since the ubiquitous tetradrachm was the more common and more convenient medium of payment.
Regardless of its intended purpose, and though it represents only a small splinter that survives of Alexander’s great vision, today his dekadrachms are one of the most tangible artefacts of his reign, and amongst the greatest prizes of ancient Greek numismatics.
Bust of Herakles right, wearing lion’s skin
Zeus Aëtophoros enthroned to left, holding eagle and scepter; amphora with high handles and M below throne
A perfect choice for Numismatists, Historians, Military Veterans, Collectors.