Ancient Coins – A Soldier’s Share of Alexander the Great’s Plunder

Gold Distater

By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC….
Alexander the Great, born in the autumn of 356 BCE 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 30 years old. In the year 336 BCE, Alexander ascended the Macedonian throne after the death of 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 hero Hercules. The goddess Athena was the protector of Hercules and other heroes, and Alexander adopted her image on his gold coinage, showing her 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 across his vast empire. 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 silver and gold bullion, plundered from their treasuries at Babylon, Sardes, Susa, and Persepolis. At the beginning of his reign in 336 BCE, the Macedonian kingdom was 500 silver talents in debt. This was rectified when, from the treasury of Persepolis alone, Alexander claimed 120,000 silver talents worth of bullion.

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 drachms, 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 smaller staters that 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 that was eventually abandoned in the third century BCE.

Distater, 336-323 B.C. Lifetime issue struck in Macedonia (Aigai). Head of Athena r. wearing Corinthian helmet decorated with coiled serpent, hair in tight ringlets. Rv. Nike standing l. holding stylis, thunderbolt to l., monogram to lower l. 17.23 grams. Price 191. Perfectly centered and well struck in high relief. Extremely Fine.