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Representations of Alexander the Great  

By Ed Hargreaves

The image we currently have of Alexander the Great is wholly influenced by Hellenistic and Roman representations; therefore they are the best suited periods for the study of Alexander. Alexander’s legacy dominates the Hellenistic period, whilst the Romans often aspired to equal his success and power. There is an abundance of representations of Alexander; consequently it is necessary for accuracy and concision to focus only on the most famous and influential Hellenistic coinage. This work will firstly focus on the religious and political aspects of the coinage, and the developments leading to the cult of Alexander. Whilst attempting to find the political and cultural biases in the many different guises of Alexander’s image. For example his many representations vary drastically from deliberate propaganda to didactic art and fictional literature, each focusing on elements of Alexander’s persona, depicting him as a god, a hero, a general, a sage, and finally as a maniacal madman.   

After Alexander III of Macedon’s death in 323 B.C. his Empire divided between the ‘strongest’ of his successors.[1] The power vacuum created an unstable warring between many of Alexander’s closest friends and generals. The ‘Hellenistic’ period began either after Darius’ death in 330 B.C., or more commonly, after Alexander had died in 323 B.C. Yet it was not until 306 that Ptolemy, Seleucus, Cassander and Antigonus took their positions as Greek kings, rather than satraps, thus assuring the future of the Hellenistic kingdoms.[2] The Hellenistic period encompasses three centuries of transitions of ancient civilizations brought successfully under Greek and Macedonian leadership, whilst paving the way for Roman occupation. Alexander was fundamental to the formation of Hellenistic kingdoms, not only as the creator of the Empire, but also because of the related progress in literature and art, as well as his military and civil reforms, which were all implemented successfully after his reign. In the early Hellenistic period Alexander, somewhat oddly, was not exclusively portrayed as a military leader, rather his youth, exuberance, and ‘divinity’ were often depicted, especially in art. Whilst Ptolemy I Soter, a general himself, wrote a, now lost, History of Alexander’s campaigns portraying his military genius, his official art focused on Alexander’s other youthful, divine, brave characteristics, often departing from his military expertise. Ptolemy’s actions possibly suggest, in his capacity as king of Egypt, his wish for his personal, private, and privileged memories of Alexander to be preserved in a history, whereas the open, visual elements of his propaganda were displayed in his statuary, paintings and coinage.

Ptolemy I was the first of the Hellenistic kings to use his own image on coins. Before this only images of Alexander, and common mythological scenes, were ever portrayed. The portrayal of a human on coins was a relatively new phenomenon, which perhaps places Alexander in league with the gods. However it was not long after the reforms of Philip and Alexander that representing the King became ‘well-established motifs in justifying claims to kingship.’[3] The first Hellenistic coinage minted by Ptolemy I, as satrap in Egypt, represented Alexander with many divine symbols. Ptolemy’s first tetradrachm of Alexander appeared from 318 B.C. onwards, barely five years after Alexander’s death. Margarete Bieber suggests Ptolemy’s coins ‘heap divine symbols on Alexander’, whereby he is depicted with the ram’s horns of Ammon, the elephant’s scalp of Dionysus and finally the aegis of Zeus.[4] Ptolemy accepted his position as Pharaoh, following Alexander in his Orientalism. Alexander is coupled with many divinities, ranging from Egyptian to Greek; the images are possibly varied to suit both Greek and Egyptian audiences. Although Ptolemy’s implications are unclear, he possibly used the images to establish Alexander’s divinity, yet he may plausibly have been merely asserting Alexander’s reverence to the gods. F. Walbank proposes such coins provide evidence for ‘political pretensions, military ambitions and… economic policy’, likewise Graham Shipley suggests they ‘validate… economic and political authority’. Both views fail to recognize any religious significance, and perhaps focus too greatly on the element of political propaganda.[5] Nevertheless it is necessary to point out the relevance of political persuasion in coinage; Alexander’s deeds were famous, his acts generally admired, and as coinage reached the whole Greek world it was greatly effective mass media, unlike certain elite art and literature which bypassed much of the populace.

Alongside the coinage of Ptolemy, the other Hellenistic kingdoms were also developing individual Alexander coinage, the most notable of which came after 301 B.C, issued by Lysimachus in Thrace.[6] Lysimachus’ coins attempted to legitimize his kingship, as with the other Hellenistic rulers, yet his coins display questionable imagery. Lysimachus produced his memorial gold staters and silver tetradrachms after his power was secured at the battle of Ipsus. These were minted from 297 until his death in 281. Even though the coins were created over twenty years after Alexander died, the coins still represent Alexander in his youth, and most remarkably with the ram’s horns of Ammon. Lysimachus’ use of the ‘Ptolemaic’ Egyptian symbolism suggests his loyalty to Alexander, who possibly believed himself the son of Ammon. Lysimachus’ lands in Thrace were too far from Egypt to have any religious relation to Ammon, therefore it is reasonable to suggest he believed in Alexander’s divinity, or was merely following the common style, though his representation of a perfect, heroic, godly Alexander could have been purely symbolic. Furthermore Lysimachus’ coins convey the ‘qualities’ Alexander typically promoted, in addition to emphasizing his eyes in order to signify greater intelligence. Thus one can assume Lysimachus truly honored Alexander, therefore fulfilling his purpose as a friend, whilst also endorsing his own reign.[7] To place full emphasis on Alexander’s divinity is inaccurate, but it is also too cynical to suggest Alexander’s representation was merely for propaganda and legitimacy of rule.

The original successors of Alexander had good reason to mint their coins; firstly to validate their claims to kingship, and secondly to honour their friend and predecessor who had allowed them their powers. Yet coins depicting Alexander’s face were commonly minted for over two hundred further years;[8] and certain memorial coins even continued for centuries after that. The physical connection to Alexander was lost after the first generation of leaders; even Demetrius in the Fourth Century had no link to Alexander. Therefore the political motive and significance for minting Alexander coins was greatly diminished, if not lost. Thus the coins produced in the Hellenistic period, and early Roman period were of a different nature. The most common Alexander coins appeared in Macedon, which is perhaps understandable considering their heritage. It was not until years of Roman occupation that the coins eventually stopped, although this was not due to lack of respect for Alexander, rather the introduction of standard Roman coinage. Early Roman portraiture perhaps conformed to Roman values and virtues, and displaying Alexander stood for ‘conquest, success, achievement’.[9] Although Rome did not use this image to justify its own power, it was nevertheless a means of expressing traditional Roman virtues.

The most notable reformation in Alexander coinage, from 160-80 B.C., appears in his image; his face retaining, and exuding, youthful qualities, whilst his hair is much longer than in early portraiture. Alexander portraiture often retained similar features throughout his contemporary images, as both Macedonian coins and Roman sculpture depict the young, long curly haired Alexander, somewhat dissimilar to early Hellenistic images.[10] This, however, was not the only image represented, as Alexander was also depicted helmeted, as in late Fourth Century coinage of Seleucus I. Therefore military representations of Alexander continued, whereas religious symbolism, including the horns of Ammon, had gradually disappeared; created only in exact replica of Hellenistic art. The representation of Alexander as a stable, almost generic, image on coinage had by then become traditional and, although features changed, the base image and ideology, remained.

The religious significance of Alexander coinage is perhaps disputable, yet the cult of Alexander certifies his deification and places divine significance on him. In 321 B.C. Alexander’s body was ‘hijacked’ by Ptolemy on its journey to Siwa from Babylon, and buried in Memphis;[11] Ptolemy II later transported Alexander’s body to Alexandria and the cult consequently surrounded this newly glorified tomb. This relocation of Alexander’s tomb illustrates the possible veneration, and governmental propaganda, associated with Alexander even in the generations after his death. The deification in Egypt is perhaps understandable considering his position as a Pharaoh, as thus he was already considered a god. Alexander in Egypt fulfilled his position as Pharaoh whilst the Ptolemies ‘accepted’ and even expressed his divinity in order to assert and verify their own dynasty. Alexander also received sacrifice and honors, which proves the extent of worship involved, and implies it was not purely politically motivated.

It is uncertain whether Ptolemy I endorsed the official cult in order to venerate Alexander, if he used Alexander’s name to validate his own later deification by his son, or perhaps to successfully create his dynasty in the image of Alexander. Richard Stoneman suggests Ptolemy’s shrewd actions, stating, Alexander’s ‘tomb became a talisman of Ptolemy’s own kingly rule in Egypt.’[12] Ptolemy’s beliefs can never be confirmed, yet it is unlikely he thought Alexander, his former friend, a god. Therefore the cult of Alexander perhaps revered Alexander as a hero, much like classical hero worship, and a military genius, but only to the Egyptian populace was the shrine any more than a piece of propaganda. However Helen Lund, on observing the importance of the cult to Hellenistic society in its ritual context, suggests the cult and tomb was not a mere ‘mark of empty flattery’.[13] Whereas H. Bell suggests Ptolemy ‘relied’ on Alexander’s tomb only for his propaganda.[14] Realistically it would have been impious for Ptolemy to have falsely deified Alexander, yet Alexander was not buried in Siwa as he had wished, which suggests Ptolemy did use Alexander to emphasize his own power, with mutual political and religious benefits. Arrian in his Campaigns of Alexander is often scornful of Alexander’s ‘divinity’, which perhaps suggests his cult was merely a political creation; although Arrian's stoical view of Alexander is culturally biased. In literature even Curtius acknowledges Alexander’s memorable tomb, where ‘every mark of respect continues to be paid to his memory and his name.’[15] Thus when considering Ptolemy’s other religious representations of Alexander, in both statues and coinage, it is quite probable that he acknowledged Alexander’s greatness and thus expressed it as divine, as Alexander had himself endorsed.

Throughout the history of Alexander there has been an abundance of sources, each attempting to portray Alexander according to their own cultural and personal biases. The three foremost mediums of representing Alexander appear in coinage, art and literature. However there is often a marked contrast between visual representations of Alexander, where ‘elite’ sculpture is created for the purpose of admiring Alexander, whereas coinage also remained for economic stability and propaganda alike. Alexander’s appearance on early Hellenistic coinage represents religious recognition and piety, depicting Alexander with the ram’s horns of Ammon, yet the predominant political propaganda, in order to legitimize kingship, is also highly apparent. Likewise the tomb of Alexander places divine significance and cultic practice onto his body, whilst still creating emphasizing Ptolemy’s dynasty and celebrating his kingship. The cult specifically places divine rites on Alexander, whereas in statuary there is only a hint of religious practice through his tilted, reverent head. Alexander was often immortalized and idealized in sculpture and art, portraying a youthful, handsome and fortunate face. This shows that he was not only a vital figure in his own time, but also to many later epochs.


M.M. Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1981)

H.I. Bell, Egypt from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest- A Study in the Diffusion and Decay of Hellenism (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1948)

M. Bieber, Alexander the Great in Greek and Roman Art (Chicago, Argonaut Publishers: 1964)

P. Cartledge, P. Garnsey & E. Gruen eds., Hellenistic Constructs- Essays in Culture, History and Historiography (Los Angeles, University of California Press: 1997)

A. Cohen, The Alexander Mosaic- Stories of Victory and Defeat (USA, Cambridge University Press: 1997)   

M. Grant, The Hellenistic Greeks- From Alexander to Cleopatra (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson: 1982)

C.M. Havelock, Hellenistic Art- The Art of the Classical World from the Death of Alexander the Great to the Battle of Actium (London, Phaidon Press: 1971)

A.J. Heisserer, Alexander the Great and the Greeks- The Epigraphic Evidence (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press: 1980)

A. Jones, The Greek City from Alexander to Justinian (New York, Oxford University Press: 1940)

H. Lund, Lysimachus- A study in early Hellenistic kingship (London, Routledge: 1992)  

S. Sherwin-White, Hellenism in the East (London, Duckworth: 1987) 

G. Shipley, The Greek World After Alexander 323-30 BC (London, Routledge: 2000)

R. Stoneman trans., Pseudo-Callisthenes, The Greek Alexander Romance (London, Penguin Books: 1991) 

F.W. Walbank, The Hellenistic World (Glasgow, Fontana: 1981)

J. Yardley trans., Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander (London, Penguin Books: 1984) 

P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (USA, The University of Michigan Press: 1988)   


[1] Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander 7.27

[2] Bell, (1948) p.33

[3] Lund, (1992) p.162

[4] Bieber, (1964) pp.52-53

[5] Walbank, (1981) p.26 & Shipley, (2000) p.22

[6] Lund, (1992) p.57

[7] Lund, (1992) p.163 & Bieber, (1964) p.54

[8] Shipley, (2000) p.21

[9] Cohen, (1997) p.187

[10] Bieber, (1964) p.52

[11] Stoneman, (1991) p.4

[12] Stoneman, (1991) p.4

[13] Lund, (1992) p.92

[14] Bell, (1948) p.33

[15] Curtius, The History of Alexander 10.10.20