A Blog of the Global Justice Movement

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Common Cause, Part V: Alexander the Great

Not all currency unions resulted from common trading interests or even commercial necessity. While probably not the first monetary union (and certainly not directly intended as such), the Hellenization of the Near East, North Africa, and Asia that resulted from the conquests of Alexander had the effect of imposing a common currency — the Macedonian silver Tetradrachm — on virtually the whole of the known world (and much that was unknown) during Alexander's reign.

The Son of Phillip

The common currency itself did not last any longer than Alexander's short-lived empire. Its influence, however, lasted for many centuries as the effects of the Hellenization of Asia persisted. Throughout this posting, the practice of referring to the Macedonians as "Greeks" will be used, and the two terms will be used interchangeably. While not entirely accurate, this is common historical practice, and Macedonians were recognized at the time as being at least "marginally" Greek. Macedonian was a dialect of Greek, and Macedon was allowed to participate in the Olympic Games.

Much that Alexander accomplished was made possible only by building on the achievements of his father, Philip II. It was Philip who developed the powerful Macedonian Phalanx that revolutionized the warfare of the period by adding the possibility of maneuvering in other than a forward direction. (Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander, London: Penguin Books, 1984, 3.2.13-16.)

Philip II had also instituted a complete reform of the coinage, part of which involved altering the weights of his coins to match the Attic standard. He instituted the first regular coinage of gold in Greece, and his silver Tetradrachm issues were recognized standards throughout the Græco-Roman and Celtic world. The gold Staters with the head of Apollo were minted in such great numbers that they lowered the ratio of silver to gold in Greece from twelve-to-one, to ten-to-one. (John Anthony, Collecting Greek Coins, London: Longman Group Ltd., 1983, 89.) Philip's gold Staters were issued for twenty years after his death, and were copied throughout Europe, even as far away as Britain.

Philip's coins were the ones most often found copied by the Celtic tribes until Roman influence became predominant. These were copied and recopied to such an extent that the design is sometimes so distorted that the ultimate origin can only be found by tracing the stylistic lineage. (Vide Derek Allen, An Introduction to Celtic Coins. London: British Museum Publications, Ltd., 1978.) What was apparently Philip's final issue before his assassination displays evidence of a large and hurried coinage that was probably intended to finance his invasion of Asia.

On to Persepolis

Almost immediately upon his ascension to the throne following his father's death at the hands of his own guards, Alexander instituted another coinage reform. The blame for the assassination was later placed on Darius to provide a justification for the Persian war (Curtius, 4.1.12.). Alexander's coinage, too, was apparently intended to finance the continuation of the Asian invasion under the new king, and used the same symbols that marked Philip's last coins. It did, however, employ a heavier weight standard and introduced the use of the head of Herakles, legendary founder of the Argead dynasty of Philip and Alexander, on the larger silver issues. This was to become the distinctive feature of the coins of Alexander, no matter where they were minted.

The use of the head of the god-hero had previously been confined to coins of smaller denomination, with the head of Jupiter (Zeus-Pater), as on the coins of Philip, adorning the two Drachma and above. It was with this Zeus head of Philip that the Celts of the Danubian Basin took such liberties, transforming the basic design into something entirely alien to tastes that regarded the Apollo Belvedere as the height of artistic effort. (Allen, op. cit., 21-27.)

Alexander's coinage reform appeared to have been solely for the purpose of financing his Persian expedition. There was apparently no thought of establishing a common currency for the potential conquered areas. This was a reflection of Alexander's policy of war for the sake of conquest itself. There was little, if any, thought given to establishing or reforming necessary political, social, or economic institutions. All of the historians of Alexander's career are clear on one thing, however they may differ on details: Alexander conquered the world for his personal glory; because it was his fate or "Fortune" to do so.

The coinage reform was clearly carried out in support of his military aspirations. It was not a move to consolidate political influence or bolster economic institutions. Unlike some other rulers, Alexander is believed to have had a direct hand in the coinage reform. He had to have been aware of the advantages that a uniform coinage gave to bringing order and consistency to his administration, (Ian Carradice and Martin Price, Coinage in the Greek World, London: Seaby, 1988, 109.) and this was one of the remarkably few times Alexander paid attention, however superficial, to something not directly related to conquest.

Even in this, however, his main interest was financing military operations, not creating a uniform currency, per se. In many instances, a local coinage was continued, with Alexandrine designs, when a change to the Macedonian standard would have been the logical step to consolidate power in the region and integrate its political and economic interests into the rest of the empire. In much of the empire, for example, the Greek gold was supplanted by an Alexandrine Daric to the Persian standard, simply because the local population was familiar with the Persian coin.

The Monetary Campaigns of Alexander

Alexander's career of conquest is much too lengthy and involved to cover here in any practical way. Suffice it to say that as he marched across Asia toward India, Alexander captured what his chroniclers describe as "vast treasure" whenever he took another city. Realistic modern estimates still measure the amount of precious metal obtained in this fashion by the ton.

Much of this was turned into Tetradrachms and minor silver coinage. There are occasional comments that so many talents of prize or tribute metal were in coined money. Types are not mentioned, but any coinage was presumably melted and restruck to the Alexandrine standard. Arrian (Lucius Flavius Arrianus Xenophon ["Xenophon" was not a nickname, but part of Arrian's name, given to him in honor of the earlier Greek historian and general. See Philip A. Stadter, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, No. 8, 1967, pp. 155ff.]) mentions rates of pay, but not methods (i.e., specific coins or issues). (Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander, London: Penguin Books, 1969, 7.23.) Military, not financial, history was the chief concern of Alexander's chroniclers. We must go to later researchers to gain information about his coinage policies. Fortunately these are abundantly available, matching the abundance of the coins themselves.

By far the greatest output of Alexander's mints was the huge quantity of Tetradrachms (four Drachma pieces) that were shipped home to Macedon, used to finance local military expenditures, or paid out as the bonuses and bounties mentioned several times in the histories (not always in a flattering light). In some areas, coinage was struck to the local standard, but employed imperial designs. By and large, however, local silver and gold was restruck to the imported Macedonian standard.

With some notable exceptions (particularly in Alexander's Dekadrachm — ten Drachma — series [Charles Seltman, Greek Coins, A History of Metallic Currency & Coinage Down to the Fall of the Hellenistic Kingdoms. London: Spink & Son, Ltd., 1977, 213-214.]), designs are similar for all imperial issues. The obverse shows Herakles wearing the famous Nemean Lion headdress or, sometimes, an elephant headdress. After Alexander's self-deification, the horns of Ammon-Ra, turned into "Ammon-Jupiter" by the Greeks, appear on Herakles. This had the effect of merging the various gods and the person of the king into a single symbolic entity. (John Anthony, Collecting Greek Coins. London: Longman Group, Ltd., 1983, 59.) The portrait of Herakles/Zeus/Ammon is thought by many to have been modeled by Alexander himself. This suggested to the Greeks that he was committing blasphemy by giving himself godly attributes, or even deifying himself, instead of, as he maintained at first, simply honoring his presumed ancestor.

The most common reverse shows a seated god, Zeus Olympios. This was evidently modeled on the famous statue of Zeus at Olympus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The god was shown holding a scepter in one hand, and a Macedonian eagle, the symbol of Alexander's house, in the other. Alexander's name also usually appears on the reverse of his coins along with various symbols indicative of the mint of issue.

Alexander's gold coinage, issued in tandem with the posthumous Staters of Philip, shows the head of Athena on the obverse. This was presumably in compliment to Athens, his unenthusiastic ally in the unification of Greece. The reverse depicts the goddess Nike ("Victory"), along with other symbols hopefully indicative of the triumphs to come in the Persian campaign, and which Alexander's issue of Staters was to finance.

Alexander the God

As Alexander progressed through Asia, he adopted more and more Eastern customs in preference to those of his native Macedon. This, to the Greeks, was intolerable. (Arrian, 4.7.) They regarded Persians not only as traditional enemies, but also as degenerate barbarians, in many respects barely human. Unfortunately, as Alexander's power grew, his self-control decreased in proportion. (Arrian, 4.8.)

Alexander had always had a large measure of natural arrogance. The possibly apocryphal story is told of his encounter with Diogenes of Sinope, the philosopher who, legend has it, lived in a tub and carried a lamp in daylight hunting for an honest man. While marching somewhere or other with a contingent of guards, Alexander came across Diogenes sunning himself. One can imagine the lordly manner with which Alexander asked Diogenes if there was anything he wanted. "Yes," came the famous Cynic's answer. "Stop blocking the sun." (Plutarch, "Alexander," 14, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, New York: Random House (Modern Library), p. 810; Arrian, 7.2; etc. Aubrey de Sélincourt notes that the incident is mentioned no less than twenty-two times by writers of antiquity.)

Alexander began demanding that his Macedonians adopt Eastern customs in imitation of the more subservient and flattering Persians. The most insulting of these was performing the full proskynesis when he appeared. (Arrian, 4.9; Curtius, 8.5.9-12.) This ritual involves throwing one's self full-length on the ground, and performing an abject grovel in a characteristic oriental attitude, to paraphrase W. S. Gilbert. This, of course, was anathema to the freedom-loving Greeks, who held that, while a man might be a king, he was still a man. His power was derived directly from the people (who had it from Jove), and he ruled only with their consent. (Arrian, 4.9; Curtius, 8.5.13-21.) Worship of the State — an institution made by man for man — was not in their nature. It is startling to realize that Alexander had Aristotle as his teacher, and yet apparently forgot this basic teaching of the Philosopher's political thought.

Naturally there were mutterings and resentment throughout the ranks. Assassination attempts increased, and they were clearly not undertaken at the instigation of Persian agents. Early in his career, Alexander would often ask for an explanation of an attempted murder, and sometimes set the conspirators free. As time went on, however, he not only punished the guilty with increasingly horrific punishments, but also eliminated on the flimsiest of pretexts many who were guilty only of speaking their minds, or of being insufficiently enthusiastic about the worship of their new god. Quintus Curtius Rufus, the first century Roman historian, relates, in the eighth book of his History of Alexander, the trial and execution of one Callisthenes, whose crime consisted of attempting to warn Alexander about the natural outcome of the course he was pursuing. (See also Arrian, 4.11-14.)

Were Curtius writing of anyone except Alexander, he might be suspected of chronicling a man's descent into madness as absolute power seized hold of an already proud and arrogant nature, and corrupted it. He might even be accused of drawing parallels between Alexander's self-deification as the son of Ammon-Jupiter, and the similar process carried out by the Roman emperors of his own day, and the Nation State in our times. Both deifications were reflected on the respective coinages.

As time went on, Alexander grew more and more violent and bloodthirsty. (Arrian, 4.12-14; Curtius, 10.1.39; 10.4.2.) While Philip II's assassination by his bodyguard at the presumed behest of Persian agents had been the original justification of Alexander's campaigns (although he was only continuing Philip's project), Alexander later began assigning blame for the deed wherever it pleased him, and as occasion demanded. (Curtius, 9.6.25.) So fluid were these accusations that later historians, influenced by studies in psychology, have begun to suspect that Alexander himself may have had a hand in the murder of his own (mortal) father, and was placing guilt elsewhere to assuage his own.

Alexander's Loss of Fortuna

As Alexander established his rule throughout Asia, coinage in the Greek — or, more properly, Alexandrine — style also spread. The mint at Babylon, of Hanging Gardens fame, (Curtius, 5.1.31-35; Diodorus, Universal History, 2.10.1.) began as a means of providing a small output for local use and to replace the previous Persian royal currency, but quickly became the main Asian mint. (Ian Carradice and Martin Price, Coinage in the Greek World. London: Seaby, 1988, 109-110.)

In all, twenty mints were eventually established. The famous Herakles Tetradrachms were minted in such quantities that over 700 obverse dies and 1,300 hundred reverse dies have been identified emanating from Amphipolis, the main mint in Macedon. (Anthony, op. cit., 92.) The difference in number is due to ancient minting techniques, where the obverse die was cut or set into an anvil, while the reverse die was struck with blows from a hammer. This resulted in greater attrition among reverse dies. Fortunately, the Alexandrine mints were able to take advantage of hubbing, invented by the Greeks a short time earlier. This is the process whereby a master die, called a "hub," is engraved in relief. Working dies are produced from this in intaglio as needed. This allows for the production of working dies that are almost exact copies of the master die without having to re-engrave each one. (Thomas W. Becker, The Coin Makers. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970, 40-42.)

Alexander's glory came to an end, or, as Curtius might have put it (the portion of Curtius's book dealing with the events surrounding Alexander's death is lost), his Fortuna abandoned him, very quickly. Although he had faced death scores of times, many times narrowly escaping almost certain death, Alexander was felled by ordinary illness in Babylon when he was barely thirty-five years old. He was on his way back to Macedon, after finally yielding to the urging of his armies to return home.

It was a most inopportune time to die. Although Alexander had appointed regents and governors in the conquered areas as he went along, (See, e.g., Arrian, 3.5-6.) everything was still ad hoc. Rebellions broke out at every rumor of Alexander's death, serious wounding, or illness. The critical importance of his long-delayed return to Macedon cannot be overstated. He had to take time to consolidate his conquests and establish an administration on a solid footing. Having gained the entire world, it was now long past the time when he should have been establishing the political, social and economic institutions needed to continue the life of his new empire for generations to come.

One of the institutions that Alexander didn't have time to organize on a lasting basis was that of a common currency for the whole empire. The fact that when Alexander died nearly everyone was using the same currency was merely by default. There was no consistent attempt to create an official standard for the empire; things fell into it based on military exigencies rather than political and economic needs. It wasn't long before the Macedonian standard faded from the scene.

The Failure of Social Justice

It is tempting to say that Alexander's empire was created in order to fall apart. One of the classic aphorisms about wealth is, "easy come, easy go." No one had ever managed to accumulate a greater proportion of the wealth of the known world than Alexander, and no one had done it in a shorter time. It made poetic sense that it was doomed to dissolve even more quickly than it had been created.

Conquest to gratify one's own ego or fortuna is not the most solid foundation on which to build an empire — or anything else. The State is an institution specifically designed and intended to take care of the common good: the vast network of institutions within which humanity as political animals acquires and develops virtue, thereby becoming more fully human. (Vide William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., Introduction to Social Justice. Arlington, Virginia: Center for Economic and Social Justice, 1997.) When the institutions of the common good, especially money and credit and private property, are subverted to serve individual ends, only disaster can result. As William Ferree explained,
The first great law [of social justice] . . . is "that the Common Good of all society be kept inviolate." (Quadragesimo Anno, op. cit., § 57.) The meaning of this law is that in all private dealings, in all exercise of individual justice, the Common Good must be a primary object of solicitude. To attack or to endanger the Common Good in order to attain some private end, no matter how good or how necessary this latter may be in its own order, is social injustice and is wrong. The Common Good is not a means for any particular interests; it is not a bargaining point in any private quarrel whatsoever; it is not a pressure that one may legitimately exercise to obtain any private ends. It is a good so great that very frequently private rights — even inviolable private rights — cannot be exercised until it is safeguarded. (Ferree, op. cit., 35)
If the lack of institutional support for the continuation of the empire were not enough, there was no heir-apparent when Alexander died. His only son was born a few months after his death, and was half-Persian in the bargain. This did not lend the situation any stability. His half-brother was considered unfit to rule, suffering from the "falling sickness," probably epilepsy. Alexander's generals wasted no time before they began positioning themselves to take over as much of the empire as each could handle. The fiction was maintained for a while that they were keeping the empire "in trust" for Alexander's son, known at his birth as "Philip III," but this was nothing more than a move to gain time while each one gathered support.

The Dissolution

As the empire broke up into warring kingdoms, coinage policies followed those of the empire for a while. During the "regency" of the generals, coins were struck in Philip's name, but that fantasy was soon put to rest. Coinage began reverting to local indigenous styles, the outlying areas going first (although often retaining some degree of Greek influence, such as some of the issues in post-Alexandrine India), with some notable exceptions. The coins of Bactria, for example, maintained high standards for a relatively long period of time, compared with other areas in the hinterlands, and Bactrian numismatics presents us with some stunning examples of the coin maker's art. Specimens of Bactrian Dekadrachms in the Danish Royal Museum's coin cabinet in Copenhagen, some of them unique, which I have had the opportunity to examine at close hand, are without peer in any age.

While Alexander is remembered for having carried out conquests unrivaled in history, his ultimate failure was even more spectacular than his success. He clearly had no plan beyond conquest itself. Unlike Rome or England, for example, there was no concept of bringing the "benefits of civilization and law" to benighted and backward areas. Even Napoleon and Hitler had a concept of extending existing institutions to the rest of Europe and, most likely, the world — whether the rest of the world wanted it or not. Alexander, however, carried out a vast plan of conquest simply because it was his "Fortune" to do so.

In the end, Alexander's fate was to be remembered for actions that, as far as history was concerned, had few consequences aside from the Hellenization of Asia. This was largely confined to the ruling classes, and rejected by the native peoples, sometimes violently, as with the revolt of the Jews under Judas Maccabæus. Even his self-deification was remembered only as either a politically astute move to sway confused conquered peoples to his side, or as an example of a power-crazed mind descending into complete unreality. (Arrian, 3.4, 7.29; Plutarch, 33.1.) There was no cult worshipping Alexander the god after his death, only Alexander the brilliant general. It even escapes most people's notice that he was, nominally at least, king of Macedon as well as an outstandingly successful campaigner. His coinage policies and imperial currency followed the same fate as Alexander himself. While specific types continued to be minted in many areas, the common currency did not outlast his short-lived empire.


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