About This Artwork

Greco-Egyptian, minted in Cyprus

Pentadrachm (Coin) Portraying King Ptolemy I Soter, Ptolemaic Period (285–247 BC), issued by King Ptolemy II Philadelphos

Diam. 2.4 cm; 17.82 g

Gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4933

Coinage of Hellenistic Rulers

The Hellenistic period spans the nearly three hundred years between the death of Alexander the Great of Macedonia (323 B.C.) and that of Cleopatra VII of Egypt (30 B.C.), a descendant of one of Alexander’s generals. The term Hellenistic is derived from Hellas, an ancient Greek word for Greece. It is used to describe both chronologically and culturally the era following Alexander’s conquest of Egypt and Asia, which resulted in the spread of Greek culture across a vast area. The melding of local and Greek artistic styles with the luxurious materials captured in the conquered lands resulted in magnificent artwork, including elegant coinage.

Following Alexander’s death, his empire was divided among his generals, who established independent kingdoms in Egypt; Persia; the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea, including Syria and Palestine; Greece and Macedonia; and Thrace. Almost immediately the generals began to covet each other’s land and power.

Kingdom of the Ptolemies

Upon the death of Alexander, his close colleague, Ptolemy I (r. 305–282 B.C.) claimed Egypt as his domain. He was the first Hellenistic king to replace Alexander’s face on his coinage with his own portrait. His dynasty lasted for three hundred years, until the death of Cleopatra, when Egypt was absorbed by the Roman Empire.

—Permanent collection label

The generals who survived Alexander the Great, called the Successors, derived their power from their closeness to Alexander. Ptolemy, a trusted comrade- in-arms in control of Egypt, went so far as to steal Alexander’s body from its funeral cortege on the way to Macedonia and build a tomb for the hero in the new capital, Alexandria. Ptolemy was ambitious to make his city a center of Greek culture. He imported Greek artists who carved this profile likeness of the new pharaoh. Far from the ideally handsome Alexander, Ptolemy had himself portrayed as he was, a rugged military commander.

— Exhibition label, When the Greeks Ruled: Egypt After Alexander the Great, October 31, 2013–July 27, 2014, Gallery 154.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

The Art Institute of Chicago, Ancient Art Galleries, Gallery 154A, April 20, 1994 - February 6, 2012.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Power Struggles: Cleopatra's Relatives and Their Rivals, Gallery 155 (Coin Case), November 2001 - 2007.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Neither Man nor Beast: Animal Images on Ancient Coins, August 29, 2007- February 2012.

The Art Institute of Chicago, When the Greeks Ruled: Egypt After Alexander the Great, October 31, 2013 - July 27, 2014; traveled to New York City, N.Y., the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, October 8, 2014 - January 4, 2015.

Publication History

Theresa Gross-Diaz, “Cat. 22 Tetradrachm Portraying Queen Cleopatra VII: Curatorial Entry,” in Roman Art at the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago, 2016), para 14, fig. 22.3.

Roberta Casagrande-Kim, ed., When the Greeks Ruled Egypt: From Alexander the Great to Cleopatra, exh. cat. (Institute for the Study of the (Ancient World at New York University/Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 63, fig. 4-6, 4-7, p. 93 (cat. 38).

Karen B. Alexander, "From Plaster to Stone: Ancient Art at the Art Institute of Chicago," in Recasting the Past: Collecting and Presenting Antiquities at the Art Institute of Chicago, by Karen Manchester (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2012), p. 29.

Louise Berge and Karen Alexander, "Ancient Gold Work and Jewelry from Chicago Collections," The Ancient World vol. 11, nos. 1 and 2 (1985), p. 22.

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