About This Artwork

Greek, minted in Ephesus, Asia Minor

Tetradrachm (Coin) Portraying Alexander the Great, 306/281 BC, issued by King Lysimachus of Thrace

Diam. 3.1 cm; 16.78 g
"[minted by] King Lysimachus"

Gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4924

Following the untimely demise of Alexander the Great in 323 b.c., his generals, friends, and heirs engaged in forty years of wars over his empire. Lysimachus (r. 323– 281 b.c.), one of Alexander’s companions and bodyguards, used the king’s image on his own coins in order to cast himself in the role of successor and legitimize his claim to the kingdom of Thrace. Alexander, responsible for establishing the conventions of royal portraiture, is depicted in his preferred manner: youthful and clean-shaven, with long locks of hair rising above his forehead and eyes cast heavenward. Additionally, he is shown with horns curling around his ears. These “horns of Ammon” symbolize Alexander’s claim that he was the son of the Egyptian god Ammon—a claim that was confirmed by the oracle at the sanctuary of the composite god Zeus-Ammon at Siwa, Egypt.

On the reverse of the coin Lysimachus exerts his own royal autonomy by naming himself “king.” The goddesses Athena and Nike (Victory) crown his name with laurels, which symbolized victory or honor. The lion on the shield at Athena’s side references Lysimachus’s famous exploit of killing a lion with his bare hands and reinforces his association with Alexander, who used the skin of the Nemean lion as a symbol of power and courage.

— Entry, Essential Guide, 2013, p. 70.

As Alexander’s army swept through the Persian Empire, the king established mints where he converted captured gold and silver into coinage bearing his portrait. Because they were dependable and could be used throughout Alexander’s empire, these coins immediately established Alexander’s authority. The use of realistic portraiture on coinage was copied by his successors. Unique to Alexander’s image, however, is the ram’s horn curling around his ear, which identifies him as the son of the god Zeus Amon, a combination of the Greek god Zeus and the Egyptian god Amon. By including the ram’s horn, Alexander capitalized on the Egyptian tradition in which pharaohs were thought to be gods on Earth.

— 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 155, April 20, 1994 - February 22, 2004 and May 16, 2004 - February 6, 2012.

"Power Struggles: Cleopatra's Relatives and Their Rivals," Gallery 155 (Coin Case), November 2001 - 2007.

Houston, TX, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston"The Centaur’s Smile: The Human Animal in Early Greek Art" 22 February – 16 May 2004.

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

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. 24, fig. 1-8, p. 93 (cat. 37).

The Art Institute of Chicago, The Essential Guide (Art Institute of Chicago, 2013), p. 70.

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, fig. 13.

Karen Manchester, Recasting the Past: Collecting and Presenting Antiquities at the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2012), p. 46.

CLEOPATRA; THE ANCIENT WORLD," Computer program, The Art Institute of Chicago.
Theresa Gross-Diaz in John Griffiths Pedley, Greek Art (Museum Studies: Ancient Art at The Art Institute of Chicago 20, no. 1, 1994), p. 50 (ill.), no. 33.

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