About This Artwork

Greco-Egyptian, probably minted in Alexandria, Egypt

Octodrachm (Coin) Portraying Queen Arsinoë II, Ptolemaic Period (after 270 BC), issued by King Ptolemy II or III

Diam. 2.9 cm; 27.76 g

Gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4934

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

Until the Hellenistic period, it was very rare for the portrait of a queen to appear on a coin. However, Arsinoe’s status as the daughter of Ptolemy I and the sister and wife of Ptolemy II earned her this posthumous honor. Arsinoe ruled equally with her brother-husband, contributing especially to the success of Egypt’s foreign policy.

—Permanent collection label

Arsinoë was the first born of Ptolemy I, the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty. She was ambitious, ruthless, and a capable co-ruler with her husband, Ptolemy II, who was also her brother. She advertised the family’s close relationship with Alexander the Great by embracing his adoption of the god Zeus Amon. Like Alexander, Arsinoë is shown on her coins with a tiny ram’s horn beside her ear, almost hidden by her veil.

— 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, 1994 - February 22, 2004 and May 16, 2004 - February 2012.

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

The Art Institute of Chicago, Neither Man nor Beast: Animal Images on Ancient Coins, Gallery 55, 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

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. 64, fig. 4-9, p. 93 (cat. 41).

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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