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Coins and Power: Early Hellenivstic Coin Portraiture from the Ptolemies to the Seleukids

AFTER the death of Alexander III of Macedon in 323 BC, his vast empire spanning from Greece to Bactria was carved up among the so-called Διάδοχοι (‘diadochoi’, translating to successors) through what are commonly referred to as the ‘Wars of the Diadochi’ (322–281 BC).

At the end of these complex wars, spanning about fifty years, the three main dynasties that we encounter are the Seleukid dynasty in Asia, the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, southern Syria and parts of Asia Minor, and the Antigonid dynasty in Macedon and Greece (with the exception of the territories of the Aetolian League).

The Macedonian Empire, 336-323 B.C. AND Kingdoms of the Diadochi in 301 BC and 200 BC. Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1911

In the second half of the fourth century BC, Hellenistic kingship cultivated a new form of rulership based on personal charisma. Alexander provided the basic model for this, which Hellenistic kings drew upon for their iconography. Although all contemporary bronze statues of Alexander by his personal sculptor, Lysippos, are lost, there are some surviving originals. These are mostly posthumous, often small in scale, and they display Alexander as a god according to the posthumous cult of Alexander.

Portraits that might be contemporary to Alexander survive in copies — see, for instance, the Azara Alexander, the Dresden Alexander, and the Erbach Alexander. The essential features of these portraits are a clean-shaven face, a thick wreath of hair, an ‘anastole’ (a dramatic upswing of hair above the middle of the forehead), a diadem, and a sense of dynamism: symbols which would be adopted by the Hellenistic kings. The diadem was not a crown in Macedonian tradition ­– instead, it signalled military victory, thus declaring right of kingship through military prowess rather than dynastic claim. The Diadochi thus became ‘warlords claiming a new-style legitimacy’, (Smith 2019, 75) asserted through their personal charisma and military success.

In the third century BC, these Hellenistic kings commissioned a large number of bronze statues for sanctuaries, cities, and royal capitals. Sadly, the bronzes have been long lost and only a handful of portraits survive in marble, largely because Romans preferred imagines illustrium—portraits of famous Greek writers and thinkers from all periods—over portraits of kings to adorn their villas. These surviving portraits are mostly disembodied heads, despite the fact that Greek ruler portraits were always full statues. This makes numismatics an invaluable source of information regarding the portraits of the Hellenistic rulers, and a particularly interesting source when considering Kingly power.

Coin 1: Tetradrachm, minted posthumously in Amphipolis (ca. 323–315 BC) in the name of Philip II; the head of Zeus on the obverse; nude youth on horseback holding a palm branch on the reverse; sold by Apollo; lot 4.

As Kroll (2007, 113) puts it: ‘‘the appearance of a ruler’s portrait on a Greek coinage was something new and even quite radical in the late fourth and early third centuries.’ Alexander himself never minted coins with his portrait, and neither did his father Philip II (see, for instance, coin 1).

According to a long-standing convention in Greek numismatic design, the heads depicted on the obverses of coins were gods—e.g. for Philip II, Apollo and Zeus; for Alexander III (‘the Great’), Athena and Heracles (see, for instance, coin 2). Because of the deep religious dimension infused into coinage, the convention that only gods were to be depicted on coins could not be set aside lightly (Kroll 2007, 113).

Coin 2: Tetradrachm by Alexander III, lifetime issue (ca. 330–323 BC), Damascus mint. The obverse depicts Herakles wearing the Nemean’s lion scalp. The reverse shows a seated Zeus holding an eagle and a sceptre; sold by Apollo, lot 2.

However, as early as ca. 320 BC, Ptolemy I started substituting the head of Herakles with portraits of Alexander wearing an elephant headdress or Ammon horns (see, instance, coin 3). Animal horns were not part of the Olympian gods’ iconography ­– instead, they alluded to Alexander’s specific claim to divinity through descent from Zeus Ammon, without suggesting a direct association with the traditional Olympian gods’ iconography.

Coin 3: Tetradrachm by Lysimachos of Thrace, Sardis Mint, ca. 297–287 BC. The obverse depicts a deified Alexander the Great with Ammon horns; the reverse shows a seated and armoured Athena holding Nike; sold by Apollo, lot 27.

However, in 305/4, in an extraordinary gold stater (coin 4) minted shortly after Ptolemy assumed the royal title, Alexander is shown on the reverse holding a thunderbolt in an elephant-drawn chariot, and on the obverse appears the head of Ptolemy himself. This is the first coin portrait of a living Hellenistic Greek king, and would soon replace the head of Alexander on Ptolemy’s silver coinage. This paved the way for the other dynasties of Hellenistic rulers to issue right-facing, diademed portraits of themselves on coins that we see for the remainder of the Hellenistic Age and beyond.

A selection of artefacts will illustrate how the three dynasties considered in this article—the Ptolemies, the Antigonids, and the Seleukids—operated within the broad but definable limits set by Alexander’s portraits whilst making changes that answered the needs of specific dynasties in their own iconographical choices (e.g. dynastic continuity for the Ptolemies).


This gold coin was minted by Ptolemy II, the son of Ptolemy I and Berenice I, after 270 BC. The obverse of the coin depicts Ptolemy II in the foreground and his sister and wife Arsinoe II in the background. Ptolemy is displayed clean-shaven, with a full head of curly hair, and wearing a simple diadem knotted at the back of his head according to the standard Hellenistic royal image derived from Alexander’s portraits. However, Ptolemy II’s bulging round eyes, protruding chin, and plump face are distinctly Ptolemaic.

Arsinoe II’s portrait shares the same protruding chin and bulging round eyes. She can only be told apart from her brother/husband by her differing hair (straight and combed backwards) and dress: Ptolemy II is wearing a chlamys wrapped around his neck, while Arsinoe is presumably wearing a peplos that leaves a part of her neck bare. The legend on the top of the coin reads ΑΔΕΛΦΩΝ (‘adelphon’, ‘of the siblings’). The reverse of the coin depicts Ptolemy I and Berenice I, their parents, in a remarkably similar way – the only differences are Ptolemy I’s arched nose and his more flowing locks of hair. For the rest, the portraits on the obverse and reverse of this gold coin are strikingly similar. The legend above Ptolemy II and Berenice I reads ΘΕΩΝ (‘theon’, ‘of the gods’). The remarkable physical similarity in the portraits of the four Ptolemies emphasizes their blood link, and might suggest that the Ptolemies wanted to accent dynastic continuity rather than on the individual reigning kings (Thonemann 2015, 51).    
This coin is quite extraordinary for two reasons: first, until the time of Ptolemy I, coins were reserved for images of divinities, not living kings. Instead, following in his father footsteps, Ptolemy II Philadelphus not only put his image on coins but founded a royal cult, declaring his sister/wife Arsinoe II and himself ‘sibling gods’ (theoi adelphoi). This coin belongs to a series of gold coins minted by Ptolemy II after the establishment of this dynastic cult in 270 BC.

Secondly, the Ptolemies gave unparalleled prominence to their queens (Smith 1991, 207–8), as shown by this gold coin where Berenice and Arsinoe take their place beside their husbands. The Ptolemaic royal couples were regularly presented as a royal pair in statues, in document headings, and in coins. The prominence of their queens becomes a distinctive feature of Ptolemaic artistic production, which displays a wealth of female portrait styles that can only be seen in Egypt in the Hellenistic period.


Marble Herm of Demetrios Poliorcetes. Image Copyright

This marble herm of Demetrios Poliorcetes is a partial copy of what was probably a draped, full-size original statue. This is suggested by the presence of the chlamys wrapped around the neck of the king. The herm was found in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. It is a remarkable and rare find because, as mentioned above, the Roman elite usually preferred portraits of Greek philosophers to kings for home decor.

The Antigonid king is depicted as a youthful, dynamic ruler ­– clean-shaven and with a thick wreath of hair. He has an upward gaze, his neck is slightly turned to the right, with deep-set eyes and his lips are slightly parted. Although not visible from the front, the head is surrounded by a simple band of cloth, i.e. the diadem, which identifies him as a king. All these features are drawn from the idealised,  cedonian king.  

However, Demetrius’ portrait carefully avoids the off-centre parting of the hair (ἀναστολή) which is a distinguishing feature of Alexander’s portraits. Therefore, Demetrius’ portrait subtly evokes but sidesteps an explicit Alexander appearance.  

The Antigonid king is depicted as a youthful, dynamic ruler ­– clean-shaven and with a thick wreath of hair. He has an upward gaze, his neck is slightly turned to the right, with deep-set eyes and his lips are slightly parted. Although not visible from the front, the head is surrounded by a simple band of cloth, i.e. the diadem, which identifies him as a king. All these features are drawn from the idealised, posthumous portraits of Alexander—such as the head in the British Museum from Egypt—which stressed the divine character of the Macedonian king. However, Demetrius’ portrait carefully avoids the off-centre parting of the hair (ἀναστολή) which is a distinguishing feature of Alexander’s portraits. Therefore, Demetrius’ portrait subtly evokes but sidesteps an explicit Alexander appearance.           

The issue of Alexander’s divine status whilst living is still widely debated (see, for instance, Buraselis 2001, 188 vs Badian 1996, 26). However, there is no doubt that after his death, Alexander’s portraits are highly idealised and depict him as god-like. The Hellenistic kings’ portraits also display a variable degree of divinisation, but, as mentioned above, they carefully avoid a simple equation of the king to the Olympians. Demetrius’s herm explicitly refers to his god-like status by means of the bull’s horns that spring from his hair.

Bull’s horns are generally associated with the god Dionysus but do not usually appear on the god’s portraits—some scholars suggest a link with the god Poseidon, while Kroll (2007, 118) maintains that the wearing of bull’s horns to indicate divine power is a Mesopotamian tradition, but neither interpretations are supported by many scholars, who prefer the association with Dionysus (Smith 1993, 207). Therefore, this new iconographical choice hints at the god-like status of Demetrios by implying that the king is similar or has powers comparable to Dionysus without directly equating the god and the king. As Smith (1991, 24) notices, the Hellenistic kings ‘forged their own royal-divine ideal, constructed from a combination of Alexander, divine iconography, and reality.’ However, Demetrios’ portrait seems to display few or no elements of the real Demetrios: divinising physiognomy and Alexander are prevalent in this portrait. 


The main source of Seleukid ruler iconography are coins and seal impressions. Coins were the most common medium of propaganda as they circulated widely and reached different social classes. Early Seleukid coins showed mythological figures associated with the Seleukids (Herakles, Apollo, Zeus, or Athena; see coin 5), their victories (Nike, trophies, fig. 4), and more rarely, their association with Alexander, and the king’s (posthumously-attributed) divinity (e.g. Seleukos as Dionysus, Antiochus as Apollo).

Ancient Greek Tetradrachm, depicting Seleukos I Nikator; sold by Apollo, lot 17.

Erickson (2018, 102) notices that a significant, but often overlooked, change in Seleukid coinage occurs in the reign of Antiochus I (281–261 BC), who places a portrait of himself, a living king, with a diadem and no divine attribute on the obverse of a coin. This breaks with the Greek tradition of placing gods or deceased (deified) kings on the obverse of coins (Kroll 2007, 117). While Erickson (ibid) maintains that this meant that Antiochus I received a ruler cult whilst alive, and, therefore, placed himself on coins as a divinity replacing the Olympians, Kroll (2007, 120) reaches the exact opposite conclusion. He argues that the absence of any divine attribute meant that the Seleukid coin portraits, breaking with a long-standing Greek tradition of placing divine portraits on coins (which, perhaps, was beginning to appear obsolete), were the first in the Greek world to show the kings as human rulers who were worthy of being displayed on such medium by virtue of their authority and rank alone, as the Achaemenid kings had done before them (Kroll 2007, 121).

Seleukid coins usually showed the king in right profile, clean-shaven, with a full head of hair surrounded by a plain diadem, often tied with a ribbon at the back: a clear, but subtle reference to Alexander’s portrait type. The appearance of horns on the portraits of Seleukos I (see coin 7) is particularly interesting to analyse.

The Seleukid kings were continuously liaising with the elites of each regional area of their vast empire in an effort to gain legitimisation and retain their power. To do so, the Seleukids had to redefine their identity in each specific situation and adapt their visual imagery to draw political support from each area within their empire. Therefore, their political context is a major factor affecting their royal iconographical choices.   

Coin 7: Seleucus I portrait on Antiochus I tetradrachm (17.09 g)[1] • Obverse: Diadem head of Seleucus I with bull’s horn; • Reverse: Apollo with bow seating on omphalos.

An instance of this can be discerned in the adoption of taurine symbolism by Seleukos I (Hoover 2011). Although no statues survive in the material record, Libanius (Lib. Or II.123) reports of a statue of Seleukos I wrestling a bull at Antioch. Moreover, Seleukos’ connection with this type of iconography is confirmed by the horned portraits of Seleukos I, which appeared under the reign of his son Antiochos I on coinage and seals produced to commemorate Seleukos’ apotheosis in 281 BC. Bull’s horns were also added to horses and elephants, which were other animals used to represent Seleukos on coins. Furthermore, in the 290s and 280s BC, the obverse of Seleukid bronze coins frequently featured a charging or a standing bull (Hoover 2011, 1998).        

Hoover (2011, 217) argues that Seleukos chose this type of iconography because bulls appealed to all the main ethnic components of Seleukos’ empire (Graeco-Macedonian, Iranian, Babylonian, and Syrian) and was associated with pre-existing ideas of royal and divine power. As regards the Graeco-Macedonians, the bulls’ connection to Dionysus, one of the most important gods in the Macedonian pantheon, served to reinforce Seleukos’ conformity to the traditional image of a good Macedonian king and help assuage the Macedonian xenophobia that had already caused problems during the last years of Alexander’s reign, following the great king’s adoption of some orientalising practices (e.g. proskynesis). Moreover, the iconographical association of Selelukos to Dionysus was also good in terms of propaganda for, like the god, the first Seleukid king was also depicted as the conqueror of Asia (Hoover 2011, 202).

On the other hand, bulls were also a key animal in ancient Babylonian religion, for the ‘Cattle god’ was one of the original deities mentioned in the Theogony of Dunnu, and the Epic of Gilgamesh featured a ‘bull of Heaven’ used by the gods to punish men (Hoover 2011, 204). Moreover, the importance of this animal for the Babylonian religion could be inferred from Babylon’s public monuments: the Ishtar Gate, for instance, was adorned with many bas-reliefs of bulls. The bull was also a central animal in Zoroastrianism, the semi-national religion of Iran, and Ahura Mazda was referred to as ‘the fashioner of the cow’ (Hoover 2011, 210). Moreover, the Achaemenid palaces used by the Seleukids featured many taurine decorations; the walls of Susa were embellished winged bulls of glazed brick.

Although it is feasible that Seleukos was not familiar with the specificities of each of these two religions, he recognised the importance of this animal for each one, and it is reasonable to suppose that the king wanted his subjects to interpret taurine symbolism according to their own religion. Through taurine iconography, Seleukos linked himself to the Babylonian pantheon and the native Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism, which associated bulls with concepts of legitimacy and holiness. By adopting bull’s iconography, Seleukos I demonstrated his abilities as a politician: with a single image he managed to appeal to the most disparate religious traditions within his empire, thus reinforcing his legitimacy and power.


The analysis of the ruler portraiture in the early Hellenistic Age has shown that the Hellenistic rulers followed what Thonemann (2016, 66) calls ‘a shared visual language of kinship’ for their portraits, especially with regards to coinage: the ruler is usually shown in right profile, clean-shaven, with a full head of hair surrounded by a plain diadem, often tied with a ribbon at the back.This iconography, taken over from Alexander’s portraits, was chosen not only because it linked the various kings to their illustrious ‘ancestor’, thus reaffirming their legitimacy, but also because the Hellenistic kings were constantly at war with each other as well as with the local populations within their kingdoms. Since kings struck coins mainly to pay soldiers, many of which were mercenaries, a shared, recognisable, iconographical language on coins would have guaranteed the acceptance of payment (Kroll 2007, 113). As such, it is clear that the visual language of coins is key to understanding concepts of power in early Hellenistic kingship.

Further Reading/Sources

Badian, E. (1996). ‘Alexander the Great between Two Thrones and Heaven: Variations on an Old Theme’, in A. Small (ed), Subject and Ruler: The Cult of the Ruling Power in Classical Antiquity: Papers Presented at a Conference Held in the University of Alberta on April 13-15, 1994, to Celebrate the 65th Anniversary of Duncan Fishwick (1996). Ann Arbor, MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 11–26.

Buraselis, K. (2001). ‘Political Gods and Heroes’, in A. Barzanò (ed.), Modelli eroici dell’antichità europea. Rome: l’Erma di Bretschneider, 185–197.

Erickson, K. (2018). Another century of gods? A re-evaluation of Seleukid ruler cult. CQ: 1–15.

Hoover, O. (2011). ‘Taurine imagery as a multicultural expression of royal and divine power under Seleukos I Nikator’, in P. Iossif, A. Chankowski, and C. Lorber (eds) More than Men, Less than Gods. Studies on royal cult and imperial worship. Proceedings of the international colloquium organized by the Belgian school at Athens (November 1-2, 2007).
Leuven: Peeters, 197–228.

Kroll, J. H. (2007). ‘The Emergence of Ruler Portraiture on Early Hellenistic Coins: The Importance of being divine’. In P. Schultz and R. von den Hoff, Early Hellenistic portraiture: image, style, context. New York: Cambridge University Press, 113–122.

Smith, R. R. R. (1991). Hellenistic Sculpture: a Handbook. London: Thames and Hudson.

Smith, R. R. R. (1993). ‘Kings and Philosophers’, in A. W. Bulloch, E. S. Gruen, A. A. Long, and A. Stewart 8eds), Images & Ideologies: Self-Definition in the Hellenistic World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 202–211.

Smith, R. R. R. (2019). ‘Diadems, Royal Hairstyles, and the Berlin Attalos’. In S. Hemingway and K. Karoglou, Art of the Hellenistic Kingdoms. New York, New Haven, London: Yale University Press.

Thonemann, P. (2015). The Hellenistic world: using coins as sources. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thonemann, P. (2016). The Hellenistic Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

All of the ancient artefacts included in this article have been offered for auction by Apollo. Many are sold but please get in touch is you’re interested in purchasing similar pieces from us by emailing info@apollogalleries.com.