The impact of Alexander the Great’s coinage in E Arabia

The Hellenic interest in Arabia

In 323 BC Alexander the Great was engaged in preparations for the launch of his new grandiose plans of conquest. In the first stage he certainly intended to conquer and colonize the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf. This expedition was cancelled by the sudden death of the Macedonian ruler in that year at Babylon. However, the Gulf had already become an object of interest. By order of Alexander, Nearchos (the commander of the fleet) and others had partly explored these waters (324-323 BC). Arabia’s importance for the Hellenes laid in its products (incense, spices, metals, gems, etc) and in its intermediary role in the trade between the Far East and the Mediterranean.


Imitations (coin types)

While some of the first coins struck in Arabia were modeled on Athenian tetradrachms and fractions, the most popular coin types adopted in eastern Arabia were those of Alexander III’s tetradrachms and drachms (head of Herakles/Zeus on throne and the legend). The strength of this coinage had been extended beyond the borders of the whole Hellenized world (oikoumene).


Silver tetradrachm issued in the name of Alexander III of Macedonia.
Arados, 242/241 BC (posthumous issue).
British Museum, London, UK.


The imitations in the name of Alexander constitute the principal coinage in eastern Arabia for several centuries. Besides this coin series, there occurs a number of different issues (obols), which on the obverse bear portraits modeled on those of Seleukid rulers, while on the reverse appears again the seated ‘Zeus’ occasionally with the legend . Another large series is constituted by obols or larger denominations with a blank obverse and a seated figure on the reverse.


(issuing authorities and chronology)

Imitative tetradrachms and fractions modeled on the silver coinage of Alexander were issued in eastern Arabia possibly from the second half of the 3rd cent. BC. Some of the earlier issues are seemingly those of the chieftain Abyatha, whose coins show a faithfully imitated head of Herakles on the obverse. Apart from this fact the dating (as well as the location of the mint) of this coinage remains problematic. Some early imitations could be attributed to the mint of Gerra, an important harbour on the north-eastern Arabian coast.


Silver tetradrachm issued in the name of Alexander III of Macedonia.
Gerra (?), c. 250-200 BC (posthumous issue).
British Museum, London, UK.


A significant coin series, which was probably minted at the site of Mleiha in south-eastern Arabia, is that of the chieftain Abi’el. The earliest coins in the name of Abi’el show a seated figure holding an eagle on the reverse and are tentatively dated in the early 2nd cent. BC. On other issues of Abi’el the seated figure is represented holding a horse or a horse’s bust.


Silver tetradrachm issued in the name of the Arab ruler Abi’el;
imitation based on coin types of Alexander III of Macedonia.
Mleiha (?), late 2nd cent. BC.
British Museum, London, UK.


These coins must not have been minted by Abi’el himself, but they could be copies of earlier issues and are tentatively dated in the late 2nd cent. BC. On the other hand, the Seleukid-inspired series and the series with a blank obverse circulated mainly in north-eastern Arabia. The former coinage can be dated from the early 2nd cent. BC to the end of that millennium. The issues of the latter coinage have been struck first in silver, then in debased silver and later in bronze (1st cent. BC). The bulk of the imitations from south-eastern Arabia has been struck on billon. These derivative Abi’el issues (mostly tetradrachms and drachms) should be dated to the 1st cent. BC - 1st cent. AD.


Silver drachm;
Arabian imitation based on coin types of Alexander III of Macedonia.
Eastern Arabia, 2nd cent. BC.
British Museum, London, UK.


Subaerate drachm;
Arabian imitation based on coin types of Alexander III of Macedonia.
South-Eastern Arabia, 1st cent. BC - 1st cent. AD.
British Museum, London, UK.


The role of local imitative coinages
in an international trade route

In the 1st cent. BC the transportation of eastern goods to Rome via the Parthian kingdom could be constricted by the occasional hostilities between the two states. From c. 50 BC onwards alternative routes grew in importance. The eastern goods could be transported from India (with ships utilizing the monsoon winds) to either the Persian Gulf and thence, through the Arabian hinterland, to the Roman territories, or around the Arabian peninsula to the Red Sea and thence to the Mediterranean.


The eastern Arabian coast and the Persian Gulf.
Trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Far East
(Hellenistic - early Roman Imperial period).
(153K map. Please, click to download.)


The abundance of billon imitative issues in south-eastern Arabia from c. 40 BC until c. AD 70 reflects the existence of a debased but still widely accepted coinage using the name and coin types of Alexander.


A surviving legend : Alexander the Great on horseback
(identified as “Alexander the Macedonian” by a misspelled Hellenic inscription).
Coptic textile from Egypt.
Textiles Museum, Washington (DC), USA.

This kind of international currency served commercial affairs in that part of a major trade route.