Monday, October 10, 2011

31. Coin with Head of Alexander (Turkey, 305-281 BC)

Alexander the Great! Now that we’re getting closer to the present, MacGregor can give us an object that focuses mostly on one person. In this case it’s a legendary figure, one, I’ll confess, I first got to know because, years ago, my roommate’s brother was obsessed with the Mary Renault novels about Alexander, Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy; and then from the terrible bio-pic films, the one starring Richard Burton (gag me) and the more recent one with Colin Farrell (barf). Although I’m not so arrogant as to deny meaning to a story that obviously fascinates and entrances millions of people, I gotta confess I’ve never quite understood what all the fuss is about. So he conquered a big empire, so what? It wasn’t a real empire because it didn’t outlast him. How can you call someone an emperor if he never really had an empire, not even to lose it? And the love stories associated with him don’t move me, particularly. There are probably operas about him, but I can’t imagine how they could be interesting.

Alexander-bashing aside, MacGregor’s object, and story, in this podcast is really kind of cool. Here are the first coins we have with a person’s image on them. (The Croesus coin, above, has an icon.) The image, that of the horned Alexander (he’s got horns because those were associated with Zeus Ammon, a composite god of the Greeks and the Egyptians), was stamped on these coins by a successor of Alexander’s to the throne of Macedonia/Persia, one of the people who couldn’t hold it all together. (Of course they couldn’t, no one could, ‘cause it wasn’t really put together—it was like Napoleon’s empire, or Hitler’s, conquered very briefly and then, “Thank God that asshole is out of here, let’s get life back to normal.”) But the attempt, by this lesser son of greater sires, to use Alexander’s image to plume up his rule—it’s the same PR lesson we had with the image of Rameses, and it’s still on our money today: what could make an American more trusting than the image of the boy who never told a lie, George Washington, on our dollar bill? (MacGregor points out that Chairman Mao is still on the main currency unit of China today, which is a little weird.) Alexander has the horns of a god because he is no longer mortal—he’s a mortal who’s become a god, “God save the king,” the authority of the ruler drawing sanctity and power and legitimacy from some shared idea of the divine.

Anyway, in terms of connecting dots, Alexander is a nice link between the story of the Greeks (which everybody ought to know), ‘cause Aristotle was his tutor, and the story of the Romans (which everybody ought to know), ‘cause his sidekick Ptolomey became the first Greek/Egyptian ruler based in Alexandria, starting the family that climaxed in Cleopatra a few centuries later, when Roman Republic became Empire in that great and terrible story. More on all that later...or at least in Shakespeare, who knew better than to try to make a play out of the story of Alexander and Hephaistion and Roxane and little Bagoas.

1 comment:

  1. On the tangential note of Alexander bios . . If you're ever interested in a good read that's simultaneously accessible and historically grounded, I can recommend Pressfield's "Virtues of War." It might not *quite* be literature, but it's genuinely closer to that end of the spectrum than it is to simple "fiction." You won't mistake it for a history text, but culture and custom DO get top billing . .