LIFE

Silver drachma hoard discovered in Syria

By John Leonard

A cache of 252 silver coins dating from the time of Alexander the Great and his successor, Philip III Arrhidaeus, has been unearthed in northern Syria, according to an announcement by Syria?s official news agency SANA on March 2, 2010. The discovery ? near Najm Castle in the area of Manbij on the west bank of the Euphrates River, about 80 kilometers northeast of Aleppo ? was made by a local man preparing the foundations for his new house. The hoard, found inside a bronze box, consists of coins in two denominations: 137 tetradrachms (four-drachma coins) and 115 drachms (single-drachma coins).

Yousef Kanjo, director of archeological excavations at the Aleppo Department of Archaeology and Museums, reports the obverse sides of both the tetradrachm and drachm coins depict Alexander the Great, while their reverse sides bear an image of the Greek god Zeus sitting on a throne with an eagle on his outstretched right arm. Such coins were minted in Babylon in the last quarter of the 4th century BC under the authority of Philip III Arrhidaeus, whose name was inscribed on them.

The photographs released by SANA, however, show that a number of the gleaming silver coins may have obverse portraits not of Alexander, but of Hercules wearing a lion skin. Hercules was considered Alexander?s heroic ancestor and the real-life Macedonian hero often emulated the demigod?s deeds during his lifetime. Silver tetradrachms and drachms with Hercules on the front and Zeus on the back were issued by various eastern and western mints during the second half of the 4th century BC under the reigns of Alexander the Great and Philip III Arrhidaeus. Among the recently discovered tetradrachms, according to Kanjo, 34 carry the reverse inscription ?King Alexander? in Greek; 81 read ?Alexander;? and 22 are inscribed ?King Philip.? The single-drachma coins bear similar inscriptions, with 100 reading ?Alexander? and 15 ?Philip.? Together, the images and inscriptions suggest that the hoard was buried sometime in the late 4th or early 3rd century BC. After Alexander?s conquest of the Near East in 333-331 BC, the drachma became the common currency throughout much of the region.

Under Alexander?s Seleucid successors, Manbij was established as a major way station for caravans traveling between the cities of Antioch near the Mediterranean coast and Seleucia on the Tigris River.

The cache of ancient Greek silver coins revealed at Manbij is an impressive reminder of the rich trade that once flowed east and west past its doors during Hellenistic times.

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