Gainesville, MO (PRWEB) February 18, 2007
As the new George Washington portrait dollar coins begin to spread through the country in the coming weeks, Americans are extending a tradition of Western civilization that goes back more than 2,000 years: honoring former leaders on struck coinage. Coins with portraits of our next three presidents, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, will be issued later this year.
Ptolemy I, king of Egypt until 283 B.C., ordered silver coins struck bearing the portrait of his predecessor Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. Ptolemy was made Satrap of Egypt and quickly consolidated his position as the founder of the last Egyptian dynasty.
King Ptolemy’s earliest coins probably represent the first instance of the leader of a major independent nation being commemorated on coins, according to Wayne G. Sayles, author of half-a-dozen reference books on ancient coins. “From the standpoint of art history, there has always been a tendency for governments or leaders to affirm their legitimacy by honoring popular predecessors on coins,” says Sayles.
The goal behind the U.S. Mint’s thrust to establish a viable circulating one dollar coin is based on money itself. Coins are capable of circulating for as long as hundreds of years, while paper money is fragile, expensive and must be replaced frequently. If the current effort to replace the dollar bill with a new dollar coin is successful, the United States will save many millions of dollars in future years. Toward that end, the Federal Reserve which distributes coins on behalf of the mint says it has ordered more than 300 million of the Washington coins.
While American coins circulate mainly in the United States, American hundred dollar bills, silver dollars and gold coins, have long acted as a form of “international currency” and have been used for more than 100 years even in tiny local markets in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Similarly, in the time of Alexander the Great and his successors, coins were struck and circulated in their capitals. The same or almost identical coins circulated throughout all countries of the classical world, but were also struck at scores of mints spread throughout Europe and Asia.
Harlan Berk, author of several ancient coin reference books and a leading dealer of ancient coins based in Chicago, points out that the tradition of portraying current rulers on coins “lasted to the end of the Greek Hellenistic era and was bridged to the Romans by Marc Antony and Cleopatra. In fact, from Julius Caesar forward, all Roman Emperors placed their portraits on coinage.”
The tradition in the United States is never to depict living leaders on circulating coins or currency, but ancient and modern coin expert David Vagi points out that “we do have official inaugural medals and other medals that depict contemporary presidents.”
Vagi, author of Coinage and History of the Roman Empire, adds that “unlike the Greeks and the Romans we do not see our past leaders as Gods, but we venerate them nevertheless. It is no coincidence that the U.S. issues coins to commemorate our former presidents. It is a concept we inherited directly from the Europeans and the Greeks and Romans before them. It has been a tradition of Western civilization at least since the death of Alexander the Great.”
Ironically, Alexander the Great, whose government struck many millions of bronze, silver, and gold coins before his death in 323 B.C., apparently did not have his own face put on coins. Alexander was, however, a “media darling” of his day explains ancient coin collector Peter K. Tompa.
“Alexander literally spread the news of his victories over the Persian Empire by putting the portrait of the legendary Herakles (later known as Hercules), who he claimed to be his glorious ancestor, on millions of silver coins struck from silver he took from the Persian treasury.”
Tompa, also an attorney who represents coin collectors and dealers in Washington, D.C., says that today “numismatic scholars debate how much that portrait of Herakles might have resembled Alexander himself.”
Ptolemy of Egypt certainly used the portrait of his boyhood friend Alexander the Great on his coins in order to help consolidate his own claims to power as one of Alexander’s successors.
By contrast, George Washington, himself a scholar of the Republican traditions of early Rome, rejected efforts to have his own portrait placed on coins of the United States. In fact, it was not until 1932 when Washington’s image first appeared on the twenty-five cent piece, or quarter. The first image of a former American president on a circulating coin was that of Abraham Lincoln on the one cent piece in 1909, which would have been Lincoln’s 100th birthday.
Wayne Sayles, executive director of the Missouri based Ancient Coin Collector’s Guild (ACCG) pointed out that millions of genuine ancient coins depicting Greek Kings and Roman Emperors have survived until today, and can often be purchased for as little as $ 20.