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Alexandria ad Issum

Each week, these notes share an ancient coin, context for the coin, relevant art, modern references and ancient sources. Sometimes we wander far afield of the coin following the thread of story. The coins range from beautiful works of ancient art to readily available and common coins that are no less interesting for their history.

This week's coin of interest prompts investigation of Alexandria ad Issum (aka Alexandreia Kat'Isson, Alexandretta). The town was reported to have been created by Alexander the Great during his campaign to conquer the Persian empire. As we will discover there are questions about this claim.

Alexander's Campaign

Shortly after gaining the throne, Alexander the Great embarked, in 334 BC, on his campaign to conquer the Persian Empire. The Macedonian military had grown into a dominating force under Philip. Alexander was taking on the quest that his father had barely started before being assassinated in 336 BC.

Alexander fell ill as he reached Cilicia and his physicians were reluctant to treat him. Diodorus Siculus, writing between 60 and 30 BC is an important early source for Alexander's life. He describes the events:

"All the rest [of his physicians] were hesitant to treat him, but Philip the Acarnanian offered to employ risky but quick-acting remedies and by the use of drugs to break the hold of the disease. This proposal the king accepted gladly, for he had heard that Dareius had already left Babylon with his army. The physician gave him a drug to drink and, aided by the natural strength of the sufferer as well as by Fortune, promptly relieved Alexander of the trouble. Making an astonishing recovery, the king honoured the physician with magnificent gifts and assigned him to the most loyal category of Friends."
-Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, 37.31.5

Alexander, quickly restored to health, was ready to continue his campaign. With Darius III not far away, Alexander captured Issos, which Diodorus describes as "a considerable city, which was terrified into submission".

The Battle of Issos

It is perhaps a measure of the widespread interest in this battle that there is a reconstruction of The Mosaic of Alexander the Great battling Darius at the Battle of Issos that can be purchased as a kit. Similarly, there are lego reconstructions of this battle scene.

This portrait of Alexander from the second century BC from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, depicts the battle of Issos (Issus in Latin). The mosaic is thought to be based on a 4th century BC painting.

Darius III's Family

Darius III fled the battle, and Alexander captured his family including Darius' wife, Statira, his mother, Sisgambis, and his daughters, Statira (or Barsine) and Drypetis. Today's coin comes from a city founded after the battle of Issus.

This 16th century painting by Paolo Veronese was clearly not looking for historical accuracy. The painting shows the family of Persian emperor Darius III pleading for mercy from Alexander the Great.

  • the meeting is takes place in a stately hall rather than a military field tent

  • the wardrobe is all Venitian finery from the 16th century

  • portraits include the faces of contemporary Venetians

  • the architecture is more Venitian that ancient Greek or Persian

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), Family of Persian King Darius before Alexander The Great and his friend Hephaestion after the Battle of Issus. Oil on canvas AD 1565 until 1567 from the National Gallery London. Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Here's a more rustic 17th century version of the same story:

Gérard Edelinck (1640–1707) after Charles le Brun (1619-1690), Alexander and Hephaistion Visit the Family of Darius in their Tent after the Battle of Issus, 1661. Diptych engraving.

Here is the work of Charles le Brun that inspired the engraving.

Les reines de Perse aux pieds d'Alexandre dit aussi La tente de Darius, Public Domain image via the Louvre in Paris. The painting is on long term loan to the Château - Domaine National de Versailles, Versailles.

Although Alexander was a brutal opponent in war, these scenes depict a story of Alexander's gracious treatment of his captives. He kindly diverts attention from an awkward moment when Darius' mother mistakes Hephaestion for Alexander.

Fusion of Europe & Asia

Alexander first married was to Roxanne the daughter of the Bactrian King Oxyartes in 327 BC.

Image of Alexander and Roxanne seated side by side (Alexander on the left and Roxanne on the right) from at 17th century illuminated manuscript of Firdawsi's Shahnameh. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Alexander also held a mass wedding in Susa in 324 BC to celebrate the conquest of Persia. WW Tarn (2011) describes this as "an attempt to promote the fusion of Europe and Asia by intermarriage". The event is described by Plutarch and Arrian:

"At Susa he brought to pass the marriage of his companions, took to wife himself the daughter of Dareius, Stateira, assigned the noblest women to his noblest men, and gave a general wedding feast for those of his Macedonians who had already contracted other marriages. At this feast, we are told, nine thousand guests reclined at supper, to each of whom a golden cup for the libations was given. All the other appointments too, were amazingly splendid, and the host paid himself the debts which his guests owed, the whole outlay amounting to nine thousand eight hundred and seventy talents."
- Plutarch, Alexander, 70.2

Arrian calls Stateira by the name Barsine.

"[7.4.4] Then he also celebrated weddings at Susa, both his own and those of his Companions. He himself married Barsine, the eldest of Darius' daughters, and, according to Aristobulus, another girl as well, Parysatis, the youngest of the daughters of Ochus. He had already married previously Roxane, the daughter of Oxyartes of Bactria."
-Arrian of Nicomedia, Anabasis, 7.4.4 

Many Alexandrias

Alexander is considered the founder of ~20 cities in his own name with Alexandria, Egypt the greatest of these cities. The founder of Alexandria ad Issum is traditionally Alexander. I have also seen it referenced as founded by Antigonos Monophthalmos in November of 333 BC on a spot selected by Alexander, about 35 km south of the Issos battlefield. The rationale being that the town (perhaps just military camp) would serve to protect the Cilician coast from inland Syria at the Syrian Gates (a mountain pass), while Alexander advanced on Egypt.

After Alexander's death, this region came under the control of Ptolemy and then Seleucid rule. The authors of Seleucid Coins note but do not explain a modern concern about the historicity of the foundation story. A review of Karsten Dahmens book on Alexander on Greek and Roman coins notes that:

"In later centuries civic coinage often made propagandist use of Alexander as founder: the coins issued at Alexandria kat’ Isson, forinstance, now confounding Alexander’s image with that of Heracles, but more generally the Hellenistic style portrayed the king simply with royal diadem or in the standing pose of a founding hero, whether or not the claim to an Alexander foundation was actually valid."

"Dahmen is careful to qualify identification of the standing figure as Alexander himself rather than the stock founder-hero since there is nothing inherent within the image to produce the equation, except the fact that the cities involved claimed him as their origin. In some cases, like Nicea, Nicomedia or Smyrna, the claim is clearly nebulous or patently fictitious, but it was a useful tool in the armoury of city praise in the years of the second sophistic."
-Stanley Ireland review of Karsten Dahmen's book

Dahmen explains that "founded by Alexander" was often claimed in the rivalry between cities to promote their position as first and greatest city in Cilicia (and more broadly Asia. In the case of Alexandria ad Issum, this competition was with Aigeai.

"Alexandria owes its name to the king, who fought one of his battles near Issos, and in contrast to Aigeai, there is literary evidence from the late Hellenistic period onward, claiming Alexander as its ktistes (founder). The city possibly even at one point had an official seal in use by its magistrate s, which showed a representation of Alexander as herakl;es. But in contrast to the quite impressive record, Alexandria was founded later, most probably either by Antigonos the One-eyed or by Seleukos I."
-K. Dahmen, The legend of Alexander the Great on Greek and Roman coins

Cohen(2006) gives a more comprehensive summary of evidence which all leaves a bit ambiguous whether or not Alexander himself founded Alexandria ad Issum.

See several lists of Alexandrias at the end of this note.

The Bronze Coins

The municipal bronze coins of Alexandria ad Issum can be assigned a broad range for data from after the reign of Antiocheus IV (after 164 BC) until about 27 BC when it became part of the Roman province of Syria-Cilicia under Augustus.

A few examples, plaster casts, from E. Levante's 1971 catalog of coins from Alexandreia kat'Isson. Plate 17 Coin 47 appears to be an obverse die match to my coin.

This small city issued few coins, in the late Hellenistic and Roman Imperial times, and all are rare today. I have found ~22 examples of this coin documented. Although it is worn, this coin is overall appealing with nice patina, reasonably centered, all devices clear, and even wear. The nicest example I have found is shown as Coin ID #4054 at Asia Minor Coins from a CNG Auction in 2006. This coin about 1.5g heavier than the CNG coin, and close the the average of the 11 coins documented by E. Levante, 6.56g with a wide variance of 1.3g.

Alexandria ad Issum, Cilicia, AE (20mm, 6.64g), circa 164-27 BC

Obv: Head of Alexander - Herakles right, wearing lion's skin.

Rev: AΛЄΞANΔPЄΩN, Zeus (or Alexander or Hero?) standing left, raising right arm, holding a wreath; to left, AP monogram.

Ref: SNG BN 2407; SNG Levante 1834.

A Sulla Connection

There is, of course to be expected in my notes, a connection with Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who was the first governor of Roman Cilicia. In 103 BC Marcus Antonius Orator in a campaign against Cilician pirates, captured parts of Cilicia Pedia ("Rugged Cilicia"). (Marcus Antonius was later beheaded at the command of Marius, whom he had made an enemy by supporting the consul Octavius against Cinna and Marius. That however wanders into a story for another day.

In 96 BC, Sulla became the first governor of Roman Cilicia. During his time as propraetor (governor), Sulla thwarted and invasion by Parthian King Mithridates II and also restored King Ariobarzanes of Cappadocia after he was ousted by King Mithridates of Pontus. (See: First Meeting with Parthia)

Two Cilicias

A topographical map of Cilicia quickly reveals why the region had two distinct areas known as Cilicia Trachea ("rugged Cilicia" of Κιλικία Τραχεῖα) and Cilicia Pedias ("flat Cilicia" or Κιλικία Πεδιάς). The Limonlu River roughly divided the rugged western half from the flat eastern half of the region.

The Battlefield Location

Kinet Höyük is the modern town in Türkiye where the ancient harbor town of Issos was located. Alexandria ad Issum was not far from there in modern Iskenderun Turkiye. (Note that the Persian name for Alexander is Iskandar and is seen in the modern city name)

The modern site of the ancient battlefield is unmarked in an industrial area near Payas, Turkiye.

The likely battlefield of the Battle of Issos, near Payas, from the east, looking toward the Isdemir iron and steel factory in July 2011. (Photo by C. Gates)

In the 3rd Century AD, Herodian describes the area in the context of the confrontations between Pescinnius Niger and Septimius Severus as the two fought over control of the Roman Empire.

"[3.4.2] Both armies marched out to a flat, sweeping plain near a bay called Issus; there a ridge of hills forms a natural theater on this plain, and a broad beach slopes down to the sea, as if Nature had constructed a stadium for a battle.
[3.4.3] It was there, they say, that Darius fought his last and greatest battle with Alexander and was defeated and captured when the West defeated the East. Even today a memorial and a monument of the victory remain: a city on the ridge, called Alexandria, and a bronze statue from which the region gets its name."
-Herodotus, History of the Empire, 3.4.2-3


Alexandria ad Issum records in its name and recalls on the obverse of this civic coin from the 1st or 2nd century BC the history of Alexander III and his defeat of Darius III at Issos. Despite the long set of notes above - I am left with many questions:

  • when was this coin issues? is there no hoard evidence that might offer a more specific date? or perhaps some link with magistrate AP? or could AP be a date?

  • why were so few coins issued from this mint?

  • who is on the reverse of this coin? Zeus, Alexander, and generic representation of a hero?

  • what is the evidence that Monophthalmus founded the city on a spot selected by Alexander?

  • ... and so on

References: (in addition to those references inline)

Ai-Khanoum(Alexandria on the Oxus), Afghanistan

Alexandria Arachosia, Afghanistan; now called Kandahar (a contraction of Iskandahar)

Alexandria Ariana, Afghanistan

Alexandria Bucephalous, Pakistan, on the Jhelum River (formerly Hydaspes)

Alexandria in Orietai, Balochistan, Pakistan

Alexandria Carmania, unknown site in Kerman Province, Iran

Alexandria Eschate, "the Farthest", Tajikistan

Alinda, Alexandria by the Latmos, Turkey

Cebrene, formerly Alexandria, Turkey

Charax Spasinu, Alexandria in Susiana, Iraq

Ghazni, Alexandria in Opiania, Afghanistan

Iskandariya, Alexandria, Iraq

Iskenderun, Alexandria ad Issum, Turkey

Merv, Turkmenistan, sometimes also called Alexandria in Margiana

Alexandropolis Maedica, founded by Alexander the Great in 340 BC

Here's the list from Excerpta Latina Barbari 34B

Alexander founded 12 cities, which are still inhabited (no Alexandria at Issum)

  • [34B] Alexandria in Pentapolis

  • Alexandria in Egypt

  • Alexandria by the (?) Harpasus

  • Alexandria Cabiosa

  • Alexandria (?) Scythia, in (?) Aegaei

  • Alexandria by Porus

  • Alexandria on the river Cypris

  • Alexandria in the Troad

  • Alexandria in Babylonia

  • Alexandria in (?) the Mesasgages

  • Alexandria in Persia

  • Alexandria the strongest

Here's the list from the Alexander Romance Armenian version (alpha recension) And he built twelve cities which still remain today, rich and complete and populated by countless people: Alexandria, which he built on the bullheaded horse; Alexandria Kattison (Kat'Isson); the Alexandria for Poros; Alexandria of Undranikosy1 Alexandria of Scythia; Alexandria of Mesopotamia; Alexandria on the Dklat' River; Alexandria of Babylon; Alexandria of Troy; Alexandria at Massagyrs; Alexandria near Xanthos, and Alexandria near Egypt.

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