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Coins of the Month - May 2013
Macedonia, Greece and Alexander the Great
(Click on images for full size.)
Coins are often used to carry political or propagandistic messages, both in times of crisis and of peace. The example illustrated here arose in the context of the conflict in the early 1990's between the Republic of Greece and the most southern region of the dissolving Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia. After the Second World War, the region had been given an autonomous status from Serbia, when Tito reconstructed the balance of power between the different nationalities composing Yugoslavia. The region has a mixed population of Slavs (mainly Serbs and Bulgarians), of Albanians and of other populations. It was given the name of Macedonia, even though it corresponded only partially to the ancient Hellenistic kingdom from a geographical point of view and very little from the linguistic and ethnic point of view. When conflict exploded in Yugoslavia in 1991, a new state was created under the name of 'Republic of Macedonia' adopting the sun of Vergina as its national symbol, in reference to Alexander the Great. The Vergina sun was considered a symbol of the Kings of Macedonia particularly after it was found in the tomb of Philip, father of Alexander.
Greece reacted very strongly to what it saw as an attempt to expropriate its historical past, its symbols and the name of the Greek province of Macedonia, where Thessaloniki is located. The Greek government considered the 'antiquisation' policy of the new Macedonia a nationalistic threat to its territorial integrity. The dispute escalated, including a temporary closure of the frontier and a veto to the admission of 'Macedonia' to the UN and NATO. An interim agreement was reached only in 1995. The name 'Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia' (FYROM) was adopted as a temporary name awaiting a permanent solution and Macedonia-FYROM agreed to replace the Vergina Sun with a more modern and historically neutral sun. Today, however, after more than twenty years the naming dispute is not solved and a UN negotiator is still working to find an acceptable name for FYROM.
As part of its effort to reclaim the 'greekness' of Alexander and of the original Kingdom of Macedonia, Greece minted from 1992 a new '100 drachme' coin, carrying all the disputed symbols. By doing this, it produced a new manipulated vision of antiquity just as its Northern neighbours had done. The modern coin carried the Vergina sun and a portrait of Alexander represented as the god Zeus Ammon with large horns and a text associating 'Macedonian King' to the 'Republic of Greece'.
The actual standard coin of Alexander the Great was quite different. On the obverse it represented the King (the caption was ALEXANDROU BASILEWS, without mention of either Greece or Macedonia) as Heracles, with the head covered by the skin of the lion of Nemea. On the reverse it represented Zeus seated in a throne, holding a sceptre and an eagle (here a silver tetradrachm of 336-323 BC) but no sun.
The sun was present in some later Macedonian coins with much more limited circulation (here a small bronze piece from Uranopolis, minted near Mount Athos around 300 BC). Zeus Ammon could be found separately on silver tetradrachms (here an example minted in Ephesus in 287-280 BC by Lysimachus, King of Thracia and former general of Alexander).
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics