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A Silver Drachm of Alexander of Pherae

A Silver Drachm of Alexander of Pherae. Image: CoinWeek.

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..


Born in 400 BCE, Alexander of Pherae would go on to leave an indelible mark on the Thessalian city of Pherae. While the son of the city’s tyrant, Jason, he was not first in the line of succession. This was to change quickly.

After Jason was assassinated in 370 BCE, Alexander’s brother Polydorus came to power. However, as assassination was apparently a popular past time in the city, Polydorus only lasted one year on the throne. According to Xenophon, the man responsible was Polyphron. It is unclear whether he was Polydorus’s brother or cousin. Alexander then came to the throne by assassinating Polyphron. Three hundred years later, Diodorus Siculus simplified this story by cutting Polyphron out and having Alexander kill his brother Polydorus.

What is not disputed, however, is that in 369 BCE, Alexander assumed the crown and became the tyrant of Pherae. Upon his ascension, the control that his father had established over the city states of Thessaly fell apart and many of the nearby cities became rebellious. The city of Larissa was the most troublesome, even appealing to Alexander II of Macedon for aid.

After a seemingly rapid initial victory, the Macedonians departed, and Alexander continued in his tyrannical ways. As the major power in the region, the city of Thebes quickly became involved. The Thebans sent Pelopidas, a politician and general, to deal with Alexander. After a series of dramatic defeats at the hands of Alexander’s forces, Thebes was forced to send another large force under the command of the general Epaminondas. This conflict finally ended in 364 BCE when Alexander was crushed and forced to join the Boeotian League, becoming a dependent of Thebes, limiting his rule to Pherae, and relinquishing control over all neighboring cities.

Six years later in 358 BCE, Alexander would himself be assassinated while in bed. The Roman author Plutarch described in his work Life of Pelopidas how Alexander’s wife Thebe and his brothers-in-law stabbed Alexander with a sword, then trampled on his body and threw it out of the city.

While there are no known coins struck in the name of his father, Alexander oversaw a massive minting program that included a series of beautiful silver drachmai. This particular drachm stuck by Alexander (shown below) is a stunning example of classical Greek numismatic artistry.

Pherai, Alexander tyrant. c. 369-358 BCE. AR Drachm, 5.87g (18mm, 10h). EΝ – ΝΟΔΙ – ΑΣ Laureate head of Ennodia r., wearing pendant earring and pearl necklace / ΑΛΕΞ – ΑΝΔΡ – ΟΥ Lion’s head r., with open jaws. Image: Shanna Schmidt Numismatics.
Pherai, Alexander tyrant. c. 369-358 BCE. AR Drachm, 5.87g (18mm, 10h). EΝ – ΝΟΔΙ – ΑΣ Laureate head of Ennodia r., wearing pendant earring and pearl necklace / ΑΛΕΞ – ΑΝΔΡ – ΟΥ Lion’s head r., with open jaws. Image: Shanna Schmidt Numismatics. Image: CNG.

The coins of Alexander do not represent a total overhaul of the city’s coinage. This drachm borrows its design almost exactly from this small bronze coin struck between 404-369 BCE.

THESSALY, Pherai. Circa 404-369 BCE. Æ (17mm, 4.42 g, 11h). Wreathed head of Hekate (or the nymph Hypereia) right / Head of lion right, spouting water. Rogers 512; BCD Thessaly II 689.1 (same dies). VF, green patina. Rare. Image: CNG.
THESSALY, Pherai. Circa 404-369 BCE. Æ (17mm, 4.42 g, 11h). Wreathed head of Hekate (or the nymph Hypereia) right / Head of lion right, spouting water. Rogers 512; BCD Thessaly II 689.1 (same dies). VF, green patina. Rare. Image: CNG.

The drachma depicts the laureate head of a female figure, which over the past century has been given various labels as knowledge and understanding of ancient Greek iconography evolved. In 1890, the figure was simply described as a female head and then from 1905 to 1982 as the Greek goddess Hekate. The 1982 Leu auction catalogue then noted that local Thessalian goddess Ennodia was comparable to Hekate. Since then, the figure has only been referred to as Ennodia. This is perhaps a natural transition because Ennodia was linked by myth directly to Pherae as well as to Hekate. While Ennodia was mainly a goddess of protection and purification, both goddesses were associated with the crossroads. By Roman times, this aspect of Ennodia had been combined with Hekate to create the new deity who watched over crossroads, Hecate Enodia.

It is possible to trace this particular coin practically back to when it was excavated. It was first mentioned in 1879 by the noted Greek archeologist, numismatist, and philologist Athanasios Rhousopoulos in a short study he published in the German Archeological Institute’s journal, Athenische Mitteilungen. The coin was first owned by Ioannis Photiades Pasha. As the Ottoman ambassador to Athens in the 1860s and governor of Crete from 1879 to 1885 (among various other international diplomatic postings), Photiades used his wealth and position to amass a truly spectacular collection of ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine coins. He focused exclusively on coins from the area covering the states stretching from Thessaly to the Cyclades. The Pasha collection was sold in a landmark auction held in Paris by M. Delestre and H. Hoffman May 19-24, 1890, five years after Pasha had passed away.

Rhousopoulos purchased this coin as lot 171 of the Hoffman auction. As the same coin he wrote about in 1879, it is obvious that he had a connection to the drachma. Rhousopoulos would hold on to the drachma until his death in 1898 when his estate consigned the collection to Dr. Jacob Hirsch for sale in 1905. Despite it not being advertised which collection Hirsch was selling, he did state that it was “a highly important collection of Greek coins from the estate of a well-known archaeologist” and it was widely understood whose coins they were (Walker, 599).

Sometime between these two sales, the coin was cleaned. This becomes clear when studying the illustrated plates in the 1890 and 1905 auction catalogues,

Plate 171 Hoffman Sale.
Plate 171 Hoffman Sale.
Plate 1446 Hirsch Sale.
Plate 1446 Hirsch Sale.

As lot 1446 in the 1905 Hirsch XIII auction, this coin was estimated to sell for 950 German Marks. Prior to World War I, $1 was worth roughly 4.2 marks. So, this drachma was slated to sell for roughly $226, or $6,770 adjusted for inflation.

Twenty-four years later in 1929, this coin resurfaced again as lot 238 in the July 2nd Ars Classica auction. This sale contained the collection of Captain E.G.S. Churchill of Northwick Park as well as those of two unnamed collectors. There is unfortunately no distinction made between the three collections in the 1929 catalogue. The coin was attributed by Ars Classica four years later in their July 1933 auction catalogue to the collection of the Swiss numismatist and noted expert on Thessalian numismatics, Dr. Friedrich Imhoof Blumer. This is important, since because the Doctor died in 1920 it can be assumed that he was most likely the individual who won the coin in 1905.

Due to the fact that Dr. Imhoof Blumer acquired this piece either in the 1905 Hirsch auction, or in a private sale before 1920, this coin was part of his second collection. This is true because the Doctor sold his first collection of 21,000 pieces in 1900 to the Berlin Münzkabinett. Most of the proceeds of this sale were used to establish a scholarship foundation for young numismatists.

When he died on April 26, 1920, Imhoof Blumer left this Alexander of Pherae drachm to his son-in-law, Dr. Oskar Bernhard. We can assume, therefore, that it was Bernhard who consigned it to Ars Classica in the 1929 auction. This is where the named provenance ends since there are no indications as to which collector won the coin in either the 1929 or the 1933 Ars Classica auction, and all subsequent owners chose to remain anonymous and only used pseudonyms.

The coin would come to public auction 49 years later, in the Leu sale of April 1982. While it was given an estimate of 5,000 Swiss Francs, the coin hammered for 11,500 Francs. Adjusted for inflation, this would be 19,282 Francs or $20,478. It was here that the un-named BCD collector acquired the coin. As one of the greatest modern collectors of Greek coins, it is unsurprising that BCD would put together a group of Thessalian coins including this Alexander of Pherae drachma.

When Nomos auctioned off the BCD collection of Thessalian coins in their May 2011 sale, this coin was acquired by an anonymous collector who is known today only as the Man in Love with Art. While Nomos put an estimate of 1,500 Francs, the hammer price ended up being 14,000 Francs. Adjusted for inflation, this would be 14,289 Francs, or $15,173.97 USD.

After a decade, the Man in Love with Art consigned his collection to Numismatika Ars Classica. While they sold his collection in three parts, this drachma was part of the final sale on June 23, 2021. It hammered for 8,500 Francs, which is 8,748 Francs or $9,291 USD adjusted for inflation.

Numismatika Ars Classica 124, 2021, lot 134, page 79.
Numismatika Ars Classica 124, 2021, lot 134, page 79.

After over a year, this coin is up for sale again – this time on the web store of Shanna Schmidt, a Board Governor for the American Numismatic Association (ANA) and a Fellow of the American Numismatic Society (ANS).

With an unbroken provenance stretching back over 150 years, perhaps to when the piece was first discovered, this beautiful drachma struck by Alexander of Pherae would be a fine addition to any collection!

Happy collecting!

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About the Author

Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

Coinweek is the top independent online media source for rare coin and currency news, with analysis and information contributed by leading experts across the numismatic spectrum.

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