By Steve Benner for CoinWeek …..
Aiolis was a small region on the west coast of Asia Minor (see Figure 1). It was surrounded by Lydia to the east, Mysia to the north, Ionia to the south, and the Aegean Sea to the west. Its northern part was opposite the island of Lesbos, and its southern border was the Hermus River (now the Gediz).
Compared to the regions around it, Aiolis was small. Yet there were still several important cities within its borders. The region was settled by Aiolians sometime before 1000 BCE. In the eighth century BCE, 12 of the cities formed a confederation (dodecapolis) that included Cyme (Kyme); Larissa; Neonteichos; Temnus; Cilla; Notion; Aegiroessa; Pitane; Aigai; Myrina; Gryneion; and Smyrna. In 699, Smyrna was taken into the Ionian League.
The king of Lydia, Croesus, conquered the region in the middle of the sixth century BCE, and after his defeat, Aiolis was controlled successively by the Persians, the Macedonians, the Seleucids, and the Pergamenes. Attalus III, the last king of Pergamun, bequeathed Aeolis to Rome in 133 BCE.
This article will deal only with Aigai, Cyme, and Myrina, which were the only cities of Aiolis that minted stephanophoric-type tetradrachms during the mid-second century BCE; the coinage of the minor Aiolian cities will be covered in another article. Stephanophoric, from two Greek words meaning “wreath-bearing”, feature a laurel wreath on the reverse. They are very attractive coins struck on a large, thin flan that sometimes caused the reverse to be a little concave. These were minted on a slightly reduced Attic standard of about 16.7 grams and may have been influenced by the New Style Athenian tetradrachm.
The obverse has an anepigraphic bust of a god or goddess, and the reverse contains a variety of subjects and inscriptions pertaining to the city (usually the city name is included). In addition, like the Athenian coins, the reverse has a wreath that encompasses the whole content. The stephanophori were only struck in Asia Minor, and the celators (engravers) may have known each other. Why they were struck is still being debated; some say it was due to the collapse of the Seleucid Empire, while others that it was just an artistic fad. Why their minting ceased after only a couple decades is also unknown.
The major city of Aiolis is Cyme, about 40 kilometers north of Smyrna, located between the rivers Caicus and Hermus. It was said to have been settled after the Trojan War and to have colonized as many as 30 other settlements in the area, including Cebren and Side. It is known as the home of Hesiod. The city contributed ships to the Darius I and Xerxes I campaigns against Greece. It later joined the Delian League in the fifth century and the second Athenian League in the fourth. Of the two other cities in this article, little is known of the history of Aigai. Though not large, Myrina was strongly fortified and had a good harbor. According to the Roman author Pliny, it was famous for its oysters. Myrina was part of the Attalid Kingdom in the third century and was later occupied by Philip V of Macedon (221-179 BCE) before becoming part of the Roman Republic.
Aiolian Cities and Their Coins
Aigai was not a major commercial center, so it did not begin minting coins until the end of the fourth or early in the third century, and then mostly small bronze coins. At first, only Apollo was shown on the obverse of the bronze coins, but Athena and occasionally Hermes were later added to the possible obverses. The main reverse was the goat, either its head (see Figure 2a) or the forepart. This is a kind of visual pun on the city’s name, since an archaic Greek word for goat is αιγοειδή (aigoeide). The reverse usually included the city ethnic of AIGAE or AIGAEON. In the second century, more type varieties were added, such as Athena on the obverse and Nike standing (Figure 2b).
The issuance of the first silver coins from this city is very confusing. One reference lists a silver hemidrachm (2.1 g.) that was minted in the third century with Athena’s head on the obverse and a goat’s head on the reverse (same as Figure 2a). In another source, I was able to find a diobol (1.05 g.) that was minted in the latter half of the fourth century and also had the same obverse and reverse as Figure 2a. In both cases, there seemed to be only one extant example, and, to confuse matters, they were not even listed in some of the other sources. Aigai was apparently producing one or more silver fractions at the end of the fourth century and into the third similar in type to the bronzes, but these coins are so rare that more examples are needed to get a better understanding of these early issues.
Around 160 BCE, Aigai began minting special tetradrachms with an Apollo head obverse and a standing Zeus reverse. As mentioned above, these coins are called stephanophoric tetradrachms. Figure 3 shows a typical Aigai example with Apollo on the obverse with no legend and on the reverse, Zeus standing holding an eagle and specter all within an oak wreath. The city ethnic is behind Zeus and a monogram (magistrate?) is in front. For Aigai, this was a very limited emission for the city since only four obverse dies are known.
Cyme was a major commercial city from very early times. It was the major city of Aiolis and was the mother city of many of the towns in the area. It began minting coins by at least the sixth century and continued to issue civic silver coinage until the second century and bronze coinage into the first century, prior to switching to Roman colonial coins. The horse and eagle were the main symbols for the city though the one-handled cup appeared on many of the bronze coins. The first coin minted by the city was an Aeginetic stater (14 g.) with the forepart of a horse obverse and two incuse squares on the reverse (Figure 4a). The city soon began minting a variety of silver fractions, mainly with the eagle and/or horse symbols. Figure 4b shows a hemiobol (0.5 g.) from the second half of the fifth century with an eagle head obverse and a quadripartite incuse square reverse. And Figure 4c shows a hemidrachm (2 g.) with an eagle standing right obverse and the forepart of a prancing horse on the reverse. The ethnic of KY can be seen on the obverse of both these latter coins.
Another emblem used on the reverse of some silver coins was the rosette with eight petals. One unusual coin that was minted in the first half of the third century was a two-and-a-half drachm (10.5 g.) that has the head of the Amazon Cyme on the obverse and on the reverse, a horse with a foreleg raised with KY and two monograms. This is a very rare coin.
The bronze coins were very similar to the silver coins except that a one-handled cup was a frequent reverse. An example of this is shown in Figure 5.
In the third century, Cyme minted a tetradrachm that is a retro-type Alexander the Great coin, with Hercules wearing a lion skin on the obverse and Zeus enthroned holding an eagle and scepter on the reverse. The name of Alexander is shown behind Zeus, and a one-handled cup is in front of him. Like the stephanophoric coins, this type must not have been minted very long period.
As with Aigai, Cyme began minting stephanophoric tetradrachms in the middle of the second century. Figure 6 shows one of these coins with the Amazon Cyme on the obverse and a horse with a raised foreleg on the reverse. The magistrate’s (local official who was responsible for the coinage) name is in the exergue, and the city’s name, KUMAIWN (“of the Cymeans”), is to right of the horse. A similar drachm was also issued.
As with Aigai, the first issuance of silver coins by Myrina is also confusing. Some sources have the first silver coins minted in the fifth century and some others have them starting in the fourth century. These are all silver fractions of tetrobols or less. The two coins that are believed to have been minted in the late fifth century are a hemiobol (0.38 g.) and a tetrobol (2.42 g.). The former has Dionysus on the obverse and a kantharos in an incuse square on the reverse. The latter is shown in Figure 7a and has the head of Athena on the obverse and an amphora on the reverse with the city name, M-URIN-AON, around it. These coins must have been very limited issues.
By the fourth century, the sources agree that the city was minting a variety of silver fractions. Figure 7b and c are examples of two of these. The former has Athena on the obverse and Artemis slightly facing with the city ethnic of MY on the reverse. Figure 7c is an obol with a facing female head on the obverse and a goat’s head facing right with MY on the reverse.
The bronze coins were similar to the silver coins is type. Figure 8 shows a common type with Athena on the obverse and an amphora with MYPI on the reverse. Besides Athena, the obverse could have Apollo or Helios on the obverse and the reverse can be an owl. The amphora seems to have been the preferred symbol for the city.
As with Cyme, Myrina in the third century minted the retro-type tetradrachms of Alexander the Great with the Hercules obverse and Zeus enthroned reverse. An amphora and a monogram of MYP was placed in front of Zeus. Again, this must have been a very limited issuance.
In the mid-second century, like Aigai and Cyme, Myrina minted stephanophoric tetradrachms. Myrina’s coin has an obverse with a laureate head of Apollo facing right. The reverse has Apollo Grynios standing right, holding a branch and phiale with a monogram and the city name, MURINAIWN, behind him and with an omphalos (religious stone) and amphora at his feet, all within a laurel wreath. These must have been minted in large quantities since they seem to be readily available on the market. A similar drachm was also minted.
The most impressive aspect of these three cities is the stephanophoric tetradrachms issued in the second century. These coins are very attractive and not very expensive, though the Aigai are a little scarcer than the other two cities. The silver coins for Aigai are very rare, but the bronzes are available at reasonable prices. The very early silver coins of Myrina are also rare, but the later ones and the bronzes are readily obtainable. Cyme was a major commercial center and produced a large body of coins that can be found on many coin lists and auctions. The coins are not expensive and are attractive in both silver and bronze.
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Classical Numismatic Group (CNG)
Grant, Michael. A Guide to the Ancient World: A Dictionary of Classical Place Names. Barnes and Noble (1986)
Head, Barclay V. Historia Numorum: A Manual of Greek Numismatics. Oxford (1887)
Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth, ed. The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd edition. Oxford (1996)
Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values, Vol 2: Asia. B.A. Seaby Ltd. (1979)
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About the Author
Steve M. Benner has a Ph.D. in engineering from the Ohio State University and worked for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for almost three decades before retiring in 2016. He has been an ancient coin collector since the early 1970s and is a member of the ANS, the ANA, and the ACCG. He specializes in coins of the ancient Greek leagues and in Roman Imperial bronzes. Dr. Benner has published over 30 ancient coin articles in various publications and is the author of Achaian League Coinage of the 3rd through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2008) and History and Coinage of the Ancient Greek Leagues, 5th through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2018).