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CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: Coinage of Pergamon

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: Coinage of Pergamon

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
NOW AND THEN in history, economic, political and social forces come together in just the right combination to make a particular city the dynamic locus of cultural creativity.

We see this in Athens in the time of Pericles (c. 495 – 429 BCE), Florence during the Renaissance (c. 1350 – 1450 CE), London in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603), and Berlin during the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, to give but a few examples.

During the Hellenistic era from 323 to 30 BCE, Pergamon (or Pergamum[1]) was that kind of place. Art, literature, philosophy and science flourished amid magnificent architecture under the sensible and enlightened rulers of the Attalid dynasty for almost 150 years. A major current exhibit at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, running through July 17, 2016, showcases some of the surviving treasures of that era.

In 2014, UNESCO declared Pergamon and its “multi-layered cultural landscape” a World Heritage Site.

Located in the mountainous, forested province of Mysia[2] in northwestern Anatolia, Pergamon was a hilltop fortress town, overlooking the broad valley of the river Caicus (now Bakırçay), about 16 miles (25 km) inland from the Aegean Sea.

Beginning in the fifth century BCE as a Greek town under Persian rule, Pergamon issued a small silver diobol (a third of a drachma, or about 1.5 grams) bearing the youthful head of Apollo on the obverse and a portrait of an unnamed bearded satrap on the reverse, beside the abbreviated name of the city (PERGA or PERGAM).

Alexander and Lysimachus

pergamonlysimachusWhen Alexander the Great, aged 22, launched his conquest of the Persian Empire in 334 BCE, his debts amounted to 1,300 talents[3]. His treasury had 70 talents on hand, and his army and fleet cost 200 a month to maintain. As he advanced, he requisitioned cash from the Greek cities of Asia. A rare and beautiful series of anonymous gold staters may represent Pergamon’s contribution to his war chest (de Callataÿ).

The obverse bears the familiar head of Herakles wearing the skin of the Nemean lion – a design that would appear on coinage in Alexander’s name for the next two centuries. The reverse bears a standing figure of Athena as goddess of war, holding spear and shield. This represents the idol in Pergamon’s temple dedicated to her. The design also appears on later silver diobols inscribed with Pergamon’s name.

Following Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 BCE, his generals partitioned the empire.

Lysimachus (c. 360 – 281 BCE), one of Alexander’s bodyguards, gained control of Thrace (roughly northern Greece, the European part of Turkey and southern Bulgaria) and fought to expand his territory in the complex wars of Alexander’s successors. Pergamon was one of many mints where Lysimachus issued abundant silver tetradrachms, bearing the head of the deified Alexander on the obverse with a seated Athena on the reverse. Lysimachus entrusted his treasury of 9,000 talents (234 metric tons of silver!) stored in the citadel of Pergamon to a eunuch[4] named Philetairos (or Philetaerus).

In 282 BCE, Philetairos switched sides, pledging loyalty to Seleucus, another warlord and founder of the Seleucid dynasty, which endured until 63 BCE. Lysimachus died in battle against Seleucus at Corupedium in 281.


pergamonphiletairosAs a Seleucid client state, Pergamon was semi-independent. Philetairos ruled wisely for almost 20 years, establishing a network of regional alliances and improving his city with monumental architecture and strong defenses.

Years after the assassination of Seleucus (shortly after his victory against Lysimachus in 281 BCE), Philetairos placed an idealized portrait of Seleucus on the city’s coins but inscribed his own name without title on the reverse. When he died in 263 he left his nephew, Eumenes, in charge of a thriving and prosperous state.

Eumenes I

Eumenes put his uncle’s portrait on Pergamon’s coinage in place of Seleucus, and inscribed the name Philetairos on the reverse rather than own name. This established a pattern that his successors would continue for generations.

At some point in his long reign, Eumenes made one change to the reverse of his coins. Rather than Athena stretching out her hand to grasp the rim of her shield, she crowns the name of Philetairos with a wreath.

“On all these issues, Philetairos’s portrait is highly realistic, with individual characteristics that often verge on ugliness, making these royal portraits some of the boldest in monetary history.” (Picon, 75)

Eumenes ruled peacefully for 22 years. He never assumed the title of king (basileus). When he died, he left the state to his second cousin, Attalus.

Attalus I

Under Attalus I, who ruled from 241 to 197 BCE, Pergamon reached the peak of its power and influence[5]. The coinage is conservative, however, following the same designs as those of his predecessor. They are distinguished only by the presence of different monograms and small symbols on the reverse.

Attalus was the first Pergamene ruler to formally adopt the title of “king”, but this does not appear on his coins. The dating and sequencing of the coinage was painstakingly worked out by late 19th-century German and Swiss numismatists (von Fritze, Imhoof-Blumer). Their meticulous detective work has generally stood the test of time.

About the year 232 BCE (the date is uncertain) Attalus defeated the Galatians[6], a warlike Celtic tribe that had invaded Anatolia almost 50 years earlier and made themselves a nuisance. Attalus died in 197 BCE at the age of 72 and was succeeded by his son, Eumenes II.

The historian Polybius wrote:

“…and what is more remarkable than all, though he left four grown-up sons, he so well settled the question of succession, that the crown was handed down to his children’s children without a single dispute.” (18:41)

Eumenes II

Eumenes II continued to strike silver tetradrachms bearing the portrait of Philetairos with an Athena reverse, but two incredibly rare types are also attributed to his 38-year reign (197 – 159 BCE).

pergamoneumenesThree examples are known of a tetradrachm, issued about 180 BCE, depicting the head of Medusa in a “3/4 facing view” – a technically-challenging orientation first used by the great coin die engraver Kimon of Syracuse circa 410 BCE[7]. In Greek mythology, Medusa’s gaze–living and dead–had the power to turn onlookers to stone. Athena attached the severed head to her shield, so it was a fitting symbol of the war goddess, whose image appears on the reverse of the coin inscribed “of Athena, bringer of Victory.”

Also known in only three examples is a portrait tetradrachm of Eumenes II–the only Pergamene coin to show a living ruler. One theory is that it was a commemorative issued by his brother Attalus II in 172 BCE, when it was reported that Eumenes had been assassinated while returning from a visit to Rome. The reverse depicts the mythical twin brothers Castor and Pollux surrounded by a wreath, a fitting symbol of brotherly love.

Eumenes survived with injuries and resumed the throne, which may explain the coin’s extreme rarity. In a 2013 Munich auction, the only example of this coin in private hands sold for over US$220,000.

But besides rare coin types, one of the most famous artifacts of ancient Pergamon dates to his reign. Eumenes II commemorated his father’s victory over the Galatians by commissioning a huge memorial adorned with magnificent sculpture. Excavated beginning in 1878, it was reassembled in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.

A Basket of Snakes: The Cistophoric Tetradrachm

Around 166 BCE, Eumenes II introduced a lightweight silver coin for local circulation. While the old tetradrachm weighed about 17 grams, this “cistophoric” tetradrachm weighed only 12.7 grams.

[T]hese remarkably hideous coins became the chief currency, not only of the Pergamene kingdom, but of all Asia Minor. Livy records that the triumphs of the years 190 and 189 [BCE] brought into Rome a booty of 960,000 such cistophoroi, and when the Roman province of Asia was constituted, the Proconsular governors of Rome continued the issue of the unsightly money.” (Seltman, 239)

“Cistophoric” means “basket bearer”. The obverse features the “cista mystica”, a ritual basket of snakes, surrounded by an ivy wreath. On the reverse, a pair of snakes entwine around a richly decorated bow case honoring Herakles, who carried a bow and strangled a pair of deadly snakes in his infancy.

The symbolism of the snake in Greek culture is very complex, but it must have appealed to the common people. These coins were convenient and widely accepted. They were struck at many different mints; Pergamon’s are mint-marked on the reverse margin with the first letters of the city’s name, ΠΕ

Pergamon Under Roman Imperial Rule

pergamonaugustusWhen Attalus III, Pergamon’s last king, died without a successor in 133 BCE, he bequeathed his kingdom to the Roman Senate. In this fashion Pergamon continued to thrive as the capital of the Roman province of Asia (the capital later moved to Ephesus). Cistophoric tetradrachms now bore the names of Roman magistrates. Emperor Augustus placed his own portrait on Pergamon’s coins, with a reverse showing six ears of grain. This type is rare, because most of them were overstruck a century later by Hadrian (117 – 138 CE).

In the third century, the cities of the Roman East ceased to issue their own silver but continued to strike large bronze denominations with elaborate designs illustrating local landmarks and legends. This includes a superb medallic eight-assaria piece of the Roman emperor Caracalla showing Pergamon’s Temple of Asklepios (the Asklepieion), a god of healing.

The last local coinage of Pergamon appears to date from the reign of Gallienus (260 – 268 CE) in Rome. Devastated in 262 by an earthquake, the city was sacked by invading Goths in about 267 CE and never recovered its former glory.

Collecting Pergamon

Pergamon’s long series of coins can be found across a wide range of prices. The early gold staters typically sell at auction for $20,000 to over $100,000 USD. Attalid royal tetradrachms generally go for $1,000-2,000 (except for great rarities). Roman-era cistophoric tetradrachms in nice grades go for under $200, and the imperial bronzes, which are often very handsome, tend to go for considerably less. The standard reference in English is the British Museum Catalog (Wroth), long out-of-print. Reprint editions can be found for under $20.

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[1] Now Bergama, Turkey.

[2] The traditional arrangement of ancient coin catalogs is by historic region, so coins of Pergamon are listed under “Mysia”, just as coins of Athens are listed under “Attica”.

[3] The Attic talent, used to reckon large sums of money, was equivalent to 6,000 drachmas, or about 25.8 kg of silver (56.75 pounds)

[4] Eunuchs were often given high positions of trust in ancient royal courts, since they were not distracted by intrigue to advance the careers of their own children. Most eunuchs were slaves castrated before puberty, but Philetairos was an aristocrat who suffered an accident in infancy.

[5] “Attalus” became a popular name in the Roman world. Six centuries after Attalus I died, Priscus Attalus, a Roman senator of Greek origin, briefly attempted to seize the Imperial throne (409 and 414 CE).

[6] The Galatians gave their name to a region where some early converts to Christianity lived. Thus, the New Testament includes St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.

[7] An example of Kimon’s stunning Syracusan tetradrachm sold for US$180,000 in a recent New York auction: https://www.justcollecting.com/miscellania/kimons-head-of-arethusa-coin-beats-estimate-by-80-in-ny-auction.


de Callataÿ, F. “Les statères de Pergame et les réquisitions d’Alexandre le Grand: l’apport d’un nouveau trésor”, Revue Numismatique 169 (2012)

Imhoof-Blumer, Friedrich. Die Münzen der Dynastie von Pergamon. Berlin (1884)

Newell, Edward T. The Pergamene Mint Under Philetairus. American Numismatic Society. New York (1936)

Picón, Carlos and Seán Hemingway, Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World. New York Metropolitan Museum (2016)

Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values, Volume 2: Asia and Africa. London (1979)

Seltman, Charles. Greek Coins. London (1955)

Thonemann, Peter. Attalid Asia Minor: Money, International Relations and the State. Oxford (2013)

UNESCO. “Pergamon and Its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape,” World Heritage Sites. Accessed 27 June 2016.

von Fritze, Hans. Die Münzen von Pergamon. Berlin (1910)

Weisser, Bernard. “Pergamum as Paradigm” in Howgego, C. et al (eds.), Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces. Oxford (2005)

Wroth, Warwick. Catalog of the Greek Coins in the British Museum, Mysia. London (1892).

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Mike Markowitz - CoinWeek Ancient Coin SeriesMike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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