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The Decline and Fall of Macedon: CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series - The Decline and Fall of Macedon

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

Abandoned finally by all, the king surrendered himself to the Romans. Brought before the consul’s council, the king was peppered with questions by Paullus, but he stood in silence and wept and then flung himself on the ground as a suppliant for his life. Paullus lost his Roman temper. Didn’t Perseus understand that by cringing in public he was detracting from the reputation of his conqueror? …Such was the end of the kingdom that had bred Alexander the Great.[1]

 -- J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts (2005), on the aftermath of the Battle of Pydna, 168 BCE

THE OTHER ANCIENT Greeks were ambivalent about Macedon[2]. Although Macedonians spoke a dialect of Greek and participated in the Olympic games, they were seen as marginal barbarians, never accepted as fully “Hellenic”. Macedonians retained their old-fashioned tribal kings while Greek city-states experimented with democracy, oligarchy, the republic, and other innovative forms of government. In 338 BCE, Philip II of Macedon defeated an alliance of Greeks and imposed a rough peace on their squabbling cities.

After Philip was assassinated in 336, his son Alexander went off and conquered much of the known world. When Alexander died in Babylon in 323, his empire was partitioned among his generals. The Macedonian homeland came under the rule of the “Antigonids”, descendants of Antigonus the One-Eyed (who reigned 306-301 BCE). The last Antigonids issued some of the most beautiful and collectible Hellenistic coins, with sensitive, powerful portraits that display the ability of ancient engravers to capture the personalities of their subjects.


DEMETRIUS POLIORCETES, 306–284 BCE Tetradrachm Amphipolis, 292–291 BCE, Attic standard, AR 17.08 g. Obv. Diademed head of Demetrius Poliorcetes right, with horn; border of dots. Rev. ΔΗΜΗΤΠΙΟΥ / ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ Poseidon half draped, seated left on a rock, holding aphlaston in right hand and leaning with left hand on trident; in left field, monograms n and n ; in right field, monogram n . SNG Copenhagen – cf. 1176 (different monogram in right field) T. Newell, The Coinage of Demetrius Poliorcetes, London, 1927, 101, pl. IX, 8 = Jameson 1990 (same dies)

Macedonian currency was based on the Athenian or “Attic” drachma coin standard of 4.3 grams. One drachma was a day’s pay for a laborer. The most important denomination was the tetradrachm, a substantial coin of nearly pure silver weighing about 17 grams. Small change consisted of a range of bronze coins of uncertain value – numismatists designate them by diameter in millimeters (“AE18,” “AE 23”).

Demetrius I, nicknamed “The Besieger”[3] (Poliorcetes), who ruled from 306 to 283 BCE, was the first Macedonian king to place his own portrait on a coin. Many Greeks saw this as arrogance (hubris), since coinage traditionally bore images of the gods. Demetrius’ successors returned to conventional depictions of Zeus, Poseidon, and Athena on their coins.

Philip V


Philip V. 221-179 BCE. AR Tetradrachm (17.11 gm, 12h). Pella or Amphipolis mint. Struck circa 211-197 BCE. Helmeted and beardless head of the hero Perseus left, harpa over shoulder, in boss of a Macedonian shield decorated with seven eight-pointed stars within double crescents / BASILEWS FILIPPOU, club within oak wreath, M to left. Boehringer, Chron. pl. 8, 7 (same dies)

Philip V became King of Macedon at the age of nine on the death of his father Demetrius II in battle in 229 BCE. His cousin Antigonus III Doson ruled as regent until Philip took power at the age of 17, when Antigonus fell in battle against the neighboring Illyrians in 221. Macedonian kings were expected to lead their armies in person. It was a dangerous job.

Philip is a paradoxical figure. He was nicknamed “Beloved of the Greeks” (eromenos ton Hellenon) for his youthful charm and generosity. But much of what we know about him is based on hostile Roman sources, in which he comes across as impulsive, reckless, and treacherous. In 215 BCE, with Rome reeling from a series of defeats at the hands of Hannibal, Philip negotiated a secret alliance with Carthage. The Romans intercepted the Carthaginian envoys, discovered the draft treaty, and never forgave Philip for it. A showdown between Rome and Macedon was inevitable.

The Second Macedonian War broke out in 200 BCE.

For three years, armies marched and countermarched across northern Greece. The decisive battle came at Cynoscephalae (“the dogs’ heads” – named for a pair of hills) in June of 197. Nimble Roman legions under Titus Quinctius Flaminius outflanked and crushed the powerful but inflexible Macedonian phalanx. Under the terms of the Treaty of Tempe (196), Macedon withdrew from Greece and paid a thousand talents in reparations: equivalent to 30 metric tons of silver, or six million drachmas. Philip’s second son, a young prince named Demetrius, was sent to Rome as a hostage.

Philip placed his stern, bearded portrait on his silver coinage. The reverse of his portrait tetradrachm shows Athena as a war goddess, brandishing a thunderbolt. The reverse of his didrachms, drachms, and hemidrachms shows the club of Herakles within an oak wreath. Philip’s more common non-portrait tetradrachms have the Macedonian shield on the coin obverse: a traditional design of seven ellipses with central starbursts, surrounding a medallion with the image of a god or hero. Philip used the image of the mythical hero Perseus, the name he chose for his eldest son and successor.


Perseus. 179-168 BCE. AR Tetradrachm (33mm, 16.65 g, 11h). Attic standard. Pella or Amphipolis mint; Zoilos, mintmaster. Struck circa 179-178 BCE. Diademed head right; ZΩIΛOΣ below neck / BAΣI-ΛEΩΣ ΠEP-ΣEΩΣ, eagle, wings spread, standing right on thunderbolt; two monograms to right; all within oak wreath; star below (Classical Numismatic Group Triton XVIII. 6 January 2015, Lot: 486, realized: $40,000

As often happens in royal families, Perseus had a bitter rivalry with his younger brother Demetrius, who had grown up as a hostage in Rome and led a pro-Roman faction. The facts are disputed, but Perseus probably incited his father to have Demetrius killed in 180. The political murder broke Philip’s heart, and he died a year later at the age of 41.


perseusWhen Perseus became king in 179, Macedon was still prosperous, mining gold from rich deposits on Mount Pangaion and silver from the island of Thasos. An early tetradrachm of Perseus, possibly the coronation issue, carries a dramatic obverse portrait in high relief. The name “Zoilos” appears in small letters beneath the portrait; this was once thought to be the engraver’s signature, but the consensus is now that it is the name of a mint or treasury official.

On Harlan J. Berk’s list of the 100 greatest ancient coins, this piece ranks as #67. About 20 examples are known; in an October, 2014 Swiss auction a particularly fine one sold for about $US30,000.

The later coinage of Perseus is inferior in workmanship, weight, and purity, suggesting the kingdom was under considerable economic stress. The growing involvement of Rome in Greek affairs had led to another Macedonian War in 200 BCE. After three years of indecisive maneuvers, the armies clashed again near the town of Pydna in 168, and again the Macedonian phalanx was quickly routed by the Roman legions. As captives, Perseus and his sons marched in the Roman triumph of Aemilius Paullus. Perseus was allowed to live out the rest of his life in comfort as a guest of the Republic.

There is an extensive anonymous Macedonian coinage of silver tetrobols (two-thirds of a drachma) from the time of Philip V and Perseus. These were probably used to pay Greek mercenaries since Macedon was running short of manpower. One common type bears the Macedonian shield on the coin obverse, with the club of Herakles and the abbreviation M A / K E in the central medallion; the reverse is a pointed helmet with ear flaps.

A remarkable issue used to pay mercenaries from the island of Rhodes copies the traditional design of Rhodian coins: the head of Apollo as the sun god, and a stylized rose blossom.

Macedonia Under Roman Rule

Following the fall of Macedon in 168, Rome divided the country into four numbered republics; of these, only two issued silver coins. Those of the first (Makedonon Protes) are common; those of the second (Makedonon Deuteras) are rare. The Macedonian shield remained as a standard coin obverse for many years.


MACEDON (Roman Protectorate), Republican period. First Meris. Circa 167-149 BCE. AR Tetradrachm (30mm, 16.80 g, 9h). Amphipolis mint. Diademed and draped bust of Artemis right, with bow and quiver over shoulder, in the center of a Macedonian shield; shield decorated with seven six-pointed stars within double crescents / Club; AP monogram and MAKEΔONΩN above, ΠPΩTHΣ below; all within oak wreath, thunderbolt to left. Prokopov, Silver – (O128/R477 – unlisted combination); SNG Copenhagen 1310–1. Good VF.

Long after Macedon became a Roman province, Macedonian kings and symbols appeared on Roman coins issued by mint officials (“moneyers”) to commemorate the deeds of their forebears. Rome’s ruling elite consisted of a few hundred highly intermarried families, and the same names appear in history generation after generation. Marcus Caecilius, a grandson of the Q. Caecilus Metellus “Macedonicus” that defeated Andriscus, placed a Macedonian shield with an elephant’s head on denarii he issued in 127 BCE. About 113 BCE, L. Marcius Philippus issued a denarius showing the helmeted head of Philip V, because one of his ancestors had negotiated a short-lived Roman treaty with Macedon. In 62 BCE, L. Aemilus Lepidus Paulus issued a denarius with the poignant scene of Perseus and his two young sons as captives before the moneyer’s famous ancestor.

The Revolt of Andriscus

Andriscus (or Andriskos) was a fuller (a worker who cleans and prepares raw wool) with ambition. In 149 BCE, he declared that he was the long-lost son of Perseus. He must have been extraordinarily persuasive, because he quickly gathered support from tribal chieftains and local elites, unhappy under Roman occupation. He raised an army and defeated local Roman forces. As “Philip VI”, Andriscus briefly issued some extremely rare Macedonian coins. His tetradrachms were struck with recut dies; his drachms (only four examples are known) are overstruck on contemporary Roman denarii. In 148 BCE, Andriscus was defeated by Q. Caecilius Metellus and executed.

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[1] Lendon, 209-210.

[2] Modern Greeks remain suspicious of their neighbor, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which uses the name of a northern province of Greece and occupies some of the ancient kingdom’s territory. To avoid confusion the name “Macedon” is usually used when referring to the ancient kingdom.

[3] He earned the nickname from his epic, unsuccessful siege of Rhodes in 305 BCE, where he built a wheeled assault tower 125 feet (38 meters) tall, and a battering ram operated by a thousand men.


Berk, Harlan. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Whitman (2008)

Carradice, Ian. Greek Coins. British Museum (1995)

Edson, Charles. “Perseus and Demetrius”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. 46 (1935)

Hadji-Maneva, Maja. Macedonia: Coins and History. Skopje (2008)

Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. Yale (2005)

Plutarch (John Dryden, transl.). The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Modern Library (n.d.)

(Plutarch’s Life of Flaminius and Life of Æmilius Paulus are major sources for Macedonian history in this period. Other important but fragmentary sources are the histories of Livy and Polybius.)

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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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