By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
ALONGSIDE THE GREAT Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires that emerged from the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire following his death in 323 BCE, several small Greek-speaking kingdoms sprang up. Some of these produced exceptionally artistic portrait coins, and for almost two centuries, Bithynia’s issues ranked among the finest.
Bithynia is a fertile, hilly region in the northwestern corner of Anatolia. In 297 BCE, Zipoetes, a tribal chieftain, declared himself king. Many years later, this date became Year 1 of the “Bosporan Era”, used to date coins and inscriptions. Zipoetes ruled for an incredible 48 years, waging successful wars against neighboring kingdoms and expanding his territory. He was succeeded by his son Nikomedes, the first Bithynian ruler to issue coins in his own name.
Nikomedes came to the throne in 278 BCE when he was about 22 years old. He executed two of his brothers, but a third, Zipoetes II, escaped and raised a revolt. To crush this rebellion, Nikomedes hired Gauls, ferocious Celtic warriors that had migrated into the neighboring region of Thrace. These Gauls later settled in a part of Anatolia that became known by their name: Galatia.
In 264 BCE, Nikomedes founded his new capital city, modestly naming it Nikomedia (or Nicomedeia; today Iznik, Turkey). Centuries later, under Emperor Diocletian (ruled 284 – 305 CE,) Nikomedia became the eastern capital of the Roman Empire.
Nikomedes issued silver tetradrachms on a slightly reduced “Attic standard” of about 17 grams. They bear his stern portrait on the obverse, wearing a diadem, the simple headband that was an ancient emblem of royalty. His name and title appear on the reverse, flanking a seated female figure identified by numismatists as the Thracian warrior goddess Bendis. Greeks regarded Bendis as equivalent to, but not the same as, their own goddess Artemis. Nicomedes also issued silver drachms, but these are so rare that the only example your author has found is in the collection of the American Numismatic Society (ANS), from the bequest of the great numismatist Edward Newell (1886-1941).
Bronze coins of Nikomedes are relatively common. They bear his portrait on the obverse, with a prancing horse on the reverse.
Following the death of Nikomedes I in 255 BCE, his second wife, Etazeta, ruled as regent for her infant sons. Ziaelas (or Ziailas), aged about 11, a son of Nikomedes by his first wife, fled to Armenia, raised an army of Gaulish mercenaries and ousted Etazeta. Ziaelas was killed fighting the Gauls in 228 BCE at the age of about 37. His only coins are extremely rare bronzes of about five grams; about five examples are known. In a 2014 New York auction, one sold for $1,800 USD.
He was an enlightened and courageous ruler who managed to maintain the prosperity of his realm at a time of great political turmoil in Asia Minor. (Sear, 682)
Prusias (or Prousias), son of Ziailas, was about 17 years old when he became king in 230 BCE. During his long reign of 48 years, Bithynia reached the height of its power. He earned his nickname Cholus (“the lame”) when he was struck by a stone, breaking his leg, while climbing a ladder in the siege of Heraclea Pontica on the Black Sea coast. When he obtained the ruined city of Cius (or Keios) from Philip V of Macedon, he renamed it Prusias (today Bursa, Turkey) for himself. He married Apama III, Philip V’s sister.
High-grade silver tetradrachms of Prusias I currently sell in major auctions for $2,000 to $5,000 and up. His bearded, diademed portrait appears on the obverse. On the reverse, an elegant standing figure of the god Zeus extends his right arm to hold a wreath above the king’s name. This may represent a famous statue, Zeus Stratios, that stood in a temple in Nikomedia. Some cataloguers describe the figure as Zeus Stephanophoros (“Zeus the Wreath-Bearer”). A small thunderbolt symbol and two monograms (thought to be the names of mint officials) appear below the god’s extended arm. “The portrait coins of Prusias are among the finest of the Hellenistic series,” wrote a cataloguer, “depicting him with a luxuriant set of chin whiskers and a self-satisfied smirk.”
Bronze coinage of Prusias I included a handsome 12-gram piece bearing an androgynous left-facing head of Apollo, and a winged goddess crowning the king’s name with a wreath on the reverse. The same god appears on a smaller denomination of about six grams, with his signature musical instrument, the lyre, on the reverse.
Prusias is also known as the king who gave asylum to the famed Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, who was being pursued by Roman agents after the Second Punic War. The Bithynian ruler employed his brilliant refugee in a successful war against a neighbor, Eumenes of Pergamon. The Romans intervened to stop the war and demanded the handover of Hannibal, who killed himself rather than surrender.
His son, Prusias II (185 – 149 BCE) proved to be a feeble and even vicious character … his portraits show us a heavy, stupid looking person, at first wearing a close cropped beard, later almost clean shaven. His diadem is always adorned with a wing, just above the ear. (Newell, 37)
Nicknamed Prusias Kynegos (“the Hunter”), the son of Prusias the Lame was born about 220 BCE and became king at the age of 38. To strengthen Bithynia’s alliance with Macedon, he married his cousin Apama IV, sister of King Perseus.
The winged diadem on tetradrachms of Prusias II, which recalls the winged cap of the mythic hero, Perseus, has provoked a considerable amount of argument among numismatists:
…it may very well be that the wing should not be understood as a part of the king’s headgear, i.e. the diadem, but as a “natural” part of the king’s body. This is what seems to be implied by the gradual integration of the wing into the locks of hair over time… (Kaye, 24-25)
Numismatists love to argue.
Prusias evidently had a thing for birds, because, on the reverse of his tetradrachm, he added a small eagle, perched on the thunderbolt symbol below the outstretched arm of Zeus. An exceptional example of this type, with “a lovely portrait in fine Hellenistic style, old cabinet tone and about extremely fine” brought almost $14,000 in a 2018 Swiss auction.
Some handsome medium-sized bronze coins of Prusias bear the head of Dionysus, identified by his distinctive wreath of ivy leaves, with a centaur playing the lyre on the reverse.
Nikomedes II, elder son of Prusias II was so popular with Bithynians that his father packed him off to Rome, hoping to bequeath the kingdom to a younger son by his second wife. In 149 BCE, Nikomedes arranged the assassination of his father, who was stabbed to death in the Temple of Zeus, ironically right in front of the statue depicted on the coins.
Nikomedes II ruled for 22 years. He was the only Bithynian king to issue gold staters. Bearing the image of a galloping horseman with a large round shield, these are so rare that no examples have appeared at auction in recent decades; the only ones I could find are two held by the French National Collection in Paris. Nikomedes is identified on his coins by the epithet ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ (Epiphanes, meaning “God Manifest”, a common boast of Hellenistic kings who often claimed attributes of divinity). He began the custom of dating his coins according to the year of the Bithynian Era; for example, a coin struck in 146/145 BCE is dated with the Greek numerals ΓNP meaning Year 153.
On the common bronze small change, which bears neither a date nor a royal epithet, it is impossible to determine whether a specific coin was issued by either Nikomedes II or by his son or grandson, who all bore the same name.
A loyal ally of Rome, Nikomedes made peace with Pergamon, Bithynia’s historic rival. When he died in 128 BCE, he was succeeded by his son Nikomedes III.
Nikomedes III gained the epithet Euergetes (“Benefactor”) through his generous gifts to various Greek cities, but this does not appear on his coinage, which is only distinguished from his father’s issues by the dates–the portrait and inscription remained unchanged. Forming an alliance with Mithridates VI of Pontus, Nikomedes invaded the small neighboring kingdom of Paphlagonia, which was occupied and partitioned between Pontus and Bithynia. The alliance broke down when Nikomedes attempted to annex Cappadocia in 105 BCE:
Nicomedes tricked his ally by suddenly marrying the Cappadocian Queen Regent, Laodice, thinking thus to make good his claim to the country. The wrathful Mithridates soon chased his […] ally out. The quarrel continued until finally the Romans intervened by taking Cappadocia from Mithridates and Paphlagonia from Nicomedes. (Newell, 39)
Bithynia was a client kingdom, allied to Rome … Nicomedes was elderly and had doubtless encountered Caesar’s father, which probably ensured that the welcome given to to son was especially warm. The youth seems to have reveled in the luxury he encountered, and was accused of lingering far longer than was necessary … Caesar was young, had led a comparatively sheltered life… and was getting his first taste of the wider world and of royalty. (Goldsworthy, 66)
Nikomedes IV, known by the epithet Philopator (“He Who Loves His Father”), is probably the most famous Bithynian king because of his rumored sexual relationship with the young Julius Caesar, a story Caesar later vigorously denied when his political opponents mocked him as “Queen of Bithynia”. Nicomedes IV became king after the death of his father in 94 BCE but was overthrown by a half-brother named Socrates Chrestus four years later. Restored to his throne with Roman aid, he was driven out again in 88 BCE by Mithridates VI of Pontus, who occupied Bithynia, precipitating the First Mithridatic War.
Only the dates and the increasingly poor style and workmanship of the coins distinguish his coins from those of his father. In fact, the 1889 British Museum catalog of the coins of Bithynia failed to even recognize that they were two different kings (Wroth, xliii). When Nicomedes IV died without an heir, he bequeathed his kingdom to the Roman Senate. His last tetradrachms bear the date ΔKΣ, (Year 224 of the Bithynian era, corresponding to 74-73 BCE).
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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosporan_era. The Bithynian year began on the Autumn equinox.
 Nomos Auction 9, October 21, 2014, Lot 137. Realized CHF 18,000 (about $18,991 USD; estimate CHF 20,000).
 Leu Web Auction 18, December 18, 2021, Lot 1035. Realized CHF 65 (about $70 USD; estimate CHF 25).
 CNG Triton XIV, January 3, 2011, Lot 260. Realized $1,800 USD (estimate $500).
 Apama or Apame was a popular name for daughters in Macedonian ruling dynasty, and a number of cities were named Apamea.
 Hess-Divo Auction 329, November 17, 2015, Lot 86. Realized CHF 8,000 (about $7,884 USD; estimate CHF 7,500).
 Heritage NYINC Sale, January 4, 2015, Lot 30923. Realized $4,000 USD (estimate $4,000 – 5,500).
 Leu Web Auction 16, May 22, 2021, Lot 737. Realized CHF 420 (about $467 USD; estimate CHF 50).
 CNG Electronic Auction 226, January 27 2010, Lot 227. Realized $165 USD (estimate $100).
 NAC Auction 106, May 9, 2018, Lot 251. Realized CHF 14,000 (about $13,943 USD; estimate CHF 8,000).
 Leu Web Auction 19, February 26, 2022, Lot 987. Realized CHF 550 (about $592 USD; estimate CHF 25).
 CNG Auction 115, September 16, 2020, Lot 173. Realized $2,500 USD (estimate $1,500).
 Leu Web Auction 16, May 22 2021, Lot 743. Realized CHF 80 (about $89 USD; estimate CHF 50).
 Naville Auction 39, April 29, 2018, Lot 67. Realized £460 (about $635 USD; estimate £200).
 Leu Auction 6, October 23, 2020, Lot 163. Realized CHF 850 (about $937 USD; estimate CHF 500).
Çalik Ross, Ayse. Ancient Izmit: Nicomedia. Istanbul (2007)
Glew, Dennis. “The Cappadocian Expedition of Nicomedes III Euergetes, King of Bithynia”, American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 32 (1987)
Goldsworthy, Adrian. Caesar: Life of a Colossus. New Haven (2006)
Kaye, Noah. “The silver tetradrachms of Prousias II of Bithynia”, American Journal of Numismatics 25 (2013)
Newell, Edward, T. Royal Greek Portrait Coins. New York (1937)
Osgood, Josiah. “Caesar and Nicomedes”, The Classical Quarterly 58 (2008)
Paganoni, Eloisa. Forging the Crown: A History of the Kingdom of Bithynia from its Origin to Prusias I. Rome (2019)
Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values Volume 2, Asia & Africa. London (1979)
Wroth, Warwick. Catalogue of Greek Coins: Pontus, Paphlagonia, Bithynia and the Kingdom of Bosporus. London (1889)
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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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