David Vagi continues his discussion of the designs of select ancient Greek coins in the fourth of a multi-part series
By David Vagi – Director, NGC Ancients ……
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V
As our survey of Greek silver coins continues, we’ll depart from the geographical format and investigate the coins of the Hellenistic Kingdoms.
With the expansion of the Macedonian Kingdom under Philip II (359-336 BCE) and his son Alexander III (“The Great”, 336-323 BCE), the Greek world underwent a great transformation. The Persian Empire was toppled and much of the Greek world came to be ruled by kings. Though the era of the prideful city-state had largely passed, there were many opportunities throughout the Hellenistic Age (c.350 / 336-30 BCE) for individual cities to assert their independence.
A large percentage of Hellenistic coins show on their obverse the portrait of a ruler – either the current monarch or a revered ancestor – and most of the coins described below fit into that category. It is no easy task to narrow down such rich and diverse coinages to merely 10 issues, but the ones selected are important types that provide a good cross-section of the major kingdoms and regions of issue.
All images courtesy Classical Numsimatic Group (CNG)
1. Silver Tetradrachm of the Macedonian King Philip II (359-336 BCE). Much of Macedon, a region to the north of Greece proper, had been ruled by kings for centuries before Philip II came to the throne in 359 BCE. However, he did much to improve the profile of his native land by personally scoring a victory in the Olympic Games, inviting learned men to his court and professionalizing the army. His accomplishments, and the fortunate exploitation of gold and silver mines, allowed him to bring much of Greece under Macedonian rule.
Philip’s silver tetradrachms show the head of the supreme god Zeus on the obverse, and a horse and rider on the reverse. They vary greatly in style, depending on the mint and the age of the coin, as many tetradrachms with these designs were struck by his successors. The major variety in the series concerns the rider; the earliest show Philip himself, saluting, and the later pieces show a nude youth holding a palm branch. The one illustrated here is of fine style and was struck soon after his death.
2. Silver Tetradrachm of the Macedonian King Alexander III “the Great” (336-323 BCE). Certainly the most famous of all Greeks, Alexander had conquered much of the Western world before he reached the age of 30. After toppling the Persian Empire and establishing his rule in most lands from Greece to the border of India, he died a young man, long before his ambitions were fulfilled. Afterward, his massive kingdom was carved up by his successors, the diadochi, who thus created several new kingdoms.
The principal silver coins of Alexander show on their obverse the head of Heracles (Hercules) wearing the scalp of the Nemean lion, and on their reverse the seated figure of Zeus holding an eagle and a scepter. Many were struck in Alexander’s time, but they were continued by his successors and the designs were copied at independent Greek mints for more than 250 years after his death. They were also imitated by Celts, Arabians and other non-Greek peoples. The example illustrated here was struck at the mint in Babylon soon after Alexander’s death.
3. Silver Tetradrachm of the Thracian King Lysimachus (323-281 BCE). Lysimachus, one of the successors of Alexander the Great, was given control of Thrace in Northern Greece; he eventually took the title of king and extended his holdings to include Macedon and much of Asia Minor. Though a case can be made that some portraits of Heracles on tetradrachms of Alexander III depict the king in the guise of Hercules, a guaranteed portrait of Alexander appears on the main silver coinage of Lysimachus. Here Alexander (now deified) wears a royal diadem and the ram’s horn of Zeus-Ammon. The reverse shows Athena, the Greek goddess of war, holding Nike, the goddess of victory, who crowns the name of Lysimachus. Much like the gold and silver coins of Alexander III, those of Lysimachus achieved great popularity and their designs were copied for centuries afterward. This fine-style example was struck at Pergamum, the king’s principal mint in Asia Minor.
4. Silver Tetradrachm of the Pontic King Mithradates VI (120-63 BCE). Mithradates VI was on par with the Carthaginian general Hannibal as one of Rome’s most formidable enemies. He opposed the Roman presence in Asia Minor, so in a single night of bloodshed, he ordered the murder of more than 80,000 Romans. It took three of Rome’s best generals – Sulla, Lucullus and Pompey the Great – to defeat him before his options expired and he resorted to suicide. Many of his portraits are flamboyant and highly idealized, recalling the familiar image of Alexander the Great. He is said to have had some proficiency in as many as 22 languages, and he claimed descent on his mother’s side from the Greek kings Alexander III and Seleucus I, and on his father’s side from the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius.
The reverse of his portrait coins show an ivy wreath containing either a stag or Pegasus. Also within the wreath are the Pontic badge (a star within a crescent moon), royal inscriptions, monograms and the date of issue. The silver tetradrachm illustrated here was struck in 95/4 BCE.
5. Silver Tetradrachms of the Bithynian Kingdom. As Alexander III “the Great” swept through Asia, he reached many distant places, including the lands of modern Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. However, his quest to defeat the Persian king required that he bypass the heart of Anatolia – the vast territory south of the Black Sea. Greek culture permeated this region, but since it was not conquered by Alexander, much of its local character was retained. One of the kingdoms of this region was founded in Bithynia in 297/6 BCE by a local chieftain named Zipoetes.
Nicomedes I (c.280-250 BCE) was the first Bithynian king to issue royal coins, and that tradition survived until the kingdom was bequeathed to Rome in 74 BCE. The royal tetradrachms of Bithynia usually bear on their obverse the portrait of the reigning king and on their reverse the standing figure of Zeus crowning the name (and often the epithet) of that king. The example shown portrays Nicomedes III (c.127-94 BCE.) and is dated to the 177th year of the Bithynian Era, equal to 124/3 BCE.
6. Silver Tetradrachms of the Pergamene Kingdom. One of the great independent kingdoms of Asia Minor was based in the fortress city of Pergamum. Its power reached its apex during the reign of Attalus I (241-197 BCE), but by the end of that king’s life even he had appealed to Rome for help defending his borders. An impressive series of royal portrait coins were issued at Pergamum over a period of about 150 years. Regardless of which king was ruling at the time, all of these royal tetradrachms bear the portrait of the kingdom’s founder, a eunuch named Philetaerus. The standard reverse type is a seated Nike inspired by the coins of Lysimachus. The head of Philetaerus is robust and intense and usually consumes almost the entire obverse die.
The other important silver coinage of this kingdom was the cistophorus, a piece equal to three drachms (rather than the four drachms of a tetradrachm); it shows on its obverse a snake escaping from a basket (the cista mystica) and on its reverse a bow in its case flanked by two coiled snakes. The tetradrachm shown here was struck by King Eumenes I (263-241 BCE).
7. Silver Drachms of the Cappadocian Kingdom. Another independent kingdom in the part of the East bypassed by Alexander III was based in Cappadocia, an expansive, high plateau in east-central Asia Minor. A series of kings ruled this large territory for about 350 years, from the time of Alexander III to early in the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (who converted Cappadocia into a Roman province in 17 CE). Though the culture of this region was only partially Greek, one would never know by looking at its silver coins. Most show on their obverse the diademed portrait of a king, and on their reverse, the goddess Athena enclosed within Greek inscriptions that identify the issuer. Monograms composed of Greek letters appear in the fields, and sometimes Greek letters are used for control purposes, or to indicate the year in which the coin was struck. This silver drachm is a representative example, struck during the reign of King Ariarathes V (c.163-130 BCE).
8. Silver Tetradrachm of the Seleucid King Antiochus III “the Great” (223-187 BCE). The Seleucid Kingdom was based in modern Syria, but at various points in history, it covered enormous tracts of land, including remote regions in the East that seldom remained under Greek rule for long. Antiochus III, surnamed “the Great”, is one of the most famous Greek kings. His volatile personality ruled his policies, and he gained and lost vast territories in protracted wars. Although he found success in the East, he met an ardent opponent in Rome when he occupied valued regions in Asia Minor and tried to seize land in northern Greece. The fact that Antiochus was aided by Hannibal, the fugitive Carthaginian general who earlier had traumatized Italy, only raised the stakes. The result was the “Peace of Apameia” of 188 BCE, in which Antiochus forfeited most of his land and power to Rome and her allies. Thus, his reign ended with a colossal defeat.
His portrait on this silver tetradrachm depicts a young man with a heavy brow, a sharp and pointy nose, and a high cheekbone. The reverse types of his coinage vary by mint, but most show the god Apollo, including this tetradrachm, which is believed to have been struck in northern Mesopotamia toward the end of his reign.
9. Silver Tetradrachms of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. There had been an extraordinary civilization in Egypt for millennia before it came to be ruled by Persians, Greeks and Romans. Greek rule began with the arrival of Alexander III “the Great” late in 332 BCE and continued until 30 BCE, when the last Greek monarch, Queen Cleopatra VII, who preferred suicide to submitting to the Roman general Octavian (later known as Augustus).
After the death of Alexander III in 323 BCE, one of his successors, Ptolemy I (ruled 323-282 BCE), assumed command of Egypt and founded the longest-surviving kingdom that was carved from Alexander’s original conquests. For nearly the first three decades of his rule (initially as satrap, then as king), Ptolemy honored Alexander with his coin designs. However, in about 294 BCE, after having reigned as king for about a decade, he introduced coins with his own portrait and his personal badge – Zeus’s eagle standing on a thunderbolt. Just as with the coinage of the Pergamene Kingdom, later members of this dynasty used the founder’s portrait for most of their silver coins. This tetradrachm, for example, bears the portrait of Ptolemy I, but was struck by his son, Ptolemy II (285/4-246 BCE), at the mint of Tyre in Phoenicia.
10. Silver 16-Litrae of the Syracusan Queen Philistis (lifespan unknown: 2nd century BCE). During the Hellenistic Age, kingdoms were the dominant political force in Greece and points east, yet among the Greeks of the Western Mediterranean, they had difficulty taking root. Kings and tyrants would rule at different times, but after their deaths, the cities and regions under their control often would revert to some form of independence.
One such king was Hieron II, who reigned in Syracuse from 275 to 215 BCE – a long time by any standard. For the most part, his reign was glorious and prosperous, and he issued a variety of coins bearing his own portrait and those of his family – including his wife, Queen Philistis. This silver coin bears a finely styled portrait of Philistis in the fashion of the Egyptian queens Berenice II and Arsinöe II, who also are shown veiled on coins struck in their honor. This coin echoes the close political relationship between the Hellenistic-period rulers of Syracuse and Egypt, as described in literary sources. The reverse shows the goddess Nike driving a chariot, sometimes at full speed, and other times at a leisurely pace.
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For information on how ancient coins are graded, here’s a video featuring an interview with David Vagi:
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