HomeAncient CoinsThe Ancient Coins of Pompey the Great

The Ancient Coins of Pompey the Great

The Coins of Pompey the Great.

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

There was something of Jekyll and Hyde in Pompey. One side, the bright side, shows him as a great man who was brilliant, patriotic and talented. The other, the dark side, shows him as a willful monster: cruel,arrogant and overbearing (Fields, 4).

ROMAN ARISTOCRAT AND general Gnaeus Pompeius (better known to English speakers as “Pompey”) was a pivotal figure in the events that led to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Coins issued in his name, or by his sons and supporters, document and illustrate a dramatic period of Roman history.

Born September 29, 106 BCE in the Italian province of Picenum, he was the son of Pompeius Strabo, a rich landowner who became a Roman senator and eventually consul in 89 BCE. At the age of 16, young Pompey accompanied his father on campaign in the Social War[1].

In the bloody and protracted civil wars that wracked the dying decades of the Roman republic, young Pompey sided with the dictator Sulla, raising and training an army at his own expense. In recognition of Pompey’s victories, Sulla awarded him the honorific title of Magnus (“the Great”) which appears on the coins in place of his given name. In 67 BCE, he was voted extraordinary powers to suppress the Cilician pirates, who had paralyzed Mediterranean trade and were threatening Rome’s vital imported grain supply. Public confidence in Pompey was so great that the price of bread dropped on the day he was appointed. Within three months, he swept the pirates from the seas. In 60 BCE, he formed a political alliance, the “First Triumvirate”, with Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome, and Gaius Julius Caesar, an ambitious up-and-coming politician. Their political enemies called it the “three-headed monster.” Pompey cemented his alliance with Julius Caesar by marrying Caesar’s daughter, Julia. Pompey was elected consul three times; in 70, 55, and 52 BCE; on the first occasion, he was not even a Senator, which was unprecedented.

Gold aureus for the triumph of Pompey the Great, 71 BCE. Numismatica Ars Classica.

The first coin attributed to Pompey is an extremely rare gold aureus, probably issued at Rome on the occasion of his triumph in 71 BCE, although some sources question this date (Kopij, 111). Only five examples of this coin are known, all but one in museums[2]. The best-known published example is in the British Museum[3], purchased in 1867 from French collector Louis Duc de Blacas (1815-1868).

The aureus, valued at 25 silver denarii (a month’s pay for a mercenary soldier) was not a regular part of the currency at this time; it was only issued on special occasions. On the obverse, the head of a female wearing an elephant headdress and surrounded by a laurel wreath represents Africa, where Pompey won some of his victories. The inscription is simply MAGNVS (“the Great”). On the reverse, Pompey stands in a triumphal quadriga (a parade chariot drawn by four horses); a small figure riding the lead horse may be Pompey’s young son, Cnaeus. The inscription PRO•COS abbreviates another of his titles, Proconsul.

Silver Denarius. Cn. Calpurnius Piso for Pompey the Great. Corcyra mint, 48 BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Silver Denarius. Cn. Calpurnius Piso for Pompey the Great. Corcyra mint, 48 BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.

When Julius Caesar defied the Senate by leading his victorious army from Gaul into Italy in 49 BCE, Pompey took command of the forces opposing Caesar. In 48 BCE, following his catastrophic defeat by Caesar’s army, at the Battle of Pharsalus in northern Greece, Pompey fled to Egypt, where courtiers of King Ptolemy XII, hoping to win Caesar’s favor, treacherously murdered him as soon as he landed.

Pompey’s sons and loyal followers were determined to continue the civil war against Caesar, and issued coins glorifying his memory to pay their troops. An early example struck on the island of Corcyra (today Corfu, Greece) bears the name of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso[4]. The obverse depicts the head of legendary second Roman king Numa Pompilius (ruled 715 – 672 BCE), whom Piso claimed as an ancestor. The reverse shows the prow of a warship–a very common image on Roman coinage. In this case, it celebrates Pompey’s nautical victory over the Cilician pirates in 66 BCE. The reverse inscription MAGN PRO•COS recalls Pompey’s titles[5].

Silver denarius. M. Terentius Varro for Pompey, military mint Greece, 49-48 BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Silver denarius. M. Terentius Varro for Pompey, military mint Greece, 49-48 BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.

Another coin issued c. 49 – 48 BCE for Pompey’s son, Gnaeus from an uncertain military mint in Greece bears the name and abbreviated title of proquaestor[6] Marcus Terentius Varro (116 – 27 BCE)[7] who survived the civil wars and became an eminent scholar under the reign of Augustus. The obverse bears a bust of the god Jupiter. On the reverse a dotted vertical line representing a scepter stands between a dolphin (symbolizing sea power) and an eagle (symbolizing land power, since every Roman legion carried a sacred eagle standard.) Many coins of this type are poorly struck, as might be expected for coins struck under harsh field conditions to pay the troops. An exceptional “near mint state” example sold for over $4,500 in a 2022 London auction[8].

Silver denarius.. M. Poblicius,for Cnaeus Pompey Junior. Corduba mint (Cordoba, Spain) summer 46 - spring 45 BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Silver denarius.. M. Poblicius,for Cnaeus Pompey Junior. Corduba mint (Cordoba, Spain) summer 46 – spring 45 BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.

Spain with its rich silver mines and warlike Celtiberian tribes, became a major theater of war for sons and supporters of Pompey fighting against Julius Caesar. A denarius issued at Cordoba for Gnaeus Pompeius Junior c. 46-45 BCE bears a helmeted head of Roma, the female personification of Rome, on the obverse[9]. On the reverse, a female warrior figure hands the palm branch of victory to a Roman soldier, perhaps Pompey Junior himself, who stands on the prow of a ship[10]. This type, referenced as RRC 469/1a, is relatively common, with 288 examples on CoinArchives Pro, and in recent auctions has sold at prices ranging from under $200 to over $3,000, depending on the grade.

Silver denarius. Cnaeus Pompeius Junior and M. Minatius Sabinus. Spain 46-45 BCE. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Silver denarius. Cnaeus Pompeius Junior and M. Minatius Sabinus. Spain 46-45 BCE. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

A magnificent, dignified portrait of the deceased Pompey appear on a coin from an uncertain Spanish mint dated to c. 46 – 45 BCE[11]. The work of a talented engraver, the obverse bears the inscription IMP CN • MAGN (“Commander, Gnaeus the Great”). The Latin word Imperator, which later became a title of the emperors, at this period simply meant something like “Commander in Chief”, and numismatists often describe the period from 82 to 27 BCE as the “imperatorial era”. The reverse, bearing the name of M. Minatius Sabinus (an official who is otherwise unknown) depicts two female figures (probably representing Spanish towns), one presenting a laurel branch to a Roman soldier, the other crowning him with a wreath. “Very rare and among the finest known,” an example of this coin brought over $85,000 in a 2015 Swiss auction.

Bronze as. in the name of Pompey the Great, Uncertain mint in Spain, 45 BCE. Image: Numismatica Ibercoin.
Bronze as. in the name of Pompey the Great, Uncertain mint in Spain, 45 BCE. Image: Numismatica Ibercoin.

Along with silver denarii to pay his troops in Spain, Pompey the younger issued a bronze as (about 23 grams) bearing a very traditional design: the head of Janus on the obverse, and the prow of a warship on the reverse. The reverse inscription CN • MAG IMP abbreviates Gnaeus Magnus, Imperator (“Gnaeus the Great, Commander”) titles shared by father and son. An exceptional example of this type, which is usually heavily worn, brought over $900 in a 2021 Spanish auction[12].

Gold aureus. Sextus Pompeius. Sicily, 42-40 or 37/6 BCE. Image: Heritage Auctions.
Gold aureus. Sextus Pompeius. Sicily, 42-40 or 37/6 BCE. Image: Heritage Auctions.

Born about 67 BCE, Sextus Pompeius was the younger son of Pompey the Great. After his elder brother Gnaeus was killed fighting against Julius Caesar in Spain, Sextus fled to Sicily. With Sicily as his base, Sextus recruited a strong army and fleet that continued the civil war following Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE. A magnificent gold aureus[13] issued by Sextus c. 42-40 BCE at an uncertain Sicilian mint bears his bearded profile portrait, surrounded by an oak wreath. The inscription MAG • PIVS •-IMP • ITER might be translated as “The Great, the Faithful, Commander for the Second Time”. Sextus adopted the Latin word Pius as part of his name. Hard to translate, it implies meticulous observance of Roman tradition[14]. The reverse bears facing portraits of Sextus’ deceased father and brother, with his other title, PRAEF / CLAS • ET • ORAE / MARIT • EX • S • C (“Admiral of the Fleet and the Coasts of the Sea, by Decree of the Senate”).

Silver denarius. Sextus Pompey. 42-38 BCE. Image: CNG.
Silver denarius. Sextus Pompey. 42-38 BCE. Image: CNG.

Sextus Pompey briefly (42-38 BCE) held the important commercial seaport of Massilia (today Marseille, France) where his officer Q. Nasidius issued a handsome denarius, bearing a profile portrait of the deceased Pompey inscribed NEPTUNI, suggesting that he was a “son of the sea god”. The message is reinforced by a trident and dolphin, symbolic of sea power. A detailed warship under full sail appears on the reverse, with a star above[15].

Silver denarius Sextus Pompey. Uncertain Sicilian mint 40-39 BCE. Image: CNG.
Silver denarius Sextus Pompey. Uncertain Sicilian mint 40-39 BCE. Image: CNG.

Many of the coins issued for Sextus Pompey in Sicily made reference to local landmarks, myths, and legends. An example is a denarius[16] from c. 40 BCE that depicts the lighthouse of Messana, on the narrow strait that separates Sicily from the Italian mainland. A warship appears below the tower. On the reverse, we see the sea monster Scylla[17], with the body of a woman and the tails of fish, wielding a rudder as a club. Another denarius from an uncertain Sicilian mint (possibly Catania) bears a bearded head of Neptune with his signature trident, and a complex symbol on the reverse described as a “naval trophy set on an anchor[18].”

Silver denarius. Sextus Pompey. Uncertain mint in Sicily (Catania?), 42-40 BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Silver denarius. Sextus Pompey. Uncertain mint in Sicily (Catania?), 42-40 BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.

One of the most remarkable coins of this ill-fated family was issued for Sextus Pompey by an uncertain Sicilian mint, c. 42-38 BCE. The obverse of this bronze as bears the usual double-faced head of Janus, but in this case the faces have the features of Pompey the Great, with his title Magnus abbreviated to MGN. The reverse shows the prow of a warship, with the name Sextus adopted, PIUS, above and his title IMP (for Imperator) below. An exceptional example of this type realized over $2,000 in a 2021 Swiss auction[19]. Lower-grade examples typically sell for $500 or less.

Defeated in the naval Battle of Naulochus (September 3, 36 BCE)[20] by the fleet of Marcus Agrippa, Octavian’s friend and brilliant admiral, Sextus fled to Asia Minor, where he was eventually hunted down and executed at the age of about 32 by Octavian’s agents.

Collecting the Pompeians

Bronze as. Sextus Pompey, uncertain mint in Sicily, circa 42-38 BCE. Image: Leu Numismatik AG.
Bronze as. Sextus Pompey, uncertain mint in Sicily, circa 42-38 BCE. Image: Leu Numismatik AG.

Our most important ancient source on the life of Pompey is Plutarch. A Romanized Greek who lived about a century after Pompey’s death, Plutarch had access to primary sources that were lost in antiquity. Greenhalgh’s massive and scholarly two-volume biography (1980 and 1981) is a readable modern treatment of the subject.

Gold coins issued in Pompey’s name are spectacular rarities that seldom come to market, but the silver and bronze types can be quite affordable except in the highest grades. The standard reference for this coinage, cited in most auction catalog listings, is Crawford (1974), long out of print and very expensive. A more up-to-date and affordable handbook for collectors is Sear (2021) — about $57. The American Numismatic Society (ANS) maintains a superb web site, Coinage of the Roman Republic Online (CRRO), with links to data – organized by “Crawford number” – and images on thousands of coins.

* * *

Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_War_(91%E2%80%9387_BC)

[2] NAC Auction 63, May 17, 2012, Lot 220. Realized CHF 95,000 (about $100,508 USD; estimate CHF 45,000).

[3] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_1867-0101-584

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnaeus_Calpurnius_Piso_(consul_23_BC)

[5] Roma Numismatics, Auction XXII, October 7, 2021, Lot 623. Realized £4,200 (about $5,721 USD; estimate £3,500).

[6] A proquaestor was an official ranking below a propraetor. His duties might include judicial, financial, or military management.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcus_Terentius_Varro

[8] Roma Numismatics Auction XXV, September 22, 2022, Lot 767. Realized £4,000 (about $4,506 USD; estimate £3,000).

[9] Since “Roma” is grammatically a feminine noun, it seemed logical to Latin speakers to personify it as a woman.

[10] Roma Numismatics Auction XXV, September 22, 2022, Lot 774. Realized £1,800 (about $2,028 USD; estimate £750).

[11] NAC Auction 83, May 20, 2015, Lot 434. Realized CHF 80,000 (about $85,251 USD; estimate CHF 25,000).

[12] Numismatic Ibercoin Auction 48, March 30, 2021, Lot 115. Realized €800 (about $938 USD; estimate €60).

[13] Heritage Auction 3066, August 17, 2018, Lot 30092. Realized $280,000 USD (estimate $200-300,000).

[14] Recall that 12 popes of the Roman Catholic Church have taken this word as their name.

[15] CNG Triton XXV, January 11, 2022, Lot 745. Realized $16,000 USD (estimate $10,000).

[16] CNG Triton XIX, January 5, 2016, Lot 408. Realized $2,750 USD (estimate $2,000).

[17] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scylla

[18] Roma Numismatics Auction XVI, September 26, 2018, Lot 637. Realized £3,200 (about $4,212 USD; estimate £4,000).

[19] Leu Numismatik Auction 16, May 22, 2021, Lot 3324. Realized CHF 1,800 (about $2,004 USD; estimate CHF 150).

[20] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Naulochus

References

Crawford, Michael. Roman Republican Coinage. Cambridge (1974)

Dryden, John (translator). Plutarch: Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. New York (n.d.)

Fields, Nick. Pompey the Great: Leadership • Strategy • Conflict. Botley, UK (2012)

Greenhalgh, Peter. Pompey: The Republican Prince. London (1981)

–. Pompey: The Roman Alexander. London (1980)

Kent. J.P.C. Roman Coins. New York (1978)

Kopij, Kamil. “The Context and Dating of the Pompey’s Aureus (RRC 402)”, Numismatica e Antichità Classiche XLV (2016)

Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values, Volume 1. London (2000)

–. The History and Coinage of the Roman Imperators 49-27 BC. London (2021)

* * *

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.

 

Related Articles

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.