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The Unorthodox Tetradrachm of Perseus

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
 

Supposedly the bastard child of King Philip V of Macedon, Perseus was born in 212 BCE. But much of what we know about the last Antigonid ruler might be inaccurate, a historical hiccup due mainly to the decidedly hostile writing of later authors like Polybius and Livy. Not only did these historians label Perseus as the “bastard child of a concubine, unloved by his father,” but they also called him “woman-minded,” and generally weak (Hammond et al, 490).

In truth, his mother Polycrateia, a well born aristocrat from the city-state of Argos, was very much married to Philip V. Additionally, Perseus probably did not kill his brother Demetrius, as claimed by Polybius.

Shortly after his ascension to the Macedonian throne in 179 BCE, he proved his detractors wrong. Pursuing beneficial diplomatic relations, Perseus worked with the surrounding Greek city-states to build a more solid power base for his own kingdom. To that end, he dispatched a number of envoys with valuable gifts, such as the “quantity of fine ship-timber” he presented to Rhodes (Hammond et al, 493).

Mindful of the need for a stable economic system, Perseus worked to increase mining activities aimed at the silver and gold deposits in northeastern Greece. In addition to expanding existing mines and opening new ones, Perseus also increased taxes and struck more coins. Graphically breaking from his predecessors, Perseus decided to depict a lifelike portrait of himself on the obverse of his large format coinage – the tetradrachm. On the reverses, he also discontinued the old club design, and chose the eagle instead.

In addition to these newly strengthened friendships and deepening Greek support, Perseus began to undertake expansionary activities in areas of Thrace and Illyria controlled by Rome. When combined with Rome’s natural predilection for seeing enemies everywhere, these moves by Perseus soon upended the cordial Macedonian-Roman relationship created by his father Philip V.

Though Perseus did not originally start out as an enemy of Rome, and actually “avoided any act of provocation and obeyed every order”, events spiraled out of control, ending with Rome declaring war and marching several legions into Macedonian territory (Hammond et al, 490).

Thus, the Third Macedonian War[1] was launched with a rather indecisive Battle at Callinicus in 171 BCE. That being said, the victory is often attributed to the Greek forces under Perseus. After a number of subsequent years spent campaigning in Macedonia and western Turkey, Roman and Macedonian troops met again in the pitched set-piece Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE. This time however, Perseus’s forces were overwhelmed and the Roman general Lucius Aemilius Paullus won a crushing victory. In addition to marking the end of the Antigonid kingdom of Macedon, this battle clearly demonstrated the strength and flexibility of the Roman legions over the more ridged and now outclassed Greek phalanx formation.

Paullus later received the king’s surrender and brought Perseus back to Rome to be included in a Triumph as a chained prisoner. During their campaigns, the Roman legions destroyed numerous Macedonian towns, gave vast tracks of land to both Roman and Thracian veterans, and reportedly enslaved 300,000 locals. Furthermore, Rome carved Macedonia up into four client republics, each of which was a mere vassal to their Roman overlords.

AR Tetradrachm of Perseus.
MACEDONIA. Perseus. Under Zoilos. 179-168 BCE. Pella or Amphipolis. AR Tetradrachm, 17.03g (35mm, 12h). Obverse: Lifelike laureate head facing right with stubble beard. Reverse: Eagle with wings swept back and standing on a thunderbolt; ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΠΕΡΕΣΩΣ above and at eagle’s legs. Monogram E to r.; wreath surrounding. Pedigree: Ex Sotheby & Co., London, Auction 22. April 1970, Lot 98 (Fritz Collection). References: SNG Saroglos 958-960; Mamroth 5. Grade: Beautifully struck with cabinet toning and nice relief. EF.

While undated, we can tell that this particular tetradrachm was struck relatively early in Perseus’s reign due mainly to its weight and imagery. As Macedon employed the Attic weight standard for its coinage, at 17.03 grams this coin is extremely close to the intended 17.2 grams.

However, as time passed, and military and economic pressures mounted, Perseus was forced to reduce the weight of his tetradrachm. By around 171 BCE, it was not unusual for coins of the same denomination to only weigh between 14 and 15 grams. Coins of this type are often described as reduced standard. Additionally, the silver purity and artistic standard declined rapidly between 170 and Perseus’s defeat in 168 BCE – all of which is evidence of the economic hardships Perseus incurred through the need to pay his army in order to wage near constant warfare.

That being said, it is highly probably that the obverse portrait is lifelike. Unlike earlier Antigonid kings, many of whom continued the tradition of depicting Alexander the Great as Heracles, this portrait includes a number of prominent features not usually considered to be classical markers of beauty or strength. In this case, the large forehead and pointy nose along with the king’s sparse beard all are a split from the dynasty’s Macedonian numismatic legacy. On the reverse however, Perseus remained true to Antigonid form and employed the eagle as a powerful symbol of Zeus.

This coin is also associated with a more shadowy figure: Zoilos. While other types include his name at the neck truncation and are more clearly associated with Zoilos, this particular piece includes his monogram () above the reverse eagle’s head. It is, however, quite interesting that such an individual would have their name spelled out below the royal portrait. While orthodoxy once stated that Zoilos was the master die carver, some historians have now posited that he might have been a mint master or even a finance minister. Since the same monogram appears on several coins issued by Philip V, it lends credence to the importance of this figure.

Altogether, this handsome coin of Perseus represents one of the more striking and desirable types of Hellenistic Greek tetradrachms created before Roman expansionism and Greek in-fighting consumed most of the successor kingdoms established by the Diadochi after Alexander’s death.

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Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_Macedonian_War
 

Sources

Hammond et al, 1988 – A History of Macedonia: 336-167 B.C. (https://books.google.com)

https://coinweek.com/ancient-coins/coinweek-ancient-coin-series-decline-fall-macedon/

https://www.persee.fr/docAsPDF/numi_0484-8942_2007_num_6_163_2825.pdf

https://www.shannaschmidt.com/greek-coins/macedonia-perseus-under-zoilos-179-168-bc

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Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University's Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., he worked for Save the Children, creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the U.S. from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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