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Numismatic Art in Asia Minor (Antiquity)

Author(s) : , Plantzos Dimitris (9/19/2002)
Translation : Panourgia Klio

For citation: , Plantzos Dimitris, "Numismatic Art in Asia Minor (Antiquity)",
Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Asia Minor
URL: <http://www.ehw.gr/l.aspx?id=8808>

Νομισματική Τέχνη στη Μ. Ασία (Αρχαιότητα) (3/27/2008 v.1) Numismatic Art in Asia Minor (Antiquity) (10/17/2008 v.1) 

1. The first coins

The first coins in the Mediterranean are were made of electrum and were cut in Ionia and Lydia at the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 6th century BC. Herodotus and other authors ascribe the invention of minting to the Lydians.1 The political and economic organization of the Lydian kingdom was favourable for the appearance of coins for the facilitation of commercial exchanges. The abundance of electrum, which was mined on the shores of the river Paktolos which ran through Lydia, possibly explains the use of this mineral for the first coins. At the same time, the iconography of even these early coins and the Greek inscriptions which many of these bear, emphasize the Greek contribution to the invention and evolution of minting.2 The minting and use of coins in the Greek towns of Ionia must have begun at around the same period with the appearance of coins in Lydia. Indeed, the first known coins come from excavations at the Artemision in Ephesus, namely from a «Greek» environment.The abolition of the Lydian kingdom by the Persians (547 BC) made the Greeks sole agents in the minting and distribution of coins during the 6th century as the Persians, the Phoenicians and other peoples in the area became involved with minting after the 5th century.

2. Iconography and symbolism

The earliest coins from Ephesus come from the excavation layer which was sealed with the erection of the great archaic temple of Artemis in 560 BC. The Lydian ruler Croesus contributed financially to the temple’s erection. These coins must, therefore, have been cut during the first decades of the 6th century or the end of the 7th century BC.

2.1. «I am Faenos’ stamp» «Φάενος εμί σήμα»

Among the first cuts from electrum (600-560 BC) are the first coins to bear an iconographic theme and Greek inscription. The stater now in the British Museum represents on its obverse a deer under the inscription «Φάενος εμί σήμα», i.e. «I am Faenos’ stamp». The uncertainty in the name’s recording («Faenos» rather than Faneos») possibly implies a non-Greek issuing body, but the use of the Greek language and the word «σήμα» (=emblem) is decisive both to the origin and the use of coins: the existence of the iconographic themes and inscriptions was meant to guarantee the coin’s value and make it a secure means of transaction. It is also characteristic that the subdivisions of Faenos’ semae bear the declaratory inscription «Faneos», here without the wrongful anagram of his name. Regarding Faneos’ identity, several hypotheses have been put forward: that he was a local nobleman or tyrant who stamped his state’s coin in order to guarantee its value or a pioneering banker who exchanged his capital for an «eponymous» coin.3 It has also been noted that Faneos’ emblem, the deer, could be considered as an emblem of Ephesus or the Artemision (as Artemis’ holy animal) and that the issuer was either the town’s dignitary or a priest to the goddess.4

2.2. Phokea

Iconographic themes taken from the animal kingdom appear on many coins from the Artemision treasure. A lion’s head is depicted on a characteristic example, an electrum stater, while on the centimes of the same coins only the animal’s foot is represented.5 Some of these coins bear inscriptions possibly in the Lydian language, which may refer to the place or office of issue. Uninscribed but with the symbolism of its emblem clear is an electrum stater representing a seal swimming. In this case, we have the first live symbol (λαλούν σύμβολο) in the history of Greek minting as the representation of the animal, the seal (phokea) appears to refer to the Ionic town of Phokea.6 Already the iconographic representation is equally important role to the inscription. The themes represented often had symbolic meaning and were connected to the town itself or some patron saint or even with a known agricultural product important for the town’s economy. During the same period (570-550 BC), the numismatic tradition was also consolidated on mainland Greece followed by the Greek colonies in Southern Italy and Sicily. In many cases, the colonies borrowed symbols from their mother-towns for their coins. Characteristic is the example of Abdera, a colony of Teos (c. 544 BC), whose coin preserved the griffin, the mother-town’s symbol, which was however turned in the opposite direction.7

3. Archaic and Classic period

The first coins in Ionia and elsewhere do not present significant aesthetic interest or qualitative parity. From the mid 6th century BC however, when the art of small-scale sculpture reached great standards, the aesthetic qualities of coins also flourished. The technique for the carving of the mold of a coin is almost the same as the process used for the production of signets so we can assume that more engravers during antiquity worked on the production of both coins and signets just like their counterparts during the Renaissance and later.Two artistic trends which characterize the production of signets during the archaic period appear in the art of engraved gems of Eastern Greece during the same time.

The iconographic themes are simple, suitable for the confined circular space. They have mythological or symbolic projections, compatible with the coin’s emblematic character. Their themes are connected to the broader Greek iconography (human figures, animals, mythical creatures). They are, finally, defined by an inherent conservatism in comparison to other areas of Greek art, something further intensified by the understandable persistence by local mints on traditional themes.

3.1. Cyzicus

A characteristic example in the late archaic stater (16,04 gr.) from Cyzicus: on the front view is represented the goddess Nike in the characteristic for this period stance of the «road at the knees», a conventional rendition of fast movement. Apart from its symbolic value, the subject is entirely satisfactorily incorporated into the almost circular shape of the coin.8 For this reason the themes in Greek numismatic art remained unchanged even after it had disappeared from sculpture or pottery. Apart from this stater, the mint of Cyzicus also produced other important coins in electrum (and later in silver), which bear the emblem of the tuna (fish) and present resemblances with the iconographic tradition on mainland Greece.

3.2. The birth of portaiture

The intrinsically idealistic nature of Greek art, particularly during the archaic and classical period, did not favour the development of portraiture.9 The representation in art of the particular characteristics of an individual so that it can be recognized, i.e. the portrait, is basically a Hellenistic period conquest. At that time, as in later Western art, the aim of the portrait was (mainly) the elevation of the subject’s personality and ethos. In 5th century BC art there are some examples which represent the social or political role of an existing person. It seems however that the Ionian artists, who designed coins for Greeks or barbarian patrons during this period, were innovative in representing existing individuals, adhering in this way both to their patrons’ needs but also understanding the emblematic character of the portrait.

3.3. Satrap 5th century BC minting

Asia Minor was the main minting area for the Persian kingdom. The first portraits of existing individuals appear on satrap Persian coins: these are silver coins which follow Greek metric systems (not the Persian system of darika). These coins, clearly the work of Greek engravers, appear to have been cut at the end of the 5th century BC and the beginning of the 4th century BC. They were possibly destined for the payment of Greek mercenaries who offered their services to Persian despots. Thus, the choice of the Greek metric system and of silver, the standard metal of exchange in the Greek world, facilitated their acceptance. The oldest of the surviving coins follows the Athenian metric system but also the general type of the attic drachma: on the rear view is an owl and the inscription BAΣ (=Βασιλέως) [King]. On the front view is a male head with tiara. The type of headdress shows that he was a mortal not the Great King himself. A slightly later coin repeats the same general type but depicts the emblem of a lyre on the reverse. Although unsigned, these two coins have been identified with the minting of the Satrap Tissaphernes. The first possibly took place in 412/11 in Miletus for the payment of Spartan soldiers at that time fighting against the Athenians, and the second slightly after 400 BC. The artistic value of these cuts is in the way with which the expressive means of Greek art have been used to represent the non-Greek: the «portraits» of Tissaphernes are based on detail and individual observation in order to render the appearance of a specific person, but also to emphasize his prestige (which also guarantees the value of the coin itself).10 It may not therefore be accidental that portraiture in Greek art began with the representation of non-Greeks11 or that other art forms such as signet carving were also experimenting with portraiture during this period in Eastern Greece. A similar coin, possibly from Cyzicus, confirms the issuing office of such coins by naming (in Greek, always) the man represented on the front view as the satrap of Phrygia Farnavazus.12

3.4. Lycia

During approximately the same period, the first quarter of the 4th century BC, dynastic portraits began to appear also on the coins of Lycia. Two silver staters represent respectively Mithrapata and Pericles. The Greek inscriptions and the indubitable Greek technique testify the implication of Greek engravers.13 Although almost contemporary, the two heads belong to two very different moments in the evolution of Greek portraiture. The head of Mithrapata is conventional and particularly conservative for its time, while that of Hercules is an example of the fertile influence of minting in Southern Italy on the workshops of Eastern Greece: the bearded head is impressive in its stance (three-quarter view) and expressiveness. In comparison however to the satrap coins of the same period, the two heads on the Lycian coins cannot be labelled unreservedly «portraits». Their position and the inscriptions which accompany them lend them this functionality, but their iconography is so general so as not to allow the development of individual characteristics (as in the portraits on satrap coins).

4. Late Classical period

The 5th and 4th centuries BC are the golden age of Greek minting. The economic and political conditions, especially on mainland Greece and the colonies of South Italy and Sicily, favoured the production of precious minting issues, some of which present unsurpassed skill.14 On the contrary, numismatic art in Asia Minor came into decline during the 5th century because of the obsession of Athens, with which the Greek towns of Ionia had a relationship of alliance/dependence, to circulate the Athenian coins exclusively throughout the entire sphere of its influence.

The mints of Asia Minor seem to have been largely influence by developments in the West, although their «golden age» is the 4th century BC, at which time local mints in Cyzicus, Clazomenae, Ephesus, Chios, Samos, Rhodes and Kos began functioning independently once again. The influence of Sicilian workshops is evident mainly on two coins from the early 4th century BC: the silver four-drachma coins of Cyzicus depicting the head of Persephone on the front view and of Clazomenae bearing the head of Apollo.15 The first is a typical example of a Classical female head, with strong idealized features and the balanced self-assuredness of post-Parthenon art. The four-drachma coin from Clazomenae however, recreates the more demanding type of head, depicted in a three-quarter view. A more obvious influence from southern Italy is the rare – for Asia Minor – signature of the engraver of the mold ΘΕΟΔΟΤΟΣ ΕΠΟΙΕΙ (made by Theodotos), according to the model of their renowned counterparts in the West. On the back view of the coin is the study of a swan, equivalent to the interests of engraving and signet production during this period, which also appears to be connected as a live symbol (λαλούν σύμβολον) to the town which issued it.16

5. Hellenistic years

The abolition of the kingdom of the Persians by Alexander and the «liberation» of the Greek towns in Asia Minor brought about changes to the political scene of the area, putting a final end to the ancient Greek world and its traditional structures. The field of minting became dominated by the reforms imposed by Alexander and his father Philip II. After Alexander’s death his successors adopted the system he had imposed for reasons of political continuity and used his image, obviously, as a means of political propaganda.

5.1. Lysimachus

After his victory at the battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, Lysimachus of Thrace consolidated his dominance over western Asia Minor. At the same time important mints in the area, which continued to produce Alexander’s issues unchanged until 297/6/BC, fell into his hands; Lysimachus introduced a new type of coin for his newfangled empire. The front view of both the silver and gold coins now bear the image of Alexander with regal diadem and the horn, the symbol of his godly father, the Egyptian Amun. The portrait’s meaning is manifold: it is the first appearance of the dead leader on a coin in Asia, following the relatively recent decision of the Ptolemy Soter of Egypt to depict Alexander of his coin issues. Alexander himself had never placed his portrait on the coins he issued while of his successors, Demetrius Poliorcetes and Ptolemy had already begun decorating their coins with their own regal images.17 The dynamic, intensely symbolic image of Alexander on lysimachian four and eight drachma coins attempted to reinforce Lysimachus’ right to the succession while at the same time it «assures» the owner of the coin’s value and the legitimacy of its issuing office. The wide circulation of Lysimachus’ «Alexanders» and, one may assume, the successful use of the dead ruler’s image on the front view secured the success of this numismatic type even after Lysimachus’ death in 281 BC. The «Lysimachs» as this type of coin is often referred to, were produced by the mints of Asia Minor, especially Byzantium and Chalcedon, until the beginning of the 1st century BC.18

5.2. The independent towns

The aim of the Pan-Hellenic campaign against the Persian kingdom headed by Alexander was the liberation of the towns of Ionia. The flourishing of the local mints of Asia Minor was therefore expected after the arrival of the Greco-Macedonian forces, even if the independent Greek towns often suffered from the political shifts, military conflicts and relentless personal disputes between the Successors which often took place in their area. In general, the coins of the Ionian towns during the Hellenistic period followed the pre-Alexandrian tradition. Local emblems signified their independence while the representations of their gods/protectors reminded friends and enemies from where this right to independence stemmed. Among these coins we find works of high aesthetic quality and subtle technique which remind us that Asia Minor was one of the most important centres of Hellenistic art. The silver two-drachma coin (6,58 gr)of Ephesus which dates from the end of the 3rd century BC is a characteristic example: on the front view of the coin is the town’s patron goddess Artemis depicted in one of the most common types of Hellenistic small-scale sculpture. The rear view is also connected to Artemis as it depicts the front section of a deer, a subject found often on coins from Ephesus.19

5.3. Hellenistic rulers and local dynasts

Following the decisive example of the Seleucids of Syria, the rulers and local dynasts of Asia Minor and the neighbouring areas represented themselves or (less often) their ancestors and predecessors on the coins they issued. The most prevalent type of the Hellenistic regal portrait type depicts the ruler in profile (usually looking to the right) with real and symbolic references to his attributes and virtues: the king is depicted with diadem, and often the regal garment (the porphyra) is visible on the shoulder. The portraits emphasize the realistic characteristics of the individual such as the shape of the nose and the shape and arrangement of the eyes etc., but the entire composition aims at rendering the figure’s regal abilities and, often, his divine nature. In their majority, Hellenistic regal portraits on coins are the work of proficient engravers who either worked exclusively for a particular royal house or toured the major and minor political centres of the era, seeking employment.

5.4. Pergamum, Bithynia, Cappadocia

The kingdom of Pergamum was founded during the first half of the 3rd century BC by the general Philetaerus, who managed to preserve his power over the successive rulers of the area, Lysimachus and Seleucus, to whom he remained (seemingly) subordinate. His successor and first official king of Pergamum, was his nephew Eumenes I (262-241 BC), who depicted his predecessor on the coins he issued.20 The silver four-drachma coins of Eumemes depict the now dead founder of the dynasty as king, with diadem, while later a laurel, a sign of heroism, was added. The ruler’s image is depicted in a realistic and intensely anti-classical manner, without idealized features: Philetaerus is shown as a tough, unyielding general, whose perseverance led to the establishment of the Attalid dynasty.

As is the case with the coins of Pergamum, in the other Hellenistic kingdoms of Western Asia, the appearance of rulers was circumstantial and depended on the dominant political conditions. Some of these are characterized by rare artistic perfection, often inappropriate to the importance of the coinage itself or of the depicted individual. The silver four-drachma coins of Prusias I of Bithynia (approx. 230-182 BC, fig. 14) and his successor Prusias II (182-149 BC, fig. 15) are two of the most telling examples of Hellenistic regal issues.21 The two heads combine individual facial characteristics and regal paraphernalia (such as the diadem, which in the case of Prusias II is winged), in order to express the sitter’s personality and regal role. The emphasis on dynastic continuity which implies political, economic and social stability for the kingdom is a continuous feature in similar issues. The declaration of legitimacy is especially intense in case of suitors to power outside the dynastic order. Characteristic is the silver four-drachma coin of Orophernes, the temporary occupant of the throne of Cappadocia (approx. 159-157 BC).22 The rendition of the figure has elements which are reminiscent of Seleucid coins, not a random fact, as Orophernes laid claim to the throne of Cappadocia with the support of Demetrius I of Syria. The political message attempted to be passed by the specific portrait did not escape the attention of Constantine Cavafy who was inspired by him «who on the four-drachma coin seems that his face is smiling» for one of his most characteristic poems which describes the terrifying fluidity of Greek history.23

5.5. Pontus

The Greek style and Hellenistic version of theories «on Kingship» are the two main characteristics of the numismatic art in Asia Minor and the broader area of Western Asia during the Hellenistic period. The range of the «message», the aesthetic perfection of the Seleucid and Pergamum coins and the coins of the other Greek states in the area, inspired their use by other neighbouring, non-Greek kingdoms which hurried to appoint Greek (or «hellenist») engravers to their mints. The patronage of Greek art and contact with Greek culture became important elements of Hellenistic regal ideology even when their conveyors plotted against the fortunes of the Greeks. In this way, particular patronage conditions were established for Greek art, which flourished in areas foreign to or even hostile to the Greek element. The dynasty of Pontus benefited particularlyfrom the flourishing of Greek engraving. The regal coinage issues by its members demonstrate acute and dynamic physiognomic studies. The portraits of the rulers of Pontus emphasize both their contact with the Greek intellect (the coins bear Greek inscriptions) and their differentiation from Greekness: by following the standard concepts of Greek art, the engravers rendered their clients as «foreigners», non-Greeks, by emphasizing the physiognomic characteristics which underlined this difference. Characteristic is the double portrait of Mithridates IV and Laodice, on a silver four-drachma coin from 170-150 BC.24 Each iconographic element on this coin can be reduced to the tradition of the great Hellenistic empires: the conjugation of the two figures is the invention of artists from the Alexandrian court which was later used in Seleucid minting. The royal garments are the most Greek par exellance of the Hellenistic period, as are the inscriptions on the rear view («Βασιλεύς», «Φιλάδελφοι»). The two figures, finally, on the rear view, are a sculptural group of Zeus and Hera, emphasizing the dynastic role of the rulers on the front view, while their also advertise the existence of Greek art in the Pontic capital Sinope. The iconographic choices of the numismatic types of the dynasty of Pontus were revised by Mithridates VI Eupator, the kingdom’s last ruler (120-63 BC).25 His political aspirations brought him into conflict with Rome, implicating the Greeks as well, to whom he appeared as «liberator». The numismatic portrait of Mithridates VI (fig. 18) presents him as an idealized hero, young in age (although in reality he was much older) and a visionary.

6. Roman conquest

Already by the 2nd century BC the Roman presence in the East, both in Greece and Asia Minor, was particularly intense. Roman conquest did not bring the end of Hellenistic art; On the contrary it favoured its dissemination. In the area of minting, it appears that engravers passed, together with their equipment and stored minting metals, into the hands of the conquerors. In most cases, the latter desired the continuation of the production of «Greek» types, as had the «philhellene» eastern conquerors.26 Some of these engravers, who apart from coin molds also engraved precious stones, were transferred to Rome where they exercised their art in anew court environment. The result of similar movements was the evolutionary transformation of Greek/Hellenistic art into Greco-Roman art.

1. Her. 1.93 and 5.101. The same opinion was shared by another 6th century author, Xenophanes, whose relevant excerpt survives in the work of the 2nd century AD lexicographer Polydeuces (9.83).

2. Howegego, C., Ancient History from Coins (London – New York 1995), p. 1-4.

3. Howegego, C., Ancient History from Coins (London – New York 1995), p. 4.

4. Oikonomidou, M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, p. 19 and 203. Although interesting this interpretation is hypothetical, see Robertson, M., A History of Greek Art (Cambridge 1975), p. 149.

5. Howegego, C., Ancient History from Coins (London – New York 1995), p. 3.

6. Oikonomidou, M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, p. 19 and 204.

7. See  Howegego, C., Ancient History from Coins (London – New York 1995), p. 6 for more examples.

8. Oikonomidou, M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, p. 20-21 and 204.

9. Boardman, J., Greek Sculpture: the Classical Period (London 1985), p. 238-240.

10. Tissafernes issues: Oikonomidou, M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, p.227. For cut 412/11 see David, N. – Kraay, C.M., The Hellenistic Kingdoms: Portrait Coins and History (London 1973), p. 506; Kraay, C.H. – Hirmer, M., Greek Coins (London 1966), p. 621-622. For the aesthetic value of satrapic coins see also Boardman, J., Greek Sculpture: the Classical Period (London 1985), p. 239: «a near portrait».

11. The sculptural portraits of Mausolus and his ancestors from the funerary monument in Halicarnassus is the most characteristic example: Robertson, M., A History of Greek Art (Cambridge 1975), p. 457-459, and Robertson, M., as above, p. 504: “It seems possible on the evidence that individual portraiture flowered most readily in Greek art where it was not pure Greek but was fertilised by some sort of oriental contact».

12. Robertson, M., A History of Greek Art (Cambridge 1975), p. 507; Kraay, C.H. – Hirmer, M., Greek Coins (London 1966), p. 623; Touratsoglou, I., O Αλέξανδρος των Νομισμάτων [Alexander of Coins] (Athens 2000), fig. 4. The identification with the mint of Kyzicus is based on the representation of the tuna (emblem of Kyzicus) on the rear view.

13. Oikonomidou, M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, p. 236-237; Touratsoglou, I., O Αλέξανδρος των Νομισμάτων [Alexander of Coins] (Athens 2000), p. 13 and fig. 2 (Mithrapatas) and 3 (Pericles).

14. Oikonomidou, M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, p. 22-28, 211-235.

15. Oikonomidou, M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, p. 125 (Kyzicus), 127 and 128 (Clazomenae).

16. Oikonomidou, M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, p. 236: the name of the town of Clazomenae is connected to the verb «klazo» («κλάζω») (= κράζω [caw]) which is connected to the cawing of swans.

17. Mørkholm, O., Early Hellenistic Coinage: from the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea (336-188 BC) (Cambridge 1991), p. 81-82; Touratsoglou, I., O Αλέξανδρος των Νομισμάτων [Alexander of Coins] (Athens 2000), p. 18 and fig. 18.

18. Mørkholm, O., Early Hellenistic Coinage: from the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea (336-188 BC) (Cambridge 1991), p. 145-148.

19. Oikonomidou, M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, no. 155.

20. Mørkholm, O., Early Hellenistic Coinage: from the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea (336-188 BC) (Cambridge 1991), p. 128-130; Oikonomidou, M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, no. 154.

21. Mørkholm, O., Early Hellenistic Coinage: from the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea (336-188 BC) (Cambridge 1991), p. 130-131; Oikonomidou, M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, no. 182-183.

22. Mørkholm, O., Early Hellenistic Coinage: from the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea (336-188 BC) (Cambridge 1991), no. 655; Davis, N. – Kraay, C.M., The Hellenistic Kingdoms and Portrait Coins and History (London 1973), no. 210-212.

23. Cavafy, C. P., Οροφέρνης. Ποιήματα (1896-1918) [Orophernes. Poems (1896-1918)] (Athens 1963), p. 33-34.

24. Mørkholm, O., Early Hellenistic Coinage: from the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea (336-188 BC) (Cambridge 1991), no. 624; Davis, N. – Kraay, C.M., The Hellenistic Kingdoms and Portrait Coins and History (London 1973), no. 204-206; , M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, no. 179.

25. Mørkholm, O., Early Hellenistic Coinage: from the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea (336-188 BC) (Cambridge 1991), no. 625; Davis, N. – Kraay, C.M., The Hellenistic Kingdoms and Portrait Coins and History (London 1973), no. 207-209; , M., Αρχαία Νομίσματα [Ancient Coins] (Athens 1996, no. 181.

26. Plantzos, D., «Greek Gem-Cutters in Babylonia and beyond» in Palagia, O. (ed.), Greek Offerings: essays in honour of Sir John Boardman (Oxford 1997), p. 197-207.


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