After Alexander the Great, Macedonian silver remains prolific in Hellenistic Age

Ancients Today column from the May 4, 2015, Coin World
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 04/18/15
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The conquests of the Macedonian Kings Philip II (359 to 336 B.C.) and Alexander III “the Great” (336 to 323 B.C.) profoundly changed the Greek world. During their reigns the era of the city-state was fast coming to an end as the two rulers helped foster a new devotion to empires. 

Also, Alexander’s conquests allowed Greek culture to take root in some of the most distant outposts of the Near East.

After the era of Philip and Alexander, Macedon remained a powerful state, even if somewhat diminished. Coins were struck in large quantities by the kings and regents who ruled afterward, and eventually by their conquerors, the Romans. The sustained output of silver coinage is a testimony to the productivity of the mines, which had enabled Philip II and Alexander III to pursue their conquering ambitions.

Though gold had been mined in very large quantities under Philip II and Alexander III, the productivity of the mines must have suffered afterward, as issues of Macedonian gold coinage trailed off greatly near the late fourth century B.C., by which time most coins of Macedonian kings were composed of silver or copper.

Tetradrachms of the types introduced by Philip II and Alexander III continued to be struck in large quantities by Alexander’s half-brother Philip III (323 to 317 B.C.) and son Alexander IV (323 to 310 B.C.). Though both reigned as kings, real authority in Macedon was held by the regents Perdiccas, Antipater, Polyperchon and Cassander.

The last of these, Cassander, was regent from 316 to 305, and king from 305 to 298 or 297. His only tetradrachms were of the Philip II and Alexander III types, though he did strike at least four types of small bronzes in his own name, each with a different design.

Another Macedonian king, Demetrius I Poliorcetes (“the besieger”) (306 to 283 B.C.), produced some interesting silver coins. He was constantly meddling in regional affairs and tried to establish a kingdom wherever his fleet allowed him to stake a claim. From 294 to 288, he occupied Macedon, where he issued his own coins.

In addition to the familiar Macedonian types, Demetrius struck two types of his own in silver. One bears on the obverse his portrait and on the reverse the sea-god Poseidon seated or standing with one foot perched upon a rock. These perhaps were the first European coins to portray a living person. Demetrius’ other type shows on its obverse the goddess Nike upon the prow of a galley and on its reverse a striding figure of Poseidon.

When Demetrius was forced out of Macedon in 288, power was assumed by a series of men: Lysimachus, Pyrrhus Ptolemy Keraunus, Meleager, Antipater Etesias, and Sosthenes. We might presume that most, or all, of these men (whose reigns collectively span 288 to 276 B.C.) issued tetradrachms of the familiar Macedonian types.

Beginning in 288 or 287 B.C., Lysimachus (305 to 281 B.C.) struck tetradrachms in Macedon that bore an important new design. The obverse featured a portrait of the deified Alexander III and the reverse showed a seated figure of Athena holding Nike, who crowns Lysimachus’ name.

The next kings of Macedon were Antigonus II Gonatas (277 to 239 B.C.), Demetrius II Aetolicus (239 to 229 B.C.), and Antigonus III Doson (229 to 221 B.C.).

No distinctive coin types are known for Demetrius II Aetolicus. However, two large issues of tetradrachms with new designs were struck in the name of the Macedonian kings named Antigonus. The correct assignment of these coins may always be up for debate, yet there is a general agreement on their attribution.

Assigned to Antigonus II Gonatas is a type bearing on its obverse a Macedonian shield with the bust of the god Pan and his throwing stick (a lagaboon), and on its reverse a striding figure of Athena.

Given to Antigonus III Doson are tetradrachms bearing on their obverse the head of the sea-god Poseidon, and on their reverse the god Apollo reclining on the prow of a galley. A recently discovered variant of this type — which may belong to Antigonus II Gonatas — bears the wreathed head of Zeus instead of Poseidon.

Innovation in Macedonian coin design continued under King Philip V (221 to 179 B.C.), who supplemented a small issue of Alexander-type tetradrachms with two large issues of tetradrachms bearing new types.

His first new type pairs the now-familiar striding figure of Athena with his bearded portrait. The next type — decidedly less common — has on its obverse a Macedonian shield decorated with the head of the hero Perseus and on its reverse a knotted club in an oak wreath.

The return of royal portraiture under Philip V was continued by King Perseus (179 to 168 B.C.), whose features closely resemble those of his predecessor. The reverse of Perseus’ tetradrachms shows an eagle standing on a thunderbolt within an oak wreath.

Though Perseus ruled long enough to issue a great many of these coins, he could not defend his kingdom from the growing power of Rome. In June of 168 B.C., his army was defeated by legions under the Roman general Aemilius Paullus. It brought an end to the last of three wars between Macedon and Rome, and secured Macedon as the easternmost territory then under Roman rule.

Since the Romans continued to work the Macedonian mines, they struck a great many tetradrachms for local use. Two types were struck in very large quantities, the first seemingly from 167 to 148 B.C. It shows on its obverse the head of Artemis in the center of a Macedonian shield and on its reverse a knotted club in an oak wreath. A similar issue, perhaps made for a Roman diplomatic mission in 148 to 147 B.C., adds to the reverse design a hand holding an olive branch.

The second major type (for which two rare variants are known), bears the name of a Roman quaestor named Aesillas. Probably struck from about 95 to 65 B.C., it pairs the head of the deified Alexander III with a wreath enclosing a money chest, a club and a chair. 

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