The reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117 to 138) was
extraordinary in many ways, not the least of which was coinage. His standard imperial issues have always
been of great fascination to collectors, and his provincial issues are
perhaps even more intriguing.
Chief among the coins that Hadrian struck in the provinces were
silver cistophori — large, silver coins he produced in two distinct
phases. The first occurred circa 128 to 132 at a number of mints in
the Province of Asia, the second circa 135 to 136 in the Province of
Bithynia at its principal mint of Nicomedia.
Using old coins to make new
The first issue was produced by overstriking old cistophori
withdrawn from circulation to be used as blanks for the new
cistophori, most of which typically bore the portrait of Hadrian.
Almost all of the re-purposed coins were then-antique issues of the
warlord Marc Antony (issued in 39 B.C.) and Rome’s first emperor,
Augustus (issued circa 28 to circa 18 B.C.).
It’s remarkable that these early cistophori had served their
monetary purpose so well, having circulated for 146 to 171 years by
the time they were withdrawn, only then to be re-purposed as planchets
for an entirely new coinage.
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The overstriking was far from perfect, and traces of the designs
from the original Antonian or Augustan cistophori often remain,
verifying the source, intermingling with the fresh designs of Hadrian.
One example features on its obverse the bold remnants of a coiled
serpent from the Marc Antony undertype, as well as parts of that
coin’s original inscription on the reverse.
Hadrian’s second issue of cistophori was of an entirely different
character. Instead of being struck for general use in the Province of
Asia it was meant to form a new coinage for the Province of Bithynia,
a region north of the Province of Asia. The inhabitants of this
region, apparently, had never used many cistophori. In this case there
was no overstriking, and fresh planchets were created.
It is possible that all of these cistophori were valued at four
imperial denarii. Originally, this impressive denomination had been
valued at three denarii, but according to researcher Kenneth Harl, by
the reign of Hadrian it was more appropriate to value the new
cistophori at four denarii because of reductions, prior to Hadrian’s
reign, in the weight of the denarius.
Harl contends that a valuation at four denarii would have prevented
the new cistophori from being earmarked as an undervalued coin. In
fact, it would have meant that the new coins were slightly overvalued,
which would have helped cover the costs of minting and would have
assured they remained in local circulation rather than being melted or exported.
Revaluing the coinage
It’s important to note that not every scholar agrees that Hadrian
revalued the cistophorus. Among those who do not agree is William
Metcalf, who wrote the standard reference on the series. He suggests
that the recoining was intended to counter abuses by bankers who took
advantage of a policy in which they accepted only fresh coins at face
value, and discounted all others.
Since the only cistophori in circulation during Hadrian’s time were
significantly worn, this may have put cistophori at an economic
disadvantage, even though their weight remained “full” considering the
weight reductions that had occurred since the originals were struck.
Though there is every reason to believe there was an economic need
for these remodeled coins, ideas vary on why Hadrian undertook the
recoining. Some scholars, in fact, see it as a reflection of Hadrian’s
panhellenic program and his interest in the Greek cities of Asia
Minor, for he was a strong supporter of Greek culture.
Metcalf has identified numerous mints in the province of Asia at
which the new cistophori were struck, and he suggests the die
engraving at all but four mints (at most) was performed by just one
engraver per mint. Because so many mints were in operation in
different parts of Asia Minor, there is quite a variance in engraving
styles, ranging from the somewhat crude to truly elevated works of art.
Varied reverse types
Another interesting feature of Hadrian’s cistophori is the reverse
types, which are remarkably varied. Typically, most of the mint cities
used this opportunity to create reverse designs that celebrated their
patron deities or otherwise highlighted some notable aspect of local
culture. Often times they chose to depict local attractions, such as
cultus statues, temples or monumental arches.
Hadrian’s most peculiar cistophori are the “restitution” issues that
bear the portrait of Augustus, rather than his own. Hadrian had always
tried to foster a close connection with Rome’s first emperor, and this
coinage underscores that effort.
The reverse inscription on these coins includes REN (meaning
renatus, or “reborn”), which perhaps alludes to how Hadrian — like
Augustus — had been initiated into the Greek Eleusinian mysteries, and
thus was “reborn.” The fact that Hadrian appears on the reverse
holding grain ears backs up this premise since it is emblematic of
Demeter and Persephone, the Greek goddesses who presided over the mysteries.
In all, the Romans had made just a few concerted efforts to strike
cistophori. The first ones had been during the age of the Republic,
when a variety of officials operating in Asia Minor found occasion to
strike coins to pay soldiers and to increase the regional money supply.
Then there were the significant productions under Marc Antony and
Augustus, followed by a smaller effort by the Emperor Claudius (A.D.
41 to 54).
After Claudius, however, the only noteworthy effort was made by
Hadrian. The Emperor Septimius Severus (A.D. 193 to 211) later created
a series of lower-weight cistophori that today are seldom seen. Though
it’s possible most of these Severan cistophori were melted rather than
buried, and that, in fact, the issue was much larger than we suspect,
it most likely was just a modest effort that soon was abandoned — and
which turned out to have been the last attempt.
Coin images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.