By Pat Lowinger
For archaeologists, historians and numismatists ancient coins are much more valuable than their material composition might initially suggest. Whether found individually or within hordes, ancient coinage often fuels the impetus of the professional and amateur numismatist. When discovered in situ coins become invaluable pieces of evidence in the dating of contemporaneous objects and adjacent deposits, such as burn layers (Crawford 1983: 192). Although coins are typically limited to the establishment of a terminal date (not being older than), coins continue to be reliable pieces of evidence in the formulation of site chronology. From the Archaic period forward, Greek coinage typically contained identifying illustrations and/or inscriptions. By the beginning of the third century BCE, coinage of the Hellenistic world increasingly contained inscriptions identifying both their issuer and their place of origin (Ashton 2016: 200-03). While most often regarded solely as an easily portable form of wealth, coinage was also a powerful medium for the projection of social, political, religious and economic information. The multivalent nature of ancient coinage was readily demonstrated during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (c. 175-164 BCE).
Following the death of Alexander the Great (c. 323 BCE), the vast empire he had amassed was systematically carved up by his chief generals and familial relations. Peace between these Diadochi or Successors would be short-lived and ushered in a turbulent period known as the Wars of the Diadochi (c. 322-275 BCE). One of the principle belligerents and benefactors of this conflict was Seleucus I Nicator (c. 358-281 BCE) who became the founding member of the Seleucid dynasty (c. 312-63 BCE). Just over a century after Seleucus’ death (c. 175 BCE), Antiochus IV Epiphanes would come to the throne of a still powerful, but recently humiliated, Seleucid Empire which had been forced to concede the majority of its possessions in Anatolia to the Romans and their allies. In an attempt to restore a portion of the Empire’s former pre-eminence, Antiochus launched two major campaigns (c. 170 and 168 BCE respectively) against Egypt and gained control of Judea and the Sinai. Antiochus’ despotic occupation and reign over Judea coupled with his persecution of the region’s Jewish population supplied the catalyst for the Maccabean Revolt (c. 167-160 BCE). Antiochus died suddenly (c. 164 BCE), presumably of disease, while campaigning in Armenia against the armies of King Mithridates I of Parthia.
Analysis and Evaluation
Upon seizing the throne, Antiochus ordered the minting of new coinage which bore his image. This had been the norm for previous rulers of the empire. However, in Antiochus’ case, these newly minted coins were markedly different than those of his predecessors (Houghton 2016: 241-42). These new coins while bearing many typically Greek conventions, bore the additional legend of ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ (Theos Epiphanes), which is most commonly (directly) translated as “God Manifest” or more descriptively as “God (divinity) Manifest in the Flesh” (Montanari 2015).” By formal pronouncement through this newly minted silver and bronze coinage, Antiochus was not only declaring his own divinity but also invoking the protective patronage of none other than Zeus himself.
One particularly illustrative and beautifully preserved sample is contained within the collection of the American Numismatic Society (Identifier 1908.115.1, see Images 1 & 2). The denomination of this particular coin is a silver tetradrachm, measuring 16.61 grams, and an average diameter of 30 millimetres. The coin is was minted at Antioch on the Orontes as indicated by its mint legend. The archival information dates the minting of the coin near the end of Antiochus’ reign (c. 167-164 BCE). The obverse of the coin bears the image of a youthful (non-bearded) Antiochus in right profile. This was typical with personal portraits placed upon coinage throughout antiquity. On the reverse the image of Zeus enthroned is prominently portrayed. In his right hand Zeus holds a diminutive image of the goddess Nike. See Image 3 below. In addition, the legend contains three separate lines of Classical Greek text (listed in no particular order). The first, ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ (Theos Epiphanes), has already been translated and discussed above. The second ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ (Basileus Antiochus) which translates as “King” or “Emperor” (Montanari 2015). The third line, located under the seated image of Zeus, is ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ (Nikephoros) which is most often translated as “Bringer (or Bearer) of Victory” (Montanari 2015).
In addition to its value as a temporal marker within an archaeological context this particular sample illustrates much of the imagery Antiochus wished to promote during his reign. From its inception, Seleucid dynastic rule had been supported by the inclusion of overt portrayals of Greek gods and goddesses (Houghton 2016: 240-241). This association of well-known and easily identifiable Greek deities did much to associate various rulers with divine authority granted by the gods themselves. The depiction of Zeus holding the goddess Nike is a powerful one. In commemoration of his victories in Judea and the Sinai, as well as to promote the suzerainty of his rule it appears that Antiochus ordered the inclusion of additional line of text ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ (Nikephoros). This allows for distinction (both visual and chronological) of this sample from similar coins which predate the conclusion of Antiochus’ Egyptian campaigns (c. 167 BCE). While the practice of dating coins in some regions of Syria had begun during the reign of Antiochus III (c. 241-187 BCE) the practice was not adopted at the Antioch mint until four decades later (c. 155 BCE) (Houghton 2016: 244). So powerful was the Zeus-Nike imagery that it would be reproduced by subsequent Seleucid rulers until the reign of Alexander II Zabinas (r. 128-123 BCE) as a powerful piece of dynastic propaganda (Morkholm 1983: 62-63).
While the quantity, purity, rate of recall and issuance of ancient coinage can yield significant information about the internal and external strength of an ancient economy, that type analysis often relies upon a considerable sample size to be authoritative. Individually, as in the case discussed above, an individual coin can provide significant information regarding the nature of the land, its people and its ruler. Was Antiochus, as recorded by Livy, a devoted follower of the god Zeus? Is this why he comissioned the the building of temples dedicated to Zeus at Athens and Antioch (Livy, Periochae, 41)? Antiochus’ personal piety alone in an insufficient explanation for the Zeus-Nike images placed upon Seleucid coinage issued during his reign. It was a multifaceted piece of propaganda. The Emperor Antiochus was a divine or semi-divine being. Almighty Zeus would protect the kingdom. Nike, the personification of victory, would insure future victories. All this religious, political and dynastic information was contained upon an unassuming and relatively small silver coin.
Reference and Citations:
Livy. Periochae, trans. Jane D. Chaplin (Oxford World’s Classics). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010.
Ashton, Richard. 2016. The Hellenistic World: The Cities of Mainland Greece and Asia Minor. In Metcalf, W. (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage: 191-210. New York: Oxford University Press.
Crawford, Michael. 1983. Sources for Ancient History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Houghton, Arthur. 2016. The Seleucids. In Metcalf, W. (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage: 235-51. New York: Oxford University Press.
Montanari, Franco. 2015. The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek (Greek-English Edition). Leiden: Brill Publishers.
Morkholm, Otto. 1983. A Posthumous Issue of Antiochus IV of Syria. The Numismatic Chronicle 143: 57-64.
American Numismatic Society. Mantis Numismatic Objects Database: 1908.115.1. http://numismatics.org/collection/1908.115.1?lang=en