NGC Ancients: Syro-Phoenician Tetradrachms of the Roman Empire — Part 1

Posted on 7/12/2022

Tetradrachms helped finance the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire.

When conquering a new territory, the Romans did their best to minimize the impact on the daily life of their new subjects. Typically, the Romans allowed people to continue practicing their religions, trade and even maintain their traditional monetary systems.

For the Eastern parts of the empire, this meant the continued production of tetradrachms (four-drachm coins), a denomination that became popular around the time of Alexander III “the Great” (336-323 B.C.).

Each city had a style and design unique to its own people, creating a large variety of coins which, today, are eagerly collected. In this column we will take a look at some of the mints in the Roman East that issued tetradrachms, and enjoy the diversity in their designs.


Minted in the period 6/5 B.C. for the first emperor Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14), this tetradrachm is from Rome’s main eastern mint in Antioch, Syria. The obverse shows the laureate bust of Augustus. The reverse has the goddess Tyche seated, holding a palm branch, below which the god of the local river (the Orontes) swims.

Made for the emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), this tetradrachm was also struck at Antioch. The obverse shows an armored portrait of the ruler. The reverse has an eagle standing on the leg of a sacrificial animal.

The eagle on the reverse refers to Antioch’s founding story. When the Seleucid king, Seleucus I (312-281 B.C.), asked his priests to determine where to build a new city, the priests performed a sacrifice. During the ceremony, an eagle took a leg offered for sacrifice and carried it to a nearby hill. This was an omen and determined where they would build the new city.


The tetradrachm above is from Aegeae, a city in Cilicia, a region in southern Turkey. It was minted under the emperor Hadrian, who is portrayed on the obverse. The reverse shows the Greek mythological hero Perseus carrying over his shoulder a harpa, a type of sword that he used to kill the gorgon Medusa.

The small goat kneeling underneath the bust is symbolic of the city.


The emperor Hadrian is shown with his wife Sabina on this tetradrachm of Mopsus, another city in Cilicia. The obverse shows the emperor’s bust. The reverse shows the empress in the guise of the goddess Artemis, with a quiver over her shoulder and a crescent under her bust.

Seleucia ad Calycadnum

The silver tetradrachm above was made at Seleucia ad Calycadnum, Cilicia, during the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161). The obverse shows the emperor's laureate bust. The reverse, which shows Zeus seated on a throne holding an eagle, is reminiscent of the famous tetradrachms of Alexander III “the Great”.


Another major city in Cilicia was Tarsus, where this amazing tetradrachm was struck during the reign of the emperor Hadrian. It features a well-detailed bust facing left. The reverse shows the temple (of ten columns) of the Koinon of Cilicia. A koinon was a union or league that represented a group of cities.


Further east from Syria and Cilicia was the region of Commagene, which had several important cities that served as buffers between Rome and their eastern enemies. One of those cities was Zeugma, where the above tetradrachm was made during the reign of the emperor Caracalla (A.D. 198-217). The obverse portrays Caracalla wearing a cuirass and the reverse shows an eagle holding a wreath in its beak. The Letters ZEV can be seen near the eagle’s neck and between its legs; this is an abbreviation of the city name, making identification easy.

This type, with the emperor’s portrait opposite a standing eagle with open wings, is the “generic” design for most Syro-Phoenician tetradrachms.


Another region of dispute between Rome and its eastern enemies was Mesopotamia, where the above coin was struck at the city of Carrhae. The obverse shows the bust of the emperor Macrinus (A.D 217-218). The reverse has an eagle standing on a bull’s head. The bull may refer to the god Bel, who used the bull as his sign and whose worship was common in this area. Bel ruled the morning and evening stars, which may be referenced by the pellets on each side of the bull.


The tetradrachm above, from Edessa in Mesopotamia, is a very rare and interesting type. The obverse shows the laureate bust of the emperor Caracalla. The reverse shows another bust of Caracalla, this time wearing a radiant crown and placed over an eagle with its wings spread, standing above a shrine (which is obscured on this example).

One can imagine this coin would have been useful in a coin toss for whoever called heads!


The emperor Caracalla, who wears a radiate crown and armor, is shown on the above tetradrachm struck at Rhesaena in Mesopotamia. The reverse shows the most common design type, an eagle with open wings holding a wreath in its beak.

Though the mints for most Syro-Phoenician tetradrachms are securely known, this particular issue remains a mystery. It is attributed to Rhesaena, but it might be another mint entirely. Even the identity (and meaning) of its symbol, a rectangular object between the eagle’s legs, is uncertain.


Another eastern region, Cyrrhestica, was home to mint cities of Syro-Phoenican tetradrachms. The above tetradrachm was issued at the city of Beroea for Diadumenian (A.D. 217-218) while he served as Caesar during the reign of his father, Macrinus. The obverse shows the prince wearing a radiate crown. The reverse features the familiar eagle design with a palm branch to the side and an unknown winged animal between its legs. Also under the eagle is the inscription BE, shorthand for the city name.


This tetradrachm was made at Cyrrhus in Cyrrhestica during the reign of Caracalla. The emperor is shown wearing a radiate crown on the obverse. The reverse is very interesting, for it shows the god Zeus Katabaites holding a thunderbolt and a scepter while perched upon an eagle. He was the principal god of the city.

The epithet Katabaites, here attributed to Zeus, means “he who descends in thunder and lightning.”


The above tetradrachm was minted under Caracalla at Hierapolis in Cyrrhestica. The obverse shows a strikingly simple bust of the emperor. The reverse, however, is extremely interesting. The cult statues of Haddad, the celestial god of thunder, and Atargatis, the goddess of fertility and water, are shown. Haddad is seated to the left on two bulls, Atargatis is seated to the right on two lions. Between them is the semeion, which was a godly image of unknown origin or shape, upon which a dove is perched. Below this elaborate scene is a large eagle with a lion between its legs.

Hierapolis was a religious center and many pilgrims came to see these statues, along with the ceremonies that were carried out there.


This tetradrachm was issued for the usurper Uranius Antoninus (A.D. 253-254) at the city of Emesa in Syria. The rebel-emperor (who was the local sun-priest) is portrayed on the obverse wearing a radiate crown. The reverse shows a saddled dromedary. The tetradrachms of Uranius Antoninus were the last struck under the Romans.

Next month we’ll continue our survey, with another impressive group of tetradrachms from this intriguing and highly collectible series.

All photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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