NGC Ancients: Syro-Phoenician Tetradrachms of the Roman Empire — Part 2

Posted on 8/9/2022

Eastern tetradrachms of the Roman Empire offer surprising variety.

In last month's column we covered some of the Syro-Phoenician tetradrachms made in the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. This section of the Roman Empire was a valuable but contentious area. This month, we’ll finish the remaining tetradrachm mints of the region.

Many important trade routes ran through the eastern cities and ports of the Roman Empire, bringing an astonishing variety of goods across the Mediterranean. This region also would often occupy much of the empire's military efforts due to external threats from the Parthian and Sasanian Empires and internal revolts from usurpers.

All of this created the need for a large amount of coinage in the East. This monetary demand was met by local mints located in important cities of the Eastern provinces. Each mint had a unique symbol and style of engraving for its coinage.

We resume our survey below.

Gabala

The above tetradrachm was made in the Syrian coastal city of Gabala during the reign of Emperor Macrinus (A.D. 217-218). The stern bust of this ephemeral ruler is shown on the obverse. The reverse has an eagle with spread wings supporting a bust of the goddess Tyche with a thyrsus before her. A thyrsus was a staff carried by the god Dionysus.

Laodicea

Another major city in Syria was Laodicea, which is known among collectors for its attractive portraits of emperors. The above tetradrachm was made during the reign of Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211) and shows the emperor fully armored. The reverse is of the “typical” type for Syro-Phoenician tetradrachms: an eagle standing with open wings. The star between its legs is believed to reference the city's pharos, or lighthouse. The city’s economy was based on trade, making the lighthouse important.

Seleucia Pieria

Located in modern day Syria, Seleucia Pieria was another port city of the Romans. The emperor Caracalla (A.D. 198-217) is shown on the obverse of this tetradrachm. The reverse has an eagle with a wreath in its beak standing on a large thunderbolt. The thunderbolt may be in reference to the god Zeus-Kasios, who was worshipped at Seleucia Pieria.

Heliopolis

Heliopolis was located in Coele-Syria, inland from the Mediterranean Sea. The obverse of this coin shows a primitive portrait of the emperor Caracalla. The reverse shows the usual eagle holding a wreath in its beak. Below the eagle is a lion and a star. The star represents Regulus from the constellation of Leo the lion. These symbols were important astronomically to the city.

Damascus

Also located in Coele-Syria was Damascus, the capital of modern Syria. The above tetradrachm also was made during the reign of Caracalla — remarkably with his bust on both sides of the coin. On the reverse his bust rests above an eagle. The small ram’s head beneath the eagle is a reference to the city’s main deity, Hermes.

Ake-Ptolemais

While the attribution of the above tetradrachm isn’t entirely secure, scholars believe it’s most likely from the Phoenician port city of Ake-Ptolemais. The emperor Caracalla is shown on the obverse. The reverse shows the typical eagle carrying a wreath in its beak. Below the eagle is an idol of an uncertain deity.

Aradus

The city of Aradus was a Phoenician stronghold built on a small island off the coast of modern-day Syria. It was an important trade center which slowly declined in power during the era of Roman supremacy. Despite how well known the city was in ancient times, the attribution of this tetradrachm to Aradus is unsure. The obverse shows the emperor Caracalla above an eagle. The reverse portrays an unknown deity wearing a radiate crown with a lunar crescent below.

Berytus

One of the main commercial harbors of the Eastern Mediterranean was the city of Berytus (modern Beirut), in Phoenicia. The above tetradrachm was made during the reign of Caracalla. The obverse shows the bust of the emperor while the reverse has an eagle holding a wreath; below is a dolphin wrapped around a trident.

Byblus

Byblus is among the oldest cities in the world. It was famous for its cedar forests and the woodworking skills of its people. But the overharvesting and deforestation of cedar trees weakened the city’s economy until finally it was abandoned in the 4th century A.D. The obverse of this coin shows the emperor Caracalla. The reverse has an intriguing type, showing an eagle with open wings standing atop an ornate altar.

Sidon

Another prehistoric city was the trade center of Sidon, also located in Phoenicia. The above tetradrachm was made during the rule of the emperor Caracalla. The reverse shows a detailed eagle standing, below which is a carriage of the Phoenician goddess, Astarte.

Tyre

To numismatists, Tyre is perhaps the best known of the Phoenician cities. It was a major center of industry and trade. The best-known coins of the city are its shekels, which are collected as the Biblical ‘30 pieces of silver’. But a smaller series of tetradrachms was produced there long after the more familiar shekels had ended.

Above is a tetradrachm made during the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus. This must have been just as impressive in ancient times as today for its exquisite detail. The reverse shows the bust of mythological hero Melkart, the principal god of the city, who is equated to the Greek Heracles.

Cyprus

The above tetradrachm was minted on the island of Cyprus during the reign of the emperor Vespasian (A.D. 69-79). The obverse shows the bust of the emperor looking left. The reverse features the temple of Aphrodite, located in the city of Paphos.

Gadara

The region of ‘the Decapolis’ contained a group of ten cities located on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire. Gadara was the only one of these cities to produce tetradrachms, including the one above. Made during the reign of Emperor Macrinus, the reverse has an eagle holding a wreath in its beak. Below is the mint symbol: Three Graces within a wreath.

Aelia Capitolina

The above tetradrachm is thought to have been minted in Palestine at Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem), one of the holiest cities in the world. The obverse shows the bust of the emperor Caracalla. The reverse shows an eagle standing on a vine branch ladened with grapes. Between the eagle’s legs is a wine jug.

The attribution of these coins to Aelia Capitolina isn’t certain. The grapes and wine jug probably refer to a Dionysiac cult that was popular in the area, but not in the city itself.

Ascalon

The city of Ascalon was located on the coast of Palestine. Made during the reign of the emperor Caracalla, this tetradrachm shows on its reverse an eagle standing on a palm branch. Below the eagle is a dove holding an olive branch. The dove is a sign of the main goddess of the city, Aphrodite.

Caesarea Maritima

Caesarea Maritima was founded by the Jewish King Herod I “the Great” (40-4 B.C.) as a port for Jerusalem. It eventually became the headquarters for the Roman government in the area. The obverse of this coin shows the emperor Caracalla with an eagle below his bust. The reverse has the turreted bust of the city-goddess Tyche.

Gaza

Also located in Palestine is the city of Gaza. It was besieged and destroyed multiple times in antiquity, but prospered under the Romans because of its prime location along trade routes. The obverse of this coin shows the emperor Caracalla. The reverse shows a bull standing within a wreath below the sign of the god Marnas. Beneath is an eagle with outstretched wings.

Neapolis

Our final Syro-Phoenician tetradrachm was minted at the city of Neapolis in Palestine. This incredibly interesting type was made during the reign of Caracalla. The reverse is well detailed with a temple complex upon Mt. Gerizim, which was located near the city. Below is an eagle with its wings spread.

All photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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