NGC Ancients: Philip II and the Macedonian Empire

Posted on 2/14/2012

This month, NGC Ancients examines the life and principal coinage of Philip II, founder of the Macedonian Empire.

Alexander III (336-323 B.C.), known to most of the world simply as “Alexander the Great,” is the monarch most readily associated with the vast and powerful ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. Over two thousand years after his death, he remains one of the giant figures of the classical world; a cultural, military, and political icon who has only grown larger with the passage of time.

However, it was Alexander’s father and predecessor, King Philip II (359-336 B.C.), who must be credited with the initial formation and consolidation of the empire that Alexander was to make renowned throughout the world. Though less famous than his son, Philip II was arguably as important a figure in both the annals of Greek military history and numismatics.

Philip, who was probably born in 382 B.C., was the son of the Macedonian King Amyntas III (393, 392-370 B.C.), who enjoyed a long (but troubled) reign. This coin is a silver didrachm of Amyntas III, and features Heracles in lion headdress on the obverse, and a horse and the king’s name on the reverse.

Philip spent at least part of his formative years as a political captive in Thebes, where he received his military and political training. It is speculated that he returned to Macedon c.364 B.C., after the death of his father. Although he was not first in line for the royal succession, Philip was able to seize the Macedonian throne in 359 B.C., following the deaths of his brothers Alexander II and Perdiccas III.

The coin on the left is a rare bronze unit of Alexander II, the only type that can be definitively attributed to him. The coin on the right is also quite scarce; it is a silver diobol of Perdiccas III, who had succeeded Alexander II to the throne in 368 B.C.

Through a combination of skillful diplomacy and aggressive military action, Philip quickly expanded and secured the Macedonian Kingdom. By 356 B.C., he had already taken control of productive gold and silver mines that would fuel his political and military activity for the next two decades.

Interestingly enough, though Philip had large quantities of precious metal at his disposal as early as the mid-350s B.C., the first gold staters (a standard Greek gold denomination) attributed to him are tentatively thought to have been minted c.345 B.C., and current research indicates that most of his gold coins were produced posthumously, during the early reign of Alexander III. Scholars have offered differing, and ultimately speculative, theories on the gold coinage of Philip, especially the many issues struck under Alexander III, but the precise chronology and explanation for this series remains elusive.

This piece, an excellent example of an early Philip II stater, depicts the god Apollo on the obverse, and on the reverse features a charioteer, with Philip’s name appearing in the exergue. This design is considered the standard Philip II gold “type,” as the design combination remained essentially unchanged for as long as these coins were struck.

Aside from the different styles of Apollo portraits from various Macedonian mints (the mints themselves represent another unresolved aspect of Philip’s coinage), the only significant variation within the series is represented by the symbol(s) on the reverse of most issues. These symbols, which include monograms, objects, and representations of deities, are thought to denote mint location and (very speculatively) the era of production. LeRider has attempted to group Philip’s staters according to these symbols and various aspects of style, but there is still much work to be done in this area.

This example features one of the most common symbols, that of a trident. Currently, this example is attributed to the Amphipolis mint, c.323-315 B.C., which would indicate that it was struck even later than the death of Philip’s son and successor, Alexander III (d.323 B.C.).

For purposes of contrast, this Philip II stater, attributed to the Abydus mint and also thought to be a posthumous issue (c.323-316 B.C.), displays a combination of a Greek letter and cornucopia beneath the horses. The depiction of Apollo differs stylistically from the example cited above, as do the symbols on the reverse; it illustrates at once the subtlety and range of differences found on the gold staters of Philip II.

In addition to the gold staters of Philip II, his silver tetradrachms are also one of the classic and avidly collected issues of the ancient world. Though the obverse of this series features a bearded head of the god Zeus throughout, there are two significant variations on the reverse.

The first, earlier type shows a figure on horseback saluting, which is thought to be a representation of Philip himself. This coin is considered to be a “lifetime” issue of Philip II, possibly struck at Amphipolis from 355-348 B.C. It features on the obverse a typical depiction of Zeus, and on the reverse the king on horseback, with the bow symbol in front of the horse’s forelegs.

The other type features the “youth” on horseback; the horseman will face to the right and is depicted holding a long palm branch. This coin is an excellent example of this reverse type. Similarly to the staters, Philip’s tetradrachms also display various symbols on the reverse, usually between the legs of the horse. Again, dating and mint attribution are largely speculative at this time; this coin is currently thought to be minted c.340-328 B.C. and is attributed to the mint of Amphipolis.

Though eventually eclipsed by his conquering son, Philip II remains an important figure in Greek history and numismatics. He essentially founded one of the most significant empires in recorded history. In addition, he was also responsible for issuing two of the most recognizable and intriguing series of ancient coins. These coins are avidly collected today for their inherent beauty and historical significance. They also represent some of the most persistent mysteries in the field, as many aspects of the coinage are still open to debate and are often reconsidered by scholars as new discoveries are made.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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