NGC Ancients: Pergamene Coinage under the Greeks

Posted on 1/12/2021

Coins tell the fascinating history of a fortress city in Asia Minor prior to its absorption by the Roman Empire.

The city of Pergamum, in northwestern Asia Minor, rose from humble origins to become one of the premier cities of the Greco-Roman world. Collectors are fortunate that for about seven centuries, untold millions of coins were struck within its fortified walls, and that a great many of them survive to this day.

Pergamum was situated in the foothills of a mountain range about 15 miles from the Aegean Sea. A natural fortress, it was ideally placed along major trade routes and commanded a large, fertile plain.

Though archaeological evidence shows its site had been occupied since at least the 8th Century B.C. (if not even earlier, during the Bronze Age), Pergamum is not mentioned by ancient authors until historical events of about 400 B.C.

The dates of this city’s earliest coins are not known, though they appear to have been struck in the 5th Century B.C. – most likely between c.450 and 400 B.C. Above are two such coins, both small and both bearing on their obverse the head of the god Apollo. First is a silver diobol with the head of a satrap (Persian ruler) on its reverse, the second a 9mm bronze showing a grain ear between confronted bull heads.

An isolated issue of gold staters was struck at Pergamum in the 330s B.C. under circumstances which seemingly relate to the campaign of the Macedonian King Alexander III ‘the Great’ (336-323 B.C.) against the Persian Empire. An example is shown above; it bears the head of Heracles and the cultus statue of Athena.

A generation after Alexander’s conquest, coinage began to be struck regularly at Pergamum. It started with a diverse group of minor coinages attributed to c.310-284/2 B.C., of which a silver diobol depicting Heracles and Athena is shown above.

From the same period is a variety of small bronzes; four with different designs are shown above.

Also at this time, Pergamum began to strike a massive group of silver tetradrachms bearing the head of the deified Alexander III and the seated figure of Athena. These were produced on behalf of King Lysimachus (305-281 B.C.), a successor of Alexander III.

Pergamum became a principal mint for Lysimachus because he had chosen this fortress-city to safeguard his savings of 9,000 talents (230 tons of silver). Charged with this great responsibility was the eunuch-treasurer Philetaerus, a man destined to play an important role in history.

Three tetradrachms struck at Pergamum for Lysimachus are shown above. Their exceptionally fine style and high standards of production illustrate how much pride Philetaerus took in making coins on behalf of Lysimachus.

Toward the end of Lysimachus’ life, the king’s behavior and family relations became erratic, which caused Philetaerus in 283 B.C. to switch his allegiance from Lysimachus to another of Alexander III’s successors, the Syrian King Seleucus I (312-281 B.C.).

Lysimachus mounted a spirited defense against his enemies, but was defeated and killed early in 281 B.C. at the Battle of Corupedium. This left Philetaerus in control of Pergamum, with Seleucus I as his powerful ally. Philetaerus celebrated his new alliance with rare tetradrachms he issued in the name of Seleucus that show a horse head and a standing elephant.

But this ideal alliance did not last, for Seleucus I was assassinated in September 281 B.C., just seven months after his victory at Corupedium.

Seleucus I was replaced by his son Antiochus I (281-261 B.C.), who for the previous 13 years had been co-ruler of the Syrian kingdom. Though Antiochus I ‘inherited’ his father’s alliance with Philetaerus, it was a difficult relationship, as illustrated by the two tetradrachms above.

The first, perhaps struck in 280 B.C., bears the name and familiar coin types of Alexander III with no mention of either Philetaerus or Antiochus I. This seems appropriate considering the chaotic political circumstances of the day.

But the second piece, which Philetaerus struck c.279-274 B.C., uses the same types, yet bears the name of the deceased King Seleucus I. There is no mention of the reigning King Antiochus I, who could only have taken this as a snub – one that only intensified since this coin type may have been struck over a period of five years.

Not long afterward, even more extraordinary tetradrachms with extremely high relief portraits were struck by Philetaerus. Shown below are two examples, which are thought to belong to the period c.269/8-263 B.C.

The first (above) portrays Seleucus I, presumably because Philetaerus wished to promote the idea that his loyalty and agreement had been with Seleucus I, rather than his son, Antiochus I. The second (below) depicts Philetaerus himself. Both show on their reverse the seated figure of Athena, a design inspired by the many tetradrachms Philetaerus had struck for Lysimachus.

The latter coin, with the Philetaerus portrait, became the ‘immobilized’ model for most Pergamene tetradrachms that would be struck over the next century by Philetaerus’ successors.

In addition to silver tetradrachms, Philetaerus also struck bronzes. The two pieces shown above, with the head of Athena on the obverse and an ivy leaf or a thyrsus on the reverse, were struck by Philetaerus or by one of his successors.

Philetaerus was succeed by his brother Eumenes I (263-241 B.C.), who did not hand over the Pergamene treasury to Antiochus I, an act which immediately caused a war in which Eumenes triumphed. At long last, Pergamum was a fully independent kingdom with a dynastic line.

Eumenes also issued artful tetradrachms. The three shown above are similar to those created under Philetaerus, though the details are modified: the portrait is adorned with a laurel wreath rather than a cord diadem and the arrangement of the seated Athena is different, for she crowns the name of Philetaerus rather than placing her hand on a shield.

Another tetradrachm attributed to Eumenes I is shown above. On this example the portrait is of quite a different style from the previous three.

The next king of Pergamum, Attalus I (241-197 B.C.), a cousin and the adopted son of Eumenes I, is renowned for his powerful defeat of invading Celts in 240 B.C. So important was his victory that it purportedly gave rise to the dynasty founded by Philetaerus being named “the Attalid Dynasty.”

Above are two silver tetradrachms produced by Attalus I. The first has the now-standard types of the kingdom: the head of Philetaerus and the seated Athena. The second is a revival of familiar designs that more than a century before had been introduced by Alexander III.

Later tetradrachms from Pergamum (including the one shown above) were struck in much smaller quantities than those of the earlier Attalid kings – so much so that determining which of the later kings produced these coins is difficult. Such is the case with the above coin, which may have been struck by Attalus I or by his eldest son and successor, Eumenes II (197-159 B.C.).

Under Eumenes II, Pergamum became strong allies of Rome, a new and powerful authority in Asia Minor. He offered his support in Rome’s war against the Seleucid King Antiochus III (222-187 B.C.), which proved fruitful for both Rome and Pergamum due to a victory at Magnesia in 190 B.C. that was followed in 188 by the Peace of Apamea.

This brings us to another major development in Attalid coinage, the introduction of the silver cistophorus at some point between the 190s and the 160s B.C. (opinions vary). This new coin weighed significantly less than a traditional Attalid tetradrachm – c.12.6 grams versus c.16.8 grams.

Cistophori were struck in very large quantities at several mints within the Pergamene Kingdom, with the denomination surviving well into the age of Roman dominion. Three examples are shown above: the first perhaps struck c.166-160 B.C., the second c.160-150 B.C., and the third c.150-140 B.C.

Interestingly, cistophori were introduced to help create a closed economic sphere that Eumenes II enforced by preventing foreign currencies from entering his kingdom. Such coins had to be exchanged at the border for cistophori – coins struck at a weight purposely low enough to discourage their export.

The name cistophorus is derived from the cista (a sacred basket) from which a serpent escapes, which appears on the obverse. The reverse shows a bow in its case, flanked by serpents.

Pergamum survived as an independent kingdom until it was bequeathed to Rome in 133 B.C. It is with this monumental event that we’ll continue this topic next month with a discussion of Pergamum under Roman rule.

All photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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