Portraits of Greek Coinage - 'Perseus'


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Portraits of Greek Coinage - 'Perseus' Nov 03 2011 Coins

By Robin Eaglen

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Perseus was the last king of Macedon. His father, Philip V named his son after the popular Greek hero, who also figured on the obverse of some of his coins.2 In the course of his long reign (221-179 BC) Philip tried to extend the dominion of Macedon, bringing him into opposition with Rome especially through his alliance with Hannibal in 216 and his attempt to supplant its influence along the eastern shores of the Adriatic.3 The Roman Senate eventually turned on Philip in 200, and three years later he was roundly defeated at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly by T. Quinctius Flammininus. In the subsequent peace settlement the Romans confined him to Macedon, took most of his fleet and hostages, including his younger son, Demetrius. After his release, Demetrius be came a protagonist of Rome, tempted by the prospect of succeeding as king in preference to Perseus, his elder brother. Under the latter's inducement Philip reluctantly had Demetrius executed for treason in 180, the year before his own death.4

Perseus inherited his father's aspiration to aggrandise Macedon and break loose from Roman influence. With the benefit of hindsight, such policies appear doomed from the outset. Rome was making inexorable progress in spreading its power and influence, resisting three great military leaders in Philip's lifetime Philip himself, Hannibal, who had ended by committing suicide in 183 or 182,5 and Antiochus III of Syria, eventually lynched in 187.6 The Roman success was partly due to expertise in battle, but also to diplomatic skill in nurturing acceptance amongst the Greeks. In crushing the ambitions of Philip V, the Romans plausibly presented themselves as protectors of the Greeks, thereby creating the curious amalgam of raw imperialism and genuine philhellenism through which they engulfed the Greek world.7

Perseus was popular at home and a magnet for any anti-Roman sympathy. His progress, however, stirred the enmity of Eumenes II of Pergamum, who denounced him to the Romans, giving them the pretext to declare war on Macedon in 171. After initial success, Perseus was defeated at Pydna in 168 BC. He made his escape but was later taken and died at Alba Fucens, east of Rome, after two years in captivity. 8

The head on the obverse die illustrated is engraved with striking virtuosity. In style it is both distinct from the unworldly ethereal beauty of the finest classical portraits and more penetratingly observed than the stale, small scale realism of later Roman imperial issues. The physical impact of the obverse is helped by the generous flan. Perseus comes across as an authoritative, thoughtful and resourceful ruler. The obverse design is also found with the name Zoilos (ÆÙÉËÏV) beneath the head, but these dies are not necessarily of superior workmanship or weight, lending support to the premise that the signatory was a mint master rather than die engraver. 9

The reverse combines the images of an oak wreath and eagle, both associated with Zeus. The mantic oak of Zeus was at Dodona in Epirus,10 and the reverse of Epeirote didrachms (238-168 BC) bears an oak wreath with acorns, surrounding a butting bull.11 The eagle is found copiously on Greek coinage, often as the companion of Zeus who holds the bird in his outstretched hand.12 It was also a predominant image on coinage in Egypt from the reign of Ptolemy I (305-283) to the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC.13 As on the reverse illustrated, the bird was depicted perched on a thunderbolt, symbolic of Zeus's intervention in the natural world.14 Perseus obviously derived his reverse from his father's type with an oak wreath surrounding a club,15 also found at Herakleia16 and, from 158 BC at Amphipolis.17 But substitution of the club by the eagle was his own innovation.


1 See Bunbury 827 for the same combination of monorgams.

2 B. V. Head, A Guide to the Principal Coins of the Greeks (PCG) (London, 1932), Plate 35, 5; D. R. Sear, Greek Coins and their Values, I- II (GCV) (London, 1978, 1979), GCV 6791, p.631.

3 A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Civilisation (London, 1967), p.361; The Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD), edited by S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, 3rd edition revised (Oxford, 2003), p.1162.

4 OCD p.1162; N Davis and C. M. Kraay, The Hellenistic Kingdoms, Portrait coins and history (Hellenistic Kingdoms) (London,1980), p.227.

5 OCD, p.666.

6 OCD, p.108; GCV, p.647; R.M.Errington, A History of the Hellenistic World, 323-30 BC (Hellenistic World) (Oxford, 2007), p.223.

7 OCD, pp.1159-60.

8 OCD, pp.1143-4. Hellenistic Kingdoms, pp. 228-9, 255; Hellenistic World, p.245.

9 C. Seltman, Greek Coins, 2nd edition (London, 1955), p. 226; GCV 6803, p.633. In Triton VI, 14 -15 January 2003, 196, the CNG cataloguer suggests that these signed coins of 'exceptional quality and unreduced weight… may be reasonably assumed to have been a coronation or donative issue.' Apart from the signature, the only mark of distinction in the coin illustrated is the inclusion of acorns as well as oak leaves in the reverse wreath.

10 OCD, p.489.

11 GCV, p.195.

12 Most notably on the vast silver coinage of Alexander the Great (GCV, pp.622-4).

13 GCV, pp.733-54.

14 OCD, p.1637.

15 GCV, 6791-3, p.631.

16 PCG, Plate 39, 12.

17 GCV, 1386, p.141. 53