By Robin Eaglen
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
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
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
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