top of page
  • Writer's picturesulla80

A Paeonian Tetradrachm

An event during Alexander the Great's conquest of the Achaemenid Empire is potentially depicted on the reverse of my coin today. However, a very different option seems to be supported with a more detailed look at the coin.

Quintus Curtius Rufus writes about Paeonians serving in the cavalry of Alexander the Great in his biography of Alexander III. Ariston, commander of the cavalry, heroically brings victory, and the head of his opponent, to Alexander.

"He [Mazaeus, Persian satrap] had sent only 1,000 cavalry ahead, and so, Alexander, discovering and then scorning their small numbers, ordered Ariston, the commander of the Paeonian cavalry, to charge them at full gallop. The cavalry, and especially Ariston, distinguished themselves in that day’s engagement. Ariston aimed his spear straight at the throat of the Persian cavalry commander, Satropates, ran him through, and then followed him as he fled through the thick of the enemy, hurled him from his horse and decapitated him as he struggled. The head he brought back, and to loud applause, laid before the kings feet."
-Curtius Rufus, Quintus, Historia Alexandri Magni, translated by John Yardley, Penguin Books, 1984, Book IX 24-25

Plutarch finishes this story with an illustration of Alexander's good humor and generosity.

"Ariston, the captain of the Paeonians, having slain an enemy, brought his head and showed it to Alexander, saying: ‘In my country, O King, such a gift as this is rewarded with a golden beaker.’ ‘Yes,’ said Alexander with a laugh, ‘an empty one; but I will pledge thy health with one which is full of pure wine.’"
-Plutarch, Plutarch's Lives, translated by Bernadotte Perrin, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1919. Alexander 39.2

Ariston was possibly the brother of King Patreos who minted this coin:

Kings of Paeonia, Patraos, circa 335-315 BC, AR Tetradrachm (22mm, 12.72g, 11h). Obv: Laureate head of Apollo to right

Rev: ΠΑΤΡ[ΑΟΥ], Paeonian horse­man, wearing crested helmet and full armor, galloping right and spea­ring fallen enemy; below to left, bucranium

Ref: Paeonian Hoard 334, SNG ANS 1030

Note: this particular coin with horse's head or bucranium behind the horse seems to be scare or rare (25 out of 750 coins on ACSearch)

A bucranium in "Regola delli cinqve ordini d'architettvra" by Vignola, 1507-1573 published in 1602. Public Domain via

A reverse die match from Gorny and Mosch, via ACSearch, confirms a couple of details in the clothing of the rider and fallen soldier.

This map of Greece, before the Pellopenisian War (431 BC), shows the location of Paeonia to the North of Macedonia.

Philip II of Macedonia, Alexander's father, captured Paeonia and made it a vassal state.

"Now that he [Philip II] was relieved of the war with the Athenians and had information that the king of the Paeonians, Agis, was dead, he conceived that he had the opportunity to attack the Paeonians. Accordingly, having conducted an expedition into Paeonia and defeated the barbarians in a battle, he compelled the tribe to acknowledge allegiance to the Macedonians."
-Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 4.2 

Hugo Gaebler proposed in AMNG 1935 that this coin depicted the victory of Ariston.

"The depiction on the reverse celebrates the brilliant victory that Ariston, a relative (most likely brother) of King Patraos, won over the Persian cavalry prefect Satropates in a reconnaissance battle before the battle of Gaugamela (331 BC) (Curt. Ruf. IV, g, 25). The Paionian horseman wears a long chiton under the armor, and his head is protected by a helmet with a large plume; he sits on a saddlecloth held in place by a strap around the horse's chest. The sunken Persian usually wears trousers with a short, belted chiton and on his head a round, mostly bashlyk-like, extended cap."
-Hugo Gaebler, Die Antiken Münzen Nord-Griechenlands, vol 3.2 p302 

The idea was further popularized by I.L. Merker in ‘The Ancient Kingdom of Paionia,’ Balkan Studies 6 (1965), p. 44 (download pdf)

In any case, I think that we can consider the Paionian coin type as a representation of the epic battle of Ariston and Sa­tropates. The name Ariston appears later as the name of a member of the roy­al family, and probably our Ariston was likewise a member of the royal fa­mily — perhaps a younger brother of Patraos. Patraos himself issued two types of silver tetradrachms. The first issue, a very rare one,showed a horse’s head on the reverse; the second, much more common, is the one I described before."
-Merker, p.44

However, there are some problems with this connection. First of all, why would Petraos celebrate the accomplishments of his relative/brother, who would potentially be a rival for the throne. Nicholas Wright explores convincingly an alternate explanation for the reverse of this coin. His arguments:

  • This event would not necessarily have been important to the Paeonians - it is told to glorify Macedonia and Alexander the Great

  • There is no precedent for Greek coins to portray narratives in this way on coins

  • From a dynastic point of view it wouldn't make sense to put your brother on a coin and create competition for yourself and your heirs for the throne

  • On coins where the shield can be made out, held by the warrior on the ground, it looks Macedonian

  • The horseman's clothing illustrates a member of the Paeonian military elite

  • The warrior on the ground, if he were a Persian cavalryman, would not have carried a shield

There are some variations of this coin that may reflect changing relationship with Macedonia and other neighbors over time. My coin appears to have a laureate Apollo, a Paeonian horseman and a warrior on the ground with a Macedonian kausia and shield - although a bit ambiguous whether naked or trousers to me, so potentially a Macedonian warrior - a message of hostility toward their southern neighbors, or perhaps some other enemy of the Paeonians to the east or north. Addedndum: the more I look at this coin and others, the more I am convinced that mine likely has a warrior with naked torso, trousers and kausia.

In AMNG, on the page 301, Gaebler describes the reverse of the coin in this way:

"Paeonian rider to right on a rearing horse, the reins in his left hand, pointing a spear downwards with his right at an enemy who is under the horse's front legs with left foot far forward, resting on the left foot, with the raised r. hand to throw a javelin while reaching out and covers himself with a round shield decorated in the manner of the Macedonian"
-Hugo Gaebler, Die Antiken Münzen Nord-Griechenlands, vol 3.2 p301

I have to say - looking at the coins in AMNG, I can see how one might see the head covering as a bashlyk-like, add in non-Macedonian trousers, and conclude: "Persian". He doesn't really give an argument, just declares the connection. Although he clearly recognized the shield as Macedonian. With the three coins in series the changing position of the warrior seems almost cinematic:

The "rearing horseman spearing something or someone" theme seems to have been fairly universally appreciated. The Assyrians were fans too...645-635 BC detail from a gypsum wall panel at the British Museum.

Which raises the question, would Paeonians have considered a scenes with barbarians much different from a scene with a wild beast? A Black jasper scarabaeoid seal from the second half of the 5th century BC illustrates a "Persian horseman spearing a Greek foot soldier."

Public domain image via the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art.

and even the Macedonians liked this theme

Kinch photo from Olga Palagia's Chapter in "Alexander's battles against Persians in the art of the Successors".

I find Wright's argument convincing enough to reject the view that this is specifically Ariston fighting for Macedonia. Rather than reinforcing the view that Paeonia is a vassal state, it seems possible that these coins declare an aggressive posture toward Macedonians and therefore reinforce that between 331 BC and the death of Alexander in 323, Patraos of Paionia had broken free of Macedonia.

There is a Sotheby's auction catalogue from 16-April-1969, "Catalogue of the Paeonian Hoard" and a related sale at Parke-Bernet Galleries, "The Extremely Important Greek Hoard" 9 December 1969, that I would like to see if my coin shows up in either catalog. If anyone has a copy of either catalog and is willing to share...send me an e-mail.

A side-story on Paeonia. This ancient kingdom made the news in 2009 as the "The Republic of Macedonia" was recognized by President George W. Bush. Concern about the stealing of Greek national identity, prompted this letter to President, Barak Obama, in 2012.

it goes on to share:

"We do not understand how the modern inhabitants of ancient Paionia, who speak Slavic, a language introduced into the Balkans about a millennium after Alexander can claim him [Alexander the Great] as their national hero. Alexander the Great was thoroughly and indisputably Greek. [skip] The Ancient Paionians may of may not have been Greek, but they certainly became Greek-ish and they were never Slavs."
- Letter to President Obama, Athens, April 2012 


147 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All

2 comentarios

Alfred Kowsky
Alfred Kowsky
29 ene 2022

Sulla, Another interesting article & Paeonia Tet 🙂. The horse head on the reverse makes this a very special issue. The Romans used a similar reverse theme on many of their late bronze coins 😉.

Me gusta
30 ene 2022
Contestando a

Thanks, Al, the scene does remind me of the late roman bronzes - here's one (600+ years later) from Constantius Gallus (AD 351-354) with the tables turned - the foot-soldier getting the best of the horseman.

Me gusta
bottom of page