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A Late Republican Cistophoric Tetradrachm

Since I first wrote about this coin four years ago, this 2017 ANS book by William E. Metcalf has become one that I've frequently consulted. I learned of the book while I was researching a Cistophoric tetradrachm that I bought in 2015. There is a thorough review of the book here. I've also added quite a few other cistophoric tetradrachms to my collection.

What drew my attention to the coin, and subsequently the book, was the question of who issued the coins with the monogram shown on the left, and when. There was a potential connection to Marcus Antonius, a supporter of Sulla in the civil war between Marius and Sulla and grandfather of the better known Marc Antony. M Antonius was ultimately was killed while at a dinner party by minions of Marius in 87 MC. He is also one of the main characters in Cicero's dialog De Oratore, and in Brutus, a History of Famous Orators, where Cicero praises him together with L. Licinius Crassus. After a bit of digging it became clear that the evidence doesn't support this connection.

The book by Metcalf is an important reference book and commentary for these coins. Reading this reference, one can better appreciate the painstaking work that it takes to connect information from dies, hoards, style assessments and historical records. I also appreciate the carefully curated and printed pictures of >500 coins in 86 plates illustrating die variations.

Disdain for Cistophoric Tetradrachms

Not everyone appreciates these coins. On page 166 of “Ancient Greek Coins”, GK Jenkins writes:

"the so-called ‘cistophoric’ coins of the cities in the Pergamene kingdom, which started at the time of Eumenes II and which are distinguished only by the most uninspiring of all Greek coins designs (the cista mystica and a bow case with writhing snakes)"

This lack of appreciation and some large issues has the upside of making these coins more affordable, in nice condition, than other Greek/Roman silver coins from this time period. However, there are some very sought after members of this coinage.

Two examples (very rare and not mine) of Cistophoric Tetradrachms issued by M. Tullius Cicero.

Disdain for Cistophori existed in ancient times as well. Cicero, who as a proconsul in in the province of Cilicia is named on a few rare cistophori, had a notable dislike for the currency. As he left Cilicia, leaving his brother Quintus in charge, he wrote to his friend Atticus:

"I have written to the city quaestors on my brother Quintus's affairs; take care that they answer, and see what hope there is of obtaining the denarii, otherwise we shall be obliged to content ourselves with Pompey's cistophori."
- M. Tullius Cicero, Letters to Atticus, XXXII (A II, 6)

The Coin

Mysia, Mint: Unknown (Pergamon or Ephesus?), AR Cistophoric Tetradrachm, Unknown Quaestor (?) maybe L. Sempronius Atratinus (?)

Date: 42-39 BC

Obv: Cista mystica within ivy wreath

Rev: Bow case between two serpents; monogram above, Q to left, thyrsos to right.

Size: 12.6g (heavier than the average 12.13g and median 12.25g for this issue as found in the book above), and 25mm.

Matching Dies

After a lot of squinting to see similar features across two coins, I think my coin matches obverse die O21 seen in two of the coins in the book. After looking at many of these coins I've gotten better at finding features to identify die matches. I described the features hat I noticed on this coin as a “two line lid”, a “duck”, a “mouse” and “two balloons with string” along with some image overlays that seemed to fit reasonably.

After a bit of careful paging through the images and more squinting, I also found a match for my reverse die - RB28 from coin 644.

The Iconography

The images on this coin are connected to the Attalid dynasty started by Philetaerus as he took control of Pergamon in the power struggles that followed the death of Alexander the Great. These tetradrachms were sometimes minted in relatively large numbers from a small number of dies, and had an exchange rate of 1 to 3 with the Roman denarius, and 4 to three for with attic standard tetradrachms.

The cista mystica, the grapes and ivy leaf, are references to Dionysus, a deity from whom the Attalids claimed descent. On the reverse, the bow-case refer to Herakles, father of Telephus, the legendary founder of Pergamon, who is also claimed as an ancestor by the Attalids.

When I purchased the coin, the issuer was described as Lucius Antony, brother of Mark Antony, or Marcus Antonius their grandfather who was a quaestor in Asia in 113/112 BC. However, a note from 2009, by William E Metcalf, summarized in the book, makes a convincing case based on the monogram, shared obverse dies, and hoard evidence that the date range for this coin is 42-39 BC and a possible quaestor is L. Sempronius Atratinus. He notes, ”the monogram contains all the elements of ATPATIN in Greek”. Atratinus was the praetor who struck on behalf of Mark Antony and should have been quaestor before that.

There is a second coin issued with the same monogram that I am still watching for in auctions – which is almost the same except that is has torch on the reverse in place of the thyrsos. A thyrsos is staff of giant fennel topped with a pine cone used in Dionysian rituals. Shared obverse dies across these two coins is convincing evidence that they were minted in one location (not two as is often described) - although there are other possibilities: dies made in one place and coins minted in another.

Dated Cistophori

There are many variations on these coins under Attalid rule and Roman rule. This coin shows the torch and is a coin from the earlier series of "dated cistorphori of Ephesus". This dated coin is a particularly nice example with a "krater" on the reverse between the snakes. A krater is a large vase used for diluting wine with water. These coins are dated from the formation of the province of Asia in 134/133. Kleiner notes:

"It is interesting that Ephesus is the only city to place provincial era dates on its cistophori, a decision which possibly reflects a readier acceptance of Roman rule than in the other Attalid cities."

Ionia, Ephesos, circa 180-67 BC, AR - early cistophoroi, Cistophoric Tetradrachm, CY ΞΔ = 71/70 BC Obv: Serpent crawling out of cista mystica; all within ivy wreath Rev: ΞΔ/EΦΕ, bow-case with two confronted serpents, krater above; to right flaming torch. Size: 26 mm. 12,33 Ref: Kleiner, Dated 62, SNG Copenhagen 332-3

These dated coins pre-date those covered in Metcalf's book, for more on this series see the Kleiner article linked above and in references. Searching this site for "cistophoric" you will find more articles on these coins.


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