Review: The Coins of Roman Antioch

Richard McAlee. The Coins of Roman Antioch. Lancaster, Penn./London: Classical Numismatic Group, Ltd., 2007. Hb., 407 pp., b/w illustrations throughout. ISBN 0-9709268-9-8. $150.00.

The publication of The Coins of Roman Antioch will almost certainly be a great boon to students of the Syrian capital and its coinage during the Roman period, as it represents the first time that all of the silver and aes coins produced in or for Antioch have been catalogued together. Previously, it was necessary to consult a variety of different catalogues (e.g., K. Butcher, The Coinage of Roman Syria; M. and K. Prieur, A Type Corpus of the Syro-Phoenician Tetradrachms; RPC 1 and 2 with RPC Online http://rpc.ashmus.ox.ac.uk) in order to study the full range of Antiochene civic and provincial coins in all metals, but thanks to Richard McAlee we now have recourse to a single type corpus with exceptional plates.

This new comprehensive catalogue, which lists some 1,195 distinct silver and aes types, even goes so far as to include the fourth-century civic-type coinage of Maximinus Daza, despite the fact that by this time Antioch no longer operated as a provincial mint but rather as an imperial facility fully integrated into the Roman mint system. Some may argue that the latter do not properly belong here, making the point that if they are considered Antiochene in the same sense that the earlier tetradrachms and civic and SC bronzes are, then the Roman denominations struck at Antioch ought also to be included. Regardless, the fact that McAlee has included these late issues highlights important questions about the provincial/imperial dichotomy in Roman numismatics. For example, if imperial mints struck coinage for provincial use, as in the case of Maximinus’s coins and a number of the earlier silver/billon and orichalcum issues associated with Antioch, and if provincial mints like Antioch before AD 240 could strike imperial denominations like the aureus, denarius, and the antoninianus when necessary, the provincial/imperial classification seems to lose much of its meaning (for a recent look at this issue, see A. Burnett, “The Roman West and the Roman East,” in Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces, ed. C. Howgego, V. Heuchert, and A. Burnett, 171–173 [2004]). The involvement of imperial mints to produce provincial coinage with local types also makes one wonder to what degree provincial symbolic identity may have been manufactured by Rome along with the coins (see below with respect to Trajan’s Roman silver struck for Syria).

Both the Syrian specialist and the neophyte will find the catalogue to be a dream come true. McAlee has described each type in painstaking detail (even down to the number and placement of dots, or pellets), which the author believes may have been a type of officina mark (for the pre-Roman use of pellets at Antioch, see O. Hoover, “Appendix 6. Pellets on Seleucid Coins,” in A. Houghton, C. Lorber, and O. Hoover, Seleucid Coins, Part II [2008], 2:231–236). Corrections to descriptions and date readings in earlier literature abound, as do several new attributions. These include the identification of an extremely rare ΟΜΟΝΟΙΑ CΕΒΑCΤΩΝ type as an issue in the name of Lucius Verus (no. 622A), thereby making it a companion piece to a similar issue of Marcus Aurelius (no. 602A), and the assurance that civic bronze no. 123 really is an Antiochene issue of year 145 (AD 123/4) and is not misread or an issue of another city (contra Butcher, op. cit., 359). We agree that the date seems very clear in the cast illustrated in McAlee’s plate. The remarkable revelation is also made that asses, semisses, and civic coins struck at Antioch under Antoninus Pius in AD 145–147 had their weights reduced because they were produced in orichalcum (this metal is normally associated with coins struck in Rome for Syria). The identification of the metal rests on unpublished X-ray spectroscopy results, which we hope will be presented in print.

A few items in the catalogue require correction. A metrological study of surviving specimens of the posthumous Philip tetradrachm no. 0 [sic] now shows that this issue is not likely to date as early as the later 60s BC. It is probably the initial celebratory issue produced to commemorate Julius Caesar’s grant of autonomy to the city in 49/8 BC (see Seleucid Coins, Part II, no. 2490). Likewise, the double-headed bronze coin no. 169A listed as a civic issue of the late second to early third century AD does not belong here. It is actually an unpublished Seleucid type of Antiochus II or III from Lydia that has been appearing in Internet sales since at least late 2007. It should also be noted that the portrait of Trajan on the small orichalcum SC coin no. 525 is almost certainly draped as no. 526, thereby making it a superfluous entry.

Those interested in the silver and billon coinages attributed to Antioch or apparently produced in Alexandria or Rome for Syrian use will find McAlee’s detailed discussion of the problems related to their attribution very useful, even though his tendency to remove issues from Antioch to other Syro-Phoenician mints is not always convincing. The case (following Henri Seyrig) for removing the enthroned Zeus tetradrachms of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius (nos. 212–213, 228, and 230–242) from Antioch to Tarsus on the basis of style is very compelling and difficult to refute in light of the excellent comparative illustrations provided. Likewise, the reattribution of Elagabalus’s billon tetradrachms to Laodicea ad Mare (following Butcher) seems quite likely to be correct, although the author also offers Emesa as a less-convincing third possibility. On the other hand, the attribution changes for many of the first- and early second-century silver and billon series remain problematic.

For example, based on differences of style and epigraphy, the author advances a modified version of Colin Kraay’s multiple mint thesis (“Notes on the Early Imperial Tetradrachms of Syria,” Revue Numismatique [1965]: 58–68) by placing only RPC 2 Groups 1–3 at the Syrian capital and dividing the remaining five groups between four mints (Tripolis [?], Aradus [?], Judaea Capta, and Tyre). While the attribution of RPC 2 Group 6 to Judaea Capta is generally accepted, the treatment of the eagle and palm branch of the reverse type as well as shared letter forms and the use of ΕΤΟΥC rather than ΕΤΟΥC ΝΕΟΥ ΙΕΡΟΥ make it almost certain that the supposed Aradian (?) and Tripolis (?) issues come from the same mint, regardless of the presence or absence of the crescent symbol. This facility can only be Antioch since, as RPC 1 points out, the related issues of Galba given to Aradus (?) and Tripolis (?) (nos. 308–310) must come from this city. The heavy-jowled portrait of Galba is very similar to that found on his legate and SC issues, which have an undisputed Antiochene origin. If all of these coins belong to Antioch, then so must the tetradrachms of Otho given to Aradus (?) and Tripolis (?) (nos. 315–316), as they employ eagles of virtually identical style to those on Galba’s tetradrachms. The Tyrian attribution of RPC 2 Groups 8 and 9 under Vespasian is also less than compelling, since the eagle with club type is not necessarily evidence for production at Tyre (see below). The Phoenician city also regularly used its autonomous era, rather than a Caesarean era, to date its coins and preferred the four-bar sigma and cursive omega during the Flavian period (cf. RPC 2, pp. 294–295). None of these features appear on the tetradrachms in question.

The use of variant letter forms as good evidence for production at facilities other than Antioch largely evaporates when the inscriptions on contemporary aes issues are also considered. For example, McAlee is tempted to attribute Nero’s and Galba’s eagle with wreath on wreath types of year 116 (AD 67/8) to Tripolis (?) and Aradus (?) in part on the basis of the lunate sigmas and epsilons that appear in the legends. However, when we look at the civic and provincial aes coinage, which is certainly Antiochene, it becomes clear that the die engravers of Antioch were beginning to introduce these cursive forms in year 115 (cf. nos. 112–114, 291–294A). Nerva’s tetradrachms and aes of year 1 (AD 97/6) show that the four-bar sigma and straight epsilon were the preferred forms during his brief reign, although the silver may have been struck at Alexandria. On the other hand, angular and cursive forms occur simultaneously on contemporary Antiochene tetradrachm issues of Vespasian, which is a little odd. Unfortunately, all of this emperor’s aes coinage bears Latin inscriptions, thereby making it impossible to compare Greek letter forms between metals.

Even if we could accept the proposed mint reattributions for the Neronian, Civil War, and Flavian tetradrachms, the indisputable use of reverse types featuring an eagle on thunderbolt and eagle on club at Antioch makes it difficult to accept the author’s removal of some issues of Trajan and Hadrian to Tyre without great reservation. There are no obvious reasons why the eagle on club types of these rulers (nos. 437–449 and 529–530) should not have been struck at Antioch, especially when the Trajanic series shares obverse dies with a series featuring the Tyche of Antioch on the reverse. If the eagle on club had lost its meaning as a distinctly Tyrian type and become the symbol of good money, as the author and Butcher have convincingly suggested, then there is also room to doubt the specifically Tyrian quality of the Heracles-Melqart type (originally paired with the eagle on autonomous silver of Tyre) used for some issues of Trajan. It is perhaps no accident that Heracles-Melqart appears on tetradrachms thought to have been struck not in Syria or Phoenicia but at Rome and Alexandria for use in Syria. The inclusion of this god in a tridrachm series apparently struck at Rome, which also features Zeus-Hadad and Roma, may imply that the Heracles-Melqart type was understood as broadly “Syrian” rather than narrowly Tyrian (for a similar view, see Butcher, op. cit., 83). Although the author argues for Zeus-Hadad as a particularly Tyrian deity, the association of his tridrachm type with a didrachm depicting his consort Atargatis (McAlee makes her Ba’alat-Astarte), the Dea Syria, tends to suggest that the coin typology of the small silver was also intended to have a generally provincial Syrian flavor.

Despite our difficulties in accepting many of the revised mint allocations for the silver and billon coinages in the first and early second centuries, the retention of so many tetradrachm series with differing reverse symbols at Antioch (RPC and Butcher) is also rather discomforting. The form of the coinage with ruler portrait on the obverse and an eagle and palm branch reverse often including other attributes (thunderbolt, club, animal thigh, etc.) ultimately derives from the late Seleucid silver coinage produced for Phoenicia and Coele Syria. On the Seleucid series (modeled after a Ptolemaic prototype), the region (Phoenicia) was indicated by the palm branch, while the symbols identified the mint of issue (i.e., ship’s ram at Tyre, trident at Berytus, etc.). (It is interesting to note that while the model for the reverse is drawn from the earlier Seleucid coinage, the obverse type of the emperor wearing an aegis seems to be drawn from the regular Ptolemaic coinage depicting Ptolemy I Soter with the same attribute. This may imply the early influence of the Alexandrian mint in the development of the typology.) Following this pattern, one might reasonably expect the attributes on the Roman provincial tetradrachms to consistently serve as mint identifiers, but this seems not to be the case.

Before leaving the tetradrachms, it is also worth mentioning McAlee’s suggestion that the COS II issues of Gordian III with ram and crescent symbol were not produced at Antioch, but by a mobile military mint, possibly because the Syrian capital had briefly fallen to the Sasanian Persians. This is an interesting idea, but unfortunately the evidence for a Persian occupation is very slight, while the association of the ram and crescent with Antioch is very strong. The ram and crescent (without star) served as the reverse type for the last known emission of Antiochene civic coins in AD 177/8 (no. 166).

The treatment of the aes coinage is generally more convincing, especially since the mint attributions are fairly secure for most of the issues. Still, the author’s reversion to Michael Grant’s identification of the small and large SC bronze denominations as the semis and the as (The Six Main Aes Coinages of Augustus, p. 8, n. 4) rather than the as and the dupondius may raise some eyebrows. This is based on the apparent equivalence of the large bronze and large orichalcum issues indicated by a laurel branch countermark and the metrological relationship between the orichalcum as and the large SC bronze denomination. Ultimately, we wonder whether the naming of denominations does not risk unintentional obfuscation. Butcher’s use of “small,” “medium,” and “large” to describe the various civic and provincial denominations seems a much safer methodology in the absence of solid evidence for their ancient names. Nevertheless, McAlee may very well be correct in his understanding of the relationship between bronze and orichalcum issues. His commentary in the general introduction and the section introductions, which utilize unpublished metrological and metallurgical data, will certainly be required reading for future discussion of the subject.

It is also worth noting that the author has reversed his former view that the letter-numerals found on many aes issues of Antioch represent sequence marks. An expanding obverse die break on two asses of Antoninus Pius with different letter-numerals makes the idea of sequence marks untenable. McAlee now makes a case for understanding them as potential officina marks. Although this view is rejected by the authors of RPC 1 on the basis that there would be too many, comparison with the numbers of officinae known for Antioch as an imperial mint and the frequent sharing of some letter numerals between civic and provincial issues make the officina theory seem much less implausible. Still, the supposed use of K to indicate the eleventh officina (when it would normally indicate the twentieth) is a little difficult to accept. The idea that the anomalous double-digit letter-numerals on some issues of Trajan and Hadrian represent units of two consolidated officinae is ingenious if somewhat speculative. If the anomalous letter-numerals do represent consolidated officinae, the question remains open as to why such consolidation was necessary only for a late as series of Trajan (nos. 492–497) and an as and hemichalkon (?) series of Hadrian (nos. 536 and 543). Although we have no civic issues of Trajan for comparison, it is a little curious that all of Hadrian’s civic and provincial aes appears to have been struck by three unremarkable officinae (A, B, and ).

The high quality of the aes commentary is occasionally marred by peculiar claims, such as the idea that the attribute carried by Tyche on certain preimperial and civic silver and bronze issues (nos. 29, 74–77, 93–94) might represent an inverted anchor, harking back to Seleucid iconography, rather than her normal tiller attribute. Likewise, the author succumbs to the extreme Cleopatraphilia popularized by Matthew Kreuzer (see O. Hoover, review of M. Kreuzer, The Coinage System of Cleopatra VII and Augustus in Cyprus, ANS Magazine [Winter 2005]: 68–71) when he suggests that certain countermarks found on preimperial civic bronzes and normally considered to bear the head of Apollo actually depict Cleopatra VII. As the known Antioch host coins end in Caesarean year 8 (42/1 BC), it is hardly a foregone conclusion that the countermarking episode should be associated with Antony’s grant of lands to Cleopatra in 37/6 BC. Furthermore, the head on the countermark lacks any features that can clearly identify it as that of the last Ptolemaic queen. The former lacks the typical “melon” hairstyle or the prominent diadem normally worn by Cleopatra on her coins. Instead, the hairstyle and drapery at the neck on the countermark head have much more in common with the Apollo type that began to appear on Antiochene civic coinage in AD 55/6 (nos. 104–105). In light of the evidence, the traditional identification of the countermark as Apollo seems much more credible than its identification as Cleopatra.

In a similar vein, the author endorses the view that the K-A and palm branch that appear on some SC issues of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (nos. 598, 599, 615) refer to the restoration of the city’s Capitolian games after a period of punishment by Marcus Aurelius. This interpretation is very dubious, since there is no secure evidence that the games of Antioch had Capitolian status, and John Malalas reports that Commodus only restored the city’s Olympic games in AD 181. The palm branch seems to be a form of control symbol, for it appears without the accompanying K-A on no. 616 and in the same position as the stars on no. 613. It may not be entirely irrelevant to point out that stars and palm branches had been popular control symbols on late Seleucid, autonomous, and preimperial bronze coins of Antioch. Stars also appear frequently on Antioch’s SC issues throughout the Roman period. The reappearance of K-A on SC coins of Elagabalus (nos. 796–798) would seem to make the supposed association of these letters with the lifting of Aurelius’s sanctions against the city untenable. Since they appear in the same position as -E (apparently referring to the four eparchies of Syria) on other issues of Elagabalus, one wonders whether there might not really be something to the suggestion that K-A refers to Antioch as the first and most beautiful city vis-à-vis the other cities of the Syrian eparchies.

The black-and-white plates and other illustrations liberally sprinkled through the main text are exemplary in quality and detail, making them an indispensable resource for the serious study of the coinage of Antioch. The plates are laid out on pages facing the catalogue text in sylloge style and illustrate almost all of the basic types listed in the catalogue as well as many variants. As an aid to understanding the civic and provincial issues of Antioch in context with the imperial coins struck by the city and other coinages of the region, these issues are also frequently illustrated. Especially notable is the illustration of all the basic types of Trajan’s silver coinage struck for Arabia and the Emesan tetradrachms of Uranius Antoninus (Figs. 21, 34). Our only complaint is that the plated coins are arranged in columns rather than in rows from left to right. This arrangement appears to have been made in order to save space or to vaguely mirror the two-column format of the catalogue, but it takes some time for the reader to get accustomed to it.

A useful appendix listing the countermarks known from Antiochene bronze and orichalcum issues of the imperial period is also included, along with a concordance to Butcher’s Coinage in Roman Syria. An addenda section lists sixteen variants of types in the main catalogue and five new varieties mainly drawn from recent Internet sales.

Despite our doubts about many of the revised mint attributions for the silver and billon coinage and our quibbles with the interpretation of some features of the aes coinage, there can be no question that The Coins of Roman Antioch represents an important new resource for the study of the city’s coinage. It will certainly provide a solid foundation for the future numismatic study of the Syrian capital and be a welcome addition to the shelf of any student of Antiochene and Near Eastern coinage during the Roman period.

—Oliver D. Hoover