Review: An Introduction to the History and Coinage of the Bosporus

David MacDonald, An Introduction to the History and Coinage of the Bosporus. Classical Numismatic Studies 5. Lancaster / London: Classical Numismatic Group, 2005. Hb. 141 pp., b/w illus. throughout. ISBN 0-9709268-2-0. US$ 62.50.

David Macdonald’s new book represents the fifth volume in CNG’s Classical Numismatic Studies series, and like its predecessors, which heavily focused on the coinage of Bactria and the Indo-Scythians, it too looks at coinage produced at the fringe of the Graeco-Roman world. However, the fringe of interest to the author here is not located in the east, but rather in the north, in the Crimea of the modern Ukraine, known to the Greeks as the Cimmerian Bosporus. The nuances of this coinage, and the history that it helps to illuminate, are perhaps somewhat less well appreciated in the West than they might be in part because to date the vast majority of serious scholarship has been written in Russian, although the publications of Black Sea coins in the British Museum (M.J. Price, Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, Britain vol. IX: The British Museum, Part I: The Black Sea (London, 1993)), the William Stancomb collection (A.M. Burnett, A.R. Meadows, K.A. Sheedy and U. Wartenberg, Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, Britain vol. XI: The William Stancomb Collection of Coins of the Black Sea Region (Oxford, 2000)), and now N. Frolova and S. Ireland’s The Coinage of the Bosporan Kingdom: from the First Century BC to the Middle of the First Century AD, BAR International Series no. 1102 (Oxford, 2003) do represent important recent contributions to Bosporan numismatics in the English language.

Previously, to take in the full spectrum of Bosporan numismatic material it would have been necessary to use survey works like V.A. Anokhin’s (Kiev, 1986), N.A. Frolova’s Monetnoe delo Bosfora (Moscow, 1997), or I.M. Stanislavskii’s Monety Bosforskogo tsarstva i ikh stoimost (Moscow, 2000), and of course, have a good reading knowledge of modern Russian. Thanks to An Introduction to the History and Coinage of the Bosporus we now have collected together in one volume an English language catalogue of 691 individual coin types (plus variants) struck in the names of the Spartocid and later Bosporan kings from the late third century BC to the mid fourth century AD, as well as the cities of the kingdom, some of which already produced coins in the fifth century BC during the rule of the shadowy Archaeanactid dynasty. The catalogue is divided into eight chronological sections, each of which is introduced by a brief history of the period and biographies of the kings involved, when they are known in any detail. Unfortunately, like their colleagues in the east, the Bosporan kings do not commonly appear in the connected narratives of the Greek and Roman historians, thus making it necessary to piece together the history of the kingdom from the fragmentary anecdotal, epigraphic, and especially the numismatic evidence that survives.

A small appendix on identifying Bosporan bronze coins that have been retooled in modern times is also included, along with a concordance linking MacDonald’s numbers to those used in the major Russian language catalogues and SNG BM Black Sea. For those interested in delving further into the history and coinage of the Bosporus the author provides a solid select bibliography, although we would add to it the new work of Frolova and Ireland mentioned above.

Most of the coins described in the catalogue are accompanied by black and white illustrations of varying quality since the majority appear to have been scanned from the printed catalogues of disparate museum collections and numismatic sales, rather than photographed from the coins. While this is understandable for rare pieces and some difficult to access collections, it is surprising to see illustrations copied (with full permission) directly from the British Museum Sylloge (e.g. nos. 74-75) when it should have been possible to procure original photographs. Images of coins in the ANS collection, which is relatively strong on issues of Panticapaeum (204 specimens) as well as the Bosporan kings (111 specimens), also would have reduced the necessity of resorting to scans. However, we hasten to praise the frequent use of images of gold and electrum staters in the collection of Larry Adams. These coins are not only wonderful specimens of the the engraver’s art, but they have been photographed to perfection, serving to enhance their beauty even further. In addition to the many Adams coins that illustrate issues of the later kings, we cannot resist drawing special attention to the stunning and unique Bosporan stater of the Pontic king Mithradates VI (no. 181), formerly SNG von Aulock no. 1.

While there is something for everyone in the catalogue, whether one is interested in the early silver drachms and fractions of archaic Panticapaeum (with “Apollonia” and “Myrmecium”), the bronzes and countermarks of the Bosporan cities, or the issues of the several local dynasties who ruled the peninsula, the following items seemed worthy of special attention and further investigation:

In the section on the late Spartocids, MacDonald defends the authenticity of the controversial Hermitage tetradrachm (no. 109) with Lysiamchid reverse type attributed to Paerisades III (c. 180-160 BC). While he may be right that this light (14.10 g) but heavily corroded piece is truly ancient, one wonders about the accuracy of identifying the ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΠΑΙΡΙΣΑΔΟΥ named on the coin with Paerisades III. The individual portrayed on the obverse looks very different from the portraits of Paerisades III known from his gold staters. The man depicted on the latter is always clean shaven with curly hair and wears a very prominent diadem, whereas the portrait on the tetradrachms has a less frenetic hairstyle that covers most of the diadem, and most notably, what appears to be a beard and moustache (although perhaps the beard may be a product of corrosion). In light of the differing portraits it is hard to sustain the association with Paerisades III. It is impossible to reattribute the coin to his successor, Paerisades IV (c. 150-125 BC) for the same reasons, while his predecessor, Paerisades II (284/3-c. 245 BC), is also an unlikely candidate. The latter seems to have ruled too early to have begun modifying the Lysimachid types. In the period c. 240-220 BC, Leucon II was still employing the traditional types and name of Lysimachus for his tetradrachms (nos. 97-98). If it is indeed authentic, the Paerisades tetradrachm is certainly an enigma.

Two bronze coins sharing the types of Apollo and a grazing horse, but with the ethnics of Panticapaeum (no. 218) and Phanagorea (no. 222) are attributed to the reign of the post-Spartocid king Asander (47-16 BC), but these might be better suited to the second (c. 105-90 BC) and third (c. 90-79 BC) periods of occupation of the Bosporus by the forces of Mithradates VI of Pontus. In these periods both Phanagorea and Panticapeum are known to have shared types as well as dies for their bronze and silver emissions (see nos. 165-166, 168 and 172), mirroring the contemporary practice of the Pontic cities, whereas at all other times these two Bosporan cities employed distinct typologies of their own. Close inspection of the reverse type reveals what appear to be small wings sprouting from the horse’s shoulder blades, identifying the animal as Pegasus and further supporting a Mithridatic context for the issue. The image of Pegasus grazing was a common badge of Mithradates on his royal tetradrachms (e.g. L. Mildenberg and S. Hurter, eds., The Arthur S. Dewing Collection of Greek Coins, (New York, 1985), no. 2121) and on the civic bronzes of the Pontic cities of Amisos (e.g. SNG BM Black Sea 1212) and Chabakta (e.g. SNG BM Black Sea 1259). If we are correct in reassigning these two Bosporan issues to the time of Mithradates VI it will probably be necessary to reattribute Panticapaean bronze no. 219 to the same period as well, since its obverse Apollo type is so similar in style to that of no. 218.

While on the subject of Pegasus, the horse ridden by the hero Perseus in his quest to behead Medusa the Gorgon, it may also be worth noting that the obverse of a bronze coin (no. 229) issued by the Bosporan client-king Polemo I (c. 15/14 BC-c. AD 7/8), actually depicts the right facing head of a “beautiful” style Medusa, rather than that of her slayer, as reported by the description (cp. a similar profile head of “beautiful” Medusa on early Seleucid coinage in A. Houghton and C. Lorber, Seleucid Coins, Part I (Lancaster/London, 2002), nos. 21-24 etc.)

The catalogue of issues produced by the Bosporan client-kings of Rome is quite extensive and the author has attempted to describe the sometimes obscure symbols that appear as differentiators on the coinage. Included among these symbols are features variously identified by MacDonald as pellets or globes, which have not always been carefully noted in the earlier literature (particularly when they appear at the tip of a portrait bust), but seem to represent a type of control mark. Serious attention has only recently begun to be paid to similar pellets on the coinage of the Roman provinces (see for example, K. Butcher, Coinage in Roman Syria (London, 2004), pp. 236-237 and R.A. Bauslaugh, Silver Coinage with the Types of Aesillas the Quaestor, ANSNS 22 (New York, 2000), pp. 85-89) and the late Hellenistic period (see A. Houghton, C. Lorber and O. Hoover, Seleucid Coins, Part II (Forthcoming). The mints of the Bosporus can now be added to the growing list of those known to have employed pellets as part of their control system.

However, a pellet appears to have been misinterpreted as a worn or poorly drawn theta on an electrum stater (no. 583) naming Rhescuporis II (AD 211/12-226/7), but dated to 525 of the Bosporan Era (=AD 228/9), a year after his son Cotys III (AD 227/8-233/4) began to issue his own coins. Because the pellet appears in conjunction with the letter epsilon, together they have been assumed to represent the first two letters of the word ΘΕΟΣ and to identify the apparently deceased Rhescuporis as a god. This seems somewhat unlikely when we consider that no other Bosporan kings are deified in this manner on their coinage, although they may be accompanied by divine attributes. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that on Bosporan staters the letter theta is always written large and very clearly so that it can be easily differentiated from other letter forms (cp. the form of theta on issues of Cotys I (no. 317), Rhescuporis I (no. 340), Eupator (no. 469), Sauromates II (no. 500), and Rhescuporis II (no. 551)). No amount of natural wear could reduce the thetas found on earlier issues to a pellet like that found on the present coin. In light of these difficulties we would suggest the possibility that perhaps Rhescuporis II did not die in AD 227/8 as is usually believed, but actually lived on for a few more years after elevating his son to the kingship. This scenario might account for the dating of this stater after production for Cotys III had already begun and would have the benefit of following earlier royal precedent. Late in the reign of Cotys II (AD 123/4-132/3) he raised Rhoemetalces (AD 131/2-153/4) to power as co-regent. Both struck staters in their own names in AD 131/2 and 132/3.

There is also some room to doubt the identification of no. 584 as a bronze denarius struck by Cotys III to commemorate the divine Rhescuporis II. This coin, which is virtually identical in typology and style to the regular issues of the latter, has been interpreted as a posthumous commemorative on the grounds that Thanatos appears standing in the left field leaning on his torch. However, close inspection of the image under magnification reveals that the lower left field is actually taken up by the denarius denomination mark while an obscure winged figure hovers above it. As there is no clear evidence for the torch that would identify the figure as Thanatos we would probably do better to identify it as Eros, who had previously appeared in the left field on bronzes of Sauromates II (AD 174/5-210/11) (nos. 548-549). Indeed, a misreading of the poorly preserved obverse legend initially led Anokhin (Monetnoe delo Bosfora (Kiev, 1986), no. 578) to attribute the coin to this ruler. On the early issues of Cotys III, Eros was sent into exile below the throne of Aphrodite on the bronze denarii (no. 580) and later disappeared entirely. It seems most likely that the coin in question is really a regular lifetime issue of Rhescuporis II that has risen above its station because of its worn state.

The author is undoubtedly correct in his discussion of the pentastyle temple bronzes (no. 337) of Eunice (AD 68-69) to challenge the claim that the letters NO above the royal monogram serve as a denomination mark for noummia (RPC I, p. 330). Comparison of the monogram with NO above on no. 337/1 with the monogram of no. 337/2 that only includes the letter O above clearly shows that the letter N was intended as part of the monogram. In the example with NO the letter E of the monogram appears in lunate form, but in the example with O alone, the E is of the straight backed variety and placed in ligature with A, almost certainly for the purpose of producing an N in the body of the monogram.

It is unfortunate that the great intrinsic interest of the subject matter and the valuable new accessibility to material afforded by MacDonald’s Introduction are somewhat undermined by poor editing. The book is plagued by indecisive orthography (i.e. the city Sidicus Limen also appears as Limnus Sindikos while the late king Pharsanzes is also Pharsanzus, but most commonly Pharzanes [sic]), and not infrequent typographical and grammatical errors. Most disturbing of all are the disappearance between page 24 and 25 of an entire block of text concerning the coins of Nymphaeum under the early Spartocids and the several references to the Strait (of Kerch) as “the Straight”. Confusion is also caused by the failure to adopt a standard policy for locating illustrations within the catalogue. Sometimes they appear before the entries that refer to them, but at other times they follow. Occasionally the illustrations have fallen out of order, as in the case of the precious metal issues of Hygiaenon, in which the photo of drachm no. 103 precedes that of the stater no. 102. Likewise, the Greek inscriptions given in the catalogue do not always match those that can be read in the illustrations. Thus, a bronze coin (no. 159) attributed to the city of Theodosia is said to have the inscription ΘΕΟ when the illustration clearly shows ΘΕΥ, a fact that may raise some question about the mint identification, while the names of the emperors Tiberius and Caligula are given in the nominative form in the list of coins struck by Aspurgus (AD 14/15-27/8), despite their appearance in the genitive case on the coins (nos. 300-302). Hopefully, when Classical Numismatic Studies 6 is produced there will be greater attention paid to these sorts of details so that they can be corrected prior to publication.

Nevertheless, despite these problems, there can be little question that An Introduction to the History and Coinage of the Bosporus fills in an important gap in the body of English-language surveys of ancient coins. We hope that by providing greater visibility and access to the coinage of the Bosporan kings and their cities, MacDonald’s book will inspire wider interest and further study of this fascinating coin series in the West.

—Oliver D. Hoover