Review: Les Messéniens de 370/369 au 1er siècle de notre ère

Catherine Grandjean. Les Messéniens de 370/369 au 1er siècle de notre ère. Monnayages et histoire. Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique Supplément 44. Athens: École française d’Athènes, 2003. Sb. 332 pp., 28 b/w pls. ISBN 2-86958-193-9. €100.

With the possible exception of seven-gated Thebes, it is difficult to think of a mainland Greek state more familiar to tragic events and terrible reversals than Messenia. Having been defeated at the hands of her eastern neighbour Sparta in the late eighth century BC, much of her population was virtually enslaved as helots and constantly repressed for over three hundred years. However, unlike the tragic protagonists of Sophocles or Euripides, the Messenians, some of whom escaped to form a Messenian diaspora at Naupactus in the fifth century, were not entirely crushed by the heavy weight of their misfortunes. As the tide turned against Spartan hegemony in the early fourth century and Thebes became the dominant power in mainland Greece, Messenia was released from bondage and given the opportunity to become a free state. Catherine Grandjean’s new book picks up the tale of Messenia at this remarkable turning point, and through the lens of the coinage subsequently struck at Messene as well as the cities of Korone and Thouria, skillfully reconstructs the history of the young autonomous state and its often difficult relationships with its neighbours.

Through die studies and commentary, chapter 1 (pp. 21-48) introduces the silver staters, triobols, and obols (Séries I-III) as well as several bronze issues (Séries IV-VII), interpreted as chalkoi, trichalkia, and hemiobols, struck at Messene from the city’s foundation at ancient Ithome in 370/69 BC to the second half of the third century BC. These are convincingly dated, largely through the evidence provided by excavation coins and an episode of countermarking thought to have taken place around the time of the Spartan king Cleomenes III (226/5-222 BC).

In chapter 2 (pp. 49-89), Grandjean contextualizes these issues within the larger framework of Messenian political and economic history, which, in the fourth and third centuries BC, was heavily influenced by the need to find powerful allies who could protect Messenia against Sparta and other enemies. It is argued that because coins in both metals were not produced on a scale suitable for monetizing the largely agrarian economy of Messenia, it is likely that the coinage was struck for propagandistic rather than economic purposes. She points out that the types featuring Demeter, Zeus Ithomatas, and the tripod associated with the latter were all designed to present a pseudohistorical continuity between the new Messenian state and an archaic Messenia in part constructed and embroidered by the Theban engineers of Messenian autonomy. The theme of continuity with the distant past was extremely important in the fourth century, as a rebuttal to the several Greek poleis who doubted the legitimacy of an autonomous Messenian state.

Although there can be little doubt that the use of the ancestral gods of Messenia, Demeter and Zeus Ithomatas, on the coinage of the new foundation of Messene/Ithome was a reflection of Messenian civic pride in its reconstructed past, the strong emphasis on the propaganda motive should probably be softened somewhat. The same limited production and limited area of circulation that made the coinage a poor tool for commerce also made it a poor vehicle for advertising the legitimacy of the new Messenia, either to the local population or to other Greek states like Athens and Elis (not to mention the perpetual Spartan nemesis), which questioned the legitimacy of the reborn Messenian state. Grandjean uses the modern parallels of Revolutionary France and the Democratic Republic of Croatia as examples of new states employing symbols of the ancient and medieval past in order to invoke legitimacy. However, it should be noted that in the Greek world, even old and well-established cities whose rights to exist were not in question regularly presented their patron deities (i.e. Athena at Athens, Apollo at Miletus, etc.) or the mythic past on their coins. Since both Demeter and Zeus Ithomatas were traditional Messenian gods, their presence on the coinage is expected and seems to follow a common pattern for Greek coinage rather than serve as a special propaganda tool. Of course, one could argue that by the very act of producing the coins following the standard pattern of a Greek polis, the Messenians expressed the legitimacy of their state in defiance of those who still saw them as natural slaves incapable of full inclusion within the Greek oikumene. The idea that these deities and attributes, like Zeus’s tripod, served as propaganda types in the early period of Messenian coinage also tends to be undermined by their almost continuous appearance well into the first century AD, by which time the new Messenian identity had certainly solidified and the right of Messenia to exist was generally recognized. Sparta, however, continued to make attempts to reclaim the Messenian Dentheliatis well into the Roman period.

Because of the difficulties inherent in the propaganda hypothesis, it is tempting to suggest that Messenian coinage in the fourth and third centuries was not produced so much for its ability to disseminate messages about the new state but rather as an economic expedient aimed at supplementing the sparse local circulating medium, composed largely of foreign coins (especially issues of Corinth and Sicyon). Such an interpretation would be more in keeping with the growing trend among scholars to reassess the idea of propaganda and the advertisement of freedom as major motivating factors in the production of Greek coinage (see, for examples, A. Kushner-Stein, “Was Late Hellenistic Silver Coinage Minted for Propaganda Purposes?” NC 161 [2001], pp. 41-52, and A. Meadows, “Money, Freedom, and Empire in the Hellenistic World,” in A. Meadows and K. Shipton, eds., Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World [Oxford, 2004], pp. 53-63).

The problems of identifying the type of state represented by Messenia in the late fourth and third centuries BC form the main subject of chapter 3 (pp. 91-105). It is often thought that a federal organization bound Messene and the other cities of Messenia together. While Grandjean leaves this possibility open for the last decades of the fourth century, she strongly argues that by the third century, the cities of Messenia were really dependencies of Messene, based on the absence of coinage from the other cities in this period and the use of the term “Messenian” in inscribed documents.

Chapter 4 (pp. 109-155) is a die study with commentary on the silver coinages produced by Messene in the second and first centuries BC (Attic weight posthumous Alexanders and civic tetradrachms as well as symmachic [Aeginetic] weight triobols). While the posthumous Alexanders of Messene (Série VIII) and other Peloponnesian cities are fairly well dated to c. 191-c.188 BC through hoard evidence and the probability that they served as the initial coinage of the Achaean League, the Demeter/Zeus Ithomatas civic issues (Série IX) are more difficult to date because of their absence from hoards and from datable archaeological contexts. Nevertheless, the author suggests that the autonomous tetradrachms, struck to a slightly reduced Attic standard equal to that of the late posthumous Alexander tetradrachms of Argos, might be linked to the Messenian revolt against the Achaean League in 183-182 BC. This dating is highly convincing, not only because of the historical circumstances and numismatic parallels cited by Grandjean, but also because of the α-ρ monogram placed between Zeus’s feet on emissions γ-δ, which appears on emission β of bronze Série XI as well, an issue simultaneously linked to the Messenian posthumous Alexanders (emissions α-β of Série VIII) through its χ-ε monogram. Thus, on the basis of shared control links, it is very unlikely that the civic tetradrachms could have postdated the Alexandrine issues by very many years.

The centerpiece of this chapter is the author’s detailed discussion of the Série X civic triobols, which can be shown by die linkage to have followed directly after the end of the triobols struck by Messene during its less than happy incorporation into the Achaean League. Using hoard evidence, as well as that of artistic style and epigraphical forms, Grandjean shows that the Messenian triobols of emissions δ-μ are likely to have been produced in the first century until about 31 BC. However, she breaks with the low chronology for Achaean League issues, first championed by C. Boehringer and later modified by J. Warren, in placing the earlier emissions α-γ in the period between c. 150 and 82 BC. The author notes that the low chronology is problematic because of its assumption of a revived Achaean League before the first third of the first century BC and its tendency to make the second half of the second century BC a period without coinage in the Peloponnesus. She also convincingly refutes the idea that the Romans were responsible for financing the Peloponnesian civic silver coinage in the first century BC, based on the absence of any coin legend identifying their authority as well as the oktobolos eisphora inscription (IG V1, 1432-1433), which indicates that in first-century Messene, wealth was still concentrated in the hands of the local Messenian elite rather than in those of the city’s Roman community. Thus the coinage was most likely underwritten by Messenian liturgists.

The arrangement of the triobols is founded partly on hoard evidence and a few control links to other Séries, as well as the standard view that controls on Hellenistic coins generally followed a pattern of progression from no controls to simple letters and monograms to full or abbreviated names. While controls usually do develop in this order, it may be that this rule of thumb has been applied too rigorously to the case of anonymous emission γ (laureate Zeus/tripod flanked by Μ-Ε), which is stylistically related to the final emission μ (Artemis[?] wearing stephane/tripod flanked by ΜΕ-Σ) of Menandros. The main types for Messenian triobols after the initial emission a (laureate Zeus/ ΜΕΣ in olive wreath) were a diademed head of Zeus and a tripod flanked by the ethnic ΜΕ-Σ in an olive wreath, but emission g bears a laureate Zeus and a tripod flanked only by Μ-Ε and surrounded by what appears to be a diadem or taenia(?) border. Grandjean describes the latter simply as “un anneau,” but it is clear that a diadem or taenia is intended, as the knot and tie ends are visible at the bottom. Indeed, the reverse border seems to represent the same peculiar form of diadem, with its triangular front protrusion, worn by the obverse head of Zeus on the more common emissions of Série X.

The apparent absence of an obverse border of dots on emission γ is a characteristic also known from the late emissions κ-λ (they are described in the catalogue as having a “tour en grénetis,” but this feature is entirely invisible in plate VII), but unheard of among the earlier emissions. Emission μ employs the same unusual reverse border and a similar type of tripod to that of emission γ, but replaces the head of Zeus with that of an uncertain female head (Artemis?) surrounded by a border of dots, uses the standard ME-S ethnic and names a magistrate. Based on the sharing of the same special reverse border, it seems somewhat more likely that these two emissions were struck closer together in time at the end of the main triobol series, probably with g following m. If this suggestion is correct, then perhaps the absence of the expected name of a mint magistrate on emission γ may be attributed to the fact that this rare emission (known in only two specimens from a single obverse and reverse die) served as an experimental issue for a new series, while emission μ, sharing characteristics with the earlier triobols as well as the diadem/taenia border of emission γ, ended the preceding group.

The chapter concludes with a brief excursus on the contemporary triobols of the Messenian city of Korone.

Chapter 5 (pp. 157-224) catalogues and discusses the remaining six Séries (XI-XIV) of bronze coins struck by Messene from c. 191 BC to the first century AD. The issues of Série XI (Demeter/Zeus Ithomatas), thought to be hemiobols, are divided chronologically between early emissions employing control monograms and later emissions which give the full names of mint magistrates. Within the later series, the author notes a stylistic shift under the magistrate Damion (emission λ) from the usual obverse depiction of Demeter with a wreath of grain to that of a goddess wearing a stephane (Artemis?). However, close inspection of the plates shows that this development had already taken place on the emission φ issues of the magistrate Dion. As Dion was also responsible for an issue depicting grain-wreathed Demeter (emission ι), but the coinages of the succeeding magistrates Nikomachos and Damion only employed the goddess-wearing-stephane obverse type, it seems more likely that Dion’s emission ι preceded his emission φ. The latter emission appears to have signaled a major change in the coinage, for not only does it introduce the goddess with stephane in place of Demeter, but she faces left rather than the usual right, and on the reverse, the schematic wreath first appears, which would become a standard feature of most of the Messenian bronze coinage that followed. This wreath probably derives from that encircling the ethnic on Dion’s emission ι. The bronzes (tetartemoria?) of Série XII are thought to be contemporary with those of Série X, based on the involvement of some of the same magistrates (DI in wreath and Nikarchos).

Grandjean connects the laureate Zeus/tripod flanked by Μ-Ε issues of Série XIII, tentatively identified as chalkoi, with the silver triobol emission γ of Série X, which bears almost identical obverse and reverse types. Based on this association, she dates Série XIII to the early period of the triobols (c. 150-the beginning of the first century BC), having placed triobol emission γ early in the series. While the typological link is indisputable, a better case might be made for the production of Série XIII in tandem with the late triobols (c. 90-30 BC), since, as we have noted above, triobol emission γ also shares the peculiar diadem/taenia (“anneau”) reverse border with the late emission μ of Série X, and therefore both it and the bronzes of Série XIII are likely to be late.

The small bronze issues (chalkoi or fractions?) of Série XIV, featuring the types of a female bust and tripod flanked by Μ-Ε, are tentatively dated to the second half of the second century BC, because of iconographic similarity of the head to that of Demeter on the first issues of bronze Série XII. However, under magnification, none of the small issues of Série XIV illustrated in plate XXIV show any evidence of a grain wreath worn by the female bust, a feature that is rather prominent in emissions α-ζ of Série XII. Indeed, there is little indication of any special headgear at all, although we admit that all of the specimens are quite worn. It is tempting to suggest that Série XIV may be related to the Damion (emission λ) bronzes of Série XI, which depict a goddess with a similar hairstyle and an unusually small stephane, sometimes made almost invisible through wear. If this association is correct, then Série XIV should probably be dated to the first half of the first century BC, since Damion’s issues are the last of Série XI, the entirety of which is dated from c. 190-first half of the first century BC.

The brief Série XV, identified by Grandjean as composed of trichalkia and departing dramatically from traditional Messenian iconography by depicting Heracles and his club, is convincingly attributed to the city during its domination by the Spartan dynast Eurycles in the period 31-7(?) BC. The ME monogram accompanied by a wreath strongly supports the identity of the mint as Messene, while the typology is a close match for that later employed in Sparta by Eurycles’ son, C. Iulius Laco (see A. Burnett, M. Amandry, and O. Ripollës, Roman Provincial Coinage, vol. 1 [London/Paris, 1992], no. 1109). The publication of this probable Messenian issue here is especially important, as it does not appear in RPC.

Série XVI, the last struck in the name of the Messenians, features the turreted bust of Messene on the obverse, paired with Asclepius, Artemis, or one of several longstanding forms of Zeus Ithomatas on the reverse. These coins have usually been dated to the long period from the late first century BC to the second century AD, but here the author makes a very good case for a Julio-Claudian date, based on the reverse iconography, letter forms, and use of the koine form of the ethnic rather than the usual Doric form.

The chapter concludes with a note on the autonomous bronze coinage of the Messenian city of Thouria, which is dated to the second half of the second or the beginning of the first century BC, based on stylistic resemblance to the Série XI (Demeter/Zeus Ithomatas) issues of Messene.

In the final chapter (pp. 225-262), the author takes the complex silver and bronze coin series presented and organized in the preceding two sections and discusses them in the historical and economic context of the decline of the Achaean League and the increase of Roman influence in the Peloponnesus down to the first century AD. Particularly interesting are the detailed analyses of coin production. With respect to bronze coinage, Grandjean suggests that the vast increase in the number of dies used and the related increase in output is indicative of the monetization of the Messenian economy, although Sicyon and Corinth still continued to be major suppliers of bronze coinage to the region. Using metallurgical and stylistic evidence, she also suggests that during its forced adhesion to the Achaean League, Messene served as an important regional workshop for the production of Achaean-type triobols, possibly even producing issues for Megalopolis, the League capital. Furthermore, because of the large number of dies known for Achaean League issues, the author strongly argues that this coinage served not only to cover the costs of the League’s frequent wars, but as money for everyday use within the confines of League territory. That is, the League coinage was produced as a means to create a closed economy in the Peloponnesus.

For the later first century BC and the Julio-Claudian period, Grandjean notes that although the documentary and literary evidence all seems to point to Messene as an important and heavily Romanized center in southern Greece, the city’s cosmopolitan character was not advertised on the bronze coinage. This was preserved for honouring traditional Messenian deities like Zeus Ithomatas, Asclepius, and Artemis, as well as the personification of the city. Thus, Messenian bronze coinage remained an extremely local affair and, just as was suggested for the initial issues of the fourth century BC, continued to be used as a means of recreating the past for use in the present.

Three annexes are also included in Les Messéniens. The first lists the excavated coin finds from the site of Mavromati (ancient Messene), while the second briefly discusses examples of modern forgeries of Messenian silver coins and the difficulty of attributing a bronze coin with tripod reverse type (pl. XXVI, 12). The third annex provides important comparative metallurgical data on Peloponnesian silver coinages of the fourth to third centuries BC obtained through analyses done by the Centre E. Babelon-CNRS (UMR 5050) at Orléans.

The twenty-eight photographic plates are of very high quality and depict all the specimens described in the die studies as well as countermarks and coins issued by other states mentioned in the text as comparanda.

Despite our minor quibbling over the relative and absolute chronology for some emissions of the Hellenistic period, Catherine Grandjean’s close analysis of Messene’s coins, the small monuments to the struggle and ultimate success of a young state founded by oppressed men made free, represents an important advance in the reconstruction and interpretation of Messenian political and economic history. Les Messéniens will no doubt be a major starting point for much future work on Messenian numismatics, and the complex but often obscure history of the larger Peloponnesus from the late Classical to the early Roman periods.

—Oliver D. Hoover