Review: Le monnayage de la cité phénicienne de Sidon à l’époque perse

J. Elayi and A. G. Elayi. Le monnayage de la cité phénicienne de Sidon à l’époque perse (Ve-IVe s. av. J.-C.). Supplément no 11 à Transeuphratène. Paris: Gabalda, 2004. Sb. 2 vols. 855 pp., 68 figs., 77 b/w pls. ISBN 2-85021-158-8. € 140.

At Iliad 23.740-749, Homer tells of a beautiful silver mixing bowl, well-wrought with the cunning workmanship of Sidonian artisans, which was first given as a gift to Thoas, later given to Patroclus to buy the freedom of Lycaon, and finally offered by Achilles as first prize in the footrace at the funeral games of Patroclus. The present two-volume work by J. Elayi and A. G. Elayi also takes as its primary subject the well-wrought silver (and bronze) of Sidon, but in a form that would have been alien to Homer. Here the authors offer a detailed look at the coinage struck by the ancient Phoenician city under Achaemenid Persian rule, carefully considering the various levels of its workmanship and what can be understood from it in the larger context of Sidonian socioeconomic and political history.

The first chapter is an extensive corpus and die study of Sidonian coins produced in silver and bronze during the period of Achaemenid Persian dominance, involving a total of 2,614 individual specimens ranging in denomination from the double shekel to the 1/64 shekel. Two gold “hemistaters” with the galley/chariot types of silver half shekels, which appeared on the market in 1990, are not included in the corpus, but are relegated to an appendix, where arguments are presented for their condemnation as modern forgeries.

Just as Homer’s mixing bowl serves as a touchstone for the memory of the various heroes who successively owned it and gave it away, so too does Sidonian coinage preserve some memory of the kings who struck them, whether through their weight standards, artistic and epigraphic style, die sharing, or overstriking. Lacking an epic poet or other individual who could reveal their history, in chapter 2, the Elayis have undertaken the task of scouring the coins for the clues that might compel the often taciturn Muse to sing the names of the proper issuing authorities and the sequence of the coinage. In this task they are largely successful, rearranging the material into four new major chronological groups and associating the coins with kings named in the genealogy of the ’Esmun‘azor dynasty and later rulers. The traditional identification of the inscription ‘‘, as the abbreviated Phoenician name for the Cypriot dynast Evagoras, is retained with some hesitation, although we agree that this seems rather more likely than Betlyon’s ‘Abd‘astart III.

For anyone familiar with the earlier works of the Elayis, it almost goes without saying that chapter 3, which analyzes the Sidonian coin inscriptions in connection with the relatively few known Semitic lapidary inscriptions of that ancient city, is extremely well done. Particularly interesting is the suggestion that Aramaic rather than Phoenician letter forms were employed on the issues of Mazday, as an expression of the replacement of local royal authority with Persian satrapal authority at Sidon in the aftermath of Tennes’ revolt of 346 BC. It may be even more noteworthy when we consider a similar use of inscriptions to express foreign imperial power on the coins of Sidon and other cities of Phoenicia bearing local reverse types in the Seleucid period (see O. Hoover, “Ceci n’est pas l’autonomie: The Coinage of Seleucid Phoenicia as Royal and Civic Power Discourse,” Topoi Suppl. 6 [2004]: 485-507). Thus Mazday’s epigraphic manipulation may perhaps be taken as a precursor of later Hellenistic practice, thereby providing yet another example of an Achaemenid-period model for Seleucid policy.

Also refreshing is the authors’ use of the remarkably varied palaeographic evidence to challenge the widespread view that die engravers were mostly illiterates or at best semiliterates who slavishly copied the letters of inscriptions in the same way that they copied the images of the main types. If this were so, there should not be so many different hands represented in the Sidonian coin inscriptions, all of which can be reviewed in Figs. 26-41. Semitic numismatic inscriptions can be especially revealing from the palaeographic perspective, because they were usually engraved into the dies in freehand, as opposed to many Greek coin inscriptions, which often appear to have been blocked in on the dies with guidelines and dots before cutting.

Not only will the Elayis’ excellent coverage of the Sidonian coin inscriptions be a boon to both Semitic epigraphers and numismatists, but it should also serve as a valuable reminder that numismatists focused more closely on the Greek world might also do well to look at their coins more frequently with the eye of the epigrapher. Proper epigraphic treatments of the legends on most Greek coins are stunningly rare, while they tend to be relatively standard in major modern studies of Semitic coinages. See, for example, the letter-form tables and commentary in Y. Meshorer, Nabataean Coins, Qedem 3 (Jerusalem, 1975); Y. Meshorer, Ancient Jewish Coinage (Dix Hills, N.Y., 1982); and H. Gitler and O. Tal, The Coinage of Philistia of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC: A Study of the Earliest Coins of Palestine, Collezioni Numismatiche 6 (Milan, 2006).

In chapter 4, the authors provide a thorough discussion of the various silver and bronze types used for the coinage of Sidon in the fifth and fourth centuries. The commentary is extremely thorough in all cases. It is no overstatement to say that readers will be hard pressed to find a more detailed analysis of warships as depicted on an ancient coin series than that offered by the Elayis for Sidon, although there may be some question as to how much can really be read into the number of oars and shields depicted by die engravers. Particularly notable is the suggestion that all the types are linked thematically to the concept of divine and physical protection for the Sidonians and their city. While this argument is easily made with respect to the representations of warships and city walls, it requires a typological reinterpretation that distances the chariot scene (double shekels), as well as the archer (half, quarter, and 1/16 shekels) and the figure confronting a lion (half and 1/16 shekels), from Achaemenid imperial iconography. Unfortunately, despite an impeccable review of the evidence and dissection of earlier interpretations, the attempt to divorce these Sidonian types from their apparent Persian models ultimately remains somewhat unsatisfying.

The centerpiece here is the commentary on the much-discussed chariot scene of the double shekels, which attempts to reinvigorate and expand upon the authors’ earlier arguments that it should be interpreted as a type of religious procession in which the city or dynastic god, wearing Elamito-Persian clothing and a crown or polos, rides in the chariot, followed by the king of Sidon on foot (most recently “La scène du char sur les monnaies de Sidon d’époque perse,” Transeuphratène 27 [2004]: 89-108). While modern commentators now generally agree that the individual following the chariot is likely the king of Sidon, the chariot rider is most frequently interpreted in the literature as the Persian King of Kings, because of similar scenes in Achaemenid sculpture and his mode of dress. The authors attack this interpretation in part by pointing out that the Sidonians themselves are known to have adopted Elamito-Persian clothing, that the form of the chariot does not precisely match that found in official Persian representations, and that ‘Abd‘astart I and Tennes are not likely to have struck coins depicting the Great King during their respective revolts against his authority. While the first two arguments seem relatively flimsy, the last is an important point and well worth considering. On the other hand, by the time of the Sidonian uprisings the double shekels with the chariot scene had been in production for almost a century. The sudden replacement of longstanding recognized types with new ones during a period of crisis might have had an adverse affect on the perceived value of the coins. Likewise, if the scene represented a purely Sidonian religious procession, we must ask ourselves why it was not repressed by the Persian satrap Mazday in the aftermath of Tennes’ revolt. In short, while we admit that it is not entirely impossible that the scene might have local cultic meaning, the arguments against an imperial Persian reading are less than fully convincing, especially in light of the other apparent borrowings of Achaemenid themes for the coinage.

The form of the Sidonian archer, who has the same general appearance as the figure in the chariot, varies, and it cannot always be directly connected to specific Persian prototypes, as the Elayis point out. However, the idea that the archer should really be understood as the representation of a city or dynastic god is difficult to accept when we consider that the later series (IV.2.5, IV.7.7) clearly copy the archaic running/kneeling pose and spear with characteristic round butt-end typical of that carried by the so-called melophoroi of the Persian army (cp. their depiction on the glazed brick reliefs of Susa) from the contemporary sigloi struck by the Achaemenid administration in Lydia. Even the early Sidonian types (Groups II.2-II.3, III.3) that eschew the kneeling/running pose seem to borrow the form of the bow with curled ends, the position of the arms, the quiver slung over the shoulder, and the headdress from Carradice Type II sigloi (but see Groups II.4 and III.4, where the running/kneeling pose is used).

Because of the close iconographic connection between the archer of the sigloi and the archer of the Sidonian fractions, we would suggest, as have others, that the Persian type was probably adopted at Sidon in large part because of its recognition value as a type associated with a well-known international coinage. If the archer derived from Persian sigloi really should be understood as a cipher for a local god, what should be made of the parallel phenomenon of borrowed and manipulated Athenian owls and heads of Athena, as well as Sidonian and other foreign types, on the fractional issues of nearby Samaria, Yehud (Judaea), and the so-called Philisto-Arabian series? On the adoption of the types of important international and regional economic centers as a means of legitimizing these local coinages, see for example, Gitler and Tal, The Coinage of Philistia, 72; Y. Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coinage (Jerusalem/New York, 2001), 7-8; and Y. Meshorer and S. Qedar, Samarian Coinage (Jerusalem, 1999), 32.

In a similar vein, the authors suggest that the figure confronting a lion found on Sidonian half and 1/16 shekels was probably derived from Neo-Assyrian glyptic art and that therefore it was already part of the Sidonian iconographic repertoire before the period of Persian domination. Hence, this figure should be seen as a representation of a local god or perhaps the king, rather than as the Achaemenid “royal hero confronting a lion.” While this may possibly be true, it is not supported by the evidence. It is claimed that the Achaemenid royal hero is always depicted in the act of stabbing the lion, whereas on the coins of Sidon (as well as Samaria) and Neo-Assyrian cylinder seals, this figure is shown about to strike. Evidently the authors have overlooked some of the seal impressions from the Persepolis, which clearly show the Achaemenid royal hero about to strike the lion (i.e., P 57601, PS 169). Other slight differences in the figure’s attire, hairstyle, and the Egyptianizing treatment of his eye are hardly strong evidence against a Persian model. Egyptian artistic influence was strong in Phoenicia, and we should not be surprised if a local die engraver introduced elements of Egyptian style when copying a Persian motif.

Ultimately, it is very difficult to escape the conclusion that the several types mentioned above are indeed based on Achaemenid iconographic models. As such, the pairing of these imperial types with the undeniably Sidonian civic types of the galley alone, or next to the city fortifications, comes close to giving the coinage the flavor of the later quasi-municipal issues of the Seleucids or the provincial coinages of the Romans, in which an imperial image, usually the portrait of the reigning king or emperor, was paired with a local type honoring the issuing city and its gods.

The enigmatic reverse type of an eye found on a rare 1/64 (?) shekel of Group I (no. 18) is interpreted in reductionist terms as representing either the eye of the archer of the larger fractions or the apotropaic eye that regularly adorns the ship obverse type of most Sidonian coinage. Nevertheless, it might also have had some other purpose and meaning that is now lost to us. We note that in the early fifth century, an eye was employed as the reverse type for silver fractions of the Macedonian city of Scione (SNG ANS 7, nos. 706-710). Likewise, one cannot help but wonder whether a similar cultural milieu to that which made a disembodied eye an appropriate reverse type at Sidon might also have made a disembodied ear suitable for the obverse of a silver obol (=1/16 shekel?) from the Persian province of Yehud (Judaea) (Meshorer, Treasury, no. 18).

Chapter 5 provides an exceptionally detailed look at the process of producing the dies and flans as well as the finished coins at the mint. However, when dealing with the question of output it is a little perplexing that despite having full command of the literature on statistical die estimation (as indicated in note 144 on page 578), the authors base much of their commentary on numbers of observed obverse dies alone. Estimates are only made for some double shekels of Ba‘alsillem II, ‘Abd‘astart I, Tennes, and ‘Abd‘astart II, as well as a series of 1/32 shekels. While it is very true that die estimation must always be used with caution and that the Sidonian coin samples are rarely as large as one would like for a statistical approach, still it might have been useful to provide the estimates for all of the series with an appropriate caveat. Because many of the smaller module issues come from hoards, dependence on observed dies alone poses some risk of skewing the die data.

A metrological study for all silver and bronze denominations of the Persian period appears in chapter 6, where the Elayis chart an early increase in the weight of the Sidonian shekel perhaps to match that of Tyre, followed by a weight reduction in 365 BC. The authors also cautiously but convincingly argue for the value equivalency of the new bronze coins introduced by ‘Abd‘astart I to the tiny silver 1/32 and 1/128 shekels that ceased production under this king. If they are correct in this interpretation of the bronze, it would place Sidon in the company of some of the earliest Greek cities to take the major psychological and fiscal leap from treating bronze coins only as fractions of the smallest silver denominations to accepting them as a fully token currency with the value of fractional silver.

In the final chapter, the authors place the coins into a broader socioeconomic and historical context. Here the authors emphasize a link between coin production and the expenses of operating the Sidonian fleet to pursue Persian military objectives in the many naval conflicts of the period, as well as to support Sidon’s several revolts against Achaemenid authority. They also raise the very interesting possibility that the introduction of coined silver at Sidon and other Phoenician cities in the mid-fifth century, despite the long tradition of Hacksilber in the region, might have been a fiscal expedient at a time when the Phoenicians were restoring their fleets after the great damage done to them in the battles of Salamis (480), Mycale (479), Eurymedon (466), and Cypriot Salamis (450). The value of coined money could be manipulated by the state in a way that cut bullion could not.

The second volume of Le monnayage de la cité phénicienne de Sidon contains a supporting bibliography, indices, and numerous illustrative tables and figures, as well as seventy-seven high-quality photographic plates. The latter often include enlargements as well as the usual 1:1 images, which is especially helpful, considering the small module of many of the coins.

Despite our reservations about some of the authors’ conclusions regarding iconography, we have none about praising the general cunning handiwork of the Elayis as exhibited in the present volumes. Le monnayage de la cité phénicienne de Sidon is an important work of scholarship no less well-wrought than the Sidonian mixing bowl laid out by Achilles as the prize for the funerary footrace. We hope that like this famous bowl, it too will serve to inspire others to take further and greater strides in the study of Sidonian coins and Phoenician numismatics in general.

—Oliver D. Hoover