Attalid Cistophori and Roman Foreign Affairs in Asia Minor

In his important essay on the coinage of Aristonicus’ rebellion, E. S. G. Robinson famously stated:

The cistophorus, with its writhing serpents and  over-elaborate ornamentation, is perhaps the ugliest coin in the Greek series.  Collectors have tended to pass it by, and, maybe in consequence, it has not yet yielded to the Historian all the nourishment which he might extract from it (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Lydia, Apollonis. Silver Cistophorus issued by Aristonicus, 132–131 BCE. ANS 2015.20.1326. Bequest of R. B. Witschonke.

While we perhaps do not agree with Robinson’s aesthetic evaluation of the cistophorus, it is certain that the study of cistophoric coinage is instrumental to a better understanding of the history of the Attalid kingdom (later Provincia Asia) at least between the second century BCE and the second century CE, when the Emperor Hadrian issued a significant amount of it (Figs. 2–3). I will focus here, however, on the beginnings of this coinage.

Figure  2. Mysia, Pergamum. Silver Cistophorus, 166–160 BCE. ANS 1951.5.1.
Figure  3. Ionia, Ephesus. Silver Cistophorusof Hadrian, 128–132 CE. ANS 1955.21.12.

The cistophorus, a tetradrachm of ca. 12.5 g, was introduced sometime in the course of the reign of Eumenes II (197–158 BCE). It bears on the obverse a cista mystica (hence the name) and on the reverse two snakes coil around a bow case (Figs. 4–5).

Figure 4. Bust of Eumenes II (putative, also known more generically as the young commander). Herculaneum, Villa dei Papiri.
Figure 5. The Acropolis of Pergamum.

It was a reduced standard—and thus overvalued— silver currency, since it was almost 25% lighter than the Attic-standard tetradrachms that had been issued by the Attalids until then, and that probably continued being issued even after the introduction of the cistophorus. Andrew Meadows has now conclusively shown that the mint of Pergamum kept producing Philetaeri, the Attic standard tetradrachms with the portrait of Philetaerus, the founder of the dynasty, at least until the 160s BCE, i.e., after the introduction of the cistophoric coinage. Meadows’ argument is based on a Westermann’s Group VII Philetairos overstruck on a coin issued by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV (175–164 BCE) (Figs. 6–7).

Figure 6. Mysia, Pergamum. Silver Tetradrachm of Eumenes II, 175–164 BCE. Obv. Laureate head of Philetairus right. Rev. Athena seated to left, left elbow resting on shield, crowning ΦΙΛΕΤΑΙΡΟΥ with wreath; bow behind. SNG France -; BMC -; SNG Copenhagen -; Westermark -, cf. Group VII (V.CLIII-R.1). Roma Numismatics 7, March 22, 2014, lot 675. 37 mm. 16.67 g. The following traces of the undertype are visible on the reverse: letters TH-E-O-Y on Athena’s shoulder; folders of Zeus’ himation on Athena’s face; and leg of Zeus’ throne on Athena’s right arm.

The overstruck coin presented in Fig. 6 is of extreme relevance not only because it gives a terminus post quem for this group of Philetaeri, but also because— since it has been proven that this series is contemporary to the first cistophori —it decisively places the inception of the cistophoric coinage in the 160s BCE, not in the earlier decades, as previously thought.

Figure 7. Syria, Antioch. Silver Tetradrachm of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, 173–68 BCE. ANS 1944.100.75257. Bequest of E. T. Newell.

The reign of Eumenes II thus represented a very complex period of production of the Pergamene mint.  Together with cistophori and Philetaeri, the mint also produced three other Attic-standard silver tetradrachms. The first one consists of posthumous Alexanders (Price nos. 1491–95), while the second one is represented by the exceedingly rare tetradrachms with the portrait of Eumenes II on the obverse and the Cabiri on the reverse, now known in three specimens (Figs. 8–9).

Figure  8. Mysia, Pergamum. Silver Tetradrachm, 197–168 BCE. ANS 1951.90.47.
Figure 9. Mysia, Pergamum. Silver Tetradrachm, after 189 BCE. Obv. Draped bust of Eumenes II. Rev. ΒAΣIΛEΩΣ – EYMENOY. Dioscuri (or Cabiri) with piloi; above, two stars; on left, thyrsus; in exergue, AP. All within laurel crown. SNG France 5, 1627. BMC 47 (var). Lanz 156, June 2, 2013, lot 177. 32 mm. 16.74 g.

The third variety of Attic-standard silver coinage, the so-called Athena Nikephoros tetradrachms, were also almost certainly struck in Pergamum, despite the absence of the ethnic (Fig. 10).

Figure 10. Mysia, Pergamum. Silver tetradrachm of Athena Nikephoros, ca. 180–165 BCE. Obv. Head of Medusa facing. Rev. ΑΘΗΝΑΣ ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ. Archaistic cult statue of Athena Nikephoros, facing and holding trophy and spear. BM 1975,0208.1. 30 mm. 16.06 g. BM, 1975,0208.1.

The complexity of the Pergamene production under Eumenes II could easily be explained with the unprecedented consequences of Roman expansion in the area. In 188 BCE the treaty of Apamea established that the defeated Seleucid king Antiochus III had to abandon Europe altogether and all of Asia west of the Taurus Mountains (Fig. 11).

Figure 11. Map of Asia Minor after the Treaty of Apamea, with the gains of Pergamon (light blue) and Rhodes (light green).

Rome gave the control of a large part of Asia Minor to Eumenes. Antiochus kept the region of Cilicia, while most of Lycia and Caria became part of the Rhodian Peraea. With the placet of the Roman authorities, the Attalid kingdom grew overnight to almost ten times its original size. This sudden expansion created the necessity of a proportionally enhanced monetary production. Part of this monetary demand was met by the already mentioned posthumous Alexanders and Philetaeri, but their production size failed to grow according to the size of the kingdom, as rightly noted by François de Callataÿ (tables 6.3–4).

The gap in monetary supply for the decade immediately following Apamea was thus probably filled by the Pamphylian tetradrachms from Phaselis, Perge, Aspendos, and Side countermarked with the so-called “cistophoric countermarks” (Figs. 12–13).

Figure 12. Pamphylia, Side. Silver tetradrachm, Side, 210–190 BCE (countermarked by Pergamum, ca. 188–183 BCE. ANS 2015.20.1203. Bequest of R. B. Witschonke.
Figure 13. Pamphylia, Aspendus. Silver tetradrachm, ca. 212–182 BCE (countermarked by Pergamum, ca. 188–183 BCE). Obv. Head of Herakles right, wearing lion’s skin. Countermark: bowcase, ΠΕΡ ΓΑ. Rev. AΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ, Zeus seated left, holding eagle in right hand. Uncertain year. Price 2876–2912; Bauslaugh 1990 – (cf.p. 41, but possibly different year). ANS 2015.20.1762. Bequest of R. B. Witschonke. 30.1 mm. 16.48 g.

In spite of their name, these countermarks, consisting of a bow in case with the initials of the countermarking authority, are not cistophoric since they bear no cista.  The bow in case would become the reverse type of the cistophori, but it was already present on the reverse of the Philetaeri from the beginning of their production. Also, there is no perfect correspondence between the cities countermarking the Pamphylian tetradrachms and the one that would become cistophoric mints (Fig. 14).

Figure 14. Summary of the identifiable cistophoric countermarks from de Callataÿ 2013, Table 6.6.

Ephesus, the second cistophoric mint in the kingdom in order of importance, is almost absent from the list of the countermarking authorities, and so is Sardis. On the other hand, other cities (Sale, Stratonicea, Toriaion and Kormasa) that would not become cistophoric mints were included among the countermarking authorities.  While the host coins are variously dated between the last quarter of the third century and the first two decades of the second century BCE, Robert Bauslaugh dates the countermarking activity to the years 188–183 BCE and attributes it to the necessity of pushing into the Attalid monetary system the foreign currency resulting from the tribute imposed on Antiochus III by the Romans.

The historian Polybius (Histories 21.42) reports that, according to the Treaty of Apamea, the defeated Antiochus III was to pay  477 talents of “best silver coinage” to Eumenes II over the course of five years. In Bauslaugh’s words, the Pamphylian cities issuing the countermarked tetradrachms:

may have been mints over which Antiochus III retained nominal, if disputed, control after Apamea; but their silver coinages must, in any case, have been available to the Seleucids in substantial quantities, because these and other foreign coinages continuously passed into Seleucid territory.

p. 58

If Antiochus’ payment of this fine to Eumenes II began in 187, it ended in 183 BCE, then it corresponds to the likely period of countermarking. As Bauslaugh puts it: “the countermarks represent a device for placing foreign payments in circulation as they were dispersed to various cities” (p. 63). The 477 talents of Antiochus’ indemnity were thus mostly paid with the countermarked Pamphylian issues that, added to the actual production of the mint of the last Pergamene Alexanders, may come close to representing Pergamene expenditure immediately after Apamea.

In the decade after the treaty of Apamea, there was then no apparent need for yet another silver currency, especially a reduced-standard one like the cistophorus, which would have had a hard time circulating outside the boundaries of the Attalid kingdom. If Meadows is correct in arguing for the beginning of its production in the 160s BCE, then this coinage was created precisely when Roman policy in the East shifted towards a tighter control, as famously exemplified by the behavior of C. Popillius Laenas, who in 168 BCE famously ordered the new Seleucid king Antiochus IV to stop the hostilities against Egypt at once, under threat of a (possible) Roman intervention (Polybius, Histories 29.27) (Fig. 15).

Figure  15. Cilicia, Soli-Pompeiopolis. Silver Tetradrachm of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, 175–168 BCE. ANS 1973.113.1.

Tighter Roman control also resulted in Rhodes being deprived of the tax immunity for its harbor and of its rights over Caria (Polybius, Histories 30.31). In precisely the same years, the friendly relationship between the Romans and Eumenes began to falter.  In 169–168 BCE, Eumenes was accused of having had secret dealings with the rebel Macedonian king Perseus, who had just been defeated at the battle of Pydna (Polybius, Histories 29.6–9) (Figs. 16–17).

Figure 16. Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts. Perseus V of Macedonia surrenders to L. Aemilius Paullus. Painting by Jean-François Pierre Peyron (1802). Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.
Figure  17. Macedon, Silver Tetradrachm of Perseus, 178–168 BCE. ANS 1957.172.711.

As a consequence, the following year his brother Attalus was persuaded to appear before the Senate to discuss his seizure of the Pergamene throne and Eumenes himself, who had come to Italy in order to defend his position, was ordered to leave the country (Polybius, Histories 30.1–3). 

However, it seems apparent that the Romans were not trying to destroy the Attalid power, but probably just trying to avoid its excessive growth, which would have altered the power balance among client kings.  It is only this attempt to maintain the power balance in the region of Asia Minor that could ultimately explain why only a few years later, in 156/5 BCE, the Romans stopped the invasion of the Attalid kingdom at the hands of Prusias of Bithynia, but still left him on his throne (Appian, Mithridatic Wars 1.3).  Moreover, the 500 talents of indemnity that Prusias had to pay to the Attalids in 20 years were probably the bullion used to issue the so-called “wreathed tetradrachms”, issued between 154 and 135 BCE (Figs. 18–19).

Figure  18. Aeolis, Myrina. Silver “Wreathed” Tetradrachm, ca. 154–135 BCE. ANS 1944.100.44224. Bequest of E. T. Newell.
Figure  19. Aeolis, Aegae. Silver “Wreathed” Tetradrachm, ca. 154–135 BCE. ANS 1948.19.1167.

Kings in Asia Minor were thus permitted to exercise a considerable amount of autonomy, as long as they did not alter too much the status quo. The creation of the cistophorus should be understood in this particular light, as proof of the autonomy enjoyed by Eumenes II even in the context of tighter Roman control.

The cistophorus was above all an epichoric coinage, issued in order to enhance the cohesion of the Attalid kingdom. As Peter Thonemann rightly argued, Eumenes II was in no position to create a strictly vertical royal power, as his royal authority was entirely “exogenous,” granted by the Romans, as the king himself bluntly admitted. Eumenes was therefore in need of a more “horizontal” consensus. Indeed, Attalid kings specifically sought civic approval, which must have represented one of the leading reasons for giving the cistophorus the appearance of a federal coinage, rather than a royal one. At the same time, the uniformity of the design, the sharing of some dies between different civic mints (Figs. 20–21) and the sheer volume of issues proves that the Attalids were the ones providing the bullion (Fig. 22).

Figure 20. Phrygia, Apamea. Silver Cistophorus, 150–140 BCE. Obv. Cista mystica with half-open lid, from which a serpent issues to r.; all within ivy wreath. Rev. Two coiled serpents with heads erect; between them an ornamented bow-case with strap at r. On l., monogram (ECC, p. 91, series 21); on r. Dioscurus cap surmounted by star. ECC, p. 91, series 21, dies 24-I (same obverse die as Pergamum 46). 29.3 mm. 12.48 g. ANS 2015.20.1788. Bequest of R. B. Witschonke.
Figure  21. Mysia, Pergamum. Silver cistophorus, 150–140 BCE. ANS 1965.70.1 (same obverse dies as Apamea 24).
Figure 22. Comparisons between the coinages issued by the Attalids with the late cistophori (ca.133–67 BCE) and Athens (ca.180–45 BCE) from de Callataÿ 2013, Table 6.12.

The cistophorus presented in Fig. 23 probably bears an ethnic of Apamea recut to Pergamum, even if Thomas Drew-Bear and Gorges Le Rider attributed this ethnic to the Mysian city of Praepenissus.

Figure 23. Phrygia, Apamea (recut to Pergamum?). Silver Cistophorus, 166–160 BCE. Obv. Cysta mystica with half-open lid, from which a serpent issues to r.; all within ivy wreath. Rev. Two coiled serpents with heads erect; between them an ornamented bow-case with strap at r.; to l., monogram (see Kleiner 1980, Apamea recut to Pergamum); on r. dolphin downward. ECC (cf. p. 86, series 2. Also ECC Pergamum series 3). 27.1 mm. 12.67 g. ANS 2015.20.1487. Bequest of R. B. Witschonke.

In addition, cistophori not only enhanced the prestige of cities with a consistent numismatic past, but were also struck by cities that had never struck coinage before, such as the cities of Dionysopolis, Dioshieron, and perhaps Lysias and Blaundus (Figs. 24–26).

Figure 24. Phrygia, Dionysopolis. Silver Cistophorus, 160–150 BCE. Obv. Cysta mystica with half-open lid, from which a serpent issues to r.; all within ivy wreath. Rev. Two coiled serpents with heads erect; between them an ornamented bow-case with strap at r.; to l., monogram (cf. ECC, p. 79, series 6, 10); to r., sword in sheath, horizontal. ECC, p. 79, series 6, 10. 28 mm. 12.57 g. Solidus Numismatik 71, January 26, 2021, lot 76.
Figure  25. Lydia, Dioshieron. Silver Cistophorus, 166–133 BCE. ANS 1944.100.37595. Bequest of E. T. Newell.
Figure 26. Lydia, Blaundus? Silver Cistophorus, ca. 160–150 BCE. Obv. Cista mystica with serpent; all within ivy wreath. Rev. Bow-case with serpents; BA to the left, EY and a star to the right, AP lower left. ECC (cf. series 7 o.d. 9). 28 mm. 12.59 g. CNG MBS 57, April 4, 2001, lot 425.

The cistophorus thus aimed at enhancing the geographical and political cohesion of the Attalid kingdom by establishing new cistophoric mints in previously under-monetized rural areas and, at the same time, by enhancing the civic role in the production of these coins through its formal civic appearance. This is to be expected of an epichoric coinage, and the eminently local function is also confirmed by its very limited circulation.

The 150s BC, however, marked a turning point in the monetary relations between the Romans and the Attalids. Macedonian mines were reopened in 158 BC, and at the same time cistophoric overstrikes on Macedonian and Thasian coins began to appear. The overstrikes appear on only two Ephesian issues, dated between 150 and 139 BCE, and one Tralles issue, dated between 155 and 145 BCE (Figs. 27–29).

Figure 27. Ionia, Ephesus. Silver cistophorus, 140–139 BCE. ANS 2015.20.1273. Bequest of R. B. Witschonke. Overstruck on a Macedonian tetradrachm of the First Meris.
Figure 28. Ionia, Ephesus. Silver cistophorus, ca. 150–140 BCE. Obv. Cista mystica with serpent; all within ivy wreath. Rev. EΦE, bow-case with serpents; bee to left, serpent on cista to right. ECC, p. 34, series 28. 29 mm. 12.49 g. CNG Triton VII, January 12, 2004, lot 233. Overstruck on a Macedonian tetradrachm of the First Meris.
Figure 29. Lydia, Tralles. Silver cistophorus, 155–145 BCE. Obv. Cista mystica with serpent; all within ivy wreath. Rev. Bow-case with serpents; filleted tripod to the right. ECC, p. 67, series 23. 30 mm. 12.69 g. CNG MBS 57, April 4, 2001, lot 440. Overstruck on a Macedonian tetradrachm of the First Meris.

The coins on which the cistophori were overstruck came from the Macedonian First Meris and Thasos, coinages which were almost absent from the circulation pool of the Attalid kingdom. Their presence in the Attalid kingdom could be explained by an external power coordinating this movement of coinage, probably to be identified with the Romans.

Thus, the cistophorus was initially created as an epichoric coinage, which functioned to strengthen the internal cohesion of the Attalid state. However, Roman involvement in cistophoric production began very early, in the mid-150s BC, well before the kingdom was bequeathed to them by Attalus III in 133 BC. This involvement consisted not only of a sort of indirect control over the conflicts in Asia Minor (as testified by the end of the war between Prusias and the Attalids with the subsequent indemnity), but also of the direct provision of at least part of the bullion used for the cistophori (as proven by the overstrikes).