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When Being a Friend of Rome (philorhomaios) Makes you a King (or a Queen)

In the winter of 88 BCE, the proconsul C. Cassius found himself in a little bit of a bind. Earlier that year, Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus, had invaded the Roman province of Asia (modern Turkey) and killed more than 80,000 Italians residing there (Figs. 1–3).

Figure 1. Roman Asia Minor.
Figure 2. Bust of Mithridates VI Eupator Dionysius, king of Pontus and Armenia Minor in northern Anatolia (c. 120–63 BCE). First century CE. Louvre, Paris.
Figure 3. Silver tetradrachm of Pontus, 120–63 BCE. ANS 1972.184.14.

The Pontic king had then swiftly invaded the rest of the Province of Asia, while important cities like the Phrygian Laodicea willingly handed over Roman generals to Mithridates (Fig. 4, Appian, Mithridatic Wars 4.20).

Figure 4. A colonnaded street in the Phrygian city of Laodicea ad Lycum.

C. Cassius and his troops, barricaded in the neighboring city of Apamea, were about to face a difficult winter, since the enemy armies had cut off their supply lines. Then—right when it was needed most—an exceedingly rich man from the Lydian town of Nysa, Chaeremon son of Pythodorus, asked for a private audience from Cassius. Their meeting had game-changing effects for Cassius and his men, as the proconsul himself later wrote in a letter to the magistrates of Nysa. Chaeremon offered to send 60,000 modii of wheat flour to the Roman camp for free. In order to understand the enormity of Chaeremon’s gift, it is important to note that 60,000 modii of wheat corresponded to 633,800 pounds of wheat, which was enough to feed 5,300 men for two months. Thanks to Chaeremon, C. Cassius’ army had enough to survive through the winter. However, this was not enough to stem Mithridates’ triumphal advance into the province early in the following year.

The Pontic king did not take Chaeremon’s initiative lightly, as made evident by the letter he wrote to one of his lieutenants, the satrap Leonippus, where he offered 40 talents of silver to “anyone who apprehends Chaeremon or Pythodorus or Pythion living” or 20 talents to anyone bringing in the head of any of these.” A talent was the equivalent of ca. 100 pounds of silver, which implies that Mithridates was willing to pay a bounty in the enormous amount of 4,000 pounds of silver for Chaeremon’s family.

The wealthy Nysan was thus compelled to flee in order to save his and his sons’ lives. His sons, Pythodorus and Pythion, were sent to Rhodes along with Cassius, and Chaeremon himself took refuge in the temple of Artemis at Ephesus. However, Chaeremon seems to have survived the ordeal. An eponymous magistrate by the name of “Chae()” appears on a Nysan cistophoric didrachm at an uncertain date between 90/89 and 68/67 BCE (Fig. 5). Though incomplete, this name suggests not only Chaeremon’s return to his city, but also the fact that he had retained his social rank and possibly his wealth, as he was serving as a moneyer for the city.

Figure 5. Lydia, Nysa. Silver Drachm, 90–67 BCE. Obv. Bunch of grapes on field of oak leaves. XAI. Rev. Club and lion skin surrounded by wreath. Paris, SNG Delepierre 2796. 17 mm. 2.42 g.

Much more certain is the presence in Nysa of the younger son of Chaeremon, Pythion. As suggested by P. Thonemann (esp. pp. 206–08) and W. Metcalf, he should be identified with the ΠΥΘΙΩΝ /ΧΑΙΡΕ, who signed a Nysan cistophorus dated to the sixteenth year of the Nysan Era, i.e., around 74/73 BCE (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Silver cistophorus, Nysa, 68–67 BCE. ANS 2015.20.1344.

Chaeremon’s older son, Pythodorus, relocated in Tralles, where he retained his father’s fortune, which was valued by Strabo (14.1.42) at 2,000 talents. The Roman orator’s Cicero (In Favor of Flaccus 52) unsurprisingly considers Pythodorus one of the richest men in Tralles.

He married Antonia, only known from an inscription from Smyrna, where she is defined as a benefactress of the city. Some scholars have suggested she was the daughter of the triumvir Mark Antony and his second wife Antonia Hybrida Minor, but without any substantial proof. Antonia’s Roman nomen, and the citizenship possessed and exploited by her descendants, must have derived from a citizenship grant by Antonius, who bestowed Roman citizenship to several of his supporters in Asia after the end of the Parthian War. The loyalty of this family to the Romans was thus key to its success, as it will become even clearer for the following generations (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. The descendants of Chaeremon of Nysa and Zeno of Laodicea. Thonemann 2011, p. 207.

One of Pythodorus’ sons, Chaeremon, owner of an estate named Siderous in the vicinity of Tralles, was instrumental in getting much-needed help for Tralles after the devastating earthquake of 26 BCE. Through a personal embassy to Augustus, he secured funds for the reconstruction of the city that from that moment on added “Caesarea” to the city’s name in order to commemorate the generosity of the Emperor (Fig. 8).

Figure 8. Bronze Coin of Augustus, Tralles, 27 BCE–CE 14. ANS 2008.24.6.

Another of Pythodorus’ offspring, his daughter Pythodoris, married the Laodicean Polemon, son of Zeno. Polemo and his father, the orator Zeno, had risen to Roman favor in the summer of 40 BCE, when they defended Laodicea, their city, from the Parthian army, led by the renegade Roman general Labienus (Fig. 9, Strabo 14.2.24).

Figure 9. Uncertain mint in Syria or southeastern Asia Minor. Quintus Labienus, early 40 BCE. Silver Denarius. Obv. Q • LABIENVS PARTHICVS • IMP. Bare head of Q. Labienus r. Rev. Parthian horse standing right on ground line, wearing saddle with quiver attached and bridle. RRC 524/2; Hersh 15 (dies F/13). BNF REP-5739. 18 mm. 3.77 g.

Whether their attempt was successful or not, Mark Antony, on the eve of the reconquest of the province at the hands of the Romans in 39 BCE, established Polemo as tetrarch in Lycaonia and Rough Cilicia. In 37 or 36 BCE Polemo became king of Pontus (Appian, Civil Wars 5.75), a position he retained until his death in 8 BCE (Fig. 10).

Figure 10. Silver drachm of Polemon I of Pontus, Pontus, 36–8 BCE. ANS 1944.100.41481.

The marriage of Pythodoris and Polemo was intended to unite two of the leading pro-Roman families of the province of Asia: the descendants of Chaeremon of Nysa and the Zenonids of Laodicea. The joint destinies of these two families of philorhomaioi, “friends of Rome,” led to the birth of a number of client kings who would rule the Roman East under the Julio-Claudian emperors. The political success of their union is demonstrated by the fact that two of their three children would come to rule kingdoms in their own right. Pythodoris herself, after Polemo’s death, married king Archelaus of Cappadocia (Fig. 11).

Figure 11. Silver drachm of Archelaus of Cappadocia, Cappadocia, 36–17 BCE. ANS 1944.100.62416.

After Archelaus’ death in CE 17 she returned to Pontus, where she ruled until her death in CE 38. Her coinage adopted the Augustean Capricorn on the reverse, giving visual evidence to the clientele relationship between Roman Empire and Pontus (Fig. 12).

Figure 12. Silver drachm of Pythodoris of Pontus, Pontus, 8 BCE–CE 23. ANS 1944.100.41482.

Pythodoris’ eldest son, Zeno, later known as Artaxias III (CE 18–34), was made king of Armenia by Germanicus (Tacitus, Annals 2.56). His coronation is represented on silver coins from Caesarea in Cappadocia bearing the portrait of Germanicus on the obverse, and on the reverse Germanicus crowning Artaxias. These coins might have been issued at the same time of  coronation of Zeno Artaxias or as late as the reign of the Emperor Claudius (CE 41–54) (Fig. 13).

Figure 13. Cappadocia, Caesarea. Silver didrachm, CE 43–48. Obv. GERMANICVS · CAESAR – TI · AVG · F · COS · II. Head of Germanicus r.  Rev.  GERMANICVS / ARTAXIAS. Germanicus standing l. and holding scepter crowns the Armenian king Artaxias. RPC 3629. Künker 153, 14 March 2009, 8623. 21 mm. 7.47 g.

Independently of their precise date of production, it is evident that the central theme is the clientele relationship between Zeno Artaxias and Roman power, further highlighted by local monetary production, where the emperors Tiberius and Livia (Julia) are invoked as “Imperial Gods” (Fig. 14).

Figure 14. Armenia, Artaxata, RY 4 (21/22 CE). King Artaxias III (CE 18–34). AE tetrachalkon. Obv. ΘΕΟΙC CΕΒΑCΤΟΙC ΚΑΙCΑΡΙ ΚΑΙ ΙΟΥΛIΑ. Armenian tiara with five peaks l., star on r., Δ below. Rev. BAC APTAΞIOY TOY ЄB B ΠΟΛЄ KAI ΠYΘOΔωΡΙ. Horse prancing l. beaded border. Leu Numismatik 14, 12 December 2020, 533. 22 mm. 12.95 g.

Polemo and Pythodoris’ daughter, Antonia Tryphaena, married Kotys VIII of Thrace, and bore him three sons who also became kings in turn: C. Iulius Polemo II of Pontus, Rhoemetalces II of Thrace, and Kotys IX of Lesser Armenia. Although she was never queen of Pontus, she is styled as queen on some of the issues struck by her son Polemo II (Fig. 15).

Figure 15. Pontus, Amisus? Polemo II, with AntoniaTryphaena (ca. CE 38–64). Silver drachm, dated RY 14 (AD 51/2). Obv. [BACIΛEΩC] ΠOΛEMΩ-NOC, diademed head right. Rev. Diademed and draped bust of Tryphaina right; ETOYC IΔ (date) around. RPC I 3825. CNG Triton XVII, 7 January 2014, 245. 17 mm. 3.47 g.

Once again, the dependence of these client kings’ power from Rome is made evident by the fact that the imperial portrait takes the obverse, while the jugate portraits of the king and queen (Rhoemetalces II and Pythodoris II) are placed on the reverse (Fig. 16).

Figure 16. Bronze dupondius of Rhoemetalces I, Thrace, 11 BCE–CE 12. ANS 2015.20.2647.

The third child of Polemo I and Pythodoris, M. Antonius Polemo, never became king and stayed in Laodicea, where he was presumably responsible for the production of a bronze issue in the name of Antonius Polemo philopatris around 5 BCE (Fig. 17). 

Figure 17. Phrygia, Laodicea ad Lycum. M. Antonius Polemon Philopatris, ca. 5 BCE. Obv. ΓAIOΣ KAIΣAP. Bare head of Caius to right. Rev. ΛΑΟΔΙΚΕΩΝ. Eagle standing front, wings spread and head to left, between monograms of ΠΟΛΕ and ΦΙΛΟΠΑΤ. RPC I 2900. Leu Numismatik 7, 24 October 2020, 1463. 16 mm. 2.55 g.

The historian Strabo (12.3.29) tells us that “as a private citizen, [he] was assisting his mother [Pythodoris] in the administration of her realm.” However, royal power passed on to one of his sons, M. Antonius Polemo, who became dynast of Cilicia at time of the emperor Gaius (Caligula) (Fig. 18).

Figure 18. Cilicia, Olba. M. Antonius Polemo, high priest. Bronze, dated year 10 (AD 27/28).Obv. Bare head of Marcus Antonius Polemo right. Rev. Winged thunderbolt; Є I (date) below. Staffieri, Olba 30. RPC I 3736. CNG E-Auction 460, 29 January 2020, 411. 23.5 mm. 13.30 g.

The success of these two families, who ascended from the rank of local notables to client kings (and queens) under the Julio-Claudians, shows how advantageous the friendship to Rome was for provincial elites. Their support to Roman provincial power during the momentous years of the Mithridatic Wars first and of the Parthian campaign later made them the ideal candidates to the new dynasties put by the Romans on the thrones of strategically important kingdoms in the outskirts of the Empire. At the same time, it reveals the inclusivity of the provincial organization of the Roman East in the first century of the Roman Empire, when well-off provincial families could aspire and obtain dynastic power simply on the basis of their good services to Rome.