A New-ish Cistophorus for the Rebel Aristonicus

By Lucia Carbone

The coin presented here (Fig. 1) is one of three known specimens of the cistophorus issued by the rebel Aristonicus in the Lydian city of Stratonicea on the Caicus in the year 129 BCE.

Figure 1. Lydia, Stratonicea. Cistophoric Tetradrachm, year E (= 5, 129 BCE). ECC Series 4 (dies 5/-). Robinson 1954, p. 14 (dies E/-). 27 mm. 12.78 g. Nomos 20, 10 July 2020, lot 236.

It is dated to the year E (=5), an element that seems to prove that the rebel ruled over part of Lydia one year longer than previously thought, i.e., 129 BCE instead of 130 BCE. The first of the three known specimens appeared in the market in 2017, but until the publication of a very recent article by P. O. Hochard on these coins, the generally accepted opinion was that Aristonicus-Eumenes III (Fig. 2) issued coins only for four years, i.e., from 133 to 130 BCE (Figs. 3–6).

Figure 2. Statue of Eumenes III (Aristonicus), King of Pergamum, Bergama, İzmir, Turkey.
Figure 3. Lydia, Thiatyra. Cistophoric tetradrachms, year A (=1, 133 BCE). Kampmann 1978, p. 39, fig. B. ECC – (cf. p.106, pl. XXXVIII, 10, same o.d.). 27.5 mm. 12.58 g. ANS 2015.20.1758. Bequest of R. B. Witschonke.
Figure 4. Lydia, Thiatyra. Cistophoric tetradrachm, year B (= 2, 132 BCE). ECC p.103, series 1, o.d.1. Robinson 1954, o.d. A pl. I, 1–2 (same o.d., but different reverse die). 28.8 mm. 12.56 g. ANS 2015.20.1383. Bequest of R. B. Witschonke.
Figure 5. ANS 2015.20.1326. Bequest of R. B.Witschonke.
Figure 6. Lydia, Apollonis. Cistophoric tetradrachm, year Δ (= 4, 130 BCE). ECC p.103, series 3, o.d. 3. Robinson 1954, o.d. C pl. I, 11–12 (different reverse die). 26.7 mm. 12.56 g. ANS 2015.20.1761. Bequest of R. B. Witschonke.

In the late spring or early summer of 133 BCE the Attalid king Attalus III (138–133 BCE) died and bequeathed his kingdom to the Romans (Strabo, Geography 14.2, Fig. 7).

Figure 7. Attalid portrait at the Antikensammlung, Berlin. Possibly Attalus III.

A Pergamene decree dated to August 133 refers to the testament and the free status of Pergamum, while also mentioning the necessity of the Roman ratification of the document (Inscriptions of Pergamum I. 149, ll. 4–9). The status of other Asian cities and of the rest of the province is not specified in the Pergamene decree, but ancient sources (i.e., Livy, Periochae 59.3) declared that the whole province of Asia had been freed by Attalus. However, the Romans showed some uncertainties in the organization of the future province of Asia, especially since the tribune of the plebs Tiberius Gracchus (Fig. 8), famous for his proposal of an important land reform in 133 BCE, seemed eager to take advantage of this gift to fund his ambitious program (Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus 14.1–2).

Figure 8. E. Guillaume, The Gracchi (1847).

As a result of the turmoil that stemmed from Gracchus’ attempt at securing the former Attalid kingdom as the main source of funding for his new laws, the Romans were slow in ratifying the testament. Aristonicus, who claimed to be the illegitimate son of the earlier Pergamene king, Eumenes II (197–160 BC), father of Attalus III, took advantage of the uncertainty and laid claim to the throne, taking the dynastic name, Eumenes III (Florus, 1.35.2).

Prompted by the success of the rebellion, the Roman Senate ratified Attalus III’s testament through the Senatus Consultum Popillianum, probably dated to 132 BCE. Preserved today in several epigraphic copies, this decree indeed states that the Senate ratified Attalus’ legacy in toto, but only up to the moment of Attalus’ death, i.e., before the beginning of the rebellion of Aristonicus.

The ratification of Attalus’ legacy through the SC Popillianum was good news to the Greek cities of Asia that had been declared free, and formed the basis of their support against Aristonicus.  Greek cities such as Ephesus, Pergamum, and several others were favored by the testament of Attalus and therefore favorable to the Romans, since the Senate, with the SC Popillianum, recognized their privileged status of free cities.

Pergamum, the capital of the former Attalid kingdom struggled with unrest during these years.  Epigraphic evidence clearly shows the extreme measures that the civic administration had to take in order to avoid a mass defection in favor of Aristonicus, such as massive grants of citizenship to previous colonists and the confiscation of the properties for people leaving town to follow Aristonicus (Carbone, Hidden Power, pp. 7–14).

On the other hand, numismatic evidence and literary sources show that Ephesus took a clear stance in favor of freedom and, consequently, against Aristonicus’ legitimist attempts.  It is generally acknowledged that post-134 BC Ephesian cistophori are dated according the so-called freedom era. This era, previously thought to be a provincial era, has been now recognized as peculiar to Ephesus (Fig. 9).

Figure 9. ANS 2015.20.1277. bequest of R. B. Witschonke.

The freedom celebrated on the Ephesian cistophori is the one that had been bestowed by Attalus III in his testament to the cities of Asia and ratified by the Romans through the SC Popillianum of 132 BC. In order to defend its own freedom, the city fought and defeated the rebel, who had initially succeeded in conquering several cities in the coastal region of the former Attalid kingdom. After defeat at the hands of the Ephesians, Aristonicus had to flee to the inland Lydian region: first to Thyatira, then Apollonis, finally to Stratonicea, where he was defeated by Peperna in 129 BCE (Strabo, Geography 14.1.38).  

Indeed, Aristonicus’ rebellion reflected a clear dichotomy in the province-to-be. Greek cities such as Ephesus and Pergamum (among others) were favorable to the testament of Attalus and therefore to the Romans, since the Senate, with the SC Popillianum, recognized their privileged status of free cities. On the other hand, the hinterland area, mainly composed of military colonies and royal domains, did not enjoy any of the privileges bestowed to cities.  Therefore, Aristonicus could find some support there.

The cistophori issued by Aristonicus in these momentous years offer a fundamental insight on the rebellion. The rebel was correctly identified as the issuer of these coins in a seminal article by E. S. G. Robinson back in 1954. Contrary to the Attalid (early) ones and the provincial (late) ones, his cistophori are signed by the rebel with his dynastic name BA–EY. This element, together with the regnal year and the ethnic of a civic mint secured legitimation for the rebel. In pursuit of this strategy, Aristonicus behaved as a real heir to the Attalid policy of founding colonies in the rural parts of Lydia, as he tried to seek shelter and legitimacy in these lands. Aristonicus pushed the traditional Attalid policy even further by making the Lydian cities of Thiatyra, Apollonis and Stratonicea cistophoric mints, if admittedly partly out of necessity.  At the same time, the presence of the dynastic name on his cistophori show how different he was from the previous Attalid kings, who sought the legitimation of their kingdom, not of themselves.

The cities where he resided—which had never before issued coinage—were thus given visibility throughout the area and could rival in prestige with the main cistophoric mints of Asia, in spite of the clear quantitative difference in the issues.  The cistophori in the name of King Eumenes are the only cistophoric (and silver) coinage ever issued in the cities of Thyatira, Apollonis and Stratonicea.  The cistophoric production of these mints amounts to a total of 5 tetradrachm observed obverse dies, of which two (A, B) are shared by Thyatira and Apollonis, one (C) is shared by Apollonis year 3 and Apollonis year 4 and now one (E) is shared by Stratonicea year 4 and 5 (Robinson 1954, pp. 7–8).

On the Roman side, three other cistophoric mints were certainly active in the former Attalid kingdom, i.e. Ephesus, Pergamum and Tralles. According to Kleiner and Noe, Pergamum and Ephesus had produced cistophori in the respective amounts of 89 and 59 observed tetradrachm obverse dies in the years 166–134 BC. In the years 134–128 BC, the proportions are inverted, with Pergamum producing only 18 tetradrachm obverse dies, compared to the Ephesian 44. Tralles followed the Pergamene trend, plummeting from a production of 87 tetradrachms obverse dies in 166–134 BC to 20 obverse dies during Aristonicus’ rebellion (Fig. 10).

Figure 10. Cistophoric production in the Attalid kingdom according to ECC (166–128 BCE).

Ephesus then produced cistophori in full swing in order to support the military effort against Aristonicus, while the political paralysis of Pergamum brought to a standstill in the cistophoric production as well. In the same years, the city of Tralles issued cistophori with this monogram:

Together with their stylistic similarities to the cistophori issued by Aristonicus in Apollonis and Stratonicea, could suggest that the city sided with the usurper (Fig. 11). The argument is, however, not conclusive, since the minting could have been imposed.

Figure 11. ANS 1944.100.37571. Bequest of E. T. Newell.

The production patterns of cistophori during Aristonicus’ rebellion confirm the previously mentioned dichotomy of the former Attalid kingdom. On the one side, Ephesus—through its full-swing issue of cistophori—highlighted its legitimacy as minting center and free city after the Roman ratification of Attalus’ testament. Pergamum and Tralles did the same—at least to a certain point. On the other side, Aristonicus and his host cities (possibly including Tralles) sought “royal” legitimacy through the issue of the same kind of coinage.

The manifold ideological use of the cistophorus is thus quite remarkable.  P. Thonemann (pp. 29–32) rightly noted regarding Attalid times that the ethnic of the minting cities and the name of the magistrates allowed the coinage to have a civic “aspect”, while at the same time the coinage, for mere quantitative reasons, was issued under Attalid control and—at least partly—out of royal bullion. The anomaly of Aristonicus is made evident by his use of his dynastic name on cistophori, an absolute unicum among the Attalids. However, it was precisely the “double” nature of the cistophorus that allowed its use for apparently antithetical purposes even in the years of Aristonicus’ rebellion, namely the legitimation of the claims of freedom for some cities as well as Aristonicus’ claims of regality.

Lastly, this new-ishly discovered cistophoric issue from Stratonicea offers new insight on the chronology of the rebellion. Strabo wrote that Aristonicus was defeated by Peperna. Given Aristonicus’ issues known until now, it was assumed that the rebel was defeated during Peperna’s consulate, i.e., 130 BCE. However, the new issue suggested that the rebellion was finally quenched in 129 BCE, when Peperna was proconsul. He then suddenly died in Pergamum and was urgently replaced by Manlius Aquilius, the consul of 129 BCE, who is said by the historian Florus (I.35.2.6–7) “to have pacified the region before organizing it.” In the following year (128 BCE), Manlius Aquilius, together with ten legati, “organized the province as it still is.” The newly studied cistophoric issue thus shows that the Romans—learning from their previous mistakes in the area—wasted no time after Aristonicus’ demise to organize the new Roman province of Asia.