Antiochus IV in Illinois

By Oliver Hoover

Everyone loves to find coins in unexpected places. There is always a certain thrill that comes from discovering those dropped coins on a city sidewalk or that loose change behind the couch cushions. The thrill is even greater when the find is more unusual or esoteric, like a bronze follis of Maurice Tiberius (AD 582–602) found cemented into a Byzantine wall when I worked at the site of Aphrodisias in the late 1990s, or an English East India Company pice found at an original Mormon settlement in Salt Lake Valley. Coins in strange places are great things. Nevertheless, it has always been of some personal disappointment to me that there never seemed to be many examples of Seleucid coins in odd places, excluding those that survived the centuries to be restruck as Jewish coins of the Bar Kokhba War (AD 132–135). This all changed a few months ago when I discovered the June 17, 1882, issue of Scientific American.

Figure 1a. Bronze follis of Maurice Tiberius. ANS 1984.61.1271.

According to a brief news item in the magazine, earlier in 1882, a farmer in Cass County, Illinois, discovered a Seleucid bronze coin on his land. Now, it is well known to ancient historians that the Seleucid Empire covered a vast territory, which at its greatest extent reached the shores of the Aegean Sea in the west, Central Asia in the east, the Caspian Sea in the north and the gates of Egypt in the south, but there has never been any suspicion (to my knowledge) that it may have ever extended as far as the American Midwest. The coin from Illinois—erroneously described in the article title as Roman!—was subsequently shown to the American ethnologist F. F. Hilder, who determined that it was an issue of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC), the archvillain of the Hanukah story. The piece was not illustrated in Scientific American, but Hilder described it clearly as depicting “on one side a finely executed head of the King, and on the obverse [sic!] a sitting figure of Jupiter [Zeus], bearing in his right hand a small figure of Victory [Nike], and in his left a wand or scepter, with an inscription in ancient Greek characters—BASILEOS ANTIOCHOU EPIPHANOUS, and another word, partly defaced, which I believed to be NIKEPHOROU.”

Figure 1. Quasi-municipal bronze coin of Antiochus IV from Antioch on the Sarus. BnF 1965.808.

When faced with such a report two questions immediately leap to mind: What in the world is a Hellenistic coin of Antiochus IV doing in late nineteenth-century Illinois, and, of course, which precise type is it according to Seleucid Coins: A Comprehensive Catalogue?

To answer the second question first: The portrait of Antiochus IV is combined with the reverse type of an enthroned Zeus holding Nike and a scepter only on quasi-municipal coins of Antioch on the Sarus (SC 1379) and Apamea on the Axios (SC 1427), and on a royal issue struck at Antioch on the Orontes (SC 1887).

Figure 2. Quasi-municipal bronze coin of Antiochus IV from Apamea on the Axios. ANS 1961.154.310.
Figure 3. Posthumous bronze coin of Antiochus IV from Antioch on the Orontes. ANS 1963.216.4.

Since the quasi-municipal coins only carry legends naming the civic issuing authority (i.e., ANTIOXEΩN ΠPOΣ TΩN ΣAPΩI and AΠAMEΩN ΠPOΣ TΩN AΞIΩI), they must be discarded as potential types for the Illinois find. The royal issue is a much better fit since it features the legend BAΣΙΛΕΩΣ ANTIOXOY EΠIΦANOYΣ, which accords with Hilder’s reading. However, it does not include NIKHΦOPOY or any other additional epithet. If there really was a second epithet on the Illinois find coin, then it must represent an unpublished variety, but perhaps the exergue monogram may have been misinterpreted as a fragmentary legend due to wear.   

If the coin from Illinois was indeed an example of SC 1887 then Hilder was only half right to identify it as an issue of Antiochus IV. While this type features the portrait of that king, the forms of its control monograms combined with the treatment of Nike facing towards Zeus have led Seleucid numismatists to conclude that it was actually a posthumous issue produced at Antioch in the troubled period between the flight of the usurper Alexander I Balas from the city in 146 BC and the advent of his rival Demetrius II Nicator in 145 BC. Although Antiochus IV was thoroughly vilified in Jewish tradition, his memory enjoyed some popularity in Syria. Indeed, Alexander himself had previously managed to seize the Seleucid throne in 150 BC in part by claiming to be a son of Antiochus IV.      

Figure 4. Silver tetradrachm of Alexander I Balas (150-145 BC) from Antioch on the Orontes. ANS 1957.172.2029.

The first question is much more difficult to answer. There is no serious basis for entertaining the possibility of pre-Columbian contact between the Seleucid Empire and North America, despite the occasional dubious claims of such for the Roman Empire. For a survey of ancient coins reportedly found in North America and the difficulty of accepting them as evidence for pre-Columbian contact see J. Epstein, “Pre-Columbian Old World Coins in America: An Examination of the Evidence,” Current Anthropology 21.1 (Feb. 1980), 1-20. At the same time, it seems highly unlikely that Seleucid bronzes were ever jingling in the pockets of the various French, British, and American traders, soldiers, and settlers who passed through or made homes in Illinois beginning in 1682.

Figure 5. Silver tetradrachm of Demetrius II (first reign, 145-139 BC) from Antioch on the Orontes. ANS 1967.152.632.

In the absence of other evidence, several possible explanations for the unusual find present themselves, but none is especially satisfying. The coin might be a piece that was lost by an Illinois coin collector, although the circumstance of loss on a farm seems odd. Alternatively, the coin might have been salted in the farmer’s field as a practical joke to create a sensational news item. Perhaps the coin was mixed in with ship’s ballast taken on in the Middle East and then carried to North America, but how it then traveled from the East Coast to the Midwest remains mysterious.

We will probably never know how a coin of Antiochus IV Epiphanes ended up in an Illinois farmer’s field in 1882, but the fact that it did should stand as a warning to all numismatists everywhere: Always pay attention to what is on the ground when you stroll down the street, hop on the subway, or take your oxen out for a plow. What you find might surprise you.