The tomb of Philip II of Macedon at the Museum of the Royal Tombs in Vergina
By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC….
The Colosseo Collection
Philip II was the father of Alexander the Great and the youngest son of King Amyntas III. He took the throne in 359 BCE upon the death of his elder brothers, at a time when Macedonia was a poorly organized, economically insignificant, and militarily weak kingdom.
Philip’s leadership and vision of Macedonia’s future allowed him to succeed in unifying the intensely fragmented city-states of Greece under his rule in little more than 20 years.
Early in his reign, Philip focused on conquering the town of Crenides, quickly succeeding and renaming it to Philippi. He established a significant military presence to control their mines which provided him the financial backing for his future expansion. He converted his newly acquired bullion into a vast supply of coins; his tetradrachms and staters became some of the best known currencies of the day.
Despite being the king of Macedonia, Philip faced an uphill battle: the Greeks feared but did not respect him. Macedonians spoke a different language and were considered less cultured than the Greeks, thought to be barbaric, uncouth, and boorish.
The contemporary historian Demosthenes documented Philip’s struggles, describing him as “the finest orator” and a “Greek of Greeks” but that “ill-conditioned fellows in Athens” continued to “call him a barbarian.”
Only “true” Greeks were allowed to participate in the Olympics, and Philip was determined to convince his Athenian opposition that he was indeed worthy to be considered Greek. After successfully uniting Macedonia and Thessaly, Philip could make a legitimate claim to membership in Greek organizations and was no longer technically considered a barbarian, although this did not convince the public.
Philip entered his horse into the keles, a 1.2km horseback race, in the 106th Olympics in 356 BCE and won. This was a two-fold victory: having been admitted officially into the games and winning, he solidified his standing as a true Greek.
He proceeded to win two more times, in the 107th Olympics in 352 BCE in the four-horse chariot race and in the 108th Olympics in 348 BCE in the two-horse chariot race.
The fastest way to spread current news and political messages was through coinage as modern paper wasn’t invented in Europe until the 1700s and lambskin, vellum, and papyrus were expensive. Philip chose his coin types carefully. By minting coins commemorating his Olympic success, Philip was producing propaganda which popularized his claim as a true Greek and noted his favor with the gods.
The Greeks believed that victory at the Olympics was dictated and controlled by the gods, who would select as winner the competitor they alone deemed worthy or liked the best, rather than the athlete with the best trainer or equipment. It was also believed that the gods would treat Olympic winners favorably in battle, aiding Philip in his acceptance as a Greek leader and therefore helping his efforts to unite and control Greece, paving the way for his son Alexander’s later conquering of most of the known world.
Philip’s primary issue of coins was a series of tetradrachms bearing an obverse portrait of Zeus and on the reverse, a muscular horse ridden by a young, slim jockey shown running his victory lap and holding a palm branch, a symbol given to the victor.
Zeus appears as the patron of the Olympic Games. The quality of Zeus’ particularly elegant portrait on this coin, with a smooth forehead, clean arch of the eyebrow, and finely chiseled nose shows its inspiration by the gold and ivory statue of Zeus by Phidias at Olympia. This statue was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and further enforces the Olympic theme.
Perfectly struck and engraved in extremely high relief, possessing a sensitive and gentle expression of Zeus as a god of compassion, the portrait on this coin ranks among the finest contemporary works. Compared with the thousands of ancient greek coin dies used across the wide mintage of Philip II tetradrachms, this is one of the most stunningly beautiful, depicted in the finest late classical style.
Zeus’ dynamic hair spills over the dotted border, a bold statement of artistic freedom and a desire to not be constrained by the restrictions of conventional coin engraving. This creates an impression of a god that can’t be contained, an artistic concept first seen in the coinage from Naxos which features Dionysus.
From sculptures uncovered in the excavation of Philip’s tomb in 1977, it has become evident that there are some subtle but clearly intentional similarities between Philip’s actual appearance and that of Zeus on his tetradrachms. The artist adopted some of Philip’s facial attributes in the depiction of Zeus, likely intending to further assert Philip’s divinity and claim to the broader throne of Greece.
After his death, the ancient grrek coin tetradrachms continued to be minted under Philip’s sons, but their style degraded considerably. The portrait on the obverse progressively lost its majesty and the horse became smaller as the jockey became larger, disrupting the proportion and aesthetics of the coin.
Relative to the earliest coins minted during his lifetime, the posthumous tetradrachms are much more plentiful, and their prevalence tends to negatively influence the overall perception of the series because of their inferior artistry. These coins were later copied and deviated even further from the original by several Celtic tribes as a primary pattern for the coinages in Gaul, Britain, and Eastern Europe, who adopted a much more abstract design in their execution.
This ancient greek coin is the plate coin in the Le Rider reference (276) and was part of the important private collection of Henri de Nanteuil which now also functions as a reference guide because of its quality. Nateuil, born in 1876, was a decorated officer, serving as a captain of artillery and then a squadron leader in 1916, receiving the Legion of Honor for his service in the French army. He later became the CEO of the largest steel company in France, Denain-Anzin, and his collection was published in 1925 in Paris, in which this coin is listed as number 796.
Macedon, Tetradrachm of Philip II, Pella, ca. 359-336 BCE, 14.488g, 12h. Le Rider 276 = Nanteuil 796 (this coin). Exceptionally broad flan with a particularly elegant head of Zeus of the finest late classical style. Choice Extremely Fine. Acquired privately from Tradart; Jean Vinchon April 1988 lot 345; former Henry de Nanteuil de la Norville (1876-1941) collection.