AU Capital Management President Russ Augustin tells the behind-the-scenes stories of the great gold coins of American history. [This is the first in a series of Videos produced by AUCM and CoinWeek .]
In this episode, Russ talks about the fascinating 1850 Baldwin $10 gold coin, a private-issue gold coin struck at the height of the California Gold Rush.
It is a coin steeped in the lore of the old west and connected to a scandalous and fascinating period of American coinage, where private mints struck gold coins of dubious value and a whole new American economy was forming thousands of miles away from the control of the United States federal government.
Today, the coin is exceptionally rare… and valuable.
You will enjoy this exclusive take from a leading dealer, who has handled this great rarity numerous times, placing examples of it in some of the great collections of this era.
Providing significant contrast to the many people who would eventually die fighting for their spot as emperor of Rome, Tiberius didn’t particularly want the title. He was Augustus’ stepson and became emperor in 14 CE upon Augustus’ death. He made many positive contributions as one of the greatest Roman generals, conquering vast lands and increasing the Empire’s treasury to nearly three billion sestertii. However, he quickly decided to distance himself from the day-to-day workings of Rome. He progressively gave power to the Praetorian Prefect Sejanus, which proved to be very unwise as Sejanus proceeded to arrest and murder most of the Julio-Claudian family behind Tiberius’ back.
Frustrated with the subterfuge and politics that came along with the position, Tiberius left Rome to retire on the island of Capri in 27 CE, effectively giving Sejanus free reign over the Empire. However, after being suspected of conspiring against Tiberius, Sejanus was imprisoned and executed. When Tiberius eventually died, the succession was left to his nephew Caligula and grandson Tiberius Gemellus. Caligula quickly began establishing his reputation as one of the most hated and evil of all Roman emperors by nullifying Tiberius’ will and executing Gemellus, becoming sole emperor.
Most emperors cared deeply about their coinage and would issue a vast range of designs, reflecting current events and progress made within the Empire. Tiberius took the opposite approach, leaving a single precious metal type in place for nearly the entirety of his 23-year reign. Furthermore, the type itself was a duplicate from one of Augustus’ late emissions, indicating just how little focus Tiberius placed on his coinage.
This type proved to be one of the most widely used coinages in Roman history, and ranks among the most familiar coins of antiquity. They circulated throughout the Empire and as far as India, with evidence that many pieces were used into the second century CE.
The reverse inscription of PONTIF MAXIM references Tiberius’ status as the head of the Roman state religion. The image on the reverse is generally interpreted as his mother Livia, seated and holding a laurel branch, representing Pax, the personification of peace.
The same type was also issued in silver, which became known as the “Tribute Penny” due to its famous reference in The Bible as the coin Jesus discussed to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
A similar passage exists within the Gospel of Thomas, referring specifically to the “Tribute Penny” as a gold coin like this aureus but the book was removed from the New Testament as the overall meaning of the message was not as clear and subtext could draw different conclusions as to the intent of Jesus’ statement. “They showed Jesus a gold coin and said to him: Caesar’s agents demand taxes from us. He said to them: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God what belongs to God, and give to me what is mine.”
This coin came from the group that was found buried under the ash of Mt. Vesuvius in Pompeii. The deep toning occurred from the sulfur in the air reacting with the metal of the coin. Roman aurei are some of the purest gold coinage ever minted but they still included small amounts of silver and copper.
As gold is among the least reactive of elements, it is the other metals which were alloyed with the gold that toned to produce the colors on this coin.
Tiberius (AD 14-37). AV aureus (19mm, 7.84 gm, 7h). Lugdunum, ca. 18-35 CE. TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS, laureate head of Tiberius right / PONTIF MAXIM, Livia, as Pax, seated right, holding scepter and olive branch; chair with ornate legs, feet on footstool, single line below. RIC 29. Calicó 305a. From the Boscoreale hoard, with prominent toning. Good VF. From The Lexington Collection.
Athens was once immensely powerful and independent, but its invincibility was ultimately disproved. It was conquered first by Sparta, then by Macedonia, and eventually by Rome. Athens’ value was well understood, and it was allowed to remain a wealthy city and cradle of culture but was no longer a discrete power, except for the Tetradrachm.
The earlier “Owl” tetradrachms were the dominant international trade coinage for over three centuries, but as Athens changed hands, their coinage eventually changed as well, moving away from the archaic coins into a new stylized tetradrachm which carried over artistic elements from its predecessor.
These new coins were produced on a large scale likely due to an influx in demand from Athens’ improving economy after it recovered the port of Delos in 166 BCE. The new coinage didn’t become quite as ubiquitous as the early tetradrachms, but they have been found throughout the Mediterranean and certainly circulated internationally.
When Rome dominated most of Greece, they confiscated land and destroyed several cities, but Athens was left largely independent as the Romans appreciated it for its intellectual, cultural, and artistic value. The mintage of the “new style” tetradrachms began in 164 BCE and continued on an annual basis up until Sulla’s capture of Athens in 86 BCE, after which the coins were produced far less frequently until ultimately stopping around 40 BCE.
The new coinage paid homage to the earlier tetradrachms by carrying over the iconography of an obverse depicting Athena and a reverse featuring her owl. However, the fabric of the coin was changed considerably, thinning and broadening to a much wider diameter and becoming slightly lighter.
This offered a larger space on which the artists could engrave more intricate designs and they certainly took advantage of the freedom. Athena is depicted with a triple-crested Attic helmet upon which the foreparts of a quadriga of horses are shown beneath a full flying Pegasus.
The reverse now shows an owl standing on an amphora, a jug referring to Athens’ international olive oil trade, surrounded by an olive wreath in which various symbols and names are included to denote the mintage and origination of the emission. The first line of reverse text retains the archaic “AOE” denoting that the coins are “of the Athenians”.
Athens remained a center of influence during its 500 years under Roman rule with numerous emperors supporting it financially and politically. Unfortunately, much of Athens was destroyed after being sacked by the Germanic “Heruli” tribe in 267 CE, and this marked the end of Athens’ reign as one of history’s most influential societies.
* * *
Attica, Athens AR Tetradrachm. New Style Coinage, circa 154-153 BCE. Head of Athena right, wearing crested Attic helmet decorated with vine tendril and Pegasos / Owl standing right, head facing, on amphora; AQE across, monograms flanking, caps of the Dioskouroi to right; all within wreath. Thompson 61 (this obv. die). 16.89g, 33mm, 1h. Beautifully toned, well centered on sound metal, Extremely Fine. Rare issue of the new Athenian style.
Oinoanda, an ancient Greek city located in the upper valley of the Xanthus River, was built on the top of a high mountain in the ancient province of Lycia, now modern southwest Turkey. Little is known of the early history of the settlement in spite of several exploratory surveys which have been carried out in the region.
It was a substantial city in antiquity, but surprisingly it issued its own silver coins at only one moment in its long history. Until the early 2000s, the coinage was known from only a single specimen acquired by the British Museum in 1897. The discovery of a small group has allowed the types to be studied in much more detail and has added to our admittedly sparse understanding of the coins of the period.
Three distinct issues have been identified, marked by a sequence of letters and symbols. They are dated to the first three years of Attalid rule of the region which followed the Peace of Apameia in 188 BCE after the Roman defeat of Antiochos III in 190 BCE. The terms of the peace dictated that much of the Seleukid territory in Anatolia passed to the control of Pergamon and Rhodes. Photo Caption – The Greco-Roman theatre in Oenoanda [ Οινόανδα (Greek) ]
Because of this, Oinoanda was able to establish sufficient autonomy to begin to mint its own coinage. It is apparent due to the wide variety in coin weight that the mint did not have experience in quality control, but each of the coins was intended to be an Attic didrachm, weighing about 8.65 grams.
Contrary to the very prevalent drachm and tetradrachms in the region, didrachms were an unusual denomination. It has been theorized that this weight was chosen for streamlined exchange between the Attic standard and the new cistophoroi of the Attalids, with three Oinoandan didrachms equaling two cistophoric tetradrachms.
With both cistophoric and Attic coinages being used in Oinoanda, the Oinoanda didrachm would make it easier to handle official payments to the Attalid authorities and trade with local and nearby territories still on the Attic standard.
The underlying purpose for this rare and isolated coinage is still unclear, but it may have been minted to pay for the Hellenistic city walls built during the period after the formal Attalid takeover. However, the four known obverse dies would have produced a substantially insufficient quantity of coins to pay for such a large undertaking, indicating that unless coins from more dies are discovered in the future, the difference may have been funded by the cistophoroi or Side tetradrachms which circulated in the region.
Zeus was the principal deity of Oinoanda, and he is depicted on the obverse of this coin with a lotus-tipped scepter over his shoulder. His eagle is shown on the reverse, standing to the right on a winged thunderbolt. The design appears to have been influenced in part by the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, sharing similar attributes, but clearly deviating in actual execution.
This coin is the finest of only four known from the first die pair in the series, marking it as one of the first coins struck by Oinoanda and placing it at the beginning of an enigmatic and aesthetic coinage that historians are still learning from today.
LYCIA, Oinoanda. 188 BCE. AR Didrachm (19mm, 7.92 g, 12h). Laureate head of Zeus right; A and scepter behind / Eagle standing right on winged thunderbolt. Ashton, Oinoanda 1 (A1/P1), otherwise unpublished. EF, dark iridescent toning. Well centered and sharply struck from the first die pairing of the series. Extremely rare and the finest of the four known from these dies.
The Oinoanda Inscription (fragment pictured) was an inscribed limestone wall conspicuously located in an open marketplace generally referred to as the “Esplanade” in the ancient city of Oinoanda. The inscription, commissioned by Diogenes of Oinoanda, proclaimed the wisdom of Epicurus, then deceased for five centuries. This unique text, rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, has attracted many modern readers. The wall itself, however, has long been demolished. Its blocks were used for building houses, paving streets, etc. They were discovered one by one.
Antigonus III Doson was the king of Macedon from 229 to 221 BCE, 94 years after the death of Alexander the Great. His predecessor, Demetrius II, died in battle when his heir, Philip V, was only nine years old. Because of the volatile political situation, the Macedonian army couldn’t wait for Philip V to mature enough to assume command, so they appointed Doson regent of the kingdom, and he ruled until his death in 221 BCE.
Antigonus III was a very successful leader, a master of tactical diplomacy and military strategy, fortifying the borders of Macedon and forming important alliances. His rule marked a golden age for the Kingdom of Macedon. He was called “Doson”, which means “the man who will give”, referring to his dedication to the Kingdom in its time of need.
This very large tetradrachm celebrates the significant naval victory led by Doson over Ptolemy III Euergete’s fleet and his Carian allies in 227 BCE near the island Andros in the Aegean Sea.
The obverse depicts Poseidon, the god of the sea, in a magnificent and imposing portrait filled with Hellenistic vitality. He is shown facing right, staring wistfully into the distance with his thick hair bound by a wreath of seaweed.
The reverse text reads “Of King Antigonos”. It shows Apollo relaxing on the prow of a war galley, inspecting his bow held out in his right hand while resting his left on the deck. His legs are hanging down, as if to enjoy the water which is now calm after their successful conquests. These images allude to the support provided by the Seleucid King Antiochus Hierax, who fought alongside Doson against Caria.
This victory brought Macedonia considerable naval prestige and helped further establish it as a dominant power in the region.
Antigonos III Doson. 229-221 BCE. Tetradrachm (Silver, 16.91 g 6). Bearded head of Poseidon to right, wearing wreath of reeds Rev. BAΣIΛEΩΣ ANTIΓONOΥ Apollo, nude, seated left on galley prow, holding bow in his right hand; below, oblong monogram. SNG Ashmolean 3266. SNG Berry 361 ff. SNG Copenhagen 1204. Toned and struck on a broad flan. Good very fine. From the PGB collection, acquired in New York in 1968 from F. Knobloch.
Where the south declines towards the setting sun lies the country called Ethiopia, the last inhabited land in that direction. There gold is obtained in great plenty… –Herodotus, The Histories, Book 2 (c. 450 BCE)
FIVE DAYS MARCH INLAND from the Red Sea, on the hilly Tigray Plateau, stands the city of Aksum (or Axum). From the first century to the seventh, it was the capital of an empire that at its peak controlled much of Ethiopia and South Arabia. Aksumites traded with Egypt, Rome, Persia and India, exporting frankincense and myrrh (the valuable fragrant resins of desert shrubs), gold, ivory and salt, and importing wine, olive oil, fine fabrics, silver and copper. They raised towering stone monuments – some of the largest granite monoliths quarried in antiquity – which still stand.
Many of the 20 or so Aksumite rulers are known only from their coins; the precise dates, and even the sequence, are often uncertain. Since the early 20th century, a handful of scholars have studied these coins to untangle the obscure history of this African kingdom.
Beginning in the late third century, the kings of Aksum minted gold, silver and bronze. These were the only coins created in Africa south of the Sahara in ancient times.
The gold unit was one-half the weight of the contemporary Roman aureus. This was a convenient size for a trade coin, about 2.7 grams (for comparison, an American nickel weighs exactly five grams). The design was the same on both sides: the head of the king facing right, wearing a close-fitting head cloth (sometimes described as a “helmet”). After the 4.5-gram Roman solidus replaced the 5.4-gram aureus in the fourth century, the Aksumite gold unit dropped to around 1.7 grams. It is often cataloged as a tremissis, but we don’t know what any Aksumite coins were actually named.
Flanking the portrait on the left and right are curved ears of grain. This is a universal symbol of abundance, familiar to collectors from the reverse of the 1909 American “wheat” cent. Above the king a small crescent and disc symbolize the solar and lunar gods of Aksumite polytheism. Inscriptions are in Greek: obverse ENDYBIC BACILEYC “King Endubis,” continuing on the reverse AZWMITW BICI DAXY “of Aksum, Man of Dakhu”. “Bisi”, meaning “man of” in the Ge’ez language, may signify some kind of tribal or clan affiliation.
The silver coinage, on a lighter weight standard (about 2.1-2.3 grams), repeats the same design without the ears of grain.
Aphilas (reigned c. 300-310) followed the same designs but introduced a fractional coin: one eighth of the gold unit, or about 0.36 grams (an aspirin tablet weighs a similar amount at 350 milligrams). The die engravers were challenged to crowd the name and title onto the reverse of these tiny coins, only 7 mm (0.275 inches) in diameter.
The experiment was not a success: no subsequent kings issued gold fractions.
But another innovation of Aphilas persisted for centuries — many of his silver coins had gold “inlays” on or around the royal portrait. This labor-intensive enhancement made for more impressive coins, of richer perceived value. Later, even low-value coppers were embellished with gold leaf.
Artistically, the peak of pagan Aksumite coinage came under Wazeba and Ousanas (c. 320), who may have been co-rulers. On the obverse of their gold they wear tall elaborate crowns or “tiaras”. The second known example of Wazeba’s gold, with inscriptions in Ge’ez (the classical language of Ethiopia) rather than Greek, sold at auction in 2011 for US $16,000 – apparently the highest price on record for an Aksumite coin.
Ezana’s early coinage repeats the pagan crescent and disc symbol, but his later issues substitute the Christian cross, possibly the first use of this symbol on coins anywhere.
Early Christian Coinage
With the reign of Ezana (c. 330-356), Aksum entered a new era. He was the last pagan ruler.
Like his Roman contemporary Constantine the Great (ruled 306 – 337), Ezana’s conversion to Christianity was reflected on the coins. St. Frumentius (died 383), a Syrian slave revered as the founder of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, converted young Ezana when he was the prince’s tutor. Ezana’s early coinage repeats the pagan crescent and disc symbol, but his later issues substitute the Christian cross, possibly the first use of this symbol on coins anywhere. Some coins from this period have no religious symbol at all, and some are “anonymous” – perhaps from interregnal periods or disputed successions.
In the mid-fifth century, Mehadeyis or “Matthias” (rendered as MHDYS on his coins) replaced Greek coin inscriptions with Ge’ez. On a unique gold coin reportedly found in Yemen, the crowned and standing king holds a spear and shield. The reverse, closely modeled on Roman solidi struck from about 420 to 450, shows a winged Victory or angel holding a long cross. On a silver coin of the same ruler, ears of grain flank the cross, surrounded by a translation in Ge’ez of Constantine’s motto “By this cross, conquer”.
Used primarily for trade, Aksum’s gold coins are found mainly in South Arabia. The al-Madhariba hoard of 868 Aksumite and 326 late Roman coins–discovered in Yemen in the 1980s–was buried some time after the year 550. Some Aksumite gold, including contemporary imitations, have been found in southern India, often pierced for use as jewelry.
The silver and bronze, in contrast, are seldom found outside Ethiopia, although some have turned up in Israel, carried by Aksumite pilgrims to the Christian holy places.
Peak Of Empire
King Ebana (c 460?) and his successors Nezana and Nezool struck a large proportion of the Aksumite gold coins that reach the collector market. The empire then reached its greatest power and extent under Kaleb (c. 520), who began a custom of royal names from the Old Testament. On Kaleb’s gold coins a row of three crosses is thought to symbolize the Trinity.
Kaleb fought a protracted war in Arabia, eventually destroying the Jewish and pagan kingdom of Himyar in Yemen. The war may have exhausted the kingdom, leading to a period of decline reflected in the deteriorating workmanship, weight and metal quality of the coins produced under kings Alla Amidas, Israel, and Gersem.
Gold, 95% pure under Endubis, was down to 50% or less by the reign of Ella Gabaz (c. 610) when gold coinage ended.
Decline And Fall
On the last bronze coins the king is shown frontally rather than in profile, copying the style of contemporary Byzantine types. Designs become increasingly crude, and a note of desperation creeps into mottos like “Peace and Mercy” on the inscriptions. Armah, the last ruler to mint coins at Aksum, is depicted as a full-length figure enthroned.
Aksum was abandoned around the year 630. Although a line of chieftains in mountains to the south continued to claim the title “King of Aksum”, the rise of Islam in Arabia cut off access to the trade routes that had been the source of the kingdom’s prosperity. The history of Aksum was largely forgotten, replaced by legends and myths created by later dynasties.
Collecting Aksumite Coins Today
Aksumite coins seldom appear in large groups. In auction catalogs, they typically appear at the end of Greek North Africa, after Numidia and Mauritania. Notable sales include Spink’s auction of the Dreesman Collection (July 2000) with 37 Aksumite coins, proceeds earmarked to support the work of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Ethiopia. Classical Numismatics Group’s (CNG) Sale 53 (March 2000) featured 27 pieces, and Stack’s “Moneta Imperii Romani Byzantini” sale (January 2009) had 10.
Common gold types now seem to retail in the US for around $1,000 and up. Fine silver pieces go for around $200 – 350, and nice bronzes can still be found for under $100. Silver and bronze with intact gold inlays command a premium. Fakes are common in Ethiopia, but are generally not dangerous to experienced dealers and collectors.
Because of Italy’s long and troubled involvement in the region, Italian numismatists like Arturo Anzani (1879-1946) and Francesco Vaccaro (1903-1990) pioneered early research on Aksumite coinage. Standard references in English are by the British archaeologist Stuart Munro-Hay (1947-2004) and Dr. Bent Juel-Jensen (1922-2006), a Danish-born physician who worked at Oxford and left his extensive collection to the Ashmolean Museum. Austrian numismatist Wolfgang Hahn has made important contributions to the field in German and English.
* * *
Ancient Coinage of Axum: http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/greece/axum/i.html Anzani, Arturo. Numismatica axumita. Milano. 1926. Con supplementi 1941. Atkins, Brian and Bent Juel-Jensen. “The Gold Coinage of Aksum: Further Analyses of Specific Gravity, A Contribution to Chronology.” Numismatic Chronicle 148. (1988) Hahn, Wolfgang. “Aksumite Numismatics – A critical survey of recent research.” Revue Numismatique 6:155. (2000) Heidman, Marilyn (ed). African Zion, the Sacred Art of Ethiopia. New Haven. (1993). Munro-Hay, Stuart. “The al-Madhariba Hoard of Gold Aksumite and Late Roman Coins.” Numismatic Chronicle 149. (1989) Munro-Hay, Stuart. “A New Gold Coin of King MHDYS of Aksum.” Numismatic Chronicle 155. (1995) Munro-Hay, Stuart. Catalogue of the Aksumite Coins in the British Museum (v.1). London. (1999) Munro-Hay, Stuart and Bent Juel-Jensen. Aksumite Coinage. Spink. (1995) Munro-Hay, Stuart. Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburg. (1991)
Mike Markowitz is “Second Consul” of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian and defense analyst, who writes for StrategyPage and Defense Media Network. He designed the game Alexandros, which won the 1991 Charles Roberts Award for best pre-WWII wargame. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. He has worked as a technical writer, editor and trainer for a variety of aerospace and defense firms. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia
By Eric Brothers, with permission of the author – September 2017 issue of The Numismatist
Attached is a great article about the California Gold Rush and the creation, rise and use of Cal Fractional Gold coins during that time period.
“John David Borthwick (1824-1892), a Scottish journalist and author, was the son of a prominent physician in Edinburgh, Scotland, and received the well rounded education of both a gentleman and an artist. In 1845, when he turned 21, a young Borthwick was given a sizable inheritance and set out to travel the world. The year 1847 saw Borthwick traveling around Canada before heading south to New Orleans, and then north again to New York City, where he resided for a spell. In May 1851, he was struck with a severe case of gold fever, which he cured by moving to California during the gold rush.”
With no mass media, ancient coins functioned as powerful tools for propaganda due to their portability and potential to circulate widely. Rulers would carefully choose their types and each element of the designs of their coinage to convey a specific message to their subjects, allies, and enemies.
Alexander the Great understood this concept and carefully planned the specific details of his portraits on sculptures as well as coins. Alexander is represented most famously as Herakles on his tetradrachms. He aspired to be a hero himself and Herakles was the premier embodiment of strength, determination, and willpower in Greek mythology, traits central to Alexander’s mission of global dominance.
After Alexander died suddenly at the age of 32, the future of his vast empire was unknown. His generals scrambled to determine who should succeed him as Alexander had no heir.
On his deathbed, Alexander passed his signet ring to Perdiccas, the leader of his elite calvary, nominating him as his successor, but Perdiccas did not claim power immediately. Princess Roxana of Bactria was pregnant with Alexander’s child at the time of his death, and the gender of the baby was unknown.
Perdiccas argued that they should wait to see if the unborn child would be male and therefore have a legitimate claim to the throne. The infantry instead proposed that Philip III Arrhidaios, Alexander’s half-brother, should rule regardless of the gender of Roxana’s baby.
The factions reached a compromise, and when Alexander IV was born in August 323 BCE, he and Philip III were jointly made kings but acted only as figureheads, while Perdiccas would actually rule the Empire as regent.
This coin was minted within a year of Alexander’s death, and it retained the type started by Philip II of a portrait on the obverse and a charioteer driving galloping horses on the reverse. However, its style marked a significant deviation from any of the other gold staters of the era.
The type was struck in both Kolophon and Magnesia from a single obverse die which was transported and used in the two mints, indicating that it was clearly a critically important design that could not be easily replicated by a different artist due to its intricacy.
Most of the Macedonian staters depict the god Apollo, but this coin features Alexander himself, representing one of his earliest surviving portraits. It was engraved by an uncommonly talented artist, sculptural in nature, reflecting identical facial features to known depictions of Alexander in its magnificent, gem-like composition.
Alexander’s portrait was likely placed on the obverse in an attempt to legitimize the new haphazard regime, associating the image of the well-known ruler to denote his blessing. By replacing the god Apollo, the “bringer of light”, with the portrait of Alexander, the coin also conveys the message that Alexander carried the light and wisdom of Hellenistic society throughout the known world.
The coin’s beauty and historical importance have made it one of the most desirable and exciting of all gold staters minted in the name of Philip.
Despite the effort put into the development of this coin and the extensive negotiations, the new regime was met with confusion and discomfort, eventually resulting in the assassination of Perdiccas in 321 BCE and 40 years of war between the fragmented powerful generals, splitting Alexander’s Empire into the Ptolemaic Kingdom, the Seleucid Empire, the Kingdom of Pergamon, and Macedonia.
Macedonia, Philip II, struck under Philip III; Kolophon, c. 322 BCE, Stater, 8.65g. Le Rider pl. 90, 16. Obv: Laureate head of Apollo r., with features of Alexander the Great. Rx: Fast biga driven r. by charioteer with hair streaming in wind and holding goad; below forelegs of horses, tripod; φιλιππου in exergue. This is the very special issue that is universally thought to bear the portrait of Alexander himself. The coin is struck in high relief and the portrait is sculptural in nature. Finest quality possible. Exquisite Mint State
MACEDONIAN KINGDOM. Alexander the Great Tetradrachms (336-323 BC). AR
By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC ……
The early Macedonian kingdom did not have sufficient access to mines to be able to mass-produce influential coinage. However, when Philip II rose to power in 359 BCE, he recognized the importance of mining and prioritized the acquisition of metals in his early conquests.
After defeating Amphipolis and Crenides, Philip was able to secure a consistent annual supply of nearly 30 metric tonnes of precious metal, striking them into new, iconic coinage. This production volume made Philip’s coins immensely popular throughout the world.
His son, Alexander the Great, continued Philip’s coinage and improved upon it, refocusing the silver mintage on a tetradrachm based on the Athenian weight standard that could be used easily throughout Greece. For more than two hundred years, Alexander the Great Tetradrachms would be minted at a prolific rate, sourced from his father’s mines in Thrace and Macedonia as well as the new bullion Alexander received when he conquered the Persians.
A single coin represented approximately four day’s pay for a common laborer, so Alexander also minted bronze coinage for small transactions in local markets. However, Alexander the Great Tetradrachms were the most famous of his denominations, becoming one of the staple coins of the Greek world through their use in substantial purchases, international trade, and for mercenary payments.
This Alexander the Great Tetradrachm coin is among the types struck during Alexander’s lifetime, which are the considered to be the most artistic. Although the style of these coins would change significantly depending on when and where they were minted, the primary design elements would remain very consistent.
The obverse depicts Herakles (or Hercules to the Romans), the greatest hero of the Greeks. Herakles was Zeus’ son and was able to attain divine status as a demi-god by accomplishing the 12 Labors assigned to him. This coin represents the first of those labors, the slaying of the fierce Nemean Lion.
Herakles is shown proudly wearing the lion’s skin, its open mouth covering most of his head and its paws tied together at his neck. Alexander the Great idolized Herakles, wanting to become a god himself, and his prominent use of the hero on his coins formalized this association, evangelizing it internationally.
The reverse shows Zeus wearing a crown, likely a laurel wreath, atop his long hair. Zeus’ body changes depending on the coin, but this example shows him as very muscular, wearing a linen cloak (a himation) covering his lower body.
He is seated on a decorated throne, holding a scepter which symbolizes the god’s strength and authority, and consequently, that of Alexander as well. This coin also shows him holding his symbolic bird, an eagle, in his outstretched right hand.
The reverse inscription on this coin reads “ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ” which translates to “Of King Alexander”. It is speculated that Alexander chose a unique and detailed reverse depiction of Zeus (which would appeal to his current and future subjects) rather than base it off of a well-known statue (which could potentially alienate some groups based on their specific religious associations). This foresight likely played a role in the ongoing popularity and universal acceptance of his tetradrachm coinage.
MACEDONIAN KINGDOM. Alexander III the Great (336-323 BCE). AR tetradrachm (17.14 gm). Aradus, late lifetime issue, ca. 324/3 BCE. Head of Heracles right, wearing lion-skin headdress / Zeus seated left, holding eagle and scepter; I in left field; AP monogram below throne. Price 3325. Well-centered on a broad flan with superb eye appeal. Good Extremely Fine.
Mt. Vesuvius began erupting on August 24, 79 CE and continued for two days, burying the Roman settlements of Pompeii and Herculaneum, among others. There were warning signs: small earthquakes started a few days earlier, but small tremors were frequent in the area, so they were not heeded as indicative of an imminent threat.
In the afternoon on the 24th, the eruption began, shooting a cloud of ash 20 miles into the air and throwing molten rock at a rate of a billion pounds per second. 80% of the residents of Pompeii managed to escape in the first day to neighboring villages.
By the evening on the 25th, the flows of lava began, covering the area in nine feet of ash and molten rock, and the 2,000 people who remained, hoping to wait out the disaster, ultimately perished.
Among those who escaped was the owner of Villa Pisanella, a popular wine producing villa rustica on the south eastern slopes of Vesuvius near the modern-day village of Boscoreale. It is believed that the owner was Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, a wealthy merchant who was the highly successful son of a freed slave.
The soil around volcanoes is highly fertile and great for growing crops, allowing the owners to amass significant wealth. In 1895, excavators uncovered 109 gold and silver plates and hundreds of gold aurei. The coins were stored in an empty cistern in the wine cellar of the villa when the owner fled. With a general exchange rate of one aureus as pay for one month of work, this amount of gold would constitute a lifetime of profit.
These coins are known as “Boscoreale” aurei because of the distinctive toning found on many of them. Gold itself is inert and does not tone, but when made into coins, it is alloyed with small amounts of silver and copper which are susceptible to toning. Over the 1,800 years that the coins spent buried beneath the ash and pumice from Vesuvius, some examples developed significant toning. Because of the highly sulphuric atmospheric conditions in the area around Pompeii, some other coins from the region have more subtle toning, but the most vibrantly toned are clearly from within the original group.
This particular coin was minted by the Emperor Vespasian, the son of a businessman and tax collector. He befriended various influential Romans and was eventually appointed as Proconsul of Africa in 63 CE. After the civil war following Nero’s death, Vespasian defeated Vitellius, becoming emperor. He spent most of his reign rebuilding Rome’s economy and expanding its borders. He is perhaps best remembered for starting construction of the Colosseum, a massive undertaking intended to give back to the people of Rome what had been taken from them under the reign of Nero.
The emperor is shown on the obverse of this coin, and reverse depicts Aequitas, the Roman goddess of justice, holding scales and a scepter. It has an extensive pedigree, including the legendary Biaggi and J.C.S Rashleigh collections, and is the plate coin in the Calico reference guide.
Vespasian. 69-79 CE. AV Aureus (7.38 g, 6h). Rome Mint. Struck 70 CE. Laureate head right / Aequitas standing left, holding scales and scepter. RIC II 20; Calicó 604 (this coin illustrated). Nearly Extremely Fine, wonderful violet-red and blue toning. Bold portrait.
Ex. CNG Auction 78, lot 1744 (May 2008) Ex. HD Rauch Auction 75, lot 360 (May 2005) Calico reference guide plate coin (number 604)
Ex. Lanz Auction 70, lot 166 (Nov 1994), the collection of Margaretha Ley, one of the most famous and successful personalities in the world of fashion Ex. Bank Leu Auction 30, lot 326 (Apr 1982) Ex. Leo Biaggi de Blasys (coin 306, formed from the 1950s-1960s) Ex. Glendining (Jan 14, 1953), lot 22 Ex. J.C.S Rashleigh collection (formed ca. 1920) Ex. Boscoreale Hoard of 1895
By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC …… Agathokles was the last of the larger-than-life rulers of Syracuse, but he was not merely given the right to the throne. He was born in Thermae in 361 BCE to a Greek manufacturer of pottery, but he quickly tired of his father’s trade. Upon leaving home and moving to Syracuse, he became an officer within the army, establishing himself as a skillful leader.
In 317 BCE, he overthrew the Syracusan rulers, banishing or murdering all of those who opposed him and, with the support of the common people, inserted himself as dictator.
He formed a large navy and strengthened his army, significantly expanding the power of Syracuse. This growth caused his territory to bump against that of the Carthaginians, a force which would shape and consume the majority of his life.
Carthage controlled a large territory in western Sicily and had been enemies of the Sicilian Greeks since the sixth century BCE. Their forces posed a formidable challenge for Agathokles, and after a bloody battle, the boundaries were largely unchanged, with a border established along the Halycus River.
In the summer of 311 BCE, the Carthaginians managed to surround Agathokles by land and sea but his quick thinking allowed him to escape when, in August 310, the Carthaginians briefly relaxed their naval blockade. Agathokles immediately sailed from the Syracuse harbor with 60 ships and an army of 13,500 men, set to invade Carthage itself. Although he defeated the Carthaginian armies in North Africa, he did not capture their capital city.
Nonetheless, the strategic attacks were highly successful and widely celebrated.
Syracuse was maintaining its stronghold against the Carthagainians while Agathokles was at battle in Africa, but at the same time, he learned that his other cities in Sicily had claimed independence. This forced him to return to Sicily and leave his African army under the control of his son Archagathus.
The Carthaginians had split their army into thirds, each controlling a separate area. Archagathus did the same but not quickly enough, and several of his factions were destroyed by their forces. By the time Agathokles returned, there wasn’t anything he could do: Archagathus was killed, and the army was forced to surrender to Carthage.
Many of his soldiers were either recruited into the Carthaginian army or crucified. Agathokles made peace with the Carthaginians in 306 BCE by giving up large territories in west Sicily in exchange for a fair amount of gold and grain.
This truce did not leave him idle. Following in the footsteps of the successors of Alexander the Great, Agathokles adopted the title of sole king of Sicily, although this control only extended across the eastern portion of the island.
He then extended his power to the Greek areas of southern Italy and western mainland Greece, and, in 300 BCE, took over Corcyra by driving out the Macedonian king Kassander.
However, his hopes of extending his dynasty were brought to an abrupt end when his second son was murdered by a jealous relative. Agathokles then occupied his time working to consolidate control over his empire. In recognizing that he had no formal heir, he restored the Syracusan democracy as he lay dying of jaw cancer at the age of 72 in 289 BCE.
Although he did not accomplish all of his military goals in his lifetime, he did show that it was possible to invade Carthage, leaving the door open for the Romans to be much more successful in the Second Punic War in 202 BCE.
This silver tetradrachm, from Agathokles’ second series of silver coins, marks the beginning of a deviation from traditional types. By the end of the fourth century BCE, the designs of Syracusian tetradrachms and dekadrachms exclusively pictured the local spring nymph Arethusa. The design on this coin is of Persephone, in a complementary style and wearing similar earrings to Arethusa, in an attempt to unite the various Greek factions of Sicily under the new leadership.
Agathokles did not want to change the coinage too dramatically, considering how recognizable it was, but he still replaced Arethusa with the Sicilian goddess who would now show that he ruled the entire island. Whereas Arethusa was adorned with seaweed, Persephone is crowned with grain, paying homage to Sicily’s fame as the wheat-wealthy island of the Mediterranean. In Greek mythology, Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter – the goddess of grain and all of the fruits of the earth. Because of the similarities in design, the artists felt it appropriate to differentiate them by specifically engraving the name Kore, the common name of Persephone in Greek, meaning “the maiden”.
This coin was struck towards the height of Agathokles’ power and the proudly displays his greatest achievements. The reverse shows a gracefully standing, winged figure of Nike – the goddess of victory – putting the finishing touches to a military trophy constructed from the spoils of the war against Carthage, alluding to his successful invasion of Africa. Interestingly, this type is stylistically similar to another issue by Seleukos I, minted at the eastern end of the Greek empire, but it is uncertain which served as the basis of the design for the other.
This coin was part of the Hunt Collection, one of the greatest collections assembled in the 20th century, and was last available to the market in 1990. It is a delicately and attractively toned example, designed with dies of the finest style, believed by most to be the finest known example.
* * *
Sicily, Syracuse. Agathokles. 317-289 BC. Silver Tetradrachm (16.90g). Struck ca. 310/08-306/5 BC. Wreathed head of Kore right, wearing single-pendant earring and necklace. Reverse: Nike standing right, and erecting trophy; to left, triskeles; between Nike and trophy, monogram. Ierardi 98 (O20/R59); Gulbenkian 334 (same rev. die); Kraay-Hirmer 137 (same rev. die); SNG Munich 1267 (same obv. die); SNG Manchester 508 (same obv. die). Superb Extremely Fine. Ex Nelson Bunker Hunt Collection, part II (Sotheby’s, 21-22 June 1990), 286.
By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC…. Alexander the Great, born in the autumn of 356 BCE and taught by the famous Aristotle, was one of the most successful military generals of all time, conquering a large part of Asia and ruling a kingdom that spanned from the Ionian sea to the Himalayas before he was 30 years old. In the year 336 BCE, Alexander ascended the Macedonian throne after the death of his father, Philip II.
Two years later, he began his campaign against the Persians, whom he completely defeated. But this success wasn’t enough for Alexander: sources tell us that he was motivated to outdo the mythological hero Hercules. The goddess Athena was the protector of Hercules and other heroes, and Alexander adopted her image on his gold coinage, showing her wearing a Corinthian helmet decorated with a coiled snake.
In addition to his prolific military prowess, one of Alexander’s many achievements was the establishment of a single currency across his vast empire. These coins replaced the wide variety of local issues with an official, imperial coinage. Alexander the Great’s conquering of the Persians produced a massive volume of silver and gold bullion, plundered from their treasuries at Babylon, Sardes, Susa, and Persepolis. At the beginning of his reign in 336 BCE, the Macedonian kingdom was 500 silver talents in debt. This was rectified when, from the treasury of Persepolis alone, Alexander claimed 120,000 silver talents worth of bullion.
The significant influx of precious metals prompted him to strike the largest Greek gold coin issued up to that time: the gold distater. With a value of 40 silver drachms, it was likely used to pay Alexander’s veteran soldiers who were awarded for their labors with a silver talent (6,000 drachms). This new denomination meant that a talent could be paid out as 120 gold distaters.
The daily wage of the average citizen was about two drachms, so these gold distaters were extremely valuable. This proved to be inconvenient for normal spending, so they were nearly all melted down after a relatively small mintage, causing their significant rarity relative to the high availability of smaller staters that feature the same design.
The reverse is a representation of Alexander’s victory, depicting Nike the goddess of victory holding a wreath (representing his success on land) and a stylis, the mast cross-arm of a ship (his success at sea). A thunderbolt is shown to her left, and below, the mint mark of Aigai, the old Macedonian capital that was eventually abandoned in the third century BCE.
Distater, 336-323 B.C. Lifetime issue struck in Macedonia (Aigai). Head of Athena r. wearing Corinthian helmet decorated with coiled serpent, hair in tight ringlets. Rv. Nike standing l. holding stylis, thunderbolt to l., monogram to lower l. 17.23 grams. Price 191. Perfectly centered and well struck in high relief. Extremely Fine.