Roman Britannia

History does not record the name of the engraver who first depicted Britannia on coins. She appeared for the first time during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), and is presented as a rather forlorn figure, with one hand resting on her chin as if she is contemplating her fate under Roman occupation. In some coins she appears to be wearing a rainproof, hooded woollen cloak known as a birrus Brittanicus, which was popular amongst native Britons to protect them from the inclement weather. Britannia sits with her foot on a pile of rocks, holding a spear and with a large spiked shield at her side.

Britannia, depicted during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian is, of course, best remembered for building the impressive 73 mile stone wall across the north of England, which ran from coast to coast and marked the northwest frontier of his Empire. Perhaps this is what Britannia is guarding on the coin, ready to repel any invaders who try to breach the defences.

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s decision to depict Britain as a female warrior may have been inspired by events that took place in Britain fifty-six years before his reign began. In 60-61 AD, Rome was left reeling from a series of devastating attacks that killed many thousands of their citizens living in this remote outpost of the Empire. The uprising was led by Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe, who achieved what the Romans had thought impossible and united previously warring Celtic tribes against their common enemy.

Statue of Queen Boudica in London – © Anhad Arora

Under her command, the Celts fought with a ferocity that took the occupiers completely by surprise and had burned down the thriving cities of Colchester, London and Saint Albans before the Romans could assemble a sufficient number of soldiers to crush their revolt.

The Boudican Revolt (60-61AD)

During the final battle, it was reported that Queen Boudica drove her war chariot between the tribes shouting encouragement and spurring them on. When all hope of victory was lost, legend has it that she took poison rather than be captured. Her inspirational leadership, daring to challenge the might of the Emperor and refusal to take prisoners or become one herself earned her the respect of Rome, who considered her a worthy adversary, made all the more remarkable because she was also a woman.

Looking again at Hadrian’s coin, it is not a great stretch of the imagination to see Britannia seated next to the large wheel of a sythed war chariot, which Queen Boudica is believed to have driven.

Queen Boudica in her war chariot with her daughters

A similar design appeared on coins issued by Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD) who, unlike Hadrian, never visited Britain. His army successfully pressed further north and built the 39 mile long Antonine Wal. It spans what is today known as the Central Belt of Scotland between the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth. Constructed primarily in turf and timber, the Antonine Wall took about twelve years to complete and was abandoned after only eight years.

Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall

On some coins, Britannia is depicted holding a Roman military standard alongside her spear. This arguably reflects the Emperor’s pride in securing this remote region of his empire for the glory of Rome.

Britannia holding a shield and Roman military standard on a coin issued under Antonius Pius

Britannia continued to appear intermittently on Roman coins throughout the Roman occupation of Britain. During the reign of Commodus (177-192AD), she was depicted standing with a sword in one hand and a helmet in the other. However, after the Romans withdrew from Britain at the beginning of the fifth century, it would be more than a millennium before she would appear on a coin again.

The Widows Mite – The true value of a gift

One of the reasons I love old coins is that they are a witness to the past. To hold one in your hands is to make a physical connection to the hands that once held it before yours. Coins have been present at the most pivotal events in human history and have been carried in the pockets and purses of kings and beggars ever since they made their appearance about 2,600 years ago.

A coin doesn’t have to be struck in silver or gold to be valuable.  Indeed, two of the lowest value coins in circulation two thousand years ago provided the inspiration for one of Jesus’ most famous teachings in the New Testament.

The grand temple in Jerusalem was a hive of activity.  Crowds of pilgrims passed through the temple gates and paused to throw their offerings into the large ceremonial collection bowls that stood ready to receive them. The high temple walls would have echoed with the noise of coins as they landed in the bowls. Many wealthy people were throwing in large sums of money, much to the delight of the religious leaders.

Amidst the noise and the people, one donation went virtually unnoticed. A poor widow briefly emerged from the crowd to drop in two small copper coins. Compared to the many wealthy donations, her offering was an insignificant amount. Her coins were so light that they would have barely made a sound as they landed in the bowl.   

The widow’s offering. Image courtesy of Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing.

But her gift had been observed by a young man sitting quietly opposite the collection bowls. He had been watching the people as they made their donations, large and small, to the temple treasury. Quickly, Jesus called over his followers and shared an astonishing insight with them.  

“Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth, but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.” 

Mark 12:43-44 (New International Version)

Jesus used these two little coins to explain one of his most radical teachings.  God measures the true value of a gift, not by its financial worth but on how much it costs the giver to give it.

This teaching put him at odds with the powerful religious leaders in Jerusalem who enjoyed fine clothes and banquets while demanding offerings that pushed God’s people into poverty.  They hated Jesus for calling them out for their hypocrisy and speaking with the authority of God, and so they conspired to have him put to death.  

Of course, we have no way of knowing precisely which coins the poor widow dropped into the collection plate that day. They were most likely tiny copper lepta, or similarly sized prutah. In Jesus’ day, these would have been the lowest value coins in the region. Often poorly struck and badly worn, they would circulate for many decades until they no longer resembled coins.  

Two small coins. Image courtesy of Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing.

When the Bible was translated into English, the Greek word lepta (meaning thin and small) became mite, which was the name of the smallest coin circulating in Europe at the time. The word was used by the Bible translators so that readers could understand that it was a coin with the lowest possible numerical value.

The coins could have been struck a century or more before Jesus saw them in the temple. The Maccabee ruler Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) struck huge quantities of prutah and lepta, and archaeological evidence suggests that they continued to circulate well into the second century.  These coins depict an anchor on the obverse and an eight-pointed star on the reverse.

The Prutah

The lepton and prutah were in circulation for so long that surviving examples are almost always extremely worn.  But that is part of their charm. Just imagine the number of people who carried this coin with them, the places they went, the things they saw.  Who knows, maybe one of its previous owners was a poor widow who dropped it into the collection box in the temple.     

It has been said that all of the armies that have ever marched, all the Parliaments that have ever sat and all the monarchs that have ever reigned, put together, have not impacted the world as powerfully as the man who taught us the true value of a gift.

Coins and the Importance of Where to Look

by Andreas Kolle

Have you ever wondered why the head of the monarchs appear to look either to the left or the right – and if there is a system with it? Short answer, it’s both complicated and fun.

Long traditions for facing right

Faces on coins first appeared in the 6th century BC, but it was during the following century that profiles of gods and goddesses appeared frequently. The most famous is probably the Owl tetradrachm of Athens. The much-copied tetradrachm and stater of Alexander the Great also looked right. There were exceptions to this rule, for example the Corinth Pegasus stater, but the dominating coins looked right.

Roman emperors almost always looked to the right. Given the significance of these coins, this made right-facing coins dominant both in Rome and in many countries copying them. The outwards-looking solidus coins of the Byzantine Empire did not catch on, and right was the direction to look. 

There might be an easy explanation: We write from left to right. This means that this is the “preferred” way of looking. We also know that the devil is associated with the left, and the word “sinister” comes from the Latin word for “left”.

The English Switch

Another interesting development is that queens like Elizabeth I of England and Christina of Sweden often looked to the left. And this might have been the reason for a typical English tradition. 

Henry VII and Henry VIII both looked right and straight ahead in some cases. Mary I and Elizabeth I both looked left. James I faced both left and right depending on the coin. Charles I looked left, but Charles II looked both ways. Finally, his younger brother, James II, looked only to the left – and the monarchs that followed him have alternated between looking left and right, all the way down to our current monarch…

Of course, there is one interesting exception to the rule, and it is our old friend, Edward VIII. He was supposed to look to the right, but preferred the left side of his face, and insisted on looking the “wrong” way. The tradition from 1685 onwards did not seem to bother him. The coin was prepared, but no coins made it into circulation. When he abdicated, the Royal Mint pretended that his coin was made with him looking to the right. Therefore, the George VI coin was made with him looking to the right again to keep in tradition.

What could be more British than insisting that a coin never circulated was made with the opposite design to the one it had so that tradition was upheld? 

The Emperor and the King

When it comes to portraits, Scandinavia did a bit of everything. Denmark insisted on always looking to the right, whereas Sweden from 1907 onwards always looked to the left. With all due respect to the Anglo-French enmity, this is the real long-standing feud in Europe. Norway, on their part, did exactly like Britain and switched sides.

France, however, is where things get very confusing. It seemed as they alternated every other turn, because Louis XIII and XIV looked to the right, and Louis XV and XVI predominately looked to the left. Then you have the cat among the pigeons: Napoleon. He decided to look to the right, probably to symbolize a new time in opposition to Louis XVI. When he was deposed and Louis XVIII took over, the new king was quick to look to the left again. This is hardly surprising. Louis XVIII was the brother of the deposed and executed Louis XVI. Making a break with Napoleon made sense. When he died, his brother Charles X took over, also looking to the left. When he was deposed in the 1830 revolution, the once-radical Louis Philippe was made king, and perhaps to make a stand against the two conservative kings who preceded him, he faced right.

And now we end up with the wisest fool in Christendom, Napoleon III. In 1851 he was crowned emperor. This made him the second emperor in traditional counting, however the Bonaparte family claimed that Napoleon Bonaparte’s son was emperor for a couple of weeks. This meant that either Napoleon I looked right, and an imaginary coin of Napoleon II would look to the left and Napoleon III should look to the right again or that all emperors, like in Ancient Rome, should look to the right.

Napoleon III looked to the left. Because of course he did.

This might have meant that he considered himself a continuation of the kings of France rather than an abomination with his own rules. It could have had another explanation. After all, Napoleon III was the man who Karl Marx had in mind when he coined the phrase “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce“. Napoleon III was in either case the last monarch of the French. 

Andreas Kolle is a Norwegian historian cum laude and the resident historian for Samlerhuset Norway. A professional copywriter with 10 years of experience, Andreas also keeps the Samlerhuset blog active by covering a range of numismatic and historical topics. He has a contagious love for all things numismatic and historical and adheres to the QI adage that there is no such thing as an uninteresting item.

The children of Sparta and the boy on a dolphin

The Lydian lion, believed to the be the world’s first coin

The ancient Greeks produced many beautiful coins that are highly sought after by collectors today. The Greek historian Herodotus recorded that the world’s first coins were struck in the Kingdom of Lydia around the Seventh Century BC. The Lydians struck their coins in electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, and they depicted the head of a lion.

Within a century, the island of Aegina, who traded with Lydia, had become the first Greek city-state to see the potential of currency. They struck an astonishingly beautiful coin featuring a sea turtle in high relief. Other regions eagerly followed their example and created distinctive coins depicting the emblems of their society.

But while Athens coinage depicted a wide-eyed owl, and Corinth used the flying horse Pegasus, one Greek city-state stubbornly refused to embrace the concept of coinage. The legendary warrior city of Sparta was so resistant to currency that they actually forbade its use for several centuries.

The Athenian Owl

Given Sparta’s staunch opposition to coins, it is an amusing irony that their only colony, Taras, situated hundreds of miles away in southern Italy, not only fully embraced the concept but produced what is arguably one of the most intriguing and iconic coins of the ancient world.

The story of how and why the children of Sparta travelled to Italy and then chose the image of a boy on a dolphin as the emblem of their city to depict on their coins is a fascinating one.

City of Warriors

A Spartan warrior

The Spartans were arguably the most fearsome, ruthless and accomplished warriors in the ancient world. Located on the Peloponnese peninsula next to the mighty Eurotas River, Spartan citizens were bred for war. Their society was dedicated to producing physically fit, fiercely loyal and highly disciplined warriors who considered death on the battlefield the highest possible honour.

Training began at birth. Newborn Spartan babies were carefully examined for defects or illnesses, and if any were found, they would be taken outside the city and left to die on a hillside. Those fortunate to survive the selection procedure were sent to a state-run military school at the age of seven. They were taught to fight and endure pain through discipline, physical exercise, combat skills and weapons training.

The Sons of Virgins

During the Messenian War, circa 743-724 BC, the Spartan army pledged not to return home until they had secured victory. Having so many warriors away from home led to a dramatic drop in the birthrate, which threatened Sparta’s long term future. It is reported that a delegation of Spartan women travelled to Messenia to demand that their husbands procreate with them. However, as the war dragged on, it became clear that a different approach to solving the low birthrate problem was required.

To honour their pledge not to return home until the war was won, it was decided that young soldiers who had not yet sworn the oath to Sparta would be sent back with a special mission. In what must be one of the most unusual military orders ever issued, the soldiers were commanded to reproduce with as many young Spartan women as possible.

The children that resulted from these unorthodox unions were called Parthenians. The name means ‘sons of virgins’ because their mothers were considered to have done their patriotic duty for the state and so maintained their legal status as virgins.

Partheniae, however, had no legal status within Spartan society and were deprived of civil rights. Spartan warriors returning home at the end of the war refused to accept children conceived by their wives and daughters during their absence, particularly as it was rumoured that some babies had been fathered by slaves who had taken advantage of the situation to have illicit relationships with women outside of their social class.

After growing into adulthood, the Parthenians refused to accept their inferior status and organised a revolt. Anticipating the situation, the Spartan government proposed a peaceful alternative to bloody conflict. Perhaps due to their unique status as the children of Spartan women, there does not appear to have been the usual Spartan desire to crush their opponents by force. Instead, they asked their leader, a man called Phalantus, to lead the Partheniae out of the Peloponnese region and establish the only Spartan colony somewhere else.

A Spartan woman giving a shield to her son

Rain from a Clear Sky

To decide where they should go, Phalantus travelled to the temple of Delphi, located on Mount Parnassus in Central Greece. The Greeks believed Delphi to be the centre of the known world, and it became a place of great spiritual pilgrimage for those in search of divine guidance. At Delphi, it was believed that the gods could speak directly to humans.

Delphi was built to honour the god Apollo who the Greeks believed could transform into a dolphin. According to the legend, it was as a dolphin that he appeared to a group of terrified Cretan sailors. After taking on human form, he instructed them to build his temple in the mountains and name it after the aquatic mammal. They dutifully built a temple in his honour and named it Delphinios (Delphi) even though it is located several miles inland, far from a dolphin’s usual habitat.

Within the temple, the ancient Greeks believed that the gods would communicate through the Oracle, an older woman of good reputation who lived among the peasants in Delphi. She was kept alone in an inner sanctum built over a fissure in the rock. Fumes rising from this chasm had intoxicating properties that produced a trance-like effect. At pre-arranged times during the year, the Oracle would go into a trance, and according to legend, Apollo would speak directly through her. The priests in the temple would be on hand to transcribe and interpret any ‘divine’ instructions received.

Phalantus asked the Oracle to tell him where he should build the new colony, but he received an answer that puzzled him. She informed him that he should go to a place where rain fell from a clear sky. After all of his attempts to identify a place that fitted the description failed, a despondent Phalantus became convinced that the Oracle was telling him that there was nowhere on Earth for them to go.

After returning home in despair, his wife Aethra consoled him as he lay sobbing with his head in her lap until she also became upset. As her tears trickled down and splashed onto her husband’s face, Phalantus suddenly realised the meaning of the Oracle’s vision. His wife’s name, Aethra, meant ‘clear sky’. She had been born in the Apulia region, which is today in Southern Italy. He knew immediately that this was where the new colony had to be built.


The Partheniae arrived in the Apulia region in 706 BC and built Sparta’s only colony there. They chose a perfect geographical location for trade, as it provided a naturally safe harbour for sea-going vessels on the Mediterranean. They named their city Taras (later, Tarentum) after the son of the Greek sea god Poseidon and a local nymph Satyrion. The colony was initially modelled on Sparta’s constitution and grew quickly to become one of the most important commercial centres in the region. Today, the city is called Taranto.

Little is known of what happened to Phalantus after he established the colony. There is no history that he was buried in the city, which was the traditional way to honour a founder. One legend has him leaving Taras and returning to Sparta, where he met an untimely death at the hands of jealous government officials threatened by his popularity.


Sparta had no need for coinage which they considered the product of an inferior society. With a huge underclass of slaves, known as Helots, and a separate class of merchant craftsman called the Perocei, Spartan citizens were allocated food, clothing, housing and possessions according to their rank and status within society. All of their day-to-day needs were provided by the state, so money was redundant as a medium of exchange. In fact, Spartan citizens were forbidden to embark upon profit-making ventures, as this was considered a distraction from their training as warriors.

Taras did not have the same structured society as Sparta. Without an abundance of slaves, and skilled craftsmen to provide for their needs, they had no alternative but to engage in widespread commerce with their neighbours. In a significant departure from the Spartan model, they decided to strike their own coinage to facilitate the trade that fueled their economic prosperity. Production of Taras coinage was prolific and began about 500 BC, making them the first coins to have a direct connection with Sparta.

Boy on a Dolphin

Coin struck at Taras

Like most cities, Taras chose to place an emblem that symbolised their city on the face of its coinage. They selected the image of a boy riding on the back of a dolphin which appears on most of their coins. The popular theory is that he is Phalantus, the founder of the city. The dolphin appears on the coin because Phalantus chose the colony’s location after consulting the Oracle at Delphi.

However, the Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed that the Taras coins depicted the mythical figure of Taras himself. According to the murky world of Greek mythology, Taras was rescued from a shipwreck by his father, the sea-god Poseidon, who dispatched a dolphin to save his son from drowning.  The creature dutifully carried Taras to shore at the spot on which the city that bears his name was built.

While it is always dangerous to base even tentative historical conclusions on ancient mythology, this theory does, on balance, appear to be the more plausible of the two, as it explains why the male character is actually riding on the dolphin than simply asking it for directions. In addition, the story of a parent protecting a child from danger may have appealed to the children of Sparta, separated as they were from their strong parent city by hundreds of miles of sea.

What is clear is that the people of Taras revered both Phalantus and Taras as heroes. In the Second Century AD, a Greek travel writer called Pausanias described visiting Delphi and seeing a votive offering to the gods that depicted both men side by side.

Other Designs

The coins of Taras have always boasted a wide variety of reverse designs. The earliest included a four-spoked wheel, representing either a war chariot or a racing chariot. Others featured a head, possibly Taras or a cockle shell, which would have been abundant on the shoreline. One of the most popular and enduring designs appears to have been a man on horseback, which appeared on coinage from around 450 BC. These are generally considered to depict equestrian games at the hippodrome, where athletes competed in contests of skill and strength.

Why the reverse designs appear to have been changed so frequently is not immediately apparent. Certainly, the city’s economic prosperity was offset by less successful military campaigns against the native inhabitants of Apulia, the Iapyges. This instability might be reflected in the changing designs and help to explain why depictions of charging warriors, chariot wheels and trident wielding deities rub alongside images of young people, equestrian sports, musical instruments and fruits.

Conquest and Commerce

Initially, Taras sought to imitate the military glories of their parent city and secured important military victories over the Iapygian tribes of the Messapians and the Peucetians, two of the indigenous tribes within Apulia who objected to the expansion of Greek settlers on their land.

However, the colony’s victory celebrations were premature. In 475 BC, they were soundly defeated by the Messapians in a battle described by Herodotus as the greatest slaughter of Greeks in his knowledge. In 466 BC, they suffered another major defeat. So many of the ruling class were killed in the fighting that a democratic party was able to assume control of the government and introduce democracy to the city.

Afterwards, Taras restricted its future expansion to coastal regions and became one of the most successful Greek colonies that spread out across Italy, the Mediterranean islands, Syria, Egypt and the Middle East. She continued to grow throughout the Fifth Century  BC, assisted no doubt by the decline of her long term coastal rival Croton.

The value of coins would change from city to city. Merchants would usually only accept coins from their own city, which meant that visitors would have to seek out a moneychanger to exchange their coins before they could make purchases. The Athenian monetary system, adopted by most Greek city-states (except Sparta), ruled that the Drachma was worth six Obols and a Didrachm worth two Drachma. A Tetradrachm was worth four Drachma, and a Dekadrachm worth ten Drachma.

In the Fifth Century BC, it is believed that a Drachma would have been about a day’s wage for a manual worker. Soldiers in the Greek armoured infantry could expect to receive up to two Drachma, while sculptors and physicians could be paid up to six Drachma a day for their services.

Meat in ancient Greece was expensive, and only the wealthy could afford to eat at home. Lamb would cost eight Drachma, a gallon of olive oil about five Drachma and a loaf of bread, typically an Obol. A pair of shoes in Ancient Greece would typically cost between eight and twelve Drachma. For those wealthy enough to own slaves, one could be purchased from between twenty to thirty Dekadrachm.

Interestingly, travel costs between cities in ancient Greece appears to have been relatively inexpensive. According to the Greek philosopher Gorgias writing in the Fifth Century BC, a ferry crossing from the island of Aegina to Athens would cost just two Obols. In contrast, a long voyage across the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt to Athens would cost about two Drachma.

In 433 BC, the Spartan colony even founded a colony of her own in the west. Named Heraclea after the Greek god Heracles, she became the seat of the Italiote League just thirty years later. Taras controlled this association of Greek-speaking inhabitants in southern Italy, and coins were struck portraying the mythical hero fighting a lion, an allusion to the strength of the Greeks against the native population.

It was not until Sparta was in terminal decline as a military and political power that it became necessary for them to produce their own coinage to trade with their neighbours. The strict laws prohibiting the use of coinage were relaxed, and the first Spartan coins, comprising silver Tetradrachms and Obols, were struck, albeit in very low quantities from the Third Century BC.

Taras flourished as a major centre of commerce for nearly five hundred years before she was captured by the Romans and renamed Tarentum after 213 BC. The Romans named the coastal areas of Southern Italy ‘Magna Graecia’ (Great Greece) due to the number of Greek colonies established throughout the region.  The minting operation at Taras, which had struck the coins that circulated widely throughout Magna Graecia fell silent, and her reign as a significant economic and political power came to an end.  However, the large number of iconic coins found throughout the region provide evidence of the prosperity, power and influence that the children of Sparta achieved.

Ancient temple ruins from Tarentum

Byzantine Coins, the Shroud of Turin and the Holy Grail

Byzantine bronze follis struck AD 969-976 and the face on the Shroud of Turin

Since I was a small boy, I have been fascinated by the Shroud of Turin, where the paths of history, science and faith combine in one unique artefact. Irrespective of your religious beliefs, any student of history or science will find much to captivate them in the faint image of a crucified man that appears on the ancient cloth. Whether the linen once wrapped the dead body of Jesus Christ or is the work of a more recent medieval forger, the mystery of how the image is imprinted remains unsolved, even with twenty-first-century technology. It is my view that the image of Christ that appears on Byzantine coinage provides compelling evidence for the Shroud’s authenticity and a plausible solution to one of history’s greatest enigmas – the location of the mythical Holy Grail itself.    

A New Acquisition

At some time during the short but distinguished reign of Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes (AD 969- 976), an artist working at the Constantinople Mint was entrusted with the task of engraving an image of Jesus Christ for a new bronze follis. Earlier emperors had depicted Christ on gold and silver coins, but this was the first time that his likeness would appear on a mass-produced circulating coin. 

The Emperor’s decision to depict Christ on his coinage instead of his own portrait may have been prompted by an exciting new acquisition. Constantinople had recently taken ownership of the holiest relic in Christendom, a mysterious image of Christ ‘not made by human hands’ but miraculously transferred onto a cloth, it was said, by Christ himself. Although it was considered too holy to go on public display at the time, our coin engraver would almost certainly have been granted the privilege of entering the Pharos chapel of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace for a special viewing in order to capture a good likeness.

The cloth had arrived in Constantinople amidst much rejoicing on 15th August 944 after being acquired from the city of Edessa (today, Urfa in Southern Turkey).  According to local legend, it had been presented to King Abgar of Edessa by Jesus’ disciples when he became the first ruler to convert to Christianity. However, when the King died, the city reverted to paganism, and the cloth was hidden to protect it.  Workers repairing the city walls in AD 525 stumbled upon it in a niche high above one of the main gates. 

Images of the Mandylion


The rediscovery of the Edessa Cloth (or Mandylion) sparked considerable excitement throughout the Christian world.  One contemporary account described the image as “a moist secretion with no paint or artistic craft transferred with no artistic intervention on the cloth”.

Since the New Testament provide no clues about Christ’s physical appearance, pilgrims flocked to Edessa to observe what they believed to be His true likeness. From the Sixth Century onwards, artists increasingly depicted him with the distinctive facial features that appear on the cloth – long hair with a centre parting, large owl-like eyes, a long prominent nose, a full moustache and a slightly forked beard. 

Contemporary paintings made of the Mandylion suggest that it was kept in a wide rectangular frame with a hole cut into the centre through which the bearded face could be viewed. It is interesting to note that artists who painted the face often framed it within a circle. Could this be the origin of the halo, or nimbus that became a popular symbol of holiness in medieval art?   

The First Depiction

Gold coin of Justinian II (AD 692-695)

The first coins to depict Christ were struck almost three centuries earlier during the reign of Emperor Justinian II (AD 692–695). On that occasion, the coin engravers may have made the 800 mile trip to Edessa to see the Mandylion for themselves. Both the gold solidus and the smaller gold tremissis (one third the weight of the solidus) incorporate many intricate details present in the mysterious image. However, political instability in the region may have restricted future access to the cloth, and later designs appear to have been copies of the first strikes. During the Eighth Century, a fierce debate raged through the Eastern Church about whether it was heretical to make images of the Son of God. Many paintings of Christ were destroyed, and no coins were struck bearing his image for over a Century until the debate was resolved. 

The mass circulating bronze coin of Emperor John I Tzimiskes marked the first in a series of what has become known as anonymous Byzantine folles. For the next 123 years, successive emperors chose to depict Christ on their circulating coins instead of their own portraits, which is why they are collectively described as anonymous. Whilst doing so may have been no more than an act of piety, it also allowed them to promote their holiest relic throughout the ancient world. On the reverse of the coins, several different inscriptions boldly identify the face that appears on them. The most common is the four-lined IHSUS XRISTUS BASILEU BASILE (‘Jesus Christ King of Kings’). There is also a popular cross symbol with two letters in each quarter, IC XC NI KA (‘May Jesus Christ Conquer’). 

Anonymous Bronze follis (AD 969-976)

The Engraver’s Art

Engraving a portrait directly onto a small circular die required formidable talent, consummate patience and perfect vision.  Given the large number of circulating bronze coins required to circulate through the empire, a relatively simple design would have been required so that the Mint could replace the dies quickly as they wore out.  This posed another challenge to the Mint engravers as there would be no time to create the intricate and exquisitely detailed dies which had been crafted for the more prestigious gold coins.  They had to work quickly using a design that was relatively easy to replicate over and over again to keep the coins coming. 

I am going to suggest, for reasons which will hopefully become apparent, that our engraver took a novel approach to create his coin design for the bronze follis. Unable to create a beautiful portrait incorporating detailed facial features, he instead carefully copied the faint lines that make up the image. The result may have lacked the elegance of the gold coins but accurately replicated the mysterious face on Constantinople’s most important holy relic, which was presumably his brief.

The Mandylion Stolen

So, how successful was the coin designer in copying the image from the Cloth of Edessa?  To answer that, we have to determine whether it has survived to enable us to make a comparison. In 1204, Constantinople was attacked and plundered by the French-led Fourth Crusade.  It was later reported that the crusaders had” taken many relics, including the linen in which our Lord was wrapped’.  The Mandylion, with its mysterious ghost-like image, slipped quietly into legend. 

The attack on Constantinople by the French led Fourth Crusade in 1204

Without the original cloth, inferior copies made of the ‘true image’ (Latin: vera icon) soon took on a mythical quality of their own. A new origin story emerged in the 14th Century in which a woman from Jerusalem wiped Christ’s face with her veil as he carried his cross to his crucifixion, only to find a supernatural image of his face imprinted on it. The event does not appear in any of the New Testament accounts, and the name Veronica is most likely a corruption of the words ‘vera icon’. Several churches claim to possess either the true veil or an ancient copy. In reality, they are most likely early copies of the image on the Edessa Cloth made before it was stolen from Constantinople in 1204.

The Templar Connection

There is strong evidence that the real Mandylion was entrusted to the safekeeping of the warrior monks known as the Knights Templar, who were fiercely protective of their most precious treasure and kept its location a closely guarded secret.  A Vatican researcher recently claimed to have unearthed a Templar initiation rite from 1287. In it, a young Frenchman called Arnaut Sabbatier testified that he was “shown a long piece of linen on which was impressed the figure of a man and told to worship it, kissing the feet three times“.

The Templar leaders are executed

When the Knights Templar fell out of favour with the Pope, the Grand Master Jacques de Molay was arrested with sixty of his knights in a dawn raid on Friday 13th October 1307. Charged with heresy, which included worshipping the image of a bearded man, years of torture and imprisonment followed, but they refused to divulge the whereabouts of the treasure they guarded.

Eventually, the King of France lost patience and had Moloy and his deputy, the Templar ‘draper’ Geoffrey de Charny, burnt at the stake in Paris on 18th March 1314. 

From Lirey to Turin

In 1349, a distinguished French Knight, also called Geoffrey de Charny, requested permission from Pope Clement VI to display the burial shroud of Christ in his hometown of Lirey. It is highly probable that he was a descendant of the man who died alongside Moloy in Paris, although the family always refused to explain how such a remarkable object had come into their possession. This led one local bishop to denounce the shroud as being “cunningly painted … a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed“.

After Charny was killed fighting the battle of Poitiers in 1356, his family displayed the Shroud to the public and struck special souvenir pilgrim badges, depicting its distinctive double imprint of a human body and bearing the Charny family’s heraldry.

Souvenir pilgrim badge struck by the Charny family

In 1453 Geoffrey de Charny’s elderly grand-daughter Marguerite de Charny, knowing she would die childless, passed the Shroud to the pious Duke Louis I of Savoy. His successors installed it at their then capital, Chambery where it was folded up and placed in a silver casket. In 1532 a fire swept through the chapel, and a drop of molten silver from the casket burned a hole through the folded layers of fabric within. Fortunately, the image was left more or less intact, and in 1578 the Savoy family moved the cloth to their new capital Turin, where it resides to this day. In 1983 ownership of the Shroud was officially transferred to the Roman Catholic Church.

Scientific Investigation

The Shroud of Turin
Photographic negative

Today, the Shroud of Turin is the most studied historical artefact in the world. The scientific community began to take an interest after amateur photographer Secondo Pia photographed the face for the first time in May 1898. As he developed the image in his darkroom, he nearly dropped the photographic plate in shock. The negative revealed details of the face that had never been seen before. Pia was accused of tampering with the image and had to wait until the Shroud was publicly displayed again in 1931 before another photograph could be taken to validate his startling discovery.

In October 1978, an international team comprising over 40 scientists was granted unprecedented access to the Shroud for five days. Calling themselves the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), they included a nuclear physicist, a thermal chemist, a biophysicist, an optical physicist, a forensic pathologist and specialist photographers. They brought over eighty tonnes of scientific equipment to Turin to determine how the image had been formed and where it had been.

Three years later, STURP published their findings, concluding that “there are no chemical or physical methods known which can account for the totality of the image“.

The image shows the anatomically correct human form of a scourged and crucified man with wounds consistent with the Biblical accounts of Christ’s crucifixion. These include a bleeding scalp, a severe scourging with multi-pronged whips, wounds in the wrists and feet and an elliptical wound in the side that appears to have been made by a spear.

No pigments, paints or dyes were found on the linen fibres that would account for the image, meaning that the image cannot be the work of an artist. The bloodstains that cover the cloth are human and contain a high concentration of bilirubin, produced when a body is suffering extreme stress and pain. Curiously, the blood was present on the linen before the image formed around it. Pollen grains taken from the cloth have been identified as coming from plants that flower in Jerusalem, Edessa and Constantinople, suggesting that the Shroud has spent time in these locations.

More Than A Face

One problem with linking the Shroud of Turin with the Cloth of Edessa is that the latter was often described as bearing an image of Jesus’ face while he was still alive and not an image of his whole body laid out in death. However, it would have made practical sense for the original custodians of the cloth to disguise the fact that it once wrapped a dead body. Grave clothes were considered untouchable and unclean by the deeply superstitious population, and it would have been far more palatable to display the face only and claim that the image had been miraculously transferred when Jesus was alive.

This might explain why the cloth was displayed in a wide rectangular frame with a hole cut into the centre to display only the face. The frame would have allowed room for a much longer cloth to be folded up inside it. Intriguingly, the original Edessan account of the cloth refers to it as being “tetradiplon“, which means four-folded. Analysis of fold marks on the Shroud of Turin confirms that it was indeed folded in this way for a considerable time.

There are also eyewitness reports that suggest that the Mandylion was a full-body image and not just a face. In the Eighth Century, Pope Stephen III (reigned AD 752 to 757) stated that Christ had “spread out his entire body on a linen cloth that was white as snow. On this cloth, marvellous as it is to see… the glorious image of the Lord’s face, and the length of his entire and most noble body, has been divinely transferred.” 

Later, an English monk called Orderic Vitalis, writing in about 1130, confirmed that the cloth bore “the majestic form of his whole body… supernaturally transferred“.

In 1203, a French knight called Robert de Clari visited Constantinople and described seeing “the Shroud in which the Lord had been wrapped raised upright so that one could see the figure of our Lord on it“.

Carbon Dating

Undoubtedly the greatest obstacle for linking the two cloths came in 1988 when laboratories in Oxford, Tucson and Zurich were granted permission to conduct a destructive Carbon 14 test on a sample cut from the Shroud of Turin to determine its age.  They later declared that the Shroud was a medieval forgery, made between 1260 and 1390.

Regrettably, the laboratories showed no interest in understanding how a medieval forger had imprinted a full length anatomically correct image of a victim of Roman crucifixion complete with unique photographic properties onto the linen. At the Press Conference, Professor Edward Hall, Director of the Oxford Research Laboratory, suggested that “someone just got a bit of linen, faked it up and flogged it” as if this would have been an easy thing to do. Irrespective of when the linen was made, how the image came to be imprinted on it remains no less of a mystery.

Public exposition of the Shroud

In recent years, serious doubts have been cast on the validity of the 1988 test results. The test samples were cut from a corner of the cloth that priests had held up for hours at a time when displaying it to the faithful during outdoor expositions. We now know that smoke damage, prolonged exposure to the elements, and repeated handling can seriously affect the outcome of a Carbon 14 test.

Furthermore, in 2005 one of the original STURP scientists, Ray Rogers, examined a control sample cut for the test that was not destroyed and concluded that cotton had once been expertly woven into the ancient linen to repair the area and then dyed to disguise the repair. If correct, this would invalidate the 1988 results because it means that the samples cut from the corner “were not representative of the main Shroud“, which contains no cotton.  

New Research

In 2013, a team of scientists from several Italian Universities led by Professor Giulio Fanti published the results of their non-destructive chemical and mechanical tests on the Shroud. Using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), Raman Spectroscopy, and other tests to measure the micro-mechanical characteristics of flax fibres such as tensile strength, the team was able to date the linen to “33 BC ± 250 years”.

To date, all attempts to date the Shroud using scientific methods have provoked controversy and accusations of bias, and the Catholic Church has wisely refused to have an official position regarding its authenticity. However, the new test results open up the genuine possibility that the Cloth of Edessa and the Shroud of Turin are the same historical artefact.

Facial Comparisons

I believe that the anonymous bronze follis struck between AD 969 and 976 make this connection even more compelling. The coins circulated throughout the Byzantine empire for many decades, meaning that surviving examples are often heavily worn. Frustratingly, the highest points on a circulating coin are inevitably the first to wear, so coins that still display clear facial features are rare. Fortunately, well-preserved examples exist, and we can see what the coin designer engraved onto the die simply by flipping the image that appears on the struck coin. When flipped and viewed alongside an image of the face on the Shroud, the similarities are extraordinary, especially when you consider that our engraver was working on an area little more than a centimetre in diameter.

Byzantine Follis (AD 969-976) compared with the face on the Shroud of Turin

Most striking of all is the distinctive cross shape incorporating the eyebrows, forehead and nose. There is a long horizontal band above the eyes, bisected by a long vertical line that starts at the hairline and extends downwards to become a long nose. The base of the nose connects to a smaller horizontal line that forms the moustache, which slopes down slightly on the left-hand side. There is a distinctive mark on the right cheek, and beneath the moustache is a small square and a forked beard. The long hair, which hangs down on both sides of the face, has two parallel strands of hair at the bottom left of the image. These features can be seen clearly on the Shroud image, and the result is a coin that resembles the Shroud image far too closely to be dismissed as a coincidence.

Byzantine Follis (AD 1028-1041) showing detail on the forehead that matches a bloodstain on the Shroud

A later bronze follis struck in Constantinople about fifty years later incorporates additional details that suggest that coin artists continued to have access to the original image. Intriguingly, there is a tiny mark in the centre parting of the hair in the forehead that resembles the inverted “3” shaped bloodstain that appears on the Shroud in the same area. In addition, the coin artist has replicated the way that the long hair appears to bunch at the shoulders. The eyebrows are represented with a long horizontal line, and there is the suggestion that the right eyebrow is slightly higher than the left. There is also a wound-like mark on the right cheek, a moustache that appears to slope down to the left and, most striking of all, a horizontal band across the throat.

Once again, I would suggest that the similarities are too many and too specific to be a coincidence.


So, if we are to consider these startling similarities to be compelling numismatic evidence that the coin artists working at the Constantinople Mint saw and copied the face on the Shroud of Turin, then the ramifications are significant. It means that the Shroud is considerably older than the flawed Carbon dating results indicate. It also provides compelling evidence that the Cloth of Edessa and the Shroud of Turin are one and the same. It is frankly inconceivable that there were two linen cloths present in Christendom at the same time, both containing a mysterious image of Jesus not made by human hands.

There is an additional, intriguing implication of this research. According to legend, the holiest relic protected by the Templars was the Holy Grail, a mysterious vessel that Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy follower of Jesus, used to collect Jesus’ blood in at his crucifixion.  The grail is often associated with the cup that Jesus used in his last supper with his disciples before his death.  But why the Romans executing Jesus would have permitted one of his followers to catch his blood in a drinking cup makes no sense at all.  So, could this vessel be something else? 

The New Testament may provide us with the answer. Could it be that the vessel that Joseph of Arimathea used to contain Jesus’ blood in was not a drinking cup at all, but the blood-stained linen cloth that wrapped around Jesus’ crucified body in the tomb?    

“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate (the Roman governor), he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock.” (Matthew 27:57-60 NIV)

Does the face of Jesus struck onto the coins of the Byzantine Empire reveal that the lost Cloth of Edessa, the legendary Holy Grail and the mysterious Shroud of Turin are, in fact, the same historical artefact? 

Blood Money – The Shekel of Tyre

The silver tetradrachm (shekel) struck by the mint at Tyre features prominently in several pivotal events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth as documented in the New Testament. It is likely to be the coin that Jesus told his disciple Simon Peter that he would find miraculously in the mouth of a fish. It was probably one of the coins that tumbled to the ground when Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple courtyard. And perhaps most significant of all, it is believed to be the coin that Judas Iscariot received thirty of in exchange for betraying his master to the authorities.

By the time the ancient Phoenician port city of Tyre was conquered by the Macedonian King Alexander III “the Great” in 332 BC, it had already acquired a reputation within the region for the quality of its silver coinage. Coins continued to be struck there under the authority of the Greek kings, and when the Romans arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean, they permitted the mint to strike an ‘independent’ silver coinage from about 125 BC comprising silver tetradrachms (shekels) weighing about 14 grams, and didrachms (half shekels) weighing about 7 grams.

With only minor exceptions, the design of the coin remained constant for nearly two centuries. It was modelled on the tetradrachm struck by their last Greek king, Demetrius II, who was executed near Tyre in 125 BC. His portrait on the coin was replaced with the Tyre god Melkart, son of Baal. The reverse depicts an eagle with a palm branch over its shoulder and perched on the bow of a ship. The inscription can be translated, ‘Tyre, the Holy and Inviolable’ together with the date of issue, which allows them to be dated accurately.

Despite depicting the head of a pagan god and a graven image, both of which were deeply objectionable to neighbouring Jews, the silver coin struck at Tyre became the only currency accepted by the Jewish religious authorities to pay the annual temple tax. This is because it was struck in the purest silver available in the region (about 95%) making it significantly more valuable than the Roman silver coins imported from the Far East that contained only about 80% silver.

The temple tax was introduced by Moses the lawgiver, who instructed every adult male over the age of twenty to make the annual contribution of half a shekel. This was about two days wages for a skilled labourer, and the tax was to be used for the building and upkeep of the temple.

“The rich are not to give more than a half shekel, and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives.” (Exodus 30:15 – NIV)

The modest sum enabled Jews of all economic levels to take part in the building of the temple, and when the construction was completed, the tax continued to be collected from every household to pay for the running costs of the temple.

In 18 BC, the letters’ KPA’ or ‘KP’ were added to the reverse of the coin, which has led some scholars to believe that the coin’s production moved from Tyre to a location in or close to Jerusalem itself. Given their reliance on the coin for the temple tax, if Tyre did stop producing the coins, the Jewish religious leaders would most likely have requested permission from the authorities to carry on making them in or near Jerusalem. The Romans prohibited the minting of local currency in Judea but may have been prepared to make an exception to keep the peace as long as they continued to use the same design. It has been suggested that the new letters may have been an acrostic that stood for “By Authority of the Roman Constitution”.

If true, then we have the astonishing spectacle of Jewish religious leaders seeking permission to strike a coin that they considered blasphemous, bearing a design that was expressly prohibited by the Ten Commandments. They would compel devout Jews to use this coin to pay their annual contribution for the upkeep of God’s Holy temple. One can only imagine what Moses would have made of that!

One Tyre shekel would pay the temple tax for two men, which is illustrated in Jesus’ exchange with his disciple, Simon Peter. When a tax collector challenged the disciple to say whether his master paid the temple tax, Simon Peter affirmed that he did. After pointing out that the sons of rulers are exempt from the taxation demanded by their fathers, Jesus gave him an unusual task to demonstrate both his miraculous power and his humility;

“But so that we may not cause offence, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (Matthew 17:24-27 NIV).

The coin that the disciple found in the mouth of a fish was most likely a Tyre shekel, as only this would have been sufficient to pay the temple tax for both men.

For Israelites, the design of the Tyre shekel violated the first two of the Ten Commandments given to them by Moses, which forbade the use of foreign deities and graven images. Consequently, no self-respecting Jew would use this coin in their day-to-day transactions, particularly one which described a foreign city as holy. Nonetheless, since this was the only currency accepted by the Jewish religious leaders for the annual temple tax, it meant that the temple vault would have been filled with silver coins depicting a foreign god!

To pay the temple tax, devout Jews were compelled to exchange their regular currency for the ‘blasphemous’ silver coinage of Tyre. To facilitate this, a thriving market of money changers set up shop in the temple courtyards and charged hefty commissions for their services. Since Jews wishing to pay the temple tax had no alternative but to pay their inflated rates to obtain Tyre shekels and half shekels, this also violated Moses’ instruction that no individual should pay more or less than half a shekel.

This was the scene that greeted Jesus when he arrived at the temple shortly after making a triumphant arrival in Jerusalem in circa AD 30.

“Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers … And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'” (Matthew 21:12-13 NIIV)

Jesus’ outrage at finding money changers profiteering from the temple tax, together with his authoritative teaching and miraculous healings, alarmed the religious leaders who felt threatened by his popularity. As they began plotting how to have Jesus arrested and put to death, one of his disciples came to them with an offer they couldn’t refuse.

“Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.” (Matthew 26:14-16 NIV)

Since shekels from Tyre were the only currency accepted at the Jerusalem Temple, these were likely to be the coins that Judas received for betraying his master. Within hours of betraying Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas realised the enormity of what he had done and, filled with remorse, tried to return the thirty silver coins to the chief priests, claiming that he had betrayed innocent blood. Now that they had their prize, the chief priests were indifferent to his anguish and told him that this was his responsibility. The New Testament informs us that Judas threw the shekels into the temple, went away and hanged himself.

Judas’ suicide presented the religious leaders with the dilemma of what to do with the coins;

“The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.” (Matthew 27:6-8 NIV)

Given the prominent role that the Tyre shekel played in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, it is hardly a surprise that the coin is highly desirable today. It is certainly a strange feeling to hold one in your hands and ponder that this is a design that Jesus and his followers would have known well.

Production of the Tyre shekel appears to have come to an end in about AD 66, possibly as a result of the outbreak of the first Jewish revolt which began that year. By that time, Rome had begun producing silver coinage with a significantly improved purity in neighbouring Syria.

Devout Jews continue to pay the temple tax to this day. Today, the sum is translated into local currency and donated to the needy.

The Tyre Shekel
Judas attempts to return the silver coins he has received for betraying Jesus
Simon Peter pays the temple tax with the coin he found in the mouth of the fish

The Greek God Pan: Cimmerian Bosphorus Bronze

by Jonathan Mann

Cimmerian Bosphorus Bronze Coin

A city-state founded on the edge of the known world

In the 7th century B.C., Miletus, a Greek colony on the western coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) sent a daring group of voyagers to search for new lands. They would venture all the way across the ‘inhospitable sea’ (the ancient Greek term for the Black Sea) to its northern shores where lush, fertile pastures were awaiting them. Settling on the eastern coast of what is now Crimea, Miletus’ colonists founded the ancient city-state of Panticapaeum (‘fish road’) on a strategic peninsula which dominated the Cimmerian Bosporus. This narrow strait was the nautical superhighway between Lake Myatis and the Black Sea meaning that, as a trading port, Panticapaeum would soon become an economic powerhouse. First, however, the Milesian settlers would have to contend with the locals. Powerful barbarian tribes known to the Greeks as the Tauri and the Scythians didn’t take kindly to their new neighbours and needed to be dealt with if Panticapaeum was to flourish.

Both the Tauri and Scythian cultures practised human sacrifice and possibly cannibalism so it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Just like the Vikings, Scythian raiders would regularly demand tribute, i.e. large sums of money, in return for leaving peacefully. Panticapaeum, in this harsh environment, managed to find a compromise with its new neighbours. Over time it could be seen that mutual cooperation was actually much more beneficial and out of this cooperation came riches and success. At the turn of the 6th century B.C. Panticapaeum joined with other Greek settlements around the Cimmerian Bosporus to form a Kingdom. Power in numbers was the order of the day and the dividends were massive. Trade abounded and exports of Bosporan grain, salted fish and slaves were dispatched right across the Black Sea and into Greece, reaching powerful city-states such as Mytilene and Athens. By 480 B.C. Panticapaeum had become a capital of the Kingdom of Bosporus and was veritably called the jewel of the Black Sea. As a Greco-Scythian hybrid domain the Kingdom is now recognised as the first truly ‘Hellenistic’ state in that its fusion of cultures adopted Greek as its language and civilisation. This fusion did, however, inevitably lead to the birth of a Bosporan Greek identity which today is well recognised as being unique within the ancient world. 

The unsung hero of Athens’ golden age

What also drew Panticapaeum and the Bosporan Kingdom into the limelight was the extent to which the most powerful city-state of the age was reliant upon them; Athens. Despite all its success and prosperity, Athens had one major achilles heel; it was unable to feed itself. The Bosporan Kingdom became a much-valued ally in providing an abundance of grain upon request. It was imperative to Athens that this flow of sustenance was maintained and so militarised colonies were set up in the cities of Amisos and Sinope on the southern shore of the Black Sea thus maintaining ready access to the Cimmerian Bosporus. Further Athenian ‘fortress’ colonies were founded in the Cimmerian Bosporus itself such as Athenaeum, Nymphaeum and Stratokleia, which secured even further their position as Panticapaeum’s number one client.

In 438 B.C. a signal shift took place at Panticapaeum which sent shockwaves across the kingdom. The rule of the powerful Archaenactidae tyrants who had reigned for over 40 years came to a sudden and mysterious end. In their place came the Spartocids, a dynasty of far greater power and ambition who would go on to rule for 320 years. Its founder was Spartacus, the head of a powerful aristocratic family of Panticapaeum whose rise to power would see the kingdom’s prosperity reach heady new heights. Under the Spartocids, the kingdom would expand, taking in new city-states, trading ports and commercial centres, acquiring their territories and vastly increasing its capacity to provide sustenance to the Black Sea and far beyond.

This was to be the Bosporan kingdom’s golden age and it came with a bang. Athens’ first move with the new ruling elite was to ensure their continued position as controller of export trade via their military colonies in the Bosporus. Spartacus was happy to oblige his best customer of Bosporan grain imports and he and his successors were duly buttered up by the Athenian top brass. It was ensured that Athenian writers made numerous references to the ‘special’ relationship between the two powerful city-states and citizenship rights were granted to Spartacus’ grandson, Leukon I, who had granted special privileges to Athenian ships at Bosporan ports. All good things must come to an end, however, by the time Athens had lost a crippling war with the Spartans in 404 B.C all but ending its trade affair with the Bosporan kingdom, Spartacos’ successors were already making their mark as kingdom builders. It is against this background of enterprise, expansion and economic dominance that the Bosporan Kingdom’s coinage comes into its own. 

Going for gold

The bronze coins minted at Panticapaeum during the 4th century B.C. are little artistic wonders in their own right and they perfectly convey the fusion of cultures which made the kingdom so unique. On the obverse is depicted the forepart of a beautiful mythical beast which has its origins in the distant past of Scythian and near eastern culture; the griffin. This majestic animal had the body, tail and hind legs of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The griffin, or ‘grypas’ in ancient Greek, very deliberately combined the king of the skies and of the land in one creature to convey its special status among the beasts of mythology. To the inhabitants of the Bosporan Kingdom the griffin was never far out of mind as they were believed to inhabit the mountains of Scythia. Here they reputedly battled with a tribe of one-eyed people known as the Arimaspians. An ongoing battle of wills took place each day for the rich gold deposits which were present in the Scythian mountains. Griffins were said to be able to dig this out with their strong beaks before depositing it in their nests. This mined gold was supplemented by the solid gold eggs laid by the griffins, a highly prized possession amongst the gold-loving Arimaspians. Fiercely protective of every nugget, large or small, a griffin would tear to pieces any Arimaspian who dared try to steal their prized precious metal.

One Roman writer called Aelian wrote about the underhand  tactics used to steal this gold; ‘Dreading the strength of these animals, do not set out in quest of the gold by day, but arrive by night, for at that season they are less likely to be detected. Now the region where the Grypes live and where the gold is mined is a dreary wilderness. And the seekers after the aforesaid substance arrive, a thousand or two strong, armed and bringing spades and sacks; and watching for a moonless night they begin to dig. Now if they contrive to elude the Grypes they reap a double advantage, for they not only escape with their lives but they also take home their freight, and when those who have acquired a special skill in the smelting of gold have refined it, they possess immense wealth to requite them for the dangers described above. And they return home, I am told, after an interval of three or four years.”.

As the capital of a Kingdom laden with Scythian influence, Panticapaeum chose the griffin to grace its bronze coins, likely as a means of expressing its cultural identity. This was the edge of the known world and the influence of Scythian and near-eastern culture was clearly something the rulers of the Cimmerian Bosporus wanted to shout about. Upon the coins the griffin sits above a sturgeon, a variety of fish which is abundant in the waters of the kingdom. Around the griffin are the letters P A N denoting that the coin was struck at Panticapaeum. 

Pan, pan pipes, panic and Panticapaeum’s world panning record

The reverse of Panticapaeum’s bronze coins show in profile a truly ancient deity, his eyes seemingly filled with madness. This is Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and flocks, fields, groves, mountain wilderness and wooded glens, hunting, rustic music and a fair bit more. One of the more obscure gods, Pan had the hindquarters, legs and horns of a goat and spent most of his time wandering through the wilderness playing the Syrinx or pan pipes. Now a well-known instrument, the pan pipes have various origin stories attached to them in mythology.

One of these stories related to a nymph named Syrinx whom Pan had fallen in love with. Fleeing from him, Syrinx returned to her sisters who turned her into a reed. Not knowing which reed this was, he picked several and joined them together. Realising that blowing upon them produced a beautiful melody which encapsulated those around him, Pan had created the Pan pipes. He could be seen gleefully playing them as he skipped through the forest but he was not always so full of the joys of spring, despite being a god traditionally associated with that very season. The word panic originated through his name as his menacing voice frightened anyone who was unfortunate enough to stumble upon him. Pan’s nature was wild, his spirit rooted in nature, in ancient mystery and the forest.

Nature can be unpredictable and so was Pan who enjoyed tricking, confusing and tormenting those who were unlucky enough to attract his attention. He is written as once having challenged Apollo to a musical contest. This brazen challenge was duly accepted by Apollo who was certain to win and win he did, however, this was challenged by one of the judges, a certain King Midas (of golden touch fame). Apollo was so disgusted by this insult that he transformed Midas’ ears into those of an ass. Pan, too, can be seen sporting the same ass’s ears in his portrait on the bronze coins of Panticapaeum, the city to which he is a patron god. Despite these ass’s ears, menacing appearance and slightly unkempt hair, in the case of Panticapaeum’s coinage, Pan has become a world beater. In 2012 a gold stater of Panticapaeum with the same designs as the bronze coins (except Pan is seen from a slightly different angle), sold for a cool $3,250,000. This result still stands to this day as being a record for the most expensive ancient Greek coin ever sold and goes to show that Panticapaeum’s coins pack an artistic, cultural and aesthetic punch above all others. 

Jonathan Mann is a numismatist specializing in medieval British coinage and is a member of the British Numismatic Society. His experience comprises over a decade in the British coin trade, as well as a position at the UK’s leading coin auctioneer, Spink & Sons as their hammered coin specialist. Jon has also represented Mayfair auctioneer, Dix Noonan Webb as their rep in the north of England. One of his biggest claims to numismatic fame is being responsible for handling and cataloguing a gold sovereign of Henry VII which set a world record as the highest price ever achieved at auction for a Tudor coin; £372,000. Jon is also proud to have represented the finder of the 2014 Lenborough hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins, helping him and the landowner to achieve an award of £1.35m from the British Museum Treasure Valuation Committee.

The Gold Staters of Carthage

by Jonathan Mann

Gold Stater of Alexander the Great (323 BC)

Courage and conquest

What remains of the ancient city of Carthage, near the modern city of Tunis in North Africa, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1971. The ruins tell a story of total destruction and annihilation. Here lived a people who were one of the most influential civilisations in the ancient world, a people who almost changed the course of Western civilisation so how could it be that virtually all trace of their being was put to the torch? This is the story of Carthage, its rise to glory and its demise at the hands of one of Rome’s great generals, Scipio Aemilianus. Apart from the beautiful coins produced within Carthage’s powerful empire, all that survives are the accounts of ancient Greece and Rome, both vengeful enemies of the state. We hear of a group of depraved monsters, greedy, treacherous and brutal who readily sacrificed their own children to cruel gods. However, we need to remember that both ancient Greece and Rome had an axe to grind. Carthage was one of the largest and richest cities in antiquity and the power it held within the mediterranean was a threat. Carthage was founded a hundred years earlier than Rome in c.814, it’s said by an exiled priestess fleeing her native city of Tyre in ancient Phoenicia, now Lebanon. The Greeks named her Dido and legend told of how she came to found Carthage and become its queen. Upon landfall in north Africa she led her people to a local Berber chieftain in the hope of acquiring some land to settle and make home. The chieftain replied that she could have  “as much land as could be encompassed by an oxhide.”. Thinking on her feet, Dido cut the hide into strips and stretched them around a large hill name Byrsa or “hide”, an alternative name for Carthage. In carving out the earth for their new settlement the Tyrians discovered an ox’s head and all activity came to a halt. This was a bad omen that foretold the city would be wealthy but “laborious and always enslaved”. The decision was taken to dig elsewhere and fortune smiled upon the tired colonists for a horse’s head was found in the freshly dug earth. In Phoenician culture the horse was a symbol of courage and conquest, foretelling that Dido’s new city would rise to greatness. And so it was that Carthage, a name which derived from the Phoenician Qart-Hadasht meaning “New City”, came into being. 

Mother of pearl, coral, amber and ebony

For centuries Carthage was a mere outpost of its mother city, Tyre, but by 509 B.C. it was independent enough to negotiate a commercial treaty with the new Republic of Rome. Bringing with them their Phoenician penchant for seafaring and trade, the Carthaginians set about establishing themselves in the mediterranean as its most dominant power. One of its main advantages was the supremely dominant position it held in the Gulf of Tunis. Here it was close to Sicily, Italy, Sardinia and Corsica and not too distant from the Balearic Islands, Spain and Gaul (modern day France). From Carthage, trade could be completely controlled. Through domination of the seas it became the overlord of a vast network of trade which stretched to the west of Africa and into northern Europe. It’s even said that Britain’s first contacts with the classical world were through Carthaginian merchants who came in search of tin. Commodities from all over the ancient world flowed in and out of Carthage and its network of cities and satellite states which was larger than any other power in the region. Within his poem, Ithaca, the Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, gives a vivid recounting of the lush goods which would have abounded in and around these ports; ‘…May there be many summer mornings when, with what pleasure, what joy, you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time; may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, sensual perfume of every kind, as many sensual perfumes as you can’. This great source of richness was coupled with ready access to abundant fertile land and an enterprising culture in the working of it. The writings of Mago of Carthage on farming and animal husbandry were considered as being of such importance that they were among the few to be spared by the Romans after their destruction of the city. This innovation was coupled with Carthage’s revolutionary idea of the ‘flat pack’ ship which was the first to have been produced using a standardised design and construction. This was part of the foundation which saw Carthage secure itself as one of the largest and most powerful navies in the ancient Mediterranean. 

As long as money clinks, my captain i’ll obey

Both Carthage’s army and its navy were lead by powerful families, mainly the Magonids and Barcids, who spent vast sums on piecing together a burgeoning force of foreign mercenary soldiers. One of the main struggles which ancient Carthage sought in expanding its sphere of power and influence was over the island of Sicily and its main city-state of Syracuse. Beginning in the 480s B.C., two centuries of bitter warfare would see Carthage establish a network of fortresses and mints which protected and paid its mercenary forces both in Sicily and in its hard-fought lands in Spain and Sardinia. This network first came into being when Carthage established its coinage c.410 B.C. in Sicily itself. Control of the island and beyond could only be secured if Carthaginian coins chinked in the purses of its soldiers of fortune. To this end, Carthaginian ships made daring voyages as far as West Africa to trade for gold. In around 350 B.C. a super-attractive new gold stater was produced specifically to pay Carthage’s forces. It was adorned with two of the powerful city-state’s most potent symbols, the Phoenician goddess, Tanit, and Dido’s omen of good fortune, the horse. Tanit was Carthage’s patron deity, bestowing protection and good fortune upon it. She was a mother goddess, representing fertility, love, the moon, stars and sky, cycles of life, strength, abundance and much more. Tanit was worshipped throughout North Africa, Spain, Malta, Sardinia and Rome but her most well known temples were found in Carthage itself. Her bust closely resembles coins which were produced by Carthage’s nemesis in Sicily; Syracuse, which depict their own deities such as the nymph Arethusa. It should be said that these coins of Syracuse have been identified by numismatists as being the very pinnacle of ancient art, unsurpassed until at least the nineteenth century, so this is a proud numismatic heritage to speak of. Tanit wears a wreath of grain, referencing fertility and abundance. Her neutral facial expression is said to denote nobility and a transcendence of earthly concerns, just like the Greek coins from which she is modeled. According to Carthage’s enemies, this beauty and divine wonder was underpinned by a much darker side. Ancient writers say that zealous Carthaginians gladly gave their children’s lives as sacrifices to honour their patron goddess, Tanit, and her consort Baal-Hamon. Nowadays, however, these claims have been questioned as ancient attempts to paint the Carthaginians in a bad light although it is still a possibility. This being as it may be, Tanit’s status as the primary deity of ancient Carthage is undeniable. The choice of a horse as her counterpart on Carthage’s gold staters too shows the significance which they gave to this majestic animal. To the Carthaginians it may have been a proud representation of their foundation story, a subject which was commonly depicted on coins of the ancient city-states. However, because the myth was recounted by a later Roman writer named Justin, its uncertain whether or not the Carthaginians knew of it. Another interpretation of the horse is that it refers to the military purpose of the staters. On some Carthaginian coins the horse is shown with the goddess of victory, Nike, who holds a wreath and a caduceus. The wreath was a symbol given to victors in contests and battles and so the horse may represent the military might and success of Carthage. Military success, though, in the ancient world required money and a lot of it. 

Weathering the storm

The wars in Sicily against Syracuse and beyond required huge resources and over time Carthage’s gold staters contained more and more silver. From 320 B.C. they have been classed as electrum which is a mixture of silver and gold. A further draw on resources came when North Africa was invaded by Agathocles of Syracuse in 310-307 B.C.. Agathocles sought to subdue Carthage and use its wealth to fund his wars. Allied with Libyans and Berbers, Carthage was able to see off Agathocles and continued to prosper until it came into conflict with a new enemy, then just a small city-state on the Tiber River in Italy; Rome. While the electrum staters ceased to be produced in around 280 B.C., their designs remained the staple of Carthage’s coinage right until the bitter end. Carthage would soon, in 264 B.C., embark on a series of three wars with Rome, known as the Punic Wars (deriving from the Phoenician word for the citizens of Carthage and in Latin reading Punicus), which would ultimately spell disaster and utter destruction for this once great city-state. Not even the efforts of one of their most famous names, the distinguished general, Hannibal Barca, could save them. After the loss of the first Punic War in 241 B.C. Carthage’s treasury was so depleted that it was reduced to coining debased silver and over-valued bronze coins. Under the terms of the treaty devised by Rome, Carthage had to pay 1,000 talents of gold immediately, plus another 2,000 talents over the next decade, amounting to an eye-watering 78,000 kilograms of bullion, or some 8.3 million gold staters! The second Punic War was meted out between 218B.C. and 201 B.C. and again Carthage was overcome. This time Rome stripped Carthage of its hard-fought colonies, denied it of its navy and forced it to pay another huge indemnity. 

Carthago delenda est

By the time of the third Punic War of 149 B.C. to 146 B.C. Rome had come to the end of its tether. Its elite came to believe that only total annihilation of Carthage could ensure Rome’s security. It was in the build-up to this last and most famous phase of the wars that Roman Republican politician, Cato, ended all his speeches with the words; Carthago delenda est, ‘Carthage must be destroyed’. And so it was that the might of the Roman Republic came down on Carthage in the form of a three-year siege, beginning in 149 B.C. The city had a population estimated at 700,000 and the vast majority of them were wiped out. In the spring of 146 B.C the Romans launched their final assault and over seven days systematically destroyed the city and slay its inhabitants. Only on the last day was the order given by Rome’s commander, Scipio Aemillianus, to take prisoners. 50,000 citizens were rounded up to be sold into slavery. Carthage’s top-of-command, Hasdrubal, pleaded for his life and freedom. This was observed by his wife who cursed her husband and with her children walked into a temple engulfed with flames. The ancient historian, Polybius, was present at the final destruction of Carthage alongside Scipio and it’s said that; ‘Scipio, when he looked upon the city as it was utterly perishing and in the last throes of its complete destruction, is said to have shed tears and wept openly for his enemies.’. Such was the destruction that apparently not one stone was left on top of another. The site was cursed and according to a 19th century myth, sown with salt to prevent any crop ever growing there again. Despite this inglorious end and scornful treatment, a century after the war ended, Julius Caesar planned to rebuild Carthage as a Roman city but little work was done. Augustus revived the project in 29 B.C. and by the time of the Empire it had become one of the main cities of Roman Africa. It appears from the history books that Rome had a grudging respect for Carthage as confirmed by the Roman politician, Cicero, who wrote; ‘Carthage would never have held an empire for six hundred years had it not been governed with wisdom and statesmanship.’. Such sentiments developed into full-scale equanimity on 5 February 1985 in a symbolic peace treaty which was signed by the mayors of Rome and modern Carthage, 2,131 years after the war ended.

Jonathan Mann is a numismatist specializing in medieval British coinage and is a member of the British Numismatic Society. His experience comprises over a decade in the British coin trade, as well as a position at the UK’s leading coin auctioneer, Spink & Sons as their hammered coin specialist. Jon has also represented Mayfair auctioneer, Dix Noonan Webb as their rep in the north of England. One of his biggest claims to numismatic fame is being responsible for handling and cataloguing a gold sovereign of Henry VII which set a world record as the highest price ever achieved at auction for a Tudor coin; £372,000. Jon is also proud to have represented the finder of the 2014 Lenborough hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins, helping him and the landowner to achieve an award of £1.35m from the British Museum Treasure Valuation Committee.