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Beiträge zur kleinasiatischen Münzkunde und Geschichte 13-14

Johannes Nollé


Contributions to Anatolian History and Numismatics 13-14:

13. Abydos – where Alexander started his campaign against the Persians

Between AD 177/8 and the reign of the emperor Maximinus Thrax (235-238) the city of Abydos in the Troad (modern Çanakkale), situated on the Asian shore of the Hellespont, minted five emissions of medallions with a very interesting reverse image. In the centre of this picture, that may have used a painting as a template, an armoured man is shown with a spear in his left hand. Surrounded by two other combatants he stands on the deck of a vessel, whose stem is decorated with the helmeted head of the goddess Athena. The central male figure waves with his right hand, probably as a command to other ships to follow him. Another significantly smaller vessel, manned by a single warrior who represents the whole crew pars pro toto, is depicted in front of the commander’s ship. We may conclude that the commander’s order is obeyed. In the background of the coin image a trumpeter stands on a tower, obviously giving the signal for departure.

The interpretation of this coin image has been long debated. Friedrich Imhoof-Blumer, guided by the coin legends, which were misread as ΛOVKOVΛΛΟC, considered that the coin might depict Sulla and Lucullus crossing the Hellespont from Sestos to Abydos in the year 86 BC, but he was finally unconvinced by this proposal. In 2001 Italo Vecchi, without discussing Imhoof-Blumer’s interpretation, suggested that the scene on the Abydos medallions should be interpreted as Alexander the Great crossing the Hellespont in 334 BC. His proposal was not accepted by Carsten Dahmen, who discussed the Abydos coin image in his book on Greek and Roman coins depicting Alexander, although he was unable to refute Vecchi’s interpretation.

Arrian of Nikomedeia, our best source for Alexander’s campaign against the Persians, tells us that Alexander went from Sestos to the top of the Thracian Chersonesos and crossed over from Elaious to the Asian shore. This may discourage us from accepting Italo Vecchio’s explanation, but Arrian’s account includes the observation that different versions of the story of Alexander crossing the Hellespont circulated, and that the story describing the crossing from Elaious, which he followed himself, was the version most commonly adopted by Alexander’s historians. However, other traditions clearly existed, and we should conclude that one of them related the circumstances which were depicted on the Abydos medallions.  According to this version Alexander and his army must have crossed the Hellespont from Sestos to Abydos. After leaving the harbour in Sestos, the expedition sailed southwards to the tower of Hero, where Strabo writes that the force of the stream directs the ships to the opposite shore near Abydos. Alexander was the first to land and threw his spear into Asian soil to claim it as his δορύκτητος χώρα (‘spear-won territory’). The people of Abydos may have decided to mint these medallions, illustrating their central role in this tradition, around/on the 500th anniversary of Alexander’s crossing, in response to the publication of Arrian’s Anabasis.

Abydos’ historical link with the start of Alexander’s Persian campaign in Asia was a very important aspect of the city’s identity. Other cities of Asia Minor, including Apollonia Mordiaion and Sagalassos, also claimed a special relationship with the Macedonian king. Especially at times when Roman emperors led campaigns against the Iranians (Persians?), identifying themselves as new Alexanders, it was beneficial for a city like Abydos to accentuate its role as the point of departure for Alexander the Great’s world-changing campaign. The traditional view of the Hellespont as the border between Europe and Asia also served to define this military operation as a historic turning-point. Thus the image on the Abydos medallions should be interpreted in the same way as paintings depicting Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Washington crossing the Delaware, Blücher crossing the Rhine, or Napoleon’s traverse of the Alps and the Neman (Memel).

14. Antandros, a city at the southern foothills of Mt. Ida:  a coin illustrating a scene from Virgil’s Aeneid and the city’s tutelary goddess

Antandros was a small town in the southern foothills of Mount Ida in the eastern part of the Troad. The literary tradition about the city is scarce, and only a few inscriptions have come down to us. We may hope that the Turkish excavations, which started in 2001, will enhance our knowledge. However, we can also gain new information about the city by bringing a nearly unexploited kind of evidence into the discussion, the city’s coins. This helps to create a sharper profile of Antandros and its identity in antiquity.

Our literary sources repeatedly mention the city’s rich timber resources and ship-building based on timber brought down from Mt. Ida. The German philologist Klausen observed in 1839 that coins depicting a tree minted by Antandros and its neighbour city Skepsis, alluded to the abundance of forests and timber around these cities, and that the tree should be identified with a significant local species, Klausen’s proposal was ignored by subsequent numismatists and scholars who identified the tree as  a palm. Corrections of this misinterpretation by Friedrich Imhoof-Blumer and Louis Robert have not been heeded. We know now that the vegetation of Mt. Ida contains many endemic plants, and one of the most conspicuous is Abies nordmanniana ssp. equi-trojani, the Trojan fir (Turkish fir, Kazdağı fir). Originally the species only grew in this region, but in the last decades it has been introduced to many other parts of the world, especially to northern Germany and Denmark, where hundreds of thousands of examples are grown for sale as Christmas-trees. Homer referred to this particular fir in the Iliad, as it served as a hideaway for Hypnos in the episode describing how hewas collected by Hera when she put her husband Zeus to sleep. Quintus Smyrnaios mentioned the Trojan fir in his account of the building of the Trojan horse: the Greeks cut many specimens on Mount Ida as timber to build that sinister beast.

Around ten years ago, a large and very interesting medallion, minted by Antandros in the time of Severus Alexander, was auctioned by the American auction house, the Classical Numismatic Group. The coin’s reverse depicts Aeneas leaving the Troad. He is shown pulling his young son Askanios with his right hand, as he carries his old father Anchises on his left shoulder. In the background we see the rear part of a ship. This coin image recalls the opening scene of Virgil’s Aeneid book 3, where Virgil mentions Antandros by name as the place of Aeneas’ departure from the Troad. By drawing on this tradition, disseminated by the most widely read Latin author, Antandros advertised both its own importance and its affinity with Rome. Another Virgilian passage also illuminates Antandros’ self-promotion. Aeneid 9, 80-92 relates that Aeneas was only able to build the ships that carried him Latium, with the help of a goddess, who provided the necessary timber from conifers growing in her sanctuary. In Virgil calls the goddess Berecyntia, i.e. the Phrygian goddess. As she speaks of Mount Ida as ‘our mountains «montes nostri», she must be identified with the Mater Deum Magna Idaea, also named Kybele, Meter theon, Rhea, Adrasteia, and so forth. Virgil and other authors show that there was a sacred grove with altars of this goddess in the mountainous and thickly wooded area forming part of Antandros’ territory. The head of a goddess, who is depicted on the classical silver coins of Antandros and which until now has been regarded as Artemis Astyrene, should be identified with the Mater Deum Magna Idaea. Her sacred tree was the Trojan fir, under which her lover Attis was killed by a wild boar. She was also venerated by the citizens of Antandros’ neighbours, Skepsis and Skamandreia, and it is no surprise that the Trojan fir, or one of its cones, is also shown on their city coinage. The Antandrian, Skepsian and Skamandreian coins depicting this tree were notdesigned to evoke the natural landscape of Mount Ida, but should be understood as a mark of homage to the Mater Deum Magna Idaea, who also had the function of a ‹potnia theron› and of an oracular goddess.

Strabon indicates that the goddess’s cult was closely linked with that of Dionysos, who was widely venerated in the Troad. TImages of a goat, a bunch of grapes and an ivy leaf on the coins of Antandros are to be understood as allusions to Dionysos worship in Antandros and its territory. Further important gods of Antandros were Apollon, his son Asklepios and Hephaistos, whose cultic significance had to do with iron mining and the prosperous blacksmith’s craft at Antandros, that may have produced weapons for the Roman army. According to local lore the Judgment of Paris (Iudicium Paridis) also occurred on Antandrian territory. Another Antandrian medallion refers to the myth that Apollo’s singing was audible near the source of river Skamandros.  The true background of this mythical story was revealed by the great German physician Rudolf Virchow, who was unaware of this coin, but reported in his book on the Troad (1879) that both he and his companions heard a singing voice where the Skamandros comes out of the rock.

In sum, the coins of Antandros reflect legends and phenomena that instilled its citizens’ sense of the gods’ protection and favour to the city as well as of their own self-worth. Especially under Roman rule such feelings were important in maintaining a small community’s autonomy and status.


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