The Ancient Coins of Mithridates


By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..

Mithridates VI Eupator (b.120 – d.63 BCE) originated in Pontic royalty under an auspicious sign. Justinus relay, in his account of Pompeius Trogus Historiae Philippicae, the story of how two comets lit up the night sky for 70 consecutive days. This event was commemorated in a series of small bronze coins minted from 119 to 100 BCE. On the obverse, an eight-pointed star is superimposed on top of a right-facing horse’s head, while a 12-rayed comet is depicted.

The Ancient Coins of Mithridates

Kingdom of Pontus
Mithridates VI, circa 119-100 BCE, (1.98 g, 13 mm)
Uncertain mint, possibly Amisos. Ah.
OBV: eight-pointed star on the horse’s head on the right.
REV Comet with twelve rays
REF: SNG BM Black Sea 984 var.; HGC 7, 317 var.

When he ascended the throne, the kingdom of Mithridates was centered on Sinope and covered most from the black sea South side. Mithridates followed his father’s expansionist conflicts with the Bosphorus Kingdoms and nearby Scythian tribes and proceeded to conquer almost the entire Black Sea coast, central Galatiaand Armenia Minor. These territories were to be either directly ruled territories or subordinate kingdoms under his suzerainty. Initially, during the First Mithridatic War (89-85 BCE), the king completely defeated and outwitted the Romans, resulting in the occupation of the entire Roman province of Asia. Mithridates notoriously ordered the killing of 80,000 Roman citizens living in newly conquered Anatolian territory. This order caused the Romanswho sent the consul P. Cornelius Sulla in the area with orders to crush all Pontic forces.

Eventually overwhelmed by Roman forces, Mithridates was forced to accept the Treaty of Dardanos. The terms stipulated that Pontus had to give up the conquered territories of Greece, Bithynia, Phrygia, Paphlagoniaand Cappadocia as well as paying two thousand talents from the royal treasury. An additional 20,000 talents were to be paid for by the provinces taken over.

In a continuing effort to portray himself as a true Hellenistic king, Mithridates struck a series of staters which represent the diademed head of Alexander The Great bearing the horn of Ammon. Struck both in name and in style of the general of Alexander and the Thracian king, Lysimachus, these plays are a dramatic political statement. Not only did Mithridates draw a line between himself, Lysimachus and Alexander the Great, but he also claimed the Diadochi Thracian territory.

Kingdom of Pontus, Mithridates VI
AU Stater around 88-66 BC. (8.33g, 19mm).
Byzantium coinage,
OBV: Diademed head of deified Alexander on the right,
with horn of Ammon
REV: Athena Nikephoros seated left,
REF: Müller 171; Callataÿ Group 2B, p. 142 and pl. 38

These staters were minted directly during the periods of intense coin production that occurred at Pontus from 93 to 89 BCE before and during the First Mithridatic War. Interesting way, Mithridates III also used his coinage in the same way, minting staters imitating those of Alexander. Although there are only two examples of these early Pontic staters, they suggest a broader overall trend of early Pontic forays into Hellenistic imagery. In fact, there is evidence, as the numismatist suggests Brian McGing in his article “Mithridates VI Eupator: victim or aggressor? that Mithridates VI may have invited Greek engravers to help create his coinage as part of his concerted effort to align himself with Alexander the Great. In fact, to demonstrate his prowess and skill as both a general and a king, Justin records that before the First Mithridatic War, Mithridates announced to his troops that he was descended from both Alexander the Great and his general. Seleucus – as well as the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius the Great.

The Ancient Coins of MithridatesBRIDGE KINGS. Mithridates III.
AU Stater circa 220-200 BCE. (8.5g, 17mm).
Amisos mint.
OBV: Head of Athena on the right, wearing a Corinthian helmet
REV: Nike standing left, holding wreath
REF: Callataÿ, First, dies O2/R2, SNG von Aulock 1
(this piece); HGC 7, 318; Alarm 22

The trend of highly political imagery continues in the silver coinage of Mithridates. The coins of the kings produced two main groups of tetradrachms during his reign. First, he struck a series of tetradrachms that closely followed the established stylistic precedent of the posthumous Alexandrian tetradrachms. Initially, these coins were very similar to standard Alexandrian issues, as can be seen in this example minted during the First Mithridatic War. On the obverse, Mithridates is depicted as the deified Alexander wearing the skin of the nemean lion. The obverse depicts a seated figure Zeus holding an eagle between the caption BAΣIΛEΩΣ AΛEΞANΔΡOΥ.

The Ancient Coins of MithridatesKings of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupator
AR tetradrachm. 120-90 BCE, (16.48 g, 31 mm)
Mint from Odessos
OBV: Mithridates as Alexander III as Hercules
REV: Seated Zeus
REF: Series 31, Number 66; Price 1179

Over time the obverse portrait began to change and became more recognizable Mithridates. He gave up the appearance of Alexander III. The reverse, however, remained the same. It is possible that this trend represented the king moving away from Alexander, or more likely it was the age-old desire of monarchs to imprint their own image on the zeitgeist of their kingdom. The latter type was mainly produced during the period before the Second Mithridatic War. These vast issues were intended to satisfy Mithridates’ need for cash to pay for his massive armies and they were often badly hit by flat hitting areas.

The Ancient Coins of MithridatesKings of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupator
AR tetradrachm. 83-2 BCE, (16.30g)
Mint from Odessos
OBV: Mithridates as Alexander III as Hercules
REV: Seated Zeus

In some varieties, the lion skin worn by Mithridates tends to blend into the king’s distinctive flowing hair, as seen in the example below.

The Ancient Coins of MithridatesKings of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupator
AR tetradrachm. 83-2 BCE, (14.81g)
OBV: Mithridates as Alexander III as Hercules
REV: Seated Zeus

The second major family of tetradrachms produced during Mithridates’ lifetime show the king’s diademed head with flowing hair, a prominent nose, and a large chin. There are no obverse legends on this type, which forces the image of the king to take on even more importance. On the reverse, the devices are surrounded by an intricate Dionysian wreath of ivy and fruit. Reverse legends vary, with two main groups. They read BAΣIΛEΩΣ / EYΠATOPOΣ and BAΣΙΛEΩΣ / MIΘPAΔATOY / EYΠATOPOΣrespectively.

Both types include a star and crescent pattern. The standard identification of this device is a Pontic royal symbol. It is possible that, as the German historian and numismatist G. Kleiner believed, the star and crescent combo represented night and day as well as a local deity, Men. A fitting interpretation, since Mēn was a moon god native to the west Anatolia. If that is correct, then Mithridates would look to his Pontic heritage.

It is also likely that the star refers to the Perseus myth in the same way as the famous Macedonian sun.

Kings of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupator
AR tetradrachm. 115-105 BCE, (16.75g, 32mm)
OBV: Diademed head of Mithridates right
REV: Pegasus on the ground line to the left
REV: De Callataÿ D5/R–

The last element of the design of this series is the animal represented on the back. The example above shows a Pegasus, which was used primarily from 96 to 88 BCE. Pegasi was also intimately related to the Persians. Persian kings have claimed Perseus as their progenitor since the birth of the first Pegasus when Perseus killed Astonished. The examples with the Pegasus also have a more individualistic portrayal of the king.

The second animal used was the deer. As one of the main symbols of Artemis, it is believed that Mithridates changed this iconography due to the change in focus of his international relations. Around the start of the First Mithridatic War, when the change occurred, the king had begun a series of military campaigns in western Anatolia. The style of the portrait also became more stylized and increasingly similar to that of Alexander the Great.

Kings of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupator
AR tetradrachm. 67/66 BCE (16.44 g, 32 mm)
OBV: Diademed head of Mithridates right
REV: Deer turned to the left and star in the crescent to the left
REF: Callataÿ dies D37/R- (unregistered reverse corner).

Interestingly, the Mithridatic coinage was not dated until 96/5 BCE. The dating scheme was delimited both by year, placed above the monogram on the right, and by month at the bottom in exergue. For example, this coin struck just before the Third Mithridatic War year round BKΣ (Pontic year 222) in the right field with the month I (Pontic month 10) in the exergue. Therefore, we know that this coin was minted in Pergamon in July 75 BC.

Kings of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupator
AR tetradrachm. July 75 BCE, (16.74 g, 32 mm)
Pergamon Mint
OBV: Diademed head of Mithridates right
REV: Deer turned to the left and star in the crescent to the left

In 63 BCE, the Third Mithridatic War ended with Rome taking full control of the Pontic Kingdom and the Seleucid Empire and with the Kingdom of Armenia become a client state. Shortly after, Pharnaces II, the youngest son of Mithridates, led a rebellion that caused the deposed king to attempt suicide. Due to his history with poisons (he wasn’t known as the “Poison King” for nothing), the attempt failed. In the end, Mithridates needed his bodyguard to kill him with a sword.

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Sources

https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_etd/send_file/send?accession=ucin997452720&disposition=inline

https://antikmuseet.au.dk/fileadmin/www.antikmuseet.au.dk/Pontusfiler/BSS_9/BSS9_12_mcging.pdf

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/311482.pdf?casa_token=vZHvR78yq68AAAAA:Oq3AhBcRPEKcWSU2djZwIqGAX4F6y76-RGqHOYshqYxja2iphfBl7f7_pDB8OcCgcVgjz_nVmYbx-7EKcEmFAaSAPIbOXLou6uGBDOX

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About the Author

Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in washington d.c.he worked for save the children creation and management of international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the United States after living abroad in the Republic of North Macedoniawhere he served as Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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