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Research Coins: Feature Auction


The Boukephalas Collection of Coins of the Macedonian Koinon

Triton XX, Lot: 447. Estimate $10000.
Sold for $14000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

MACEDON, Koinon of Macedon. 3rd century AD. Lot of eighty-four (84) pieces. Includes 83 bronze coins of the Koinon of Macedon (Macedonian League) as well as 1 lead token. All obverses depict Alexander the Great – either diademed, helmeted, or wearing lion’s skin headdress – while the reverses feature a wide variety of designs, often alluding to the Macedonian king or the Alexandreian games. Gaebler (AMNG) dated this highly interesting series from Elagabalus to Philip I and recorded an astounding 537 individual varieties. Photographs and detailed descriptions of the coins, as well as an introduction by the collector, are available online at Fine–Near EF.

From the Boukephalas Collection.

From the consignor: Early in 2005 I visited the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, to see the exhibition Longing for Alexander – the changing image of Alexander the Great on Greek and Roman coins. I had no expectation of a new enthusiasm being generated – but surprises are part of life’s fun. The depiction of Alexander on coinage was not my collecting area but I was reasonably familiar it. As a child, I’d fallen under the spell of Alexander– what horse-lover could fail to be entranced by the story of how the Thessalian Philoneikos brought an intractable horse to Philip of Macedon to try out and how his young son understood the stallion’s fear and built a relationship that lasted until Boukephalas’ death around the age of thirty in faraway India. (My preference for the more musical form Boukephalas stems from reading Mary Renault’s novels in my teens – and as that’s the version in Plutarch, I see no reason to abandon it.)

There was, however, a group of coins at the Ashmolean with which I was completely unfamiliar – bronze coins issued in the first half of the third century AD by the Koinon of the Macedonians. My eye was caught by a dynamic reverse in which the young Alexander faces a rearing Boukephalas to offer him the bridle – not the safest place to stand under those flailing hooves, but the two figures leaning in towards each other made a satisfyingly well-balanced and vigorous triangular design. I left the exhibition determined to research this coinage that focused on Macedon’s glorious past. The persistence of tradition always fascinates me – and here the Koinon was harking back to events of the fourth century BC, more than five hundred years earlier. On the one hand, the Koinon was making a statement about their perception of their Macedonian identity. But the choice of Alexander perhaps also reflected imperial concerns: the Alexander coinage began under Elagabalus, whose legitimacy depended on his claim that Caracalla was his father. Caracalla’s veneration for Alexander was well known. At this period, moreover, Rome often faced conflict on its eastern borders with first the Parthians, then their successors the Sasanians, a conflict that was often presented as a modern parallel to Alexander’s conquest of the Persians.

First of all, I tracked down (not cheaply!) and had specially bound what is still the “bible” for this series, even though it is over a century old, the appropriate volume of Hugo Gaebler’s Die Antiken Münzen Nord-Griechenlands. His chronology, worked out by examining die combinations and variations in the neocorate title on the reverse, is still valid. Only a very few coins bear an Actian date – ЄOC – otherwise dating must be deduced from internal evidence.

The Koinon of the Macedonians was the political institution responsible for governing the province in the Roman period. Based in Beroia, it was made up of representatives from all over the province. It issued coinage in its own name, and also very rarely in the name of Beroia. From 218 AD, during the reign of Elagabalus, until the late 240s when Macedonian provincial coinage ended, the Koinon virtually abandoned its former practice of putting the emperor’s portrait on the obverse. Instead, they replaced him with the head or bust of Alexander. Sometimes it is uncertain whether a male head on provincial coinage in the Roman period is intended to represent Alexander or some other mythical or heroic personage. Not here – Alexander is always identified by name. It is also remarkable how consistent the Alexander coinage of the Koinon remains over a period of almost thirty years. The issuers have a clear idea of how they wish to depict their hero from their own ancient history.

The historical context for highlighting Alexander on the coinage was the festivals in honour of Alexander, established under Elagabalus and held annually in Beroia, which were known as the Alexandreia. The associated games included horse races, athletic contests, and musical competitions. They were of considerable economic importance, as they attracted not only local athletes and merchants but also visitors from outside the province. Under Gordian III, the games were granted the same status (and prize money) as those held at Olympia – a title recorded on some of the coins. These “Olympian” games, however, were held only twice, in 242/3 and 246/7.

I never strayed from collecting bronzes of the Koinon. Related silver and gold coins or medallions, however, occasionally appear. Another fascinating aspect of the Koinon bronzes is their relationship to the intriguing gold medallions from Aboukir and Tarsos. These medallions share many similarities with the bronzes – for instance a similar depiction of Alexander in his lionskin, and the otherwise unattested “wind-blown hair” portrait; the lion hunt scene; and an interest in Olympias. Their general similarities and more precise iconographic details strongly support the argument that the gold medallions were also produced in Beroia. At one time it was believed that the bronzes imitated the gold medallions – the poor man’s version of the deluxe object – but now the accepted view is that the bronzes preceded and influenced the medallions. The theory that the gold medallions were produced as prize money is also no longer current. Prize money was normally given in spendable currency. The gold medallions are clearly not “money”. They vary in weight and in the fineness of the gold. The most likely explanation for their production is that they were commissioned by someone wealthy and important – perhaps the Makedoniarchos – to give as stunning gifts to high-status visitors to the games.

For the collector, one of the most entertaining features of the bronze coinage of the Koinon is the vast range of reverse types and all the variation of combinations possible with the not inconsiderable breadth of obverse types. Within a relatively short space of time, I managed to assemble a good representative collection. My hope is that this collection, and the accompanying booklet, will form the foundation on which someone else will build further and that he or she will enjoy the pleasure of adding to it the exciting types that eluded me. I wish the new owner good luck!