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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Early Hellenistic Coins from Rhodes

In the course of his conquests (336-323) Alexander the Great set up many mints (26 are known) to turn the booty captured from the Persian Empire into coins for his soldiers. His silver issues used the same basic design: on the obverse the head of Heracles wearing the lion’s skin and on the reverse the hero’s father Zeus, sitting on his throne and holding his scepter and eagle. Even after 323 BC, these “Alexanders” continued to be struck on a large scale (the last ones were issued as late as 65 BC). Instantly recognized and widely accepted, the posthumous coinage of Alexander served as the de facto standard in the Hellenistic economy.

While most cities in Asia Minor were following this trend, moving away from their own distinctive coinages toward that of their Macedonian conqueror, a few continued to produce their own civic issues. One of them was Rhodes, the largest and most important of the islands off the southern coast of Asia Minor (the Dodecanese) and indeed one of the great commercial powers of the eastern Mediterranean.

The coin shown above is a silver didrachm (worth two drachmae) dating from the second half of the third century or perhaps somewhat later. The obverse shows the head of Helios, the god of the sun and the patron deity of Rhodes. The god’s pose is nearly frontal. His head is surrounded by rays of light.

The poet Pindar, in an ode (Olympian 7) that was monumentalized in gold letters inside the Temple of Athena at Lindos, one of the island’s cities, tells how Helios came to be the island’s patron. The myth begins long ago, just after the defeat of the Titans. When the three sons of Cronus and Rhea cast lots for their portions of the world, with Zeus receiving the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld, Helios happened to be absent (for he was busy giving light and warmth to the world) and so received no realm. When he complained, Zeus offered to recast the lots, but Helios said that he would be content to have a certain island that he, the all-seeing god, knew was soon to emerge from the sea and destined to be “rich in nurture for men and kindly to their flocks,” i.e., fertile. Zeus nodded and Helios “mingled in love with Rhodes and sired seven sons whose minds were subtler than any of that day,” three of whom in turned sired the eponyms of the island’s greatest cities, Kamiros, Ialysos, and Lindos.

On the reverse, within a circle of dots, is the emblem of Rhodes, the rose (rhodon in Greek, which of course lies at the root of the name of Helios’s bride and the island itself). Above is the name of the Rhodian magistrate in charge of minting the coin, one Aristokritos. Below the rose is the abbreviated ethnic: the first two letters, rho and omicron, of the Greek place name ΡΟΔΟΣ (Rhodes). In the field to the right is a single rosebud on a stem with long tendrils; its stem crosses that of the central rose, terminating just below the first letter of the abbreviated ethnic. In the field to the left is an aphlaston (also called an aplustre), an ornament capping the stem or stern of ship.

A stylized representation of a many-beaked bird’s head with a long history (for which see Wachsmann 163-197), the aphlaston was a symbol of naval strength (hence the practice, widely attested in the ancient world, of cutting off and displaying the aphlaston of an enemy ship as a sort of trophy). The image to the right is of a rock carving at Lindos, with an inscription recording a naval victory.

Hoffmann (119ff.) sketches the iconography of Helios down to the third century and beyond. From ca. 500 BC the god appears on Attic vases as a youthful charioteer with a nimbus; by ca. 450 BC he has lost his beard. An red-figure calyx-krater dating from ca. 430 BC depicts a beardless youth wearing a solar disc and emerging from the Ocean in his four-horse chariot (cf. the image; the boys represent stars).

Rhodian coinage from the end of the fifth century shows a youth with radiating curls suggesting flames. The great sculptor Lysippus of Sicyon was especially noted for his statue of Helios driving his four-horse chariot at Rhodes (Pliny, Natural History 34.63), which, though lost, is known from copies and imitations, the best of which may be this metope (right) from the Temple of Athena at Troy (ca. 300-280).

Then there was Lysippus’s pupil, Chares of Lindos, who produced the huge statue we know as the Colossus of Rhodes (on which more below). One may, it is true, detect shifts in the iconography of Helios over time--in particular the influence of the portraiture of Alexander in the “long wavy strands centrally parted and falling like a shaggy mane along the sides of the face” as well as fuller cheeks and heavier brows and chin (Hoffmann 121). Yet the basic scheme did not change: a beardless youth adorned with his chief attribute, rays of light around the head.

Now let us look at another, earlier Rhodian issue:

The head of Helios on this silver didrachm, unlike the one we have considered hitherto, is shown in profile and wears a radiate taenia (a rayed band). Why the profile pose? Was it to draw attention to the radiate taenia? Richard Ashton thinks so. He argues that the series to which it belonged was struck between 304 and 265 BC for a special purpose: to pay for the construction of that huge bronze statue by Chares of Lindos mentioned above, the Colossus of Rhodes. The Rhodians were grateful to their patron god for protecting them when their city was besieged by Demetrios Poliorketes (Demetrios the Besieger--the name is ironic, since the siege was a failure). When Demetrios left in 304 BC, the proceeds from the sale of the siege towers he left behind--300 talents--were used to pay for the Colossus. If Ashton is right, Helios on the coins in this series is a reflection of the Colossus--in effect an advertisement for the project and a commemoration of it. And it deserved the attention. After all, it counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Ashton may be right. But the truth is that the coinage tells us little about the Colossus that we did not already know: the god was shown as a beardless youth wearing a radiate crown. A relief (right) found on Rhodes, if it really “gives us an almost contemporary picture of the Colossus,” as Herbert Maryon believes, has the god shading his eyes with his right hand, gazing into the distance, with a piece of drapery hanging from his pendant left arm. Maryon argues that the drapery serves to mask a structural support.

Maryon's reconstruction is shown to the left. It should be noted, however, that the relief on which it is based has been dismissed as a generic self-crowning athlete by Reynold Higgins (134). The Colossus collapsed during the earthquake of 226 BC and remained on the ground for the next nine centuries.

The story of the island’s beginnings told of Helios’s devotion to it (as his chosen realm and even as his bride); Demetrius’s failed assault at the end of the fourth century seemed a confirmation of his favor. In turn the Rhodians showed their devotion to their patron deity by retaining their traditional Helios coinage despite the general trend toward "Alexanders" and even by commissioning an unprecedented monument to him, which may have been reflected in a special coin series emphasizing the god’s radiate crown.

  • Ashton Richard H. J. “Rhodian coinage and the Colossus.” Revue Numismatique, 30 (1988) 75-90.
  • Higgins, Reynold. “The Colossus of Rhodes,” in Peter Clayton and Martin Price, The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (1990) 124-137.
  • Hoffmann, Herbert. “Helios.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 2 (1963) 117-124.
  • Howgego, Christopher. Ancient History From Coins. 1995.
  • Maryon, Herbert. “The Colossus of Rhodes.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 76 (1956) 68-86.
  • Nisetich, Frank. Pindar’s Victory Songs. 1980.
  • Thoneman, Peter. The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources. 2015.
  • Wachsmann, Shelley. Seagoing Ships & Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant. 1998.

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