Thracian Tetradrachms
Chronology and Attribution

Thracian tetradrachms -- "barbarous imitations" of Thasos tetradrachms -- are among the most intriguing and least understood of all ancient coinage. Among the murky areas are the dating and attribution of these coins.

Chronology

Many sources, including David R. Sear's Greek Coins and Their Values, Classical Numismatic Group (CNG), and Numismatik Lanz, indicate that the minting of Thasos tetradrachms began ca. 148 BC, when Rome made Macedonia a province, closed its mints, and initiated its occupation of Thrace. Other sources, including Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, Danish National Museum (SNG Cop., sometimes abbreviated SNG Dan.), Gorny & Mosch, and Fritz Rudolf Künker, indicate it began ca. 146 BC, when Rome defeated the Achaean League, ending Greece's independence.

But some experts, such as Ilya Prokopov and E. B. Christodopoulou, argue persuasively based on recent hoard evidence that it began earlier, ca. 168 BC, with the conquest of Macedonia by Rome during the Third Macedonian War. Margaret Thompson and Topalov have written that minting began ca. 180 BC, shortly after Rome forced Philip V of Macedonia to withdraw from Thasos, freeing it from two centuries of Macedonian rule. Olivier Picard believes it began ca. 180-170 BC, based on recent hoard evidence. I'll personally be using ca. 168 BC as a start date for this coinage, though I recognize the tentative nature of the dating of these coins.

Other examples show how dating for Thasos tetradrachms is far from uniform. SNG Fitz. and SNG Hart date these coins ca. 200-100 BC, SNG Oxford (sometimes abbreviated SNG Ash.) early 2nd to early 1st century BC (includes Thracian tetradrachms), SNG Manchester early 2nd to 1st century BC (includes Thracian tetradrachms), Dewing ca. 180 to early 1st century BC, Boston MFA after 146 BC, Athens Numismatic Museum ca. 180-50 BC, Bowdoin College Museum of Art ca. 180-80 BC, A.H. Baldwin & Sons and Münzen & Medaillen ca. 160-100 BC, Harlan J. Berk 2nd to 1st century BC, and Jonathan K. Kern ca. 148-50 BC.

The most widely used reference sources in the U.S. -- Sear and SNG Cop. -- don't indicate an end date for the minting of Thasos tetradrachms presumably because so little is conclusively known about this (and what is known isn't widely known). The hoard evidence, though important, is fragmentary, and no comprehensive die studies have yet been undertaken (Prokopov is currently doing work in this area). You're left with deducing from historical markers and stylistic considerations and doing statistical analyses. As with much else about these coins and their derivations, dating falls into the realm of more-or-less educated speculation.

I believe that minting of Thasos tetradrachms may have stopped ca. 140 BC, the same time as the minting of the early derivations, which I'm calling "Thasos-type tetradrachms," may have started. Thasos-type tetradrachms for the most part closely resemble Thasos tetradrachms -- it can be difficult to distinguish the two -- though their styling is often somewhat cruder. Because of their similarities, Thasos-type tetradrachms are typically categorized as Thasos tetradrachms in references and auction catalogs even though these coins were differentiated from original Thasos tetradrachms at least as early as 1908 by Robert Forrer, no doubt because of the difficulty in doing so and the lack of agreement over the boundary lines.

Many of those who have studied these coins in detail believe that Thasos-type tetradrachms differ not only in appearance from Thasos tetradrachms but also in origin, beginning at least as early as 1912 with Max Strack. Using hoard evidence, they contend that Thasos-type tetradrachms were minted by various authorities outside of Thasos on the Thracian mainland, further north in Dacia, and further west in Macedonia. Others who have studied these coins believe Thasos-type tetradrachms were minted in Thasos by the Romans before the Romans replaced this coinage with their own denarii.

I believe that both scenarios are correct. Thasos-type tetradrachms were minted in the maelstrom of changing times and amidst much warfare. In expanding its influence, Rome warred with the Thracian tribes -- probably a shifting alliance of different tribes. Along with allying with some Thracian tribes against other tribes, Rome also allied with Thasos.

As part of its imperialist efforts, Roman moneyers may have taken over the minting of Thasos tetradrachms in Thasos ca. 140 BC after previously allowing the Thasians to mint their own coins in conformity with their initial hands-off administrative policies. In tightening their control, the Romans turned out slightly cruder coins than the originals while retaining the original design, not having the same pride in ownership as their predecessors and needing to produce large quantities of coinage quickly. Roman administrators in Macedonia may have also minted Thasos-type tetradrachms, beginning ca. 120 BC, to support Rome's war effort, bribing Thracian rulers and paying Thracian mercenaries. Strack suggested Thessalonica as the location of one such mint.

It could be argued that it makes little sense to suggest that Rome, being an imperial power, would have minted coins that didn't clearly indicate its authority. But as Michael H. Crawford points out in his 1985 book Coinage and Money Under the Roman Republic, Romans minted a number of different coinages during their military campaigns in the Greek world in the second and first century BC that were based on existing Greek coins, presumably because Roman coins were not yet accepted there. One such Greek coin type that continued to minted after conquest by the Romans, by the Romans, was the Seleukid Philip Philadelphos tetradrachm, which also then exhibited a slightly cruder style (see Sear Greek 7196 vs. 7214). One piece of evidence supporting the notion that Romans minted Thasos-type tetradrachms after their subjugation of Thasos is the appearance on a few of them of monograms that likely identify Roman officials.

It's likely that other authorities besides Rome minted Thasos-type tetradrachms. Some were probably minted by Thracian tribes on the Thracian mainland to support their military activities against the Roman invaders, with minting possibly also beginning ca. 120 BC. Still other Thasos-type tetradrachms were likely minted ca. 88-84 BC by Mithradates the Great of Pontos, the last Hellenistic king to challenge the power of Rome, to support his military activities in the area. Pontos, a kingdom in northeastern Asia Minor, was allied with most of the Thracian tribes against the Romans.

Minting of the Thasos-type tetradrachms may have stopped with the subjugation of Thasos by the Romans ca. 72 BC. (Alternately, this may have happened ca. 87 BC with the siege of Thasos by Mithradates the Great.)

"Enervated." This Thasos-type tetradrachm may have been struck by Romans in Macedonia to support Rome's war effort against the Thracians (though most catalogers and dealers would probably identify it simply as a Thasos tetradrachm). Much like the ancient Greek world at the time, Dionysos on this coin is languishing, with sleepy eyes and a puffy face. Herakles on the reverse, however, stands tall, handsome, and provocative, with sharply defined muscles and boldly thrusting his naked pelvis forward. The metal is characteristically dull gray. 16.7g, 31mm. Göbl Class I, Lukanc 413.
   
   
If little is conclusively and widely known about Thasos and Thasos-type tetradrachms, this applies even more so to the abstracted and artistic derivations, the Thracian tetradrachms, to the point that these coins are often not dated at all in reference sources and auction catalogs. When dates are provided, these coins are typically dated broadly to the 1st century BC -- CNG and Harlan J. Berk do this, for example.

I believe that the minting of Thracian tetradrachms began on the Thracian mainland about the same time that the minting of the Thasos-type tetradrachms ended, probably ca. 72 BC, or shortly afterward. One possible scenario is that Rome, in consolidating its hold over the area, began actively replacing Thasos-type tetradrachms with its own denarii, coins about one-fourth the size. But the Thracian tribes, being rebelliously independent, still wanted their big silver tetradrachms and began minting even more distinctive versions of them. (While Thasos and Thasos-type tetradrachms often look similar, Thracian tetradrachms are clearly divergent.)

Minting of Thracian tetradrachms may have continued to ca. 31 BC, when Thrace became a Roman protectorate, with these coins continuing to circulate until the end of the century, according to hoard evidence. (Thrace would lose all autonomy ca. A.D. 46 when it became a Roman province.)

Thasos-type and Thracian tetradrachms were minted in far larger numbers than the original Thasos tetradrachms, according to those, such as Prokopov and Crawford, who have looked at the hoards. The chronology of Thasos tetradrachms being minted for 28 years ca. 168-140 BC, Thasos-type tetradrachms for 68 years ca. 140-72 BC, and Thracian tetradrachms for 41 years ca. 72-31 BC roughly corresponds to the frequency of these types appearing in today's ancient coin marketplace. (There undoubtedly was some overlap in the minting of these different types, which isn't accounted for in this dating. Also, keep in mind that the most abstracted Thracian tetradrachms, corresponding to Göbl's Class V, comprise only a fraction of Thracian tetradrachms.)

Suggested Chronology

   
Thasos tetradrachms ca. 168-140 BC
Thasos-type tetradrachms ca. 140-72 BC
Thracian tetradrachms ca. 72-31 BC
Though it's believed that in general the older Thracian tetradrachms are more realistically imitative while the newer ones are more wildly abstract, there's not necessarily a direct correlation between degree of abstraction and age. Robert Göbl, who classified Thracian tetradrachms from less to more abstract in his 1973 book Ostkeltischer TypenAtlas, specified that the progression isn't necessarily chronological. Topalov, on the other hand, believes that the wildly abstracted specimens are the latest in the series.

During the entire run of this coinage, from Thasos to Thasos-type to Thracian, the purity of the silver didn't significantly degrade (except with a few lead issues and with silver-plated bronze fourees), and the average weight lessened only slightly. This is in stark contrast with much other imitative coinage. Celtic derivations of Philip II coinage, for instance, progressively declined in purity and weight compared with the original coins being copied, though they were issued over a wider geographic area and for a longer period of time.

Hoard evidence indicates that Thracian tetradrachms were minted closer to Thasos, in present-day Bulgaria, while a number of the more realistically copied Thasos-type tetradrachms were minted further north in present-day Romania. This may be because the Thracians, living closer to the Greeks, were more influenced by them. They were thus more resistant to Roman influence and more stubbornly independent, leading them to create distinctive coinage of their own when Roman denarii threatened to dominate. Later, the Dacians (who are believed to be closely related to the Thracians or simply other Thracian tribes), living further from Greece, would become much more Latinized by the Roman Empire than the Thracians ("Romania" means "Land of the Romans").

Like many ancient coins, Thasos-type and Thracian tetradrachms traveled widely, winding up in hoards unearthed in present-day Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Greece, and Albania. One misconception is that Thasos (and Thasos-type) tetradrachms were minted in such great numbers that they continued circulating in the Balkans into the eighteenth century. No coin could possibly have lasted this long in circulation. What likely happened is that some of these coins turned up in mixed hoards and were brought to market along with more recent coins, creating the confusion.

On most Thracian tetradrachms, the legend on the reverse is treated by the die engravers as a design element rather than as lettering, as is the monogram, if present. The letterforms of the legend range from blundered to illegible to abstract lines or dots. On a few Thracian or Thasos-type tetradrachms, the legend, or sometimes the monogram, reveals who struck or may have struck the coin.

One unusual Thasos-type variety features a legend with the word "theta-PAK-omega-N," or "Thracians," instead of "theta-A-sigma-I-omega-N," or "Thasians." These coins may have been struck ca. 88-84 BC by Mithradates the Great of Pontos or by one of his sons, Ariarates, during the time of the Mithradatic Wars against Rome. The legend may have been changed to "Of Herakles, Savior of the Thracians" because Pontos was allied with almost all of the Thracian tribes (the most notable exception being the Odrysae) against Rome and Thasos.

Instead of the typical M, one unusual Thasos-type tetradrachm variety (Lukanc 1930) features the monogram SVR, which is thought to identify Q. Bruttius Sura, the Roman legatus (military commander) in Macedonia ca. 92-81 BC. A couple of years ago a German auction house sold a VF specimen for 1610 DEM (including buyer's premium), the equivalent at the time of about $720. According to one Bulgarian dealer, this is a variety that has been frequently forged in modern times, though these fakes are typically not terribly deceptive, having been pressed rather than hammered.

Other unusual Thasos-type tetradrachms (Lukanc 1927-1929) feature the monogram Æ, which is thought to identify Aesillas, the Roman quaestor (official in charge of the provincial treasury) in Macedonia ca. 95-88 BC. A German auction house recently sold a VF specimen of this variety for 275, which is in the range of what common varieties sell for. A couple of years ago another German auction house sold a slightly nicer gVF specimen for 1265 DEM, the equivalent at the time of about $570. Topalov believes that almost all Thasos-type tetradrachms minted by Aesillas are fourees. The weights of both of these specimens, 16.54 grams and 16.41 grams respectively, were in the typical range (though fourees aren't always lightweight).

One rare variety (Lukanc 1924-1926), with about ten extant specimens, according to Celtic coin expert and coin dealer Rob Freeman, features the legend "KOTYOC XAPAKTHP." This translates into "SEAL OF KOTYS" and indicates the coin was struck by Kotys II, king of the Odrysae (the most powerful Thracian tribe) ca. 57-48 BC. Some sources refer to this ruler as Kotys III, though still other sources, in recognition of the naming confusion, refer to him as Kotys II/III. Prokopov and Topalov, on the other hand, believe these coins were minted as late as ca. 30-20 BC.

One gVF specimen of this variety, reportedly a coin belonging to a Bulgarian dealer, was on the market for a while. A German auction house initially tried auctioning it with an estimate of 4,090 without getting a bid. Several months later an American auction house tried with an estimate of $3,000, no bids. The same German auction house then tried again, this time with an estimate of 2,750, still with no bids. Next, an American dealer included this coin in an auction of his, with an estimate of $2,500, without a bid. Finally, the first American auction house just sold this well-traveled specimen for $2,070 (including buyer's fee).

Common varieties of Thracian tetradrachms sell for far less, typically between $50 and $400, depending on the beauty/wildness of the particular design and, as with other ancient coins, on such factors as the state of wear, the quality of the strike, the condition of the flan, the existence of any corrosion, the appearance of the patina, the presence of any tooling, and the dealer, auction house, or collector you buy from.

"Smash Mouth." With his weakly struck, receding mouth, Dionysos on this Thracian tetradrachm looks like he got the bejesus kicked out of him by Herakles (or the Romans). But this couldn't have been the Herakles on the reverse, who's a bubble boy, with a body, face, and nimbus (halo) of dots. The legend, consisting of strokes or ribs, has given up all pretense of being made up of letters. The obverse is slightly off-center -- most Thracian tets are well centered. 15.9g, 29mm. Göbl Class IV, cf. Lukanc 1223.
   
   
Attribution

With only fragmentary hoard evidence available with and no comprehensive die studies yet published, a fully satisfactory classification system for Thracian tetradrachms doesn't yet exist. A number of worthwhile classification efforts have been made, however.

The most widely used is a simple system Robert Göbl put forth in his 1973 book Ostkeltischer TypenAtlas (often abbreviated OTA), while the most elaborate is the system created by Ivo Lukanc in his 1996 book Les imitations des monnaies d'Alexandre le Grand et de Thasos. The former book is in German and out of print but is available through the secondhand book market. The latter is in French, costs about $115, and is available among other places through Van der Dussen Numismatic Books, Witmakersstraat 14-A, 6211 JB Maastricht, The Netherlands, http://www.vanderdussen.com.

I had the relevant sections of the Göbl and Lukanc books translated myself because English-language versions of them aren't commercially available. I also had translated from Bulgarian the relevant sections of Stavri Topalov's 1996 book Prinos kam prouchvaneto na tetradrachmite na Tasos.... i drugi imitativni moneti ot zemite na Trakija.

Ilya Prokopov, former director of Bulgaria's National Museum of History, is writing a monograph about Thracian tetradrachms and a book on Thasos tetradrachms. Both works are in Bulgarian, with no English versions planned at the time of this writing.

One challenge with Thracian tetradrachms is that most of the books and journal articles about them are in languages other than English, a common-enough challenge with ancient coins in general for those who aren't multilingual. I believe what you're reading right now is the most comprehensive material published in English about this coinage.

The best English language attribution reference for Thracian tetradrachms is Derek Allen's posthumously published 1987 Catalogue of the Celtic Coins in the British Museum, Vol. One: Silver Coins of the East Celts and Balkan Peoples, abbreviated as CCCBM. Allen used Göbl's classification system, and sometimes these coins are attributed with a CCCBM designation rather than a Göbl designation (sometimes written as Göbl OTA or just OTA). Michaela Kostial, in her 1997 book Kelten im Osten: Gold und Silber der Kelten in Mittel- und Osteuropa, also used Göbl's system.

Göbl's system is a simple one, with six main classes and with two of the main classes having subclasses. Once you know Göbl's classes, you can categorize coins with them without having to refer to the 71 photos of these coins in his book. The first two classes include Thasos-type tetradrachms, the latter four Thracian tetradrachms. The groupings are based largely on the disintegration of the legend on the reverse, though other design characteristics are considered as well:

Göbl Class I: Early imitations. Dionysos well done. Legends still good. Monogram usually M or M on its base.

Göbl Class II: Dionysos somewhat rougher. Legend still well recognizable. Monogram sometimes missing.

Göbl Class III: Complete dissolution of the legend (enlarged and coarsened). Rough portrait of Dionysos. Herakles still facing left, but the abstraction of his legs is beginning.

Göbl Class III/A: Similar to the above. Further coarsening of Dionysos' head. The Greek letters omicron and theta appear on the four corners of the legend. The legend curves, sometimes causing a second line.

Göbl Class IV: Legend in "ribbed" or "beam" form. Portrait of Dionysos sometimes more realistic. Head of Herakles, sometimes also the whole figure, occasionally faces right.

Göbl Class V: Legend consists of points or dots. Portrait of Dionysos varies, sometimes facing left instead of right, and some portraits have an angular beard reminiscent of Parthian coins. Herakles still usually facing left but sometimes right. Herakles has coarse features, with club, lion skin, and legend often consisting of points or dots. Coins sometimes double-struck.

Göbl Class V/A: Similar to above. The Greek letters omicron and theta appear on the four corners of the legend.

Göbl Class V/B: Similar to above. Head of Dionysos faces left. Herakles occasionally has a bird head.

Göbl Class VI: Deviating types.

"Square Face." Dionysos looks almost all-American on this Thracian tetradrachm, with his square face, protruding nose, and jutting chin. Herakles is also pretty tough-looking, with exaggerated chest and leg muscles. Unlike most Thasos, Thasos-type, and Thracian tetradrachms, Herakles is facing right. The flan is curled, but by the look of the wrinkle lines on the reverse, the coin was likely flattened a bit at some point in its life. 16.5g, 31mm. Göbl Class IV, Lukanc 1613.
   
   
Lukanc's system is considerably more elaborate, and difficult to use. To place any given coin within Lukanc's categories, you have to consult the photographs of 1,987 coins in his book (by far the most extensive catalog of Thasos-type and Thracian tetradrachms ever compiled). Lukanc's system is based in part on Göbl's work as well as on the work of Prokopov and Alexandru Sasianu. Lukanc presents three phases of the coinage. The First Phase and Second Phase include Thasos-type tetradrachms, many of which other numismatists have categorized as Thasos tetradrachms. The Third Phase corresponds with the coins Göbl placed in his six classes. Here's a run-down of his system.

First Phase (coins 1-97): Included here are early Thasos-type imitations that Lukanc feels were minted on the Thracian mainland near the end of the second century BC. These coins are divided into a number of series. The coins in the first several series strongly resemble Thasos tetradrachms (and that to my eyes are indistinguishable from them), with flans that are round and large (33mm to 36mm) and that consist of pure white silver. The coins in the latter several series are slightly cruder and have flans that are smaller by 2mm to 3mm but that also consist of pure white silver.

Second Phase (coins 98-994): Included here are Thasos-type tetradrachms that Lukanc believes were minted by Roman administrators in Macedonia from ca. 100 BC to the seventies of the first century BC. Compared with the First Phase coins, the Second Phase coins are less sharply engraved, the devices are often crowded on the flans, the legends are courser, and the metal is gray. Flans average 30mm. Second Phase coins are divided into eleven groups (with some groups having subgroups) and numerous classes based upon the coins' styling.

Third Phase (coins 995-1923): Included here are the more abstracted (and more interesting) derivations created in Thrace, the Thracian tetradrachms, which Göbl placed in the last four of his six classes and which Lukanc dates to the second half of the first century BC. Lukanc also places Göbl's first two classes in his Third Phase, which he dates from ca. 90 B.C and which he feels were imitations of Thasos-type tetradrachms. However, the coins in Göbl's first class (Lukanc 995-1005) and some in his second class (Lukanc 1006-1229) have more in common with the Thasos-type tetradrachms in Lukanc's Second Phase and probably belong there.

Lukanc's Third Phase is divided into ten groups (with some groups having subgroups) and numerous classes, beginning with less abstracted specimens and progressing to the highly abstracted ones. With some of the coins in Lukanc's Seventh Group, Third Subgroup, the obverses dissolve into near or total abstraction. The same happens with the reverses of a few coins in his Eighth Group. His Ninth Group consists of twelve coins in which Dionysos is facing left instead of the usual right (a handful of coins in some of his other groups also have a left-facing Dionysos). His Tenth Group includes coins with unusual reverses, including Herakles holding a branch, torch, or scepter and Herakles holding or drinking from an amphora (wine jug). The most unusual Tenth Group specimen (Lukanc 1923) has a unique reverse in which two standing figures are engaged in sex. This same specimen is also illustrated in Göbl (Class Six, No. 5).

Miscellaneous groups (coins 1924-1940, S1-S47): Included here are coins with unusual legends (Kotys II), unusual monograms (Aesillas and Sura), hybrid coins combining elements of Thasos tetradrachms with other types of coins (Maroneia tetradrachms and Athenian New Style tetradrachms), coins that can't be conclusively identified, and supplemental coins.

Lukanc provides a great deal of valuable information in his book, and his catalog of these coins is by far the most comprehensive ever compiled. But no effort like this can be perfect. His classification system is overcomplex, and there's no handy index with which to place coins within his categories. Though comprehensive, his system isn't complete. He doesn't precisely date the coins, assign them specific places of mintage, or attribute them to specific Thracian tribes, and not all varieties are included. Though his arrangement of categories for the most part is logical, they sometimes seem arbitrary, and sometimes he places the same coin in different categories (1613 and 1725, for instance).

Göbl's effort isn't nearly as far reaching, and his classification system, though useful, is oversimplified. Topalov has proposed an even simpler though still useful four-part system, categorizing and dating these coins as:

1. Original Thasos tetradrachms, ca. 180/168-72/71 BC
2. Early imitations, ca. 180/168-72/71 BC
3. Barbarous tetradrachms, ca. 72/71-27 BC
4. Highly barbarized tetradrachms, ca. 27-11 BC

Whatever system you use, it can be interesting to label your coins for organizational purposes. But ultimately collectors gain only little by grouping their coins into stylistic categories such as these, which are devised by others. All you're doing is categorizing your coins with coins that others feel look similar when you in fact may feel otherwise.

What's more, any attribution system can be misused. The major U.S. and European auctions firms, for instance, often attribute Thasos tetradrachms using SNG Copenhagen. Yet SNG Cop., despite its general comprehensiveness, illustrates only twelve varieties of Thasos tetradrachms, and there are many, many more. I've seen dozens of Thasos tetradrachms that were attributed incorrectly using SNG Cop. over the past two years by major auction firms, sometimes wildly so, with no indication that the coin auctioned was a variation of the coin referred to.

Sometimes auction houses or dealers attribute a coin as a variation of a coin in a reference. The abbreviation "v." or "var." after a catalog number means "variation" or "variety," while "cf." before an attribution means "confer" or "compare with." This can be helpful, even if only marginally. But sometimes an auction house or dealer will follow a catalog number with "f." or "ff." to mean that the coin is being compared with the coin referred to and either the one coin after it (f.) or all coins of the type after it (ff.), which is virtually meaningless.

Because of the inherent limitations and subjectivity of categorizing coins, I'm proposing another classification system for Thracian tetradrachms, an individualized system for a series of coinage that, at its best, celebrated individualized expression as artistically as any other in history. This, however, is more of an anti-classification system. With any given coin, treat it individually, naming it for its most pronounced characteristic. As you would with a painting or sculpture, give your coins their own unique names, as I've done with the specimens from my own collection whose photos appear with this article.

The most pronounced characteristic of a specific Thracian tetradrachm might be on the obverse or the reverse. What jumps out at you the most? What is this characteristic reminiscent of? What feelings does the coin evoke in you? An informal system such as this can, of course, be used in conjunction with a more formal classification system such as Göbl's or Lukanc's, as I've done.

Eventually a system may be developed for this coinage that categorizes the main obverse and reverse design motifs into several dozen groups, with each group having a descriptive name. Such a system could also be used along with individually named coins. The ideal would be for these categories to be linked to a particular Thracian tribe and period of issue.

 

Intro

Abstraction Progression

Morph

Imitations and Thrace

Art and Barbarism

Chronology and Attribution

Origins and Collecting

Forgeries

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