Pontus, in the name of Athens - 'The People'

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This extremely rare coin boldly and very deliberately states that it has been issued by 'the people' of Athens, immediately marking it out as a piece of immense interest issued under extraordinary circumstances. Jongkees notes that this 'points to a situation where the people were opposed to a dominant power which could be regarded as not representing the Athenian people.'

Thompson's examination of the evidence and information available on this issue is thorough; he concludes that the issue should be attributed to the pro-Mithradatic faction of Athenians who went into exile in Pontos when Athens was threatened by Sulla (see Ferguson, Hellenistic Athens, p. 448 citing Plutarch, Lucullus, XIX; see also Thompson p. 447). In 87 Sulla circumvallated not only Athens, but also the port of Piraeus. He levelled the sacred groves of Greece for timber, and plundered the temples for coin. The people in Athens were reduced to eating grass and leather. The suffering was so great that even cannibalism was reported. Sulla eventually mined the walls, bringing down a nine hundred foot section, and conducted a brutal and bloody sack of the city.

Thompson thus argues that in the wake of this disaster and with the now helpless city at the mercy of Sulla, the exiles in Pontos considered themselves the true representatives of the free Athenian people. Thompson hypothesises that Mithradates sponsored an emission of coinage in the Athenian style at a Pontic mint as an expedient political manoeuvre to reassure his Athenian partisans that his armies would defeat Sulla and free Athens from Roman hegemony.

This conclusion is supported by the available evidence: the silver is virtually pure, containing far less gold or copper than regular Athenian new-style issues, and analysis indicates it is not Athenian in origin. The style of the obverse suggests the work of an engraver in a remote area of the Hellenistic world rather than being the product of either a Roman or coerced Athenian artist.

The unusually rendered figure standing upon the amphora is variously identified as Harmodios, Theseus or the personified Demos, but may more easily be interpreted as Perseus. A hero so closely associated with Athens and the Pontic kings who claimed him as an ancestor fits perfectly within the scenario; Thompson notes that 'the legend lent itself to the political context of 86 BC so that one might see in the armed warrior Mithradates, the modern Perseus, prepared to slay the monster Sulla on behalf of Athena and the Athenian people.' While it is concede that the lack of defining characteristics makes a positive identification impossible, any of the suggested personages are nonetheless fitting as “champions of the people against tyranny”.

The find spots of the known examples also lend credence to a Pontic issue. An example which appeared at the Istanbul market is considered to have an Anatolian provenance; three examples were found at Karystos; two more were found at Cesme, a mainland site opposite Chios on Turkey's Aegean coast; most importantly, one example now residing at Istanbul is documented as having been found at the site of Amisos, a royal residence of the Pontic kings and the city to which the pro-Mithradatic Athenians fled.

Pontus, in the name of Athens, AR New Style Tetradrachm. Circa 86-85 BC. Head of Athena right, wearing crested Attic helmet decorated with Pegasos / Owl standing right, head facing, on amphora upon which also Perseus (?); A-ΘE above, O ΔEMOΣ across; all within wreath. Thompson 1365a (same dies); Svoronos Pl. 78, 27 (same dies). 16.83g, 29mm, 12h.

Extremely Rare; one of only nine known specimens, and the only one in private hands.