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Research Coins: Feature Auction


The Greek Poet Homer

Sale: Triton XIII, Lot: 417. Estimate $10000. 
Closing Date: Monday, 4 January 2010. 
Sold For $17000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

Contorniates. Late 4th century AD. Æ Contorniate (24.41 g, 12h). ωMH POC, bareheaded and draped bust of Greek epic poet Homer right; incuse PLE monogam to right / Helen standing right, clasping right hand with Paris (Alexander), who stands facing, head left, and wears Phrygian cap; Helen also touches his cheek with her left hand. Alföldi, Kontorniat 94 (Hector and Andromache), but without additional monogram. Near EF, attractive warm brown patina, a few minor pits on reverse. Extremely rare, only the second one known and the only one not in a public collection.

Based on the poorly preserved specimen known to him, Alföli described the reverse of this contorniate as depicting the farewell of Hector and Andromache, recounted in Book VI of Homer’s Iliad. Such an attribution is problematic for three reasons. First, Homer’s depiction of the farewell of Hector and Andromache is one of great sadness and pity, something quite out of place in the context of a festival or victory at the games for which these contorniates were intended. Secondly, the poorly preserved state of the example from the Museo Nazionale in Rome (the only specimen known to Alföldi), could be interpreted to show a man in military dress. Our example, however, clearly shows that the man’s headgear is a Phrgyian cap and that he is dressed for a journey and not for battle. Finally, Astyanax, the infant son of Hector and Andromache, who is central to the episode and should appear somewhere in this scene, is noticeably missing.

The more likely interpretation is that the figures represent Helen and Paris. The scene is one of happy intimacy between a man and a woman, and, although the abduction of Helen by Paris precipitated the Trojan War, and event which had a disastrous outcome for the Trojans, this particular scene is still in keeping with the contorniate’s festive context. The man’s outfit would comport with other known illustrations of Paris (cf. [1st century AD painting from Pompeii]; [2nd century AD mosaic from Antioch]).