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The Thessalian League

Triton XV, Lot: 1. Estimate $1000.
Sold for $11000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

THESSALY, Thessalian League. Circa 470s-460s BC. AR Drachm (15mm, 5.69 g, 6h). Forepart of horse r., emerging from rock / ΘΕ-ΤΑ, wheat grain in incuse square. Unpublished (and unique ?) reverse variant. VF, surfaces lightly porous, scratch on obverse.

Although Thessaly was a fertile territory renowned for producing superior cavalry, its original social and political arrangement affected its subsequent situations. Thessaly was divided into four tetrades (τετράδες), or districts, each composed of four cities - Thessaliotis, Pelasgiotis, Histiaiotis, and Phiotis – and all united under the rule of a tagos (ταγός). Like the Boiotarchs, the kings of Sparta, or the polemarchs of Athens, the tagos (ταγός) had command of the League's forces (Xen. Hell. 6.1.6). The Thessalian League was a primarily defensive organization, consisting not only of infantry, but also cavalry – a thing for which Thessaly was renowned. The regional cities - among them Larissa, Krannon, Magnesia, Pharsalos, and Pherai - and their powerful local families, vied with one another for the position of tagos (ταγός), and although Thessaly early on did actively try to expand its regional influence, these inter-civic rivalries of the main Thessalian cities and their leading families weakened the League's effectiveness at defense from invasion, particularly Persia. As a result, some Thessalian cities Medized, while the Aleuadai, then the most powerful family, because it dominated the tageia (ταγεία) and were reputed by Herodotos to be "kings of Thessaly" (7.6), actively counseled the Persians to invade Greece. Many Thessalians, however, urged for Greek assistance against Persia, and it was only after the Spartan defeat at Thermopylai, that the remaining cities of Thessaly too submitted to Persia, and the League disintegrated.

Between the end of the Persian Wars and almost the end of the Peloponnesian War, parts of the former Thessalian League provided some support to the other Greek cities of Central Greece, especially Athens, who were maneuvering to expand their own power and influence. Beginning sometime at the end of the 5th century BC, the city of Pherai began to gain ascendancy through its ruler, Lycophron. Supported by Sparta and in person by its king, Agesilaus, Lycophron eventually gained the upper hand and brought the Thessalian League under his control. Lycophron's successor, Jason, sought to expand the successes of his predecessor. Elected tagos (ταγός) in 374 BC, he re-established the Thessalian League. Unlike its earlier, looser version, this new league was Jason's personal military force. Comprising 8,000 cavalry and more than 20,000 infantry, the league was allied with the kingdom of Epeiros and, more importantly, the kingdom of Macedon. Consequently, the Thessalian League became the greatest Greek force in central Greece at the time and, following an alliance with Thebes, it became a threat to the power of Lakedaimon, Jason's former supporter. Disaster was averted only after Jason was assassinated in 370 BC.

In the years immediately following Jason's assassination, his brothers Polydoros and Polyphron attempted to wrest control of the league from one another. This infighting prompted the other Thessalian cities, Larrissa in particular, to apply for aid from Alexander II of Macedon. Although Alexander successfully gained control of Larissa and several other Thessalian cities, he went back on his earlier promises and garrisoned them with Macedonian troops, thereby establishing a strong Macedonian presence in the region. In reaction, Thebes drove the Macedonians from Thessaly. Thebes then ordered Alexander II to ally himself with them, as well as hand over his younger brother Philip as hostage. Following the death of Epaminondas at the battle of Mantineia in 362 BC, Theban control over Thessaly weakened. Once again the city of Pherai began to reassert its control again under the tagos (ταγός) Alexander, a nephew of Polydoros. It was Alexander's earlier cruelties that had precipitated Macedonian intervention. Alexander's assassination in 359 BC created a situation similar to that following the assassination of Jason eleven years earlier. Now, it was Philip II of Macedon who intervened. Beginning in 353 BC, he campaigned against the Thessalians, and over the next several years a back-and-forth struggle went on between the league and the Macedonians. At the same time, Philip worked to undercut the power of the leading Thessalian families, in particular that of the Aleuadai. In addition to the standard Macedonian policy of placing garrisons in defeated towns, he "liberated" others by supporting "democratic", though pro-Macedonian, factions. By 344 BC, Philip had so weakened any hope of an independent Thessaly, that he simply annexed the territory to his increasing empire. At last, he was given the title of archon tagos (ἄρχων ταγός) for life; in effect, he was now the head of the Thessalian League. Thessaly remained under Macedonian control until 197 BC when Rome defeated Philip V at Kynoskephalai. Now freed from the domination of Macedon and declared "free", Thessaly reconstituted the Thessalian League a third time. Although it continued until the end of the first century BC, and remained ostensibly an "independent" entity, it held no significant political or military authority, becoming instead an honorary position for the local elite. By the time of Augustus, it had even ceased striking its own coinage, adopting more current provincial types instead.

For all early League silver, die positions are taken with the grain and club reverses pointing upwards.