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Research Coins: Feature Auction


Second Known Symmachy Issue

Triton XIX, Lot: 166. Estimate $30000.
Sold for $75000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

MYSIA, Kyzikos. Symmachy coinage. Circa 404 or 394 BC. AR Tridrachm (21mm, 11.41 g, 6h). The Herakliskos Drakonopnigon: the Infant Herakles crouching right, strangling a serpent coiled around each arm; Σ-Y-[N] around / Head of lion left; below, tunny left; KY-ZI around; all within shallow incuse circle. Delrieux, Ententes 19 var. (unlisted dies) = Schönert-Geiss, Byzantion 857 var. (same) = G.F. Hill, “Greek Coins Acquired by the British Museum in 1927” in NC 1928, 30 = AGC 193 = GPGG pl. 18, 15 = Kraay & Hirmer 720 = Seltman, Greek pl. 32, 10 = BM Museum Number 1927,1015.1. Near EF, old collection tone, slightly off center, some marks on the reverse. Extremely rare, only the BM example known for this symmachy issue at Kyzikos.

From the MPM Collection, acquired in 1928.

The British Museum acquired the only known example of this type from a dealer in Rhodes in 1927 (cf. N. Hardwick in QT XXV [1996]), as part of a group of four coins that had been found together. As the present coin was acquired by the consignor’s grandfather in 1928, it is possible that it was part of the same find that contained the BM coin. A comparison of color photographs of the two coins reveals a similar surface appearance that is consistent with coins from a common hoard.

At the turn of the fifth to fourth centuries BC, several important cities in western Asia Minor – Byzantium, Knidos, Kyzikos, Ephesos, Iasos, Lampsakos, Rhodes, and Samos – struck an issue of silver denominations bearing on the obverse the figure of Herakliskos Drakonopnigon – the infant Herakles strangling a pair of serpents – along with the Greek letters ΣYN, generally interpreted as syn[machoi] (allies). The significance of the figure of Herakliskos Drakonopnigon, which was the badge of this alliance has been the subject of significant debate, especially in establishing the chronology of this short-lived alliance.

The figure of Herakliskos Drakonopnigon was depicted in Greek art from the first half of the 5th century BC and represents an important event in the early life of the Greek hero. The birth of Herakles, son of Zeus and Alkmene, enraged Zeus’ wife Hera, who tried to kill the infant by sending two serpents to strangle the sleeping baby in his crib. The following morning, the nurse discovered Herakles playing with the serpents' lifeless bodies: he had strangled one in each hand. The use of this image as the badge of the alliance is significant. Karweise in his article, "Lysander as Herakliskos Drakonopnigon (NC 140 [1980], pp. 1-27) argued that the infant Herakles probably represented the Spartan admiral Lysander, whose defeat of the Athenians at Aigospotamoi in 405 BC effectively ended the Peloponnesian War. Lysander was a member of the Heraklidai – direct descendents of Herakles – and the use of the figure of Herakliskos Drakonopnigon would have particularly apt, given that Spartan power was now on the rise, having "strangled" that of Athens. Thus, for Karweise, these coins should have been struck shortly after the end of the war – about 404 BC. This interpretation continues to be offered when the coinage is discussed (see Sitta von Reden, Money in Classical Antiquity [Cambridge, 2010], p. 80)

Dismissing the figure of Herakliskos Drakonopnigon as just a contemporary type in favor of the significance of the Greek letters ΣYN, and beginning with those issues of Rhodes with figure of Herakliskos Drakonopnigon, but without the Greek letters ΣYN, Delrieux argued that the alliance of these cities occurred in two brief phases – the first circa 395-390 BC, when Rhodes became the base of operations for the Athenian general Konon and his ally, the Persian general, Pharnabazos, against the Spartans. In 394 BC, following the defeat of the Spartan fleet at Knidos, many cities north along the Ionian Coast, including Ephesos and Samos, joined this alliance, which continued through to at least 390 BC when Sparta reasserted control in Asia Minor. The second phase began circa 389-387 BC. At that time, the Athenian general Thrasyboulos, who replaced Konon as commander (he had since been imprisoned by the Persians), began re-establishing Athenian alliances with those Asia Minor cities that had previously been their allies (many of these cities once belonged to the Delian League). The result of this action was Spartan fear over a resurgent Athenian empire, prompting counter-attacks against the cities of the Hellespont and the Propontis. To protect themselves from these attacks, these pro-Athenian cities allied themselves. With the King's Peace in 386 BC, however, this second phase of the alliance was no longer necessary: the alliance broke up and ceased striking this coinage.