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Mysterious Pugnacious Portrait


SYRIA, Decapolis. Nysa-Scythopolis. Q. Caecilius Bassus (?). 46-44 BC. Æ (21mm, 5.14 g, 12h). Dated Pompeian Era 19 (46/5 BC). Bare head of Bassus or Gabinius right / Dionysus standing left, holding uncertain object (cantharus?) and thyrsus; ΙΘ (date) in right field. Barkay 6; Sofaer –; RPC I 4828. Dark green patina with light earthen fields. VF. Rare.

The identity of the rather pugnacious portrait on the obverse of this rare type has been the subject of much speculation. Nysa-Scythopolis was one of the Decapolis cities “refounded” by Pompey the Great circa 63 BC, and the city dates its early coinage from this year. In 57 BC, Aulus Gabinius became governor of Syria, and Nysa adopted the name of “Gabinian Nysa” in his honor. Bronze coins struck in the city depict a Roman-style profile that, according to RPC, “can only be his.” However, Rachel Barkay, in “The Coinage of Nysa-Scythopolis (Beth-Shean),” notes that the portrait style of this period shifted subtly over the next few years of issue, reflecting successive Roman governors. She reads the date on this issue (Barkay 6, RPC 4828) as LΙΘ, “Year 19,” or 46/5 BC. During this period Syria was under the command of Quintus Caecilius Bassus, a Pompeian officer who had instigated a mutiny and overthrown Julius Caesar’s choice for governor, his cousin Sextus Julius Caesar. However, the year could also be read as LIE, “Year 15,” which would put it four years earlier, 50-49 BC, during a time when Syria was disputed between several contenders. Perhaps it is safest to regard the portrait as that of Gabinius, seeing that the reverse legend (ΓΑΒ ΝΥ) indicates the city still uses the name “Gabinian Nysa.” In any case, the type represents a rare provincial issue depicting a living Roman at a time before this taboo was officially broken.