Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Coin collecting - Part 1

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There is no taste more general than that for collecting coins, yet there is none which is pursued with less judgment. The picture-buyer knows a Flemish from a Spanish master, and can even discriminate between the schools of Italy; the coin collector, in general, merely buys for rarity or beauty, without any distinct notion of the importance of the object he acquires. If there were any real idea of the interest of coins this would be far otherwise. The historian would be curious to examine unimpeachable monuments marking the rise and fall of kingdoms, the changes of belief and manners, and the various vicissitudes of human affairs. The artist would never weary of studying the handiwork of the best Greek schools, not as shown in the few true Greek statues, and the many corrupt Græco-Roman copies and imitations, or in the little varied bas-reliefs, but in an almost countless number of authentic monuments, bearing designs of every kind, with no drawback but the minuteness of the field they occupy. Coins of all ages are of value to both historian and artist, but the Greek take the first place, both because they illustrate obscure and most interesting periods, and as higher in artistic merit than any others. In history, modern coins are sometimes dangerous guides. The famous medal of the first Napoleon, “frappée à Londres,” is as untrue as the less known dollar of Frederic William IV., of Prussia, “elected Emperor of the Germans,” struck at Frankfort. Nor can we say much of the art of modern coins, with the florin and the new brass money before us. In both particulars, mediæval coins take a higher place; yet even they must yield to the currency of antiquity, in which that of the Greeks is in all respects the most important. In this paper, therefore, I propose to give some instances of the aid to history afforded by ancient Greek money.

We all know the history of the exile of Themistocles, how he fled to the King of Persia, and had allotted for his maintenance the cities of Magnesia, Lampsacus, and Myus, in Asia Minor; but it has never been certain whether he was really a traitor to Greece, or only a pretended servant of her enemies. A late discovery probably throws new light upon his character, and aids us to determine this question. Two coins, struck by him at Magnesia, have been identified by Mr. W. H. Waddington. They show that he had such an authority that he could strike his own money, a right allowed to no Persian satrap, excepting on extraordinary occasions for the payment of troops, although conceded to powerful vassals and to cities; and one of them leads to a far more interesting inference. The latter, which is here engraved, with one side of the other specimen, is in the British Museum. It is remarkable as a plated coin, being of copper covered with a thick coating of silver. Ancient plated coins were intended to pass as silver pieces. They are in general either forgeries of well-known currencies, as of Athens, or else they were issued by authority, as seems to have been done by the Tarentines, judging from their coins, during the war with the Romans. The coinage of Themistocles could scarcely have been common enough to induce forgers to imitate it. This piece was, therefore, probably issued by him, and as the revenues of his territory must have been amply sufficient for his sustenance, there can have been no reason but covetousness for recourse to this expedient. Strange that after so many ages a coin of Themistocles should be unburied to add weight to the evidence against his honesty.

It is not a forced transition from the patron of Themistocles, the first Artaxerxes, him of the long hand (always a sign of good blood), to the second, who took his surname from the equally princely endowment of a strong memory. Many years since, a very beautiful silver coin was purchased for the British Museum. It bears on the obverse, or principal side, the head of a Persian sovereign, and, on the reverse, a lyre and the word king (ΒΑΣΙΛ for ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ or ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ). Although this is a coin of a Greek city, the king represented must be a Persian, as no portraits of Greeks occur in the period before Alexander’s successors,
the age to which this coin, from its style, certainly belongs, and the head-dress is the same as that of the last Darius, in the famous mosaic from Pompeii. As this is a unique and very beautiful coin, there has been great desire to discover whose portrait it bears. M. de Longpérier, of the Louvre, suggested that it was struck by Cyrus the Younger; but Mr. Waddington has recently shown, by a very curious chain of reasoning, that it can only be of his brother, Artaxerxes Mnemon. The date is about B.C. 400, the head, that of a man between thirty and forty, or, perhaps, a little older, and the place of striking must have been somewhere on the west coast of Asia Minor. From the age of the person represented, the choice lies between Artaxerxes and Cyrus the Younger. Cyrus might be supposed to have struck coins during the short period of his revolt, and there is nothing more likely than that, if he did so, he would have issued a Greek coinage from his favour for the Greeks. The age of the portrait is, however, some years above that of Cyrus at his death, and we know from Xenophon that he kept his project very close, before he set out on his expedition. Were any further evidence wanted, it is supplied by the fact that there are two other coins with the same portrait, one of which was struck at Lampsacus, a place beyond the limits of the government of Cyrus. The coin must, therefore, be of Artaxerxes Mnemon. It is very interesting thus to recover a contemporary portrait of one of the great Persian royal family. The head is of much beauty and refinement, very like the most handsome Arab type of our day, and certainly it so far agrees with what history tells us of this king that it does not show indications of vigour or resolution. It is rather the head of a philosopher than an administrator or conqueror.

Far different are the features of a more famous eastern king, the great Mithradates, for so his name is spelt on his coins, whose portrait is one of the most remarkable that antiquity affords. He was of Persian descent, for his house was one of those founded by the conspirators against the Magian Smerdis. His career was one of the most daring attempts to withstand the power of Rome, and in some of its particulars is almost an anticipation of our own conflict in India. As inhuman and unscrupulous as our opponents, he was unlike them in his generalship and courage, but his thoroughly Asiatic cruelty makes it impossible for us to feel pity as we read of his disasters.

Coin of Mithridates (transparent).png
Silver Coin of Mithridates.

The silver coin of Mithridates which we engrave is, on the head-side, an extremely fine work of a period at which Greek art had generally fallen very low. It was probably struck at his capital Panticapæum, the modern Kertch. The reason of the excellence of the head is, no doubt, that portrait-art, even ideal, flourished after purely ideal-art had decayed, and that, in this case, the engraver had to deal with a head full of character. The subjects of Greek coins were frequently copies of statues, and thus they show us the images as well as the temples of the places where they were issued. Pliny tells us that when Mithradates was conquered by the Romans, they took golden and silver statues representing him in chariots. The head on this coin may well be that of a driver urging horses to their utmost speed, the very best expression and attitude to give the highest ideal portrait of a face of this character. It shows in full exercise the fire, energy, and daring, that are the key to the career of the King of Pontus, and is quite unrivalled by the medallic portraits of modern times, in not one of which has any such ideal likeness in action been attempted.

But perhaps the most interesting of all portraits on ancient coins is that of the famous Cleopatra.
Antony and Cleopatra.
Those who look for beauty will be disappointed, but the history of the Queen of Egypt would lead us rather to suppose that she was a woman of great charm of manner and the most highly educated mind. On the silver coin here given, which bears her head and Mark Antony’s, she has certainly a face more remarkable for intellect and determination than for beauty, and, though she was then in middle-life, her portrait represents her at her best age, as the Greeks never otherwise pourtrayed women on their coins, though they had not the same rule as to men. The great character which is seen in Mark Antony’s head gives us confidence in the truthfulness of Cleopatra’s, which, moreover, is like a ruder portrait on her copper coins.

It will be evident from these remarks how valuable an aid to history is afforded by the study of coins. We have not merely the satisfaction of knowing the faces of some of the chief characters of antiquity, but we can form clearer ideas of their mental and moral qualities, not only from the lines of their countenances, but also from the favourite symbols they used, and the evidence their coinage shows of their relations as rulers to their subjects. Each ancient coin either confirms some fact already known, or adds a fresh one to the treasure-house of discovery, and so by degrees our old knowledge is made more definite, and constantly augmented, not from the disputed statements of writers, often describing events that happened long before their days, but on the unquestionable authority of contemporary state-monuments.

Nor is it history alone in its great periods, as those of the contests of Greece and Persia, of Rome and the East, or the lives of such chief persons as those whose coins we have noticed, that are thus illustrated: the light equally falls upon obscurer times, and forgotten rulers; and as by clearer knowledge we can fill up gaps and supply details, the annals of antiquity are, by the study of ancient money, brought nearer to completeness.

I have but touched upon a single bearing of the subject. I might have shown what a wonderful commentary on much of ancient literature the coins afford, how curiously they illustrate local beliefs and the oldest religion of Greece, otherwise scarcely known to us; how they give us the complete history of a town, its changes of fortune, its rise and decay, sometimes, as in the case of our London for more than fifteen centuries, even telling us what rivers watered it, beneath what mountain it stood, and displaying the buildings and statues that adorned it; or I might have shown how the coinage of the Roman Republic bears types relating to the primitive myths of the City—the Wolf and the Twins, Tarpeia, and the heads of the old rulers and heroes, famous in her legends and her history. I could have spoken of the various schools of Greek medallic art, the rich school of the West, the truthful school of Greece Proper, severe at first as Phidias, animated afterwards as Lysippus, passing, like the school of sculpture which it worthily rivals, from repose to action, the hard school of the East, and the pictorial school of Crete, the ancient home of art; or I could have treated of the coins that illustrate our own annals from those of the once half-mythical Cymbeline, by them made quite historical, to the nobles of Edward III., commemorating his sea-victory off Flushing, and the medals of the great wars of our times. But I have at least proved that the study of coins, rightly pursued, offers a field of rich promise to the lover of history and art, sometimes restoring, from a worn and half-effaced piece of copper, some precious but long-forgotten fact in the history of our race, sometimes showing, in a copy of marvellous beauty, the traits of a master-piece of art, for ages thought to be irrecoverably lost.

Reg. Stuart Poole.