Saturday, May 31, 2014


Peter Thonemann (ed.), Attalid Asia Minor: Money, International Relations, and the State. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xviii, 335. ISBN 9780199656110. $75.00.

Reviewed by Nicholas Sekunda, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Gdańsk University (

Version at BMCR home site


It is one of the great failures of the science of ancient numismatics, that no one has been able to resolve the question of when Pergamene cistophoric coinage started.1 Such is the importance of this question that the four numismatic chapters, out of the eight that go to make up this volume, relate indirectly or directly to this unsolved mystery. It could be argued, indeed, that the volume is really two half-books, the first on history and the second on numismatics. The numismatic contributions require much more attention from the reader. The argumentation presented in them is full of technical detail - they are certainly not aimed at 'the man on the Thyateira omnibus' (42). Earlier issues of Pergamene coinage, the so-called Philetairoi, had been struck on the Attic standard. These were replaced at some point in the first half of the second century by a reduced-weight silver tetradrachm, called the cistophoros.

Thonemann starts off the volume with Chapter 1 'The Attalid State 188-133 BC'. This is the core chapter of the book. Thonemann displays great originality of thought in defining the 'otherness' of the Attalid when compared to other Hellenistic kingdoms. In the end, however, the rehabilitation of the Attalid kingdom is a task too large even for Thonemann's eloquence. The exogenous nature of Attalid state-formation was due to its origins as a 'quisling' state (Kay 140), thrust onto the stage of Hellenistic history by Roman fiat. Compared with the other mighty monarchs of the Hellenistic world, Attalid rulers pale into insignificance, happily playing the role of 'Rome's lapdog' (Ma 58). This explains the continuing fascination with the Antigonid, Seleukid and Ptolemaic Kingdoms, to the loss of those Attalid 'Johnny come lately's'.

Thonemann develops three principal arguments in his chapter. The first is that the Attalid monarchs engaged in a process of institutional devolution, political power being devolved to existing local power-holders. Whereas Seleukid cities dealt with central officials at Sardeis, Pergamene kings preferred to deal directly with local communities (12), appointing local governors drawn from local elites (14). This power-sharing was dictated by the exogenous character of Attalid state-formation (dictated by the Roman settlement after the Seleukid defeat at Magnesia), resulting in a politically weak centre. Thonemann characterizes the Pergamene administration which replaced the Seleukid as 'cellular' (17). The second is that they followed a policy of increased administrative and fiscal 'legibility'. Whereas the Seleukids had transferred royal lands to individuals, in Attalid times the transfer was to cities (23). Thonemann notes that the post of geōdotēs is unattested outside the Attalid kingdom (26). The third is that the radically decentralized nature of the Attalid state was reflected in the state ideology, encouraging a non-charismatic style of rule. This too was dictated by the exogenous nature of state-formation, and the low ideological authority of Attalid kings. This non-charismatic style had two strands. The first strand was personal. Attalid kings styled themselves as the 'common benefactor', koinos euergetes (37). The second strand was to stress familial solidarity and domestic virtues (38). Thonemann argues (47) that the historical significance of the Attalid kingdom lay in its increased infrastructural power due to its consensual nature, as opposed to the 'despotic/federal' Near-Eastern states that it replaced.

In Chapter 2 'The Attalids: A Military History' John Ma exploits the evidence pertaining to the Attalid army and navy to the full, concluding his chapter with a useful gazetteer of 74 inscriptions which are of a military character (77-82): much food for thought here. The evidence proves to be insubstantial. 'In spite of the thinness of the evidence' Ma (60) proposes 12,000 as a wartime maximum strength for the early period, while in the last decades of the kingdom Attalid forces were larger. Hence the need to mobilize private forces to resist the Galatians in 277 and 168 and 156 BC. Unlike the other Hellenistic monarchies (Antigonid, Seleukid, Ptolemaic) the Attalid Kingdom seems not to have possessed a substantial manpower base subject to mobilization, and their armies seemed to consist largely of mercenary forces, although Ma points out that 20% of those mentioned in the Lilaia inscription are what he terms 'Pergamene citizen soldiers'.

One shortcoming of the book is that the first three authors make free use of such terms as katoikiai (Thonemann 20, 26, 29; Ma 72, 73), military katoikiai (Thonemann 19, 28, 30, 38) and military colonies (Ma 69; Chrubasik 90), but none of them at any point in the volume explains what exactly we are to understand by these terms. The material relating to the subject is, indeed, intractable. Furthermore, in the majority of cases we do not know whether such evidence as there is goes back to Seleukid times or postdates 188 BC, and is, therefore, potential evidence for Attalid attempts to create such a recruiting base.

In Chapter 3 Boris Chrubasik takes as his theme the relationship between 'The Attalids and the Seleukid Kings, 281-175 BC' in which he distinguishes three phases. The first phase, in which the Attalids were local dynasts within the Seleukid Empire, came to an end when Attalos I declared himself king. This was coincident, Chrubasik (95) argues, with the acclamation of Antiochos Hierax as king in Asia Minor. In 216 BC Attalos came to an accommodation with Antiochos III, resulting in the loss of Attalid territory (97). When Antiochos returned from his Anabasis cities which had been in the Attalid sphere since the 220s reverted to Seleucid power (99). The break between Eumenes (Attalos I's successor) and Antiochos only came in the winter of 194-193 BC, when Eumenes rejected the hand of Antiochos' daughter in marriage, seeing Rome as his chance of freeing himself from Seleukid superiority in Asia Minor (104). Chrubasik's third phase lasts from the Treaty of Apameia down to the accession of Antiochos IV.

While the later chapters of the book are numismatic in character, Philip Kay's chapter 4, entitled 'What Did the Attalids Ever Do for Us? The View from the Aerarium', provides a transition with a fiscal perspective on Roman imperialism in Asia. Kay explains the mechanics of Roman military imperialism more concisely and convincingly than I, at any rate, have come across previously. Against a background of carefully calculated statistics of the inflow of precious metals to Rome, he demonstrates that it was the needs of maintaining the Roman army that led to imperialism: 'in this sense warfare became economically self-perpetuating. Continuous wars of imperial conquest led to the plundering of conquered territories, which led to import into Italy of bullion, which in turn led to the financing of further wars' (134-5). He also demonstrates that the concept of an indemnity paid by a defeated adversary was a fiction: Rome charged Antiochos more than the Carthaginians because he was richer (139).

Andrew Meadows in Chapter 5 'The Closed Currency System of the Attalid Kingdom' argues for a 'low' dating for the start of Pergamene cistophoric coinage. There is an overlap in production between the Philetairoi and cistophoroi. It seems that the Philetairoi came to an end c. 150 BC, when the latest issues are found in the Trabzon hoard. Similarities between the symbols on the latest group of Philetairoi (issue 21) and series 24 of the cistophoroi suggest that 24 issues of cistophoroi were struck by c. 150 BC. Meadows concedes that 'This is a large amount of coinage' (181). The latest group of Philetairoi are also found in the Syria and Babylon hoards (c. 160 BC), and in the Ma'Aret hoard (c. 162 BC) and it is therefore highly probable that the first cistophoroi were struck before c. 162 BC. Meadows suggests a date of 167/6 for the start of Pergamene cistophoric coinage, linking it to the striking of Alabanda tetradrachms of cistophoric weight, which he suggests elsewhere start in 167/6 BC when Caria was freed from Rhodian control (178). Another suggestion made by Meadows not related to the introduction of the cistophoroi is that the massive number of coins struck between 133-128/9 BC reflect pro-Roman funding of the war against Aristonicus (183). Meadows concludes that the Pergamenes did not operate a closed (cistophoric) currency regime (196).

François de Callataÿ in Chapter 6 'The Coinages of the Attalids and their Neighbours: A Quantified Overview' considers that the annual production of Philetairoi would have been insufficient to pay the mercenaries in Attalid employment (213-4). He calculates the benefits accruing from the issue of the reduced weight cistophoroi as opposed to coins struck on the Attic standard (218-9), and puts the introduction of the cistophoroi at some point after the treaty of Apameia, probably in the decade 180-170 BC (227). He suggests that a significant part of cistophoric coinage must have been devoted to military expenditure (229-30).

In Chapter 7, 'The Use of the Cistophoric Weight-Standard Outside the Pergamene Kingdom', Richard Ashton (246-9) provides the arguments against the low dating adopted by both Meadows and de Callataÿ. A cistophoros struck relatively late on in the series was reported in the Larisa hoard, which was concealed in the 160s. This led Price to date the introduction of the cistophoroi to the 180s BC or earlier. An inscription recording a letter sent by Eumenes II dating to 182/1 to his governor in Telmessos mentions that poll-tax is normally to be paid in Rhodian coinage amounting to 4 Rhodian drachmae and 1 obol, the exact equivalent in weight to one Pergamene cistophoric tetradrachm. There are four well-known references to cistophoroi in Roman triumphs in Livy in 190, 189 and 187 BC, discussed in detail in an article by K.W. Harl ('Livy and the Date of the Introduction of the Cistophoric Tetradrachma' Classical Antiquity 10 (1991) 268-97). Indeed, as Ashton points out, without the cistophoroi the amount of Pergamene coinage struck in the years immediately after Apameia seems insufficient to meet the needs of the massively expanded kingdom. Consequently Ashton suggests that Eumenes II started to mint cistophoroi at Pergamon in 192 or 191 BC, and that one year later they found themselves in Glabrio's triumph as a subsidy or as booty taken from Antiochos' camp. Ephesos and Tralleis surrendered to Scipio after Magnesia and were assigned to the Attalids. The issue of cistophoroi in the name of cities other than Pergamon began as early as this. The Rhodian plinthophoroi (and later on cistophoroi), both coins of reduced weight, may have been introduced as a result of the shortage of silver encountered during the war with Antiochos III (259).

In the final Chapter 8 'War or Trade? Attic-Weight Tetradrachms from Second-Century BC Attalid Asia Minor in Seleukid Syria after the Peace of Apameia and their Historical Context' Selene Psoma addresses the problem of why after c. 140 BC Syrian hoards contain exclusively Seleukid and local issues, whereas before that date they contain imported coins of Attic weight silver coins of Asia Minor (274). She concludes that both Antiochos IV and Alexander Balas, a creation of Attalos II, received Attalid help, money and troops (292). Earlier on in this volume Callataÿ (233-6) had also pointed out that the wreathed coinages struck c. 154-135 BC by Myrina, Kyme, Smyrna, Lebedos, Magnesia, and Herakleia went to pay mercenaries recruited by Balas (who were recruited at Ephesos). Psoma (279) points out that in the years following Apameia, the Attalid kings used Attic-weight coinage of non-Pergamene origin, as well as their own issues, to fund overseas transactions.

I personally gained a lot from reading this volume, and I happily recommend it to other readers.


1.   The coins were so called because the coinage bore an image of a basket (cistos) and snakes, symbols connected with the mystery cult. The cistophoroi are 'sometimes qualified by the Moderns as the ugliest Greek coinage ever produced' (François de Callataÿ 218).

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