The coinage of Apollonia and Dyrrhachium

Drachms: The chronological approach

14 March 2021

Contents of this page

  1. Forming the relative chronological classification
  2. The Roman connection
  3. The 'compact model' hypothesis to establish a tentative absolute chronology
  4. Role of the cow-calf type drachms: locally and abroad
  5. Literature references to this chapter

1. Forming the relative chronological classification

A frequently cited reference work of this topic is Volume 8 of The British Museum Catalogue series1 accepted Mommsen's suggestion2 that the minting of the cow/calf type drachms (calling them 'victoriates') began in 229 BC when the two city states became Roman protectorates. The end of production was suggested 100 BC based on the number of emissions in the possession of the museum; not considering the material in other voluminous collections like that of the University of Tübingen3 and the Kunsthistorishes Museum in Vienna4. Maier5 made a step forward to list as many emissions as he could find in many other European collections and discussed the knowledge on this coinage at the beginning of the 20th c, without making further attempt to create chronology.

The first attempt to this was Ceka's chronological grouping6 revised by Conovici7. Torbágyi's observation on the two, structurally different types of coin hoards found in the N-E Balkan area8 gave me further inspiration. All these authors shared the view that the actual year of issue of the drachms was determined by the name on the reverse side of the drachms.

Using numismatic methods (observations on style patterns, meticulous comparison of hoard contents, follow-up of name occurrences among hoards, and metrology) helped me establish a substantially advanced arrangement of the drachma series that has not changed much during the past decades. Also my findings support the view that the name on the reverse in the genitive case is of the eponymous person (probably, the yearly elected first magistrate of the town); and the set of symbols on the obverse is connected to that name representing the year of issue. The names on the obverse in the nominative case must be of his subordinates (moneyers?) being responsible for the emissions of the same year of issue. So far, the opposite opinion could not produce convincing evidence.

To distinguish from the Ceka/Conovici's chronological groups, I use the term classes. In private correspondence, Conovici acknowledged that my version had been more advanced. Including my latest suggestions, the differences from the former groupings are these:

The detailed description of the classes can be found in the next chapter (Chronological classes).

The abundance of hoards found in the N-E Balkan region helped me work out the relative chronological sequence of the last dozens of year issues of both towns; backwards from the end of the drachma production: last issue = -1, penultimate = -2, pre penultimate = -3, etc. Unfortunately, there have been few hoards containing the earlier coins; insufficient to establish the relative chronological order of the issues within the early classes. See details and illustrations in a tabulated form in the relevant chapters (Dyrrhachian issues, Apolloniate issues).

The relative chronological sequence does not tell us the actual production date of the issues. Without documented or archaeological evidence, the creation of the absolute chronology required a suitable working hypothesis.

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2. The Roman connection

Apollonia and Dyrrhachium came under Roman control in 229 BC. The protectorate status meant that the cities remained formally independent and continued their civic institutions but the real power went over to the Romans like warfare and the monetary system.

The Roman republican coinage underwent substantial changes during the Second Punic war. The exact dates are still debated, I refer to a recent review of this topic by Stoyas9, which is important to understand the question of the denomination and weight standard of the new cow/calf silver coins.

The standardization of the Roman republican denarius was accompanied with the introduction of a smaller denomination, the victoriate (with Victory on the reverse) produced in Southern Italy, Spain, and in Messalia; in the 3/4 weigh of the denarius. The cow/calf type new coinage of Apollonia and Dyrrhachium used the same weight standard, causing confusion about its denomination already in ancient sources; some catalogues still call them victoriates. Hopefully, Visonà's discovery puts an end to this dispute: he found a contemporary document mentioning a sum paid in Apolloniate drachms (ΔΡΑΧΜΑΙ ΑΠΟΛΛΩΝΙΑΤΙΚΑΙ)10. On the other hand, victoriates did not circulate in the Balkan area, and have not been found together with the cow/calf type coins in hoards. The Illyrian drachms were produced more then 150 years in unchanged weight whilst the weight of the victoriates were slowly reduced and finally made equal with the quinarius (half denar).

When did the drachma production start? After 229 BC; but when? Stoyas suggested that the minting of the drachms did not start before 208 BC9. According to my most recent calculation (based on the number of verified issues calculated back from the most probable end of production in 48 BC), the start of the minting in Dyrrhachium was 210 BC.

These actions must have been part of a general, well thought-through Roman monetary policy. Their superior organization and technical skills helped maintain the drachma minting in a steady weight standard for more than 150 years.

In addition, note similarities between the Roman denarii and the cow/calf type drachms:

The cow/calf type drachms were minted for local use. Apollonia started minting some forty years later than Dyrrhachium, maybe just after the Third Illyrian War (167 BC); and throughout in smaller amounts.

The early drachms are found in Albanian hoards, but several pieces further to the North in some Dalmatian islands and in the Neretva valley (now in Croatia and Bosnia); and few in the South (Epirus) pointing at commercial connections; but still not beyond these territories.

The minting of the uniform drachms of Apollonia and Dyrrhachium continued for a long time; with maintaining the weight standard around 3.3 g. Some time in the first half of the 1st c BC, these coins spread over a wide area to the North-East Balkan lands, beyond the borders of Greek states or colonies. The end of the drachma minting in both towns seems to have coincided with the events of the Civil War: when Julius Caesar gained rule over Italy, Pompeius escaped and occupied Dyrrhachium in 49 B.C. Caesar crossed the Adriatic and settled in Apollonia in January 48 BC. After his temporary defeat in the battle of Dyrrhachium, soon he won at Pharsalus. Pompeius fled to Alexandria where he was murdered.

During his campaigns Caesar paid his soldiers with denarii produced by a moving military mint. His triumph changed the political status of the territory, making the drachma minting obsolete. The Dyrrhachian mint was closed down. Apollonia started minting silver coins and its fractions in the weight of the Roman Republican denarius plus bronze coins for a few decades. Later 'provincial' bronze coins were issued in Apollonia under several Roman emperors.

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3. The development of the 'compact model' hypothesis to establish a tentative absolute chronology

The compact model has been my working hypothesis for finding the absolute chronology of the cow-calf type drachma issues, based on certain postulates (not proven but logical statements):

  1. The long-standing and uniform coinage with a steady weight standard required a stable political-economic environment, which could not be realized without the Roman protectorate status.
  2. Drachms were issued yearly and every year without interruption during the production period in both towns.
  3. The products of the entire year are coupled with the name on the reverse of the drachms.

By time, all new facts, discoveries, hoards fitted well in the compact model. It seems that the postulates do have real ground; and the result may help explain further historical events.

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4. Role of the cow-calf type drachms: locally and abroad

This is one of the fields where the proposed new chronology is worth considering: For what purpose and when were the Greek-Illyrian drachms taken out of their usual area of circulation to end up in the North-East Balkan lands in a huge geographical area, in huge quantities? One may find different answers in the numismatic literature, mainly depending on the country of publication. I put here my view.

In the first half of the first c. BC the Illyrian drachms started appearing in the North-East Balkan area. Numerous hoards and stray finds show the route: The drachms were shipped North to the valley of the Neretva river; then carried further to the North to the Sava and the Danube rivers; then downstream the Danube on both sides. The majority of hoards containing Illyrian drachms (and frequently other coinages like Roman Republican denarii, tetradrachms of Macedonia Prima and Thasos, and also silver lumps) ended up in ancient Dacia and also in Northern Thrace. The hoard descriptions can be found in the numismatic literature of Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the former Yugoslav states. The cow/calf type drachms in these hoards outnumber those found in Albania. Note that the presence of these drachms is exceptional in Thessaly, Macedonia, and Southern Trace.

The earlier widespread influx of the Roman republican denarii into the same N/E Balkan region suffered a sharp decline between 70 and 50 BC when the production of denars in Rome was diminished10,11. According to my hoard analysis and suggested chronology, this was the period when the Illyrian drachms arrived to the N-E Balkan area to replace the earlier role of the Roman denarii. Whether it was to buy slaves or other goods (for example, salt12) for Rome and/or to pay the Roman soldiers (this has become the most favoured view), the discussion is beyond my capacity. What I can tell is, however, that the extensive hoarding of the drachms (often with other coinages and lumps of silver) without the presence of small change like half drachms and bronze issues points at a simple exportation of the drachms to a region where monetary economy with regular coin circulation did not exist. There was no way back of these coins into the minting place: the local imitations of the cow-calf drachms in these far territories are not found within the economic borders of Apollonia and Dyrrhachium; they had different imitations (see in chapter: A die-linked chain of hybrid imitations).

The first two-year influx of the drachms in the late 70s of the first c BC (Phase 1) seemed to be halted for five years around 60 B.C.; thereafter they spread over the region even at a larger scale until the Civil war (Phase 2). The five-year standstill in hoarding may be explained by Burebista's supremacy in this territory.

This new chronology poses a challenge - both to the chronology of published hoards and to the theories explaining the presence of the Illyrian drachms in the North-East Balkan area.

The discussion of the opposite views is in Further reading. I look forward to hearing comments or criticism. Any statement without hard evidence is stipulation - that is, of no scientific value.

5. Literature references to this chapter

  1. Gardner P. A catalogue of the Greek coins in the British Museum. Vol. 7. Thessaly to Aetolia. London, 1883.
  2. Mommsen T. Boden- und Geldwirtschaft. In: Römische Geschichte. 5th ed. Vol. 1, Chapter 12, p 858. Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, Berlin, 1868.
  3. Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum Deutschland. Münzsammlung der Universität Tübingen. Vol. 2. Taurische Chersones - Korkyra. Gebr. Mann Verlag, Berlin 1982.
  4. Schlosser J. Beschreibung der altgriechisen Münzen. I. Thessalien, Illyrien, Dalmatien und die Inseln des Adriatischen Meeres, Epeiros. A. Holzhasusen, Vienna, 1893.
  5. Maier A. Die Silberprägung von Apollonia und Dyrrhachion. Numismatisce Zeitschrift 41 (Neue Volge 1) 1908, 1-33.
  6. Ceka H. Questions de numismatique illyrienne. State University, Tirana, 1972.
  7. Conovici N. Cultură şi civilizaţie la Dunărea de Jos. Călăraşi 1 (1985) 35-43.
  8. Torbágyi Melinda. Umlauf der Münzen von Apollonia und Dyrrhachium im Karpatenbecken. In: Proceedings of the 11th International Numismatic Congress. Vol. 1, Louvain-la-Neuve 1993, pp 119-122.
  9. Stoyas Y. Roman victoriates from perspective from the other side of the Adriatic. In: Proceedings of the 4th International Congress in Croatia 2004. MMV Rijeka 2004, pp 225-242.
  10. Visonà P. ΔΡΑΧΜΑΙ ΑΠΟΛΛΩΝΙΑΤΙΚΑΙ. A tentative chronology of the drachms Apollonia Illyrici. Paper on file of the American Numismatic Society, New York, Summer 1979.
  11. Mihăilescu-Birlîba V. Dacia răsăriteană în secolele VI-I î.e.n. Editura Junimea, Iaşi 1990. p.98.
  12. Lockyear K. The supply of Roman Republican denarii to Romania. Studii şi Cercetări Numismatică (1995) 11: 85-102.
  13. Purece S. Personal communication. Numismatic Conference in Debrecen 2012.

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