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Roma Numismatics Ltd
Auction XIII  23 March 2017
Presale bidding closed

Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, Cleopatra VII AR Tetradrachm. Askalon, Year 64 Era of Askalon = 41/40 BC. Diademed bust of Cleopatra right, wearing necklace, hair plaited in rows and tied at back in a chignon / [ΙΕΡΑΣ ΑΣΥΛΟΥ] ΑΣΚΑΛΩ[ΝΙΤΩΝ] Sacred and Inviolate of (the people of) Askalon", eagle standing to right, palm over left wing; monogram and dove to left, LΞΔ to right. Unpublished, but cf. Svoronos 1883 (year 52) and 1885 (year 55) = BMC Palestine 20, p.108; cf. Naville XVI, 1933, 1473 (year 66). 12.70g, 28mm, 12h.

Good Very Fine. Unique, unpublished and of considerable historical and numismatic interest. A marvellous example of Cleopatra's excessively rare 'Greek' silver coinage. Only three other tetradrachms issued by Cleopatra at Askalon are known to exist. That they are so exceedingly rare can only be explained if they were issued occasionally and in small numbers.

The dating of the Askalon tetradrachms of Cleopatra was for many years calculated incorrectly due to the extreme rarity of the coinage and the paucity of information available. BMC Palestine initially assigned the example with the date LNE (year fifty-five) to 30/29 BC, on the basis of an era assumed by Svoronos, following Feuardent, to have begun in 84 BC. These tetradrachms bearing Cleopatra's portrait would therefore have been struck when the queen, born in 69, would have been about forty years old. Svoronos, who saw the portrait as representing a woman of middle-age, clearly regarded this as appropriate. Indeed, Agnes Baldwin Brett (A New Cleopatra Tetradrachm of Ascalon, American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 41, 3) relates the anecdote that on the BM specimen, "Cleopatra so resembles an aged woman – children would call her a witch or a hag, with her beak of a nose and deeply wrinkled neck". However, the V. Adda collection example (formerly S. H. Chapman collection; presented in Naville XVI 1933 1473) displayed a year 66 date which required the redating of the series: if the coins had been dated from Svoronos' hypothetical era beginning 84 BC, the Naville specimen would have been struck some ten years after Cleopatra's death in c. 19 BC. Now reckoned from the year of autonomy of Askalon in 104/103 BC, the present piece dated to 41/40 BC must have been struck when Cleopatra was twenty-eight or twenty-nine years old.

Much has been written concerning the differences in appearance of the queen on her various coinage issues, and the apparent inconsistency in depicting both her age and beauty. Collectors often wonder at her plain appearance on the surviving coins both in her sole name and those issued jointly with Marc Antony, an appearance which seems at odds with her famous seduction of two of the most powerful men in history – first, Julius Caesar in 48/47 BC when she was twenty-one, then Marc Antony in 41/40 BC, the year this coin was struck. Surviving busts of Cleopatra certainly are more flattering than her coinage; the exaggeration of certain features on the coinage can often be explained by deliberate emphasis on attributes associated with strength and power, notably the angular jaw and chin, and distinctive Ptolemaic nose. Moreover, while Svoronos erroneously assumed that the Askalon coinage emanated from a mint under Cleopatra's direct control (an error subsequently perpetuated), in fact Askalon was an autonomous city under the protection of the Ptolemies, issuing coinage in their name only sporadically, apparently coinciding with important events and occasions (see A. Baldwin Brett, A New Cleopatra Tetradrachm of Ascalon, American Journal of Archaeology 41, 3, pp. 452-463). Cleopatra should therefore be expected to have had limited or no direct influence over her own image as portrayed on the coinage. Indeed, a further factor contributing to a stylised form of portrait may be found in the occasion for the striking of this issue, if it was produced in haste. Given the dating, the most likely events that would have occasioned its striking are either the conclusion of the alliance between Cleopatra and Antony in 41 BC, or more likely, the immediate threat posed to the city and its environs in 40 BC by the Parthian invasion of Syria led by Quintus Labienus and Pacorus. They had already forced the capitulation of Antioch, Phoenicia and Judaea, and were prevented from besieging Tyre only by the lack of a fleet; it would not be until the following year, 39, that Publius Ventidius Bassus would be dispatched east with 11 legions to drive back the invaders. It is possible therefore that this issue may have been produced in anticipation of anticipated warfare, as an appeal to Cleopatra for protection while advertising the city's loyalty to the Ptolemaic dynasty.
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