BMCR 2022.06.21

Antioch in Syria: a history from coins (300 BCE-450 CE)

, Antioch in Syria: a history from coins (300 BCE-450 CE). Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xxvii, 410. ISBN 9781108837149 £90.00.


There is no shortage of book-length histories of Antioch-on-the-Orontes during the classical centuries. The 1961 volume of Glanville Downey still serves as the most thorough compilation of material in the literary sources; the 2016 volume by Andrea De Giorgi added context from regional studies and, most importantly, from the extensive archaeological excavations of the 1930s; and the joint publication of De Giorgi and Asa Eger carries the history of the city up to the present day.[1] In this new work, Kristina Neumann uses the coinage of the city as a source for an understanding of its history and, especially, as a way to probe into the ways the Antiochians used the imagery and epigraphy on the coins minted in and for the city as a way of creating and projecting their self image.

Neumann classifies the various and extensive coinages that can be associated with Antioch from the inception of minting in the city in the early third century BCE (soon after the conventional date for the founding of the city by Seleucus I) to the end of the activity of an identifiable mint in Antioch in the fifth century as falling into three distinct, if not always easily distinguishable, classes: imperial coinage, civic coinage, and (somewhere between the two) provincial coinage.

For the Seleucid period, Neumann identifies as royal (or imperial) coinages those bearing the name of the king and types [images] generally consistent through his territories with the mint identification made only on the basis of secondary symbols on the coinage or even on the basis of style or findspot. Neumann interprets both the precious metal and bronze Seleucid coinages as primarily meeting the military and fiscal needs of the state rather than as creating the basis of a monetized commercial infrastructure. She focuses on a separate series of coins issued only in bronze that, while they bear conventional empire-wide iconography, proclaim themselves as civic by replacing the royal name with the legend ΑΝΤΙΟΧΕΩΝ, “of the Antiochians,” thereby bearing witness to some sort of municipal institution that elevated Antioch, along with other foundations of Seleucus I, to the level of a true Greek polis. A series of bronze coins of the reign of Antiochus IV (176–169 BCE) pair a royal portrait on the obverse with a standing image of Zeus on the reverse flanked by the legend ΑΝΤΙΟΧΕΩΝ ΤΩΝ ΠΡΟΣ ΔΑΦΝΗΙ, “of the Antiochians near Daphne,” identifying the citizens of the town associated with the name of its famed suburban settlement. These numismatic displays of civic pride and agency were, as Neumann admits, of relatively short duration and show up rarely in excavations.

Neumann’s next chronological grouping is the period from 129 to 31 BCE, the death of Antiochus VII to the victory of Octavian at Actium. In this period of regional political upheaval, the coinage issues in the name of the Antiochians increased, which the author interprets not only as an effort to fill a vacuum in legitimacy of issuers, but also as a reflection of a growing use of coin issues as a medium of civic self-expression. She also recognizes the extent to which such minting may have been an effort to maintain a circulation of low-denomination coinage in the face of little such engagement on the part of the rival claimants to sovereignty. In this period, civic coinage issues proclaimed their authority as deriving from ΑΝΤΙΟΧΕΩΝ ΤΗΣ ΜΗΤΡΟΠΟΛΕΩΝ, “of the metropolis of the Antiochians.” This coinage continued through the period of 83 to the mid-70s BCE in which Tigranes II of Armenia issued silver coins purportedly minted in Antioch, while the civic bronzes of the ‘metropolis of the Antiochians’ were issued bearing dates in the Seleucid era. In the period of the Roman takeover of Syria, the civic coins of Antioch continued, switching to dates using the Pompeian era, the Caesarian era, and back to the Seleucid era. In 41–40 BCE, the identity of the issuing authority on bronze coins expanded to ΑΝΤΙΟΧΕΩΝ ΤΗΣ ΜΗΤΡΟΠΟΛΕΩΣ ΙΕΡΑΣ ΚΑΙ ΑΣΥΛΟΥ ΚΑΙ ΑΥΤΟΝΟΜΟΥ, “of the sacred, inviolable, and autonomous metropolis of the Antiochians.” In this period, there were even issues of silver coinage with a Seleucid portrait on the obverse and the legend ΑΝΤΙΟΧΕΩΝ ΤΗΣ ΜΗΤΡΟΠΟΛΕΩΣ ΚΑΙ ΑΥΤΟΝΟΜΟΥ. As Neumann supports with a series of original, clear distribution maps, in this period the circulation of Seleucid coinage as a whole shrunk to the general region of the northern Levant, having for the most part lost currency in Asia Minor and Mesopotamia.

It is in the first centuries of Roman rule, considered in a chapter entitled “Provincial Negotiations (31 BCE–192 CE),” that Neumann identifies the production of a series of provincial issues of coinage joining the parallel series of royal/imperial and civic issues. A handful of imperial issues of the period, with legends in Latin and no specific mint name, have been attributed to Antioch. Much more common are the issues with imperial busts but legends in Greek identifying the Antiochians as the minting authority and frequently bearing local iconography. These fall into the enormous body of “provincial” coins that constituted the main coinage of the eastern Roman Empire in these centuries. The municipal series of bronze coins with no imperial references continued, and Antioch became one of several mints in the region that produced silver coins of varying fineness with imperial images and legends in Greek on the ancient standard of the drachma and tetradrachm. In addition to these more-or-less normal provincial coinages, there was a large group of bronze issues bearing imperial portraits, Latin legends and no mint name that have been assigned by numismatists to “Syria” or “The East” on the basis of style, weight, and findspots. Kevin Butcher has attributed these issues, which often bear the letters SC on their reverse leading to their traditional designation as “Senatorial” issues, to the mint of Antioch.[2] Neumann follows this attribution and classes them as a third category of coinage produced there: provincial, standing between imperial/royal and civic/municipal. Through her detailed distribution maps and charts, she demonstrates that these enjoyed significantly broader circulation than the bronze civic issues of Antioch of the same period.

Neumann’s Chapter 5, titled “Imperial Creations (192–284),” follows the numismatic issues of the Antiochians through the chaotic third century, when internal strife within the Empire thrust the city into prominence as the source of imperial elevations (or usurpations) and even to the status of imperial capital. In addition to the continued production of provincial and civic bronze issues, the mint (or ‘mint(s)’, as Neumann frequently expresses it to convey our total ignorance of the minting organization within the town) of Antioch has been identified as the source of gold aurei and increasingly debased antoniniani, which bear no explicit mint marks. On the basis of maps and charts, Neumann demonstrates that coins minted in Antioch show a far broader distribution than ever before, suggesting that this period generally considered as one of decay and dissolution can be seen by numismatic evidence to have contributed to the integration of the diverse parts of the Mediterranean.

The last chapter of the book, “Imperial City (284–450 CE),” traces the coinage of the Antiochians in the period of general imperial consolidation following the monetary reforms of Diocletian and Constantine and the division of the Empire at the end of the fourth century. During this period, the city of Antioch became especially important as the focal point of relations between the Roman world and the Persian one to the East; there is significant archaeological as well as literary evidence of this having been a high point of the city’s population, wealth, and civic identity. However, the very reforms of Diocletian and Constantine that effected the monetary integration of Antioch into the Empire as a whole, reduced it to being one of about two dozen cities identified as the mints of a coinage that was increasingly uniform across the Mediterranean world. The products of Antioch’s mint were labelled clearly and consistently, but the language on them was Latin, and their imagery seldom varied from those of such distant mints as London and Trier. Under these circumstances, Neumann’s maps and charts serve to distinguish the patterns and limits of circulation of the mint’s coins, and perhaps allow for estimates of relative size of minting against those of other cities, but do little to illuminate the identity and reputation of the Antiochians.

Kristina Neumann’s use of coinage as a lens to view the civic identity of Antioch and its citizens across seven-and-a-half centuries of its history provides significant new insights into the structures and processes of the ancient Mediterranean world as a whole. Her book is exceptionally well grounded in the original and secondary sources for its history, as well as in the evidence provided by epigraphy and archaeology. Moreover, she provides a noteworthy aid to future such undertakings by sharing the data behind her many maps and charts on an open-access website:


[1] Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria: From Seleucus to the Arab Conquest (Princeton University Press, 1961); Andrea U. De Giorgi, Ancient Antioch: From the Seleucid Era to the Islamic Conquest (Cambridge University Press, 2016); Andrea U. De Giorgi and A. Asa Eger, Antioch: A History (Routledge, 2021).

[2] Kevin Butcher, Coinage in Roman Syria: Northern Syria, 64 BC – AD 253 (London: Royal Numismatic Society, 2004).