Numismatica Ars Classica, Zurich   |   Auction 110   |   24 September 2018 Sort by Lot-NumberSort by Estimate
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Lot 18

Estimate: 100'000 CHF   |   Starting price: 80'000 CHF Price realized: 370'000 CHF
Syracuse. Double decadrachm 310-304, AV 8.48 g. Young male head r., wearing elephant’s scalp headdress; on shoulder, dotted aegis. Rev. ΑΓΑΘΟΚΛΕΟΣ Winged Athena standing r. in battle stance, holding shield and about to hurl thunderbolt; to r., owl. F. Imhoof-Blumer, Die Flügegestalten der Athena und Nike auf Münzen, NZ 3, 1871, 4 (note 3: die ältere Literatur) pl. 5, 2. Evans, NC 1894, p. 238 and pl. 8, 6 (first photograph of the Viennese specimen) and note 64: ”I learnt that another example exists in private hands” (this one?). Seltman Greek Coins, pl. 9, 5. Jenkins, Essays Robinson 151 note 1. Bérand, Essays Price pl. 9, 2 (these dies). Metcalf, The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage, this type illustrated on the cover page (these dies).
Of the highest rarity, the only one in private hands of three specimens known. An issue of
great historical importance and fascination. Extremely fine / about extremely fine
Ex NAC 13, 1998, formerly exhibited at the Antikenmuseum Basel, 511; Triton VII, 2004, 102 and NAC 64, 2012, 738 sales. From the A.D.M. collection.
Like every ruler of Syracuse, Agathocles faced many challenges during his reign. His rise to power was perhaps unexpected: his father, a potter, had been exiled from Rhegium and settled at Thermae, where Agathocles was born. By the time Timoleon reigned, the family had moved to Syracuse. Agathocles originally trained in his father’s trade, but decided instead to pursue a career in warfare and politics. He distinguished himself in military service and though he was banished twice by the oligarchical party in Syracuse for his revolutionary activities, by about 320 B.C. he was master of Leontini. He owed much of his success to his time as a commander for a wealthy Syracusan nobleman, Damas. When his patron died, Agathocles nursed his ambitions by marrying Damas’ widow and acquiring her fortune. In 317, he led a particularly ruthless campaign by which he came to power in Syracuse; as a self-styled man of the people, he used the opportunity to redistribute properties of the wealthy. With his army of mercenaries and formidable fleet, he subjugated eastern Sicily and antagonized the Carthaginians by encroaching on the western part of the island.
In 311 the Syracusan leader attacked Acragas, but the timely arrival of sixty Carthaginian ships put an end to his campaign. The Carthaginians then brought a large army from Africa, with which they roundly defeated Agathocles in a pitched battle near Himera. City after city switched allegiance to Carthage, leaving Agathocles only Syracuse, where he became hemmed in by land. Seeing no option, in August, 310 Agathocles took a desperate gamble: he led a counter- invasion of Carthage, hoping it would force the Carthaginians to quit their blockade of Syracuse to protect their homeland. Upon landing in North Africa with 14,000 men, nearly half of whom were Greek, Celtic, Etruscan and Samnite mercenaries, he burned his ships. His campaign was fairly successful, and after a few months he held sway over much of eastern Tunisia. Meanwhile, after the winter of 310/9 the Carthaginians were ambushed by the Syracusans in a narrow pass; their army suffered great losses and their commander Hamilcar was captured, tortured and killed. When his head was presented to Agathocles in Africa, it seemed as though the Carthaginian position had been greatly weakened in both places.
The blockade of Syracuse, however, persisted for several years, during which time Agathocles tried to collect an army large enough to storm Carthage. In doing so, he made a pact with Ophellas, Ptolemy’s governor of Cyrene. They were to combine forces and capture Carthage, after which Ophellas would keep all of the North African territories and Agathocles would be entitled to Sicily. The venture was only possible for Ophellas because Ptolemy was distracted by affairs in Greece. In any case, the venture failed when in 309 or 308 Ophellas was murdered by Agathocles. The Greek mercenaries and colonists who had accompanied Ophellas on the long trek had no option but to join Agathocles’ army. As the Carthaginians quarrelled among themselves, Agathocles took more cities and, in the winter of 308/7, built a fleet, with which he returned to Sicily. With help from the Etruscans, Agathocles broke the Carthaginian blockade of Syracuse. He then sailed back to North Africa, where he suffered a defeat on land that abolished all hope for him taking Carthage. As morale crumbled within his ranks, Agathocles secretly sailed back for Syracuse, where in 307 he resumed power. The Carthaginians treated his abandoned army liberally, and in 306/5 made a new pact with Agathocles so they could focus on restoring their devastated lands. Though Agathocles still had many ventures ahead, his African expedition had come to an end.
This rare and important gold stater or ‘double decadrachm’ clearly refers to the African campaign, though precisely when and where it was struck cannot be determined. This gold issue and the Kore/Nike tetradrachms of Agathocles are the first coinages of Sicily to bear the name of any leader, and in that respect they are most unusual. The dies are the work of a gifted Greek artist who almost certainly was associated with the mint at Syracuse. But were the coins struck in Syracuse, or in North Africa? Dies are portable, and there is no reason to assume that even if they were engraved in Syracuse they must have been struck there. Even if they tend to be found in Sicily, it would not prove they were struck there, for they could have been buried by returning veterans of the expedition. If these gold coins were struck in Syracuse, they could have been issued under a variety of circumstances, ranging from Agathocles’ departure to Africa in 310 to his second return to Syracuse in 307. It is also possible they were issued after the treaty of 306/5 as a reflection of the venture, which in many respects was a success. Its designs, in essence, copy silver tetradrachms that Ptolemy I had issued as satrap. It differs from the originals in three substantial details: the portrait lacks the royal diadem and horn of Ammon of Ptolemy’s version, and, on the reverse, Athena is winged. Notable as these differences are, there can be no doubt that Agathocles based his coinage on that of Ptolemy. Much discussion has been devoted to the fact that Ptolemy’s eagle-on-fulmen symbol was replaced with an owl, but this does not seem too important; the Ptolemaic originals had other symbols as well, and there is nothing odd about Agathocles’ use of a bird that confirms the identity of the goddess – especially since she is shown in a curious, winged form.Does the Ptolemaic-inspired design suggest a connection between this coinage and the alliance with Ophellas, or does it merely represent an effort by Agathocles to draw a parallel between himself and one of the Diadochi? Is the portrait the personification of Africa, or does it represent Alexander III? The absence of a royal diadem and the horn of Ammon suggest otherwise, but there may have been good reasons for the omission of those features. These riddles are unlikely to be resolved, yet answers to them would clarify the role of this coinage in the turbulent reign of Agathocles. Ierardi notes one especially interesting feature of this coinage: at some point the royal inscription on this reverse die was altered by the addition of an iota between the epsilon and the omicron. He observed the same development on Agathocles’ Kore/Nike tetradrachms, which suggests the issues were struck at the same time and at the same mint. He reasons further that the addition of wings to Athena may be an attempt to assimilate the goddess with the winged Nike on the tetradrachms.

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