January 2017

Gold medallion depicting Olympias

The gold medallion was bought at an auction in November 1962 at the behest of the then-prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, and was handed over to the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki which had just opened to the public a month before.

The front side depicts a young and idealised portrait of Olympias in profile. The Molossian princess from Epirus, wife of Philip II and mother of Alexander the Great is shown wearing a chiton and a himation covering her head, and her left hand is lifting the cloth. A band diadem adorns her hair.

The back side depicts a sea monster, with the head and front legs of a bull and the tail of a fish, galloping on waves, over two fish and a clam. A nude woman rides on its back, seated on her himation that folds around her right arm. She places a garland on the monster's head with her right hand. She is the nereid Thetis, mother of Achilles, the homeric hero idolised by Alexander the Great.

The gold medallion belongs to a hoard found in 1902 in Aboukir, near Alexandria, Egypt, and consisted of 20 gold medallions decorated with mythological scenes, depictions of deities, portraits of emperor Caracalla, busts of Alexander the Great and Olympias, as well as representations of the king himself or members of his family. Along with the medallions, 600 gold coins of the 3rd c. AD and 18 or 20 bars of gold were also found. a similar hoard had been discovered in 1863 in Tarsos, Cilicia (modern-day Turkey), comprising three gold medallions with portraits of Philip II and Alexander the Great, 23 gold coins (minted from AD 72 to AD 243), a gold medallion of emperor Alexander Severus (AD 230), three gold belts and jewellery made of gold and precious stones. Some, smaller in size, silver and gold examples with similar iconography, complete the corpus of known medallions of the 3rd c. AD. There is also a small number of silver and gold coin-shaped sheets with depictions similar to the large medallions. Two of the latter have been found in Macedonia: one in a grave in the city of Veria and another one inside a marble sarcophagus (ΜΘ  5685) of the 2nd c. AD from the cemetery of Thessaloniki.

These precious gold medallions were most probably anniversary mints for Alexandria Olympia, athletic games taking place in Veria from AD 225 to 250, in honour of the Emperor and Alexander the Great. Veria, as the seat of the Koinon of Macedonians, the collective institution of cities in Roman Macedonia, was responsible for promoting the cult of the Roman emperor, the almighty ruler who was worshipped as a god. The medallions could have been minted in Veria, or even Rome itself, but the exact place of minting remains unknown.

The historical framework of these gold medallions is of great interest: those were the turbulent years of the first half of the 3rd c. AD, when political instability in the Roman empire was high due to economic strife and the constant wars with outside enemies. At the time, the cult of the deified Alexander became an obsession for Roman emperors who campaigned against Persia and aimed to identify themselves with the Greek general, the heroic leader who had defeated the Persians in the past.

It is worth mentioning that the imitation of Alexander the Great (imitatio Alexandri) by political and military leaders of Rome began in the 1st c. BC and reached its peak when Caracalla became emperor (AD 198-217), who believe to have been the reincarnation of the Greek king. This obsession with Alexander was also revived at that era in both Macedonia and in the eastern provinces of the empire.

Provenance: Aboukir (near Alexandria in Egypt)

Inv. No. ΜΘ 4304

Dimensions: Diameter:  5.8  cm. Thickness: 0.8 cm. Weight: 120.06 g. 

Material: Gold

Date: AD 225-250

Bibliography:

  • K. Dahmen, “Alexander in Gold and Silver: Reassessing Third century AD Medallions from Aboukir and Tarsos”, AJN Second Series 20 (2008): 493–546.
  • I. Touratsoglou, “Tarsos, Aboukir, etc.; before and after. Once again, AJN Second Series 20 (2008): 479-492.