Ancient Persian and Greek Medals
The one engraving that Melville acquired of Persian and Greek medals provides considerable insight into both cultures. Ancient coins and medals offer unique information as objects of art and as sources of contemporary representation. These fifteen numbered objects gave Melville immediate access to images of physiognomy, dress, symbol, and myth from the ancient cultures of the eastern Mediterranean—subjects to which he was closely attentive in real life when he visited Greece and the Near East in 1856-57. A single passage in Billy Budd shows the use to which he could put his interest in ancient images of this kind. We read of John Claggart in chapter 8 that “the face was a notable one, the features all except the chin cleanly cut as those on a Greek medallion” (NN BBO 19). For clean cutting of this kind, the profile of the helmeted Athena on the left side of no. 6 in this print provides the classic Greek example.
Medals and coins mark the course of empire as well as local mintage activity. In the history of Greek coinage, as in warfare, the Greek victory over the Persian forces at Salamis in 480 B.C. divided the archaic period from the classical period that followed. In the history of Persian coinage, the conquest of the Persian empire by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. similarly divided the archaic (or Archaemenid) period from the subsequent Hellenistic (or Parthian) period. These and other dynastic changes are represented in the Persian and Greek medals engraved by John Chapman in the print from 1816 that Melville collected. The print was published as Plate I in a 37-page essay on “Medals” in volume 14 of the Encyclopædia Londinesis. I am grateful to the anonymous author of that essay and to the other authors listed below for their insights into the content and symbolism of these ancient medals and coins. I am also grateful to Vesta Curtis of the British Museum for additional help with some of the Persian medals—and to A. C. Christodoulou of Volos, Greece, for similar help with some of the Greek.
The author of the 1816 essay in the Encyclopædia Londinesis pointed to the unique value of ancient medals as “cultural documents” that are “evident to everybody and cannot be falsified.” In addition to providing “infallible documents of truth,” such medals and coins “are capable of being diffused over all countries of the world, and of remaining throughout the latest ages” (798). Nearly all the medals engraved by John Chapman for this publication have culturally significant imagery on both the front (obverse) and back (relievo) sides, a quality Melville put to literary use in Clarel by comparing Rolfe’s multi-faceted personality to both the front and the back of “a Syracusan coin”: the “barbarous letters” on one side of the coin “shall invest / The relievo’s infinite charm” (NN C 2.10.242-44). Melville’s personal access to the kind of ancient imagery depicted in this print was enriched by engravings in William King’s Handbook of Engraved Gems, a book he gave his wife Elizabeth as a Christmas present in 1874 (see MBB 1.1).
- Works Cited in this section
- Carradice, Ian. “Coins: Ancient Near East.” Grove, 1: 888-89.
- Head, Barclay V. Historica Numorum: A Manual of Greek Numismatics, 1887. New and enlarged ed. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1991.
- Jenkins, G. K. Ancient Greek Coins. New York: Putnam, 1972.
- King, Charles William. The Handbook of Engraved Gems. London: Bell and Daldy, 1866 (Sealts no. 308).
- Kraay, Colin M. Greek Coins. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1966.
- ------. Archaic and Classic Greek Coins. New York: Stanford J. Durst, 1976.
- “Medals.” In Encylopædia Londinensis; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature. Vol. 14. London: John Wilkes, 1816. 798-835. Online at https://books.google.com/books?id=H01FVVKrbAwC&pg=PT2&lpg=PT2&dq=%22persian+and+greek+medals%22&source=bl&ots=avQOo8Ax_t&sig=ACfU3U2eu9XnxFUiPMsBYhY2LqCBbCbOLg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjY_6zY--jqAhVDJzQIHW2GB0MQ6AEwA3oECAIQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22persian%20and%20greek%20medals%22&f=false