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Persian and Greek Medals

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CAT 1. Engraved by J. Chapman. Persian and Greek Medals. Plate 1 in Encyclopædia Londinensis, vol.14, p. 810. London: John Wilkes, 1816. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The author of the “Medals” essay in the Encyclopædia Londinensis gave primary attention to the ancient medals of Greece and Rome. Most of the Persian medals in Plate 1 were discussed in the section on “Medals and Coins of Greece” (805-10), at the end of which the author listed the subject of each of the fifteen figures Chapman had engraved for that plate. I will use the language from that list in the titles I provide for each figure below. I will begin with Persian medals in Chapman’s print.


The three major periods of ancient Persian coinage—Archaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian—are represented in Chapman’s engraving.

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Figure 3. A Persian daric.  

This gold daric is from the Archaemenid period, probably from the late 5th/4th century B.C. The “royal archer” symbolizes the authority of the Persian Great King; visible on the reverse side of this coin is the imprint made by the metallic punch. For variations on the archer motif, see Kraay, 1966, no. 620; Head, figs. 362-63. 

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Figure. 1. A coin of one of the Arsacidæ of Persia

This coin is from the Parthian period depicting the image of King Phraates IV (38-32 B.C.). The image is typical of the style in which “bearded Iranian monarchs in Parthian royal dress” are rendered within the “Greek tradition of portraiture developed in the Hellenistic kingdoms” (Carradice 889). The essay accompanying the print in 1816 described its subject as wearing “a kind of sash around their head, with the hair in curls like a wig” (800).

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Figure. 15. A coin of one of the Sassanidæ of Persia.

This coin is a product of the Sasanian empire which overthrew the ruling dynasty of Parthian kings in 224 A. D. This silver drachm is from the reign of King Varahran (Bahram) II (A.D. 276-293). Matching the double portrait on the left, or obverse side of the coin, are the two figures attending to a Zoroastrian fire altar on the right, or verso, side (Carradine 889).


The 1816 essay that accompanied Chapman’s engraving emphasized the technical finesse and vivid symbolism of ancient Greek medals and coins. Two of the Greek coins in this print feature images that circulated throughout the ancient world for centuries: the sea-turtle of Aegina and the helmeted Athena.

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Figure 4. A drachm of Ægina.

The sea-turtle motif originated in the coinage of the island of Aegina during the Archaic period in the 6th century B.C. “Sacred to Aphrodite,” the sea-turtle was associated “with the temple of Aphrodite, which overlooked the great harbor of Aegina” (Head, p. 395). During the Athenian control of the island between 457-431 B.C., the “marine turtle” was replaced by a “terrestrial tortoise” on the Aegina coin. The five-part design on the reverse of this coin dates this image of the sea-turtle to c. 480-457 B.C. (Kraay, 1966, p. 321, no. 336; Head, pp. 396-97). Melville expressed his love for the “dateless, indefinite endurance” of the tortoise of the Galapagos islands in “The Encantadas,” writing of “really wondrous tortoises . . . with vast shells medallioned and orbed like shields” (NN PTO 131).

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Figure 6. A silver coin of the Heraclei.

This coin depicts perhaps the most persistent image in ancient Greek coinage, the helmeted Athena. Her image had already appeared on Athenian coins during the Archaic period; it was refined into its iconic clarity during the Classical period (480-323 B.C.). The helmeted Athena received even wider currency after Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire in 331 B.C. In the coinage of the Hellenistic period, Athena was often accompanied on the reverse side by an upright mythological figure. On this coin that figure, in the words of the 1816 essay, is “naked young Hercules” displaying those attributes most often associated with his strength: “a knotty club in his right hand; in his left a bow and arrow; and on his arm hangs the skin of the Nemean lion” (806). For a series of variations on Athena in her Corinthian helmet, see Jenkins, nos. 509-16.


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Figure 5. A silver hemi-drachm of Alexander the Great.

Kraay traces this coin to Taras, founded in the eighth century B.C. as the only colony of Sparta (located on the Gulf of Taranto in present-day Italy). The verso of this coin depicts the “famous horseman type” who served as the “badge of Taras for more than two hundred years.” Between 340-280 B.C. coins with this image were manufactured in gold for the purpose of paying Greek mercenaries for protection “from surrounding Italiote tribes and then from Rome.” The image on the obverse of the coin represents Hera, the chief goddess of Olympus, who was both the sister and wife of Zeus, known to Romans as Juno (Kraay, 1966, pp. 313-14, nos. 316, 319). Melville alluded to Hera by her Roman name in a bucolic image in Mardi: “From side to side, we turned and grazed, like Juno’s white oxen in clover meads” (NN M 432).

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Figure 14. A Persian coin.

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Figure 2. Tigranes, the younger of Armenia, and his sister.

These coins are listed in the 1816 essay as A Persian coin and Tigranes, the younger of Armenia, and his sister. Kraay traces the imagery of each to Salamis on the island of Cyprus. Fig. 14 combines two distinctive motifs in the early coinage of Salamis: the ram on the obverse and the Ankh, an Egyptian symbol, on the verso (whose field also includes the letters KY for Cyprus). This particular coin would seem to date from 480-460 B.C. (Kraay, 1966, no. 677; 1976, nos. 1080-81). The obverse of no. 2 features the head of Aphrodite “crowned with a circuit of walls and towers,” a motif introduced during the reign of Evagoras II (361-351 B.C.). The head of Apollo on the verso joined that of Aphrodite during “subsequent reigns of the dynasty,” with this particular coin, c. 320 B.C., dating from the reign of Nicocreon (Kraay, 1976, p. 308, no. 1087). Young Melville refers to both Aphrodite and Apollo during the visit to Alladin’s Palace in Redburn. Its ceiling featured “Guido’s ever youthful Apollo, driving forth the horses of the sun,” below which were “such pictures as you might have beheld in . . . a secret side-gallery of the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth.” Redburn also sees “such pictures as are delineated on the bronze medals, to this day dug up on the ancient island of Capreæ” (NN R 228, 231).

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Figure 11. A medal of Cyzicus.

Cyzicus was a fortified town near the Hellespont on the southern side of the Propontis, or Sea of Marmora, now in northwest Turkey. The prow on the obverse of the medal represents the maritime power of the ancient city through which all shipping between the Aegean and Black Seas had to pass. The wreath on the verso, surrounding a torch-like shape and accompanied by the letters signifying Cyzicus, indicates a date from 200-100 B.C. or later (Head, pp. 522-27; Kraay, 1966, no. 723R). The author of the 1816 essay sees the humanoid figure on the verso of this coin as a phallic evolution from the cross-like shape the Persians had used as a religious symbol (810). Melville alluded to the nautical history of Propontis in Moby-Dick when Ishmael concluded the “Affidavit” chapter with the exploits of “Procopius’s sea-monster, that for half a century stove the ships of a Roman Emperor.” According to Procopius, “during the term of his prefecture at Constantinople, a great sea-monster was captured in the neighboring Propontis, or Sea of Marmora, after having destroyed vessels at intervals in those waters for a period of more than fifty years.” Ishmael surmises that such a creature could only have been “a sperm whale” (NN MD 209-10).

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Figure 7. A medal in Marles, or Mades.

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Figure 8. A medal of Camarina, or Kamarina.

These figures are identified in the 1816 essay as A medal in Marles, or Mades and A medal of Camarina, or Kamarina (810). In 1991 Head traced the imagery of each to Mallus, one of the oldest cities in Cilicia, near the river Pyramus in what is now southeastern Turkey. The verso of each coin features the swan of Mallus, “doubtless the symbol of Astarte-Aphrodite” (Head, p. 723, fig. 320). The obverse of each coin features a winged male figure holding a disk (whose successive manifestations were a distinctive feature of Mallus coinage from the last quarter of the fifth century until about 375 B. C.). Kraag dates the Janus-faced god in fig. 7 from c. 400 B. C., whereas he dates the simpler figure of the disk-bearing young male in fig. 8 from c. 380 B. C. Kraag compares the winged, legless, disk-bearing god to the “winged disk of the Ahura-Mazda” (see fig. 9 above). In the place of his legs is “the forepart of a human-headed bull,” which Kraag relates to “the local river Pyramus” (Kraag, p. 285). Kraag considers the Janus-faced god to be one of the most interesting examples of Mallus coinage. One imagines that Melville might have been intrigued by the depiction of such a deity.

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Figures 12 & 13. Medals of Sidonia.

Sidon was an ancient maritime metropolis of Phœnicia on the coast of present-day Lebanon. The image at the center of this three-part engraving is the turreted Head of the City. The images on either side depict the goddess Astarte on a “galley” and on a “prow,” motifs that entered the coinage of the city after “the autonomous era of Sidon” began in 111 B. C. (Head, pp. 796-98, fig. 351). In Clarel Melville built a complex tribute to the ancient fertility goddess Astarte upon the ruins of her temple: “Astarte, worshipped on the Plain / Ere Terah’s day, her vigil keeps / Devoted where her temple sleeps / Like moss within the agate’s vein— / A ruin in lucid sea” (NN C 2.37.8-12). Melville alluded to the ancient Phœnician “galleys” and “gold ships” of Sidon and Tyre in White-Jacket and Pierre (NN WJ 211, NN P 133).

When comparing Greek medals and coins to those of the Romans that followed, the author of the 1816 essay was particularly struck by the “superior delicacy” shown by the Greek practice of “not expressing the name of the deity” on the coin but instead inviting the viewer to discern the deity’s identity through the “interpretation of fixed symbols” (such as Minerva’s helmet or the club, lion skin, and bow  often used as the attributes of Hercules) (832). Such freedom of interpretation enabled the author of the 1816 essay to interpret the figures on either side of the turreted Head in the Sidonia engraving as representing Minerva on the left and Priapus on the right, in which case the the crosses held by each would represent the symbolic marriage of “Divine Wisdom” and “the Creative Power” (810).