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Becoming Masters of Asia Minor: When the Roman Quaestor Aesillas minted un-Roman Tetradrachms to buy Thracian Loyalty

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Who and what was Aesillas who was placing his name so prominently on Macedonian coins. The search for him leads us to the means the Romans used to conquer Asia Minor.

 

This coin is strange. It bears inscriptions in two different languages. On the obverse Makedonon is written in Greek letters while the reverse features the Latin word Aesillas. Well, we know who the Macedonians were.

The Macedonians were a tribe in Northern Greece that was led by their king Philipp II to become the leading power of the Greeks.

Alexander, the son of Philipp, expanded the realm of the Macedonians as far as the Hindu Kush. In the aftermath of his death, his empire witnessed terrible civil wars, while Macedonia was being reduced to Northern Greece again.

Roughly 100 years later, a Macedonian king made the fatal mistake of incurring the hatred of the Romans. They fought three wars until the Kingdom of Macedonia was divided in four parts that were subject to Roman control.

As said before, we know who the Macedonians were. But who was this Aesillas?

Well, the ancient sources do not tell us anything about this man, but we can get some hints from the coin.

For starters, we see a cista, a basket with a lid as it was used for collecting the Roman taxes.

On the right-hand side, there is special kind of chair.

Everybody living in the Roman Empire recognized this chair as the one a tax collector, a quaestor, was sitting on when performing his duties. Actually, below the name Aesillas, we read the letter Q. Thus, our Aesillas was a Roman quaestor. But why did he issue a coin in the name of the Macedonians?

Of course, a military reason accounts for that. Mithradates of Pontos started to establish an empire of its own in the east.

When he attempted to conquer Cappadocia, he came into conflict with another ruler of the east, Nicomedes of Bithynia. Nicomedes asked the Romans for help. The Romans wanted to increase their power and influence in Asia Minor anyway. And so the war began.

The Romans had to secure their supplies. To that end, they needed the Via Egnatia. After embarking from the Roman port of Brundisium, the troops crossed over for Dyrrhachium. Via Edessa, Pella, Thessaloniki, Amphipolis and Philippi, they headed for Perinth and Byzantion. The Via Egnatia was probably the most important strategic route connecting the West and the East. It is hardly surprising that it became the venue for several decisive battles.

It was – just as one example – near Philippi where Octavian and Marc Antony fought against the assassins of Caesar, Brutus and Cassius.

Right at the beginning of the Via Egnatia, near Chrysopolis, Constantine defeated Licinius.

In the first century, however, a major part of the Via Egnatia crossed areas on which the belligerent tribes of Thrace had some influence. The Romans, therefore, had to win the Thracians as allies.

The Romans were pragmatists. They knew that they could just as well buy the support. And so they paid the Thracians for holding still. The Romans created the coins, which they used as payment, in such a way that they could be readily accepted by the Thracians.

Since the time of their King Lysimachus, between 305 and 281 BC, the Thracians were used to circulating coins that bore the portrait of Alexander the Great. Thus, the Romans depicted Alexander on their coins as well, with flowing hair and the horn of Ammon.

The weight was the same. The coins weighed nearly 17 grams.

That corresponded to the widely accepted standard of the Athenian new style tetradrachms. Whosoever wanted to use this weight illustrated his intent by showing a wreath on the reverse. Indeed, our tetradrachm likewise features a wreath.

The club was a well-known element of the depiction. Every Thracian knew the club from the tetradrachms the Roman had minted after the Macedonian conquest. The other features of the coin’s imagery, however, were new.

We know that the Thracians willingly accepted these coins, and that the Romans kept minting coins of this type to use them as subsidies to mollify the Thracians. They continued issuing coins bearing the name Aesillas for twenty years, long after Aesillas had left the Province of Macedonia. It was not before the second half of the 1st century that the tetradrachms were replaced by Roman denarii as the most popular currency in Thrace.

Anyhow, at the time of Aesillas the Via Egnatia allowed the Romans to transport a sufficient amount of troops. Mithradates had no chance. In 63 BC, the Roman general Pompey cornered him. Mithradates saw no other way than to take his own life. By that, the Romans became the unchallenged masters of Asia Minor.

Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.