By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek ….
THE EARLIEST COINS, WHICH EMERGED around 650 BCE on the shores of the Aegean Sea, depicted ancient symbols of power such as the lion and the bull. Shortly after 500 BCE images of mythological beings start to appear on the coinage of Greek cities: gods, heroes, and imaginary creatures like sea monsters, griffons and flying horses. The first living person to place his own image on a coin was probably a Persian governor in Asia Minor, Tissaphernes, who died in 395 BCE. Goddesses like Athena, Artemis, and Hera put in early appearances on coins, but who was the first real woman to have her face represented on a coin?
Like so many questions in classical numismatics, it turns out that the answer to that question is not so simple.
A Macedonian woman, Berenike I (born about 340 BCE, died after 279), the second wife of Ptolemy I of Egypt appears beside her royal husband on coins struck by her son, Ptolemy II. But this was a memorial issue after her death (the clue is that she appears veiled; a common convention for depictions of the deceased in ancient art).
Similarly, Ptolemy II’s wife (and sister) Arsinoe II (born 316, died after 270) appears on the coinage, either alone or beside her husband, but these are also probably posthumous issues.
The first woman to issue coins in her own name was Amastris, a Persian princess who was a major player in the complex “game of thrones” that followed the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon in 323 BCE.
Born about 340 BCE she was the daughter of Oxyathres, brother of the Persian ruler Darius III. After the defeat and death of Darius, Alexander gave her to one of his generals, Craterus. After a series of political marriages and divorces, she retired to a small city-state on the southern shore of the Black Sea, which she modestly named for herself, “Amastris.” So her coins carry her name, but the enigmatic obverse image (wishfully described as “Amastris” by some cataloguers) is almost certainly the Eastern god Mithras; the reverse bears an enthroned figure of Aphrodite (possibly with the features of Amastris herself, since Hellenistic rulers did like to identify themselves with their favorite divinities).
Amastris was murdered by her ambitious sons, in 284 BCE.
So our question now becomes: Who was the first woman to have her image appear on a coin during her own lifetime?
The quest takes us back to Alexandria, and the third generation of the Ptolemies.
Berenike II of Egypt (often spelled “Berenice”) was born about 267 BCE, daughter of Magas, ruler of Cyrene (on the Libyan coast), and Apama II, a Syrian Greek princess of the Seleukid empire. Macedonian nobles were conservative with personal names; recycling the same ones generation after generation. For example, our famous Cleopatra, played so memorably by Elizabeth Taylor, was the seventh Ptolemaic Egyptian royal of that name, and numerous other royal Cleopatras fell outside the numbering sequence.
Berenike II’s first marriage was to a handsome Macedonian prince, Demetrios “the Fair.” After finding him in bed with her mother, she stabbed him to death. She had somewhat better luck with her second marriage to Ptolemy III of Egypt in 246 BCE.
When Ptolemy returned from a victorious campaign in Syria, she cut off her long blonde hair and dedicated it as a thank-offering to Aphrodite. The hair went missing from the temple, and the court astronomer, Konon of Samos, explained that the goddess had placed it in the heavens as a new constellation, which is still known to astronomers as Coma Berenices (“Berenice’s Hair,” three bright stars above Virgo in the northern sky.)
Shortly after Ptolemy III died in 221 BCE, Berenike II was murdered by her son, Ptolemy IV.
The consensus of numismatic scholars is that (despite the veiled portrait) the rare and beautiful coins in the name of Berenike, incuding some of the largest silver pieces produced in antiquity, were struck before her death. There is an argument that the coins actually depict a different royal, Berenike Syra, sister of Ptolemy III and widow of Seleukid king Antiochos II.
Although very little in ancient numismatics can be stated with dogmatic certainty, it is likely that one of these Berenikes was the first woman to appear on a coin during her own lifetime.
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Mike Markowitz is “Second Consul” of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian and defense analyst, who writes for StrategyPage and Defense Media Network. He designed the game Alexandros, which won the 1991 Charles Roberts Award for best pre-WWII wargame. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. He has worked as a technical writer, editor and trainer for a variety of aerospace and defense firms. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
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