ACTA ACCLA, May 2004


Kenneth L. Friedman

Koson stater, obverseKoson stater, reverse
Gold Stater of Koson

That a coin can be well known but not well understood is aptly illustrated by the gold coin shown here. It almost certainly was minted in Thrace or in Dacia (in what is today north-eastern Greece and eastern Romania) in the middle part of the first century BCE. A debate over its issuer, use and meaning has continued for almost 100 years.

Before reviewing the debate in the literature, examine the coin itself. The obverse depicts three men, wearing togas, walking to the left. The first and third each carry an axe (or perhaps, as described below, the bundle of rods with an axe, known in the Roman world as the fasces) over their shoulder. In the field to the left one finds a monogram that looks like the letter B with the vertical line continuing below and an odd tail emitted from the bottom curve on the right. In the exergue, one finds the Greek letters ΚΟΣΩΝ [KOSON]. The reverse depicts an eagle, standing on a scepter, facing to the left, its right claw raised and holding a wreath.

Silver denarius of Brutus, obverseSilver denarius of Brutus, reverse
Silver Denarius of Brutus
M. Junius Brutus, 54 BCE. Crawford 433/1.

What immediately strikes most viewers is the close similarity of the obverse of the Koson stater to the reverse of the famous denarius issued by M. Junius Brutus in about 54 BCE, shown here (Cr. 433/1). This coin, minted a full decade before the assassination of C. Julius Caesar, has the image of Libertas on the obverse, and on the reverse, four togate figures. There is a long standing consensus that the four figures on the reverse represent, from the left to the right, an accensus, a lictor carrying fasces (with an axe), L. Iunius Brutus, and another lictor carrying fasces (with an axe). L. Iunius Brutus was famous for leading the coup d'etat overthrowing the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, and for the creation of the Republic under two elected consuls (and therefore is depicted here in his role as the first elected consul, walking between the two lictors carrying the emblems of a senior magistrate of the Roman Republic).

Silver denarius of Brutus, obverseSilver denarius of Brutus, reverse
Silver Denarius of Brutus
M. Junius Brutus, 54 BCE (Crawford 433/2)

This coin, and a companion denarius issued by Brutus in the same year (Cr. 433/2) depicting L. Iunius Brutus on the obverse, and C. Servilus Ahala on its reverse), shown here, announces, in Crawford's words,

"the moneyer's admiration for those of his ancestors who were tyrannicides and the production of the issue forms part of a pattern of consistent opposition to Pompey's real or supposed intentions to achieve sole rule." (Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage, Vol. 1, p. 455.)

The gold Thracian stater, minted about the time that Brutus, having participated in the assassination of Caesar, had fled to the East, to Greece, to raise an army to oppose the triumvirate of Caesareans, Octavian, Anthony and Lepidus. No other coins issued before the mid-1st Century BCE depicts a Roman magistrate walking between lictors, and certainly this was a Roman, not a Greek theme. This has led many commentators to believe that the stater was minted for Brutus to coin gold bullion that would be used in his efforts to recruit troops and it certainly seems plausible. Indeed, the most popular reading of the monogram is a B superimposed, and raised half way above, an R, or BR for Brutus.

Not all scholars have agreed with this interpretation. In 1923, the famous collector and numismatist Max von Bahrfeldt wrote:

"I should finally mention here the following unusual gold coin, which is generally attributed to Brutus in coin catalogues and the literature, though it was struck neither for him nor by him and in fact has nothing to do with him...I have discussed this coin thoroughly in the article 'Über die Goldmünzen des Dakerkönigs Koson,' Berlin 1911, there attributing it to the Dacian king Kotison (Koson), who died in battle against the Romans in 25 BC. My arguments have been widely accepted, most recently by L. Ruzicka, 'Die Frage der Dakischen Münze,' Bul. Soc. Num. Rom. XVII (1922) no. 41-42 who discusses the coins origin in detail. The monogram on the reverse should be expanded as BA(sileus), i.e. King Koson."

Roman Provincial Coins I, at page 312, asserts that the obverse of the stater is copied from Brutus' denarius, but the coins were issued by an independent dynast, Koson.

"According to Head (Historia Nummorum, p. 289) and M. Barhfeldt...the monogram does not stand for BR(utus) but for OLB [Olbia, a city on the coast of the Black Sea in north-east Thrace]. The eagle holding a wreath is one of the Olbian types and therefore this issue should be given to a Scythian king Koson or Kotison who died in c. 29 BC."
Silver denarius of Pomponius Rufus, obverseSilver denarius of Pomponius Rufus, reverse
Silver Denarius of Pomponius Rufus
Q. Pomponius Rufus, 73 BCE (Crawford. 398/1)

These arguments against a Brutus origin (or relationship) for the stater apparently ignore, or overlook, a further, critical clue. While it is true that Olbian coins depict eagles, they do not depict eagles in the exact manner of the reverse of the stater. On the other hand, this image of an eagle on a scepter, holding a wreath has an exact antecedent in a Roman coin! We know little about this rather rare coin, issued by Q. Pomponius Rufus in 73 BCE (Cr. 398/1). It's obverse depicts the laureate head of Jupiter facing to the right with the inscriptions RVFVS on the right and S·C to the left. Its reverse has virtually the identical eagle standing on a scepter with its left foot raised, holding a wreath. The only difference between the reverse image of this Roman denarius and the Koson stater is that the denarius has a control number between the wreath and the scepter, the inscription Q·POMPONI, and the symbol to the right of the eagle.

Of this coin, Crawford tells us:

"The moneyer is not otherwise known, but is perhaps a son of Cn. Pomponius, Tr. Pl. 90...For the way in which the eagle is represented, compare the Berlin-Charlottenburg cameo...where two eagles with wreaths support the Emperor and Roma...The eagle is here present merely as an attribute of Jupiter, who forms the obverse type, compare no. 487/1-2...; for Numa, from whom the Pomponii claimed descent (see on no. 334), as the creator of the religion of the Republic, see R. M. Ogilvie, Commentary, 88-105."

All of this leads to the tantalizing question, "why these images on these coins?" or more precisely, "if the coin was issued for Brutus, why this image on the reverse?"

Silver denarius of Cassius Longinus, obverseSilver denarius of Cassius Longinus, reverse
Silver Denarius of Cassius Longinus
Q. Cassius Longinus, 55 BCE (Crawford 428/3).

Certainly, one can argue that it was understandable for Brutus to place the attributes associated with victorious Jupiter, Jupiter's eagle on his scepter holding a wreath, on the coin, and even the juxtaposition of the depiction of Rome's political life, the consul with lictors, with these religious symbols isn't entirely incongruous. On the other hand, one might argue that the reverse symbols, and Jupiter himself, are closely associated with the very essence of kingship (and Numa certainly was a King of Rome). In a particularly soaring flight of fancy, one might even stretch to wonder whether the celator engraving this coin simply mistook this coin as his model when it was intended that he use the eagle on the denarius of Brutus' co-conspirator tyrannicide (or liberator) Q. Cassius Longinus (Cr. 428/3 probably minted in 55 BCE, only one year before Brutus' denarii), shown here.

Well, we started this by calling the Koson stater well known, but not well understood. It remains a curious mystery that challenges our understanding of the coins of that era, and of the politics of the issuer of this coin. Of course, this recognition and contemplation of these kinds of numismatic puzzles is one of the great joys and rewards of the collection and study of ancient numismatics.

© 2004-Kenneth L. Friedman


The photo of the rare coin of Q. Pomponius Rufus (Cr. 398/1) was graciously provided by Andrew McCabe, for which the author is both grateful and (as to the possession of the coin) just a bit jealous. Invaluable assistance was also provided by Curtis Clay of Harlan J. Berk, Chicago, Ill. who provided helpful insight into this brief study of the Koson stater, including, but not limited to the quote from Max von Bahrfeldt.


ACTA ACCLA edited by Michael J. Connor.