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Coins of the Sacred Mountain

Silver Drachm of Tranquillina (the wife of Gorian III) coin with Mount Argaeus (Ericyes) from Kayseri, Turkey in the background.

Coins from the ancient world depict a variety of different imagery. It’s one of many reasons they’re so collectable. Animals, gods, goddesses, plants, weaponry and much more were chosen to represent the various cities that issued them, and the portraits of rulers to remind the public who was in charge. The city of Caesarea in Cappadocia, however, opted for a very different design for much of its coinage – that of a mountain. It is this subject that we’ll have a brief look at in this article.

Located close to Kayseri in modern-day Turkey, the strategically important city was built on the foothills of Mount Argaeus, a huge stratovolcano towering nearly 13,000 feet over the Anatolian plains. Ancient climbers supposedly reported that both the Mediterranean and Black seas could be seen from its summit. Geological studies have suggested that the volcano last erupted around 9000 years ago, though some coins from Caesarea appear to show the mountain smoking.

A few roman ancient coinage displayed on top of some ancient Turkish maps with a magnifying glass.

The mountain’s distinctive, craggy appearance is easily recognisable on the coinage of the nearby city. Its rugged summit and slopes resulting from millennia of erosion and collapse. Exactly why the inhabitants of Caesarea chose the mountain for their coinage is uncertain. Its first appearances begin during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Provincial coins were issued from countless cities in Asia Minor and across the Roman world. It is possible the local powers simply chose the mountain as a symbol for their city, to stand out from the plethora of other coin-issuing cities.

A modern day image of Mount Argaeus.
Mount Argaeus (Ericyes) from Kayseri, Turkey. Image: Pixabay.

In early depictions, the mountain is topped with a standing figure. The identity of this individual alludes us to this day, though theories have ranged from the Sun God, Helios, to the Genius of the city, to a hitherto unknown pagan god of the area.

A silver ancient coin featuring Mount Argaeus with the figure of a man standing on top of the mountain. The coin is laid on top of ancient maps featuring the mountain.
The standing figure atop Mount Argaeus on coins such as this one, struck during the reign of Tiberius (AD 14-37), has been the subject of some debate.

Over the next 200 years, the mountain appears in various styles. During the reign of Trajan, a lyre appears on its summit. It has been suggested that this instrument was used as a means of depicting the volcano’s crater. Later issues depict the mountain atop an altar, as well as being surrounded by gods and goddesses, starts and crescents, and even references to the cult of Mithras. The variety of designs, combined with the distinct use of the mountain on so many coins, has also led scholars to believe the mountain may have been the centre of a religious cult. The rich, fertile volcanic soils resulting from past eruptions would have given the local inhabitants something to be grateful for.

The obverse and reverse of ancient Silver Drachm coins of Tranquillina. Featuring the Draped bust of Tranquillina on the obverse and Mount Argaeus on the reverse,
Silver Drachm of Tranquillina (the wife of Gorian III). The Argaeus motif remained in use well into the Third Century AD. Tranquillina, Silver Drachm | Baldwin’s

The remarkable depiction of a mountain is a near-unique phenomenon in the ancient world. The only other example being the appearance of the enormous Mount Ararat on rare coins of the Armenian King Tigranes IV. Its distinctive double-summit making for an impressive coin type. Nevertheless, the coinage of Caesarea in Cappadocia feature some of the most perplexing depictions to grace coins of the ancient world, and area ripe with different varieties which will likely keep collectors of Roman Provincial Coinage busy for years to come.

For more coins of Caesarea depicting Mount Argaeus, we welcome you to visit our shop at 399 Strand, or check our website, where we have a selection of these coins available for viewing.

Further Reading

Sydenham, E. A. (1933) The Coinage of Caesarea in Cappadocia. London.

Composed by Dominic Chorney, Ancient Specialist.

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