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ROMAN EMPIRE. Hadrian, A.D. 117-138. AR Medallion (24.11g.) with a portrait by the 'Alphaeus Master'. Rome, c. A.D. 135-137. Choice Extremely Fine, lightly porous patina; some encrustation and scratches on the reverse.

: HADRIANVS AVGVSTVS. Bust r. of Hadrian, draped and bare-headed, his right shoulder seen slightly from behind, and a scepter is shown over his left shoulder.
Rev: COS III (in exergue). At left, Poseidon stands r., his left foot on a rock, holding a trident upright in his right hand and resting upon his knee his left arm, hand extended; behind him a rocky outcrop upon which a dolphin rests, nose down and tail upward. At right, Athena stands l., resting her left hand on her hip, and placing her right hand on a branch of an olive tree, against which she rests her spear; her shield (seen from the interior) is set upright behind her; a snake coils from the base of the tree, its body writhing upward behind Athena and re-emerging between Athena and her shield. Choice XF, lightly porous patina, some encrustation and scratches on the reverse.

: The Rome mint rarely produced silver medallions before the 3rd Century A.D., and this example of Hadrian (perhaps the equivalent of 8 Denarii) may be unique. Far more significant, however, is the quality of its engraving, for the portrait can be attributed with confidence to the 'Alphaeus Master', the most renowned die engraver of the Roman period.

The 'Alphaeus Master' likely was a member of Hadrian's inner circle, and he may, in fact, have been the sculptor Antonianus (Antoninianus) of Aphrodisias, whose style epitomized the Hadrianic revival of Greek classicism. His body of work was recognized by Charles Seltman, and can be seen not only on this silver medallion, but on bronze medallions of Hadrian (Gnecchi pl. 39, 3 and pl. 42, 3-4), medallic sestertii of Hadrian (see Sotheby's, 1990, Hunt Sale I, lot 134), and provincial bronze medallions honoring the emperor's companion Antinoüs.

The portrait style, inscriptions, and symbolism of this medallion suggest it was struck late in Hadrian's reign, probably for his vicennalian (20th anniversary) celebrations. By this time, Hadrian's infatuation with Greek culture was so complete that it had given rise to a belief that he was an incarnation of Zeus (Jupiter). As testament to his delusion of divine kinship, the obverse shows Hadrian with a scepter over his left shoulder.

The reverse speaks of Hadrian's patronage of the Greeks - specifically his love for Athens, the epicenter of Greek civilization and his favorite city. Poseidon (Neptune) and Athena (Minerva) are shown competing to become the patron of Athens. In the competition, both were asked to produce gifts. Poseidon's gift of a spring failed to impress when the spring issued saltwater, but Athena's gift of a sacred olive tree growing on the Acropolis was well received. Athena was judged the winner and was adopted as the patron goddess of the city, which thereafter assumed her name.

The scene on this medallion probably is based upon a sculptural group or bas relief monument of the artist Alkamenes. His 'peaceful' version of this mythological episode was passed over in favor of a violent depiction that came to adorn the west pediment of the Parthenon. Alkamenes' version, which shows a calm Poseidon trying to converse with a reflective Athena, was not lost however, for Pausanius tells us it earned a place of honor on the Acropolis.

A direct parallel to this scene is found on a sardonyx cameo gem engraved c. 40-30 B.C. which now resides in the collection of the National Archeological Museum in Naples. The fact that it was carved more than 150 years earlier suggests its prototype had been familiar to Romans for centuries before this medallion was struck.

Dies with this scene were also used by Hadrian for medallic bronzes struck using portrait dies of regular-issue sestertii (Gnecchi pl. 146, nos. 8 and 9). Variants of the scene appear on medallions of Marcus Aurelius (as Caesar?), and later still on bronzes produced for the Athenians during the 2nd and 3rd Centuries A.D.

Accompanied by NGC photo proofs.


Imhoof-Blumer, F. and Percy Gardner. 1887. A Numismatic Commentary On Pausanius. London: Richard Clay and Sons.

Lorber, C. 1983. Numismatic text in Wealth of the Ancient World: The Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt Collections. Fort Worth, TX: Kimbell Art Museum.

Toynbee, J. M. C. 1986. Roman Medallions. American Numismatic Society Numismatic Studies No. 5. New York: American Numismatic Society.
From the Deb-Ann Collection.

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Auction Dates
January, 2009
4th-13th Sunday-Tuesday
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