Notes on a Medallion of Commodus

found at Kastelli Kissamou*

Published in the Athens Annals of Archaeology XXII (1989), pp.139-142.

Michael R. Jenkins (2 July 1993)

The sole Roman medallion to have been unearthed in situ in Greece is a type of the Emperor Commodus found during excavations at Kastelli Kissamou on the island of Crete. Its discovery was officially announced in the report of the excavations of J.Tzédakis for 1970 [1], and briefly noted by M. Oikonomidou of the Numismatic Museum (Athens) in 1971/74 [2]. The medallion lay in a large drain or sewer some four metres to the East of a Roman-period villa at Kastelli Kissamou. Nearby it were also discovered several bronze coins of the mid-Third Century. The medallion and few coins discovered in the drain are not to be considered part of the extensive hoard of 120 Roman coins deliberately hidden in a shallow cavity made in the floor near the villa's atrium in c.A.D. 346. Rather the medallion and coins recovered from the drain most probably found their way into it having been accidentally lost or dropped by their owners. Before speculating upon how this medallion struck in Rome found its way into a sewer in Western Crete, its unique numismatic characteristics and its historical significance require discussion.





The medallion bears the following legends and designs [3]:



Head of Commodus, facing left, wearing the Herculean lion-skin hood pulled over his head.



Hercules' club is depicted dividing the legend, and the outer edge of the flan is encircled with a decorative floral wreath (of oak-leaves?).

This medallion may be considered to belong to a 'Hercules-Commodus' group identified by Toynbee as comprising nine different medallions-types [4]; six bearing in part a TR P XVIII reverse legend (variously depicting 'Hercules-Commodus' marking out the sulcus primigenius, resting on his club, standing, and sitting on a rock), and three (lacking reference to the emperor's Tribunicia Potestas) bearing reverse legends of HER CULI ROM ANO AUGU/AUG UST and variously depicting Hercules' attributes; the quiver, club and bow [5]. The reverse of one of these three latter examples (hereafter noted as Gnecchi 79.10) [6] having the legend HER CULI ROM ANO AUG UST and showing the club of Hercules between the letters of the legend, bears a most strong resemblance to that of the medallion discovered at Kastelli Kissamou. However the shape and proportions of the club depicted in the centre of the reverse flan of Gnecchi 79.10 are so different from those of the example discovered at Kastelli Kissamou as to strongly suggest that they were not struck from the same die.

When one turns attention to the obverse of the medallion discovered at Kastelli Kissamou differences between it and Gnecchi 79.10 are at once apparent. While sharing the same obverse legend, the head of 'Hercules-Commodus' faces left in the former case, and right in the latter. The obverse design of the medallion discovered at Kastelli Kissamou is most closely paralleled by one of those six medallion-types carrying the Tribunicia Potestas number 'XVIII' (hereafter noted as Gnecchi 80.5). [7] While Gnecchi 80.5 carries the reverse legend HERCULI ROMANO AUG P M TR P XVIII COS VII PP and depicts 'Hercules-Commodus' marking out the sulcus primigenius, its obverse design and legend are the same as those borne by the medallion discovered at Kastelli Kissamou. Indeed points of detail shared by these two examples (such as the angle of the Emperor's nose, the depiction of his facial features and the curling mane of the lion-skin hood) are so similar as to suggest that they may have been struck from the same die. [8]

It may thus be concluded that the medallion discovered at Kastelli Kissamou bears a similar (but not exactly identical) reverse design to that carried by Gnecchi 79.10, and an obverse design most similar (if not identical) to that carried by Gnecchi 80.5. The Kastelli Kissamou medallion must be considered a unique type of the 'Hercules-Commodus' medallion group. As part of this group the medallion discovered at Kastelli Kissamou is further testament to the manic proportions which Commodus' delusions of association with the god/hero reached; the Emperor even titled himself 'Hercules Romanus'. [9]

Toynbee argues that this group of Commodian medallions (and indeed other medallions) were created for presentation to selected recipients on the occasion of the New Year. Furthermore she offers the suggestion that; "Perhaps the six dated [Tribunicia Potestas] medallions were presented on the regnal New Year's Day (December 10), the six [sic three?] undated pieces on that of the calendar (January 1)." [10]

However, as Toynbee herself notes, [11] Commodus was murdered on December 31, A.D. 192, twenty-one days after his Tribunicia Potestas had been proclaimed for the XVIIIth. time. If the medallion-type from Kastelli Kissamou and the three Tribunicia Potestas 'un-dated' medallion-types known at the time of Toynbee's writing were prepared for distribution on January 1, one must assume that the recipients of these medallions were presented with them by officials acting on the orders of the (deceased) Emperor (a most unlikely scenario if one considers the chaos which must have followed immediately after the murder of the Emperor), or that they were 'souvenired' by ones faithful to the memory of Commodus.

While Toynbee's speculation in regard to the possibility of there having been different distribution times for the Tribunicia Potestas 'dated' and 'un-dated' 'Hercules-Commodus' medallion-types is of interest, the discovery of the medallion-type from Kastelli Kissamou offers indirect rebuttal to this point. That the 'un-dated' medallion from Kastelli Kissamou bears the same obverse-type as one of the 'dated' medallions (ie. Gnecchi 80.5) suggests that the authorities responsible for medallic production did not necessarily differentiate between those types with Tribunicia Potestas dating and those without. All the medallions of the 'Hercules-Commodus' group (including that found at Kastelli Kissamou), may well have been officially distributed on the occasion the regnal New Year, some weeks prior to the Emperor's death.

Whatever the case may be, it would seem that the hands into which the medallion fell were probably those of a loyal and high ranking subject of the Emperor. Toynbee notes; "Any conclusion we may draw as to the status of the donees must be based upon indirect evidence, upon the internal evidence of the medallions themselves and upon the external evidence of find spots. The fact that the great majority of medallions are severally represented by only comparatively small numbers of examples, while not a few are known from one specimen alone, indicates that they were minted for distribution to circles of selected individuals." [12]

That the medallion which is the subject of this discussion (and which is indeed the only specimen of its type thus far discovered) was found at Kastelli Kissamou in Crete, so far distant from the Imperial capital, strongly suggests that its owner/s wished to conserve it as a token of loyalty and Imperial recognition, or as a 'curio' of the reign of the deceased Emperor.

Toynbee further notes that of the vast majority of Roman medallions discovered in situ outside the capital; "In the provinces ... the preponderance among recorded find spots, as far as bronze medallions are concerned, [are] of great military headquarters, frontier stations and important centres of local and imperial administration - cities in which legionary commanders and other high officers of the army, provincial governors and representatives of the Emperor, higher-grade civil servants and government officials were permanently resident or constantly passing through." [13]

The medallion from Kastelli Kissamou is a clear exception to this general rule - the villa was located in a 'backwater' of the Empire. One might speculate that it was taken there by its high-ranking recipient who, under the rule of the Severans, sought or was forced to seek seclusive retirement. Was it displaced in a moment of carelessness, or perhaps thrown into the sewer by a later owner who despised the Imperial portrait it bore? We shall never know the circumstances under which this unique medallion came to rest in the great drain of the Kastelli Kissamou villa.


* I wish to express my thanks to Dr. Mando Oeconomideu and her kind staff at the Numismatic Museum (Athens) for their assistance in allowing me to view the medallion on 14/10/1988 & 12/12/1990. I also express my special thanks to Dr. Mando Oeconomideu for arranging casts of the piece to be forwarded to me, and for her encouragement in the preparation of this short paper. The medallion has been assigned the 'Accession Number' 192, Invoice Number 78/1970.

[1] ADelt 25 (1970): Chronika, pp. 471f, & Plate 412.b. See also ADelt 23 (1968), pp. 416 - 417, and ADelt 24 (1968), pp. 431 - 432 for additional discussion of the excavations.
[2] ADelt 26 (1971), 'Chronika' p. 10, Plate 9.1, and Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique XCVIII (1974), p.583 note 4 & p. 585, Fig.9 - 10.
[3] Physical Description of the Medallion:
Metal: Bronze.
Diameter: 42.00 mm.
Thickness: 5.00 mm.
Weight : 69.66 gr.
Patina: Both obverse and reverse have developed a green patina
encircling the outer section of the flan (ie. over the obverse legend and the floral wreath of the reverse).
Striking: The obverse and reverse dies struck the flan in such a manner that both were in very close alignment; they varied by but a few degrees.
[4] Toynbee J.M.C. Roman Medallions (Numismatic Studies No.5), (The American Numismatic Society, New York 1944 (Reprint 1986)), pp. 74 - 75. The 'Hercules- Commodus' medallion group, as identified by Toynbee, comprises two sub-groups: six types dated with the Tribunicia Potestas, and three without. The six Tribunicia Potestas dated types are represented in Gnecchi F. I medaglioni romani (Forni Editore, Bologna, 1912) Vol.2 by:
i) p.55 Number 32, Tav. 80.4.
ii) p.54 Numbers 29 & 30, Tav. 80.2-3.
iii) p.55 Number 31.
iv) p.55 Numbers 33 & 34, Tav.80.5-6.
v) p.55 Number 35, Tav.80.7.
vi) p.54 Numbers 23 & 24, Tav.79.7-8.
The three 'un-dated' types are represented in Gnecchi (see above) by:
i) p.54 Number 27, Tav.80.1.
ii) p.54 Numbers 25 & 26, Tavv.77.2 & 79.9.
iii) p.54 Number 28, Tav.79.10.
[5] Toynbee (above n.4), pp. 74 - 75.
[6] Gnecchi (above n.4), p. 54 Number 28, and Tav. 79.10.
[7] Gnecchi (above n. 4), p.55 Number 33, and Tav. 80.5.
[8] Gnecchi (above n. 4) p. 54 Number 26, notes a medallion ('a due metalli') bearing the HERCULI ROMANO AUG reverse legend and a design of bow, club and quiver, and an obverse bearing the legend L AELIUS COMMODUS AUG PIUS FELIX and depicting the head of Commodus wearing the lion-skin hood and facing to the left. While these points suggest that this piece may bear the same obverse type as Gnecchi 80.5 and the medallion found at Kastelli Kissamou, Dr. Michel Amandry of the Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris), has kindly informed me that the piece has survived in a very poor condition and that its type is hardy recognisable.
[9] See Dio Cassius Roman History Epitome of Book LXXIII.
[10] Toynbee (above n. 4) p. 75. While the text quoted gives as six the number of undated pieces, this would appear to be an error - at the start of the paragraph from which the quotation is taken Toynbee clearly notes, "With these six TR P XVIII medallions we must group three others [ie. the 'un-dated' types] ...".
[11] Toynbee (above n. 4) p. 74.
[12] Toynbee (above n. 4) p. 112.
[13] Toynbee (above n. 4) p. 117.

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