Coin of the Month

July 2023: Telesphorus with the bunch of grapes

The Coin of this Month is presented by Andrea Gorys und Bernhard Weisser

Telesphorus, the companion of Asclepius always depicted as a boy in a hooded cloak, holds a bunch of grapes on coins from Perperene. How did this unusual representation come about?

Perperene is an ancient city in Mysia. It is situated on a plateau of the Kozak Mountains about halfway along the route leading from the sea to Pergamum. To date, there have been no systematic excavations there, and there is no sign indicating the ancient site, which lies a bit off the road (all information relates to our last visit to the site in 2020). Along vineyards, you get to the ruins. City walls, a theatre and public areas can be seen. Pillars and other architectural fragments lie on the ground overgrown with plants. Sarcophagi and other indications of a necropolis are part of the visible cityscape, but unfortunately also numerous traces that point to illicit excavations.

The city minted coins from the 4th century BC to the 3rd century AD. A small bronze coin with the portrait of Antoninus Pius (138–161) on the obverse shows Telesphorus on the reverse. Telesphorus belongs to the mythological retinue of the healing god Asclepius. There are coins on which he is depicted together with Asclepius and Hygieia. Because of their proportions, the groups appear as family szene: father Asclepius, big sister Hygieia, and little brother Telesphorus.

Usually, Telesphorus is depicted standing facing in his hooded cloak without any other attributes. On this coin, however, he is holding a bunch of grapes in his right hand. Were this coin isolated, it would give rise to questions about Telesphorus' relationship to wine. Is there evidence of the role of wine in ancient healing cults? Does excessive wine consumption bring the end? The literal translation of the speaking name Telesphorus means "the one who brings the end". However, all of these considerations are misleading.

The bunch of grapes is the fruit with which the minting authorities of Perperene have decorated local currency since the beginning of the city’s coinage (e.g. It also remained the symbol of the city during the imperial period. Thus, the bunch of grapes in hands of Telesphorus is an integral part of numerous representations of bunches of grapes on the coins of Perperenes, even if there is an unusual combination here. Apparently, it was important to the authorities to give this reference to a Telesphorus of Perperene, in addition to the ethnic name in the genitive plural (coin of the Perpereneans).

This form of creative handling of a given iconography is quite remarkable and worth further consideration. On the one hand, it should be noted that the Asklepieion in nearby Pergamum had developed into a sanctuary of international importance since Flavian times. The architectural expansion in Hadrian's time, the ennoblement in connection with Hadrian's visit to Pergamum had contributed to the increase in importance. With Telesphorus, Perperene expressed that the healing cult was also relevant for Perperene and additionally emphasized this with the grape as a local reference.

There is one more observation. With a diameter of 16 mm, the bronze coin is one of the small denominations minted in western Asia Minor in the 2nd century. Bronze coins of the same module with a Telesphorus on the reverse were also minted in Hadrianic-Antonine times in Pergamum, Hadrianeia, Elaia, Germe and other neighbouring places. The use of the same motif on the same coin denomination may have eased their acceptance in regional trade. Quantitatively, the Pergamene coins have clearly predominated, with the incomparably larger coin output of a metropolis. The ethnic of Pergamum and Perperene differs in only two syllables, with the first and last syllables being identical. At a cursory glance, confusion is easily possible, and this may have been the main reason that Perperene’s minting authorities have modified the coin image.

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