Coin Typology of

Mesembria *

Topography and History

Mesembria, modern-day Nessebar, is located on the western Black Sea coast on the peninsula of the same name, 1  which was twice as large in antiquity as it is today. 2  The city is situated in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains and was considered by Strabo to be the border between Thrace and the Getic lands. 3  It was a Doric apoikia of the poleis Chalcedon and Byzantium, in which colonists from Megara, the metropolis of Chalcedon, also possibly settled; 4  its foundation dates either to the late 6th or early 5th century BC. 5  The existence of an indigenous settlement on the ground of the later apoikia is considered to be certain on the basis of archaeological findings. 6  Mesembria was one of the most important economic centres of the Classical and Hellenistic periods, 7  which is reflected not least in the lively minting activity from the late 5th century until the conquest of the city by the Romans. The economic importance of the city is also reflected in the fact that in the 3rd century, the city apparently also established smaller colonies. 8  The tetradrachms and the gold staters of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC bear witness to the strong influence of the Hellenistic kings on the Black Sea coast. 9  Despite this, Mesembria remained a military power in Hellenistic times and took part in a coalition against the Galatians in 260 BC, 10  in 180 BC, the city was involved in a dispute between Pergamon, Bithynia, and Cappadocia. 11 

After the conquest of Mesembria, which had fought against the Romans in the Second Mithridatic War, the city gradually lost its prominent position. 12  Thus, the relatively modest bronze coinage of Mesembria could not keep up with the neighbouring Thracian cities in the Roman Empire. The city finally lost its role as a local administrative centre to neighbouring Anchialus. 13  In the 2nd century Mesembria belonged at times to the province Moesia Inferior, but was again added to the province Thracia in the course of a renewed border regulation. 14  A research controversy exists concerning a presumed Homonoia treaty between Mesembria and Ephesus, the existence of which is suggested by the numismatic findings. 15 

  1. Karayotov 1994, 13; Lenk 1932, Sp.1072.
  2. Varbanov (Vol.II) 2005, 344.
  3. Strab. 8, 319.
  4. Karayotov 1994, 14; Lenk 1932, Sp.1072; Varbanov (Vol.II) 2005, 344.
  5. On this controversy, see: Lenk 1932, Sp.1072f. According to Strabo, Mesembria was founded during the Scythian campaign of Darius (Strab. 7,319). According to Herodotus the foundation of Mesembria dates only after the collapse of the Ionic uprising (Herod. 4,93).
  6. Karayotov 1994, 13f.
  7. Varbanov (Vol.II) 2005, 344.
  8. Lenk 1932, Sp.1073.
  9. Karayotov 1994, 16.
  10. Karayotov 1994, 15.
  11. Karayotov 1994, 15.; Lenk 1932, Sp.1073.
  12. Varbanov (Vol.II) 2005, 344; Lenk 1932, Sp.1073.
  13. Karayotov 1994, 17.
  14. Lenk 1932, Sp.1073f.
  15. Schönert-Geiss 1994, 701.

State of Research

The two catalogues presented by I. Karayotov, The Coinage of Mesambria, are fundamental to the typology of Mesembria coins. These are Vol. I: Silver and Gold Coins of Mesambria and The Coinage of Mesembria and Vol. II: Bronze Coins of Mesembria, in which the coinage of Mesembria is analyzed and the coin types as well as stamp identities are shown in catalogue form. As E. Schönert-Geiss noted in her review of the first volume of I. Karayotov's catalogue, this collection is by no means complete, especially since the coin material for Mesembria is extremely extensive. 1  Thus, some coin types that appeared later in commerce have not found their way into the catalogues of I. Karayotov, but are also taken into account in our type catalogue. The extensive catalogue of M. Price 2  is fundamental for the posthumous Alexander coinage. The few gold staters from Mesembria were examined by A. Rogalski 3  and recently by E. Petac. 4 

  1. Schönert-Geiss 1994, 701.
  2. Price 1991.
  3. Rogalski 1978.
  4. Petac 2011.

Coin Production und Metrology

Mesembria minted coins both during the autonomous period and during the Roman imperial period. During the autonomous period, there was very intensive minting activity in bronze as well as in silver. While the silver and bronze coinage in the Classical period was limited to a manageable ensemble of motifs, a large number of tetradrachms were created with a variety of different accompanying signs in the Hellenistic period, which are to be understood as posthumous imitations of the tetradrachms of Alexander the Great. 1  In Hellenistic times, however, the bronze coinage was minted in parallel. Interestingly, gold was also minted in Mesembria, which is very rare in Thracian mints: in the 3rd century BC, Mesembria published several gold staters, 2  some of which also belong to the posthumous coins of Alexander the Great, 3  and others of which were minted by Lysimachus. 4  In Augustan times, a Rhoemetalces issue and another coin type minted for Augustus were emitted. 5  The minting of Mesembria then came to a standstill for more than a century before the Roman provincial minting began anew under Hadrian. 6  The mint of Mesembria experienced an upswing under Gordian III and Philip the Arab before it ended after the death of Philip and his son, Philip the Younger. As far as the choice of denomination is concerned, most imperial coin types are worth four units. The only exceptions are the few five-unit coins minted under Hadrian 7  and the small denominations (two and three units) of the issues for Hadrian, 8  Geta, 9  Otacilia Severa, 10  and Philip the Younger. 11 

  1. Karayotov 1994, 30. See also Karayotov 1984, 5–14; Callataÿ 2017, 145–162.
  2. See also: Rogalski 1978, 3–14; Petac 2011, 7–15.
  3. CN_Type1660; CN_Type1661; CN_Type1662.
  4. CN_Type1663; CN_Type1664; CN_Type1665.
  5. CN_Type382; CN_Type383.
  6. Karayotov 2009, 77.
  7. CN_Type385.
  8. CN_Type386 (three-unit coin).
  9. CN_Type408; CN_Type409; CN_Type412 (two-unit coin).
  10. CN_Type450 (two-unit coin).
  11. CN_Type452 (three-unit coin).

Chronology of the Coinage

During the Classical period, Mesembria minted some obols 1  with the head of Athena or a Corinthian helmet on the obverse and a quadratum incusum on the reverse. The city also circulated numerous diobols with a Corinthian helm on the obverse and a wheel with the letters M, E, T, and A inserted in its spokes on the reverse. Some magistrate abbreviations are legible in the left and right fields of the obverse, 2  but others were minted without corresponding abbreviations. 3  A drachma with the aforementioned pictorial motifs, in whose reverse legend the name of the governor is also mentioned, should be emphasized; 4  its legend reads ΑΝΘΕΣΤΗΡΙΟΣ ΜΕΤΑ. The iconography of these coin types cannot be interpreted with certainty. It is possible that the helmet refers to the mythical hero Melsas, 5  and the wheel operates as a symbol of Apollo in the Black Sea region. 6  It would also be conceivable to interpret the wheel as an allusion to Ares, who was worshipped in Thrace as a sun god. 7 

The same motifs can be found on a few bronze issues 8  that date to a few years later. 9  Furthermore, there are two bronze coin types from the Classical period that bear this wheel as a reverse motif, on whose obverse Athena is depicted looking to the left or right, respectively. Another type that dates back to the Classical period features the head of Melsas on the obverse, with the letters M, E, T, and A on a pelta, the characteristic shield of the Amazons, 10  on the reverse. 11  Melsas is known as the mythical founder of Mesembria, who gave the city its name. 12 

  1. CN_Type270; CN_Type1654; CN_Type4040; CN_Type4041.
  2. CN_Type272.
  3. CN_Type285.
  4. CN_Type286.
  5. Karayotov 1994, 13.
  6. Karayotov 2009, 97.
  7. Schönert-Geiss 1994, 699.
  8. CN_Type294.
  9. Karayotov 2009, 36.
  10. Karayotov 2009, 100.
  11. CN_Type310.
  12. Karayotov 1994, 13.

Special Features of the Coinage

In the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, Mesembria minted a multitude of posthumous tetradrachms for Alexander the Great featuring the canonical depiction of the head of Heracles with a lion exuvia on the obverse and Zeus Aëtophoros on the reverse. A small Corinthian helmet is depicted as a mintmark to the left of the enthroned Zeus on the reverse. 1  Various monograms can be recognized below the helmet and under the throne. Each one is defined as an independent type in the database of the Pella project, which is primarily aligned with M. Price. Some gold staters were minted in addition to the tetradrachms. However, these posthumous staters minted for Alexander the Great depict the head of Athena on the obverse and a Nike with a stylis and laurel wreath on the reverse; a Corinthian helmet lies at Nike’s feet. On the gold staters embossed in the name of Lysimachus, the head of the deified Alexander appears on the obverse, while an Athena Promachos enthroned to the left is featured on the reverse, with a statuette of Nike to her right.

Innovations were also made in the bronze coinage during the Hellenistic period. One coin type repeats the well-known motifs of the Corinthian helmet and wheel; however, the letters M, E, Σ, and A can now be read in its spokes. 2  Thus, the T had been replaced by a Σ ersetzt. Another type with the same obverse has a celtic shield with the city ethnic written out as an inscription on the reverse. 3  A completely new emission comprises four types with the head of an Amazon 4  on the obverse and a depiction of Athena Alkis 5  on the reverse. 6  The city ethnic is used as the reverse legend in two variants: METAMBRIANΩN and MEΣAMBRIANΩN; in the case of the first, three further variations can be distinguished according to I. Karayotov, which would suggest stylistically different datings and therefore also form different types. In the late Hellenistic period, some types with entirely new motifs appeared. These include the head of Athena with a pelta, 7  Dionysus and grapes, 8  Demeter and an ear of barleycorn, 9  Demeter and a caduceus, 10  and Demeter und Apollo Kitharoidos. 11 

  1. Price 1991, 180.
  2. CN_Type297. This variant with the letters M, E, Σ and A is also very rarely found in the silver coinage CN_Type334; CN_Type335.
  3. CN_Type312.
  4. For the close connection between the Amazons and the founding hero Melsas, as well as the special importance of the Amazons for Mesembria, see Karayotov 2009, 99–103.
  5. This iconography is borrowed from a coin type of the Indogreek king Menander. Karayotov 2009, 94.
  6. CN_Type313; CN_Type325; CN_Type1666; CN_Type1667. The CN_Type329 depicts the head of Dionysus on the obverse.
  7. CN_Type326.
  8. CN_Type327; CN_Type328; CN_Type1677.
  9. CN_Type330.
  10. CN_Type381.
  11. CN_Type331.


  • Boteva 2017 = D. Boteva, Gordian III and Philip II on Coin Obverses with Two Face-to-Face Busts Depicting Sarapis/Theos Megas, in: D. Boteva (Hrsg.), Ex Nummis Lux. Studies in Ancient Numismatics in Honour of Dimitar Draganov, (Sofia 2017) 327–338.
  • Callataÿ 2017 = F. de Callataÿ, Overstrikes of Late Mesambrian Alexanders. The Great Unbalance Their Distribution and What They Tell us About the Logic Behind, in: D. Boteva (Hrsg.), Ex Nummis Lux. Studies in Ancient Numismatics in Honour of Dimitar Draganov, (Sofia 2017) 145–162.
  • Karayotov 1984 = I. Karayotov, Chronologie des tétradrachmes de Mesambria, in: Numismatica 18, 1984, 5-14.
  • Karayotov 1994 = I. Karayotov, The Coinage of Mesambria. Vol. I: Silver and Gold Coins of Mesambria (Sozopol 1994).
  • Karayotov 2009 = I. Karayotov, The Coinage of Mesembria. Vol. II: Bronze Coins of Mesembria, (Sozopol 2009).
  • Petac 2011 = E. Petac, From the Types of Alexander to Lysimachus. The Chronology of Some Mesembrian and Other West Pontic Staters, in: AJN 23, 2011, 7-15.
  • Price 1991 = M. Price, The Coinage in the Name of Alexander the Great and Philip Arrhidaeus. A British Museum Catalogue, Vol. I: Introduction and Catalogue (London 1991).
  • Rogalski 1978 = A. Rogalski, Statères en or d’Odessos et de Messambria, in: Numismatica 12, 1978, 3–14.
  • Schönert-Geiss 1994 = E. Schönert-Geiss, Rezension zu I. Karayotov, Moneteseceneto na Mesambrija, in: Gnomon 66, 1994, 699–702.