Gorgon (Medusa) Coin, Amisos

Date: 85 - 65 BCE
Greek (Pontus)

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Item Description:

These bronze coins were struck in Amisos, an ancient city on the Black Sea that was part of the Hellenistic (culturally Greek) kingdom of Pontus. The obverse side features the head of a gorgon, a snake haired creature in Greek mythology—the most famous example being Medusa. The Greek goddess Nike is seen holding a wreath and a palm branch on the reverse side.

These coins were struck under Mithridates VI, and their denomination is a tetrachalkon (one twelfth of a drachm.)

A map of the Kingdom of Pontus. The light pink areas were added during Mithridates VI's reign.

The Extraordinary Story of Mithridates VI

Mithridates succeeded his father in 120 BCE, when he was still only a boy. He briefly co-ruled with his mother until he deposed and imprisoned her in 115 BCE.

Mithradates was a ruthless leader and warlord, gradually conquering western and southern regions along the Black Sea. Among his acts of brutality, he reportedly orchestrated the killing of 88,000 Roman and Italian noncombatants in a single day, leading to the start of the second Mithradatic War in 88 BCE.

Naturally, he was also one of the most successful challengers to the Roman Republic—there were three Mithradatic Wars waged with the Romans during his rule.

Unsurprisingly, Mithradates was paranoid about assassination attempts and was obsessed with creating a universal antidote to all poisons. As he got older, Mithradates would attempt to fortify himself against poisoning attempts by ingesting sublethal amounts of poison. He has been credited as the first toxicologist because of his experiments.

A sculpted bust of Mithridates

A sculpted bust of Mithridates VI.

Attempts to recreate Mithradates’ “universal antidote,” (called “Mithridatium”) have been conducted as recently as the early 1990s, but no successful attempts to recreate the panacea have ever been reported.

There is much debate as to whether Mithradates’ panacea was a legitimate antidote or a well-crafted lie to discourage attempts on his life, but his unusual suicide indicates there may be some truth to the story. In 63 BC, after a revolt led by his son Pharnacles II, Mithradates attempted suicide by drinking poison. He survived, then ordered a Gallic mercenary to kill him with his sword.

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