Koson gold stater

The coins known as Koson gold staters have been a mystery since the examples were found in the Transylvanian region, in the 16th century. There are two different but both widely accepted theories as to who minted them, when, where and why. I don't expect to solve this mystery to everyone's satisfaction, but I would like to present my thoughts, observations, and some recent metallurgical information, plus my personal conclusions as to what it all means.

The first theory, which goes back to the 19th century, assume Koson staters were struck in 43 to 42 BC by Marcus Junius Brutus (assassin of Julius Caesar) from a treasure provided to him by the Roman Senate, for the purpose of raising an army to defend the Republic against forces loyal to the now dead Julius Caesar. A battle Brutus lost to Octavian at Philippi in 42 BC. This theory generally assumes the KOΣΩN inscription names a Dacian king, possibly Cotiso, whose troops Brutus may have hired. These coins are usually found in modern Romania and this theory assumes they arrived there with troops returning home after the battle.

The second theory, which has gained favor recently, say Koson staters were struck in either Dacia (modern Romania) or ancient Thrace (Northern Greece), possibly by the same King Cotiso or another King named Koson who was never mentioned by ancient historians. This associates them with a series of Geto-Dacian coins normally imitating Roman Republican silver denarii and does not associate them with Brutus or a Senate treasure. They are assumed to date from the mid 1st century BC, generally assuming after 42 BC, and are assumed to be found in Romania because they were minted there. It is now common to see them listed as either Scythian from Dacia or Thracian from Northern Greece but for the purposes of this article I will refer to them as Dacian, as that is the region where they are usually found.

Both theories make sense. Both account for large hoards of them being found in Romania. Both have problems resulting from incomplete evidence and lack any historical records referring directly to these coins. With that in mind, I am going back to the basics of what we have to work with, which is the designs, possible translations of the inscription, how those fit with the known of the history and what some recent metallurgical studies tell us.

koson stater obverse.Brutus denarius of 54 BC
Image from Classical Numismatic Group, Inc,, coin shop #858980.

The obverse depicts three walking figures, normally with what might be a BR monogram to the left, and the inscription KOΣΩN below. Some examples are missing the BR monogram and those will discussed with the metallurgical information. This obverse is derived from Marcus Junius Brutus' denarius of 54 BC which depicts an accensus walking before three figures representing L. Junius Brutus between two lictors, with BRVTVS below. On the gold staters the accensus is left off, the BR of BRVTVS moved up and to the left, and BRVTVS has been replaced by KOΣΩN.

L. Junius Brutus was one of the first consuls of Rome who, in 509 BC over threw the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, resulting in the establishment of the Roman Republic. M. Junius Brutus believed himself descended from L. Junius Brutus which is why he commemorates him on denarii. On the Ides of March in 44 BC, M. Junius Brutus helped assassinate Julius Caesar, which he viewed as an act defending the Republic his ancestor had created. This backfired and civil war resulted with Brutus and Cassius first going to Asia and later to Greece to raise an army to defend the Republic against the anti-Republican forces loyal to the deceased Julius Caesar. The Romans were fond of putting political messages on their coins, and the obverse design on these Koson staters are consistent with the message Brutus would have wish to put forward.

koson stater obverse.Pomponius Rufus denarius of 70 BC
Image from Classical Numismatic Group, Inc,, Nomos 1, lot 133.

The reverse closely copies the 70 BC denarius of Q. Pomponius Rufus, but with the eagle's head eagle's head turned left, plus the scorpion and inscriptions left off. The depiction of an eagle holding a wreath and scepter in its claws is very unusual and to the best of my knowledge does not occur on any other Roman coins. Eagles normally are presenting a wreath by holding in its beak. I believe this depiction of the wreath and scepter in the claws represents the eagle ripping them away from someone.

Many coins of Julius Caesar as dictator show him wearing the wreath, with the scepter held by Venus on the reverse. A statue in the Louvre shows Caesar wearing a wreath and holding the scepter as symbols of his position and power as dictator. When M. Junius Brutus (and friends) assassinated Caesar in 44 BC, they essentially ripped his power away, so this depiction of an eagle ripping away symbols of power fit Brutus' political message. Thus both sides of the Koson stater are consistent with Brutus' political message of 42 BC.

Unfortunately nothing is known of why Q. Pomponius Rufus use that design on his denarii but the obverse, which I have not illustrated, has "S C" to the left, possibly indicating the coins were struck for a special purpose of the Senate, possibly with funds from the Senate treasury. Brutus and Cassius also saw themselves as acting on behalf of the senate and were provided with 500,000 drachma from the state Treasure in Asia where to delivered to Brutus in Greece by the Quaestor Appuleius (ref. Cicero, Philippics, X.11; Appian, B.C. III.63). This suggests a parallel Brutus might have seen between himself and Rufus which might be another reason why Brutus might used that reverse for Koson staters.

I would like to discuss a possible meaning of the KOΣΩN inscription and to do that we must put it in the context of the events surrounding Brutus in 42 BC. Plutarch wrote that after Brutus received the 500,000 drachma, soldiers formerly from the Pompey's army who were still wondering around in Thessaly flocked to his side. This was six years after Pompey's defeat. Julius Caesar was known for forgiving his enemies so Latin soldiers could have returned to Italy or even join Caesar's army. It is unlikely six years later Latin soldiers would have been wondering around in Thessaly on mass. We can safely assume it was non-Latins from North of Greece that came to Brutus. While Plutarch refers to them coming to Brutus from Thessaly, they could easily have been Dacians who passed through Thessaly to fight for Brutus, and who later took their pay home with them, explaining why Koson staters are nearly always found in Romania, the ancient Dacia.

I have shown that the obverse and reverse are consistent with designs that suit Brutus' political message, suggesting he struck these coins. The coins are nearly always found in Dacia and what Plutarch says about soldiers coming from north of Greece to join Brutus, means these could be the coins Brutus struck to pay for Dacian troops. So the question becomes, how might the KOΣΩN inscription make sense in this context.

Dacian was a distinct language, widely spoken across that region until about the 5th century AD. It is now a dead language with only one or two short inscriptions known, not enough to tell us much about the grammar and language structure, but those inscriptions use a mix of Greek and Latin alphabets, although it is likely they used Greek letters prior to Trajan's annexation of Dacia just after 100 AD, and the mix of Latin came in later. Unfortunately, beyond some personal and place names, and a few words derived from them, little is now known of the language, although it is definitely not a Greek dialect.

What I propose as the meaning of KOΣΩN requires it to be split it into two parts. The first is KOΣ which can be a Greek Alphabet transliterated of COS, the Roman abbreviation for CONSUL using the Greek K for the Latin hard C, but still pronounced COS. If Brutus were addressing Greek speaking people, he could have used the Greek word Hypatos, but the Dacians were not Greek speaking and it is likely they did not have a word for Consul. A word that pronounces as COS, but written in an alphabet Dacians were familiar with, is something they might have understood.

The second part is the ΩN suffix which in Greek grammar implies from the or of the. Technically it makes it plural but Greek inscriptions of the period often use it without intending the plural (see Kyri Kyriacos comments on this near the bottom). We do not know enough about the Dacian language to know if this suffix had meaning there, or if they even had an equivalent, but Brutus would have understood it and may have assumed the Dacian's would too. In this context if we now consider the BR monogram as short for Brutus, KOΣΩN BR becomes "from the consul Brutus".

An additional feature of Koson staters with the BR monogram are odd, choppy, surface textures consistent with a celator preparing the surface of the dies with a gouging tool and not smoothing them before use as was done to most ancient dies. I know of only one series of coins from that general period which consistently exhibit the same surface textures:

cassius denarius

This denarius issued for Cassius in conjunction with denarii of Brutus also exhibits the same surfaces textures, and we know these were struck in Brutus' travelling military mint in 43 to 42 BC. As Koson BR monogram staters share the same unusual textures, it seem the dies might have been cut by the same celators strongly suggesting Koson staters were likely also struck in Brutus' travelling mint.

To summarize, the obverse and reverse designs are consistent with Brutus' political message. The inscription can be read in a way consistent with his political message. The die engraving features are consistent with other coins issued by him at the time. Nothing is inconsistent with how the history of 42 BC is recorded by the ancient writers.

The alternative theory of Koson gold staters being Dacian (or Thracian) imitative coins assumes the monogram to the left of the figures is a BA and short for Basileos, the Greek word for king. The problem with this is it is a Greek word and it un-likely to have any meaning in the Dacian language. It also assumes KOΣΩN is a King's name. The problem with this is no King Koson is mentioned in the ancient histories (many Dacian Kings are) and is a name invented in the 16th century to explain these coins. Dacian imitations or Roman silver denarii occasionally randomly mix obverse and reverse designs, but all other known types are in silver and while somewhat barbarous the Latin inscriptions are always copied in Latin. I am not aware of any where the inscription is transliterated to Greek. No Dacian coins name any King in Greek or any other language. The surface characteristics and die engraving styles of the BR monogram Kosons have no parallel in the Dacian imitative series. Basically, nothing about the BR monogram Koson staters with any parallel in other known Dacian coins.

I consulted with Kyri Kyriacos, who confirms there is nothing incorrect in translating KOΣΩN BR as "from the consul Brutus". Assuming the monogram is a BA there is also a possibility of translating it as "KING KOSON" but as discussed elsewhere that only works in Greek and not in Dacian.

When I first wrote this article this was all the information I had available and from it I concluded the evidence points to Koson gold staters having been minted by Brutus, at his traveling military mint in either Ionia or Greece, for the purpose of hiring Greek troops to enlarge his army, just prior to the battle of Philippi in 42 BC. Those troops were Dacians who later returned home with these coins to what is now modern day Romania, explaining why the coins are normally found but not minted in Romania.

I felt the evidence was already overwhelming that Brutus issued these coins. Recently on the Moneta-l discussion list it was pointed out there is a metallurgical which includes Koson staters. The study is available in PDF form, published by the Publishing House of the Romanian Academy, ARCHAEOMETRALLURGICAL CHARACTERIZATION OF ANCIENT GOLD ARTIFACTS FROM ROMANIAN MUSEUMS USING XRF, MCRO-PIXE AND MICRO-SR-XFF METHODS, by Bogdan Constantinescu, et al. My discussion of the evidence provided there follows.

The study involves metallurgical analysis of 12 gold bracelets which are assumed to be from the Orastie Mountain region in the area of the Sarmizegetus Regia Dacian fortresses. Koson staters both with and without the BR monogram were also analyzed. The analysis of the bracelets provided a bench mark for the nature of gold mined and used in Romania, for use in comparison with Koson staters. All of the items tested, both coins and bracelets were repatriated from the international antiquities trade, mostly in Germany, England and America but for the purpose of this discussion I accept they are items originally from Romania.

Analysis of the bracelets showed they are from two gold sources in the region. They vary erratically between 78.2 to 92.9% gold and all but two containing a significant tin content. The study concludes they are of Dacian sourced gold and used directly as mined without being refined. Although information is limited, the article seems to assume Dacians did not refine gold. At this point, I see no reason to believe the Dacians even know how to refine gold, or felt a need to do so.

Their analysis of Koson staters without the BR monogram found they were consistently of very similar tin content and erratic purity as with the bracelets, and thus were most likely struck from unrefined Dacian gold. Analysis of the Koson staters with the BR monogram shows they are consistently at or above 97% gold, containing no tin, which shows they are struck from refined gold. This indicates the Koson staters without the BR monograms are local Dacian imitations of the BR monogram staters, and that the BR monogram staters of refined gold cannot be of Dacian origin. Please note that these are my conclusions because the study make no comment on this, nor draws no conclusions about this from their data.

I reviewed images of many Koson staters, both with and without the monogram, and observe the non-monogram examples are consistently of cruder die engraving, inferior strikes with more weak areas and more centering problems. The BR monogram issues are consistently of finer style, better struck and over all better centered. This shows that stylistically and relative to minting technology, there is also no connection between the monogram and non-monogram issues.

With no metallurgical or minting connection between the two, it appears things are even more complicated that I first assumed. The two competing theories, one assigning them to Brutus in his travelling mint, and the other assigning them to local Dacian imitations, are both correct. Those with the BR monogram and which are at least 90% of what exist are of Brutus while those without the BR monogram are local Dacian imitations of the Brutus issues.

This brings us back to the meaning of the KOΣΩN BR inscription. If my reading of KOΣΩN BR as "from the consul Brutus" is correct, KOΣΩN still means as "from the consul" on imitations of these coins. It makes sense the local Dacians might wish to drop the BR for Brutus from their imitative coins, especially after Brutus lost the battle of Philippi. I see no reason why would drop a BA for king if KOΣΩN named their king (although in Dacian that makes no sense in the first place). With this in mind, I see little possibility the inscription on the monogram issues can be translated as King Koson and since "King Koson" was a 16th century invention to explain the coins, there is no reason to believe a King Koson ever existed.

As both types are found together in Romanian hoards, with very little wear on them, it is seem the time period between the Brutus issues arriving in Dacia with returning troops, and the striking of the local imitations, was very short.

With respect to the translation of KOΣΩN as the plural of KOS as I asked Kyri Kyriacos about this specifically, and he sent me the following reply which explains that it need not be so. What follows is an exact quote from him, included with his permission:

"as a person who studies inscriptions it does make me have a wry smile when coin collectors want precise translations for coins when in the most part the words are nearly always abbreviated.technicaly speaking they are right but it is not an exact science.the koson coin is a one off coin struck by what we believe to be travelling mint in a time of war.the coin was probably created by a roman who like you said may have not been fluent in greek i dont think much thought was given to the grammar of the coin at the time.your kos translation for the singular or the plural could both be are not going to get agreement from everyone,some may say kos=cos is not right full stop plural or not. there are many inscriptions from this period of 200 bc -200 ad with many mistakes especially in spelling from greek to roman. on an egyption/roman greek inscription b.f.cook says "the divisions between words are marked by oblique strokes and breathings and accents appear sporadically,not always in the form that grammarians would consider "correct" there were many mistakes you know that one of the most famous greek inscriptions the rosetta stone is litterd with mistakes.its up to you if you want to change it but to be honest either one could be right.even now in modern greek people from cyprus,crete,and the islands use different words altogether and say things in a different way and its the same in ancient greek there were maybe 40 different dialects and allot of what we do is guess ... kyri."
If more information come available, I will add it here.

  Calgary Coin

Copyright   © 1997-2015   R & T Enterprises Ltd.