This month, Dave Vagi discusses Greek coinage.
One of the great traditions of humankind, dating perhaps from the earliest phases of civilization, is the use of symbols to represent social units that range from individuals or families, to much larger confederations like cities, nations or regions.
The Roman emperor Augustus chose the Sphinx, a mythological lion with wings and a human head, as his personal badge, and an early Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy I, chose as his insignia Zeus’ eagle perched on a thunderbolt. Both of these men used their chosen designs on coins. In the case of Ptolemy it was the principal reverse type of his kingdom’s coinage for 250 years.
One of the earliest Greek coins struck in the western world shows a grazing stag, which was apparently the symbol of a man unknown to history except for his legacy on coinage. What makes this case so remarkable is that above the stag is the Greek inscription ‘I am the Badge of Phanes,’ identifying this coinage as one issued for a man named Phanes, who must have been a political or military leader of some importance.
But once the role of coinage had been more clearly defined in the Greek world as the proprietary right of cities, confederations or kingdoms, badges shift to those of civic or dynastic importance.
Their purpose was to identify the issuer of the coinage. In many cases these civic badges were so prominent that the coins earned nicknames based upon them. Indeed, some great trade coinages did not need inscription because the designs alone were sufficient. The electrum staters of Cyzicus, for example, incorporate in their design a tunny (tuna) fish, the well-known symbol of that great mercantile city.
Most badges on coins relate to one of four things: a civic or ‘foundation’ mythology, a punning allusion to the city name, devotion to a particular deity, or some remarkable aspect of local life.
Civic and foundation mythologies are particularly interesting, as they reflect one of the great preoccupations of the Greeks – pride in their origins and ancestry. These mythologies are usually fanciful accounts of the supernatural origins of a city.
One of the best examples occurs at Taras (Tarentum), a port city in Southern Italy. Legend had it that the city was founded when a son of Poseidon named Taras was lost at sea, only to be rescued by a dolphin which took him ashore. Other ancient literary sources, such as Pausanius, suggest that Taras was founded by a Spartan named Phalanthus, who was brought to shore by a dolphin after the wreck of his ship.
The silver didrachms issued at Taras usually show a dolphin carrying a boy who certainly is Taras or Phalanthus. Though repeated on the coins of Taras for centuries, this theme does not become monotonous because there are so many variations and the dies often are of amazing style and execution.
Equally famous are the staters of Corinth and its colonies, which show Pegasus (a mythological winged horse) on the obverse and the helmeted head of a goddess, usually identified as Athena, on the reverse. Much like the coins of Taras, the designs on these coins relate to a mythological event. A Corinthian nobleman named Belerophon, son of the city’s king, enlisted the help of Pegasus and Athena to slay a fire-breathing monster called Chimera. It’s hardly a surprise that Pegasus and Athena (and in some rare cases, the Chimera as well) appear on the coins of Corinth.
In other cases civic badges have nothing to do with mythology, but are a pun on a city name. We find this at the Ionian city of Phocaea, which in Greek literally means ‘seal’. Thus the coins of this city use a seal either as the principal design (on its earliest coins) or as a subsidiary design on much of its later coinage.
Another example of a punning allusion occurs at the chief city of the island of Rhodes. Here the city name, Rhodos, meant rose, and the Rhodians chose to depict this flower in bloom as the reverse of most every coin it struck before the age of Roman rule. A leaf of parsley (celery) is the obverse type of the early coinage of the Greek-Sicilian city of Selinus. Again, the city name in Greek, Selinon (literally ‘celery river’), was the source of their design choice. A third example is the Aegean island of Melos, meaning apple, a fruit that was usually depicted on their coinage.
As interesting as they are, puns account for relatively few of the badges found on Greek coins, as the Greeks were more obsessed with mythology, religion and commerce than mere wit. The famous city of Olympia, in the Greek Peloponnese, was renowned as the site of the Olympic Games as a center of worship for Zeus and Hera. The immense ivory statue of Zeus by Phidias within Olympia’s main temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Not surprisingly, the Olympians used images of Zeus or Hera on most of their coins. Another prevalent theme on Olympian coinage is Nike, the goddess of Victory – a theme appropriate to the city’s quadrennial games.
The most famous of all Greek civic badges – the owl of Athena – occurs at Athens. The goddess Athena is portrayed on the obverse of most Athenian coins, and her inquisitive owl, with its searching eyes, graces the reverse. These coins were a welcome site to merchants in lands as distant as Afghanistan, Egypt and Arabia, for they knew this coin probably came from Athens, even if they could not read the name of the city, which was abbreviated in Greek.
For another example we can look near Athens, to the island of Aegina, where a great deal of coinage was issued from about 550 to 338 B.C. In fact, the first coins of Greece were struck there. Invariably the obverse of its silver coins shows a turtle (on the early issues) or a tortoise (on later issues), both of which were sacred to Aphrodite, the patron goddess of the island. On the early issues the sea tortoise likely also symbolizes the prowess of the Aeginetan merchant fleet.
With this in mind we can move on to another source of civic badges – remarkable aspects of local life, such as commerce, agriculture or animal husbandry. After all, the Greeks were primarily farmers, herdsmen or merchants. These important aspects of everyday life often were translated into civic badges used as coin designs.
One example we’ve already shown is that of Olympia, which made reference to its main industry, the Olympic Games. Another excellent example is the region of Cyrenaica, on the North African coast west of Egypt. This was one of the few places where the silphium plant grew naturally and in abundance. Despite attempts by the ancients to domesticate this valuable plant, it would only grow wildly in its natural habitat, which gave Cyrenaica a virtual monopoly. It had many cosmetic and medicinal applications – including as a contraceptive – and served as the principal design on the coins of Cyrene.
In northern Greece there is another fine example: the city of Mende, which was renowned for its wine. Naturally the people of Mende advertised their prize export on their coins. The reverse often shows a vine loaded with grapes and the obverse often depicts the drunken god Silenus reclining on the back of an ass and raising his wine cup to take yet another drink.
Similarly, on the coins of Tyre, in Phoenicia, a murex shell often appears. The murex was valued for its purple dye, which was used to color expensive fabrics such as silk. This dye was in great demand, so the Tyrians advertised it on their coins.
An excellent collection of Greek coins can be assembled based upon civic badges. In the process you will not only acquire fine examples of ancient Greek art, but you will learn volumes about Greek mythology, religion and society.