Classic Greek Coins: Part III

Posted on 2/16/2010

David Vagi continues his discussion of the designs of select ancient Greek coins in the third of a multi-part series.

We now advance our survey of Greek silver coins to Asia Minor and the Levant, areas now mainly occupied by the nations of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Though not part of the Greek homeland, it was heavily colonized by Greeks, many of whom were familiar with these regions through trade. Many different cultures were represented in this part of the world, including Greeks, Persians, Phoenicians, Samaritans, Jews and Egyptians, to name just a few. A great variety of coinage was struck, and we’ve narrowed it down to merely 10 major types that would make an excellent starter collection.

1. Persian Silver Siglos (5th-4th Centuries B.C.) The Persians ruled one of the greatest empires in history. Though coinage was not used in most of their territories, it was essential in the westernmost areas, where interaction with the Greeks was most common. Their standard design in silver and gold showed a running man – a king or a mythical hero – holding a bow in his outstretched left hand, and in his right hand a spear or a dagger. They were struck for a long period in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., with the style evolving over time. The reverse does not have a type, but is the impression of a utilitarian incuse punch that helped force metal into the obverse die. They were carelessly struck and often have ‘banker’s marks,’ so finding a great example is no easy task.

2. Cyme Silver Tetradrachm (c.mid-2nd Century B.C.) In the mid-2nd century B.C., a number of cities in Western Asia Minor struck tetradrachms on broad, thin planchets that were hammered near the edges. One of the largest issues was produced at Cyme in the region of Aeolis. Because the design on the reverse was enclosed within a wreath, these belong to a category of tetradrachms known as stephanophori, or "wreath bearers." The issues of Cyme show on their obverse the diademed head of the city Amazon, and on their reverse a laurel wreath containing a standing horse with a hoof raised over a cup with one handle. Also shown are inscriptions that identify the city and the name of the magistrate associated with that particular issue.

3. Myrina Silver Tetradrachm (c.mid-2nd Century B.C.) Not far from Cyme was a city named Myrina, which also produced beautiful stephanophoric tetradrachms. Myrinas show on their obverse the laureate head of Apollo and on their reverse a wreath enclosing the standing figure of Apollo, who holds a filleted laurel branch and a flat dish called a phiale. The god stands before an omphalus (the Delphic navel stone) and a two-handled vessel, and is accompanied by an inscription that identifies the city and one or two monograms representing local officials. The deity shown is Apollo Grynius, for whom the Greeks had built a large temple complex in the region, complete with an oracle.

4. Ephesus Silver Tetradrachm (c.4th Century B.C.) Ephesus, in the region of Ionia, was one the great cities of the ancient world. Its coinage was extensive, and throughout the Greek period they must have been among the most commonly seen in Asia Minor. The tetradrachms and drachms show a bee on their obverse and a stag and a palm tree on their reverse, all symbolic of the goddess Artemis. The city’s most famous attraction was the temple of Artemis, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The city lost none of its luster under Roman rule, as it was made the capital of proconsular Asia by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14) and in the Imperial era it produced a large and varied series of coins on behalf of the Romans.

5. Pergamene Silver Cistophorus (c.180 / 167-67 B.C.) One of the most important coinages of central Asia Minor was the "cistophorus," struck at Pergamum and a host of other cities. It was a major commercial success in Greek times and because it was equivalent in weight to three Roman silver denarii it was continued by the Romans for several centuries afterward. The obverse shows a wreath containing the cista mystica (often equated to Pandora’s Box), from which a snake emerges. The reverse shows a bow in its case flanked by two coiled snakes; the name of the mint city usually appears in the field, typically as a monogram or in abbreviated form. Cistophori bearing this classic design were struck during the pre-Roman era from about 180 / 167 B.C. through 133 B.C., and were continued under Roman dominion until about 67 B.C. The example illustrated here was struck at Pergamum while it was under Roman rule.

6. Satraps of Caria (c.395-336 B.C.) The region of Caria, at the southeastern tip of Turkey, was an important area to both Persians and Greeks. In the later 390s B.C., when it came under Persian rule, a coinage was initiated by satraps (regional leaders of the Persian kings). In about 377 B.C. these coins began to show on their obverse the facing head of Apollo, and on their reverse the standing figure of Zeus holding a double-axe. The most common denominations are silver tetradrachms and didrachms, issued by three successive satraps: Mausolus, Hidrieus and Pixodarus. The first of these rulers is famed for his burial chamber (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, from which the word mausoleum is derived) and the last died not long before Alexander III “the Great” invaded Asia and eventually defeated the last Persian King. The didrachm shown here was issued by Pixodarus, who ruled c.341-336 B.C.

7. Rhodes Silver Didrachm (c.394-189 B.C.) Few cities in Asia were as powerful as Rhodes, a prosperous city on an island of the same name, just off the southeastern tip of Turkey. These famous coins show on their obverse the facing head of the Greek sun-god Helios, whose portraits sometimes show rays of sun emanating from behind his unruly locks of hair. The reverse shows a rose in bloom with a bud branching from the stem, all within a shallow incuse square. In addition to an abbreviated inscription (PO) that identifies the mint, the fields often contain a magistrate’s name and a symbol. Though there are different opinions on the subject, it is generally believed that the rose was chosen as a punning allusion to the name of the city. Shown is a didrachm struck not long before 250 B.C.

8. Aspendus Silver Stater (c.370-330 B.C.) The city of Aspendus was located off the southern shore of Asia Minor, and if coins are any indicator it was a prosperous place. Commonly known as "wrestler staters," these coins of Aspendus show on their obverse two wrestlers facing off, and on their reverse a man preparing to release a bullet from a sling. The wrestlers take several poses (the most common of which is shown here), sometimes with one man attempting to trip his opponent or to break his knuckles. The slinger is accompanied by the name of the city rendered in the local alphabet, a trisceles (three legs running in perpetual motion), and occasionally a second symbol.

9. Tarsus Silver Stater (under Mazaeus, c.361-334 BC.) Scenes of a lion attacking either a bull or a stag occur on coins throughout the Greek world. One instance is at Tarsus, the most important city of Cilicia, in southern Turkey. In the years just before the arrival of Alexander III "the Great" it was ruled by Mazaeus, a satrap of the Persian king, whose main type shows the supreme god Ba’al and a lion attacking a bull. In ancient Near Eastern mythology the lion, besides being a symbol of royalty, represented the sun, and the bull represented the moon. The triumph of the bull over the lion in this combat scene would seem to represent the daily victory of the rising sun over the darkness of night.

10. Silver Shekel of Tyre (126 B.C. – A.D. 68) Tyre was one of the most prosperous cities on the Phoenician coast, and was the mother city of Carthage. Its best known coinage, the shekel, was struck for nearly two centuries. It shows on the obverse the bust of Melkart (the Punic Hercules) and on the reverse an eagle perched on the prow of a ship with a palm branch in the background and a club (symbolic of Tyre) in the foreground. In the field of the reverse there usually is also a monogram, a Phoenician letter and Greek letters (or a single letter) that represent a date. These coins are believed to be the type of the "forty pieces of silver" that Judas received to betray Jesus, and for that reason they are popular with collectors. The half-denomination was ideal for the payment of the annual Temple Tax in Jerusalem. The example illustrated here was struck in the 38th year of the city’s freedom, equal to 89 / 88 BC.

Photos courtesy of CNG

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