NGC Ancients: The Strait of Messina

Posted on 10/8/2019

Coins issued from colonies bordering the Strait of Messina are numerous and interesting.

The Strait of Messina, which separates Italy and Sicily and is just two miles wide at its narrowest point, has been the scene of many historic events. Countless armies have crossed these waters to wage war from long before the age of coinage up through the Allied invasion of Axis territory during World War II.

Because of its strategic location, the strait has been an area of intense colonization, leading to a high level of seaborne traffic. However, its unique pattern of currents, which run south-to-north as well as the opposite direction, and its treacherous whirlpools and rocks, make navigation of its waters a specialized, and often dangerous, task.

The two silver denarii of the Roman warlord Pompey ‘the Great’ (d.48 B.C.) shown above reflect the mythology concerning the strait. In particular, the natural whirlpool at the northern part of the strait (where it joins the Tyrrhenian Sea) gave rise to the Greek legend of the female monsters Scylla and Charybdis.

Shown on these denarii of c.40-39 B.C. is none other than the fearsome Scylla herself, poised to strike with a ship’s rudder. Her body is composed of a human female torso joined to a bottom half comprised of two fishlike tails and three foreparts of dogs.

The obverse shows a galley, over which appears the lighthouse (pharos) of Messana, one of the most important cities of Sicily, where some authorities believe these denarii were struck.

This brings us to the heart of the subject, for it is a tale of two cities – Messana on the Sicilian side of the strait and Rhegium on the Italian side.

We’ll start with Messana, which was founded in about 730 B.C. by Greek colonists who named their settlement Zancle after its sickle-shaped harbor. Above are two silver drachms issued at Zancle early in the 5th Century B.C.; they show on their obverse a dolphin over the city name, all within a sickle-shaped frame meant to represent the harbor. On their reverse they have a shell within a decorative incuse punch.

Soon after 494 B.C., when the tyrant Anaxilas assumed control at Rhegium across the strait, Zancle welcomed refugees from distant Greek settlements that had been overrun by the Persians. Upon their arrival they were warmly received at Zancle, but soon were convinced by Anaxilas to seize the city on his behalf.

Above is a small silver diobol issued at Zancle c.493-488 B.C., during its occupation by these refugees, most of whom (it seems) were from the island of Samos. It shows on its obverse a facing lion scalp and on its reverse a helmet before the prow of a ship. The lion scalp, as we will soon discover, was a familiar coin design of the city of Rhegium.

Once in control of Zancle, the Samian refugees proved to be just as treacherous as Anaxilas had been, for they soon failed to keep their word to him and instead forged an alliance with Hippocrates, tyrant of the Sicilian city of Gela.

Then the tables turned yet again. In around 489 B.C., Anaxilas seized back Zankle and by c.486 B.C. had populated it with new arrivals from the region of Messenia in the Greek Peloponnesus. At this point, Zancle acquired its more familiar name, Messana, after the colonists’ homeland.

In 480 BC, Messana introduced its most familiar and beautiful coinage, silver tetradrachms that pair an Olympic mule cart with a leaping hare. The example shown above is early in the series, being struck c.478-476 B.C.

The series continued strongly throughout the 5th Century, ending only after Messana was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 396 B.C. The three tetradrachms above, usually dated to c.412-408 B.C., were struck shortly before the city fell.

Like most cities of Sicily that possessed strategic locations, Messana endured sacking, destruction and re-foundation on multiple occasions. Thus, after its destruction by Carthage, Messana was populated once again and continued to issue coinage.

Above are three bronzes issued at Messana. First is a civic issue of c.317-311 B.C. and the next two are issues of the Mamertini, a band of Sicilian mercenaries who in 288 B.C. took control of the city. The first of these Mamertine coins is believed to have been issued c.264-241 B.C., and the next one c.211-208 B.C., during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.).

We now move across the strait to the port of Rhegium, a city founded c.730 B.C., about the same time as Messana.

We’ll start with one of the earliest coins of Messana, which typically is dated to c.494-480, when Anaxilas was in control. The silver obol shown above is a small coin that would have been used for local transactions. Since it shows a facing lion scalp and the abbreviated name of the city, it is reminiscent of the silver diobol of Zancle, issued c.493-488 B.C., that was illustrated earlier.

We’ll continue with two early silver tetradrachms of c.480-462 B.C. which have much in common with the coinage of Messana. Indeed, the only significant difference between these coins and many of the contemporary issues of Messana is the inscription on the reverse which identifies Rhegium as the mint.

Above is a slightly later tetradrachm of Rhegium, issued c.450-445 B.C. Its familiar facing lion scalp is paired with the seated figure of a man usually identified as Iocastus, the city founder, all within an elegant laurel wreath.

Issued soon after the tetradrachm showing Iocastus, the small silver litra of c.445-435 B.C., above, pairs a facing lion scalp with the city name in a laurel wreath.

Among the most admired coins of Rhegium are issues of the late 5th and early 4th Centuries B.C. Above are two examples from c.415-387 B.C. that show a lion scalp on their obverse. First is a silver tetradrachm with the head of the god Apollo on the reverse, followed by a much smaller hemidrachm that shows on its reverse the abbreviated city name couched between the leaves of an olive sprig.

Another beautiful issue of Rhegium is the silver tetradrachm, above, issued c.356-351 B.C., which has a similar design to the previous tetradrachm except that the style is quite different and the head of Apollo is now the obverse and the facing lion scalp the reverse.

We’ll round out this survey with some bronzes from Rhegium, the first two of which (above), were issued c.260-215 B.C. The first pairs the head of the goddess Artemis with a musical instrument, the cithara; the next shows the head of the god Apollo and a Delphic tripod.

The last coin we’ll show is a bronze issued at Rhegium c.215-150 B.C., which bears the jugate heads of the sibling gods Apollo and Artemis and a Delphic tripod. This piece has four pellets on its reverse, indicating its denomination as a ‘triens’.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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