NGC Ancients: Dolphin-riders of Taras

Posted on 4/14/2020

Though used at other Greek mints, the dolphin-rider type was iconic at Taras.

The city of Taras, known to the Romans as Tarentum, issued one of the most extraordinary coinages in the ancient Greek world. It was founded by Greeks in a large bay in the ‘instep’ of the ‘boot’ of Italy, where today exists the modern city of Taranto.

Though the earliest coins of the city varied considerably in their obverse and reverse types, by the early 4th Century B.C. it had largely settled on a winning formula: a horseman on the obverse and a boy riding a dolphin on the reverse.

Fortunately for numismatists, there were so many coins of fine style (such as the silver didrachm of c.315-302 B.C. above) and such an astonishing variety within these two recurring designs that it is a series of endless challenge.

In this column we’ll focus on the “boy on dolphin” design, which has been variously interpreted. There is no scholarly consensus on the identity of this individual, though most believe it is either Taras, a son of the god Poseidon who survived a shipwreck by being rescued by a dolphin, or Phalanthus, the legendary founder of Taras.

We begin our visual survey with a very early didrachm (nomos) of c.510-500 B.C. It’s an ‘incuse’ type on which the dolphin-rider is both the obverse and reverse design.

c.490-480 B.C. Here the dolphin-rider remains the obverse type. In this case he holds a cuttlefish.

c.480-470 B.C. The dolphin-rider raises his right hand and places his left on the dolphin.

c.470-465 B.C. On this early piece the dolphin-rider extends both arms.

c.465-455 B.C. Here, as on the previous piece, both of the dolphin-rider’s arms are extended.

c.450-440 B.C. Ditto on this example, which, as on the previous two examples, features a distinctive reverse type.

c.450-440 B.C. The dolphin-rider still remains the obverse type, though this time the dolphin rides over rough waves.

c.430-425 B.C. Here the dolphin-rider holds a naval trophy called an acrostolium. A crawfish appears below.

c.425-415 B.C. This time the dolphin-rider holds a large, Boeotian-style shield.

c.425-415 B.C. On this artful piece the dolphin-rider extends one arm and holds an octopus.

c.385-380 B.C. The dolphin-rider has now become the reverse design, with horseman types hereafter occupying the obverse. In this case the rider sits sideways on the dolphin, resting both of his hands on its body.

c.385-380 B.C. In this ambitious composition the dolphin-rider holds a cantharus (cup) and rests one hand on the dolphin as he lifts his right leg.

c.340-335 B.C. This beautifully engraved reverse die shows the rider sitting sideways on the dolphin as he turns back to spear a fish with his trident. The waves below round out this engaging composition.

c.333-330 B.C. Here the dolphin-rider admires a crested helmet.

c.330-325 B.C. The dolphin-rider on this didrachm holds a scepter and a cantharus, with stylized waves below.

c.302-290 B.C. On this beautifully engraved die the dolphin-rider holds an ornamental trident and a round shield emblazoned with a mythological sea-monster, the hippocamp.

c.280 B.C. Over rough waves, the rider perches on the dolphin’s back using just one knee as he raises his right hand and holds a shield and two spears with his left.

c.280-272 B.C. Here the dolphin-rider holds a bow and arrow as he lifts his left leg. An elephant appears below.

c.240-228 B.C. The dolphin-rider rests a trident across his right shoulder and looks back, holding up a long, ornate strip of cloth.

c.240-228 B.C. This dolphin-rider holds a trident and gazes at the hippocamp he holds in his extended right hand; behind him is the head of the god Silenus.

c.240-228 B.C. On this piece the dolphin-rider holds a trident and a figure of Nike, who crowns him with a wreath.

c.212-209 B.C. Above are two reduced-weight didrachms (equal to Punic half-shekels) issued while Taras was under the control of the Carthaginian invader Hannibal. The first shows the dolphin-rider holding an aphlaston and a trident; on the second he holds a trident and a cantharus.

Now that we’ve finished our survey of Taras didrachms, we’ll continue with a few coins issued elsewhere that feature dolphins ridden by mythological individuals and creatures. First are base metal issues of three other cities of Southern Italy: Brundisium, Teate and Paestum.

Shown above are two bronzes of Brundisium with dolphin-riders. The first, from c.215 B.C., shows the rider holding a cornucopia and a figure of the goddess Nike, who crowns him with a wreath. Next is a smaller bronze of the 2nd Century B.C. with a similar scene, though in his left hand the rider holds a chelys.

Teate, in Apulia, issued the above bronze during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.). Though a little unclear due to its soft strike and patchy patina, it shows a dolphin-rider holding a trident and a cantharus.

During the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.) the city of Poseidonia (Paestum) issued the above coin showing a dolphin-rider. In this case it is the winged god Eros, who holds a wreath and a trident.

The previous dolphin-rider is not far removed from the one (above) on a silver denarius of L. Lucretius Trio, the Roman Republican moneyer of c.74 B.C. This coin shows a winged genius riding a dolphin with the aid of reins.

Perhaps the most intriguing dolphin-rider occurs on coins of Iasus, a city in Asia Minor. The example shown above was issued c.250 to 190 B.C. It was said that a mortal boy, Hermias, befriended a dolphin and would ride upon him every day. One time, in a fierce storm, Hermias was cast off and drowned. In the aftermath the dolphin is said to have brought the boy’s body to shore and then beached himself until he, too, died. So endearing was this event – be it factual or mythical – that it was memorialized on the city’s coinage.

To end this survey, we present four coins below, all from the Black Sea region, which feature eagles on the backs of dolphins.

The bronze above, from Olbia in the southern part of modern Ukraine, was struck in the late 4th Century B.C.

Also from the late 4th Century B.C. is the silver drachm (above) from the city of Sinope, on the northern shore of modern Turkey.

Above are two silver drachms of the 4th Century B.C. from the city of Istrus, on the western shore of the Black Sea. The first shows the eagle riding calmly, the other shows him in a stance that suggests he’s about ready to peck at the dolphin.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, LLC.

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