NGC Ancients: River Gods on Ancient Greek Coins

Posted on 4/13/2021

River gods on ancient Greek coins take on many forms.

In the ancient world, just like today, water was key to life. The Greeks honored water by assigning gods to springs, fountains, rivers and seas. One popular representation was the river god, which took various forms on coinage, including as portraits, or as seated or standing figures and man-headed bulls.

Shown above is a classic depiction of a river god as a man-headed bull. On this coin, a silver didrachm struck late in the 4th century B.C. at Neapolis in Campania, the river god Achelous Sebethos walks calmly to the right with its horned head facing the viewer. The scene is rounded out with Nike, hovering above, crowning him.

There is much uncertainty surrounding the identities of river gods on coins. In some cases, they depict the primary Greek river god Achelous. In other cases, a ‘local’ river god is shown.

The home of Achelous was Aetolia, in central Greece. He is seen as the source of water, with rivers as his sinews, through which his water flowed to the sea. He represents the Achelous River, which serves as the border for the Greek regions of Acarnania and Aetolia and empties into the Ionian Sea.

Also featuring a standing river god is the didrachm above, issued c.405-385 B.C. by a people, the Hyrianoi (though these coins are usually classified as the issues of a city, Hyria). It's surely from Campania because some coins issued by the people share obverse dies used at other mints in Campania.

The obverse of the beautifully styled bronze hemilitron, above, struck c.415-380 B.C. at Acragas in Sicily, bears a youthful portrait of the local river god Acragas. The obverse shows him with horns on his forehead. The reverse shows a crab before an eagle, which stands alert on an Ionic capital.

Also portraying a youthful, horned river god is the bronze tetras (or trionkion) above, which was struck c.420-405 B.C. at Gela in Sicily. Both dies are of exceptional style, with the bull on the obverse appearing especially fierce.

The next three silver coins, also issued at the important city of Gela, show the local river god as a man-headed bull.

First is this silver didrachm of c.490-475 B.C. The forepart of the river god is shown charging forward. Opposite is a cavalryman raising a spear or javelin. The vigorous style of engraving is typical of the Archaic period of Greek art.

Struck c.420-415 B.C., this silver tetradrachm shows the forepart of a river god swimming forth. A chariot scene of horses being crowned by Nike is on the reverse. Unlike the previous coin, the art style on this issue is of the Classical period.

Another silver tetradrachm from the Classical period is this rare and equally beautiful piece issued c.440-430 B.C. It shows the river god’s forepart crowned by a standing female figure who, in the faint inscription in the field above, is named Sosipolis. Her role is quite uncertain, though she appears to be some kind of protectress of Gela and is perhaps a water nymph or a representation of Tyche, Nike or Demeter.

Also extraordinary is the silver tetradrachm above, issued at the Sicilian city of Catana c.465-450 B.C. It shows a man-headed bull (the river god Amenanos) in full form with the knee of its right foreleg on the ground. In this beautiful series, a variety of design elements occur above the man-headed bull; in this case it is a jumping satyr. The reverse shows Nike advancing, holding a fillet.

In the Sicilian city of Naxos, this silver hemidrachm was issued c.415-403 B.C. While the reverse offers a decadent image of Silenus drinking wine, the obverse shows a rather severe portrait of the young river god Assinos, who is identified by the inscription. He wears an ivy wreath, tying him to the god Dionysus, of whom Silenus was a devoted companion.

The sibling gods Artemis and Apollo ride in a quadriga opposite the river god Selinus on this silver tetradrachm of the Sicilian city of Selinus from the second half of the 5th century B.C. The river god holds a large laurel branch and a flat dish (phiale), from which he pours a sacrifice over a lighted altar. A rooster stands at the base of the altar; behind him is a selinon leaf over a bull on its own altar.

The head of the river god Borysthenes graces the obverse of this 23mm bronze issued in the closing decades of the 4th century B.C. at Olbia, in Sarmatia. Even for seafaring Greeks, this far-flung destination was only visited by the most intrepid of merchants, who sailed to the northwestern shore of the Black Sea.

One of the best-engraved portraits of the river god Achelous appears on this 21mm bronze opposite the laureate head of the supreme god Zeus. It was issued late in the 3rd century B.C. at Oeniadae in Acarnania.

Struck in the mid-3rd century B.C. at Thyrrheium (also in Acarnania), this 12mm bronze features a detailed portrait of the river god Achelous in his guise as a man-headed bull, complete with beard and horns. Interestingly, he is shown slightly facing the viewer, rather than full-facing or in profile.

This silver stater, produced in the mid-4th century B.C. at Ambracia in Epirus, bears the canonical type of Pegasus in flight opposite the helmeted head of Athena. Behind her image, though, is the well-engraved head of Achelous, this time with fearsome horns.

The head of the god Apollo is opposite the forepart of a wonderfully animated river god on this 19mm bronze issued in the early 3rd century B.C. at Metropolis in Thessaly. This is a most unusual depiction, for the river god appears in the midst of leaping as it looks back over its shoulder.

The head of a river god (with a schematic seal behind) is engraved in Archaic style on the electrum hecte above. It was struck at the Ionian city of Phocaea between c.521 and 478 B.C.

A river god in human form appears on the reverse of this silver tetradrachm that bears the portrait of Tigranes II, who ruled a greatly enlarged Armenian kingdom from 95 to 56 B.C. The river god represents the Orontes River, the course of which passed beside the city of Antioch in Syria, where this coin was struck. He swims under the feet of the goddess Tyche, who represents Antioch here.

A human-form river god appears on this 22mm bronze as well, issued in the 2nd or 1st century B.C. at Hierapolis in Cilicia. The coin combines the imagery from the reverse of the previous coin of Antioch, though it represents the city goddess with a portrait instead of a seated figure, and the swimming river god Pyramus is alone on the reverse. He is usually shown holding an eagle or a lighted torch.

This ends the first part of our survey of river gods on ancient coins. We’ll continue next month with the second part, dedicated to Roman coins.

All photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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