Elis, Olympia Stater, 332 BCE. Bearded head of Zeus with laurel wreath

By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC ……
As the Olympics became progressively more popular, the city of Elis sought to build a new, larger temple which was worthy of Zeus, the king of the gods. The project to build the Temple of Zeus began in 470 BCE and was completed in 456 BCE. It was marvelously constructed with quality workmanship and style. Despite these efforts, the temple alone was thought to be too simple and insufficient to please Zeus.

Phidias' workshop at Olympia - Photo by Alun Salt

Phidias’ workshop at Olympia – Photo by Alun Salt

A statue of the god was commissioned for the interior, with work starting around 450 BCE by the artist Phidias. He set up a workshop near the temple and spent the next 12 years completing what would become his finest and most famous work of art, with inspiration drawn from the description of Zeus in Homer’s Iliad.

When finished, the statue was more than four storeys tall and 22-feet wide, depicting Zeus seated on an elaborate throne, holding a statue of Nike and a scepter supporting an eagle. Even though the temple itself was very large, Zeus’ head nearly touched the ceiling. Some contemporary authors criticized the piece because of its size, but others found the proportions very effective in conveying the power of the god, making the statue seem even larger than it was because it filled nearly all of the available space.

It was constructed with ivory plates and gold panels over a wooden framework, and the throne was heavily decorated with precious stones. It was deservingly noted as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by the ancient poet Antipater of Sidon. The Greek orator Dio Chrysostom said that a single glimpse of the statue would make a man forget all of his earthly troubles.

It was damaged by an earthquake in 170 BCE and repaired. Unfortunately, it is believed that the statue was eventually destroyed in a great fire in 425 CE which burned down the entire temple. No copy of the statue was made, and the details of it are only known from written descriptions and its representation on coins from Elis like this one.

This stater is a great example of the fine workmanship of the Olympic coinage, showing the forceful head of the statue of Zeus on the obverse and a vigilant eagle on the reverse. The eagle was Zeus’ sacred animal, and here it’s shown standing on the tail of a snake which is coiling upwards and striking towards the eagle’s head.

This coin dates to 332 BCE, during the 112th Olympiad. As in our modern games, the popularity and importance of the ancient Olympics bred intense competition and therefore inevitable illegal and scandalous behavior.

Each Olympiad involved fierce contests between generations-old rivals. A city-state could raise its ranking relative to another by either defeating it in battle or beating it at the Olympics. Because of the publicity and recognition, the Olympic Games became intensely political, and a victorious citizen was given the highest public honors as he singlehandedly raised the standing of the state.

With how much was at stake, cheating and bribery were commonplace. If a city-state felt a victory was won unjustly, they would vehemently contest the win.

One such instance occurred in the Olympiad for which this coin was minted. Callipus of Athens competed in and won the pentathlon, but it was discovered that he bribed his competitors to allow him to win.

The overseers from Elis condemned Callippus, levying a significant fine on him and his complicit competitors. Athens sent their political leader, Hyperides, to negotiate and try to appeal the judgment, but he was unsuccessful. Athens refused to pay and boycotted the Olympics altogether for the next 20 years. Finally, the Oracle at Delphi persuaded Athens to pay, and the funds went to build six statues to Zeus, engraved with unflattering comments directed at the Athenians.

The extent to which city-states would go shows the importance of the Olympics as much more than just athletic competitions. The beauty of the coinage produced for the Games provides a stark contrast to all of the misdeeds, offering a unique insight into the complex political landscape of ancient Greece.

Elis, Olympia Stater, 332 BCE. Bearded head of Zeus with laurel wreath Rv nr. FA, eagle with closed wings standing right, before him, a coiled and attacking serpent, between H; in field l thunderbolt. 11.71 g Seltman, TC 22, 204 (stgl.). BCD Olympia 161 (stgl.). rare . Toned. Good VF, Ex. Ch Adams, Darien / CT – Fixed Price List 7/1976, 22.

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  1. The history of these olympic coins is absolutely wonderful. Imagine what it would have been like to buy lunch with them at the Greek olympics!


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