By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
WINE PLAYED SUCH a central role in Greek and Roman culture, economics, and religion that it is no surprise that Dionysus, the god of wine, appears on thousands of ancient coins, especially from regions famed for their grape vines. These are often regions that still produce fine vintages today. Grape clusters, vine leaves, and a two-handled drinking vessel called a kantharos often accompany Dionysus in classical art, along with his supernatural followers the satyrs and his animal companion the panther. On Greek coins, he is almost never identified with a written label, but he can usually be recognized by his signature attributes: a wreath of ivy leaves and the thyrsus, which is a staff or wand topped by a pine cone.
In mythology, Dionysus came to Earth and taught the art of wine-making to Ikarios, an Athenian farmer. When Ikarios shared this gift with his neighbors, they became drunk and, thinking they were poisoned, killed their benefactor, whom Dionysus then placed among the stars as the constellation Boötes, “the Plowman”.
Some of the most famous ancient coin images of Dionysus appear on the coinage of Naxos, the first Greek colony in Sicily, founded in 734 BCE near modern Taormina. The bearded obverse portrait on tetradrachms and drachms dated to c. 461-430 BCE is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Late Archaic art.
The reverse of this design shows Silenos, the constantly drunk companion and advisor to Dionysus and the oldest of the satyrs. He was often portrayed as being part horse instead of part goat, as demonstrated here by his pointed ears and long tail. The engraver has brilliantly fitted the squatting body of the drunken satyr into the circular space of the coin, neatly tucking the inscription N A X I O N (“of the Naxians”) around the margin. The sense of space is enhanced by the satyr’s foot breaking through a beaded circular border at the bottom.
An example of the drachm, “Very rare and in exceptional condition for the issue, possibly the finest specimen known,” brought nearly $115,000 USD in a recent Swiss auction.
A generation later (c. 415 BCE), another engraver, working in a different style, created an even more spectacular, richly detailed version of this imagery. Described as “undoubtedly among the finest specimens known. A magnificent portrait of superb early Classical style struck in high relief,” this coin brought over $313,000 in the same auction.
Dionysus was celebrated even on the humble small change of this town. A silver litra (one-fifth of a drachm) weighing just 0.76 grams, bears an ivy-wreathed head of the god, and a grape cluster flanked by vine branches on the reverse.
Mende, in the Chalkidiki region of northern Greece, was famous for its wine. During the fifth century BCE it became a wealthy ally of Athens, paying an annual tribute of six to 15 talents (a talent was equivalent to 1,500 silver tetradrachms, the cost of a warship). On a tetradrachm of Mende, we see Dionysus reclining rather unsteadily on the back of a donkey, raising a kantharos presumably filled with the local product. On the reverse, the city’s name surrounds a square with a four-cluster grapevine.
Abdera was an important seaport on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea in the Greek region of Thrace. The griffin was the city’s emblem and it appears on most of its coins beginning in the sixth century BCE. The cult of Dionysus was said to have originated in Thrace, and the god appears on a stater dated c. 365-361 BCE, riding on the back of a panther. Described as “extremely rare, the second example known. Beautifully toned, struck from dies of exceptionally fine quality, and with a reverse of the very finest late Classical style,” this coin brought over $185,000 in a recent European auction.
Located on the Sea of Marmara, Cyzicus prospered by harvesting the seasonal migration of the tunny fish (Euthynnus alletteratus), which appears as an emblem on the city’s prolific issues of electrum staters. On one type, young Dionysus reclines on a panther skin draped over a rock, extending his right arm, holding his signature kantharos. I could not find a single example of this coin in which the kantharos is fully struck; it usually falls off the edge of these crudely executed coins.
Successors of Alexander the Great established the Kingdom of Baktria as a remote outpost of Greek culture in the heart of Central Asia. For about 15 years (185-170 BCE), three obscure Baktrian kings issued coins in a copper-nickel alloy–otherwise unknown in ancient numismatics. This metal almost certainly came from China, where it was called “white copper”. This suggests extensive trade between Baktria and China along the “Silk Road”.
When freshly struck, this metal has a silvery appearance, but over centuries it oxidizes to a reddish brown or gray. The denomination was a dichalkon, or “double unit”, of seven to eight grams and about 24 mm in diameter. Two of the kings, Pantaleon and Agathokles, were probably brothers. They used the same design: a rather androgynous obverse bust of Dionysos and, on the reverse, a walking panther with a grapevine (pantaleon means “panther” in Greek).
[I]n 411, Thasos began to issue gold coins with the kneeling Heracles on the reverse and Dionysus … on the obverse. There were three denominations of these gold coins, and judged by type, symbols, legends, and weights, the extant coins are from several distinct issues probably extending over many years. (West, 20)
The Aegean island of Thasos was a major center for the cult of Dionysus. A magnificent bearded profile head of the god appears on a gold hemidrachm dated to c. 380 BCE. The god’s ivy wreath is adorned at the front with a cluster of grapes.
Thasos also had significant silver mines. Large issues of Thasian silver tetradrachms circulated on the mainland and were widely imitated by tribal peoples of the Balkans. The obverse bears a youthful ivy-wreathed bust of Dionysus, with a standing figure of Herakles on the reverse.
The ancient Romans identified their own god of fertility, Liber (or Bacchus) with the Greek Dionysus. His appearance on Roman coins during the Republic is relatively uncommon. Notable exceptions are denarii issued by members of the influential Vibius family who served as mint officials. In 48 BCE, C. Vibius Pansa placed the head of Bacchus on the obverse of his denarius. A few years later in 42 BCE, C. Vibius Varus, who is known only from his coins, issued a denarius with a similar obverse and a reverse that also honored Bacchus with his symbols, the panther and the thyrsus, beside an altar holding a theatrical mask (Bacchus was also the patron of the theater).
Born in the Libyan town of Leptis Magna, Roman emperor Septimius Severus came to power in the chaotic “Year of Five Emperors”. His patron deity was an obscure Phoenician god, Shadaphra (or Shadrafa, or Shadrapa):
Liber was sometimes identified with the North African god Shadrapa (a healing god worshipped by the Carthaginians.) As Liber Pater he was often identified with the Greek god Dionysus, even though the god Liber does not appear to have been associated with wine. (Adkins, 132)
The reverse of a gold aureus of Severus struck at Rome in 197 CE depicts the god as a muscular naked youth, standing with a thyrsus, while a small panther plays at his feet. The Latin inscription is LIBERO PATRI (“to Father Liber”).
Publius Septimius Geta (lived 189-211 CE) was the younger son of Emperor Septimius Severus. He was murdered by his elder brother, Caracalla. The reverse of a very rare gold aureus of Geta depicts one of the most complex mythological scenes ever engraved on a Roman coin. The image is drawn from the story of Bacchus and Ariadne. Ariadne, daughter of Minos, king of Crete, fell in love with the Athenian hero Theseus, helping him to defeat the monstrous Minotaur and escape from the Labyrinth. Theseus callously abandoned her on the island of Naxos in the Aegean where the god Bacchus, smitten by her beauty, rescued her and made her his mortal consort. On Geta’s coin, we see the happy couple surrounded by the god’s rejoicing companions, while a panther lies at his feet. The inscription PONTIF COS marks Geta’s honorary titles as consul and high priest of the state religion. Formerly in the collection of famed British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), this coin – one of four known – brought over $57,000 in a 2006 auction.
* * *
 Not to be confused with the Aegean island of the same name.
 NAC Auction 132, May 30, 2022, Lot 205. Realized CHF 110,000 (about $114,967 USD; estimate CHF 60,000).
 NAC Auction 132, May 30, 2022, Lot 206. Realized CHF 300,000 (about $313,545 USD; estimate CHF 150,000).
 Nomos Auction 21, November 21, 2020, Lot 82. Realized CHF 16,000 (about $17,538 USD; estimate CHF 15,000).
 Nomos Auction 19, November 17, 2019, Lot 74. Realized CHF 38,000 (about $38,446 USD; estimate CHF 15,000).
 Nomos Auction 24, May 22, 2022, Lot 42. Realized CHF 180,000 (about $185166 USD; estimate: CHF 100,000).
 CNG Triton XXI, January 9, 2018, Lot 451. Realized $4,750 USD (estimate $5,000).
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 90, November 18, 2021, Lot 641. Realized £260 (about $350 USD; estimate £100).
 New York Sale XXVII, January 4, 2012, Lot 245. Realized $65,000 USD (estimate $25,000).
 New York Sale XXXVII, January 5, 2016, Lot 810. Realized $3,900 USD (estimate $3,500).
 He eventually rose to the office of consul and died in battle against Mark Antony during the civil war in 43 BCE.
 Bertolami E-auction 101, July 17, 2021, Lot 1099. Realized £300 (about $414 USD; estimate: £30).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XXIII, March 24, 2022, Lot 774. Realized £600 (about $791 USD; estimate £750).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XX, October 29, 2020, Lot 629. Realized £8,500 (about $10,969 USD; estimate £12,500).
 CNG Triton IX, January 10, 2006, Lot 1526. Realized $57,500 USD (estimate $50,000).
Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins. Dictionary of Roman Religion. New York (1996)
Florenzano, Maria Beatriz Borba. “Notes on the imagery of Dionysus on Greek Coins”, Revue Belge de Nimismatique CXLV (1999)
Carroccio, Benedetto. “Why is Dionysus and wine found on the coins of Magna Graecia and Sicily?”, Wine Universe Through Science, Culture and Economy (G. Lillo Odoardi and N. Russo, editors). Rende Italy (2008)
Sear David. Greek Coins and Their Values, Volume I: Europe. London (1978)
–. Greek Coins and Their Values, Volume II: Asia & Africa. London (1979)
West, Allen B. “Fifth and Fourth Century Gold Coins from the Thracian Coast”, ANS Numismatic Notes and Monographs (1929)
* * *
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
Get Your Copy of Whitman’s 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, Second Edition from CoinWeek Supplies for 25% off