An ancient people’s reliance on the sea is reflected in money
Finely engraved images of animals and mythic creatures are commonplace on ancient Greek coins. The spectrum is incredible, ranging from imaginary creatures to the kinds of animals the ancients encountered in everyday life.
Among the most frequently shown are aquatic creatures. This is hardly surprising as seas and rivers were vital to the Greeks, who depended upon them for food, trade and travel.
A silver litra from Syracuse. All images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (CNG)
A copper onkia from Syracuse
There is no better place to start a visual survey than at Syracuse, one of the great maritime cities of the Greek world. Above are two coins that show an octopus. The first is a silver litra likely struck in the 460s BCE; the second is a copper coin struck a little more than a century later, and in a distinctly different style.
In both cases, one can appreciate how the artists were careful to present the octopus with accuracy.
A litra from Taras
A didrachm from Cumae
Also common in the sea and in rivers were shell creatures that the Greeks harvested for food and for commercial use. Shown above are two types of shells as portrayed on silver coins from Southern Italy. First is a cockle shell on a litra of Taras struck in the 480s or 470s BCE; second is a mussel shell (beneath an ear of grain) on a didrachm of Cumae from the late fifth or early fourth centuries BCE.
A silver stater from Aegina
And now for a completely different kind of shell – one attached to a turtle. The Greek island of Aegina, not far from Athens, struck untold millions of silver staters depicting sea turtles from the mid-sixth through the mid-fifth Centuries BCE. The example shown above is especially well detailed.
The tuna fish (‘tunny fish’) was an important resource for the ancient Greeks, especially those along the waterway that linked the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea. The most powerful city in that region, Cyzicus, routinely portrayed the tunny fish on its coinage.
A 1/12-stater from Cyzicus
Shown above is a 1/12-stater issued at Cyzicus between circa 600 to 550 BCE. It is made of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, and offers a most inventive design showing a full tunny fish beneath a tunny tail and a tunny head.
A 1/6-stater from Cyzicus
A tunny also appears on the Cyzicus electrum sixth-stater (‘hecte’) shown above. It was struck sometime between about 550 and 450 BCE. and shows two dolphins surrounding a tunny fish.
A didrachm from Taras
Dolphins are perhaps the most frequently depicted sea animal on Greek coins. Shown here are three examples in silver. First is a didrachm of Taras from the late fourth century BCE. which portrays a young man riding a dolphin – an endearing scene that relates to the foundation mythology of the city.
A didrachm from Sinope
Second is a drachm of Sinope, a city on the southern coast of the Black Sea. It also was struck in the late fourth Century BCE, and it shows a most intriguing scene of an eagle perched on the back of a dolphin. This image is hard to interpret: is the eagle attacking the dolphin, or are the two animals somehow engaged harmoniously? Unfortunately, the answer is not recorded in the surviving ancient literature.
A stater from Argos
Next is a stater of the mid-fourth century BCE from Argos, a city of the Greek Peloponnesus. On its reverse is a beautiful composition in which two dolphins encircle a crab.
A didrachm from Acragas
A didrachm from Himera
A tetradrachm from the island of Cos
Crabs appear on a large number of Greek coins, including the three silver coins illustrated above: didrachms of the Sicilian cities of Acragas (late sixth century BCE) and Himera (early fifth century BCE), and a tetradrachm of the island of Cos (mid-fourth century BCE).
A tetradrachm from Acragas
Other coins of Acragas portray crabs along with a variety of other sea creatures. They include the rare silver tetradrachm of the late fifth century BCE. illustrated above. It shows a large fish – a grouper, and perhaps specifically a mero – beneath a crab, which is flanked by a cockle shell and a sea snail (both of which are hard to see due to an incomplete strike).
A tetras from Acragas
A hemilitron from Acragas
We continue at Acragas with the two copper coins shown above, both of the late fifth century BCE. First is a tetras that shows a crab over an intricately detailed crayfish; next is a hemilitron that shows a conch shell and an octopus beneath a crab that clutches a sea snake.
A hemilitron from Acragas
A perfect way to end this survey is with some fanciful marine creatures from the realm of mythology. We’ll start with a copper hemilitron of Acragas from the late fifth century BCE that is illustrated above. It shows a marine deity – perhaps a Triton – holding aloft a conch shell with which he appears ready to make a thunderous sound.
A tetradrachm from Syracuse
Next is a silver tetradrachm of Syracuse from the 460s BCE, shown above, which depicts a chariot, beneath which is a serpent-like sea creature called a ketos.
A shekel from Byblos
Equally fantastic is the hippocamp beneath a war galley on a silver shekel (above) issued ca. 400 to 365 BCE at the Phoenician city of Byblos. A further marine element is the murex shell nestled beneath the hippocamp.
A stater from Itanus on the island of Crete
Finally, we can enjoy the silver stater above, which was issued c. 380 to 350 BCE at the city of Itanus on the island of Crete. It features a marvelous marine deity (Glaukos) comprised of a male human torso and a fish tail, which holds a fish and a barbed trident.
Silver Tetradrachms of Syracuse Currently Available on eBay
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