Olbia: Ancient Greek Coins of the Black Sea’s Northern Coast

By Steve Benner for CoinWeek …..

The northern coast of the Black Sea (Euxine Sea), which is southern Ukraine and Russia today, was considered to be at the extreme edge of the ancient Greek world. The area was settled during the great colonization period of Greek history in the eighth through sixth centuries BCE.

The first colony in this area was founded in the seventh century on Berezan Island and was called Borysthen or Borysthenida. Berezan is located just off the coast, southeast of Olbia (Figure 1). This colony lasted until Roman times.

Most of the colonies were founded early in the sixth century by Miletus and other Ionian cities. These included Tyra, Olbia, Panticapaeum (now Kerch) in Taurica (Crimea), Gorgippia (now Anapa), Theodosia (now Feodosia), and Phanagoria (near Sennoy). Heraclea Pontica established the colony of Chersonesus in the fifth century.

All these colonies became independent poleis with economies based on fishing, agriculture, viticulture, slaves, and manufacturing. They were known for stonecutting, construction, metalworking, pottery, and jewelry. The cities traded extensively with the tribes in the area including the Scythians, the Sindians, the Sarmatians, the Taurians, and the Maeotians and became the middlemen for trade with the cities of Greece and Asia Minor. Wine, weapons, sculptures, vases, slaves, and precious textiles passed through their hands, as did dried fish and agricultural products.

In the latter half of the second century, the Scythians and Taurians expanded into the region, and the cities along the northern coast went into decline. In the next century, the area came under the protection of Mithridates IV of Pontus and joined him in his war against Rome. After Mithridates’ defeat and death, Roman garrisons were placed in the cities, and the area became an outpost of the Roman Empire.

History of Olbia

As mentioned, Olbia on the Hypanis (Bug) estuary was established in the sixth century by Miletus. The citizens developed large fisheries and grew wheat in the rich fertile region of Scythia. The latter became a major economic enterprise in dealing with the Greek cities. They also traded with tribes in Eastern and Central Europe, providing wine, weapons, and other trade goods in exchange for things like iron, copper, quartzite, and gold.

Olbia was surrounded by a defensive wall and consisted of an upper city about 120 meters above the river and a lower town on the Hypanis. The upper town contained a courthouse, a gymnasium, an agora with a large colonnade, and a sacred precinct with a temple to Zeus, Athena, and Apollo. The upper town was also the main residential area with some very wealthy houses. The lower town contained the docks, warehouse, and artesian quarters; it is underwater today.

The area was heavily populated, and Olbian territory may have included as many as 70 communities. Olbia may have started out as an oligarchy, but by the early fifth century, it was being run by tyrants.

Olbia prospered into the fourth century BCE, but in 325 it was unsuccessfully besieged by the Macedonian general, Zopyrion. The city recovered from the siege and rebuilt its economy, and by 320, Olbia was producing coinage of varied denominations of both silver and gold.

However, as time went on, the city was menaced more and more by incursions from the Scythians and Sarmatians. By the end of the third century, the city began to decline and fell under the control of the Scythian kings to whom they now had to make payments in gold. In the first half of the first century, the whole Bosporus region, including Olbia, was taken over by Mithridates VI (135-63) of Pontus, but again the city flourished. In the 50s, this recovery was cut short by the sacking of Olbia by the Getae king Burebista, probably as part of the same invasion that destroyed Tyra (see Figure 1). This catastrophe brought an end to Olbia’s economic prominence, though the city was revived by the Romans and became part of Lower Moesia, like Tyra.


Olbia’s exchanges with the Scythians and other tribes of the interior resulted in something very usual in the Greek world: the use of “pre”-money or “proto”-money.

Very soon after the establishment of the colony in the sixth century, arrowhead money made its appearance (Figure 2). As expected by the name, these proto-moneys are bronzes in the shape of arrowheads. There is controversy as to who actually made them; some say that they are Thracian or Scythian, though archaeology supports the theory that Olbia and other Greek cities made them. Some have suggested that the arrowheads refer to the archery god Apollo, who was the main deity of the Milesian colonies.

In the fifth century, soon after the arrowhead proto-money was created, another type of proto-money appeared, apparently also minted by Olbia. These were the bronze dolphins (Figure 3) for Olbia’s patron deity, Apollo Delphinios. Surprisingly, this type of proto-money continued to be used into the fourth century, when more traditional types of coinage were available. The OY (or QU) on the reverse is thought to denote the monetary value of the dolphin coin.

Heavy Bronze

In the middle of the fifth century, Olbia began to mint more traditional looking coins, but again with a twist.

The twist was that the coins were very large, 69 mm in diameter and 136 grams in weight (Figure 4): not a very convenient size to carry around. These cast bronze coins have Athena with a dolphin on the obverse and on the reverse is a four-spoke wheel or “sun disk”. Athena probably refers to Athens because Olbia did ship grain to Attica.

The reverse may be a reference to the wheel money of the Celts, which were small bronze wheels with four spokes. A reason for the large size might have been to create a bronze coin that would intrinsically equal a silver obol. The silver to bronze ratio was about 1:144, which would make a one-gram silver obol equal to a 144-gram bronze obol, close to that of the coin shown. The legend, PAUS, may be the name of the mint master.

A few decades after the appearance of this large coin, a smaller version (20-40 mm, 10-30 gms) was cast with a Gorgon’s head facing forward on the obverse and wheel on the reverse, this time with APIX in the spokes. Another reverse seen on these smaller coins is a sea eagle flying left with its talons grabbing a dolphin (Figure 5).

Siege Money and Resurgence

Even though Olbia held out successfully against the Macedonian general Zopyrion in 325, it still suffered some damage. Among other things, it had to produce siege coinage to pay for soldiers, produce, workers, etc., including even lead coins.

However, by 320, the city had fully recovered and began to mint a variety of coins in both silver and gold on the Aiginetic standard. Figure 6 shows one of the silver coins resulting from this resurgence. The obverse has the head of Demeter facing left with a grain wreath and the back has a sea eagle with a dolphin in its talons. The city’s name, OLBIO, is below the eagle. The eagle and dolphin theme was also used on coins of Istros and Sinope.

An example of a gold coin is shown in Figure 7; a gold hemidrachm minted between 315 and 310. The obverse has the head of Demeter facing left, and the reverse has a dolphin swimming left, OL for Olbia below.

The next coin is also from this same time period. It is a bronze coin of 24 mm diameter and 7.44 grams. It has the head of Borysthenes left on the obverse and an ax and bow case on the reverse (Figure 8). Borysthenes is the river god for the river of the same name. The Borysthenes River is called the Dnieper River today and is about 23 miles east of Olbia.

The head of Borysthenes on this coin looks very similar to that of Scythian warriors shown on Scythian works of art, like silver drinking cups and bowls. The style of this coin is also very similar to the coins of Panticapaeum, which is located on the eastern edge of the Taurican Peninsula (see Figure 1). Borysthenes’ head on this coin is very similar to the heads of Pan and the satyrs on the obverses of Panticapaeum coins. Both coins were minted during the same time period, the last part of the fourth century. There was obviously some exchange of artistic knowledge between these two cities.

Changing Standards

In the third century, Olbia replaced the Aiginetic standard for the coinage with the Chian standard, but the city also produced coins on the Attic and a reduced Persic standard. Olbia produced many types and denominations of bronze coins in this century and the next.

The last coin in this article was minted at the end of the second century (Figure 9). It was struck just after the death of the Scythian king, Skilouros. Skilouros had been opposing Mithridates’ conquest of the region, but, with his death, the Pontic king took over most of the northern coast of the Black Sea including Olbia. The coin is a traditional Greek coin with Athena on the obverse and a shield and spear on the reverse with the city name above. This coin is very rare with only 12 known, eight of which are in museums.

Collecting the Coins of Olbia

As one can see from the examples in this article, the precious metal coins from Olbia tend to be quite expensive (Figures 6, 7, & 9); mainly because there are very few of them extant. Most of the known examples are in private collections. The proto-money, dolphins, and arrowheads (Figures 2 & 3), are usually not expensive, but the early cast bronzes (Figures 4 & 5) are. The later bronzes (Figure 8) can be obtained at reasonable prices.

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