CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

ANCIENT PEOPLE WHO lived around the shores of the Mediterranean were intimately familiar with the marine life around them. Fish were a critical resource for these societies, figuring prominently in their culture, art, and mythology from very early times. When coinage came into wide use in the sixth century BCE, fish, shellfish, and marine mammals became common symbols on coins.

Ancient coin engravers were not scientific illustrators, and so their depictions of sea creatures are often impressionistic, fanciful, or just inaccurate. Classical numismatists are not marine biologists, and modern English fish nomenclature is imprecise; completely different species are often referred to under generic names like “grouper” or “tuna”.

Cyzicus

Obol (Silver, 10 mm, 0.49 g). Tunny swimming to left. Rev. Quadripartite incuse square in windmill form. Klein 261. Von Fritze 5.
Obol (Silver, 10 mm, 0.49 g). Tunny swimming to left. Rev. Quadripartite incuse square in windmill form. Klein 261. Von Fritze 5. Obolos 14 Sale 15 Dec 2019. Lot 173. Fish: Little Tunny (Euthynnus alletteratus).

As early as 600 BCE the Greek town of Cyzicus (Kyzikos) on the Sea of Marmara used a tunny fish[1] (Euthynnus alletteratus) as its civic emblem on its coinage. This species is smaller than the mighty Bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) and Yellowfin (Thunnus albacares) tunas more familiar to modern diners. Vast schools of tunny migrated seasonally between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; they were harvested, salted, and processed into fish sauce by coastal towns. A tiny (10 mm diameter) silver obol dated c. 600 – 550 BCE bears a tunny in profile–quite detailed for such a small coin, and possibly the earliest image of a fish on any coin[2].

MYSIA, Kyzikos. Circa 550-450 BCE. EL Stater (16mm, 16.03 g). Nude male, kneeling left, holding a tunny fish by the tail in his right hand / Quadrapartite incuse square. Von Fritze I 112; Boston MFA 1487 = Warren 1502; SNG BN 253. Good VF.
MYSIA, Kyzikos. Circa 550-450 BCE. EL Stater (16mm, 16.03 g). Nude male, kneeling left, holding a tunny fish by the tail in his right hand / Quadrapartite incuse square. Von Fritze I 112; Boston MFA 1487 = Warren 1502; SNG BN 253. Good VF.

Beginning around 550 BCE, Cyzicus issued electrum staters, which became an international trade currency throughout the Greek world. Some 240 different types are known, with designs changing often (perhaps annually). The reverse was a simple square punch divided into four sectors. The coins bear no inscriptions; the fish served to identify them. Weighing about 16 grams, the stater was about half gold and half silver, although the proportions and the color varied (8 – 12 kt). One Cyzicene stater was worth about six silver Athenian tetradrachms; the exchange rate varied over time. On one early type, a kneeling male figure holds the fish by its tail[3]. On another, a bizarre human-headed mythological bird, the Siren, holds the fish[4].

Phocaea

Phocaea; 600 BCE, EL Hecte, 2.59g. Bodenstedt-29. Obv: Three seals swimming around central ringed pellet. Rx: Irregular incuse.This is one of the earliest issues of Phocaea . EF
Phocaea; 600 BCE, EL Hecte, 2.59g. Bodenstedt-29. Obv: Three seals swimming around central ringed pellet. Rx: Irregular incuse. This is one of the earliest issues of Phocaea. EF. Harlan J. Berk, Sale 194. 9 July 2015. Lot : 7.

Phocaea (or Phokaia) was a seaport located on the eastern coast of the Aegean. The historian Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BCE) credits the Phocaeans as the first Greeks to sail as far as the Atlantic coast of Spain. In Greek, phoke means “seal”, and this marine mammal became the city’s emblem on coinage. An electrum hekte (one-sixth of a stater) shows three seals with enormous eyes swimming around a ringed pellet that may represent the sun[5]. The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) is probably the animal depicted – monk seals have prominent eyes[6]. The British Museum has a very rare early stater of Phocaea (only two known!) showing a single seal swimming[7].

Taras

Tarentum. Circa 510-500 BCE. AR Nomos (22.5mm, 8.01 g, 11h). Taras, nude, riding dolphin right, extending left hand, right hand resting on dolphin's back; TARAS (retrograde) to left, scallop shell below, dot-and-cable border around / Incuse of obverse type; [T]ARA[S] in relief to right, radiate border around. Fischer-Bossert Group 1, – (V7/R8 – an unlisted die combination); Vlasto 68 = Kraay & Hirmer 294
Tarentum. Circa 510-500 BCE. AR Nomos (22.5mm, 8.01 g, 11h). Taras, nude, riding dolphin right, extending left hand, right hand resting on dolphin’s back; TARAS (retrograde) to left, scallop shell below, dot-and-cable border around / Incuse of obverse type; [T]ARA[S] in relief to right, radiate border around. Fischer-Bossert Group 1, – (V7/R8 – an unlisted die combination); Vlasto 68 = Kraay & Hirmer 294 Classical Numismatic Group Auction 112. 11 September 2019. Lot : 9
Of all the sea creatures that appear on ancient coins, the dolphin is probably the most common. The common Mediterranean species is the graceful “short-beaked dolphin” (Delphinus delphis) not the larger Atlantic “bottle-nose dolphin” (Tursiops truncatus) more familiar to us from movies and aquariums. Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) studied dolphins and wrote in his History of Animals that they breathe air and communicate with sound underwater[8].

Zancle-Messana, Chalcidian drachm circa 500-495, AR 5.76 g. DANKLE Dolphin swimming l. within the sickle-shaped harbour of Messana. Rev. Mussel shell with nine squares, partly incuse and partly raised. SNG ANS 301. Gielow 63ff. Ex Sotheby’s Wilkinson & Hodge 18 December 1918, Sir Thomas-Stanford, 231. Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 59. 4 April 2011. Lot : 522.
Zancle-Messana, Chalcidian drachm circa 500-495, AR 5.76 g. DANKLE Dolphin swimming l. within the sickle-shaped harbour of Messana. Rev. Mussel shell with nine squares, partly incuse and partly raised. SNG ANS 301. Gielow 63ff. Ex Sotheby’s Wilkinson & Hodge 18 December 1918, Sir Thomas-Stanford, 231. Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 59. 4 April 2011. Lot : 522.

Ancient Greeks had great affection for this creature, there are many legends of dolphins rescuing mariners. The city of Tarentum (now Taranto) in southern Italy, founded by colonists from Sparta in the eighth century BCE, used the image of a boy riding a dolphin on coins as early as 510 BCE[9]. The boy is variously identified as Taras, son of the sea god Poseidon, or Phalanthos, the legendary founder of the city.

The earliest coins of Tarentum bore the same image on both sides, with the reverse design engraved in “incuse”, or recessed below the surface – a technically difficult technique meant to hinder counterfeiting (American “Indian head” half-eagle and quarter-eagle gold coins bear incuse designs). A magnificent example brought $19,000 USD in a recent auction[10].

Classical coinage of Tarentum (after c. 450 BCE) adopted a more conventional format, with a horse and rider on the reverse. Either the nose or the tail of the dolphin often falls off the edge of the coin, so perfectly centered examples are particularly desirable.

Zancle, Syracuse, and Argos

Syracuse. Decadrachm of the Demareteion series circa 465, AR 43.02 g. Slow quadriga driven r. by charioteer, wearing chiton, holding reins in both hands and kentron in l.; above, Nike flying r. to crown the horses. In exergue, lion running r. Rev. ΣV – RAK – OΣI – ON Head of Arethusa r., wearing olive wreath, earring and necklace, framed within a circle and surrounded by four dolphins swimming clockwise. Boehringer 374. Rizzo, pl. XXXVI, 3 (these dies). BMC 63 (these dies). De Luynes 1143 (these dies). Schwabacher V1/R1. Jameson 752 (this obverse die). Gulbenkian 254 (this obverse die).. Extremely rare, one of only seven specimens in private hands. Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 116. 1 October 2019. Lot : 50.
Syracuse. Decadrachm of the Demareteion series circa 465, AR 43.02 g. Slow quadriga driven r. by charioteer, wearing chiton, holding reins in both hands and kentron in l.; above, Nike flying r. to crown the horses. In exergue, lion running r. Rev. ΣV – RAK – OΣI – ON Head of Arethusa r., wearing olive wreath, earring and necklace, framed within a circle and surrounded by four dolphins swimming clockwise. Boehringer 374. Rizzo, pl. XXXVI, 3 (these dies). BMC 63 (these dies). De Luynes 1143 (these dies). Schwabacher V1/R1. Jameson 752 (this obverse die). Gulbenkian 254 (this obverse die).. Extremely rare, one of only seven specimens in private hands. Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 116. 1 October 2019. Lot : 50.

Many Greek cities adopted the dolphin as a symbol on their coins. Zancle (now Messina) at the northeastern tip of Sicily, founded by Greek colonists in the eighth century BCE, depicted a leaping dolphin within its sickle-shaped harbor on its coins. An early example (c. 500 BCE) with an impressive pedigree brought over $40,000 in a 2011 Swiss auction.

Dekadrachms are the superstars of classical Greek numismatics. These massive (43 gram) coins gave master engravers ample scope to display creative talent and technical skill. And among dekadrachms, those issued by Syracuse are widely regarded as the finest. And among the dekadrachms of Syracuse, a rare coin known as the “Demarateion” is considered a masterpiece. Less than 20 examples are known.

The name of the coin is a misunderstanding.

Argos Stater circa 370-350, AR 12.13 g. Head of Hera r., wearing stephane decorated with palmette. Rev. Α − Ρ − Γ?−?Ι?− ΩΝ ??Two dolphins swimming in circle; between them, wolf to r. and below, small K. Locker-Lampson 238 (this coin). Pozzi 1897 (this coin). BCD Peloponnesos 1062 (this coin). Extremely rare and among the finest if not the finest tetradrachm of Argos in existence.
Argos Stater circa 370-350, AR 12.13 g. Head of Hera r., wearing stephane decorated with palmette. Rev. Α − Ρ − Γ?−?Ι?− ΩΝ ??Two dolphins swimming in circle; between them, wolf to r. and below, small K. Locker-Lampson 238 (this coin). Pozzi 1897 (this coin). BCD Peloponnesos 1062 (this coin). Extremely rare and among the finest if not the finest tetradrachm of Argos in existence. Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 72. 16 May 2013. Lot: 363.

It was once thought that the type was struck with the proceeds of a gift of 100 gold talents made by Carthage to Queen Demarete, wife of Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse (r. 485 – 478) in gratitude for her aid in negotiating a peace treaty after their crushing defeat at the Battle of Himera in 480 BCE. The current consensus is that the coin was actually issued later, c. 465.

On the reverse, four dolphins circle around a majestic head of Arethusa, the mythical sea nymph who presided over a freshwater fountain, which can still be visited on the waterfront of Syracuse’s magnificent harbor[11]. A worn example of this famous type went for over $100,000 in a recent Swiss auction[12]. Perhaps the finest example of this coin is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, although not currently on display[13].

Argos was one of the most ancient Greek cities on the Peloponnesian peninsula. The patron goddess of the city was Hera, and the wolf was the civic emblem that appears on most of the coinage. On the reverse of a superb silver tetradrachm dated c. 370 – 350, two graceful dolphins circle around a running wolf[14]. Pedigreed to several famous collections, this coin is described as “Extremely rare and among the finest if not the finest tetradrachm of Argos in existence.”

Lycia and Itanos

LYCIA. Uncertain Dynast (c.500-440 B.C.), Silver Stater, 9.30g, . Bearded sea-serpent to left. Rev. Bearded sea-serpent to left, within a dotted square border within an incuse square (Rosen 708 (this coin); cf. Hess - Leu 49 (1971), lot 233). Toned, very fine, a fascinating mythical type and of the highest rarity.
LYCIA. Uncertain Dynast (c.500-440 B.C.), Silver Stater, 9.30g, . Bearded sea-serpent to left. Rev. Bearded sea-serpent to left, within a dotted square border within an incuse square (Rosen 708 (this coin); cf. Hess – Leu 49 (1971), lot 233). Toned, very fine, a fascinating mythical type and of the highest rarity. New York Sale XXVII 4 January 2012. Lot : 566.

Some sea creatures on ancient coins are imaginary. The Lycians, a non-Greek people of southwestern Anatolia, issued a rare silver stater (c. 500 – 440 BCE) with a mythical bearded sea monster on both sides[15]. Itanos, a Greek city on the island of Crete, adorned its silver stater (c. 350 BCE) with the image of Glaukos[16], a sea-god with the body of a man and the tail of a fish. On the reverse, two curved sea monsters confront one another. An example of this rare type from the famous Nelson Bunker Hunt collection brought $60,000 in a 2012 New York auction[17].

Akragas

Located on the southern coast of Sicily, the Greek city of Akragas (now Agrigento) created some of the most beautiful ancient coins during a glorious period of prosperity in the fifth century BCE. The city’s emblem, a crab, appears on most of its coinage. On the reverse of a magnificent silver tetradrachm dated to c. 420, a fish with its jaws open wide accompanies the crab[18].

In a monumental study of the coinage of Akragas, Swedish numismatist Ulla Westermark wrote:

The identification of this remarkable fish has caused some controversy. It has been called a gurnard, Genus Triglia, a John Dory and most often a stone-bass, Polyprium cernium, a giant sea-perch. The most convincing identification is however that given by F. E. Zeuner, who concludes that it is not a cernia but a related sea-perch or mero, Epinephelus guaza L., also a very large species, reaching four feet in length. The rounded tail fin is an important distinctive mark of the mero. Both species appear in Aristotle… (Westermark, 100)

Corinth

Corinth AR Stater. Circa 400-375 BCE. Pegasos flying left, Q below / Helmeted head of Athena right, scorpion fish to left. Ravel 603; Pegasi 158; BCD Corinth –; HGC 4, 1833. 8.41g, 23mm, 9h.
Corinth AR Stater. Circa 400-375 BCE. Pegasos flying left, Q below / Helmeted head of Athena right, scorpion fish to left. Ravel 603; Pegasi 158; BCD Corinth –; HGC 4, 1833. 8.41g, 23mm, 9h. Roma Numismatics E-Sale 45. 5 May 2018. Lot : 155.

Built near the narrow, strategic isthmus connecting the Greek mainland to the Peloponnesian peninsula, the city of Corinth thrived on trade, and its handsome coins circulated widely. Corinthian silver staters (about 8.5 grams) depict the winged horse Pegasus on the obverse. The reverse bears the helmeted head of the goddess Athena, often accompanied by a small symbol that served to distinguish different batches of coins at the mint. On a stater dated c. 400-375 BCE[19], the symbol behind Athena is probably a red scorpionfish (Scorpaena scrofa) a spiny Mediterranean species prized as an ingredient in bouillabaisse, a fish stew.

Gela

Gela Tetradrachm circa 425, AR 16.89 g. Slow quadriga driven r. by Nike, holding reins and kentron with both hands; in field above, laurel-wreath. In exergue, ΓEΛΩION Rev. Youthful head of the river-god Gelas, short hair bound with diadem; three fishes swimming clockwise around. Rizzo pl. 18, 6 (these dies). AMB 286 (these dies). Kraay-Hirmer pl. 58, 164 (these dies). Jenkins 456.
Gela Tetradrachm circa 425, AR 16.89 g. Slow quadriga driven r. by Nike, holding reins and kentron with both hands; in field above, laurel-wreath. In exergue, ΓEΛΩION Rev. Youthful head of the river-god Gelas, short hair bound with diadem; three fishes swimming clockwise around. Rizzo pl. 18, 6 (these dies). AMB 286 (these dies). Kraay-Hirmer pl. 58, 164 (these dies). Jenkins 456. Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 72. 16 May 2013. Lot : 310

Founded around 688 BCE by colonists from Rhodes and Crete, Gela on the south coast of Sicily was located on a river of the same name. Most of the city’s coins bear an image of the river god as a man-headed bull. On a rare silver tetradrachm, c. 425 BCE, the river god appears as a youth, surrounded by three large fish, rendered in great detail[20]. These appear to be fresh-water species, uncommon on ancient coins.

Pantikapaion

Pantikapaion. Ae (Circa 310-304/3 BCE). Obv: Bearded head of satyr right. Rev: Π - Α - Ν. Forepart of griffin left; below, sturgeon left. Anokhin 1023; MacDonald 69; HGC 7, 113. 7.44 g. 22 mm.
Pantikapaion. Ae (Circa 310-304/3 BCE). Obv: Bearded head of satyr right. Rev: Π – Α – Ν. Forepart of griffin left; below, sturgeon left. Anokhin 1023; MacDonald 69; HGC 7, 113. 7.44 g. 22 mm. Numismatik Naumann Auction 82. 6 October 2019. Lot : 21.

Some of the most spectacular ancient Greek coins were issued by the wealthy city of Pantikapaion, on the Black Sea (now Kerch in Crimea). The city’s emblem was a griffin, and the head of the god Pan is the typical obverse on coins. A bronze of uncertain denomination, dated to c. 310 BCE shows a recognizably long-nosed image of a sturgeon (Huso huso) below the griffin on the reverse[21]. The source of valuable caviar, the sturgeon is now critically endangered in the Black Sea and Caspian.

Byzantium and Anchialus

Byzantium. Sabina, wife of Hadrian. Æ 26mm (10.10 gm). Diademed and draped bust right / Two tunny fish left. SNG Copenhagen -; BMC Thrace, etc. -; Mionnet suppl. II pg. 248, 261
Byzantium. Sabina, wife of Hadrian. Æ 26mm (10.10 gm). Diademed and draped bust right / Two tunny fish left. SNG Copenhagen -; BMC Thrace, etc. -; Mionnet suppl. II pg. 248, 261. Classical Numismatic Group. Mail Bid Sale 60. 22 May 2002. Lot : 1200.

The Greek city of Byzantium was strategically located on the Bosporus, a narrow strait connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Fish were important in its economy. Like many Greek towns under Roman rule, it issued bronze coinage for local circulation. An example in the name of Sabina, wife of the emperor Hadrian (ruled 128 – 137 CE) shows a pair of tunny fish on the reverse[22].

THRACE, Anchialus. Julia Domna. Augusta, AD 193-217. Æ (25mm, 9.84 g, 2h). Draped bust right / Three fish: top and bottom to right, middle to left. AMNG II 509; Mouchmov -; Varbanov 304. Good VF, black-green patina with olive overtones.
THRACE, Anchialus. Julia Domna. Augusta, AD 193-217. Æ (25mm, 9.84 g, 2h). Draped bust right / Three fish: top and bottom to right, middle to left. AMNG II 509; Mouchmov -; Varbanov 304. Good VF, black-green patina with olive overtones. Classical Numismatic Group Auction 88. 14 September 2011. Lot number: 731.

Anchialus (now Pomorie, on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria) was another fishing port that celebrated its product on its local bronze coinage. A coin in the name of Julia Domna, wife of Emperor Septimius Severus (ruled 193 – 211 CE) shows three fish on the reverse[23]. Provincial towns often honored empresses on their coins, in gratitude (or in expectation) of imperial favor.

Pisces

Alexandria. Antoninus Pius. AD 138-161. Æ Drachm.
Alexandria. Antoninus Pius. AD 138-161. Æ Drachm (37mm, 20.69 g, 11h). Zodiac series. Dated RY 8 (AD 144/145). AVT K T AIΛ A∆[P] ANTωNINOC ЄB (sic) ЄVC, laureate head right / Jupiter in Pisces – Bust right of Zeus (Jupiter), wearing taenia and draped on left shoulder, transverse scepter across right shoulder; star of eight rays before (faint); fish right and fish left below; [L]-H (date) to either side. Köln –; Dattari (Savio) 2981; K&G 35.260; Emmett 1692.8; Staffieri, Alexandria In Nummis 150 (this coin). VF, dark brown patina with traces of green, twice holed in antiquity – which does not affect any significant part of the design. Rare, one of the better types in the Alexandrian Zodiac series.
A number of popular ancient coins feature signs of the zodiac. The constellation of Pisces, represented by a pair of fish swimming in opposite directions, appears on a large bronze drachm of Alexandria in Egypt, issued under the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (ruled 138 – 161). Pierced twice in antiquity, perhaps for wear as an ornament, this scarce coin was formerly in the collection of eminent American numismatist Kerry Wetterstrom[24].

Fisherman

Any review of fish on ancient coins must include a charming little bronze semis (it took 32 to equal one silver denarius) issued c. 55 BCE by Carteia[25], a town founded by the Phoenicians on the Bay of Gibraltar and “semi-autonomous” under Roman rule. The reverse shows a seated fisherman, with a fish dangling from the end of his line. A very fine specimen brought $650 in a 2011 auction[26]. This coin is cited in a recent article in The Numismatist (Fox, 63).

The author is grateful to members of the Facebook group Ancient Coins, Roman, Greek, Provincial, Byzantine, Celtic and Hammered, who generously shared their expertise in the preparation of this article.

* * *

Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_tunny

[2] Obolos 14, 15 December 2019, Lot 173 (estimate CHF 50).

[3] CNG Electronic Auction 454, 16 October 2019, Lot 129. Realized $3,750 USD (estimate $2,000).

[4] Roma Numismatics, Auction XVIII, 29 September 2019. Realized UK£10,000 ($12,333).

[5] Harlan J. Berk Sale 194, 9 July 2015, Lot 7. Realized $2,000 USD.

[6] Sadly, this beautiful creature is now endangered, with only a few hundred left

[7] For a picture of this remarkable coin, see:
https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=798618001&objectid=1253863

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Animals

[9] The same image appears on the city’s modern coat of arms

[10] CNG Auction 112, 11 September 2019, Lot 9. Realized $19,000 USD (estimate $15,000).

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_of_Arethusa

[12] NAC Auction 116, 1 October 2019, Lot 50. Realized CHF 100,000 (estimate CHF 120,000).

[13] The Museum asserts copyright over its coin imagery, but a superb photo can be seen at: https://collections.mfa.org/objects/1205

[14] NAC Auction 72, 16 May 2013, Lot 363. Realized CHF 65,000 [$67,774] (estimate 60,000).

[15] New York Sale XXVII (Prospero Collection), 4 January 2012, Lot 566. Realized $13,000 USD (estimate $7,000).

[16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glaucus

[17] New York Sale XXVII (Prospero Collection), 4 January 2012, Lot 443. Realized $60,000 USD (estimate $8,000).

[18] Leu Numismatik, Auction 81, 16 May 2001, Lot 45. Realized CHF 72,000 (estimate CHF 45,000).

[19] Roma Numismtics, E-sale 45, 5 May 2018, Lot 155. Realized UK£900 ($1,219) (estimate £350).

[20] NAC Auction 72, 16 May 2013, Lot 310. Realized CHF 18,000 [$18,760] (estimate CHF 15,000).

[21] Numismatik Naumann Auction 82, 6 October 2019, Lot 21. Realized €280 [$307] (estimate €80).

[22] CNG Mail Bid Sale 60, 22 May 2002, Lot 1200. Realized $300 USD (estimate $200).

[23] CNG Auction 88, 14 September 2011, Lot 731. Realized $900 USD (estimate $300).

[24] CNG Triton XXI, 9 January 2018, Lot 125. Realized $2,250 USD (estimate $2,000).

[25] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carteia

[26] CNG Auction 88, 14 September 2011, Lot 665. Realized $650 USD (estimate $300).

References

Fox, Mark. “Fishy Issues, Part I”, The Numismatist (October 2019)

Kraay, Colin. Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. New York (1976)

Mildenberg, Leo. “The Cyzicenes: A Reappraisal”, American Journal of Numismatics 5-6 (1993-1994)

Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values. London (19XX)

Seltman, Charles. Greek Coins. London (1955)

Westermark, Ulla. The Coinage of Akragas, c. 510-406 BC. Uppsala, Sweden (2018)
 

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