CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz….
“We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well and live.”
– Quintus Arrius, Ben Hur (1959)
BY THE SIXTH CENTURY BCE, when coinage came into wide use in the Mediterranean world, ships had evolved to a high technical level. Most ships on ancient coins are rowing galleys: big, fragile racing shells designed for ramming. Rowers were free citizens, often highly trained athletes. Hollywood, as usual with history, gets it wrong; galley slaves were a medieval innovation rarely employed in the ancient world. Cargo ships, which relied more on sails, were not symbols of power and appear on coins less often.
“We live around the shores of the sea like frogs around a pond,” said the philosopher Plato (c. 424-347 BCE). Considering the importance of maritime trade and conflict in ancient Greece, it is surprising how few ships appear on archaic (before 500 BCE) and classical (500 – 336 BCE) Greek coins. We hardly ever see a whole ship, usually only the prow (the bow section, with the ram) or the stern (where the steersman sat).
Mariners are famously superstitious–was it bad luck to depict an entire ship? Probably not, since vase paintings of this era often show complete vessels. More likely it was simply too difficult for die cutters to engrave so many oars. Even a small warship (the pentekonter) had 25 oars per side, while the standard war vessel (the trireme) had 85 oars per side, packed in three tiers.
Phaselis, established about 700 BCE on the south coast of Lycia in Asia Minor, may have been the first Greek city to use a ship as its emblem on coins. The obverse of a rare silver tetrobol (c. 500 – 440 BCE) shows the bow of a ship (in the form of a boar) while the reverse shows the graceful upward sweep of the stern. Two centuries later, on a handsome silver stater, the style is more refined, but the imagery is the same (Coinage is conservative!). Note the prominent “eyes,” which were carved from marble, painted, and attached to the bow. Greeks believed these eyes gave the vessel a living spirit and helped it to find its way (Carlson, 359).
Zancle (now Messina, Sicily), founded as a Greek colony in the eighth century BCE, was another early user of the ship’s prow on coinage. A tetradrachm of about 494 BCE shows a samaina, a distinctive type of warship developed by the island of Samos.
In the Hellenistic era (336-146 BCE) ships appear more frequently on Greek coins. Demetrius I of Macedon (who ruled 301-283) issued handsome silver tetradrachms to celebrate his naval victories. On the obverse, Nike (winged goddess of victory) stands on a platform at the richly decorated prow of a galley, blowing a trumpet. She holds a ship’s mast, symbolic of sea power. On the reverse, Poseidon is about to hurl his trident. Thanks to a hoard of high-grade examples that reached the market in the 1990s, such magnificent coins typically sell for about US$5000.
Phoenicia and Carthage
The Phoenicians, who lived along the coast of Lebanon and Syria, were the first great maritime commercial empire. They voyaged the length and breadth of the Mediterranean and out into the Atlantic, trading for tin, copper, amber, fine fabrics and ivory. Beginning in the fifth century BCE, the main coin-issuing Phoenician cities were Tyre (Sur), Sidon (Saida), Byblos (Jubail) and Arados (Arwad).
Phoenician coins often represent waves of the sea abstractly as a series of zigzag lines, but ships are shown in considerable detail, with the round shields of warriors arrayed along the railing. A half-shekel of Sidon shows the sail “reefed” up to the yardarm, hanging in loose folds.
Carthage, founded as a colony of Tyre around 800 BCE, eventually challenged Rome for dominance of the Mediterranean. One of the few Carthaginian coins to show a ship was struck for Hamilcar Barca (father of Hannibal) at Cadiz in Spain (c. 237-209 BCE). On this rare silver shekel, a dolphin swims alongside the prow, a sight still familiar to mariners.
The Romans were not great seafarers, but their heavy bronze (aes grave) coinage proudly commemorated their creation of a navy from scratch in the First Punic War (264 – 241 BCE). According to Polybius, the Romans captured a Carthaginian warship that ran aground and proceeded to “reverse engineer” it, building 100 copies that became the backbone of the Roman fleet. Centuries later, Roman bronze coins were still nicknamed “ships” (naves in Latin) even though the coin’s design had changed.
Some of the most common and affordable Roman silver coins depicting a ship are the “Legionary” issues struck to pay the army of Mark Antony during the civil war in 32 BCE. These coins honor 23 numbered legions and two elite units, the Praetorian Cohorts (the commander’s bodyguard) and the Speculatores (who served as scouts).
The generic warship shown on the obverse has from seven to 14 oars – evidently this was left to the discretion and patience of the die cutter. Struck in debased silver, these coins remained in circulation, at a discount, for decades after Antony’s defeat and death. Most examples are well-worn and punched with banker’s marks. The inscription ANT AUG hails Antony as augur, a priest of the Roman state religion (the title Augustus came into use years later). III VIR RPC abbreviates another title, “Triumvir for the Restoration of the Republic.” Collectable examples typically sell for US$200-400, with rare types, like the Cohortis Speculatorum, going for over $2000 in high grade.
The Emperor Nero (reigned 54-68 CE) is commonly regarded as an egotistical buffoon, but in his early reign he took credit for a number of well-planned and carefully engineered public works, including the port of Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber, where cargo ships from Egypt unloaded the grain that fed Rome’s population. A spectacular sestertius shows us an aerial view of the circular harbor with seven ships or boats rendered in exquisite detail. Neptune, god of the sea, reclines below. A British Museum cataloger describes the piece as the “artistic coin of a style-conscious tyrant.” In May 2014, an outstanding example of this coin sold for $49,000. Lesser examples sold recently went for $14,000 to $24,000. Because of the popularity of this type, cast fakes have been produced since the Renaissance; the best of these are collectable in their own right.
Perhaps the oddest representation of a ship on an ancient coin is the appearance of Noah’s Ark on bronzes of the town of Apameia in Phrygia. Apameia had a large prosperous Jewish population. Under Roman rule in the second and third centuries, Greek-speaking Jews became magistrates in city government. A mountain near the town was identified as the resting place of the ark and it was only natural to commemorate the story on local coinage.
The ark described in Genesis 6:15 was 300 cubits long, 50 wide and 30 deep (the Hebrew cubit ranged from 18.9 to 22.7 inches). As shown on the coin, the ark–prominently labeled “NOE” (Noah’s name in Greek)–is a box barely big enough to hold the patriarch and his wife. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the five books of Moses, sponsored by Ptolemy II, who ruled in Alexandria from 285 to 246 BCE), the Hebrew word for ark, tebah, was translated as kibotos, which means “chest” or shipping crate.”
To the left, the pair observe a dove returning with a green olive branch (Genesis 8:11) as a token that the Flood was abated. These rare coins were issued under Septimius Severus, Macrinus, Gordian III, Philip and Trebonianus Gallus. In a 2002 auction, an exceptional specimen sold for $24,000.
Collecting Ships on Ancient Coins
Between 1911 and 1916, the English numismatist Leo Anson published Numismata Graeca, a six-volume thematic index of Greek coin types “classified for immediate identification.” It was a remarkable work of scholarship, only possible thanks to the great public collections in British museums. The fifth volume includes “Naval and Marine” types, including 136 under the heading “galley.” This would be a great resource for any collector seeking to assemble a type collection of ships on ancient coins. The extensive collection of Alexandre de Barros (96 lots) was dispersed in CNG Sale 73 (September, 2006). In Harlan Berk’s listing of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (2008), six prominently feature ships.
Ancient coins with ships include spectacularly costly rarities, but–particularly among Roman provincial bronze issues–there are affordable and attractive types within the means of most collectors.
 Phaedo, 109b
 Polybius, The Histories, I. 20-21
 There were eight towns named Apameia (or “Apamea”) in the East, all named after Apama, wife of Seleucus I (ruled 306-281 BCE).
Anson. L. Numismata Graeca: Greek Coin Types Classified for Immediate Identification. Volume 5. London. (1914)
Berk, Harlan. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Whitman. (2008)
Carlson, Deborah N. “Seeing the Sea: Ships’ Eyes in Classical Greece.” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. 78, (2009)
Casson, Lionel. Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times. U. Texas Press. (1994)
Hafner, German. “Prora.” Schweizerische numismatische Rundschau. 55 (1976)
Hale, John R. Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. Viking. (2009)
Morrison J. S., J. F. Coates, and N. B. Rankov. The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of An Ancient Greek Warship. Second edition. Cambridge. (2000)
Morrison, J. S. Greek and Roman Oared Warships. Oxford. (1996)
Rodgers, W. L. Greek and Roman Naval Warfare. Annapolis. (1937)
Starr, Chester. “Naval Activity in Greek Imperial Issues.” Schweizerische numismatische Rundschau. 46 (1967)
Tameanko, Marvin. “Noah and the Ark on Ancient Coins.” The Shekel. 33 (July-August 2000)
Wood, Adrian. Warships of the Ancient World: 3000 – 500 BC. Osprey. (2012)