Silver tetradrachms of Sicily are highly sought after by ancient-coin collectors
Collectors have long agreed that many of the most impressive ancient coins were produced in Sicily. With its advantageous location between Italy and North Africa, this island was a cultural crossroads of the Mediterranean. It also was the site of frequent warfare among those who wished to maintain or expand their control in the region – native inhabitants, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans.
Especially prized among Sicilian coins are the silver tetradrachms struck from the late sixth through the early third centuries BCE. We’ll select a dozen of these coins that, together, will offer a glimpse of the important types a collector is likely to encounter.
Bear in mind this is an incredibly limited tour. Not only are there many varieties of tetradrachms, but there are numerous other denominations in silver, a great many issues in copper, and even some struck in gold and electrum.
A Sampling of Silver Tetradrachms
Messana Tetradrachm. All images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (CNG) and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC)
Our tour begins with the port-city of Zancle-Messana at the northeast tip of the island, the point nearest the Italian mainland. Under its original name, Zancle, this city issued coins starting in the late sixth century BCE, and a few decades later began to issue coins under a new name, Messana, for the city had since changed hands. It produced an impressive series of tetradrachms; the one shown above, from the 470s, features the iconic designs of a charioteer and a springing hare.
Not far to the south of Messana was the coastal city of Naxos, where some of the most artful coins of Sicily were produced. The rare and beautiful tetradrachm above was struck in about 425; it features the bearded head of the god Dionysus and the squatting figure of his drinking partner, Silenus, who raises a wine cup.
Moving further south along the east coast, we encounter Catana, where the marvelous tetradrachm above was struck late in the fifth century BCE. Its obverse bears a vigorous scene in which Nike crowns a driver who struggles to guide his quadriga (four-horse chariot); in the exergue is an H, thought to be a signature for the artist Heracleidas. Its reverse features a tranquil portrait of an uncertain young male, behind which is a crayfish.
Further south from Catana is the inland city of Leontini, which in the mid-fifth century issued the tetradrachm shown above. It bears a remarkable portrait of the god Apollo, wearing a laurel wreath, paired with a fierce lion’s head surrounded by four grain ears.
Not far from the southeastern tip of the island is Syracuse, by far the most important city of Sicily. It also ranks among the most significant ancient settlements of the Mediterranean. The city is represented by the tetradrachm shown above, which was struck circa 478 to 466 BCE. It shows Nike crowning the slow-moving horses of a quadriga, and the diademed head of the water-nymph Arethusa surrounded by four dolphins.
Turning the bend and heading westward on the southern coast, we encounter Camarina. This city had a troubled existence, being caught in the middle of conflicts involving the more powerful cities of Syracuse and Gela, and even with native Sicels to the north. A particularly artful series of tetradrachms was produced here, including the one above, struck not long before the city was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 405. It shows the driver of a fast quadriga being crowned by Nike, and the youthful head of Heracles (Hercules) wearing his lion’s scalp, with a bow before his profile.
Further west on the southern coast is the powerful and important city of Gela, where the tetradrachm above was produced sometime between about 480 and 470 BCE – an eventful decade following Gela’s remarkable defeat of the Carthaginians. Shown on the obverse is a slow quadriga, with Nike crowning the horses, and on the reverse the forepart of a river-god in the form of a man-headed bull.
Equally powerful was the city of Acragas, also situated along the southern coast, though much further west. Indeed, it was far west enough to encroach on what traditionally was the Carthaginian portion of the island. Shown above is a tetradrachm struck at Acragas in the mid-fifth century, a time of exceptional prosperity for the city. It bears iconic designs of Acragas: a standing eagle and a crab as seen from above.
Well entrenched in Carthaginian territory was the coastal city of Selinus, which issued comparatively few tetradrachms. The one shown above was struck in the last half of the fifth century, before the city’s destruction by the Carthaginians in 409. It shows the sibling gods Artemis and Apollo in a slow quadriga, and a local river-god standing between two altars, making a sacrifice.
The tetradrachms of Motya, a Carthaginian stronghold on the west coast of Sicily, also are rare. The one shown above, struck at the end of the fifth century, features an eagle and a crab – designs clearly derived from the more substantial issues of Acragas. The Punic inscription to the left of the eagle identifies it as an issue of Motya, whereas the Greek inscription surrounding the eagle on the tetradrachm of Acragas (shown earlier) secures its origin at that Greek mint.
Located far from all the other major, coin-issuing cities of Sicily was Himera, on the north shore of the island. This city produced relatively few issues of tetradrachms, including the one above. It was issued near the end of the fifth century, seemingly on the eve of the city’s destruction by the Carthaginians. It pairs a dynamic quadriga with a tranquil sacrifice scene quite like the one at Selinus (shown earlier); this time, however, it depicts the local nymph Himera between an altar and a satyr bathing under a lion-headed spout.
Finally, we make note of an extensive and varied series of tetradrachms usually called ‘Siculo-Punic’, meaning they were struck by Carthaginians to pay the costs of their wars against the Greeks in Sicily. Rarely are the mints of these coins clearly indicated, though it seems clear that they were produced in the westernmost part of Sicily. Often they were struck with dies engraved by Greek artists in the employ of Carthage. The tetradrachm above features a Syracuse-inspired obverse with the head of the nymph Arethusa encircled by dolphins, and a Carthaginian-inspired reverse with a horse rearing before a palm tree.
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