FOR CENTURIES, THE narrow Strait of Messina that separates Sicily from the toe of Italy has been a crossroads of history.
The town of Rhegium (or Rhegion, today Reggio di Calabria) located on the Italian side of the Strait, was one of the first Greek cities in Italy, founded by colonists from Chalcis in the eighth century BCE. Cities of this region competed vigorously during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE to create coins of enduring classical beauty, and the silver tetradrachms of Rhegium stand as some of the finest – and most highly valued – products of the ancient engraver’s art.
In 494 BCE a man named Anaxilas became tyrant of Rhegium. In ancient Greek, a tyrannos was a ruler that “owed his power neither to his royal descent nor to a constitutional appointment and was not bound by any laws (Jones, 236).”
Among his actions, Anaxilas captured the seaport of Zancle on the Sicilian side of the Strait and renamed it Messana (today Messina, Italy). And when his team won the mule cart race in the Olympic games, Anaxilas commemorated this victory on coins issued in both towns that he controlled. The reverse of the coins depicts a leaping hare, supposedly because Anaxilas was proud of having introduced this prolific animal to Sicily for the benefit of hunters. The coins of Messana are considerably more common than those of Rhegium.
Lion Mask Tetradrachms
A major change in the design of the classical tetradrachms of Rhegium began about 460 BCE.
Struck to the “Attic” (or Athenian) weight standard of about 17 grams, these chunky coins probably represented several days’ pay for a skilled worker. The obverse bears a dramatic “lion mask” within a dotted border–the head of a lion viewed from above, with prominent ears and sharply engraved tufts of hair forming the mane. This ancient emblem appears on coins of the Aegean island of Samos. The lion mask became the symbol of Rhegium after Anaxilas helped some exiles from Samos to seize control of Zancle. The Samians struck coins with a lion mask before Anaxilas evicted them and renamed Zancle as Messana in 490 BCE. Rhegium adopted the symbol and continued to use it even after the sons of Anaxilas were driven from power in 461 BCE.
The reverse of the coin bears a bearded seated male figure of uncertain identity, surrounded by a laurel wreath. Some sources describe him as Iokastos (or Iocastus, or Iocastes), a legendary founder of the city. Others identify him as Apollo, although that god is seldom depicted bearded in Greek art.
A magnificent coin sold in a 2008 auction for 320,000 Swiss francs (then equivalent to $277,152); apparently the highest price ever paid for a Rhegium tetradrachm. The bearded, muscular seated figure on the reverse is identified as “Apollo Iocastus”. The coin is described as:
“Very rare and undoubtedly the finest specimen known. The prototype of the entire series and a masterpiece of archaizing style perfectly struck on sound metal.”
This beautiful auction catalog, “A remarkable selection of Greek Coins”, is prized by collectors. By “archaizing style” the cataloguer meant that the engraver was trying – with great skill – to duplicate the look and feel of coins of the previous century. Money is conservative!
A rather worn example of the same type, graded “Good Very Fine” of a slightly later date, brought just 3,750 Swiss francs in a 2017 sale. This type is distinguished by a tiny cluster of grapes in the obverse field, its meaning uncertain. The slim seated figure on the reverse appears more youthful.
A tetradrachm dated to c. 425-420 BCE, described as “Very rare in this quality”, brought 40,000 Swiss francs (against an estimate of 12,000) in a 2019 European auction. The lion mask on the obverse is especially ferocious, with a piercing expression and deep grooves on the muzzle. Beneath the seated figure on the reverse is a small coiled serpent, reinforcing his identification as Iokastos since ancient sources record that this legendary figure died from snakebite.
A New Design
About 420 BCE there was a major change in the design of Rhegium’s tetradrachm. The seated figure of Iokastos on the reverse was replaced by a laurel-crowned androgynous head of Apollo. Note that the side with the lion mask is still the technical obverse, struck by the lower die in high relief, while the side with the head is the reverse, struck in lower relief by the upper die.
On one rare die, the engraver proudly carved his name in tiny letters below the god’s chin: ΚΡΑΤΕΣΙΠΠΟ (“Kratesippos”). This is the only Rhegian coin that bears an engraver’s signature, and nothing else is known about this gifted artist. The lion mask on the obverse, possibly engraved by a different hand, is more stylized; a deep central groove furrows the lion’s forehead, and the mane appears as a sort of ruff, arched around the top of the coin.
A recent European sale of a similar unsigned coin struck a few years later indicates how strong the competition for tetradrachms of Rhegium has become. Described as “A portrait of superb style struck in high relief and a lovely light iridescent tone”, with “an unobtrusive die-break, otherwise good extremely fine”, this coin brought 34,000 Swiss francs (against an estimate of 30,000) in October 2020.
Destruction and Rebirth
The powerful city of Syracuse, near the southern tip of Sicily, came into conflict with Rhegium after 399 BCE.
Syracusan tyrant Dionysius I (ruled 407-367 BCE) besieged Rhegium without success in 390, returning to starve the city into surrender in 387. In accordance with the brutal norms of ancient Greek warfare, Rhegium was demolished, its leading citizens executed, and the survivors sold as slaves.
About 356 BCE, Dionysius II (ruled 367-357 and 346-344 BCE) refounded the city with new settlers. The coinage of the restored city retained the traditional lion mask obverse, but the head of Apollo on the reverse was rendered in a radically different “Hellenistic” style.
The left-facing profile portrait head of Apollo, cut in high relief, is remarkably sensitive and lifelike. No longer gathered in a bun at the back of the god’s head, a riot of long curls tumbles down his neck. His laurel wreath has three rows of leaves, rather than the usual two. A “Mint State” example, described as “utterly and completely magnificent”, sold for $130,000 (against an estimate of $85,000) in a 2011 New York auction.
This design continued for generations on the coinage, with gradual evolution. On an example dated circa 320-300, the lion mask seems gaunter and “scruffier”, with sunken eyes. The lion’s ears, which are so prominent on most Rhegian tetradrachms, are nearly hidden by tufts of mane. The dies are still cut with amazing care and precision, but the coin is struck off-center on a ragged underweight blank, suggesting that quality control at the mint had deteriorated over time. “Extremely rare and among the finest specimens known of this intriguing issue…,” this coin brought 50,000 Swiss francs (against an estimate of 45,000) in a 2008 auction.
The Last Tetradrachms
The very last tetradrachms of Rhegium are considered the most beautiful by many numismatists. A cataloguer enthused:
Very rare and possibly the finest specimen known. A wonderful Hellenistic portrait of enchanting beauty perfectly struck and centred.
The style of the dies suggests that they were cut but the same master engraver who designed a famous silver tetradrachm and gold stater for the Syracusan tyrant Agathocles (ruled 317 – 289 BCE).
When King Pyrrhus of Epirus came to Italy to fight the Roman Republic in 280 BCE, Rhegium sided with Rome. A force of Campanian mercenaries, hired to defend the city, revolted and massacred the citizens. Ten years later the Romans wiped out the treacherous mercenaries and restored the city to its survivors, but Rhegium never resumed coinage as an independent state:
“[I]t must have suffered severely, and does not seem to have again recovered its former prosperity. Its name is hardly mentioned during the First Punic War, but in the second, the citizens distinguished themselves by their fidelity to the Roman cause, and repeated attempts of Hannibal to make himself master of the city were uniformly repulsed (Smith, n.p.).”
On the CoinArchivesPro database, which records over 1.7 million recent auction sales, a search for “Rhegium AND Tetradrachm” produced 121 hits (but some of these were listings for coins of other cities in which the cataloguer only mentioned Rhegium in passing).
Narrowing the search to “Rhegium AND Tetradrachm and Lion” refined the list down to 95 hits, with about 10% being repeat sales of the same coin. Even low-grade examples typically sell for thousands of dollars. Rare coins in high demand, the lovely tetradrachms of Rhegium present a challenge for collectors with very deep pockets.
The standard reference work cited in almost every catalog listing is Hertzfelder (1957) in French, and long out of print, so this series is overdue for an up-to-date numismatic study.
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 Harlan J. Berk Sale 189, March 29, 2014, Lot 62. Realized $800 USD.
 CNG Electronic Auction 302, May 8, 2013, Lot 32. Realized $475 (estimate: $200).
 Hess-Divo Auction 329, November 17, 2015, Lot 16. Realized CHF 5,000 (about $4,926; estimate: CHF 2,500).
 NAC Auction 48, October 21, 2008, Lot 19. Realized CHF 320,000 (about $351,354 USD; estimate: CHF 90,000).
 NAC Auction 100, May 29, 2017, Lot 1038. Realized CHF 3,750 (about $3,851 USD; estimate: CHF 3,500).
 Maison Palombo Auction 18, 17 November 2019. Realized CHF 40,000 (about $40,375 USD; estimate: CHF 12,000).
 Bertolami Fine Arts Auction 19, November 11, 2015, Lot 95. Realized €10,000 (about $10,728 USD; estimate: €5,000).
 NAC Auction 120, October 6, 2020, Lot 242. Realized CHF 34,000 (about $37,154 USD; estimate: CHF 30,000).
 NAC Auction 48, October 21, 2008, Lot 21. Realized CHF 50,000 (about $43,305 USD; estimate: CHF 45,000).
 NAC Auction 82, May 20, 2015, Lot 33. Realized CHF 50,000 (about $53,282 USD; estimate: CHF 50,000).
Herzfelder, Hubert. Les monnaies d ‘argent de Rhegium. Paris (1957)
Kraay, Colin. Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. New York (1976)
Larizza, Pietro. Rhegium Chalcidense: la Storia e la Numismatica. Roma (1905)
Melville Jones, John. A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Coins. London (1986)
Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values, Volume 1: Europe. London (1978)
Seltman, Charles. Greek Coins. London (1955)
Smith, William. Dictionary of Greek & Roman Geography. (1854)