CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
MOST ANCIENT PEOPLE lived close to nature. Long before they built temples of stone, they worshipped their gods in sacred groves. Greeks myths describe trees inhabited by supernatural spirits called dryads, who could take the form of beautiful young women. The ancient Mediterranean world was a much greener place, before deforestation and climate change destroyed much of the original vegetation.
Trees were important in ancient mythology, and we often encounter them on ancient coins – sometimes as major features; sometimes as small, auxiliary symbols. A search for the word “tree” on the CoinArchives Pro database, which records over 1.8 million auction sales, produced 6,070 hits.
Recognizable trees often seen on ancient coins include the olive, the laurel, the fir, the plane tree, the fig, the oak, and especially the date palm.
Olive trees are important. They represent everything that roots us, anchors us, identifies us, and locates us in this world — whether it be belonging to a family, a community, a tribe, a nation, a religion, or most of all, a place called home. (Friedman, 31)
Long-lived and well adapted to poor rocky soil in a hot, dry climate, the olive tree (Olea europaea) and the oil it produced were vital to the ancient Mediterranean economy. Wild olives are inedible; the cultivated olive tree propagated from cuttings or grafts was a product of human ingenuity.
Possibly the earliest appearance of an olive tree on a coin is on a stater from the Aegean island of Lesbos dated c. 550-500 BCE. The small tree is seen between the heads of two confronted calves. This is an unusual coin because it is made of billon, an alloy of copper and silver that did not come into wide use for coinage until centuries later.
In mythology, the olive tree was the gift of the goddess Athena to Kekrops (or Cecrops) a legendary king of Athens. Half-human and half serpent, Kekrops appears holding the tree on an electrum hekte of Kyzikos, dated to the fifth or early fourth century BCE. Kyzikos enjoyed close trade relations with Athens. A sprig of olive leaves appears on the silver tetradrachm of Athens, one of the most important and best-known ancient coins.
The Phoenician city of Tyre (today Sur, Lebanon) had a most unusual foundation myth:
According to the legend two wandering rocks floated over the sea; on one of them was a burning olive tree with an eagle perched on top of it, together with a bowl. A snake was entwined around the tree; both eagle and snake lived in harmony. Melqart ordered the native population to build a ship and follow after the wandering rocks. The god’s oracle was to sacrifice the eagle so that the Ambrosial Rocks would stop wandering, indicating the place for the foundation of the city of Tyre.
The olive tree between two rocks appears on a long series of Roman provincial coins issued by Tyre, such as a bronze from the reign of Elagabalus (218-222 CE).
Even though the olive is not native to the Americas, the olive branch was and is such an important symbol throughout Western Civilization that it appears on the Great Seal of the United States, as well as on many classic and modern American coins.
The European silver fir (Abies alba) can grow to over 50 meters (160 feet) tall. The straight trunk was prized for roof beams and ship masts. It appears as the city emblem on fourth to third-century bronze coins of Skepsis, a small town near the ancient site of Troy. During the same period, the fir tree appears on coins of the neighboring town of Skamandria, at the foot of Mount Ida.
The plane tree (Platanus orientalis) is hardy and long-lived, with spreading branches that make it popular as an urban shade tree. It can grow as tall as 30 meters (98 feet). Perhaps the only individual tree on an ancient coin that can still be seen today appears on a silver half stater of Gortyna on the island of Crete. On the coin we see Europa, the mythic princess who gave her name to a continent, seated on the branch of a tree. A rare evergreen variety of plane tree is found on Crete, and the largest of these is said to be the very tree under which Zeus and Europa encoupled.
The laurel tree (Laurus nobilis) produces the fragrant bay leaves used in cooking. Victors in battle, in sport, and in poetic competitions were crowned with wreaths of laurel (hence the concept of “poet laureate”). A magnificent silver stater of Issos in Cilicia, signed by the engraver Apatorios and dated to c. 385-380 BCE, depicts Apollo standing beside a laurel tree. A handsome denarius of Augustus, from an uncertain Spanish mint circa 19 – 18 BCE, bears two laurel trees side by side on the reverse. An outstanding example of this type brought over $20,000 USD in a recent auction.
According to myth, the story of Daphne explains why the laurel was sacred to Apollo. The nymph (technically a naiad) Daphne was the lovely daughter of a river god; Apollo fell in love with her and she fled through the forest from his unwelcome advances.
In Edith Hamilton’s elegant retelling:
…there in front of her the trees opened and she saw her father’s river. She screamed to him, “Help me! Father, help me!” At the words, a dragging numbness came upon her, her feet seemed rooted in the earth … Bark was enclosing her; leaves were sprouting forth. She had been changed into a tree, a laurel. (Hamilton, 153)
Kneeling beside a laurel tree, Daphne appears on the reverse of a rare bronze of Apamaea in Bithynia in the name of Geta (c. 209-211 CE). A remarkable large bronze of Damascus, in the name of the Roman emperor Philip “the Arab” (ruled 244 – 249 CE), shows Daphne standing naked, in the process of turning into a tree.
The apple tree (Malus domestica) originated in Central Asia, and thousands of cultivated varieties are grown around the world. In the 11th of his famous Twelve Labors, the hero Herakles had to retrieve three magical golden apples from the remote Garden of the Hesperides, guarded by Ladon, a monstrous serpent. The only appearances of apple trees on ancient coins are references to this myth.
An early example is a silver stater of Phaistos on Crete. On the obverse we see Herakles with his club and lion skin, standing beneath the tree, with the serpent coiled in an elegant spiral beside him. Roman coins of Antoninus Pius (reigned 138 – 161 CE) issued at Alexandria celebrating the Labors of Herakles, including one that depicts the hero plucking a golden apple from the tree, feature as #96 on Harlan J. Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (Berk, 105).
About 10 species of pine tree are native to the Mediterranean world, with the stone or umbrella pine (Pinus pinea, which produces edible nuts) being particularly important.
A legendary pine tree appears on a rare Greek imperial bronze of Corinth issued under the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180 CE). A grove of pine trees sacred to the god Poseidon was located at Corinth. Beneath one tree was the grave of a boy named Melikertes, whose body was brought ashore by a dolphin after he drowned at sea. On the coin, the spreading tree rises above the boy on the dolphin’s back. Pausanias, a Greek travel writer of the second century CE noted that the tree still stood on the seashore in his time.
Well-adapted to desert climates, the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) provided one of the few sweeteners (besides honey) in the ancient world before sugar cane was introduced from India. The date palm was adopted as an emblem by Carthage, possibly as a kind of pun, because the Greek name for the date palm (Phoenix) sounds like the word for Phoenicia, the ancestral home of the Carthaginians. On an impressive Carthaginian electrum tristater from an uncertain mint in Sicily dated c. 260 BCE, the tree, bearing clusters of dates, rises behind a prancing horse.
The date palm was also an emblem of Judea and a few cities in the East. It appears frequently on coinage, usually bearing two prominent clusters of dates. Even after Judea became the Roman province of Palestine, local bronze small change continued to bear the date palm, as on a bronze prutah dated to 6 or 7 CE (Year 36 of Augustus).
Among the tallest and longest-lived European trees, the oak (trees of the family Quercus, but especially Quercus ilex, the evergreen holm oak native to the Mediterranean region) had a special significance to ancient cultures. Because oaks are often struck by lightning, they became associated with the god Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans), the thrower of thunderbolts. The corona civica, awarded to Roman soldiers who saved the life of a comrade in battle, was a simple wreath of oak leaves that often appears on coins.
Acorns, usually inedible for humans, were a favorite food for herds of pigs that thrived in oak forests. On the reverse of a bronze as of Emperor Antoninus Pius (c. 144 CE) a plump sow – symbolizing prosperity – suckles her piglets beneath the curved bough of a slender oak tree.
The fig (Ficus carica) was an important crop in the ancient world. In Rome’s founding myth, the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, abandoned as infants and nursed by a she-wolf, were discovered beneath a fig tree by Faustulus, a simple shepherd. The scene appears on a fairly common denarius of 137 BCE, issued by Sextus Pompeius Fostulus, who claimed descent from Faustulus. On the coin, birds perch in the spiky branches of the tree, while Faustulus appears to reach up to pluck a fig. The birds are woodpeckers–sacred to the god Mars–who brought food to the infants, according to legend.
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 NAC Auction 54, March 24, 2010, Lot 840. Realized CHF 2,800 (about $2,619 USD; estimate CHF 1,000).
 Nomos Auction 21, November 21, 2020, Lot 178. Realized CHF 14,000 (about $15,346 USD; estimate CHF 12,500).
 Bijovsky (2005), page 829. Note the similarity of this story to the Aztec myth of the foundation of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) — a scene that appears on the Mexican flag and many Mexican coins. The eagle perches on a cactus rather than an olive tree.
 NAC Auction 84, May 20, 2015, Lot 1979. Realized CHF 1,900 (about $2,025 USD; estimate CHF 1,250).
 CNG Electronic Auction 465, April 8, 2020, Lot 118. Realized $400 USD (estimate $200).
 Pecunem, April 5, 2015, Lot 313. Realized €140 (about $152 USD; estimate €50).
 NAC Auction 124, June 23, 2021.
 Roma Numismatics Auction XIV, September 21, 2017, Lot 267. Realized £5,500 (about $7,449 USD; estimate £3,000).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XX, October 29, 2020, Lot 509. Realized £16,000 (about $20,648 USD).
 CNG Mail Bid Sale 75, May 23, 2007, Lot 810. Realized $600 USD (estimate $300).
 CNG Electronic Auction 291, November 21, 2012, Lot 252. Realized $800 USD (estimate $300).
 Leu Numismatik Auction 6, October 23, 2020, Lot 156. Realized CHF 4,000 (about $4,410 USD; estimate CHF 2,000).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XII, September 29 2016, Lot 445. Realized £3,800 (about $4,933 USD; estimate £750).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XI, April 7, 2016, Lot 521. Realized £9,000 (about $12,685 USD; estimate £2,000).
 NAC Auction 124, June 23, 2021, Lot 74. Realized CHF 240,000 (about $260,728 USD; estimate CHF 80,000).
 NAC Auction 59, April 4, 2011, Lot 1360. Realized CHF 275 (about $299 USD; estimate CHF 50).
 In the modern American military, an oak leaf cluster in bronze or silver indicates multiple awards of a decoration.
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 82, April 15, 2021, Lot 1352. Realized £220 (about $303 USD; estimate £50).
 CNG Electronic Auction 421, May 30, 2018, Lot 493. Realized $280 USD (estimate $150).
Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 2nd edition. Pelham, AL. (2019)
Coombs, Allen J. Trees. New York (1992)
Bijovsky, Gabriela. “The Myth of Daphne on a Coin Minted at Damascus”, American Journal of Numismatics 15. (2003)
Bijovsky, Gabriela. “The Ambrosial Rocks and the sacred precinct
of Melqart in Tyre”, XIII Congreso Internacional De Numismatica Madrid 2003 Actas Proceedings Actes Vol 1. Madrid. (2005)
Friedman, Thomas L. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. New York. (2000)
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York. (1942)
Kraay, Colin. Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. New York. (1976)
Sear, David. Greek Imperial Coins and Their Values. London. (1982)
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Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.