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Coinage of Kyrene: A Greek City in Libya


CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

THE JEBEL AKHDAR or “Green Mountains” of Libya stretches eastward from Benghazi for a hundred miles (160 km) along the coast. With an average annual rainfall of 15-20 inches (375-500 mm), these limestone hills are the most forested region in North Africa. In ancient times, before centuries of overgrazing and erosion stripped the ground cover, they were even greener.

About 630 BCE, colonists from the Aegean island of Thera founded Kyrene (or Cyrene[1]) in a valley about 10 miles (16 km) from the coast. Descendants of its founder Battus ruled from 632 – 440 BCE (the “Battiad” dynasty). Short-lived republics alternated with restored monarchies until Cyrenaica became a Roman province in 96 BCE.

Kyrene’s prosperity derived from a plant, silphium, valued as a spice and a wonder drug[2]. Silphium could only be gathered in the wild; all attempts to cultivate it failed. Romans considered the dried resin to be worth its weight in silver. It could cure sore throat, promote wound healing, prevent conception and, in high doses, cause abortion. It may have been an effective antibacterial and antiviral and was regarded as an aphrodisiac.

kyrenemapSilphium became extinct in the first century CE[3], perhaps due to climate change and over-harvesting. Reportedly, the last known stalk was presented to Emperor Nero. In modern times, something similar has happened with ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) a plant native to eastern North American woodlands. Ginseng is valued so highly in Chinese traditional medicine (up to $500 a pound) that it is now endangered across much of its range.

Silphium and its heart-shaped seed pod figure prominently on the coinage of Kyrene, in gold, silver, and bronze. But this series, extending over six centuries, features many other designs of high artistic quality and historical interest.


Kyrene’s earliest coins date from about 550 BCE. Often overstruck on silver staters or tetradrachms of other Greek cities, these coins have a rough punch mark on the reverse and depict a stylized silphium plant sometimes flanked by the head of a gazelle. Around 520 BCE, double-sided designs appear, with a gorgon head or the image of Zeus Ammon on the obverse, and the silphium plant or seed pod on the reverse.


“Zeus Ammon” combined the supreme deity of the Greeks with an ancient Egyptian sun god, Amun. His distinctive attribute was a set of ram’s horns, and his shrine was an oracle at the oasis of Siwa in the Egyptian desert, some 325 miles (530 km) southeast of Kyrene. A remarkable tetradrachm from this period shows the nymph Kyrene, who presided over the city’s vital freshwater spring. She sits on a throne, reaching out to touch a tall silphium plant. Behind her, we see a giant seed pod[4].

An example of this coin sold for over $230,000 USD in a 2011 European auction.


kyreneclassicalIn the Classical era (beginning about 480 BCE) the coins are executed with greater realism and richer detail. The silver tetradrachm (initially about 17 grams, gradually declining to about 13) remained the most important coin, but a range of lesser denominations appeared, down to a hemidrachm of less than two grams. During this era, Kyrene’s colony, the town of Barka (or Barce), issued rare tetradrachms with a facing head of Zeus Ammon. The photographer Gerald Hoberman used this obverse for the cover of his 1981 book The Art of Coins, describing it thus:

This remarkable portrait has tragic eyes that confront, transfix and mesmerize with awesome power[5].

About 400 BCE, Kyrene issued tetradrachms with a daring, innovative “three-quarters facing” head of Zeus Ammon. A recent cataloguer ecstatically wrote:

The head of Zeus Ammon is rendered with immense power, the eyes piercing and forceful in purpose. There is a distinct lack of classical idealism in the rendering of the head and it is therefore plausible that the artist responsible for this imagery has taken it from real life. The result is surely one of the most dramatic of any facing head to appear on an ancient Greek coin[6].


helenistickyreneDuring the Hellenistic era (c. 336 – 30 BCE), Kyrene came under the influence of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, although it usually maintained nominal independence. Enormous wealth created by the silphium trade led to an extensive gold coinage. A series of magnificent gold staters (about 8.7 grams) bear the standing or seated figure of Zeus or Apollo obverse and a four-horse chariot (quadriga) on the reverse. The fractional gold portrays various gods and goddesses; one attractive reverse design arranges three silphium plants in the form of a starburst. Zeus Karneios, a beardless representation of the god, appears on the handsome tetradrachms.


In 96 BCE Ptolemy Apion, the last Greek ruler of Kyrene, died without an heir. He bequeathed his kingdom to his ally, the Roman Republic. In 78 BCE, Cyrenaica was joined with the island of Crete[7] as a single province. During the civil war between Octavian and Mark Antony (c. 37-34 BCE), Lucius Lollius, commander of Antony’s fleet in Crete and governor of Cyrenaica, issued large bronzes with the head of Apollo obverse, and a dromedary (one-humped camel) on the reverse. This animal was uncommon in North Africa before the Arab conquests, and may have been an exotic import from Arabia.

During the Roman period, the Jewish population of Cyrenaica grew. In the Gospels, Simon of Cyrene, perhaps visiting Jerusalem, was forced by Roman soldiers to carry the Cross on which Jesus was crucified[8]. Growing tensions between Jews and Romans in Cyrenaica erupted in rebellion in 115 CE. Known as the “Kitos War[9] this revolt dragged on for two years, with massacres and atrocities that shocked even Roman historians. The province was virtually depopulated, and Emperor Trajan resettled it with Greek-speaking colonists brought in from other provinces. This may have been the occasion for an extensive coinage of silver drachms (3.2 grams) and hemidrachms (1.6 grams) bearing the stern face of Trajan obverse, and Zeus Ammon reverse.


In 262 an earthquake toppled many of Kyrene’s fine buildings and destroyed its seaport, Apollonia. After another great quake in 365, the city never recovered, and the site was abandoned.

Collecting Kyrene

Kyrenian coins are mostly scarce and many are very rare. A casual search on CoinArchives Pro (a database of over 750 thousand ancient coins sold in major auctions since about 1999) produced 1,112 hits on “Kyrene or Cyrene”. Of these, 128 were tetradrachms, 73 were hemidrachms, and 157 were various denominations in gold. Top-quality tetradrachms typically sell for a few thousand to a few tens of thousands of US dollars. Smaller gold pieces (obols or 1/10 staters), often heavily worn, can sometimes be found for under $2000. Roman issues of Trajan (silver drachms and hemidrachms, some bronze sestertii) are the most affordable Kyrenian coins, generally selling for under $500.

The British Museum database lists 149 coins of Kyrene, of which only 17 had online photos. The American Numismatic Society (ANS) database lists 32 coins with images. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has an important collection with some 70 pieces.

Most recent scholarship on the coinage of Kyrene is in Italian. The standard reference in English is still the 1927 British Museum Catalog (a 1965 reprint can be found second-hand for about $85.)

Kyrene is designated as a UN World Heritage Site[10] but this has not protected it from the breakdown of order following the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. In May, 2011 thieves using jackhammers stole a national collection (364 gold coins, 2,433 silver coins, 4,484 bronze coins, 306 pieces of jewelry and 43 other antiquities) from a bank vault in Benghazi[11]. Discovered by Italian archaeologists during the 1920s and ‘30s, this “Benghazi Treasure” was returned to Libya in 1961 but had never been properly documented or photographed. In 2013, it was reported that local residents were bulldozing ancient tombs to clear land for development.

“Ancient artefacts were thrown into a nearby river as if they were mere rubbish[12].”

* * *


[1] The city gave its name to the surrounding province of Cyrenaica.

[2] Science fiction fans will be reminded of the spice produced on the desert planet Arrakis, in Frank Herbert’s novels beginning with Dune (1965).

[3] The identity of silphium is controversial. Some botanists believe it was closely related to Ferula foetida, which produces asafetida, a spice used in some curries. [Koerper and Kolls, 1999]

[4] On the example in the British Museum, found at Naucratis, Egypt by the famous archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1885, this detail is obscured by a deep test cut:

[5] Hoberman, 1981, page 61. A full-page plate of the coin is on page 83.

[6] The New York Sale XXVII, 4 January 2012, Lot 634 (Price Realized: US$225,000)

[7] For the ancient coinage of Crete, see:

[8] Mark, 15:21-22; Matthew, 27:32; Luke, 23:26

[9] “Kitos” was a Greek rendering of the name of the Roman commander, Quietus.





Andrews, Alfred C. “The Silphium of the Ancients: A Lesson in Crop Control.” Isis 33 (1941)

Asolati, Michele. Le “antiche Monete della Cirenaica” nella letteratura numismatica tra Ottocento e Novecento. Trieste. (2014)

Buttrey, Theodore V. “The Coins and the Cult.” Expedition 34 (1992)

Buttrey, Theodore V. and Ian McPhee. Cyrene VI: Part I: The Coins; Part II: Attic Pottery (Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Cyrene). University of Pennsylvania Museum (1998)

Gemmell, Chalmers L. “Medical Numismatic Notes, VIII: Coins of Cyrene.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 49 (1973)

Gorini, Giovanni. “Cirene Arcaica, Nuove Prospettive Numismatiche.” Cirene Nell’ Antichitá. Roma (2010)

Koerper, Henry and A. L. Kolls. “The Silphium Motif Adorning Ancient Libyan Coinage: Marketing a Medicinal Plant.” Economic Botany 53. (1999)

Hoberman, Gerald. The Art of Coins and Their Photography. Spink (1981)

Riddle, John M. “Coins and Contraceptives: The Plant that Made Kyrene Famous.” Celator 17 (2003)

Robinson, E.S.G. A Catalog of the Greek Coins in the British Museum, The Greek Coins of Cyrenaica. London. (1927)

Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
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.

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