thebano

Overview:

Thebes

Thebes was one of the major cities of ancient Greece, and for a brief time it was the preeminent power in the Greek world. It first rose to prominence during the late Bronze Age (approx. 1600 – 1100 BCE) as part of the Mycenaean civilization that birthed many of the great cities of Greek antiquity. It was the largest city in the central region of Boeotia, which bordered Attica (Athens) to the East and the Peloponnese (Sparta) to the South.

Several of the old stories center around Thebes. Perhaps the oldest is that of Cadmus, the Phoenician prince who came to Greece looking for his sister Europa. While he never managed to rescue his sister from Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods, he did bring the alphabet to Greece and founded the city of Thebes as well.

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, fertility and theatre and leader of the “wild women” (the Maenads), was the “twice-born” child of Zeus and Semele. Semele was one of Cadmus’ daughters.

Oedipus, whose story was made famous by the playwright Sophocles in ancient times and the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud more recently, was a king of Thebes. The story of Oedipus involves prophesy, infanticide, patricide, regicide, incest, exile, civil war, the “Riddle of the Sphinx”, and the greatest Greek subject of all: man’s unending hubris.

Thus was the city of Thebes a part of the greater religious and cultural fabric that was ancient Greece.

thebanrEconomically, politically and militarily, Thebes was the perennial rival and ally of both Athens and Sparta, two other cities with roots in the Mycenaean Age. The city’s antipathy to what it viewed as Athenian interference in its affairs led Thebes to align themselves with the Persians during the Greco-Persian Wars of the first half of the fifth century BCE. Then, during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Thebes sided with Sparta. But after the defeat of Athens in that war, it became apparent that Sparta would behave no differently and Thebes worked to restore Athens as a counterbalance against Spartan power. Then, after more than a generation of warfare against Sparta, Thebes gained a decisive victory at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE and proceeded to break the economic and military power of Sparta by freeing its slaves (helots).

Finally at the top, Theban supremacy didn’t last long. Inviting King Philip II of Macedon into the region to help fight yet another war, Thebes realized too late that it had brought about not only its own conquest but the conquest of the entirety of Greece. Philip’s son Alexander III–also known as Alexander the Great–would usher in a new era in Greek history known as the Hellenistic Age.

The Stater

Interestingly, the origin of the monetary unit known as a stater (the Greek word for “weight”) goes back to the Phoenician shekel (a Semitic word for “weight”). Staters began circulating among the cities of Greece in the eighth century BCE and did not cease production until the Common Era. The first known Greek stater coin (previous versions were ingots) was made of electrum and came from Aegina, an island located between Attica and the Peloponnese. Many different cities issued their own versions of the coin, including Thebes.

Description:

Atlas Numismatics logoThe following description is based on the coin images accompanying this profile, supplied courtesy of Atlas Numismatics


Obverse:

The obverse of the Theban stater may strike many as strange. Instead of the portrait of a king, tyrant or divinity, we find the almost abstract presence and clean curves of a Boeotian shield. Its simplicity and internal negative space belies the sophistication that went into the coin’s production (one need only examine the world’s earliest coinage to see what a truly “simple” design looks like).

Reverse:

The uncluttered reverse features an amphora, a large, often ceramic vessel, used to transport and store products such as wine or olive oil. On this specimen, almost every part of the amphora is well-defined–from the rim down to the foot, but especially the ornate handles and the decorations on the shoulder, neck and body.

To either side of the amphora are the Greek letters KA and ΛΛI. “Kalli-” (or “Calli-“) is an abbreviation of the name of the city official responsible for minting the coin, and different issues of this reverse type feature different letters/names that correspond to different dates and administrations.

An incuse concave circle encloses everything. Both sides feature an exceptionally sharp strike.

Coin Specifications:

Nationality:  Greek
Issuing Authority:  Thebes
Date:  395-338 BCE
Metal/Alloy:  Silver
Denomination: 1 Stater
Weight:  approx. 12-13 grams
Diameter:  approx. 21 mm

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