The Lighthouse of Alexandria
By Julia Rich, Director, NGC Ancients….
A numismatic grand tour of some of the most important — and mysterious — ancient monuments. What can coins tell us about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?
In collecting ancient coins, there are countless avenues to explore. One can curate an impressive collection according to personal interests. Consider for example a collection built around the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. These seven structures make up an unofficial official list compiled in the 2nd century B.C. to highlight the architectural mastery of ancient cultures.
Six of these seven original wonders no longer exist, which makes a coin collection focused on them even more intriguing. In fact, coins have been instrumental in the pursuit of reconstructing the Seven Wonders. They sometimes help us better understand what they looked like and appreciate why they were so meaningful to these ancient cultures.
The Statue of Olympian Zeus. Sculpted by Phidias in the 5th century B.C, the statue of Zeus was the ivory and gold talisman of the sanctuary at Olympia. [Image- Stater of Olympia showing Zeus and an eagle, struck c.276-260 B.C.] Olympia was a major religious center, the proverbial “hub of Hellas” which hosted the Olympic Games every four years. At the center of this city was a massive Doric temple, which boasted within its walls a wonder of the world.
Olympia was a bustling and wealthy center at which two mints struck silver coins bearing the images of Zeus and his consort Hera; one of each is shown above. Though the original statue of Phidias is no longer extant, its portrait is believed to be preserved on silver staters issued for the 91st Olympiad, held in 416 B.C., one of which is shown below. Here, the god wears an olive leaf crown like the statue rather than the laurel wreath that appeared on subsequent issues. And so the obverse image of Zeus is believed to be a representation of the statue itself.
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Olympia was to Zeus as Ephesus was to the goddess Artemis. Ephesus, located in western Anatolia, remained an important site for religious pilgrimage for close to 1,000 years during the eras of the Greeks and Romans. The ancient sanctuary played host to the kings Croesus and Alexander the Great, as well as to many Roman emperors, and even Paul the Apostle.
The 4th century B.C. temple to Artemis was one of the most spectacular buildings in the Hellenistic sphere. The sanctuary’s significance to the Greeks and the Romans is frequently reflected on Roman coins. Its image on coins has proven useful for understanding the structure, which today exists in only a few fragments.
For example, it appears on the reverse of a medallic bronze minted at Ephesus for the Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), on which the temple has eight frontal columns and the cult statue inside. It incorporates a few unique elements of the building ornate decorative sculpture and sculpted column drums. The small, round detail at the apex of the roof is believed to be an image of Medusa, whose image protected the sanctuary. [Image – Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.]
On the silver cistophorus (above) minted nearly a century earlier under the Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54) the temple is shown with just four Ionic columns with scroll capitals. Square shapes that appear in the pediment (the triangular space under the roof) are believed to represent windows. This hypothesis is bolstered by Pliny’s record of a staircase inside the temple that aided in the cult ritual of epiphany. Windows and stairs were unconventional for a Greek temple, but not out of character for a temple in Asia Minor. In fact, a Temple of Artemis in nearby Magnesia ad Maeandrum incorporated a window in the pediment.
The Colossus of Rhodes. Not far from Ephesus, just off the southwest coast of Asia Minor, was the island of Rhodes, home to the giant Colossus. Construction of this bronze statue, which depicted the Sun God Helios, perhaps began in 280 B.C. to commemorate the defeat of the Greek King Antigonus Monopthalmus. It stood at the entrance to the city’s harbor as a reminder of victory and freedom from tyranny. [Image – A head of Helios, perhaps inspired by the Colossus of Rhodes]
Many coins from Rhodes feature the image of Helios, as he was a patron god of the island. However, some scholars believe that silver didrachms attributed to around 280 B.C. represent the head of the statue specifically (see illustration below). These coins show Helios in profile wearing a radiate crown, which is markedly different from contemporary issues that portray Helios with a bare head facing frontward (also below). The crowned-head series was short-lived, perhaps minted only around the time of the construction of the statue.
The Lighthouse of Alexandria. The Lighthouse – or Pharos – of Alexandria was built at the mouth of the River Nile on the Mediterranean perhaps as early as 280 B.C. As a valuable navigational aid, it stood for more than a millennium, until it was toppled by earthquakes in the early 14th century. >
Here again, Roman coins document the image of the Pharos with great refinement. These coins often use the Pharos to symbolize a powerful navy and a growing empire. For example, it features prominently on the reverse of a copper drachm minted in A.D. 133 for the Emperor Hadrian. The Pharos is depicted with Isis, the patron goddess and keeper of the lighthouse.
A much more elaborate item, a medallion issued by the Emperor Commodus (A.D. 177-192), is shown above. It depicts several Roman ships advancing toward a four-tiered lighthouse. Although just one player in this tableau, the lighthouse stands emblematic of Rome’s naval dominance in Africa.
The remaining three of the Seven Wonders – the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – unfortunately do not appear on any ancient coins.
The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, a tomb named for the Carian Satrap Maussollus, however, can be amply represented by silver coins of the 4th century B.C. minted in the name of that famous ruler.
One example appears below. They feature the crowned head of the god Apollo on the obverse and a figure of Zeus on the reverse with an inscription bearing the name of the satrap to his side.
The Great Pyramids of Giza are the oldest of the Seven Wonders, and the only ones still standing.
The earliest coins of Egypt were not minted until about 2,000 years after the construction of the Pyramids.
Therefore, a coin minted under the Persians, Greeks or Romans who ruled Egypt could stand in for the pyramids in a collection. One such silver tetradrachm is pictured below.
This silver tetradrachm was issued for one of the first Greeks to rule over Egypt,
Ptolemy I (323-282 B.C.).
The lack of numismatic evidence is especially unfortunate for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon given that their existence is frequently called into question. This is the most elusive wonder on the list: their exact location and appearance are totally unknown.
Since the city of Babylon was the home of an active mint by the time of Alexander III ‘the Great’ in the late 4th century B.C., a Seven Wonders collection might be completed with any of the coins minted at Babylon.
This silver ‘lion stater’ of the Syrian King Seleucus I (312-281 B.C.) is thought to have been struck at Babylon.
Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group<