Stacks Bowers Long Beach Expo Auction

HomeAncient CoinsMusic on Ancient Coins

Music on Ancient Coins

Music on Ancient Coins

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

MUSIC IS MUCH older than civilization — it may be as old as language itself. The earliest known musical instrument, a flute made from a bear’s shinbone found in 1995 in a cave in Slovenia, dates from 43,000 years ago[1]. In the ancient world, musical instruments played important roles in worship and warfare as well as entertainment, and we see them depicted on a wide range of coins. In modern times, one of the most popular collectible bullion coins is the “Vienna Philharmonic” (Wiener Philharmoniker) issued since 1989 by the Austrian Mint. The reverse bears a horn, bassoon, harp, and four violins centered around a cello.


SYRIA, Antioch. Pseudo-autonomous issue. Hemiassarion (Bronze, 17 mm, 4.00 g, 12 h), CY 145 = 96/7. Laurate and draped bust of Apollo to left. Rev. ΑΝΤΙΟΧΕ ΕΤ ΕΜΡ Archaic turtle-shell type lyre with six strings. Butcher 196 var (legend). McAlee 120. Well struck and unusually nice. The obverse slightly off center, otherwise, extremely fine. Leu Numismatik AG > Web Auction 1 25 June 2017 Lot: 822. Realized: 380 CHF   (Approx. 392 USD).

By far the most common musical instrument seen on ancient coins is the lyre, a kind of harp with a hollow soundbox, two curved arms, a crossbar, and between three to 12 gut strings that were strummed or plucked with a pick (plectrum). Seven strings were common. The second-century astronomer Claudius Ptolemy even put one in the northern sky, the constellation Lyra[2].

According to myth, the god Hermes fashioned the soundbox of the first lyre from the shell of a tortoise[3]. A detailed example of such a six-stringed tortoiseshell lyre, or chelys, appears on an elegant small bronze of Antioch in Syria dated to 96-97 BCE[4].

Lesbos, Mytilene EL Hekte. Circa 412-378 BCE. Head of Muse right, hair in sakkos / Lyre within linear square frame. Bodenstedt 79; SNG von Aulock 1731; HGC 6, 1005. 2.56g, 11mm, 12h. Extremely Fine. Rare. Roma Numismatics Ltd > Auction XIX 26 March 2020 Lot: 463. Realized: 400 GBP   (Approx. 485 USD).

For the Greeks, music was the special province of both the god Apollo and the nine Muses, daughters of Zeus. On the reverse of an electrum hekte of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, dated c. 412-378 BCE, we see a seven-stringed lyre[5]. The female figure on the obverse is identified as one of the Muses. At least three of the nine muses are depicted with lyres on coins: Calliope (epic poetry), Terpsichore (dance), and Erato (erotic poetry). But the female figure might also be the most famous daughter of Lesbos, the lyric poet Sappho (c. 630-570 BCE).

Olynthus. Chalcidian league. Tetradrachm circa 410-401 BCE, AR 12.22 g. Laureate head of Apollo r. Rev. Χ – Α – Λ – ΚΙΔ – Ε – ΩN Cithara with seven strings. SNG Lockett 1307 (this coin). Robinson-Clement 24 (this coin illustrated). Rare. Struck on a very broad flan and with a lovely old cabinet tone, trace of restoration on obverse field (small counter-mark removed), otherwise very fine Ex Ratto 13 May 1912, Numismatico Straniero, 599; Glendining’s 12 February 1958, Lockett part IV, 1226; NAC M, 2002, 2238; Stack’s Bowers Galleries 07 January 2011, 2050 sales. From the Provadalieff, Lockett, Gaebler and E.E. Clain-Stefanelli collections. Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 123 9 May 2021 Lot: 192. Realized: 3,000 CHF (Approx. 3,303 USD).

A large, wooden version of the lyre used by professional musicians was known as a cithara (or kithara). It was the emblem of the Chalkidian League, a group of cities in northern Greece. A richly decorated version appears on a silver tetradrachm of Olynthus, c. 410-401 BCE[6].

Augustus, 27 BCE – 14 CE. Aureus (Gold), Lugdunum, 11-10 BCE. AVGVSTVS DIVI F Laureate head of Augustus to right. Rev. IMP – XII Apollo Citharoedus standing right, holding lyre in his left hand and plectrum in his right; below, ACT. BMC 481. Calicó 229a. Cohen 162. RIC 192a. Nomos AG > obolos 18 Auction date: 21 February 2021 Lot number: 530. Price realized: 8,500 CHF (Approx. 9,471 USD).

As the god of music, Apollo was particularly associated with this instrument, appearing as Apollo Citharoedus (“Apollo the cithara player”) on an elegant gold aureus of the first Roman emperor Augustus dated to 11-10 BCE[7].

Nero augustus, 54 – 68 As circa 64, Æ 7.75 g. NERO CLAVD CAESAR AVG GERMANI Radiate head r. Rev. PONTIF MAX – TR P IMP PP Nero, in the guise of Apollo, advancing r. playing lyre held in l. hand. In field, S – C and in exergue, I. C 203. BMC 254. RIC 205. CBN 327. Wonderful green patina and with a very detailed reverse composition. About extremely fine / extremely fine. Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 120 6 October 2020 Lot: 714. Realized: 2,750 CHF  (Approx. 3,005 USD).

People who know nothing else about the emperor Nero may recall that he “fiddled while Rome burned.” Actually, the instrument that Nero is said to have played mournfully during the Great Fire of 64 CE was a cithara. On the reverse of a remarkable bronze as (a coin of 7.75 grams,) Nero appears in the guise of the god, walking while playing the cithara[8].

Judaea, Bar Kokhba Revolt. Silver Zuz (3.92 g), 132-135 CE. Undated, attributed to year 3 (134/5 CE). ‘Simon’ (Paleo-Hebrew), bunch of grapes with leaf and tendril. Reverse: ‘For the freedom of Jerusalem’ (Paleo-Hebrew), elongated lyre with three strings. Hendin 1435; Mildenberg 186 (O22/R120); TJC 274. Well struck on a nice wide flan. Deep blue tone about the borders. Superb Extremely Fine. Estimated Value $500 – UP. Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles > Auction 117 Auction date: 15 September 2020 Lot number: 2169 Price realized: 2,700 USD.

The ancient Hebrews used a three-stringed lyre (kinnor[9]). The term appears 42 times in the Old Testament. On a Judaean silver zuz of the “Bar Kochba Revolt” (132 – 135 CE), overstruck on a Roman denarius, the instrument is featured prominently as a symbol[10].

A stylized lyre appears on the modern Israeli half-shekel coin. The image was based on an ancient seal stone that some archaeologists now believe is a modern fake[11].


Q. Pomponius Musa AR Denarius. Rome, 66 BCE. Laureate bust of Apollo right; two crossed flutes behind / Euterpe, the Muse of Lyric Poetry, standing right, supporting chin with arm resting on column to right, and holding two tibiae (a form of flute); Q•POMPONI behind; MVSA before. Crawford 410/5; BMCRR Rome 3613; RSC Pomponia 13; RBW 1487. 4.11g, 18mm, 8h. Roma Numismatics Ltd > Auction XX 29 October 2020 Lot: 430. Realized: 800 GBP   (Approx. 1,032 USD).

The double flute (aulos in Greek; tibia in Latin[12]) was used to accompany the recitation of poetry at elegant dinner parties. The shrill, piercing notes of the flute set the pace for rowers on warships and warriors in combat because the sound could be heard clearly over the clatter of oars or the din of battle. The father of Queen Cleopatra, Ptolemy XI, was nicknamed Auletes (“the flute player”) because of his proficiency with the instrument. The double flute was the special attribute of Euterpe, the muse of lyric poetry. She holds this instrument on a lovely denarius[13] of Pomponius Musa (66 BCE). Two small crossed flutes appear beside the head of Apollo on the coin’s obverse.

Pan Pipes

Arcadia, Megalopolis. 1/4 stater circa 320s-275, AV 2.04 g. Horned head of Pan l. Rev. AP ligate; to l., thunderbolt and below, syrinx. For the type cf. BCD Peloponnesos 1531.2 (obol). Apparently unique and unrecorded. The present, apparently unique, quarter stater is the first gold issue known to have been struck by the Arcadian League. It features the same Pan head and monogram with syrinx (pan pipes) types that were employed for League obols. Both Pan and his musical instrument were popular types for Arcadian League issues due to the regional association of this rustic god. Arcadia was the original center of his cult in Greece. Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 124 23 June 2021 Lot: 172. Realized: 40,000 CHF   (Approx. 43,455 USD).

According to myth, the syrinx or “Pan pipes” was name for Syrinx[14], a nymph who was turned into a reed when she fled from the unwanted affections of the god Pan. Pan cut the reed and fashioned it into a set of pipes. The syrinx was a popular folk instrument, often associated with shepherds. It was used as an emblem by the Arkadian League, a group of southern Greek cities. On a unique gold quarter stater (c. 320-275 BCE) of Megalopolis, the league’s capital, the set of six pipes bound together appears below the league’s bold AR monogram[15].


Kyzikos. Circa 500-450 BCE. Stater (Electrum, 15x20mm, 15.97 g). Warrior, nude but for his helmet, kneeling to left, blowing trumpet held with his right hand and holding sword in sheath with his left; below, tunny fish to left. Rev. Quadripartite incuse square. SNG France 261. Von Fritze 115. Nomos AG > Auction 13 7 October 2016 Lot: 205. Realized: 12,000 CHF   (Approx. 12,250 USD).

Modern trumpets are usually made of brass (an alloy of copper and zinc), but the ancient trumpet (salpinx in Greek; usually tuba in Latin) was probably bronze. Trumpet players accompanied armies into battle. An early coin example is an electrum stater[16] of Cyzicus, depicting a helmeted naked warrior blowing a trumpet; on most surviving examples, the flared bell of the instrument is off of the coin’s edge.

Judaea, Bar Kokhba Revolt. Silver Zuz (2.66 g), 132-135 CE. Undated, attributed to year 3 (134/5 CE). ‘Simon’ (Paleo-Hebrew), bunch of grapes with leaf and tendril. Reverse: ‘For the freedom of Jerusalem’ (Paleo-Hebrew), two upright trumpets with dot between. Cf. Hendin 1431 (dot between trumpets); Mildenberg 152 (O11/R85′); TJC 277. Well struck and attractively toned. Extremely Fine. Estimate Value $700 – 800. Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles > Auction 98 6 June 2017 Lot: 1646. Realized: 1,600 USD.

A pair of silver trumpets were used in the worship service of the Temple in Jerusalem. Captured as booty by the Romans in 70 CE, they appear on the triumphal sculpture of the Arch of Titus in Rome. These lost relics were commemorated 64 years later on a silver coin[17] of the Bar Kochba Revolt, shortened to fit the available space.


Celtic, Northwest Gaul. Gold 1/4 Stater (2.04 g), 3rd-Early 2nd Centuries BCE. Bearded head right. Reverse: Trumpeter atop horse right, blowing carnyx; below, candelabra-shaped figure kneeling with arms raised. Delestre & Tache class V, series 3 DT 24, var. 4; Scheers series 3 classe III, var. b, fig.32. Obverse struck from a slightly worn die. Very Fine / Superb Extremely Fine. There are only three specimens cited in Delestre & Tache – the one illustrated, another in private collection, and a third in Crdit de la Bourse X, 1990, lot 31, making this likely the fourth known specimen. Estimated Value $15,000 – 20,000. Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles > Auction 84 27 January 2015 Lot: 3000. Realized: 11,500 USD.

A bronze war trumpet used by Celtic tribes in Gaul, the carnyx was a long tube that terminated in the hollow head of a boar or dragon. A few examples have been found by archaeologists, and playable replicas have been made, so we know how it sounded.

Moneyer issues of Imperatorial Rome. Albinus Bruti f. 48 BCE. AR Denarius (20mm, 3.97 g, 1h). Rome mint. Head of young Mars, with slight beard, wearing crested helmet / Two carnyces (Gallic trumpets) in saltire; oval shield above; round shield below; ALBINVS downward to right, BRVTI • F upward to left. Crawford 450/1a; CRI 25; Sydenham 941; Postumia 11; BMCRR Rome 3962-3; Kestner 3551; RBW 1576. Deep cabinet toning, hint of weak strike at periphery of reverse. Near EF. From the Matthew Curtis Collection. Ex Archer M. Huntington Collection, ANS 1001.1.10607 (Triton XX, 9 January 2017), lot 546. Classical Numismatic Group > Triton XXIII 14 January 2020 Lot: 601. Realized: 1,500 USD

On the reverse of a rare Gaulish gold stater dated to the third or early second century BCE, we see a horseman playing the instrument[18]. The carnyx became an important trophy for the Romans. On coins, it appears as a symbol of victory over Gauls. One of the clearest examples is a silver denarius of 48 BCE, showing two of the instruments crossed[19].


Hadrian. 117-138 CE. AV Aureus (19mm, 7.46 g, 6h). Rome mint. Struck 134-138 CE. HADRIANVS AVG COS III P P, bareheaded and draped bust right / AEGYPTOS, Egypt reclining left, holding sistrum in right hand, leaning left elbow on basket around which is coiled a serpent; at feet, ibis standing right. RIC II 296c; Calicó 1190a (this coin illustrated); BMCRE 793 var. Classical Numismatic Group > Triton XX 10 January 2017 Lot: 734 Realized: 128,500 USD.

A metallic rattle used in worship by Egyptian priests, the sistrum[20] became a recognizable symbol of Egypt for Romans. A spectacular example is a gold aureus of the famous “Travel Series” of Emperor Hadrian. On the reverse, the reclining female personification of “Aegyptos” holds a sistrum. In a 2017 New York auction, this coin realized $128,500 USD against an estimate of $75,000[21].

A sistrum appears beside the ornate crown of the goddess Isis on a silver denarius of Juba II, Roman client king of Mauretania in North Africa. Juba married Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of famed Egyptian queen Cleopatra and the Roman Mark Antony[22].


KINGS of MAURETANIA. Juba II, with Kleopatra Selene. 25 BCE – 24 CE. AR Denarius (18mm, 2.796 g, 8h). Caesarea mint. REX IVBA, diademed head right / BAC-IΛIC-CA KΛЄOΠATPA, Headdress of Isis, surmounted by corn ears, on left and sistrum on right. Mazard 318; MAA 99; SNG Copenhagen 570. Toned. Near EF. Classical Numismatic Group > Triton XXIV Auction date: 19 January 2021. Lot number: 827. Price realized: 1,400 USD.
FAUSTINA II (Augusta, 147-175). Sestertius. Rome. Obv: FAVSTINA AVGVSTA. Draped bust right. Rev: MATRI MAGNAE / S C. Mater Magna (Cybele) seated right on throne, resting hand upon tympanum; lion to left and right. RIC 1663 (Aurelius). Weight: 23.30 g. Diameter: 31 mm. Numismatik Naumann (formerly Gitbud & Naumann) > Auction 80 4 August 2019 Lot: 565. Realized: 400 EUR   (Approx. 444 USD).

The tympanum was a kind of drum made from an animal skin stretched over a wooden hoop. It was often depicted on images of the Eastern goddess Cybele[23]. Riding in a chariot drawn by lions, Cybele was a goddess of exuberant fertility, ecstatic intoxication, and wild music (“sex, drugs, and rock and roll”). To the Romans, she was Magna Mater (“Great Mother”). On a Roman bronze sestertius[24] of Faustina “the Younger” (daughter of Antoninus Pius and wife of Marcus Aurelius) dated to c. 170 CE, we see Cybele enthroned, resting her right hand on a round tympanum.

* * *



[2] Vega, the brightest star in Lyra is one of the brightest visible stars.


[4] Leu Numismatics Web Auction 1, June 25, 2017, Lot 822. Realized CHF 380 (about $392 USD; estimate CHF 75).

[5] Roma Numismatics Auction XIX, March 26, 2020, Lot 463. Realized £400 (about $485 USD; estimate £300).

[6] NAC Auction 123, May 9, 2021, Lot 192. Realized CHF 3,000 (about $3,303 USD; estimate CHF 1,500).

[7] Nomos obolos 18, February 21, 2021, Lot 530. Realized CHF 8,500 (about $9,471 USD; estimate CHF 2,000).

[8] NAC Auction 120, October 6, 2020, Lot 714. Realized CHF 2,750 (about $3,005 USD; estimate CHF 1,500).


[10] Goldberg Auction 117, September 15, 2020, Lot 2169. Realized $2,700 USD (estimate $500).


[12] Tibia is also the name of the larger bone in the lower leg of mammals. Many ancient flutes carved from this bone survive. Ancient wooden flutes survive mainly from Egypt.

[13] Roma Numismatics Auction XX, October 29, 2020, Lot 430. Realized £800 (about $1,032 USD; estimate £1,250).


[15] NAC Auction 124, June 23, 2021, Lot 172. Realized CHF 40,000 (about $43,455 USD; estimate CHF 50,000).

[16] Nomos Auction 13, October 7, 2016, Lot 205. Realized CHF 12,000 (about $12,250 USD; estimate CHF 15,000).

[17] Goldberg Auction 98, June 6, 2017, Lot 1646. Realized $1,600 USD (estimate $700-$800).

[18] Goldberg Auction 84, January 27, 2015, Lot 3000. Realized $11,500 USD (estimate $15,000-$20,000).

[19] CNG Triton XXIII, January 14, 2020, Lot 601. Realized $1,500 USD (estimate $500).


[21] CNG Triton XX, January 10, 2017, Lot 734. Realized $128,500 USD (estimate $75,000).

[22] CNG Triton XXIV, January 19, 2021, Lot 827. Realized $1,400 USD (estimate $500).


[24] Numismatic Naumann Auction 80, August 4, 2019, Lot 565. Realized €400 (about $444 USD; estimate €160).


Anderson, Warren. Music and Musicians in Ancient Greece. Ithaca, NY (1994)

Martino, Amos. “Lyres representation on ancient Greek coins”, Proceedings XV International Numismatic Congress. Taormina (2015)

Terzes, Chrestos. “Musical Instruments of Greek and Roman Antiquity”, A Companion to Ancient Greek and Roman Music (T. Lynch and E. Rocconi, ed.). Hoboken, NJ. (2020)

* * *

Mike Markowitz - CoinWeek Ancient Coin SeriesMike 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.

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.

Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Great Collection Coin Auctions

L and C COIN Shop Now

NGCX Holders and Grading