Ancient Coins issued from colonies bordering the Strait of Messina are numerous and interesting
Strait of Messina Coins By Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) ……
The Strait of Messina, which separates Italy and Sicily and is just two miles wide at its narrowest point, has been the scene of many historic events. Countless armies have crossed these waters to wage war from long before the age of coinage up through the Allied invasion of Axis territory during World War II.
Because of its strategic location, the Strait of Messina has been an area of intense colonization, leading to a high level of seaborne traffic. However, its unique pattern of currents, which run south-to-north as well as the opposite direction, and its treacherous whirlpools and rocks, make navigation of its waters a specialized, and often dangerous, task.
The two silver denarii of the Roman warlord Pompey ‘the Great’ (d. 48 BCE) shown above reflect the mythology concerning the strait. In particular, the natural whirlpool at the northern part of the strait (where it joins the Tyrrhenian Sea) gave rise to the Greek legend of the female monsters Scylla and Charybdis.
Shown on these denarii of c.40-39 BCE is none other than the fearsome Scylla herself, poised to strike with a ship’s rudder. Her body is composed of a human female torso joined to a bottom half comprised of two fishlike tails and three foreparts of dogs.
The obverse shows a galley, over which appears the lighthouse (pharos) of Messana, one of the most important cities of Sicily, where some authorities believe these denarii were struck.
This brings us to the heart of the subject, for it is a tale of two cities – Messana on the Sicilian side of the strait and Rhegium on the Italian side.
We’ll start with Messana, which was founded in about 730 BCE by Greek colonists who named their settlement Zancle after its sickle-shaped harbor. Above are two silver drachms issued at Zancle early in the fifth century BCE; they show on their obverse a dolphin over the city name, all within a sickle-shaped frame meant to represent the harbor. On their reverse, they have a shell within a decorative incuse punch.
Soon after 494 BCE, when the tyrant Anaxilas assumed control at Rhegium across the Strait of Messina, Zancle welcomed refugees from distant Greek settlements that had been overrun by the Persians. Upon their arrival, they were warmly received at Zancle but soon were convinced by Anaxilas to seize the city on his behalf.
Above is a small silver diobol issued at Zancle c.493-488 BCE, during its occupation by these refugees, most of whom (it seems) were from the island of Samos. It shows on its obverse a facing lion scalp and on its reverse a helmet before the prow of a ship. The lion scalp, as we will soon discover, was a familiar coin design of the city of Rhegium.
Once in control of Zancle, the Samian refugees proved to be just as treacherous as Anaxilas had been, for they soon failed to keep their word to him and instead forged an alliance with Hippocrates, tyrant of the Sicilian city of Gela.
Then the tables turned yet again. In around 489 BCE, Anaxilas seized back Zancle (or Zankle) and by c.486 BCE had populated it with new arrivals from the region of Messenia in the Greek Peloponnesus. At this point, Zancle acquired its more familiar name, Messana, after the colonists’ homeland.
In 480 BCE, Messana introduced its most familiar and beautiful coinage, silver tetradrachms that pair an Olympic mule cart with a leaping hare. The example shown above is early in the series, being struck c.478-476 BCE.
The series continued strongly throughout the fifth century, ending only after Messana was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 396 BCE. The three tetradrachms above, usually dated to c.412-408 BCE, were struck shortly before the city fell.
Like most cities of Sicily that possessed strategic locations, Messana endured sacking, destruction, and re-foundation on multiple occasions. Thus, after its destruction by Carthage, Messana was populated once again and continued to issue coinage.
Above are three bronzes issued at Messana. First is a civic issue of c.317-311 BCE and the next two are issues of the Mamertini, a band of Sicilian mercenaries who in 288 BCE took control of the city. The first of these Mamertine coins are believed to have been issued c.264-241 BCE, and the next c.211-208 BCE, during the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE).
We now move across the Strait of Messina to the port of Rhegium, a city founded c.730 BCE, about the same time as Messana.
We’ll start with one of the earliest coins of Messana, which typically is dated to c.494-480 when Anaxilas was in control. The silver obol shown above is a small coin that would have been used for local transactions. Since it shows a facing lion scalp and the abbreviated name of the city, it is reminiscent of the silver diobol of Zancle, issued c.493-488 BCE, that was illustrated earlier.
We’ll continue with two early silver tetradrachms of c.480-462 BCE, which have much in common with the coinage of Messana. Indeed, the only significant difference between these coins and many of the contemporary issues of Messana is the inscription on the reverse which identifies Rhegium as the mint.
Above is a slightly later tetradrachm of Rhegium, issued c.450-445 BCE. Its familiar facing lion scalp is paired with the seated figure of a man usually identified as Iocastus, the city founder, all within an elegant laurel wreath.
Issued soon after the tetradrachm showing Iocastus, the small silver litra of c.445-435 BCE, above, pairs a facing lion scalp with the city name in a laurel wreath.
Among the most admired coins of Rhegium are issues of the late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE. Above are two examples from c.415-387 that show a lion scalp on their obverse. First is a silver tetradrachm with the head of the god Apollo on the reverse, followed by a much smaller hemidrachm that shows on its reverse the abbreviated city name couched between the leaves of an olive sprig.
Another beautiful issue of Rhegium is the silver tetradrachm, above, issued c.356-351 BCE, which has a similar design to the previous tetradrachm except that the style is quite different and the head of Apollo is now the obverse and the facing lion scalp the reverse.
We’ll round out this survey with some bronzes from Rhegium, the first two of which (above), were issued c.260-215 BCE. The first pairs the head of the goddess Artemis with a musical instrument, the cithara; the next shows the head of the god Apollo and a Delphic tripod.
The last coin we’ll show is a bronze issued at Rhegium c.215-150 BCE, which bears the jugate heads of the sibling gods Apollo and Artemis and a Delphic tripod. This piece has four pellets on its reverse, indicating its denomination as a ‘triens’.
Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (CNG).