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Nine Ladies Dancing: The Muses on Ancient Coins


CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

Now let us begin with the Olympian Muses who sing for their father Zeus and delight his great soul, telling with harmonious voices of things past and present and to come. Sweet song pours from their mouths and never wearies; the house of their father Zeus the Thunderer laughs as the lily-like voice of the goddesses floats through it; the peaks of snowy Olympus and the homes of the gods echo with the sound.

Hesiod (ca. approx. 750 – 650 BCE), Theogony. 36 ff.

ALMOST NOTHING IS known about Quintus Pomponius Musa, one of the men who became a triumvir monetalis (a “moneyer” or official who managed the Roman mint) in 66 BCE.

We do know that he would have been about 30 years old or older and that his eminent family had produced a long line of tribunes and consuls for the Republic. He probably had a sense of humor and an appreciation for art. Designs for Roman silver denarii of this period were often based on puns derived from the names of officials, so Musa issued a magnificent series of coins depicting the Nine Muses of Greco-Roman mythology. He placed his own name on each coin’s reverse rather than inscribing the name of each Muse; numismatists rely on their emblems or attributes to identify the figures.

One hundred and twenty-one years earlier in 187 BCE, a general named Marcus Fulvius Nobilior set up statues of Hercules and the Muses in a temple in Rome. He had plundered the statues from the Greek town of Ambrakia. The poet Ennius (c. 239 – 169 BCE) accompanied Fulvius on the campaign, celebrating Fulvius’ victories in Latin verse (of which only fragments survive). The images on Musa’s coins are probably based on these statues.

The obverse shows an androgynous laureate (laurel-crowned) head of the god Apollo, with a small symbol behind the neck. This symbol probably helped ensure that obverse dies were paired with the correct reverses when the coins were struck.


The nine Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the personification of memory. The Muses represent the inspiration of literature, music and the fine arts. According to one tradition they lived on Mount Helikon (elevation 1,749 meters, or 5,738 ft.) in Boeotia. Another story places their home beside the Pierian spring, at the foot of Mount Olympos (2,919 meters, or 9,570 ft.).

Chief among them was Calliope.

Calliope (or Kalliope) means “beautiful voice.” She presided over Epic Poetry and Eloquence. Her distinctive symbol was a writing tablet, but on this coin she plays a lyre (a seven-stringed instrument often used to accompany the recitation of poetry). The symbol behind the bust of Apollo on the obverse is a key, for unknown reasons.

In the Coinarchives Pro database[1], 42 examples of this type appear. The highest price recorded was $8,486[2] in a 2012 auction. Typical specimens have sold for anywhere from $375 to $900.

Other than the issues of Pomponius Musa, only one other Roman coin honors a Muse. It appeared 343 years later, under Emperor Probus in 277 CE. On the reverse of this imminently rare bronze antoninianus from the Siscia Mint in Pannonia (now in modern Croatia), Calliope plays the lyre, one foot resting on a rock. We know it’s her because of the inscription. The obverse depicts Probus in the ceremonial robe of a late Roman consul, and the reverse may refer to some long-lost epic poem celebrating this military emperor’s triumphs.


Clio (or Klio) means “glory” or “celebrate”. She is the Muse of History, and her symbol is a rolled-up papyrus scroll. On the obverse, the scroll appears trailing the ribbons used to tie it.

In the Coinarchives database, 73 examples of this type appear. Recent prices range from $280 to $1,000, with a particularly good example selling for over $3,000 in 2010.

Thalia, Clio and Euterpe (Raphael, 1511)


Euterpe means “delight”. She is the Muse of Song and Elegiac Poetry (mournful or plaintive poems, especially those lamenting the dead). Her symbol is the aulos or double flute. The flute also appears on the obverse.

The Coinarchives database lists 53 examples of this type, with recent sale prices ranging from $260 to $2,000. A superb example (despite two small scratches on the reverse) brought $5,250 in an April 2012 sale.


musemelMelpomene means “to sing in a choir” or “be melodious”. As the Muse of Tragic Drama, her symbol is a tragic mask. On the reverse of the coin, she holds the mask in one hand and the club of Hercules in the other. She wears a short sword at her belt, symbolizing the (off-stage) violent bloodshed so common in Greek tragedy. The symbol behind Apollo’s neck on the obverse is a scepter since classic tragedy often dealt with the doings of kings.

In the Coinarchives database, there are 54 examples of this type, with prices ranging from under $200 to a high of $2,000.


Terpsichore means “delight in dancing”. As the Muse of Dance, her symbol is the lyre. On the reverse of the coin, she holds the lyre in her left hand and the plectrum (a large pick used to pluck or strum the strings) in her right. On the obverse, the symbol behind Apollo’s neck is a tortoise, because the sound-box of the earliest Greek lyres was made from the shell of a tortoise.

musetelThis is a relatively common issue, with 92 examples in the Coinarchives database. Prices in recent sales have ranged from $280 to over $3,600 for an exceptional specimen[3]. Some of these may be erroneous attributions, however; coins with a flower on the obverse and a large, flat-bottomed kithara (or cithara)–rather than a small round-bottomed lyre–may have been intended to honor Erato, the Muse of Lyric (or Erotic) Poetry.


Erato simply means “lovely”. As the Muse of Lyric or “Erotic” Poetry, her symbol is the cithara (or kithara[4]), a larger relative of the lyre with a wooden sound box[5]. On the obverse, the distinctive symbol is a long-stemmed flower bud (a lily?). The distinction between the individual depictions of Erato and Terpsichore on their respective coins is subtle. Erato’s right hand reaches across her body to play the cithara, while Terpsichore’s right hand hangs at her side holding the plectrum.

Coins for Erato are by far the rarest issues of Pomponius Musa, with only nine examples listed on Coinarchives (two of which are probably misattributed Terpsichore issues, accidentally struck with the wrong obverse.) As “keys” to completing a set, these coins command spectacular prices when they appear, ranging from $17,905 to $37,995[6] in recent auctions.


Polyhymnia means “many hymns”. As the Muse of Sacred Song (and later of Rhetoric), her symbol is a veil or wreath, possibly of flowers. She stands in an elegantly draped gown with one elbow bent as if about to sing. A wreath also appears on the obverse behind Apollo’s neck.

Coinarchives lists 31 examples of this type, with recent prices ranging from $500 to $1,800.


museuraUrania means “heavenly”. As the Muse of Astronomy her symbol is the celestial globe. On the coin she holds a pointer indicating the globe on a low stand. On one particularly well-preserved example, lines of latitude and longitude can be seen inscribed on the globe[7]. On the obverse, the symbol behind Apollo is an eight-pointed star.

Coinarchives lists 116 examples of this type, making it the most common of the series. Recent sale prices have ranged from $300 to $1000, with an exceptional specimen going for over $6,000 in a 2013 auction[8].


Thalia means “festivity”, “joyous” or “flourishing[9]”. As the Muse of Comedy, her symbol is the comic mask (contrast with Melpomene above). On the reverse of the coin, she holds the mask at arm’s length while leaning against a column. On some dies, she also holds a shepherd’s crook, or pedum–a stock prop of Greek comedy. On the obverse, the symbol behind Apollo’s neck is a sandal (calceus) of the kind worn by actors.

Coinarchives lists 77 examples of this type. The variety with the crook is less common. In recent sales, prices have ranged from under $200 to over $2,000, with an exceptional specimen going for $7,500 in a 2012 auction[10].

Hercules Musarum

musehercThe last coin of the series shows Hercules as leader of the Muses. It seems incongruous to place a solidly-built hero of superhuman strength alongside the delicate goddesses of the fine arts–imagine the Incredible Hulk[11] performing with the Bolshoi Ballet[12]. But the connection is there. In Greek mythology, Hercules, in a fit of rage, beat his music teacher Linus to death with a lyre. In one version of the story, Linus was the son of Calliope.

The image of Apollo on the coin is distinctly more archaic and masculine, with a headband rather than a laurel wreath bound around his braided locks. Pomponius Musa placed his own name on the obverse. On the reverse, the inscription HERCULES MUSARUM (“Hercules of the Muses”) identifies the hero, who stands playing the lyre with his signature club resting against his leg.

Coinarchives lists only 12 examples of this type. In recent sales, prices have ranged from $300 to over $2,000, with an exceptional specimen going for over $2,700 in 2011[13].

Collecting the Muses

Standard references in English for Roman Republican denarii include Sydenham (1952) and Crawford (1974). To complete a set of the Muses on Roman coins would be a challenge for a patient and wealthy collector. However, since Republican denarii are often struck off-center, and frequently come heavily-worn and sometimes defaced with banker’s marks, affordable examples in lower grades do appear from time to time.

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[1] http://pro.coinarchives.com/ – “Currently archiving 769,306 records from 1,440 auctions”

[2] All sale prices in U.S. Dollars unless otherwise stated.

[3] Numismatica Ars Classica. Auction 72, Lot 1208. 16 May 2013.

[4] Our word “guitar” is derived from the Greek kithara through the 14th-century Spanish word guitarra–but the ancient instrument is not believed to be directly related to the modern guitar.

[5] By itself, the kithara is a frequent design on Greek coins, appearing as the badge of the city of Olynthus, the Chalkidian league, and the Lycian league.

[6] Evidently the record price for a Musa denarius; Numismatica Ars Classica. Auction 73, Lot 144. 18 November 2013.

[7] Full Parallels (FP) and Full Meridians (FM), anyone?

[8] Numismatica Ars Classica. Auction 73, Lot 148. 13 November 2013.

[9] One of the Three Graces, nature goddesses and daughters of Zeus, is also confusingly named Thalia.

[10] Heritage CICF Sale 3019, Lot 23313. 26 April 2012.

[11] http://marvel.com/characters/25/hulk

[12] http://www.bolshoi.ru/en/persons/ballet/

[13] ArtCoins Roma. Auction 3, Lot 214. 31 May 2011.


Classical Numismatics Group. “The Coinage of Q. Pomponius Musa” Lots 888-903 in Triton VIII. January 11-12 2005.

Crawford. M. Roman Republican Coinage (2 volumes). Cambridge (1974).

Hardie, Alex. “Juno, Hercules and the Muses at Rome.” American Journal of Philology 128 (2007).

Hesiod. (Tr. By Norman O. Brown) Theogony. Bobbs Merrill. Indianapolis (1953).

Luce, T.J. “Political Propaganda on Roman Republican Coins.” American Journal of Archaeology 72 (1968).

Richardson, L. “Hercules Musarum and the Porticus Philippi in Rome.” American Journal of Archaeology 81 (1977).

Sydenham, E. Coinage of the Roman Republic. London (1952).

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markowitz The Coinage of CarthageMike Markowitz is “Second Consul” 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, who writes for StrategyPage and Defense Media Network. He designed the game Alexandros, which won the 1991 Charles Roberts Award for “Best Pre-WWII Wargame”. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. He has worked as a technical writer, editor and trainer for a variety of aerospace and defense firms. 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.

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  1. ON Rhodes – an island in the Med – there is a castle of The Grand Masters.

    There in one of the large rooms are MOSAICS of the MUSES.

    They are around 2,000 years old, too – big & beautifully done.


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