By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
As one of the most famous and recognizable mythical figures from the ancient Greco-Roman world to have survived into the modern day, Pegasus is a highly interesting figure that appears in many stories and on many ancient coins. The name “Pegasus” has two potential meanings. It either means “of the spring”–coming from the Greek word pêgê–or “sprung forth”, from the word pêgazô. The first is linked to the winged horse’s affiliation with various freshwater springs in ancient Greece, and the second is an allusion to his birth.
While there are several versions of Pegasus’s birth, in all of them he was both conceived and born as a result of violence.
In the most common telling, the winged horse was conceived when Poseidon raped the beautiful maiden Medusa in a temple of Athena. The goddess, furious that her temple had been defiled, both cursed Medusa to become a hideous beast with serpents for hair and later sent the hero Perseus to kill her. When Perseus cut off Medusa’s head, Pegasus and his brother Chrysaor, a winged boar(!), sprung fully formed from her neck.
In a second version, told in Hesiod’s Theogony, the two brothers were formed from Medusa’s blood as her decapitated body died and fell to the ground. This is similar to the myth of how Athena was born from the head of Zeus after Hephaestus split open his skull to relieve a debilitating headache. In this accounting of Pegasus’s birth, he sprung from the ground that was watered with Medusa’s blood. This last telling echoes the birth of the goddess Venus, who sprang from the sea foam produced after Cronos threw his father Uranus’s genitals after he was castrated. This mixing of divine ichor and nature prompted the creation of further divinity.
In most of his appearances throughout mythology, Pegasus is usually connected to the hero Bellerophon. After Pegasus was given by Athena to the Muses, he was tamed by Bellerophon, the son of the king of Corinth. While like most Greek myths there are multiple versions of the story, the most common is that Athena gave Bellerophon a golden bridle to tame Pegasus and save the city of Lycia. Since the city was being ravaged by the monster Chimera, Bellerophon needed divine assistance.
Later in his life, after he became famous, Bellerophon attempted to fly Pegasus up to Mount Olympus. However, Zeus would not allow this, and he ordered a mosquito to bite Pegasus. The winged horse bucked and threw his rider down to earth. Pegasus remained on Olympus until he was turned into a constellation by Zeus.
While one of the first recorded mention of Pegasus is from 700 BCE, (Hesiod’s genealogy of the gods, the Theogony), it would be approximately a hundred more years until the winged horse would appear on coins.
Perhaps the most famous numismatic depictions of Pegasus from the ancient world can be found on the coinage issued by the city of Corinth. This is fitting because the hero Bellerophon was from Corinth. The city, one of the most important in ancient Greece, is located on the isthmus that connects the Peloponnesian peninsula to the mainland. As such, Corinth and its strategic harbor enabled local merchants to become the dominant trading force in the region.
One of the earliest series of coins struck by the city are their archaic staters. These early coins depict Pegasus on the obverse with the distinctive curved wings that can often be found in early archaic Greek artwork. On the reverse, the primitive mill sail type incuse punch marks this type as an extremely rare, early piece. There are very few examples of this early type known, and, on the vast majority of them, Pegasus is depicted with his wings outstretched galloping or flying to the left.
There is some dispute as to the date when these coins were introduced. Early numismatists like Barclay Head posited that these coins were struck as early as 657 to 625 BCE during the reign of Corinth’s first tyrant. However, the current consensus among numismatists is that these coins were produced around 550 BCE. This means they are contemporaneous to the electrum staters struck by Lydian authorities in the mid-sixth century BCE and the introduction of the Aegean turtle staters. Within a few decades, the Corinthian mint changed the reverse incuse punch to a more sophisticated rotating pattern. This can be seen on the example below.
Starting approximately the same time, and continuing into the fourth century BCE, the reverse punch was replaced with an archaic head of Athena wearing a Corinthian helmet facing right. While there are examples with Pegasus and Athena facing both directions, the design did not have any significant changes for over a century until the Classical period began. At this point, with artistic and stylistic changes sweeping the Greek world, these coins faced a period of redesign.
This coin, struck between 405 and 345 BCE, is a perfect example of this transition to the new Hellenistic art style. While both obverse and reverse have some of the natural and realistic markers of Classical Greek art, the depiction of Pegasus still retains a key archaic feature: the horse’s wings are clearly still depicted using the old, curved style.
By 375 BCE, with a skilled mixing of realism and idealization of the animal and human forms, the design of these staters reached the pinnacle of classical art. While Corinth would continue to strike coins depicting the mythic figure of Pegasus for hundreds of years, the classical type depicted below is by far the most famous. These staters, known as Pegasi, quickly becoming one of the most commonly accepted trade-based coins in all of Magna Graecia.
Syracuse and Sicily
As Greek colonists sailed outwards from their homeland into the Mediterranean and founded some of the greatest cities of antiquity, they brought trade and commerce. Syracuse, for example, was founded by the Corinthian aristocrat Archias in either 734 or 733 BCE. While the mint in Syracuse struck a series of standard Pegasi staters (below), they also produced a number of uniquely Syracusan designs. Since the Syracuse mint operated from around 510 to 212 BCE, there are many of these types available for study.
One such coin, struck during the time of Timoleon in the second half of the third century BCE, depicts a bearded Zeus wearing a Corinthian helmet on the obverse and a Pegasus on the reverse flying over a dolphin. This dilitron was a brand-new denomination developed during a cultural revival. These bronze coins, also found in various fractional denominations, dominated the area until Agathokles (r. 317-289 BCE) came to power.
During the Punic Wars, Hieron II (r. 274-216 BCE) of Syracuse struck a series of bronze coins that depict the head of either Apollo or Persephone on the obverse and a flying Pegasus on the reverse.
Accompanying these bronze denominations are a series of silver Carthaginian decadrachmai struck around the island at various unknown mints. While one of the most common designs found on Carthage’s coins is the horse, this depiction of Pegasus represents an interesting melding of North African and Greek design.
Pegasus was also a popular mythical figure to the east, in the Ionian Greek colonies. This electrum stater from an uncertain Ionian mint, struck between 620 and 550 BCE, is actually older than the archaic Corinthian staters and is considered the earliest numismatic depictions of Pegasus.
In the following centuries, the cities of Ionia would produce a vast number of coins depicting Pegasus. This trend continued even after the Achaemenid Persians seized control of the region and came to rule over the Ionian Greek colonies. For example, Spithridates, the Satrap of Lydia and Ionia under Darius II, struck this tetrobol between 335 and 334 BCE immediately preceding Alexander the Great’s invasion of Asia. While this fractional silver coin depicts Pegasus on the reverse, the obverse shows an extremely rare portrait of the satrap.
Since Pegasus was such a popular image in the ancient Greek world, the cities discussed in this article represent only a fraction of the places that struck coins depicting the mythical winged horse. Many more cities in Thrace, Italy, mainland Greece, the Middle East, and various Celtic tribes all struck coins with Pegasus, either as a main design element or as a smaller device acting for example as a mint mark.
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