CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
ANCIENT PEOPLE WHO lived around the shores of the Mediterranean were intimately familiar with the marine life around them. Fish were a critical resource for these societies, figuring prominently in their culture, art, and mythology from very early times. When coinage came into wide use in the sixth century BCE, fish, shellfish, and marine mammals became common symbols on coins.
Ancient coin engravers were not scientific illustrators, and so their depictions of sea creatures are often impressionistic, fanciful, or just inaccurate. Classical numismatists are not marine biologists, and modern English fish nomenclature is imprecise; completely different species are often referred to under generic names like “grouper” or “tuna”.
As early as 600 BCE the Greek town of Cyzicus (Kyzikos) on the Sea of Marmara used a tunny fish (Euthynnus alletteratus) as its civic emblem on its coinage. This species is smaller than the mighty Bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) and Yellowfin (Thunnus albacares) tunas more familiar to modern diners. Vast schools of tunny migrated seasonally between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; they were harvested, salted, and processed into fish sauce by coastal towns. A tiny (10 mm diameter) silver obol dated c. 600 – 550 BCE bears a tunny in profile–quite detailed for such a small coin, and possibly the earliest image of a fish on any coin.
Beginning around 550 BCE, Cyzicus issued electrum staters, which became an international trade currency throughout the Greek world. Some 240 different types are known, with designs changing often (perhaps annually). The reverse was a simple square punch divided into four sectors. The coins bear no inscriptions; the fish served to identify them. Weighing about 16 grams, the stater was about half gold and half silver, although the proportions and the color varied (8 – 12 kt). One Cyzicene stater was worth about six silver Athenian tetradrachms; the exchange rate varied over time. On one early type, a kneeling male figure holds the fish by its tail. On another, a bizarre human-headed mythological bird, the Siren, holds the fish.
Phocaea (or Phokaia) was a seaport located on the eastern coast of the Aegean. The historian Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BCE) credits the Phocaeans as the first Greeks to sail as far as the Atlantic coast of Spain. In Greek, phoke means “seal”, and this marine mammal became the city’s emblem on coinage. An electrum hekte (one-sixth of a stater) shows three seals with enormous eyes swimming around a ringed pellet that may represent the sun. The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) is probably the animal depicted – monk seals have prominent eyes. The British Museum has a very rare early stater of Phocaea (only two known!) showing a single seal swimming.
Of all the sea creatures that appear on ancient coins, the dolphin is probably the most common. The common Mediterranean species is the graceful “short-beaked dolphin” (Delphinus delphis) not the larger Atlantic “bottle-nose dolphin” (Tursiops truncatus) more familiar to us from movies and aquariums. Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) studied dolphins and wrote in his History of Animals that they breathe air and communicate with sound underwater.
Ancient Greeks had great affection for this creature, there are many legends of dolphins rescuing mariners. The city of Tarentum (now Taranto) in southern Italy, founded by colonists from Sparta in the eighth century BCE, used the image of a boy riding a dolphin on coins as early as 510 BCE. The boy is variously identified as Taras, son of the sea god Poseidon, or Phalanthos, the legendary founder of the city.
The earliest coins of Tarentum bore the same image on both sides, with the reverse design engraved in “incuse”, or recessed below the surface – a technically difficult technique meant to hinder counterfeiting (American “Indian head” half-eagle and quarter-eagle gold coins bear incuse designs). A magnificent example brought $19,000 USD in a recent auction.
Classical coinage of Tarentum (after c. 450 BCE) adopted a more conventional format, with a horse and rider on the reverse. Either the nose or the tail of the dolphin often falls off the edge of the coin, so perfectly centered examples are particularly desirable.
Zancle, Syracuse, and Argos
Many Greek cities adopted the dolphin as a symbol on their coins. Zancle (now Messina) at the northeastern tip of Sicily, founded by Greek colonists in the eighth century BCE, depicted a leaping dolphin within its sickle-shaped harbor on its coins. An early example (c. 500 BCE) with an impressive pedigree brought over $40,000 in a 2011 Swiss auction.
Dekadrachms are the superstars of classical Greek numismatics. These massive (43 gram) coins gave master engravers ample scope to display creative talent and technical skill. And among dekadrachms, those issued by Syracuse are widely regarded as the finest. And among the dekadrachms of Syracuse, a rare coin known as the “Demarateion” is considered a masterpiece. Less than 20 examples are known.
The name of the coin is a misunderstanding.
It was once thought that the type was struck with the proceeds of a gift of 100 gold talents made by Carthage to Queen Demarete, wife of Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse (r. 485 – 478) in gratitude for her aid in negotiating a peace treaty after their crushing defeat at the Battle of Himera in 480 BCE. The current consensus is that the coin was actually issued later, c. 465.
On the reverse, four dolphins circle around a majestic head of Arethusa, the mythical sea nymph who presided over a freshwater fountain, which can still be visited on the waterfront of Syracuse’s magnificent harbor. A worn example of this famous type went for over $100,000 in a recent Swiss auction. Perhaps the finest example of this coin is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, although not currently on display.
Argos was one of the most ancient Greek cities on the Peloponnesian peninsula. The patron goddess of the city was Hera, and the wolf was the civic emblem that appears on most of the coinage. On the reverse of a superb silver tetradrachm dated c. 370 – 350, two graceful dolphins circle around a running wolf. Pedigreed to several famous collections, this coin is described as “Extremely rare and among the finest if not the finest tetradrachm of Argos in existence.”
Lycia and Itanos
Some sea creatures on ancient coins are imaginary. The Lycians, a non-Greek people of southwestern Anatolia, issued a rare silver stater (c. 500 – 440 BCE) with a mythical bearded sea monster on both sides. Itanos, a Greek city on the island of Crete, adorned its silver stater (c. 350 BCE) with the image of Glaukos, a sea-god with the body of a man and the tail of a fish. On the reverse, two curved sea monsters confront one another. An example of this rare type from the famous Nelson Bunker Hunt collection brought $60,000 in a 2012 New York auction.
Located on the southern coast of Sicily, the Greek city of Akragas (now Agrigento) created some of the most beautiful ancient coins during a glorious period of prosperity in the fifth century BCE. The city’s emblem, a crab, appears on most of its coinage. On the reverse of a magnificent silver tetradrachm dated to c. 420, a fish with its jaws open wide accompanies the crab.
In a monumental study of the coinage of Akragas, Swedish numismatist Ulla Westermark wrote:
“The identification of this remarkable fish has caused some controversy. It has been called a gurnard, Genus Triglia, a John Dory and most often a stone-bass, Polyprium cernium, a giant sea-perch. The most convincing identification is however that given by F. E. Zeuner, who concludes that it is not a cernia but a related sea-perch or mero, Epinephelus guaza L., also a very large species, reaching four feet in length. The rounded tail fin is an important distinctive mark of the mero. Both species appear in Aristotle… (Westermark, 100)”
Built near the narrow, strategic isthmus connecting the Greek mainland to the Peloponnesian peninsula, the city of Corinth thrived on trade, and its handsome coins circulated widely. Corinthian silver staters (about 8.5 grams) depict the winged horse Pegasus on the obverse. The reverse bears the helmeted head of the goddess Athena, often accompanied by a small symbol that served to distinguish different batches of coins at the mint. On a stater dated c. 400-375 BCE, the symbol behind Athena is probably a red scorpionfish (Scorpaena scrofa) a spiny Mediterranean species prized as an ingredient in bouillabaisse, a fish stew.
Founded around 688 BCE by colonists from Rhodes and Crete, Gela on the south coast of Sicily was located on a river of the same name. Most of the city’s coins bear an image of the river god as a man-headed bull. On a rare silver tetradrachm, c. 425 BCE, the river god appears as a youth, surrounded by three large fish, rendered in great detail. These appear to be fresh-water species, uncommon on ancient coins.
Some of the most spectacular ancient Greek coins were issued by the wealthy city of Pantikapaion, on the Black Sea (now Kerch in Crimea). The city’s emblem was a griffin, and the head of the god Pan is the typical obverse on coins. A bronze of uncertain denomination, dated to c. 310 BCE shows a recognizably long-nosed image of a sturgeon (Huso huso) below the griffin on the reverse. The source of valuable caviar, the sturgeon is now critically endangered in the Black Sea and Caspian.
Byzantium and Anchialus
The Greek city of Byzantium was strategically located on the Bosporus, a narrow strait connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Fish were important in its economy. Like many Greek towns under Roman rule, it issued bronze coinage for local circulation. An example in the name of Sabina, wife of the emperor Hadrian (ruled 128 – 137 CE) shows a pair of tunny fish on the reverse.
Anchialus (now Pomorie, on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria) was another fishing port that celebrated its product on its local bronze coinage. A coin in the name of Julia Domna, wife of Emperor Septimius Severus (ruled 193 – 211 CE) shows three fish on the reverse. Provincial towns often honored empresses on their coins, in gratitude (or in expectation) of imperial favor.
A number of popular ancient coins feature signs of the zodiac. The constellation of Pisces, represented by a pair of fish swimming in opposite directions, appears on a large bronze drachm of Alexandria in Egypt, issued under the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (ruled 138 – 161). Pierced twice in antiquity, perhaps for wear as an ornament, this scarce coin was formerly in the collection of eminent American numismatist Kerry Wetterstrom.
Any review of fish on ancient coins must include a charming little bronze semis (it took 32 to equal one silver denarius) issued c. 55 BCE by Carteia, a town founded by the Phoenicians on the Bay of Gibraltar and “semi-autonomous” under Roman rule. The reverse shows a seated fisherman, with a fish dangling from the end of his line. A very fine specimen brought $650 in a 2011 auction. This coin is cited in a recent article in The Numismatist (Fox, 63).
The author is grateful to members of the Facebook group Ancient Coins, Roman, Greek, Provincial, Byzantine, Celtic and Hammered, who generously shared their expertise in the preparation of this article.
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 Obolos 14, 15 December 2019, Lot 173 (estimate CHF 50).
 CNG Electronic Auction 454, 16 October 2019, Lot 129. Realized $3,750 USD (estimate $2,000).
 Roma Numismatics, Auction XVIII, 29 September 2019. Realized UK£10,000 ($12,333).
 Harlan J. Berk Sale 194, 9 July 2015, Lot 7. Realized $2,000 USD.
 Sadly, this beautiful creature is now endangered, with only a few hundred left
 For a picture of this remarkable coin, see:
 The same image appears on the city’s modern coat of arms
 CNG Auction 112, 11 September 2019, Lot 9. Realized $19,000 USD (estimate $15,000).
 NAC Auction 116, 1 October 2019, Lot 50. Realized CHF 100,000 (estimate CHF 120,000).
 The Museum asserts copyright over its coin imagery, but a superb photo can be seen at: https://collections.mfa.org/objects/1205
 NAC Auction 72, 16 May 2013, Lot 363. Realized CHF 65,000 [$67,774] (estimate 60,000).
 New York Sale XXVII (Prospero Collection), 4 January 2012, Lot 566. Realized $13,000 USD (estimate $7,000).
 New York Sale XXVII (Prospero Collection), 4 January 2012, Lot 443. Realized $60,000 USD (estimate $8,000).
 Leu Numismatik, Auction 81, 16 May 2001, Lot 45. Realized CHF 72,000 (estimate CHF 45,000).
 Roma Numismtics, E-sale 45, 5 May 2018, Lot 155. Realized UK£900 ($1,219) (estimate £350).
 NAC Auction 72, 16 May 2013, Lot 310. Realized CHF 18,000 [$18,760] (estimate CHF 15,000).
 Numismatik Naumann Auction 82, 6 October 2019, Lot 21. Realized €280 [$307] (estimate €80).
 CNG Mail Bid Sale 60, 22 May 2002, Lot 1200. Realized $300 USD (estimate $200).
 CNG Auction 88, 14 September 2011, Lot 731. Realized $900 USD (estimate $300).
 CNG Triton XXI, 9 January 2018, Lot 125. Realized $2,250 USD (estimate $2,000).
 CNG Auction 88, 14 September 2011, Lot 665. Realized $650 USD (estimate $300).
Fox, Mark. “Fishy Issues, Part I”, The Numismatist (October 2019)
Kraay, Colin. Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. New York (1976)
Mildenberg, Leo. “The Cyzicenes: A Reappraisal”, American Journal of Numismatics 5-6 (1993-1994)
Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values. London (19XX)
Seltman, Charles. Greek Coins. London (1955)
Westermark, Ulla. The Coinage of Akragas, c. 510-406 BC. Uppsala, Sweden (2018)
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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.