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Turtles and Tortoises on Ancient Coins


CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

A hare one day ridiculed the short feet and slow pace of the Tortoise, who replied, laughing: “Though you be swift as the wind, I will beat you in a race.” … On the day appointed for the race the two started together. The Tortoise never for a moment stopped, but went on with a slow but steady pace straight to the end of the course. The Hare, lying down by the wayside, fell fast asleep. At last waking up, and moving as fast as he could, he saw the Tortoise had reached the goal, and was comfortably dozing after her fatigue.

Slow but steady wins the race.

Aesop, “The Hare and The Tortoise”[1]

TURTLES ARE AQUATIC; they live mainly in water. Tortoises are terrestrial; they live mainly on land. Both were familiar to ancient people, and they figure prominently as symbols in Greek and Roman mythology, art, literature, and, occasionally, on coins.

Three species of sea turtle are native to the Mediterranean: the green turtle (Chelonia mydas[2]); the loggerhead (Caretta caretta); and the mighty leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), which appears most often on ancient coins.

in-Asia-MinorelectrumturtleWhen the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) classified European tortoises, he named one common variety Testudo graeca (“Greek tortoise”). It appears on a rare, early electrum stater (c. 600-500 BCE) from an uncertain mint in Asia Minor. In a 2012 New York auction[3], an example sold for US$120,000 against an estimate of $30,000.

Aegina Sea Turtles

Aegina, an island 30 km (about 20 miles) southwest of Athens, was the first Greek city to mass-produce silver coinage, possibly as early as 580 BCE (Kroll & Waggoner, 339).

These coins bore the city’s badge: a sea turtle.

Aegina traded in silver long before the invention of coinage, and one theory is that the turtle was chosen because primitive silver ingots had a rounded “turtle-back” shape. Trace element analysis indicates that the silver came from mines on the island of Sifnos (or Siphnos), about 130 km (80 miles) to the southeast.

The “Aeginetan” weight standard included a didrachm or stater of 12.2 grams, a drachma of 6.1 grams, a hemidrachm or triobol of about three grams and an obol of one gram. The staters are the most common, and have been found in hoards and single finds across the ancient world, often heavily worn from circulation, slashed with test cuts and pocked with “banker’s marks” (small punches that probably validated a coin as “good” in a particular marketplace).

aeginaturtleThe reverse of the coins bear a variety of geometric punch-marks: a “Union Jack” (a rectangle with intersecting lines resembling the pattern of the British flag), a “mill sail” (four triangles arranged like the sails of a windmill), and a “skew” (a cross with one diagonal line from the center).

Aegina Land Tortoises

Athens and Aegina were commercial and political rivals. In 456 BCE, Athens forced Aegina to pay an annual tribute of 30 talents. About 25 years later, Athens exiled the Aeginetans, replacing them with Athenian colonists. In 404 the surviving exiles were allowed to return, but Aegina never recovered its power or prosperity.

At some point in the fifth century BCE, the land tortoise replaced the sea turtle on the obverse of Aegina’s coinage.

Numismatists once considered this a symbolic reflection of Aegina’s loss of naval power, but this is now considered improbable. Most of the tortoise types seem to date from the period 350-338 BCE, but there are examples that seem to be from much earlier dates.

Kydonia on Crete was colonized by Aegina in the fifth century and produced a small volume of silver hemidrachms bearing a tortoise. These are roughly datable to 450-330 BCE.

Other Greeks

A few other ancient states and cities used turtles or tortoises as major designs or small symbols on their coinage. Lycia, a rather mysterious non-Greek kingdom in the southwest corner of Asia Minor, issued its own coinage under “Uncertain dynasts” in the early fifth century BCE. The obverse of a silver stater (about nine grams) shows a wild boar, and the reverse shows a tortoise.

Examples typically sell at auction for $300-500.

The Greek city of Teos in Ionia began issuing coinage around 540 BCE, bearing the distinctive emblem of a winged griffin raising one paw. On silver staters struck between 478 and 465 BCE a small tortoise appears in the field, perhaps the personal badge of a magistrate or mint official.

The small city of Methymna on the island of Lesbos issued coins (mostly silver obols and hemiobols weighing a fraction of a gram) from c. 500 to 250 BCE. The tortoise frequently appears as a reverse design, often within a dotted square border.

Roman Turtles

romanturtleThe earliest image of a tortoise on a Roman coin is a rare aes grave (“heavy bronze”) sextans dated to c. 265-242 BCE. Originally one-sixth of a Roman pound, the sextans was gradually downsized; this piece weighs just under 40 grams. Crudely cast, the coin bears a lumpy tortoise on the obverse and a six-spoked wheel on the reverse. In a 2013 European auction an example (“possibly the finest known”) sold for over $9,800[4].

These animals rarely appear on later Roman coinage except in the form of musical instruments. There were many different sizes and varieties of the ancient stringed instrument generically called a “lyre”, but one type–the chelys–has a sound-box or “resonator” made from a tortoise shell. According to legend, the infant god Hermes invented the chelys when he crawled from the cave where he was born, killed a tortoise, and stretched seven strings across its empty shell. His half-brother Apollo was so charmed by the music that he traded his magical cattle for it, becoming the god of music.

A chelys appears as the reverse of a rare gold aureus of Augustus issued c. 19 BCE showing the instrument with only four strings. Only two examples of this type have appeared on the market in recent years[5].

Collecting Turtles

A type collection of turtles on ancient coins would probably begin with some coins of Aegina, which can be found across a wide range of prices and grades. The British Museum Catalog (Head, 1888) is still often cited as the standard reference for this complex coinage.

Other types would be an interesting challenge to locate and acquire, but numismatics is a hobby that rewards patience and persistence.

Turtles appear on many modern coins, notably the pre-decimal sixpence of Fiji, the current Cayman Islands 10-cent piece and the bimetallic Colombian 1,000 peso.

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[1] Aesop lived circa 620-564 BCE

[2] Once prized for turtle soup, the green turtle is now endangered throughout its global range

[3] New York Sale XXVII, 4 January 2012. The Prospero Collection, Lot 499

[4] NAC Auction 74, 18 November 2013, Lot 298

[5] CNG Triton XI, 8 Jan 2008. Lot 696 (sold for US$20,000); NAC Auction 27, 12 May 2004. Lot 293 (US$30,644).


Aesop. Aesop’s Fables. Trans. George F. Townsend. Chicago, 1887. Online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/aesop/

Ashton, N.G. “What Does the Turtle Say?”, Numismatic Chronicle 147. 1987.

Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Whitman, 2008.

Casale, Paolo and Dimitris Margaritoulis. Sea Turtles in the Mediterranean: Distribution, Threats and Conservation Priorities. IUCN, 2010.

Farhi, Yoav and Yuval Gadot. “Aegina in Jerusalem: A ‘Turtle’ Stater from Southern Jerusalem”, Israel Numismatic Research 7. 2012.

Head, Barclay. Catalogue of Greek Coins: Attica – Megaris – Aegina. British Museum, 1888.

Holloway, R. Ross. “An Archaic Hoard from Crete and the Early Aeginetan Coinage”, ANS Museum Notes 17. 1971.

Kagan, Donald. “Pheidon’s Aeginetan Coinage”, Proceedings of the American Philological Association 91. 1960.

Kitchell, Kenneth. Animals in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge, 2013.

Kraay C.M. Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. London, 1976.

Kroll, John and Nancy Waggoner. “Dating the Earliest Coins of Athens, Corinth and Aegina”, American Journal of Archaeology 88. 1984.

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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.

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  1. Hello, I just purchased a “Turtle “Coin” from South-East Asia.18th circa, It is 25 mm, double turtle in flower shape. I’M not sure of its compound or material. I was told that it is very old, and genuine. I’M not sure who to contact concerning it’s authenticity and value. I live in Ottawa, Canada, If you, or if you know someone who knows their stuff about this coin close to me, I would really appreciate it..John M.


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