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Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 2 (September-May 1951-52)

Greek Coins

page 34

Greek Coins

The invention of coinage, if for our present purpose we define coins as pieces of metal stamped with an official badge as a guarantee of purity and weight, can be placed with reasonable certainty in Asia Minor at the beginning of the seventh century B.C., and attributed either to the kings of Lydia or to the Ionian Greeks who had close commercial relations with them. The art of cutting seal-stones in intaglio had been known for many centuries, and the technique of making coins was in principle the same as that of making seal-impressions, but instead of seal-stone being pressed into clay or wax, the intaglio was set in an anvil and the hot metal hammered down into it with a punch. The obverse of the coin is the side which has received its impression from the lower or anvil die, and the reverse the side which has been marked by the punch. In the earliest coins the mark of the punch is an incuse (stamped) impression either square or circular. Later a design was added within the incuse square or circle, which in time became no less elaborate than the design on the obverse. From the fourth century onwards the incuse impression has disappeared and the reverse is distinguishable only by a certain degree of concavity in the surface, not always recognizable from photographs.

From Asia Minor, where the earliest coins were of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, coinage quickly spread over the AEgean. On the mainland of Greece, silver coinage replaced the handful (drachma) of iron spits already in use as a unit of exchange. There was much rivalry between different standards of currency. A large commercial city tended to impose its own standards, if not its own coinage, over a wide area. By the fifth century Athenian silver tetradrachms (four-square drachma pieces), minted from the rich supply of silver in the mines at Laurium, in Attica, had become the most widely accepted coinage of the AEgean area, and were to remain so until they were replaced by the tetradrachms of Alexander the Great. Meanwhile, in the sixth and fifth centuries, the prosperous Greek colonies of South Italy and Sicily had developed their own coinages, and established traditions of workmanship hardly equalled anywhere else in the Greek world.

We are here reproducing obverses and reverses of five coins from the Fels collection, one from Athens, three from Syracuse and one from Gela, another Sicilian city.

The Athenian coin is a silver tetradrachm (fig. 1) of about the middle of the fifth century. The obverse type is the head of Athena, the reverse of an owl, with an olive spray, a waning moon and the first three letters of the name of the city. The combination of the two types had first been used by Pisistratus, who came to power about a century before and was anxious to appear as a national statesman under the protection of the city's patron goddess. Hence the head of Atheria and also the owl and the olive, which had certain religious associations with the goddess. Once the tetradrachms bearing these two types had gained a wide currency in the Ægean. Athens showed a conservatism in her coinage unparalleled in ancient history. Only minor details were added, such as the olive leaves on the helmet and the waning moon on the reverse—both probably allusions to the Athenian victory at Marathon—and the style of the engraving lagged far behind contemporary developments in Athenian sculpture and in coinage elsewhere. The deep incuse square, for example, on the reverse had been abandoned by many contemporary coinages, and in the treatment of the features the only obvious advance from the archaic style is that the eye, instead of being presented as lozenge-shaped even in profile, follows the naturalistic trend of vase-painting and relief sculpture and is shown as more triangular in shape, with the iris almost hiding the inner corner. Such were the famous ‘owls of Athens’ which for two centuries dominated Mediterranean commerce.

Of the three Syracusan coins, two are earlier than the Athenian tetradrachm, one considerably later. The first as a silver litra-piece (fig. 2), weighing about 0.86 grammes, which was the silver equivalent of the native Sicilian copper unit, the litra (akin to the Italian libra). Since five silver litrae happened to be equal in weight to an Attic drachma and twenty to the tetradrachm, the native Sicilian standard was not incompatible with the Attic standard, and Sicilian tetradrachms were coined on the Attic standard and regarded as twenty-litra pieces.

Both the litra and the first (fig. 3) of the two tetradrachms belong to the first quarter of the fifth century. The head on the obverse of the litra and on the reverse of the tetradrachm is that of Artemis-Arethusa, the Athena of Syracuse. On these two coins the treatment of the hair, which undergoes so many variations in the archaic period, both on coins and in sculpture, is strikingly similar. It projects over the brow, and at the back of the neck is turned up under the diadem with the ends hanging free. The two most important tools used by the die-engraver were the graver and the punch. Hence the prevalence, especially in the archaic period, of lines such as those used here in the stylized treatment of the hair and of beads and dots. The four dolphins surrounding the head on the tetradrachm symbolize the harbour of Syracuse, and the inscription reads: ‘Of the Syracusans’. On the obverse of the tetradrachm is a four-horse chariot, with a winged figure of victory above, crowning the horses with a wreath. Chariot-racing was an aristocratic sport, and a victory in the Pan-Hellenic games was much coveted by tyrants and often won by the tyrants of Sicilian cities. The horses have the slender page 35
1. Athenian Silver Tetradrachm: ca. 450 B.C.

1. Athenian Silver Tetradrachm: ca. 450 B.C.

2. Syracusan Silver Litra: early 5th century.

2. Syracusan Silver Litra: early 5th century.

3. Syracusan Silver Tetradrachm: early 5th century B.C.

3. Syracusan Silver Tetradrachm: early 5th century B.C.

4. Syracusan Silver Tetradrachm: ca. 387–367 B.C.

4. Syracusan Silver Tetradrachm: ca. 387–367 B.C.

5. Silver Tetradrachm from Gela: early 5th century.

5. Silver Tetradrachm from Gela: early 5th century.

proportions familiar to us from vase-paintings of the black-figure period. On the reverse of the litra is a cuttlefish, symbolical of the rocky shores of the harbour of Syracuse, and with it the first four letters of the name of the city.

In the second half of the fifth century the skill of the Syracusan die-engravers had become so well recognized that they were allowed to place their signatures on the city's coinage. One of them was Euainetus, and, though we have no signed coin by him in the collection, the next coin (fig. 4) gives a fair idea of the tradition he established. It belongs probably to the last twenty years (387-367) of the reign of Dionysius the Elder. The triskeles or three-legged figure on the reverse is a symbol for Sicily, the three-cornered island, over which Dionysius claimed to have extended his dominion.

The last coin (fig. 5) takes us back again to the first half of the fifth century. It is a didrachm from Gela, a city which was at this time subject to the tyrant of Syracuse. On the obverse is a naked horseman, brandishing a lance. The horse is somewhat less archaic than on the early Syracusan tetradrachm. On the reverse is the forepart of a man-headed bull, the river-god Gelas, swimming in his own river. Our coin is well worn, but the difference in texture between the skin of the neck and the hair of the beard, produced by the use of punch and graver respectively, is still visible.

I have purposely confined myself to stating the approximate dates and provenances of these coins and briefly explaining the meaning of their symbols, without extolling their merits. They must be judged on the effectiveness of their symbolism in relation to a design contained within a small circle, and on the æsthetic merits of the design itself. For this the information I have given and the accompanying photographs should suffice. There is perhaps one further feature that can only be appreciated by handling the coins themselves. Most of the designs are in comparatively high relief, and some of the tetradrachms are nearly a quarter of an inch thick. Consequently they possess a solidity which adds to the æsthetic pleasure of handling them, but might suggest an unfavourable contrast, on practical grounds, with the flat discs, moulded in low relief, to which we are accustomed.