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The Coins of the Ancient Olympic Games

Few ancient sites conjure up the romantic ideals of antiquity as well as Olympia. Located close to the city of Elis in the Peloponnese, the sanctuary of Olympia is best known for the games which share its name. 

The inhabitants of Elis particularly revered two figures from the ancient Greek pantheon: Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the Gods. The great gold and ivory Statue of Zeus at Olympia was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and survived for over a thousand years, drawing visitors from miles around. Coins struck at Olympia were produced from two main mints. These have been described by Seltmann (who studied the coinage in-depth) as ‘Zeus Mint’ and ‘Hera Mint’, for the most part, these two separate mints issued coins each Olympiad (the games were, of course, held every four years).

Foreign money was not accepted in Olympia, meaning that visitors would have to exchange their cash for these special issues, to spend during the games or take back with them. This could make the coins of Olympia some of the earliest ‘collectable’ coins. This currency served as a substantial source of revenue for the city, and funded the games. Coins of Zeus were modelled after the great statue and other designs included Nike, the personification of victory (a fitting motif for coins associated with the Olympic Games) and Zeus’ eagles – it is one of these coins that we’ll examine here.

Elis, Olympia, 108th Olympiad (348 BC). Silver Stater, Zeus Mint.

Animals attacking each other appear frequently in the numismatic record of the ancient world. One only needs to think back to the early gold and silver staters of the Lydian king Croesus – the earliest coins of these metals. They depict the Lydian lion facing off against a bull. Substantial silver tetradrachms from Akanthos in Macedon feature the design of a lion attacking a bull. And on the colossal decadrachms of Akragas in Sicily, the eagles of Zeus take pride of place, tearing at a hare. On this silver stater of Olympia, an eagle is shown grasping a ram.

The die engraver responsible for this stater has taken care to make the most of the coin’s natural shape. If we look past the initial, somewhat graphic design, we can see it is made up of four concentric circles. The first is the border of dots; a feature of many ancient coins. This tried and tested piece of design sets the boundary and (in theory) the edge of the coin. The dotted border on this particular coin also serves as the rim of an elaborately designed shield. The second circle is that of the shield’s body. We can see this as the high-relief mound which protrudes from the coin. It is upon this platform that the third circle can be seen: that of the motif itself, the centrepiece of the coin. 

While most animal fight scenes appear in a linear form – the design on this stater is well and truly incorporated into the fabric of the coin. The vicious depiction of an eagle attacking a ram is completely rounded. It decorates the shield as well as the coin and is perfectly framed. The eagle’s wings are closed and rounded in parallel with the curve of the shield, dotted border and the coin itself. Its neck and head are also curved smoothly and its piercing eyes focus on the viewer rather than the prey – perhaps a further symbol of Zeus’ divine power.

Elis, Olympia, 98th Olympiad (388 BC). Silver Stater, Zeus Mint.

The unfortunate ram is contorted to complete the design; forelegs are raised, belly curved and tail behind, almost touching the tip of the eagle’s wing. These circular features result in a near-perfectly balanced piece of exquisite coin art. 

Perhaps it is these subtle design decisions which make this very rare stater so pleasing, despite the morbid subject matter. The exact background to the scene of an eagle attacking a ram is uncertain. Zeus’ eagle was indeed an omen of victory – something everyone participating in the Olympics would have strived for. It is possible the ram represents the defeated.  I’ve talked about circles a lot in this examination and maybe the coin represents even deeper concepts. The perpetual struggle of the natural world, the cycle of competition. Perhaps the circle of life and death.

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