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The most beautiful coins of Greek and Italian islands

Valley of the Temples, Sicily. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In this blog, we will look into a few coins of antiquity from the most beautiful Greek and Italian islands. The islands of Sicily, Rhodes and Kos are known for their ancient heritage and artistic excellence.

The coins are a witness to their power, economic and military prowess. They are coveted by collectors around the world for their unsurpassed rarity and value, as well as their beauty.

 A masterpiece of Greek art from Sicily

The city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily is notable for its rich Greek and Roman heritage with its temples, villas and amphitheatres. This 2,700-year-old city was one of the major powers of the Mediterranean world.  It was founded by ancient Greek Corinthians and Teneans, becoming a powerful city-state that exerted influence over Magna Graecia. Once described by Cicero as ‘the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all’, Syracuse gave the world the most beautiful coins of antiquity.

Caption: Sicily, Syracuse, Dionysios I Silver Decadrachm (405-367 BC). Image:  A.H. Baldwin & Sons

The silver decadrachm depicted dates from the end of the 5th century BC and beginning of the 4th century BC. Today, the decadrachms of Syracuse are highly prized by collectors for their artistic beauty, historical importance, keeping their value and increasing rarity. They testify of the amazing talents of ancient Greek artists, notable for the particularly beautiful rendering of nymph Arethusa, wearing a wreath of grain ears in her hair, exquisite earrings with triple pendants and a pearl necklace.  These coins became renowned throughout the ancient world and enormously influential on subsequent coinage.

Wonder of the Ancient World from Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes, a potential look as imagined on the 16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskerck. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In ancient Greece, the favourable position and climate made Rhodes a great maritime and commercial power. The island rose to a position of wealth and influence among other city-states of Greece. The Colossus of Rhodes was a testament to this power: a statue of the Sun god Helios, finished by Chares of Lindos in 280 BC. It was deemed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. According to most contemporary descriptions, the Colossus stood approximately 70 cubits or 33 metres high, considered the tallest statue of the ancient world. It collapsed during the earthquake of 226 BC; however, the coinage of Rhodes might reveals us more about its likeness.  

Rhodes, Silver Didrachm (c. 229-205 BC). The obverse features a head of Helios with a radiate crown. Image: A.H. Baldwin & Sons

The handsome face of Helios found its way onto silver coins of Rhodes, most notably didrachms and tetradrachms.  Rhodians claimed Helios as their divine founder and used his radiate head widely as an emblem in art and trade. The didrachms, such as the one depicted, had wide circulation in the eastern Mediterranean. Helios remained on the coinage of Rhodes for centuries.

Kos: the island of Herakles and the crab

Remains of the ancient Odeon of Kos. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Another beautiful Aegean island is Kos, a part of Dodecanese group, known for its sandy beaches. The island is rich with Greek and Roman landmarks, such as the ruins of the ancient Agora, temples and Roman villas with luxurious mosaics. In the Hellenistic period, Kos reached the pinnacle of its prosperity. Ptolemaic kings of Egypt used it as a naval outpost to oversee the Aegean Sea. It became a favourite resort for the education of the princes of the Ptolemaic dynasty, famous for its sanctuary of Asclepius, as well as wine production and silk-making.

Kos, Silver Tetradrachm (c. 350-345 BC). The coin features head of Herakles on the obverse and a crab on the reverse. Image: A.H. Baldwin & Sons

The name Kos is first attested in the Iliad and it has been used ever since. The coins of Kos, such as the tetradrachm depicted, feature Heakles because of the myth about his landing to the island. Herakles was traveling by sea when goddess Hera, who disliked him profoundly, sent a storm to sink his boats. Herakles and only a few friends survived, swimming to Kos. On the obverse of the coin we can see the crab – the most famous ‘inhabitant’ of the Koan coins. In scholarship, there are various theories about why the crab made it onto the coins. In Greek mythology, a giant crab (Karkinos) was an enemy of Herakles that assisted the Hydra battling Herakles at Lerna; Herakles crushed the crab under his foot. Yet the crab was honoured by Hera and placed among the stars becoming Cancer constellation.  In the alternative mythology of Kos, a crab was said to be the ally of Herakles, but the origin story has been lost. To this day, crabs still feature prominently on the island, mostly as delicacies of Koan restraurants.

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Literature:

Figueira, T. (2010), The Power of Money: Coinage and Politics in the Athenian Empire, University of Pennsylvania Press

Higgins, R. (1988), ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’, in Clayton, P.A., Jessop Price, M., (eds.), The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Psychology Press.

Mørkholm, O. (1991), Early Hellenistic Coinage from the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamaea (336-188 BC), Cambridge University Press

Morris, I. (2008), ‘The Greater Athenian State’, in Morris, I., Scheidel, W., (eds.). The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium, Oxford University Press.

This article is written by Ema Sikic, Sales Executive of Stanley Gibbons and A. H. Baldwin & Sons. For more information about coins please contact ema@baldwin.co.uk

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