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The Barley Coins from Metapontum

The rich, fertile lands of Italy and Sicily were irresistible for Greek colonists. Hundreds of new cities were founded during the 1st millennium BC, along the coastlines of Southern Italy and Sicily. Some became hugely successful trading centres and, as in mainland Greece, there were rivalries and ultimately clashes between the various city-states which vied for power over parts of the peninsula. These swathes of new cities gave Italy and Sicily the name ‘Magna Graecia’ or Greater Greece.

Coins originally emerged from Lydia and Ionia around 650 BC and within a century the most powerful cities in the Greek world were issuing their own coins. These included a handful of states in Magna Graecia. The coins of Metapontum in Lucania are some of the most instantly recognisable from the ancient world. This particular city owed most of its vast wealth to the abundance of barley it was able to produce in its fertile land. The inhabitants chose to adorn their coins with a large grain-ear, either as a reference to their wealth, or an etymological link (as Monterio suggests) to the Greek word for the autumn harvest, metoporinos, which would have seen the gathering of the city’s grain crop.

Silver nomos struck at Metapontum, c. 510-470 BC. Note the unusual incuse design.

The earliest coins of Greek Italy share a unique feature in their design. Working on their own weight standard, the silver nomos coins issued by Croton, Sybaris and Metapontum featured their various designs on both sides of the coin. Looking at the obverse, the coins appear much like any other but when turned over, it is obvious that the reverse exhibits the same design but in an incuse (concave) form. The result is a coin which looks as if its design had been stamped right through, almost like a seal. Exactly why the cities of Southern Italy chose to make their coins in this way is uncertain. It has been suggested that the great mathematician Pythagoras was responsible – he had, after all, lived in all three of the cities which produced the earliest of these incuse coins. This theory is considered somewhat farfetched, and Monterio suggests it is more likely those responsible for creating these had no concept of what would later become the traditional model of a coin – the head of a deity/ruler on one side and a design on the other. The die engravers of Magna Graecia were in effect pioneers, creating what they saw fit in this new medium, coinage, which was barely a century old.

Incuse silver nomos from Croton in Bruttium. Along with Metapontum it was one of the earliest cities to produced coins of this type. The tripod was an emblem of the city.  c. 550-500 BC.
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Given the city’s apparent reliance on the grain, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, appears on later coins produced in Metapontum. The head of Demeter is always represented as a young woman, frequently engraved in exquisite beauty to a very high level of quality. Demeter appears in a variety of different styles, leading Hill (2012) to suggest that the artists responsible for her engraving may have taken inspiration from real life.

A later silver nomos from Metapontum featuring the obligatory ear of barley juxtaposed with the goddess Demeter. c. 330-280 BC.
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The helmeted head of a bearded man appears on nomos coins struck in Metapontum, around the 4th Century BC. The portrait that of Leukippos, the alleged founder of the city, though later historians from the ancient world ascribe the foundation of Metapontum to various other figures. Regardless, the artistically accomplished portraits of the bearded Leukippos depict the man wearing a Corinthian Helmet, and the trademark ear of barley still appears on the coin, as it had in the centuries before. The Leukippos issues are some of the few coins from the Greek world to depict the portrait of a city’s founder and are, as such, fascinating.

The city-founder Leukippos, depicted bearded and helmeted. Silver nomos, c. 340-330 BC.
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References

Hill, P (2012) The Prospero Collection. London. Baldwin’s

Monterio, L. D. (2006) A Silver Stater from Metapontum in the Kelsey Museum. Michigan. University of Michigan

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