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The Crab coins of the Ancient World

Coins from the ancient world are nothing short of fascinating. Anyone with even a passing interest in history, art or archaeology will almost certainly find coins minted in Greek and Roman times worthy of intrigue. This may be down to the particular emperor on a Roman coin, or the deity, or in this case animal, that takes pride of place on the metal.

Text Box: Silver Didrachm of Akragas, c. 480-470 BC.
Silver Didrachm of Akragas, c. 480-470 BC.

Crab coins are some of the most instantly recognisable from antiquity. The constellation Cancer is, of course, a crab. The animal was also associated with the sea god, Poseidon. Minted in the ancient city of Akragas (modern day Agrigento) in Sicily, the elegantly engraved design of an eight-legged crustacean never fails to draw attention – at museums or coin fairs. This may be for one simple reason; how often do you see a crab on a coin? The answer is, rarely. The Carian island of Kos also issued coins with a similar motif. The name ‘Kos’ comes from the ancient Greek word for crab and hence, it was chosen as an emblem of the island.

Text Box: Silver Tetradrachm of Kos, c. 350-345 BC, issued under the magistrate Nestoridas.
Silver Tetradrachm of Kos, c. 350-345 BC, issued under the magistrate Nestoridas.
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Kos’ connection to the crab leaves little room for debate, but why did the inhabitants of Akragas choose to adorn their coins with the creature? Symbols of power and wealth in the ancient world, coins were a method of spreading the political ideals and values of the societies that produced them. Akragas, a relatively young city-state, was founded around 580 BC, and within only a few decades was issuing its own coinage. The city found prosperity in fertile farmland, and focused on strengthening its naval power. The crab was likely chosen as a symbol of Akragas’ strength: a master of the land and the sea. By the turn of the 5th Century BC, Akragas had grown in power and, on Sicily, was second only to the enormous city of Syracuse.      

Text Box: Large Silver Tetradrachm of Akragas, minted c. 465-446 BC, exhibiting a beautiful cabinet tone. Ex Glendining’s, 1982.
Large Silver Tetradrachm of Akragas, minted c. 465-446 BC, exhibiting a beautiful cabinet tone. Ex Glendining’s, 1982.
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The city’s coinage, like many of the Greek world, consisted of silver Tetradrachms, Didrachms and smaller denominations. Also issued was a short-lived series of exceptionally rare decadrachms. Bronze coins were also issued for use as small change. The crab motif is actually the reverse of the coin, and appears in a shallow concave (or ‘incuse’) circle. Some rare pieces depict a crab with its carapace taking the form of a human face. The local river god may be behind this strange addition to the design. On the obverse an eagle, representing Zeus, the king of the Greek pantheon, takes pride of place.

Unfortunately for Akragas, following the period of prosperity in the 5th Century the city was sacked by Carthaginian forces in 406 BC. While it would never recover its status as a powerful ancient Greek city, its legendary crab coinage harks back to a time when Akragas held power over land and sea.

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