THE AMAZING COINS OF SYRACUSE

by Lawrence S. Gaye

I have always been fascinated by the many different designs found on coins not only of my own, but those of other countries. It is always a treat to find a beautiful design and wonder why it was picked to grace a particular coin of the realm.

The answer is that there are many reasons why a coin bears the devices it does. As they are relevant today, they were even more so in ancient times. The coinage of the Syracuse reflect it's distinct character culturally, politically, and commercially.

By studying the various devices that a country uses on its coins we can gain a real insight into what is held of value by a country, region, or civilization. A country's commercial, social, and religious values can be mirrored in its coins and currency. The study of these areas in ancient coins really gets to the heart of a country's values and priorities. Ancient coins functioned not only as a medium of exchange, but also served as the newspaper of the times, to transmit the news to the inhabitants of the country to its neighbors, be they rivals or allies. Consider the coinage of Athens, Corinth, and Rhodes to name a few.

The religious and commercial lives of the early Greeks were interconnected. It is difficult to separate the two because of the relationship with the symbols of commerce and their protection by the deities. For instance the tuna fish is present on the coins of Cyzicus. We know that the tuna fishery was the main industry of that city and therefore its coins reflect that resource. The island of Naxos had been known for its wine industry and therefore the coins bear a wine cup. From a commercial point of view it would make sense to put these devices on the coins for these regions.

Commercially it has been proposed that these devices were used because the value of the metal in the coin represented what used to be the barter value of the object represented. It has also been generally accepted that the deities of the regions were in some way connected to the devices as a means of guaranteeing the genuineness of the coinage. The truth probably lies in between the commercial and religious theories. The Greeks' religious sense probably let them place their industry under the protection of a deity. Because of this the object of the resource can be construed to be the symbol of the deity that protects it. What an excellent means to spread religious fervor and commercial preeminence.

The coins of Sicily followed the Euboic - Attic system introduced in Sicily in the early fifth century and was incorporated with the native Sicel system. When these towns became Helenized they started striking small silver coins of 0.87 grams and equal to the bronze litra. These coins were called litrae and according to Aristotle were one-tenth of the Corinthian or Euboic - Attic staters. Syracuse's first gold piece appears in the fifth century and appears to be of a ratio of 15:1 gold to silver. These staters were of 1.75 grains and were of three, two, and one stater denominations. A ratio of 12:1 comes into play after 412 BC and by the end of the third century a 10:1 ratio appears, with the corresponding coinage relationships such as an 8 stater piece of 5.75 - 5.80 grams equal to 80 silver litrae in the time of Timoleon. Bronze at this time was coined and extensively used although their value exceeded their metal content and thus became a token coinage. Because of the wide variety of weights in the bronze coinage, it is almost impossible to exactly give a weight to a litra of bronze.

The mint at Syracuse was in operation from around 510 - 212 BC and was certainly the longest lived mint in Sicily. We are fortunate as well for the combination of long life and large issues make the coinage of Syracuse very popular and obtainable to even the collector on a tight budget.

The designs followed the times. From the beginning, the tetradrachms used for the obverse a man driving a quadirga, a four horse chariot. It is not surprising that a didrachm is marked by two horses and a drachm by one. The reverses were at first the normal incuse punch mark and was later followed by the portrait of Arethusa (Artemis) the river nymph surrounded by four dolphins. Syracuse was a prime watering source for mariners and many streams were looked on as a gift of the gods. The dolphins used on the tetradrachms are also a significant part of the badges of Syracuse, a trading people so dependent on the sea. Nike flying over the chariot completes the package. Imagine one city with so many significant devices. A veritable Greek potpourri.

The chariot had always been the badge of Syracuse. In the archaic period there were two distinct horses and two very shadowy figures. The classical coins show four powerful animals. This follows the political fortunes of Syracuse. With the crushing defeat of the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera in 480 BC, Syracuse was at its height.

Gelon, the general who masterminded the defeat, was a forceful but humane general. When Carthaginians surrendered according to tradition he was persuaded by his wife Demarete to treat them humanely. Carthage expressed its gratitude by presenting her with a gold crown. According to tradition it was sold and the proceeds were used to produce commemorative coins as large as ten drachms. As she was called Demarete, so the coin is a demaretion. There is one in the British Museum and is referred to as the loveliest of all Greek coins.

Unlike the Athenians, the Syracusians experimented with the quality of the designs and raised their level to high art. The coins were of such high quality that the engravers were respected in their communities and allowed to sign their works. While little is known of the individuals, their names survive and examples of their art are highly prized (and priced). It is assumed from their styles that Eumenes and Soison began work around 425 BC. They were followed quickly by others: Euainetos, Phrygillos, Eukleidas, and Kimon. The name of Eukleidas appears on some tetradrachms and people he might have trained have given us lovely portraits of Arethusa.

Syracuse's military fortunes subsequently had its ups and downs. One thing is certain, her coins have lived on. We are so much better because of the artistic achievements we have inherited.

Selected Bibliography

Ancient Greek and Roman Coins, A Handbook. G. F. Hill. New and Enlarged Edition, Argonaut, Inc., Publishers. Chicago, Illinois, MCMLXIV (1964).

Collecting Greek Coins. John Anthony. Longman. London, England and New York, New York, 1983.

Collecting Greek Coins, A Complete Guide to Beginning and Enjoying a Collection of Classical Greek Coins. David Van Meter, Laurion Numismatics. Mac Donnell Printers, Inc. Nashua, New Hampshire, 1990.


Copyright © 1994, The Willamette Coin Club. All Rights Reserved.