A rare glimpse into the stunning coins of antiquity from the most beautiful of Greek and Italian islands, by our Expert Guest, Ema Sikic of Stanley Gibbons plc.
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.
Valley of the Temples, Sicily. Image: Wikimedia Commons
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.
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.
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 Herakles 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 restaurants.
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.
Ema Sikic works as a Sales Executive for rare stamps and coins at Stanley Gibbons and A.H. Baldwin & Sons in London. Ema holds an MPhil in Classical Archaeology from University of Oxford, specialising in Roman art and religions. She gained experience working at archaeological digs in Italy and Croatia and numismatic collections of archaeological museums in UK and Croatia. Ema started her professional path in London as a manager of an ancient art gallery, working with ancient artefacts and coins, helping her clients source the best items for their beautiful, unique collections.
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