Coins relating to sports and games are termed 'agonistic' types. The obvious example here would show athletes in action but these are surprisingly uncommon. There are a few types showing wrestlers and jockeys on horses. It is important to separate images of athletes from warriors throwing spears or running with a shield (remember that the race in armor was an ancient Olympic event).
Another category of agonistic coins became popular in the Imperial period. Usually called 'urns' in catalogs, the items shown were prizes awarded to winners at the games. Like our modern sports trophies, the items show some variety; on this page we will examine a few samples.
A 30 mm bronze (a local version of the sestertius) of Anazarbus in Cilicia of Valerian I shows six of these trophies. The reference is not to represent the 'medal' production of the city's athletes but refers to the sets of games sponsored (and paid for) by the citizens of Anazarbus. To put on a set of games and invite athletes from all over the Greek world brought great prestige to the sponsors and their city. Pointing out that the city had done this six times over the years showed a great deal of civic pride. Our example, admittedly not a high grade coin, clearly shows the common shape of the 'urns'. Of particular interest is the concave bottom which has led some to call the objects 'crowns' and suggest that they were placed on the heads of the victor. This entire subject is one I need help in understanding.
Our second example, an AE27 (the half of the above denomination) of the same city, Anazarbus, shows a single 'urn' resting on a three legged table. Again I must plead ignorance regarding the meaning of the table. Whatever the specific symbolism, showing the table makes the coin extremely interesting as evidence of Greco-Roman furniture style. Few wood artifacts have survived to modern days so this coin crosses over into the realm of those studying the history of furniture. The recurving 'cabriole' legs combined with straight upper portions make this table unusual. Style of furniture, like everything else, varied over the time we call antiquity. Much of what we think of as 'Classical' is what we know from a few periods and places. The preservation of Pompeii with straight line furniture provided the prototype copied in the modern 'Neoclassical' period. The mint at Anazarbus would not have executed this table in such detail if it were not the height of third century Cilician style. The urn appears to contain something but we will have to wait for a more detailed specimen to see exactly what that is.
Our third example is an AE30 of Perinthus, Thrace, issued under Septimius Severus. Again the item of greatest interest is the detailed table with what appears to be animal feet similar to those popular in much more modern times. On the table rests a pair of urns which show a surface texture of rows of dots. The material used to manufacture these urns is unclear to me. What is represented by the dots? Some have suggested that the urns were woven baskets (explaining the lack of surviving examples) but this is an area of study far above my level. Above the urns are two palms. These are usually shown coming out of the tops of the urns and are probably what we see indicated on the smaller and off centered coin above. Under the table is a vase and a stack of 5 balls. All of these items are commonly seen on agonistic table coins but their exact meaning is unclear. Anyone understanding this symbolism is asked to share by writing so I can update this page. It seems likely that the vase contains oils for use by the athletes and that palms were awarded to victors but specific details here are lacking. The two games symbolized here are named at the left and right. 'AKTIA' (left) refers to games held in memory of the Battle of Actium where Octavian defeated Antony and set in motion the his founding of the Roman Empire as Caesar Augustus. 'PUHIA' (right) are the Pythian games dedicated to Apollo and second in prestige only to the Olympics. The list of other games mentioned on coins is quite long. The games were very important parts of Greek culture.
In the first paragraph, mention was made of the desirability of separating coins showing sports from those with military uses of the horse, javelin or shield. This small (AE18) bronze of Caracalla from Nicopolis shows this same point. The reverse shows a basket containing small round objects. The wicker texture of the basket is indicated by diagonal cross hatched lines. Sometimes sold as an agonistic type, this would appear to be more correctly a depiction of a basket of grapes. Such coins are interesting less for what they are than for what numismatists and collectors choose to see or not to see. Reading of symbolism requires thinking using the background and prejudices of the creator of these symbols. If this coin had been produced in Ireland, romantic collectors would call this a 'pot of gold at the end of the rainbow'; as it is I see grapes. What do you see when you look closely at the minor details of your coins? If your answer is 'market value', you are wasting your time reading my page. Enjoy your coins for their beauty and connections to history. Enjoy them also for the questions they raise and the fact that not all of those questions will be answered by any book by a scholar or web page by an amateur collector.
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(c) 1999 Doug Smith