Numismatic and History Discussions > Greek Coins

Incuse coinage of Magna Graecia and Pythagoras

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Oh, I think it would be neat if they all (Sybaris, Metapontum, Kroton) started on the same day, the Pythagoreans like doing things in threes (like the division of An Achaean stater), but I think that the implicit numbering in the coins (unless I am just seeing things), would indicate otherwise.  Taras, I'm not saying that you or Stazio ever thought of that as a possibility, I'm saying that I thought about it, and based on what I see as an implicit numbering system, I've decided that it would probably be unlikely.
Poseidonia also has a kind of numbering, the figure of Poseidon wielding a trident depicts retributive justice and four is the number of justice.  Poseidonia's incuse coinage is on the same standard as Velia, a didrachm which is different than the Achaean standard of three drachms per stater.  That, however, also seems fitting because conflict (retributive justice) is oppositional in nature, 'you're either for us or against us.' 
Poseidonia only starts minting after Velia starts minting, but Velia is not in the incuse sequence.  I do, however, think that Velia's lion matches up well against Sybaris' bull, kind of like the coins of Lydia and their types.  Xenophanes of Colophon, who wrote a poem on the founding of Velia, is also our literary source for the claim that Lydia was the first to mint coinage.  The Velians may have gotten an idea for a lion type from Xenophanes.

btw, the first number for the Pythagoreans was the number 3.  It would be like saying, "this" (1), "that" (2) and "another" (3), and "another," etc. etc. or "self," "other" and a third.  One really doesn't start counting until one gets to three.  The ancient Greek language reflects this in that it has a dual case as well as a singular and plural for its nouns and verbs.  I don't know if that explanation makes sense, but just realize that they looked at numbers in a very different way than we do.


this has been a fascinating thread to follow. i have seen compelling evidence for synchronistic time frames and interesting theories relating to the Pythagorean influence on systems such as that of the Chaldean neoPlatonists, and even references (to me anyway) to the Holy Kabbalah.
all very interesting!

but what i haven't seen is any hard reason given for the Pythagorean influence on the coinage of MG, other than the highly circumstantial evidence of the coinage occuring in his footsteps.
i should however include the fact that i was not able to access the article so please forgive my ignorance in that regard. but for dolts like myself and any other readers who could not or have not read this article could you please give the reasons that we should accept any influence of Pythagoras on the minting process of these mundane items?
why would he care, and how do the physical implications of an incuse coinage directly relate to his teachings?

~ Peter

(btw, the number '4' not only represents justice but also structure and stability, perhaps even more important concepts within the range of this discussion.)

My articles at develop it better, but you're right, I should present some of the evidence here, and I'll try to be clear and concise.

First of all, when studying the incuse coinage, I came to the 'Eureka!' moment, realizing that the stater from Kroton was drafted using geometry or, in other words, rectilinear.  This is especially true for the stater shown above by Taras, which has the scroll work (volutes) between the tripod's legs.  If you divide the coin into fourths, you draw one line straight down the middle of the center tripod leg.  The horizontal line goes straight through the middle points of the lower circles of each of the volutes.  Also interesting is a division of the coin into 6 equilateral triangles mapped on the inside of the coin (inside the rim, to, but not beyond the edge of the field.  Just 'eyeballing it,' the Krotoniate stater shown by Taras above, from the Sybaris museum, looks like it has these geometrical characteristics.  However, I haven't bothered to doing the geometry on it.  The coin I used for 'mapping' the geometry is the photo of a Krotoniate stater in Franke and Hirmer (same as Kraay and Hirmer).

Funny thing is, I got a 'D' in high school geometry, God has a sense of humor (in making me notice the geometry here).

Secondly, Hippolytus the church father, in his Refutation of Heresies, gives a Pythagorean (I think he actually says "Pythagoras'") cosmogony and talks about how the cosmos divides things into parts like staters, obols and farthings (okay, that is what the old translation says, I know farthings is anachronistic.)  Point though, is that things can be divided into smaller things and those into smaller things, down to what Democritus (who is later than Pythagoras) would call (indivisible) atoms.  But Hippolytus uses a monetary analogy here in talking about the cosmogony.

The actual cosmogony is that the universe is divided into 3 kinds of things, animal, vegetable and metal (we would today say mineral), and 2 forces,  strife and love, or what we could call discord and concord, concord being the latin term for harmonia, of which we know was a topic of discussion for the Pythagoreans through Plato and others.  Empedocles of Akragas who comes a little later than Pythagoras and is sometimes considered a Pythagorean, writes a cosmogonical poem about strife and love, but instead of these three kinds of things, he talks about the 4 elements.  In addition to harmony being a Pythagorean term, "cosmos" is also a philosophical term which began with the Pythagoreans and thus probably with Pythagoras himself.
So we have 3 kinds of things, and 2 forces.  Interestingly, we have 5 different mints or types for the spread fabric incuse staters.  I do not count in this the coins from Ami[naioi] or Sirinos-Pyxoes which have the same type as Sybaris and were probably minted there.  The 1st mint was Sybaris with a bull, the 2nd mint was Metapontum with a stalk of barley, and the 3rd to mint is Kroton with a bronze tripod.  There we have the 3 kinds of things, in the same order, animal, vegetable and metal.  Then we have Poseidon wielding a trident and Apollo purifying himself, in other words the forces of strife and harmony.

Stability is very important, and the number four definitely implies that as well.  But for the ancients, those things were not exactly separate.  More important though (for me) is that Aristotle talks about the Pythagoreans saying that justice was four.  Also, in Plato's Protagoras, the character of Socrates interprets an early lyric poem (Simonides??) which refers to justice being four-square.  So the idea definitely goes back....

Why would Pythagoras want to have "messages" in the coins?  To answer that, we need to ask "what is a coin?" and so I ask to whomever is following this thread, what is a coin?  I'll answer my own question, but I would like to hear what others think first.

Kind Regards,

First of all, before getting into what is a coin, we should realize that Pythagoras himself was a celator, so he himself could act as the creative genius behind these odd coins.  In Diogenes Laertius, it is reported that 'he had made three silver cups to give to the priests of Egypt.  The verb 'had made' in the Greek is in the middle voice, and so therefore it is reflexive, meaning that he (himself had made the cups, not commissioned them or anything like that.  He is also reported to have left inscriptions at Delphi and Mt. Ida in Crete, presumably chiselling them into the stone himself.  Probably most important, Pythagoras' father Mnesarchus was called a dactylglyphos (I think I am spelling that right), in other words a gem engraver for seal rings.  Mnesarchus also built a temple to the Pythian Apollo honor Pythagoras' birth (Iamblichus V.P.).  He probably did not just commission it, but designed it and supervised its construction.  Pythagoras was a celator because his father was a celator, and because Pythagoras was trained in the family business.

The evidence for Pythagoras as a celator is from ancient literary sources and is independent of the incuse coins themselves.  I have read that some people take issue with the term 'celator' to mean someone who manufactures ancient dies and that is fine, I also think that it is clear from the literary sources that Pythagoras had a wider skill set than just being a die manufacturer, and so therefore deserves the term of celator.

"Philosopher" was not a job position, if it seems that Pythagoras couldn't be celator because he was a "philosopher," then maybe we should say that Socrates was not a sculptor because he was a philosopher.  And yet the travel writer Pausanias talks about sculpture that Socrates had done on the acropolis.  Point is that ancient 'philosophers' usually had a day job, a traditional occupation handed down in the family.  Pythagoras was no different.

Pythagoras' occupation is explored in more detail in my article, "Pythagoras of Samos, Celator."
Also, the article for the bit on cosmogony mentioned above is, "A Pythagorean Cosmogony and the Spread Fabric Incuse staters of Magna Graecia"
Just in case anyone would want to google it, or of course you can read much the same thing here:)

Hi John,
thank you for your interesting write.
I confirm what you wrote, ancient historiography bequeathed to us the informations about the engraving skills of Pythagoras. And this evidence gives much substance to the issue of this thread.

Now, I want to put myself in a dialectical position with your arguments, answering to your question with further deliberately "naive" questions, hoping this will "boost" the discussion.

--- Quote from: JBF on January 26, 2013, 07:14:13 pm ---So we have 3 kinds of things, and 2 forces.  Interestingly, we have 5 different mints or types for the spread fabric incuse staters.  I do not count in this the coins from Ami[naioi] or Sirinos-Pyxoes which have the same type as Sybaris and were probably minted there.  The 1st mint was Sybaris with a bull, the 2nd mint was Metapontum with a stalk of barley, and the 3rd to mint is Kroton with a bronze tripod.  There we have the 3 kinds of things, in the same order, animal, vegetable and metal.  Then we have Poseidon wielding a trident and Apollo purifying himself, in other words the forces of strife and harmony.
--- End quote ---

Look at at the measures of these coins:
...are we sure that only 5 cities minted spread flans?

Another question: If we state a link between Pythagoras and incuse coinage of achaean cities, how can we explain the existence of this coin (only two known specimens, attributed to the unknown mint of Sontia, between Lucania and Campania), minted incuse, but apparently out of the achaean weight standard?
(The image is taken from, it's impossible to past a link.)

5.30 or 5.78 g    SNG III, 662

Third "naive" question.
We know that Laos minted incuse staters too...

...Laos was a river-port colony of Sybaris, to which the surviving inhabitants of the mother-city would have fled after the destruction of Sybaris in 510 BC. The coinage of the city started at the same time.
Now, we know from ancient reports that the Pythagoreans were among the strongest supporters of the Krotonian attack to Sybaris.
If incuse coinage was a "Pythagorean brand" how can we imagine that the Sybarite refugees could have started to mint incuse staters?

And now a final question.

--- Quote from: JBF on January 26, 2013, 07:14:13 pm ---What is a coin?
--- End quote ---

A coin is a flat, typically round piece of metal with an official stamp.
Today we use it as "money".
But now I ask... Why is a coin?
Or better: what was a coin 2500 years ago? What his "function"?
Are we sure its primary function was to be "money"?

You have the ball in your court now  ;)



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