What we today think of as 'Ancient Greece' extended far beyond the borders of the modern nation of that name. The entire Mediterranean was a Greek sea and colonies spread Greek civilization to each of its corners. One particularly successful colony was founded by refugees from Sparta at Taras (also called Tarentum - modern Taranto) in the South of Italy. The commercial success of Taras, added to the necessity to pay mercenary soldiers for the city's defence, resulted in the production of millions of silver didrachms during the last two centuries before Rome destroyed Taras (c. 207 BC).

Taras was the son of Poseidon, god of the sea. Most coins of the city bearing his name show the patron deity riding on the back of a dolphin. The other side of the coin was usually dedicated to the Tarentines' particular love of horses and horse racing. Both of these general types exist in hundreds of variations. Recent finds of large hoards of these popular coins has made them easily available (not necessarily cheaply) to collectors. Shown below are just a few rather ordinary samples of Tarentine silver.

Taras, Calabria - Fourree didrachm - 302-281 BC? - 21 mm diameter, 7.0g
Boy jockey crowns horse, victory flies behind
Taras, riding dolphin, carries cup & trident, waves below

Regular visitors to these pages know I have a fascination for fourrees. Even if there were not breaks in the silver showing the copper core (see inset) the wrinkled seam at the bottom of the obverse should be enough to mark this piece as plated. Buyers beware! The flan is larger than found on many of these coins bringing the weight up to an acceptable level. Otherwise, this is a fine example of the variety showing waves under the dolphin. The city name is written in small letters at the right of the reverse while magistrates initials appear under the animals on both sides.

Below are three more (solid silver) didrachms showing just a few of the variations available in this series. Specialists (not I) can attribute these to a more narrow date range using clues of style, magistrates inscriptions and minor devices in the fields. The murex shell shown under the dolphin on the coin at the left was valued as the source of purple dye and was a product of Tarentine commerce. All three of these coins show more typical centering on small, chunky flans. Specimens of this coinage that do not cut into any part of the design are premium items.

Adult horseman spearing, magistrate's name under horse / Taras holds shield decorated with a hippocamp, murex shell below Boy jockey crowning winning horse, magistrate's name under horse/ Taras holds cup and cornucopia, torch in field, city name under dolphin
Youth galloping, city name under dolphin Silver diobol - 4th century BC - Athena wearing helmet decorated with a hippocamp / Herakles fighting lion - 11 mm, 1.1g

Taras also issued coins in other denominations and types. Particularly interesting are the small silver diobols showing Herakles (in several poses) wrestling the Nemean lion. This Featured page is the result of two inquiries received by persons who intended to buy one of these coins. Both wanted to use the coin in jewelry, a trade that consumes many of the newly found hoard specimens. I hope a few of the people introduced to the subject in this way will find their way into an active interest in the study of ancient coins.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith