Coins on the Wild Side

Ancient Greece consisted of much more than the small area that makes up the modern country. Greek civilization was spread throughout the Mediterranean by sailors and colonists. Greek language and details of Greek culture were introduced to a wide variety of native people. Among the ideas adopted readily by many of these people was an economy using coins.

Thrace (including modern Bulgaria and parts of Greece and Turkey) was a wild region to the north of Greece and Macedonia inhabited by a number of different tribes. Greek colonies were established along the coasts of the Aegean, the Propontis and the Black Sea. Local silver resources and trade with the Greeks resulted in a thriving economy for some of the inland tribes. Coins were issued early in the archaic period of the 6th century BC. For the most part coins attributed to the tribes are scarce but many issues of the Greek colonies in Thrace are easily available to collectors.

Thasos - c.500 BC - Silver drachm - - - - Thasos - 463-411 AD - Silver drachm
Satyrs carrying nymphs / incuse of four parts

Nearest to Greece proper was the North Aegean island of Thasos. Both location and mineral riches aided the thriving economy of the Thasians. Many coins are attributed to Thasos but few actually bear legends proving their origin. Our left drachm is a worn example of the most popular of all the Thracian coins. The (anatomically correct) male figure is carrying off a female figure. His kneeling posture is the conventional way the archaic art depicted running. Numismatists generally call the scene 'Ithyphallic Satyr and Struggling Nymph' but much of this may be in the mind of the cataloger rather than the intent of the engraver. Later examples show a five fingered hand of the nymph fully drawn which is cataloged as 'raised in protest'. A final version of the type (right) shows the arm of the nymph around the satyr's shoulders. Whether the scene actually depicts a 'rape' or a happily married couple rushing off to celebrate his return from a long sea voyage can not be proven. The standard description of 'rape' sells more coins. The type also is found on a stater of two drachms.

Of all the cities in Thrace, none would have a greater place in history than Byzantion. Several changes of name would be required as this strategically located city controlled first the Black Sea grain trade and later, as Constantinople, the Roman world. Our example is a fourth century BC silver tetrobol showing a cow on top of a dolphin. The reverse design still used the archaic 'mill sail' incuse punch even though the coin dates well after most of the Greek cities were using a design on both sides of the coin. The city name is abbreviated using an archaic letter form. Greek coins often retained old, conservative fashions suggesting the money was stable, just like in the good ol' days. This design is found in several denominations providing the collector with a choice of the large and expensive or the small and common.

On the Thracian peninsula is Cherronesos to which this common coin is traditionally attributed. The forepart of a lion turning back fits well on the round flan and was pleasing to the artistic sensibilities of the Greeks. The reverse of this fourth century coin is only slightly advanced from the incuse punch. The two plain quadrants are raised while the two containing the pellets are recessed. A number of symbols and monograms are found on the reverses of these coins. This and the variation of styles found suggests the type was issued for many years.

Istros was the subject of an earlier page on this site where this type coin was discussed at more length. The stater shown here is scarce compared to most since it shows the eagle on dolphin reverse facing right instead of the standard left. Perhaps this is a good time to mention that these coins were struck from dies cut individually and there are many slight varieties that disturb modern collectors more than the Greeks of the day the coin was made. The amount of individuality allowed to the artists varied greatly from day to day and place to place but finding new and different varieties of old standard coins is a part of the fun of ancient numismatics. Some of the varieties had meaning in their day and denoted a change of authority or standards. Others mean nothing more than a cutter was feeling experimental that day. Deciphering the codes, or lack of code, will provide centuries of unfinished work for modern students.

Coins of Thrace are also found in bronze. Many of these are overlooked by collectors and available for very reasonable prices. They were produced quickly and many, like our example of Maronea, suffer from poor centering or less than perfect preservation. The horse here is obvious but the reverse design showing the city name around a square containing a grape vine will require a bit more imagination or comparison to a better specimen. Hundreds of minor varieties from hundreds of mints place Greek bronzes among the most poorly studied areas of numismatics. The opportunity to do real original work is waiting for some young person willing to devote the time required.

The split-up of the empire of Alexander the Great placed Thrace in the hands of Lysimachos (323-281 BC). This silver drachm shows a horned portrait of the divine Alexander and is one of the earlier Greek coins to depict a real person rather than a god or generic human. The reverse shows Athena holding a statue of victory flanked by the Greek legend 'King Lysimachos'. These silver coins (and, more so, the larger tetradrachms) and beautiful examples of Greek art and are very popular with collectors. This explains why I have only this worn drachm to show. Hellenistic portrait silver is a fine specialty enjoyed by many collectors but one that is wholly outside my area of study. The coin is shown here to remind you that the numismatic history of Thrace did not stop with the end of the era of the independent cities. In fact, many of these cities issued for centuries after they were part of the Roman Empire.

At the very beginning of the Roman occupation of Thrace (148 BC) a large number of silver tetradrachms were produced. These coins probably served to account for the vast silver mine output as much as to support commerce but worn examples do testify to circulation. Our example bears the name of Thasos (where our little tour of Thrace began) but the wide variety of styles found on these coins suggests they were widely copied by other authorities. Some of these copies are definitely barbaric and generally attributed to the Celts of the Danube region. Others are of fine, Greek style. Our example is somewhere in the middle but is typical of a large silver coin from late in the period where cities were allowed to produce these fine silver coins. A century later, the region was in the firm control of Rome.

Toward the end of the period of any independence of Thrace, King Rometalkles I (11 BC - 12 AD) and his Queen Pythodoris jugate share a coin with Caesar Augustus. Rometalkles and his successors ruled at the pleasure of Rome until 46 AD when Thrace became a Roman province. The location and riches of Thrace made it important throughout the Roman period. A numismatic overview of the region would include many coins that we call Roman even though they were minted in Thrace.

A complete list of the Greek Imperial coins of Thrace would fill several websites the size of mine so we will show just one more coin. Several other coins of Roman colonies in Thrace are shown on other pages of this site. The example chosen here is an 18mm bronze of Caracalla issued from the mint of Serdica in about 198 AD. The site was then not the most important city in the region but a few decades later it was home to a major mint for Roman issues. A section of my Probus page is devoted to Serdica. Now, 1800 years after this coin was struck, Serdica is known as Sophia, the capital of Bulgaria.

Collectors have been hearing a great deal lately about hoards of coins coming from Bulgaria. I hope that this page dedicated the region will explain why no one should be surprised by such finds. Merchants of Greece and soldiers of Rome made Thrace the crossroads of the ancient world.

For more Greek Imperial coins of this region see my page on Third Century Bronzes of Trace and Moesia.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith