The Archaeology of Ancient Sicily

By R. Ross Holloway | Go to book overview

4

COINAGE

The coins of Greek Sicily are the most splendid productions in the history of medallic art. Beginning with the crystalline images found on the coinages of the cities of the Deinomenid Empire, they mature, after the end of the era of the tyrants, in the sumptuous issues of the later fifth century. The Carthaginian disaster at the end of the century interrupted most of the Sicilian coinages, the exception being the long and glorious series of Syracuse. During the preceding century the Sicilians had replaced merely competent die engraving with the work of master engravers. The fame of these artists, particularly the group active at the end of the fifth century, was such that they were encouraged to sign their work. The cities thus took pride in the authorship of the coin designs as well as the art.

Sicilian coins, however, were still money. Coins, which had begun their life only in the seventh century BC, among the Greeks of Asia Minor or their immediate neighbors inland, the Lydians, marked an enormous advance in the use of metals as media of exchange and repositories of value. Issued by city governments, a coin became a public instrument. By serving to pay the obligations of the city and excluding other forms of payment for fines and taxes, the coin strengthened the control of the city over economic life. It also quantified, and thus clarified, dealings between individuals. Thus, in the view of some scholars, there was an intimate relation between the development of coinage and the growth of political equality among the citizens of the Greek city.

The earliest coins, minted in the seventh century, were probably not issued by governments. They are more likely to have been an initiative taken by temple administrations (temples were the first ancient banks) to meet a particular monetary problem in Asia Minor. The medium of exchange in this region was electrum, the naturally occurring alloy of silver and gold. But in electrum the ratio of gold and silver can vary widely. Once refining processes were developed which could separate the two elements, it became all too clear that equal weights of unrefined electrum could have significantly different values. The problem for monetary circulation was to create a stable value, and this was done by announcing ownership of individual lumps of the metal by marking them with the owner’s seal. The owner thus agreed to take back the piece so marked without questioning its composition.

Mainland Greece and the Aegean islands, where silver rather than electrum was the medium of exchange, faced a different problem but one that was also helped by the new invention. As happens in any market, the raw silver lumps used in exchange tended to disappear from circulation. This was especially true of major markets involving foreign merchants who would leave for home with the proceeds of their commerce, thus reducing the supply of silver in local circulation. The coin, however, now issued by the city, announced where it would be accepted without question, and this innovation tended to attract silver back to its home city. It was not very long before the cities realized the advantages of defining legal tender, especially where the payment of fines and taxes was concerned.

It was formerly thought that coinage was introduced to the cities of Sicily and southern Italy somewhat later than it became common in the mother country. Now there seems little reason to maintain this belief. Early issues of Sybaris in Calabria have been found in a hoard (the Sambiase Hoard) with some of the earliest coins of Corinth. Indeed, it is far more likely that the Sicilian coinages were born when silver first began arriving there in the form of coined money, as early as the mid-sixth century. It is of some importance to remember that Sicily has

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The Archaeology of Ancient Sicily
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • List of Illustrations ix
  • Preface xvii
  • 1 - Prehistoric Sicily 1
  • 2 - Early Greek Sicily 43
  • 3 - Late Archaic and Classical Greek Sicily 97
  • 4 - Coinage 121
  • 5 - Later Greek, Punic and Roman Sicily 141
  • 6 - The Villa at Piazza Armerina 167
  • Notes 179
  • Bibliography (1980-9) 185
  • Index 203
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