The obverse of this tetradrachm of Mende, struck in about 425 B.C., shows the god Dionysus holding a drinking cup filled with wine as he reclines on the back of an ass. A grapevine is central to the reverse.
The silver coins of Macedon and Thrace, the principal regions of northern Greece, have long been admired for their fine artistry and for the inventiveness of their designs.
The weights of these coins ranged greatly, from fractions of less than 0.2 gram to very large pieces, including dodecadrachms (12-drachm coins) that often weigh more than 40 grams.
In general, the pieces weighing less than 4 grams were made for local use, whereas the coins of 8 grams or more were routinely used in regional and international trade. Hoard evidence proves that these coins were dispersed widely, for they often are part of hoards found in Asia Minor, Syria, the Holy Land and Egypt — and sometimes in places even further afield.
Silver coins were produced by different kinds of authorities in northern Greece, including independent city-states, tribes and Greek-style kingdoms. Since the variety of northern Greek silver is so great, we’ll focus on the trade coins of Mende, Acanthus, Abdera, and Aenus, four cities that issued silver trade coins during the Archaic (circa 760 to 479 B.C.) and Classical (circa 479 to 350 B.C. or 336 B.C.) periods.
The Macedonian city of Mende was renowned for the quality of its wine and it had good reason to strike large silver coins that were suitable for export. Its earliest tetradrachms, struck from about 520 to 470 B.C., show on their obverse an ass standing, usually with a bird perched on its rump or with a grape cluster hanging from its mouth.
On these early issues the allusion to Dionysus, the god of wine, would have been clear to anyone in the Mediterranean world. However, on the next major series of tetradrachms, issued circa 460 to 423 B.C., the association with the god was even more explicit, for they show on their obverse Dionysus reclining on the back of an ass as he holds aloft a cup of wine.
This classic scene exemplifies a hedonistic and whimsical side of Greek culture. Dionysus was famous for his wild excesses, which on one extreme represented the peak of earthly pleasure and at the other the most callous, brutal and violent of behavior. He was credited with having invented wine and with having taught the Greeks how to cultivate grapes.
The reverse of the first tetradrachms of Mende had been impressed with a simple four-part punch, but the later issues bear an artistic design: the city name surrounds a vine laden with clusters of grapes. This type is dedicated to Dionysus in a greater sense, but also speaks directly to Mende’s lucrative wine trade.
Another important issuer of silver tetradrachms in the region was Acanthus, a city on the Chalcidice of Macedon. It seems to have taken its name from a plant that is common in the Mediterranean, and the flower of that plant often is used as a decorative element on its coins.
The design used at Acanthus for trade silver was one that would have been familiar to those who lived in the Mediterranean and in the Near East: a lion attacking a bull. This scene originated in the Near East and had been used in art at least since the fourth millennium B.C. It may have been derived from the Zodiac constellations of Leo and Taurus, but it came to embrace other ideas as well, including the struggle between predator and prey, and the cycle of life. Fortunately, the design is perfectly suited to the round planchets used for these coins.