For centuries collectors have prized the coins of ancient Sicily
for their fine artistry, and with the publication of many academic
studies in the last century, they are now equally appreciated for
their historical value.
Many iconic and influential coin designs originated at Sicilian
mints from the sixth through the third centuries B.C. Since a complete
discussion of Sicilian coinage is not possible in so brief a survey,
we’ll focus on the silver tetradrachms — large silver coins that were
suitable for regional and international trade. They were struck at
more than a dozen mints on the island and are the best recognized and
most popular coins of ancient Sicily.
The obvious place to start is with the island’s preeminent ancient
city, Syracuse. Its earliest tetradrachms, commencing in about 520 or
510 B.C., feature a slow chariot on the obverse and an incuse punch on
the reverse. Over time, the utilitarian reverse began to incorporate a
design, the head of a female deity usually described as Arethusa.
Eventually she was adopted as the design of the entire reverse.
This evolutionary process caused the head to become the reverse
design — something unusual in comparison with most ancient (and
modern) coinages. A few minor exceptions aside, it was not until the
reign of King Agathocles (317 to 289 B.C.) that the head was moved to
the obverse of Syracusan tetradrachms.
The chariot/female head design remained the principal type of
Syracusan tetradrachms for perhaps two centuries, yet its style and
composition evolved so greatly that there is nothing predictable or
mundane about these coins. They have been very carefully studied, and
the most advanced collectors seek out as many different versions as
possible, often collecting them by die.
Though Syracuse was the most prolific and influential mint of
Sicily, some other cities had issued coins earlier. Five of the
earliest Sicilian mints were Selinus, Himera, Zancle, Naxos and
Acragas. The first two may have begun producing coins as early as 550
B.C. (and certainly had by circa 530 B.C.), and the last three started
between circa 525 and 520 B.C. All of these coins, however, were
lighter than tetradrachms, and thus fall beyond the scope of our survey.
Almost every city in Sicily that struck tetradrachms was located
on the coast or very close to it. One notable exception is Segesta, in
the Carthaginian-dominated western half of the island, which produced
artistic tetradrachms in small quantities. Another inland city, Aetna,
was in the eastern half of the island, which was usually under Greek
control. It struck but a single issue of tetradrachms in about 460
B.C., from one prized set of dies.
Beyond Syracuse, eight other cities struck civic tetradrachms in
quantity — half of the cities strewn along the eastern shore, the
other four on the southern shore.
We may add to this tally any mints that struck tetradrachms for
the Carthaginians during their wars with the Greeks in Sicily in the
fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Collectively known as “Siculo-Punic”
issues, their mint-cities have not been identified with certainty.
The eastern shore of Sicily was home to Messana, Naxos, Catana and
Leontini, all significant issuers of tetradrachms. The first
tetradrachms of Messana (formerly the city of Zancle) bore a lion’s
scalp and a calf’s head, but for most of the fifth century B.C. its
tetradrachms showed a leaping hare and a chariot drawn by two mules.
It issued no tetradrachms after being sacked by the Carthaginians in
Naxos struck three main issues of tetradrachms between circa 460
B.C. and circa 405 B.C., each being of excellent style, but limited in
size. They show on their obverse the head of the god Dionysus, and on
their reverse Silenus, one of Dionysus’ divine companions, in drunken revelry.
About midway between Naxos and Syracuse was Catana, which struck
large quantities of tetradrachms from about 465 to 400 B.C. Except for
its earliest type, which shows a bull on its obverse and a standing
Nike on its reverse, most show a chariot scene and the head of the god Apollo.
Equally beautiful tetradrachms were struck in large quantities at
nearby Leontini. It also had two major types: the earliest pieces
(circa 475 to 460 B.C.) show a chariot and a lion’s head, and most of
its later issues (circa 460 to 420 B.C.) show a lion’s head paired
with the head of Apollo.
On the southern shore of Sicily, four other important cities
produced meaningful issues of tetradrachms: Camarina, Gela, Acragas
and Selinus. Camarina was active in this regard from circa 425 to 405
B.C., striking issues with a chariot scene and the head of Heracles
(Hercules). These coins are particularly artful, and show either a
young, clean-shaven Heracles or an older version of the hero with a beard.
Even more impressive are the tetradrachms of Gela, struck from
about 480 to 405 B.C. Most show on their obverse a chariot and on
their reverse a man-headed bull. Their ever-evolving art style is so
captivating that it would be easy to specialize in them for a lifetime.
Just as recognizable are the tetradrachms of Acragas, another of
Sicily’s leading cities. It consistently issued large quantities of
tetradrachms from circa 465 B.C. until it was destroyed by the
Carthaginians in 406 B.C. Their iconic types show a standing eagle and
a crab seen from above.
The last important issuer of tetradrachms on the southern shore
was Selinus, which produced some especially beautiful coins and
employed creative designs from about 465 to 410 B.C. The obverses show
a chariot driven by the sibling gods Artemis and Apollo, though
occasionally by Nike. The reverse is more complex, showing the local
river-god Selinus offering a sacrifice between two decorated altars.
Beyond its silver tetradrachms, Sicily is an extraordinary region
for specialists in any kind of ancient coinage, for some exceptional
gold issues, and a very broad range of smaller silver coins and copper
coins make the collecting possibilities virtually limitless. ■