Most ancient Greek coins were struck for independent city-states or
for empires. However, another important category exists: league coinages.
The Greeks sometimes formed leagues for the benefit of their member-cities.
Not every Greek league issued coinage — at least not in name. One
example is the Delian League, through which its leading city, Athens,
amassed great power and wealth in the fifth century B.C. In this case,
the millions of Owl silver tetradrachms that bore the name and types
of Athens were the de facto coinage of the league.
Some other alliance coinages were less enduring. In about 404 or
394 B.C., eight Greek colonies, mainly on the western coast of Asia
Minor, are known to have struck coins with a common reverse showing
the infant Heracles wrestling two snakes that had been sent by the
goddess Hera to kill him in his cradle. The design is accompanied by
the inscription SYN, abbreviating “synmachikon,” suggesting “a coin of
the allies.” The obverse types of these coins all are different, each
bearing the recognizable emblems of the issuing cities.
In this column we’ll introduce the Chalcidian, Thessalian,
Aetolian, Euboean, Achaean, Arcadian and Lycian Leagues and their
coins. Though each of these league coinages is substantial enough for
a book of its own, we’ll merely provide a general overview of this
One of the most successful Greek leagues was based in the
Chalcidice, a peninsula on the southern shore of Macedonia. It was
active for nearly a century (432 to 348 B.C.), trying to defend its
member-cities from the imperial interests of Athens and Macedonia,
whose King Philip II (359 to 336 B.C.) eventually conquered its
capital city, Olynthus, in 348 B.C., and dissolved the league.
Its coinage principally consists of silver tetradrachms and
tetrobols, small bronzes, as well as gold staters that today are
extremely rare. The principal designs are consistent, showing on the
obverse the head of the god Apollo, and on the reverse his preferred
musical instrument, the lyre.
A similar confederation existed in Thessaly, a region in
east-central Greece. The earliest issues of Thessalian League date to
the 470s B.C., and coins continued to be struck with some degree of
autonomy up through the mid-first century B.C. They continued
nominally under the Roman Empire, with the last issues produced under
the Emperor Gallienus (A.D. 253 to 268).
The most recognizable types of this league are silver staters with
the head of Zeus on the obverse and the striding figure of Athena on
the reverse. A companion issue of silver drachms substitutes Zeus’
head with that of Apollo. Another familiar drachm type pairs the
helmeted head of Athena with a trotting horse. All of these coins were
struck between about 150 and 40 B.C.
Another substantial league was formed in Aetolia, a region in the
south-central part of the Greek mainland. Most (if not all) of its
coins seem to have been struck between about 250 and 150 B.C. in the
form of silver tetradrachms, staters and triobols, a variety of
bronzes and some very rare gold issues.
Most Aetolian League designs reflect local interests, though some
are borrowed from the ubiquitous coinage of the Macedonian King
Alexander the Great (336 to 323 B.C.). The reverse types are
especially interesting, depicting a female warrior (“Aetolia”) seated
on a pile of shields, a nude warrior with a spear, posed with one foot
upon a rock, the Calydonian boar running above a spear head, military
trophies and the jawbone of a boar.
The island of Euboea (“the land rich in cows”) had its own league,
which began to strike coins as early as 375 B.C. and continued doing
so for two centuries or more.
Not surprisingly, cows are the prominent design. Other designs
include the head of the local nymph, clusters of grapes, a butting
bull, an octopus, a grain ear and the prow of a galley.
The district of Achaea was located in the northern portion of the
Greek Peloponnesus and originally was ruled by 12 city-states that
found it useful to confederate. The league’s earliest coins were
ceremonial issues of circa 370 to 360 B.C., but its most recognizable
coins are the silver hemidrachms and small bronze coins struck from
about 250 to 31 B.C., which bear the portrait of Zeus on the obverse
and the league monogram in a laurel wreath on the reverse.
Perhaps 38 of the cities that eventually claimed membership in the
Achaean League struck coins bearing league designs and inscriptions
and or symbols by which their coins could be distinguished from those
of other league members. The final issues were struck just prior to 31
B.C., when Octavian (Augustus) won control of the Mediterranean world
after his victory at the Battle of Actium.
This league in the center of the Peloponnesus was based in
Megalopolis (“the great city”), a city created by founders from three
Arcadian cities and two Arcadian tribes. Four cities struck coins for
the league, with the first issues dating to the 470s B.C.
The earliest coins are silver hemidrachms and obols with the
seated figure of Zeus and the head of the nymph Kallisto, but the most
recognizable issues are silver and bronze coins struck in the period
363 to 168 B.C. The silver triobols show the head of Zeus and the
seated figure of the god Pan, and the silver obols and bronzes show
the head of Pan and the AR monogram of the league above a wooden flute
known as a syrinx.
One important league outside of Greece proper was the Lycian
League, based in a mountainous region of southern Asia Minor. As with
the Achaean League coinage, the inscriptions on these coins allow them
to be attributed to individual cities or districts, and they may be
collected in this fashion. Some notable minting centers include
Xanthus, Pinara, Tlos, Myra, Limyra, Phaselis and Cragus.
Most of its early league coinage consists of silver drachms and
hemidrachms that show the head of the god Apollo and a lyre. However,
beginning with the reign of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C. to
A.D. 14) and then continuing selectively through the reign of Trajan
(A.D. 98 to 117), the portrait of Apollo is replaced with that of the
reigning emperor. ■