Skyphios and the prized horses of Larissa design often focus of ancient Greek coins

Ancients Today column published in the Feb. 2, 2015, issue of Coin World
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 01/19/15
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Horses were possibly the most prized animals in the ancient world. Most were valued for their use as transportation, as beasts of burden, and as cavalry steeds, yet they were also admired for their beauty, charm and their role in athletic events. Since these animals were so highly valued, it is hardly a surprise that they often are depicted on ancient coins. 

One of the finest regions in ancient Greece for horse breeding was Thessaly, a prosperous district with many fertile pastures. Its horses were large and of great endurance, giving rise to a local tradition of equestrian skills. The Thessalian cavalry was admired throughout the Greek world.

The famous horse of the Macedonian King Alexander III (“the Great,” 336 to 323 B.C.), named Bucephalus (“ox-head”), was Thessalian. Alexander’s father paid the astonishing sum of 13 talents for this animal, and it served Alexander well during his conquests, which ranged from Greece to Egypt and to the borders of Arabia and India.

Except for the wooden Trojan Horse preserved in the writings of Homer and Virgil, the most famous horse of Greek mythology was Skyphios (Skeironites), considered by the Greeks to be the first horse, born of the sea-god Poseidon and the earth. It is shown on rare bronzes of the Thessalian League struck in about 360 B.C., and on bronzes of the Thessalian city of Orthe struck in the late fourth through the early third centuries B.C.

Both types of bronzes show the forepart of Skyphios emerging from the earth. On the league issue the horse appears over an ornate trident head, representing Poseidon. On the civic issue of Orthe an olive tree grows upon the rocky outcrop from which Skyphios emerges.

Many cities of Thessaly feature horses on their coins, with the foremost being Larissa. Its inhabitants must have been especially proud of their horses, as on almost every silver coin they issued, they portrayed horses with accuracy, care and affection.

The earliest coins of Larissa to show horses are fractional silver coins — obols and half obols, of about 460 B.C. The artistry is stiff, and all that is shown is a bridled horse’s head.

Artistry improves over time

What followed over about the next 60 years was a larger series of silver coins in a broader range of denomination, including drachms and fractional issues ranging from hemidrachms to obols. These horses are shown rearing, bounding, leaping or prancing, and sometimes are mounted by a cavalryman.

In about 400 B.C. the largest series of Larissa drachms began, which lasted until the 330s B.C. The main type shows on its obverse the facing head of the local nymph Larissa, and on the reverse a horse that is grazing or is preparing to roll. These drachms feature some of the most charming images as the artists who cut the dies must have been familiar with horses, and were not reproducing stock images.

When Larissa’s horses are shown grazing their front legs are straight and their necks dip straight toward the ground. Quite different is the depiction of the horses preparing to roll: their knees are not locked, but bent, with one of the front hooves pulled up toward the belly; the neck, dipping toward the ground, is slightly curved.

One particularly beautiful drachm struck at various times from the late fifth through the mid-fourth centuries B.C. shows a horse moving briskly with the local hero Thessalos at its side in the background. It is clear that Thessalos is trying to restrain the horse, yet the scene is almost tranquil.

A similarly beautiful composition on drachms of circa 380 to 365 B.C. shows a foal standing beside a mare. The mare is engraved in the typically high relief of these issues, whereas the foal is cut in comparatively low relief, thus placing it in the background. In this case both mother and foal stand in the same direction, calmly, with their heads raised.

Prancing horse

In addition to the grazing and rolling horses, the other common depiction at Larissa is that of a prancing horse. It occurs most often on drachms of circa 420 to 360 B.C. and on didrachms (staters) of the mid-fourth century B.C. On these coins the horse has one each of its front and back hooves on the ground, and the other two raised, with the rear hoof being only slightly raised and the front being raised considerably. The horse’s back is straight and its neck fairly upright.

It is difficult to know if this type portrays “show horses,” but to the modern eye it may bring to mind the trained prancing maneuvers of a Lipizzaner stallion. A rare variant of the type struck in the early fourth century B.C. shows a horse in a similar pose, though with its head is turned back.

Horses with riders sometimes are depicted on coins of Larissa. Among the earliest of these are silver trihemiobols of about 480 to 440 B.C. which show a walking horse mounted by a cavalryman holding two lances. 

This scene would have been familiar from coins of nearby Macedon, where it appeared on issues of the Macedonian kings and on some tribal issues of the region.

On rare occasions drachms from the period circa 380 to 356 B.C. show a horse with a rider. One particularly artful type shows a rider with a cape and a broad hat (a petasus) holding on tightly as his energetic horse leaps from the ground. 

Another type shows a cavalryman outfitted for combat; mounted cavalrymen also appear on bronzes of Larissa struck from the fourth through the second centuries B.C.

Unfortunately for horse lovers, this enchanting series of silver coins ended late in the fourth century B.C. due to the domination of the Macedonian Kingdom under its Kings Philip II (359 to 336 B.C.) and Alexander III.

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