Some of the most spectacular ancient coins were struck at colonies
founded by the Greeks along the southern and western shores of the
Several of these mint cities had issued silver coins before the
end of the sixth century B.C., and most continued to do so until they
fell victim to hostile neighbors or were absorbed into the expanding
“empire” of the Romans.
The coinage of this region is so diverse that even the most
dedicated and resourceful collectors are unlikely to find all of the
prizes they seek. Thus, many collectors decide to specialize by metal,
geography, era or historical episode. A popular approach is to collect
the large-size silver coins — called staters, didrachms or nomoi — of
the fifth through third centuries B.C.
The issues of the most important mints have iconic designs that
allow a basic type set to be assembled easily, yet there is so much
variety that a lifetime is insufficient to build a comprehensive
collection. We’ll focus only on the principal types from the major
Among the most familiar of these silver coins are the didrachms of
Neapolis, a Greek colony founded on the shore of the Bay of Naples.
They show on their obverse the head of the nymph Parthenope, and on
the reverse, the river-god Achelous in the form of a man-headed bull
being crowned by Nike. The Neapolitan didrachms were so popular that
the type was adopted for silver and bronze coins of nearby cities.
Moving south along the western coast of Italy, we encounter
Poseidonia. It had been one of the important issuers of coins in the
Archaic period, though it issued staters in comparatively smaller
quantities in the Classical period. The obverse of these coins depicts
the striding figure of the sea-god Poseidon, and a standing bull
appears on the reverse. The design was ideal since Poseidon was the
patron deity of the city and the bull was his animal familiar.
Velia is the next major mint in our southward trek. It produced
large quantities of silver didrachms in the fifth and fourth centuries
B.C. showing on the obverse the head of the goddess Athena wearing a
crested and decorated helmet, and on the reverse, a lion. The lion is
depicted variously as standing, prowling, gnawing on an animal bone or
bringing down a deer. The variety in this series is great enough to be
a formidable collecting challenge.
Still further south is Terina, which issued comparatively little
coinage. The city is beloved by ancient coin specialists, though,
because the level of artistry on its coinage was high. Typically, the
obverses of its staters show the portrait of the city nymph and the
reverses show Nike either seated or standing. However well the dies
were engraved, the striking quality was not always ideal, making it
hard to find a well-struck piece.
Upon reaching the tip of the toe of Italy, we encounter Rhegium,
the largest city that was located across the narrow strait separating
Italy and Sicily. Rhegium issued few coins of stater size, preferring
tetradrachms as its high-value denomination since they were popular in
Sicily. Indeed, the only staters issued at this city show the winged
horse Pegasus and the helmeted head of Athena — a design borrowed from
the staters of Corinth in central Greece, since they were popular with mercenaries.
Corinthian-type staters were also issued at Locri Epizephyrii, a
city on the southern shore of Italy, not far from the toe. The
Locrians also produced staters showing the head of Zeus on the obverse
and his eagle on the reverse; the style of these coins is distinctive.
East of Locri was the city of Caulonia, which produced remarkable
coins in the Archaic period and a substantial number of staters in the
subsequent era. These later coins have on the obverse a striding
Apollo before a small stag, and on the reverse a larger standing stag.
Their style ranges from impressive to barbaric, and it is difficult to
explain why so many of the latter were issued.
At the western edge of the Italian boot instep was the city of
Croton. The earliest staters of the Classical period show the tripod
of Apollo on both sides of the coin, or combine a tripod with a flying
eagle. Those issues were followed by types showing, in various
combinations, the heads of the gods Apollo and Hera, a tripod, the
infant Heracles wrestling serpents, a mature Heracles reclining, and a
The city of Thurium, located in the instep of the boot, was
founded in 446 B.C. by Athenians and refugees from Sybaris, the city
that had formerly occupied the site. Its Classical period staters show
on the obverse the helmeted head of Athena, and on the reverse, a
bull. The style evolves over time, and on some late issues Athena is
displaced by Apollo.
The city of Heraclea, located a little further east in the Italian
instep, was founded by neighboring Greeks in 433/2 B.C. Its staters
show on the obverse the helmeted head of Athena (usually in profile,
but sometimes facing), and the reverse depicts the hero Heracles
holding his accoutrements, being crowned by Victory, crowning himself,
conducting a sacrifice at an altar or wrestling the Nemean lion. There
is much variety in the Heraclean coinage.
Not far to the east of Heraclea was Metapontum, which issued great
numbers of staters in the Classical period. The standard reverse type
for its staters is a highly detailed grain ear — a carryover from the
city’s Archaic period coinage. It was paired with several obverse
types, usually the heads of the goddess Demeter or the city founder
Leucippus, though Nike, Heracles, Dionysus and Zeus are also portrayed.
The last city in our coastal survey is Taras (Tarentum to the
Romans), also located within the heel of Italy. The usual obverse type
of its didrachms in the Classical period is a horse and rider, and the
reverse depicts a boy riding a dolphin. The identity of the dolphin
rider is still debated: he may be the legendary founder Taras or
Phalanthus, the son of Poseidon. The variety within this series is
astonishing, making it one of the most popular specialties of all
ancient Greek coinage. ■