Portraits of Greek Coinage - 'Metapontum'

Portraits of Greek Coinage - 'Metapontum' Nov 18 2011 Coins

By Robin Eaglen

The remains of Metapontum lie on the instep of the tall boot that is Italy. It was founded in the seventh century BC by colonists from Achaea in the north-eastern Peloponnese, as were a number of other settlements in Southern Italy, beginning with Sybaris in 720 and Croton in 708 BC. The fertile soil of the countryside beyond the city was ideal for growing grain and rearing livestock, and resulted in the ear of barley being chosen as the badge of Metapontum. The Augustan geographer, Strabo, related that the city so prospered that it dedicated 'a golden harvest' at Delphi. The gist of his remark is clear, even if the nature of the harvest is not. Besides the remains of temples, evidence has been found of a modest artificial harbour on the site. But, unlike nearby Tarentum, founded from Sparta beside a fine natural harbour, the bulk of its trade must have been inland.

The Achaean settlements appear to have maintained close economic ties, resulting in a common standard for the weight of their staters at 8.00g. These links were underlined by the issue of distinctive coins which, apart from a brief flirtation by Zancle in Sicily, never spread from Italy to the Greek world at large. The two outstanding characteristics of the coins were their thin flans of spread metal and the striking of the main design in relief on the obverse and of a closely similar incuse, or concave design on the reverse.

This format is thought by some to have originated from Sybaris, then the most influential of the Achaean settlements. It used to be surmised that the convex/concave format was the brainchild of Pythagoras, who fled from Samos to Croton in 530 BC or later, bringing with him his political and philosophical ideas, including the doctrine known as 'the duality of opposites'. However, although the date at which the incuse types were first introduced has not been firmly established, recent writers mostly believe it to have been between 550 and 530 BC, and thus before Pythagoras' arrival in Italy. Although the incuse mirror image was novel, incusegeometric designs were extensively used for reverses in the earliest phase of Greek coinage. Pythagoras has, nevertheless, a more than nebulous connection with Metapontum in that he spent his last days there.

The incuse coinage at Metapontum may be divided into three phases. The initial, spread flans were superseded by less broad flans in the last decade of the sixth century, to be followed in turn by compact, dumpy flans from sometime in the first quarter of the fifth century until the 430s BC. Although the idiosyncratic spread flan and incuse design had succumbed to coins in relief at Croton and Caulonia by 480, the incuse format persisted for another half century at Metapontum.

Because of their bold and unusual design the coins of Sybaris (with the backward gazing bull) and of Metapontum (with the heavily awned ear of barley), are both particularly handsome and memorable examples of incuse coinage. Their attractiveness is embellished by the precise synchrony of the obverse and reverse images and centring of the designs on the flans. This obviously arises from the apparatus and techniques used to strike the coin, and the extra care required may be an important reason why the incuse design was not more widely adopted. It has been suggested that the format made it easy to stack the coins, but this does not seem to have been a likely or even practical notion.

After abandoning the incuse type in the latter part of the fifth century, Metapontum retained the ear of barley for its reverse dies and introduced an impressive series of heads upon the obverse, all in relief. These portrayed female deities (Figures C and D), and Leucippos (Figures E and F), the mythical founder of Metapontum. The series is described and illustrated in the comprehensive die studies published by Noe and Johnston in 1984 and by Johnston in 1990.



AR Stater. Third quarter of sixth century BC.

8.12g (28mm diameter). Noe, Class II, 41.

Author's collection. Ex David Miller, 2004.

Obv. Ear of barley on short stalk with three

rows of eight grains. Long awns composed of

pelleted lines, spreading to a linear outer

circle surrounded by a border of pellets. In left

field, letters MET vertically downwards.



Rev. Crisp incuse image of barley ear and

stalk, the awns with rectangular depressions

to their outer linear edge, spreading to a circular

border of rectangular indentations.



 Fig. C.


Fig D.


Fig E.


Fig. F.



1.N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 322 BC., 3rd edn (Oxford, 1986), Appendix 3, pp. 659-60. Hammond dates the foundation to 690 - 680, but archeological evidence appears to point to a date c. 630 (An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Greek Poleis, edited by M. H. Hansen and T. H. Nielsen (Oxford, 2004), pp. 279-80).

2.S. P. Noe, with additions and correctionsby A. Johnston, The Coinage of Metapontum, Parts 1 and 2 (New York, 1984), pp.1, 35. T. J. Dunbabin, The Western Greeks, (Oxford, 1948), pp.86-7.

3. Strabo, Geographia, 6.1.15.

4. Noe, The Coinage of Metapontum, p.1

5. Hammond, A History of Greece, p.118.

6. C. M. Kraay and M. Hirmer, Greek Coins (New York,1966), p.17. N. K. Rutter, Greek Coinages of Southern Italy and Sicily (London, 1997), p.20, questions the existence of a political alliance amongst the users of incuse dies.

7. D. R. Sear, Greek Coins and their Values, I (GCV) (London, 1978), GCV 721 (p.76).

8. Noe, The Coinage of Metapontum, p.3; I. Carradice and M. Price, Coinage in the Greek World, (London, 1988), p.43.

9. See, for example, C. Seltman, Masterpieces of Greek Coinage (Oxford, 1949), pp.34-5.

10. Hammond, A History of Greece, p.272.

11. M. Grant, The Classical Greeks (London, 1989), p.277.

12. Seltman, Masterpieces of Greek Coinage, pp.34-5.

13. Grant, The Classical Greeks, p.278.

14. Rutter, Greek Coinages of Southern Italy and Sicily, pp.47-8; Noe, The Coinage of Metapontum, p.49, where Johnston endorses a date 'c. 500', as do Carradice and Price (Coinage in the Greek World), p.43).

15. See, for example, Johnston in Noe, The Coinage of Metapontum, p.49, and Rutter ,Greek Coinages of Southern Italy & Sicily, p.48.

16. See GCV 256 (p.34), 466 (p. 52) (Croton); GCV 252 (p. 34), 462 (p. 51). Sybaris was destroyed by Croton in 510 (The Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, 3rd edn revised (Oxford, 2003), p.411).

17. G. F. Hill, A Handbook of Greek and Roman Coins (New York, 1899), p. 152.

18. A.Johnston, The Coinage of Metapontum, Part 3(New York, 1990). Class C.4.9 (Plate 12). 7.88g (21mm diameter), die axis 0°. Author's collection, ex Spink, 2004.

19. Johnston, The Coinage of Metapontum, Class B.3 (Plates 7-8). 7.97g (20mm diameter), die axis 315°. Author's collection, ex Spink, 2000. The treatment of the beard is exceptionally realistic.

20. Strabo, Noe, The Coinage of Metapontum and Johnston, The Coinage of Metapontum.