Greek Acquisitions (Summer 2004)

by Peter Van Alfen

Shortly before our move downtown, ANS Trustee Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss donated yet another batch of choice coins to the Greek cabinet, including a rare Cypriot issue from an as-yet unknown mint. The coin was found with the famed Asyut hoard (no. 817 in Martin Price and Nancy Waggoner’s 1975 study of the hoard) and features the head of a roaring lion on the obverse and an exquisitely detailed octopus on the reverse. The Cypriot character ka in the upper right hand corner of the reverse field may one day help lead us to the mint that produced the coin; Dr. Michel Amandry, our visiting scholar, informs me that his department in Paris recently purchased a similar coin, but with a lengthier inscription that could be a personal name. The obverse type, the lion, as here and in its various other guises, was exceedingly common on Archaic and later coinages, particularly those from Asia Minor and farther east. As a symbol of royal might the lion on coins represented not only the hegemonic Persian kings, but also those they overthrew, like the king of Lydia, and those who became their vassals, like the kings of Phoenicia and Cyprus. More difficult to explain, however, is the octopus.


Early fifth century double shekel from Cyprus (Kourion?) with roar lion obverse and octopus reverse (ANS 2004.18.6, gift of Arnold-Peter Weiss).

While certainly eye-catching and often quite floral in presentation, the octopus was not an especially common coin type in antiquity. Eretria, one of the four major cities on the large Aegean island of Euboea, appears to have been the first to use the type when it started to mint staters and smaller denominations with an octopus reverse around 525 BC. Because of the stylistic similarity between the creatures on the coins, the esteemed George F. Hill argued that the Cypriot octopus was an imitation of the Eretrian version; presumably the Cypriot coins were minted when Cypriot cities aided the Euboean and other Aegean cities during the Ionian Revolt (499-497 BC). Hill’s theory was rejected by Price and Waggoner in the Aysut study (p. 111); they proposed instead a date in the 480s for the coin. At some point in the mid-fifth century, decades after the Aegean conflicts of the 490-480s, the octopus appears again in the western Greek world, first as a reverse type on a silver (then bronze) litra of Syracuse, then as a reverse type on bronze fractions of Messana (c. 430 BC), and as an ancillary symbol on fractions from Acragas. Perhaps as early as the fifth century, but likely sometime later, the wealthy Etruscan city of Populonia on the Italian mainland also minted octopuses as a reverse type and may have been responsible too for the more elaborate depiction of an octopus emerging from an amphora found on a large silver 20 litra piece in the ANS collection.


Half-drachm of Eretria, c. 500 BC (ANS 1978.82.4, purchase).


Tetrans of Syracuse, c. 425 BC (ANS 1944.100.55828, E.T. Newell bequest).


20 asses of Populonia, c. 200 BC (ANS 1957.172.33, Hoyt Miller bequest).

Why any of these cities chose the octopus as a type (and almost exclusively as a reverse type) is difficult to determine; as far as our sources indicate the octopus played no role in the founding tales or mythology of the cities. However, the cities that minted the octopuses (presumably the Cypriot coin too) shared a common trait: all were located on the sea and all possessed ports; Eretria and Syracuse especially were known for the strength of their navies. Other denizens of the deep, like crabs, dolphins, clams, and even half-man hippocamps often appear on other series of coins from these cities too, like those from Acragas and Syracuse, where the depictions could have played an important symbolic function within the city. The crab at Acragas, for example, is thought to represent the city’s eponymous river god. An octopus could simply represent a city’s close ties to the sea, either as a favorite food (the octopus was a delicacy then as now and was even reputed to have aphrodisiac qualities), or as one of the more distinctive creatures from the sea. Artistically the octopus makes an interesting subject, something vase painters recognized at an early date (see, for example, the depictions of the octopus on numerous second-millennium BC Minoan vases).


20 asses from an unknown Estrucan mint (Populonia?) showing an octopus emerging from an amphora on the obverse (ANS 1949.100.10, purchase).

As tasty or as art-worthy as the octopus might have been, however, literary sources make it clear that the ancients looked upon the octopus with a great deal more reservation, perhaps even fear, than we might otherwise suspect. These perceptions of the creature could certainly have informed the choice of the coin type and what it represented. The octopus was known as a crafty and dangerous animal (Pliny ix.90) with a venomous bite (Aelian v.44) and tenacious grip (Ovid Met. iv.366). Shifty men were compared to the octopus because it was known to change its color to match the seafloor below when threatened (Athenaeus 513d). More alarming was the belief that because they so loved grapes, the eight-legged creatures would venture out of the sea at night to steal the fruit off the vines (Aristotle HA 622 a 31). Most troubling were the tales of immense octopuses with arms 300 feet long (Pliny ix.90); one such monster, so the tale goes (Aelian xiii.6), raided the spice merchants’ quayside warehouse in Puteoli. Perhaps the octopus then was not an innocuous symbol, by rather one that conveyed a sense of dread and respect much like representations of the lion did. A lion and an octopus on one coin, as on our new Cypriot acquisition, might have represented royal might, not only within terrestrial domains, but at sea as well.