Cross-Cultural Currencies: The Litra and Early Sicilian Fractional Silver

1D3_8334Giuseppe Carlo Castellano is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is pursuing a PhD in Classical Archaeology. His academic interests include culture contact, numismatics, and the material culture of Sicily and South Italy. Giuseppe is a part of the Contrada Agnese Project of the American Excavations at Morgantina, Sicily.

The indigenous inhabitants of Bronze and Iron Age Sicily exchanged bronze objects as a proto-monetary currency. Ingots, tools, and scrap were hoarded as wealth and traded by weight, eventually coming to be reckoned against a variety of regional libral standards, among which the Sicilian litra. This indigenous bronze system persisted alongside coinage well into the Hellenistic period and had a strong influence on the monetization of Sicily. Greeks and indigenous Italic peoples had been in contact for at least three centuries before the advent of coinage, and so would have become accustomed to each other’s weight standards and proto-monetary practice. The hybridized currencies and standards which emerged from this intercourse speak to the strong cultural and economic links between Italy, Sicily, and the Greek homeland.

Italic aes rude, or raw bronze, exchanged as currency in Bronze and Iron Age Sicily and Italy. Weight 33.95 g (ANS 0000.999.564)

The Greek term litra is of Sicel origin. It is cognate to the Italian libra, the indigenous ponderal unit of the mainland. Linguistic evidence suggests that the word litra came from the mainland to Sicily either as an inherited proto-Italic form or as a later loanword from a peninsular language. Mainland Italic peoples may have introduced their bronze-based ponderal system and associated terminology to Sicily by at least the beginning of the Iron Age.

Obverse of a silver litra of Himera, bearing a cock. These are probably the first silver litrai minted in Sicily, sometime between 550 and 484/483 BC. Weight 0.79 g (ANS 1944.100.8493)
Reverse of the same early silver litra of Himera, bearing an incuse mill-sail pattern. 550–484/483 BC. Weight 0.79 g (ANS 1944.100.849)

With the introduction of Greek-style coinage to Sicily in the sixth century BC the litra took on new significance as a small silver coin equivalent in value to the native bronze weight measure. These coins were minted alongside the traditional Greek fraction, the obol. Despite variations in weight among obols—the expected result of differing Greek regional standards—the silver litrai remain fairly consistent. This suggests that they were at least initially tied to another standard, perhaps the native bronze, unaffected by the variability among traditional Greek systems. The silver litra and its fractions formed a neat solution to the problem of integrating the two traditions and therefore allowed for a direct conversion between the native bronze system and the Greek silver system. This would have greatly facilitated trade between the largely coastal Greeks and the indigenous peoples of the interior. Colonial encounters of this kind often engender complex re-articulations of economic and cultural practice, and it is clear from literary, archaeological, and numismatic evidence that the Greeks were receptive to foreign standards and were willing to modify their own systems or assimilate elements of others in response to social, political, and economic exigencies.

Obverse of a Syracusan silver litra, bearing the head of the nymph Arethusa. Second quarter of the fifth century BC. Weight 0.87 g, diameter 11 mm (ANS 1997.9.29)
Reverse of the same Syracusan litra, bearing a cuttlefish and the legend ΣΥΡΑ. Second quarter of the fifth century BC. Weight 0.87 g, diameter 11 mm (ANS 1997.9.29)

This overlap of diverse currencies led to the creation of hybrid monetary systems that bore elements of both the imported Greek and native Italic traditions. This integrative and assimilative monetization formed part of what Massimo Pallottino in his History of Earliest Italy called the “complex and unstable… equilibrium” that promoted “a tradition of ever-growing diplomatic, religious, cultural, artistic and economic relationships… [and] a truly international way of life.” What emerges is a far more nuanced view of Greek colonization than the literary tradition and the historical narratives suggest: this is not merely a story of the colonizers and the colonized, but of complex colonial and postcolonial populations attempting to coexist, cooperate, and prosper.