An Owl-ccentricity: Athenian Imitation “New Style” Owls in Saba’

By The American Numismatic Society

Today’s post comes courtesy of Anna Accettola as part of her work conducted at the 2019 Eric P. Newman Graduate Summer Seminar in Numismatics. —ed.

The Sabaean Kingdom, located in the southern Arabian Peninsula and modern-day Yemen, rose to prominence between 1200 and 800 BCE and ruled until near the end of the third century CE.  At this point, the Sabaeans were conquered by the neighboring Himyarite Kingdom for the final time.  Most famous for its connection to the biblical land of Sheba and its control over frankincense and myrrh production, the Sabaean Kingdom maintained a cultural and economic presence in the Mediterranean milieu throughout the expansion of Greek city-states, the rise and fall of the Athenian Empire, the conquests of Alexander the Great, and the coming of Rome.  While largely remaining distant from the political life of the Mediterranean, certain aspects of Mediterranean cultures influenced the Sabaeans, specifically their coinage.

Athenian “Old Style” Owls (Figure 1) were a predominant coinage in the Mediterranean for nearly 300 years and imitations of this iconography appeared in Saba’ in the mid-fourth century BCE, less than 100 years after its creation.  But these imitations beg the question: why would a kingdom so far from the Mediterranean Sea, let alone the polis of Athens, imitate a goddess and other symbols vastly different from their own cultural norms?  The answer likely lies in the caravan trade and the heavy traffic between Saba, Egypt, Gaza, and the Greek Mediterranean for the exchange of incense and other luxury goods.  Saba was the main producer of frankincense and myrrh in the ancient world and these products were always in great demand.  As such, a certain amount of Athenian coinage (and later Hellenistic Alexanders and Roman denarii) found their way into Saba along these trade routes.

Fig. 1. Sabaean imitation of Athenian "old style" owl, ANS 1944.100.69452.
Fig. 1. Sabaean imitation of Athenian “old style” owl, ANS 1944.100.69452.

But approximately 200 years later, the Sabaeans, possibly with Himyarite influence, decided to change their currency and once again follow the Athenian precedent.  Even though “New Style” Athenian coins have never been found in southern Arabia, the owl on amphora design was imitated and pushed out the older type (Figure 2).  This oddity is the focus of my summer project.  Through a die study of the Sabaean “New Style” Athenian imitations, I hope to better understand questions such as: how many of these coins may have been produced, what is the weight standard on which these new coins were struck, and, perhaps, what persuaded the Sabaeans to adopt this style of coin, incorporating new series of monograms and symbols, around the first century BCE?

Fig. 2. Sabaean Imitation of "new style" owls, ANS 1944.100.69467.
Fig. 2. Sabaean Imitation of “new style” owls, ANS 1944.100.69467.

The first step in completing this project was to collect as much information on these coins and as many photographs as possible from around the world.  Approximately 300 of these coins exist, in four (or possibly five) denominations, almost exclusively in silver.  The largest denomination is a unit or nṣf.  As can be seen in Figure 2, these coins differ as the Sabaeans added certain unusual facets to their coinage which are not evident in the Athenian originals or other imitations—such as the border of amphorae circling the reverse and a “curved symbol” which perhaps represents one of the main Sabaean deities, Almaqah (Munro-Hay 2003: 37).

Thus far, my study has revealed several points of interest.  First, these coins had a fairly large production, especially the full unit denomination of the cursive YNF monogram type (Figure 3).  The weight of the unit (averaging 5.39 grams) is approximately equal to that of the siglos, likely to ease exchange with near neighbors. However, fractional coins occur with significantly less frequency and there are only 7 examples of the smallest denominations in the world (Figure 4).  In addition, this coinage retained a regular reverse type, but went through several shifts in obverse type; first, transitioning away from the original head of Athena to a long-haired royal portrait in the earlier mintings and, then, to an “Augustan” style head with short hair and a stern expression.  Although some researchers have argued that this was a direct result of the 26/25 BCE Roman expedition into southern Arabia, the chronology of these coins is not yet well enough established to be confident in such influences (Munro-Hay 1991: 407 and Huth 2010: 241).

Fig. 3. Sabaean imitation "new style" owl, cursive YNF monogram type, ANS 1944.100.69463 from the Edward T. Newell Collection.
Fig. 3. Sabaean imitation “new style” owl, cursive YNF monogram type, ANS 1944.100.69463 from the Edward T. Newell Collection.
Fig. 4. 1/8th unit Sabaean imitation "new style" owl, ANS 1944.100.69477 from the Edward T. Newell Collection.
Fig. 4. 1/8th unit Sabaean imitation “new style” owl, ANS 1944.100.69477 from the Edward T. Newell Collection.

As such, these coins remain fairly elusive in providing modern researchers with clear answers about the authorities who minted them, the monograms with which they are inscribed, and even the inspiration for them.  However, I tentatively argue that these may act as a transitional coinage between an older Athenian model and the later so-called “bucranium” series (Figure 5), which features a more independent and unique Sabaean identity. These earlier imitations of Athenian coinage seem to showcase an intense interest in the Mediterranean world and its powerful economy opportunities.  But as the Sabaean and Himyarites grew through territorial conquest and became more directly involved with the Roman and eastern trade routes to India and beyond, they established their own iconographic traditions.

Fig. 5. Sabaean "Bucranium" series, ANS 1944.100.6494.
Fig. 5. Sabaean “Bucranium” series, ANS 1944.100.6494.

Anna Accettola is a PhD candidate in Ancient History at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).  Her dissertation is on the legal institutions and social networks which promoted long-distance trade across the Hellenistic Mediterranean between the Greek poleis and the Near East, specifically the Nabataean Kingdom.  She was inspired to apply for the American Numismatic Society summer program in order to learn more about how states implement monetary policies and negotiate these policies across political and territorial boundaries.