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The Corinthian Colony of Korkyra

CNG 91, Lot: 162. Estimate $500.
Sold for $450. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

KORKYRA, Korkyra. Circa 350/30-290/70 BC. AR Stater (21mm, 10.59 g, 5h). Cow standing right, looking back at suckling calf standing left below; star above / Double stellate pattern divided by line, all in double linear square border; K-O-P and spearhead left around. Meadows, CH (forthcoming), 247 (this coin); Fried Group IV, dies 103/190; SNG Copenhagen 157 (same obv. die); HGC 6, 37 (same obv. die as illustration). VF. Very rare.

Korkyra (IACP 123; English name: Corfu) was settled in the early sixth century BC. The settlers have traditionally been viewed as Corinthian, but there is evidence that colonists from Eretreia in Euboia preceded them (cf. IACP and Plutarch, Quaest. Graec. 11). Roughly a century later, a group of Corinthian and Korkyran settlers established a colony on the Illyrian coast named Epidamnos (IACP 79), though it became better known after the name of the headland on which it was founded, Dyrrhachion. Around the same time, another coastal Illyrian city inhabited by the Taulantioi was colonized and renamed Apollonia (IACP 77). The city was founded either by Corinthian colonists alone (according to Thucycides [1.26.2]) or by a combination of Corinthians and Korkyrans (according to Strabo [7.5.8]).

The coastal locations of all these sites were carefully selected for the strategic and economic advantages they offered, particularly for access to the North and to Greek colonies in Italy. Corinth and Korkyra eventually fought over Epidamnos in 435-431 BC, each supporting rival factions within the city. This dispute, along with other factors, ignited the Peloponnesian War.

Korkyra began minting its own coins in the sixth century BC. The obverse type on its coinage, showing a standing cow suckling a calf, was an overtly bucolic design that represented the fertility of the region. This scene became an archetype that was copied at many other mints in Greece and Magna Graecia, including both Apollonia and Dyrrhachion in the early fourth century BC. Its adoption at Apollonia lends weight to Strabo’s assertion that Korkyra was at least one of the mother cities of Apollonia. In turn, the adoption of the design at Karystos, and the proliferation of the cow motif in general at mints in Euboia, and its total absence on coins of Corinth, lends weight to the evidence that the original colonists of Korkyra came from Euboia.

The reverse type adopted by these three cities has been the subject of some scholarly discussion. Eckhel (Doctrina numorum veterum [Vienna, 1792/3], II:155) accepted the view of Laurentius Beger (Observationes Et Conjecturae In Numismata Quaedam Antiqua [Brandenburg, 1691]), who argued that the design represented the garden of Alkinöos, the mythical king of Phaiakia, described in detail by the poet Homer (Od. 7.112-133). Based on the assumption that mythical Phaiakia was the island of ancient Korkyra (mod. Corfu), and knowing that Korkyrans colonized both Apollonia and Dyrrhachion, Beger (and through him, Eckhel) concluded that the central elements were flowers and that the overall design must represent either the layout of the garden, or the doors leading to it.

Other numismatists argued that the central elements of the design were more star-like. While Böckh and Müller (in P. Gardner, "Floral patterns on Archaic Greek coins," NC 1881, p. 1) felt this to be the case, they considered the elements to be nothing more than a fortuitous series of random strokes. Friedlander and von Sallet (Das königliche Münzkabinett [Berlin, 1877], coins 72-75) viewed them as symbols of the Dioskouri. Proponents of either interpretation continue to argue their views (see Alfred Maier, "Die Silberprägung von Apollonia und Dyrrhachion," NZ 41 [1908], p. 2 and note 4 [garden]; Traité, Part II, Volume I, column 931 [garden]; Michael E. Marotta, "Dyrrachium: Rome's doorway to Greece," Celator [April 1997], pp. 6-7 [garden]; Gyula Petrányi, " Gardens of Alkinoos: fact or fiction? On the reverse pattern of the silver coins from Corcyra, Apollonia and Dyrrachium," Celator [November 1998], pp. 22-24 [Dioskouroi]).

Gardner (op. cit.) was convinced that the reverse design had a religious meaning, but was unconvinced that the symbols were either a garden layout, or stars. Instead, he favored a floral interpretation. He argued that this was indicated not only by their general shape, but, in some particular instances, by an intentional modification to make them appear more floral. Noting a similarity between the reverse types of Korkyran staters – the model for the staters of Apollonia and Dyrrhachion – and those of other Greek city-states, most notably Miletos and Kyrene, he argued that this was due to a common religious cult between them, since he believed that Greek coin types were primarily religious in origin. Arguing that the most probable deity was Apollo, Gardner concluded that the reference was to Apollo Aristaios or Nomios, a pastoral version of that god who was worshiped (among other places) both at Kyrene and throughout northern Greece and was known to be the protectors of flocks (cf. Pind. Pyth. 9.64-65).

All of these early arguments, however, revolved around the classical period issues of these cities, and ignored the archaic issues of Korkyra, from which they evolved. The reverse design of the archaic staters consists of two stars, each within a square incuse placed side-by-side (BMC 1 and pl. XXI, 1). H. Nicolet-Pierre recently revisited the issue in her article on the archaic coinage of Korkyra ("À props du monnayage archaïque de Corcyre," SNR 88 [2009], pp. 2-3), and offered a novel interpretation. Noting a passage of Thucydides (3.70.4) in which that author cited the existence on the island of a sacred precinct (temenos) dedicated to Zeus and Alkinöos, she suggested that the reverse design might have been inspired by the ground design of this district, and not Homer's garden of Alkinöos. This suggestion, however, does not seem sufficient for explaining the use of the type in Apollonia and Dyrrhachion, both of which were fairly independent of Korkyran influence by the end of the fourth century BC. In any event, Nicolet-Pierre notes the lack of information available, and is hesitant to ascribe the type to any particular origin.

That said, even her analysis fails to recognize significance of the use of the symbol on the fractional coinage of Korkyra, where the reverse is composed simply of a star (BMC pl. XXI, 3-8, 10-12, and 16-18). The fact that these were issued even during the classical period, alongside the staters discussed above, makes it virtually certain that the staters’ types are simply stars, albeit more fluid in their composition. A rare stater issue (BMC 10 and pl. XXI, 2), which appears to be the transitional type between the archaic and classical depictions of the stars, supplies further evidence. On this coin, the stars are elongated within the now rectangular incuses placed side-by-side. These incuses, then, appear to be precursor of the rectangular boxes that enclose the stars on the later staters (BMC 39 and pl. XXI, 9). Thus, the staters of Apollonia, Dyrrhachion, and Korkyra demonstrate a meticulous progressive recopying of an archaic coin type that continued under its colonies, and not an allusion to a possible Homeric past.