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Research Coins: Feature Auction


The Incuse Coinage of Magna Graecia

CNG 109, Lot: 5. Estimate $500.
Sold for $500. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

LUCANIA, Metapontion. Circa 540-510 BC. AR Nomos (28mm, 7.99 g, 12h). Ear of barley with eight grains; MET down left field / Incuse ear of barley with eight grains. Noe Class I, 3; HN Italy 1459; Kraay & Hirmer 288 (same dies). VF, toned, some die wear and light scratches under tone on obverse.

From the Gasvoda Collection. Ex Varesi 66 (29 April 2015), lot 7.

Beginning around 550 BC and continuing for more than a century, a number of Greek cities of Magna Graecia minted their coins in an incuse form. Although some minor incuse issues are known from a few other cities, the primary cities that struck them were Metapontion, Sybaris, Poseidonia, Kroton, and Kaulonia. Founded mainly by settlers from Achaia in the Peloponnesos, these cities employed common numismatic features. Most minted on the same weight standard using thin, broad flans struck with the obverse in relief and the reverse in the negative, or ‘incuse’, almost always using virtually identical designs on both sides. The production of these coins required a sophisticated technique: large, well-executed, dies that were carefully positioned before striking to align the matching designs. It has even been suggested that hubs were used to produce “large numbers of virtually identical dies” (see Rutter, Greek, p. 18). This theory, however, remains controversial, particularly in light of the noticeable slight differences between the obverse and reverse designs. Over time, the fabric of the coinages changed from thin, broad flans to thick, short flans (traditionally called ‘dumpy’), though the weight standard was generally maintained. Though there was no monetary union that existed between these mints, hoard evidence suggests that the incuse technique may have been chosen to encourage the retention of the coins within the region, since these incuse coins are rarely found outside Southern Italy. By the middle of the 5th century BC, all of these cities developed double-relief coinages, likely to facilitate trade beyond their immediate region, into neighboring areas where double-relief coinage had become the norm.

Metapontion was among the most important cities of Magna Graecia. Little is known of the city from the contemporary literature and its archaeological remains, and thus its coinage helps to fill the evidentiary lacunae. The coinage is some of the most recognizable and beautiful of the Greek world. The ear of barley, well-centered on the die, served as the distinctive symbol of the city from the introduction of coinage around 550 BC. Each kernel is carefully executed and the awns are each depicted as a series of pellets. The city was prosperous, and the ear of barley was symbolic of the wealth derived from the rich surrounding farmland. So great was the importance of barley to the Metapontine economy that the citizens sent a ‘golden harvest’ (i.e. grain ears in gold) to be dedicated at Delphi (Strabo 6.2.15). The coinage, first studied in depth by Sydney Noe, reveals its long and well-defined development. In addition to the incuse type nomoi (of which approximately 100 obverse dies have been recognized), the presence of drachms and obols indicates a diverse economy served by a rich and well-articulated coinage (Rutter, op. cit., p. 28).

Like Metapontion, Sybaris was an important city in Magna Graecia that amassed its wealth through farming and its large port facilities. Among the rest of the Greeks, the inhabitants of Sybaris became so infamous for their lavish and hedonistic lifestyle that the terms sybarite and sybaritic came to mean anyone or anything excessively self-indulgent. At the height of its power, Sybaris ruled over a number of its neighbors. It also maintained relations with the Etruscans to the north, as well as with the cities of Ionia, especially Miletos. Sybaris even founded its own colonies, including Laos, Skidros, and Poseidonia. Beginning around 550 BC, Sybaris struck an incuse coinage of nomoi and drachms, which featured a bull standing left on a series of lines and the first two letters of the ethnic. The use of the bull as a design may be a tauriform representation of the river-god, a type that appears elsewhere in the region. The incuse coinage of Sybaris largely ceased after the destruction of the city by Kroton in 510 BC, though a very rare issue of incuse coinage that had traditionally been thought to be the final issue of the orignial Sybaris may actually be a limited striking after the refounding of the city, circa 510-475 BC.

Poseidonia, known in the later Greek period as Paistos and Roman period as Paestum, was another important trading center in Lucania. It began minting incuse nomoi and drachms around 530 BC, like its founding city, Sybaris. These coins show Poseidon preparing to hurl his trident, as well as the ethnic. While these issues of Poseidonia can trace their technical origins to Achaian Sybaris, these issues were struck on a local standard, known as Phokaian, and used by the neighboring Phokaians of Velia. Their incuse coinage was much more modest in scale than the other cities, and short-lived, ending around 500 BC.

Kroton was one of the most flourishing cities in Magna Graecia, producing not only a number of Olympic victors and physicians, but was also the home of Pythagoras, who founded his school there around 530 BC. The early coinage of Kroton is the most numismatically complex. Featuring an ornate tripod, symbol of Apollo and allusion to his role in the city’s foundation. Subsidiary symbols, such as a heron or crab, periodically appear as subsidiary symbols. One other intriguing feature, unlike the other incuse coinage cities, is the appearance of an incuse eagle flying, or a helmet, replacing the tripod on the reverse. It has been suggested that these reverses may represent subsidiary mints within the region in the vicinty of Kroton: the eagle for Hipponion, the helmet for Temesa.

Kaulonia was the last of the Achaian cities to issue incuse type coinage, beginning around 525 BC. The nomoi and drachms employ an intriguing type – Apollo standing right, holding a laurel branch and supporting on his outstretched arm a small nude figure, running and holding a branch in each hand. In the right field, a stag stands right on a ground line with its head left. Unlike Kroton, the connection between Apollo and Kaulonia is not so obvious. Here the imagery refers to the events following the slaying of Pytho when the god went to the Vale of Tempe to purify himself with laurel before establishing his oracle at Delphi. Etymologically, the name of Kaulonia was originally Aulonia, and AYΛ(ON) appears on a single small denomination of Kaulonia’s coinage. Meaning valley or gorge, this is a subtle reference to the Vale of Tempe. Therefore, it not only associates Kaulonia with the mythological spot of Apollo’s establishment as a major Olympian deity, but also demonstrates Kaulonia’s devotion to Apollo (Rutter, op. cit., pp. 30-31).