The most popular type on Greek coins was an image or symbol of the main
deity or hero of the polis. Since the Greeks conducted all their
activities under the protection of their deities, they had no concept of
the separation of religion and state. Thus the depiction of deities on their
coins was not merely pious; many poleis identified so strongly with
their major cults, particularly if their cities had well-known sanctuaries,
that the deities or their symbols became their city emblems. The coins were
the major medium through which the emblems were disseminated, and in many
Greek cities the types persisted for centuries, changing only stylistically
as the die-engravers adjusted to the prevailing sculptural styles of the
times (compare nos. 15, 17,
The most common way of referring to patron deities on the earliest Greek
coins was to depict the deity's symbol or attribute, an animal or object
particularly associated with him or her. Some cities continued to use such
attributes as their main obverse types even after the heads of patron deities
became the most popular obverse types in the Classical period. Early coins
of Knidos depict the forepart of a lion, attribute of its patron deity,
Apollo (no. 35). The eagle is frequently
used as an attribute of Zeus, as on the tetradrachms of Akragas (no. 8)
and the staters of Elis, festival coins of its sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia
(nos. 31, 32).
The thunderbolt is also an attribute of Zeus (no. 31).
The head of a wolf on the obols of Argos refers to its sanctuary of Apollo
Lykeios, Apollo the Wolf-killer (no. 33).
In the Classical period, when it became more usual to depict the head of
the deity or hero on the obverse, the attributes were moved to the reverse.
Thus Demeter appears opposite her grain (no. 4),
Apollo opposite his lion (nos. 12, 13),
lyre (no. 23), or swan (no. 34), Dionysos opposite Silenos (no. 14),
Protesilaos opposite his ship (no. 24), Hermes opposite his goat (nos. 26,
27), and Athena opposite her owl and
olive (no. 30).
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