Jump to content

An ant of a coin, and what I believe is a false attribution


Recommended Posts

  • Benefactor

Recently I picked up this tiny little coin. I wanted it for two specific reasons

  1. Because a tiny ant on a coin was just too cool to pass on
  2. Because I believed the attribution was incorrect


Cimmerian Bosporos, Myrmekion
Circa 470-460 BCE
AR Tetartemorion 5 mm, 0.22 g
Ant seen from above.
Rev. Quadripartite incuse square, pellets in two opposing compartments.
HGC 7, 54. MacDonald 6


Here's an example of how small it is.



Some auction houses relate these coins to the story told by Herodotos of giant Indian ants who guarded gold dust. For reasons I'll soon outline, I don't believe these coins have anything to do with that story, as the Bosporos was very far from India and the two would not have been confused. This relation is made only to sell coins to people who don't bother to research.

These coins are typically assigned to Pantikapaion, as was this one. The reason is this paper by Abramzon and Frolova, who was considered the expert on the ancient coinage of the Bosporos. She provides a strong argument.

Some scholars have considered the ant as an emblematic type, it being the official «badge» of Myrmekion, and they attributed coins with an ant to this mint. However, it is unlikely that these coins were struck in Myrmekion because the municipal coinage, continuing over a century (from the late of the 6th century ВС to the late 5th century ВС), could not have been limited to small denominations. Moreover, a series of coins with an ant, meeting the requirements of everyday purchases in the market-place,were produced by Panticapaeum.

Before I explain why I disagree with this, it's useful to explain the history of Myrmekion.

The city is believed to have been founded by settlers from Miletos in the 6th century BCE. At the beginning of the 5th century, Myrmekion was a prospering city, though it was likely already under the orbit of Pantikapation, given that they were separated by only 4 kilometers. In the second quarter of the 5th century (so 475-450 BCE), the city caught fire and was destroyed. The presence of a number of Skythian arrows, whereas evidence points to the locals continuing to rely on Greek weapons, suggests it was destroyed in a Skythian raid.

The city was rebuilt, but it was clearly under Pantikapaion by the time of the Spartokids in 438 BCE, and most likely much earlier. By the time of the 4th century BCE, the city was more of a suburb of Pantikapaion.

Back to the coin, the strongest argument for it being from Myrmekion is the ant itself. Myrmekion means 'ant hill' in Greek, and so an ant would be the obvious choice on a coin, whereas it makes little sense for Pantikapaion - named after Pan - who appears on many of their coins. A number of these tiny coins have been found in the ruins of Myrmekion itself. Therefore, it doesn't take a genius to consider that a coin with an ant found in the ruins of a city called 'ant hill' might come from there.

However, a big flaw in that logic is there are three rough types that have been found.

  • This one, with your typical quadripartite incuse square
  • A similar one containing the letters ΠΑ, ΠΑΝ, or ΠΑΝT
  • An even more mystifying one with the letters A-Π-[O-Λ]

There's little debate that the second group with 'PAN' comes from Pantikapaion. The third type has been the subject of even more debate, with the following theories

  • It was a temple coin for Pantikapaion's Temple of Apollo
  • Pantikapaion was originally called Apollonia
  • Myrmekion or Nymphaion was originally called Apollonia
  • There was some other city in the area called Apollonia
  • There was a regional federation between Myrmekion and Pantikapaion called Apollonia

Complicating matters further, there exist diobols of the Pantikapaion type with a lion's head that contain A-Π-[O-Λ]. I'm going to mostly ignore that coinage here.

Now, back to Frolova's argument: first, I don't agree that a city had to mint multiple denominations. In fact, when bronze coinage became popular there were numerous cities throughout the Greek world who only minted (as far as we know) small bronzes. These cities relied on the silver coinage of their more powerful neighbors. There are also a number of archaic cities from whom we only have small denominations today. Given that Myrmekion was only 4 km from Pantikapaion, and they were likely dominated from them, it would not have been outrageous for them to mint a type only for local use.

Of course, the big question is how to explain the similar coinage with ΠΑ, ΠΑΝ, or ΠΑΝT. My belief is these were minted in either Myrmekion or Pantikapaion, but were meant for Myrmekion. Archeological evidence points to the city being destroyed in the second quarter of the 5th century - right around when these coins were minted. In order to rebuilt Myrmekion, the inhabitants would have needed two things

  • Security
  • Funds

Pantikapaion could have offered both of these. These may have been extended with the understanding that what was Myrmekion was now under the total control of Pantikapaion. Alternatively, Myrmekion had no ability now to mint anything themselves, so the local coins themselves were minted at Pantikapaion.

Interestingly, the Taman Hoard (the source for the paper above) contained only two ant coins with PANT, none with APOL, and the rest of the ant coins similar to mine. I suspect this is because the coins were not minted simultaneously, but at different periods.

In terms of the 'APOL' coins, I'm not quite sure. I believe they were also minted at a different period from the PANT and 'plain' types, and that they were also associated with Myrmekion in some way. However, I don't own one.

Ultimately, I just don't believe it made sense for Pantikapaion to mint a coin with another city's emblem. I further believe that those coins with PANT contained the city's name to make it clear (for those with great eyesight) that Myrmekion was now Pantikapaion.

On another note, I spent some time researching why Myrmekion was named so, but I found nothing concrete. Perhaps the most well-known ancient story about ants involved the Myrmidons. Many years ago, when Hera was in a bad mood, she killed all the inhabitants of Aegina with a plague because the island was named after one of Zeus' "conquests". 

The plague didn't affect the ants, so Zeus turned them into humans who were known for their fierceness. Of course, back then they didn't realize that all worker ants are female, or this would have been an Amazon myth. Then again, they were descended from ants, so they obviously weren't the sharpest tools in the shed.

That was the story of the Myrmidons, who included Achilles. Often in the Greek world, multiple cities claimed the same legends. Could Myrmekion have had a similar story, or was it a different one?

As an aside, the site of Myrmekion is an active archeological dig, as is Pantikapaion. The work is currently controversial and can be read about here.

Feel free to show your coins of the Bosporos, or coins whose attributions you also doubt!

  • Like 12
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...