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Olympia stater from 111th Olympiad, the year Alexander the Great became king


kirispupis
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Posted (edited)

I find it a bit ironic that I purchased this stater of Elis for the 111th Olympiad at a baseball game. My son is a huge sports fanatic, so I went. However, baseball isn't always the most exciting game so I began checking my phone between the innings, then started perusing an auction that was happening the next day, when I noticed this coin.

A stater from Elis had been on my list for some time, with a note to figure out which one to pursue before purchasing one. However, the year made that decision trivial. 336 BCE. This was the Olympiad when Philip II was assassinated and Alexander the Great became king. Granted, I'd always thought to go for one of the Games where Philip's chariot won, but this one seemed far more critical. No one had bid on it. My eyes popped when I researched the going prices, but this one was in rough condition so I put a lowball bid even with that factored in, and resumed watching the game.

The next day, I honestly didn't pay attention to the auction. This was the only coin I bid on, and I figured it wasn't worth checking since I was certain to lose. I worked away on my computer and expected the notification that I was outbid, but it never came. Had the auction started yet? It did, and to my stunned excitement, I'd won.

678A0631-Edit.jpg.b9d256aa2197b0da172840d8bc9dc8d5.jpg

ELIS, Olympia. 111th Olympiad
336 BCE
AR Stater 22mm, 11.63 g, 6h
Hera mint. Head of Hera right, wearing ornamented stephanos inscribed [FAΛEI]Ω[N] / Eagle standing left, head right, wings spread, on rock; all within wreath.
Seltman, Temple 341–5 var. (dies FG/–); BCD Olympia 159 (same obv. die); HGC 5, 394.
Ex CNG

So, now on to this stater that's become a jewel in my collection. 

Nearly the entirety of these coins were used for the Olympic festival and for pilgrims to the two temples, based on the fact that very few large coins of Elis have been found in Olympia[3]. Elis itself was primarily rural with little need for such a vast coinage. At the festivals, visitors were required to convert their currency to the special coins minted for that purpose, with the conversion fee renumerating the Eleans for the upkeep of the games and the temples. Most Olympiads had their own coinage minted for that festival, which explains the large number of varieties. The top engravers in Greece were hired for the purpose. It's believed that few coins had much purpose save as souvenirs after the festivals, though the existence of countermarks on some coins had led to speculation that coins from previous years were permittable once they were stamped [2].

This particular coin comes from the Hera mint. Seltman was one of the first to realize that there were two different mints that issued coins simultaneously - called the "Zeus" mint and the "Hera" mint. We don't know for sure that the mints were based at the corresponding temples, but the entirely separate lineage of dies strongly suggests two separate mints, and these were the two dominant temples at the time.

The Hera temple was the older, having been built roughly a hundred years before that of Zeus, though the Zeus coinage predates that of Hera. Seltman lists the end of the Hera mint around 323 BCE, which of course was the same year Alexander the Great died. The temple itself was destroyed in an earthquake in the 4th century CE, which may have saved its ruins from the fate of the more famous Zeus temple - whose eponymous statue was one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, and was demolished as a pagan relic. Today, the Olympic flame continues to be lit on the ruined Temple of Hera's altar before being carried to the rest of the world.

Elis and Olympia are actually two separate places, but Elis controlled the mints of Olympia and the Olympiads themselves[3]. This hegemony was disputed with nearby Pisa, but for most of ancient history Elis had the upper hand.

In terms of the symbols on the coin, the eagle is a natural symbol of Zeus [3]. Per Gardner, the symbol of an eagle flying symbolizes Zeus the Cloud-gatherer, while one with a serpent or hare indicates Zeus as the "giver of victory." This coin shows neither. Instead, the eagle is on a rock with its wings spread. Perhaps this may instead remind the visitors that eagle rising from the altar signified the start of the chariot race[3], which would have been keen in the minds of the Macedonians - who were the Eleans' chief benefactors at the time.

331A8845-Edit.jpg.e42ed40d4f0ff67e94baacc3f5fb27ee.jpg

I took this photo yesterday. The eagle was evidently excited to be included in this post.

The wreath, of course, is what was given to the victors at the games. We all learned that as schoolchildren. As for the image of Hera, interestingly there was a separate Olympic festival for young (unmarried) women called the Heraean Games[4]. Adult women, however, weren't allowed to even attend the mens' games, and the Heraean Games seem to have been held shortly before the mens'.

To be honest, while both Leu and CNG state that Seltman assigns this stater to the 111th Olympiad in 336 BCE, from my reading of Seltman I don't see where he states this. He does confidently mark it as between 364 and 323 BCE, and suggests that it occurred before the last group, which came at the very end of the mint. Four obverse dies are in his series XXX, named FG to FK (this is FG). So, I'll just defer to CNG and Leu's experts.

That's the history, but now comes the fun part: speculation. Who could have touched this coin? The obvious answer is someone who attended the 111th Olympic Games did. This was more likely multiple someones, as the festival was a major market for trading commodities. While we'd like to think someone spent it on popcorn and Cracker Jacks in the stands, or for a Dioxippos action figure to take home to the kids, it was more likely purchased on something from another corner of Greece that wasn't readily available in the owners' area. That's all nice, but given the year, we obviously want to know the odds of Alexander or Philip holding it.

For Philip II, the Olympics were a major vehicle to elevate him to the hegemony of Greece. His chariots won in 356, 352, and 348 and the victories were depicted on his coins. [5] The famous Philippeion, containing statues of Philip, Alexander, and Olympias, was built at Olympia itself. It is believed that Alexander himself never attended the games, but it did use the 114th Olympiad in 324 BCE to announce his exiles decree. [5]

331A9880-Edit-2.jpg.6da7a70bf576a714d2e1316afc872bc3.jpg

Macedonian Kingdom, Philip II AR Tetradrachm.
Pella mint, ca 354-349 BC.
22-24 mm., 13.68g.
Laureate head of Zeus right / ΦIΛΛIΠOY, Philip II, diademed & in kausia, on horseback left, raising right hand
Ex N&N Collection

It seems extremely likely that neither Alexander nor Philip attended the 336 BCE games, so my next question was: how likely was it held by one of the attendees of the wedding between Philip's daughter and Alexander's full sister Kleopatra, and Alexander I of Molossos (Olympia's brother)? To answer that, we need to look at logistics. The festival was held roughly from August 6th to September 19th. Philip was assassinated at his daughter's wedding in October. I could find no more precise date there.

Kleopatra and Alexander's wedding was a big affair. This was a grand spectacle for Philip II and everyone who was someone throughout Greece was invited. Given that the Olympics were also a big deal, I'm certain that some attended both. From Olympia, had they taken the A5, they would have reached Vergina after 525 km. Therefore, at the leisurely 30 km per day, one could have reached Vergina in 17 days. Had they travelled part of the way by boat or packed lighter, they could have made it in less time. Therefore, it was certainly possible.

331A5656-Edit.jpg.8846f331826b10ad9a3a827ad1af9d8f.jpg

Epeiros.The Molossi
AE Circa 360-330/25 BCE
Ex Bertolami Auction 44 (Sep 2017)
Ex Catawiki

One person who was both at the these Games and known to Alexander was the Athenian boxer/wrestler Dioxippos. So feared was he, that no one would oppose him at the Games, so he won by default. He then accompanied Alexander's army into Persia. Both Quintus Curtius Rufus and Diodorus recall the bout between him and the Macedonian Coragos. Dioxippos, despite being naked compared to Coragos' armor, easily dispatched the Macedonian. This stunned the Macedonians, including Alexander, and raised their jealousy to the point that they tried to frame the Greek with theft. Dioxippos, feeling dishonored, wrote a letter explaining his frustrations to Alexander, then committed suicide. Alexander was reported as very distraught over the tragedy.

Sadly, I know nothing about where this coin was found, so this is only speculation. The coin is well-worn, so it definitely had a history after the Games. In the center of the obverse is a test cut. When seen with the naked eye, it looks more like a hole - perhaps used to attach the coin to something. However, upon seeing the mark at large on my monitor, I'm inclined to agree with the CNG listing that it's a test cut. Perhaps it was brought back to a later Olympic Games? Gardner mentions that fewer of the later coins have countermarks[3] so perhaps customs just made this small cut to verify that the coin was real without causing too much damage to a potential souvenir.

I'm very proud to be the new owner of this precious artifact, and it will serve a key place in telling a story.

[1] Seltman, Charles T. (1921) The Temple Coins of Olympia

[2] van, A. P. G. (2004). A simple souvenir: Coins and medals of the Olympic Games. American Numismatic Society. 

[3] Gardner, Percy. (1879). The Coins of Elis. Numismatic Chronicle, Vol XIX ps 221-273.

[4] Scanlon, Thomas F. (6 April 2004). "Games for Girls". "Archaeology". Archaeological Institute of America.

[5] Adams, Winthrop Lindsay. “Other People’s Games: The Olympics, Macedonia and Greek Athletics.” Journal of Sport History, vol. 30, no. 2, 2003, pp. 205–17. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43610327. Accessed 3 Jul. 2022.
 

Edited by kirispupis
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Cool coin and writeup, @kirispupis!

This isn't my core collecting area, but like you, I am fascinated by these coins and their history. I also recently acquired a coin from the Hera mint, a hemidrachm that's also relatively well worn, but still in decent enough condition so that both reverse and obverse are recognizable (seller's pics - because I suck at photography). I had a chance much earlier to acquire another one, but missed out, so I was determined to get this one. 

Elis, Olympia 336-324 BC, Hemidrachm (111-114th Olympiad)

Obv: Head of nymph Olympia left.
Rev: Eagle standing left, "FA" above (not visible on my coin) and grape bunch on a vine to right.
BCD Olympia 195 (same dies)

Olympia Elis Hemidrachm Eur177.jpg

Olympia Elis Hemidrachm Eur177r.jpg

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How on earth do you even roughly date these coins? There are no date indicators, any datable hoards?  HOW? I have always wanted to know , Maybe someone can enlighten me,m I mean it's no little matter. Personally don't believe it for a moment, no date indicators, no mixed hoards...nothing?  Skeptical NSK!

 

NSK=John

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6 hours ago, NewStyleKing said:

How on earth do you even roughly date these coins? There are no date indicators, any datable hoards?  HOW? I have always wanted to know , Maybe someone can enlighten me,m I mean it's no little matter. Personally don't believe it for a moment, no date indicators, no mixed hoards...nothing?  Skeptical NSK!

Which coins are you referring to? As I'm sure you know, there are various ways to date coins

  • Hoards
  • Dates on the coins themselves (from this period most common in Phoenicia)
  • Obverse/reverse die matches (can sequence the dies and definitively show that one die came before another)
  • Depictions on the coin matching known events in history
  • Similarities with the coinage of other cities

When you read Seltman, you'll see that he used the last three. Other coins, especially the famous tets of Alexander, are often dated from hoards. Bronze coins are typically the most difficult to date because they're generally absent from hoards, were often minted with little variation over a long period of time, and often have few to no indicators of the ruler who minted them. The large silver coins often don't have these problems, so their dating is generally more accepted (Seltman's work has undergone few changes in the last 100 years), though new papers continue to suggest modifications.

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Posted (edited)

I was referring to the coin dated to the Olympiads. There is nothing on them!  No, I have not read Seltman, but I don't get it! I get NewStyles, Seleucids  but blank coins devoid of anything dateable? Look at the tetradrachms of Athens before the NewStyle  it is a broad framework, a vast amount of guesswork. Same here? Tell me bit by bit?

 

NSK=John

Edited by NewStyleKing
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29 minutes ago, NewStyleKing said:

I was referring to the coin dated to the Olympiads. There is nothing on them!  No, I have not read Seltman, but I don't get it! I get NewStyles, Seleucids  but blank coins devoid of anything dateable? Look at the tetradrachms of Athens before the NewStyle  it is a broad framework, a vast amount of guesswork. Same here? Tell me bit by bit?

Debating the dating methodology of a professional numismatist without reading his work isn't very fair. Seltman is still the most referenced source concerning the coinage of Elis. If you have issues with his work, I suggest you read through it before posing an argument.

Personally, while I accept Seltman's statement that this coin was minted between 364 and 323 BCE, I don't see where he explicitly assigned it to 336 BCE. He does place it towards the tail end of that group based on dies, so a range of 340 BCE to 328 BCE would be reasonable. Both CNG and Leu, however, explicitly assign it to 336 BCE while citing Seltman's work. I therefore accepted 336 BCE on the fact that the numismatists at both CNG and Leu know more than I. My assumption is that if you assume each die group represented a different Olympiad, then group FG would "land" at 336 BCE. I've seen this logic before, such as in the dating of Ptolemy Keraunos tets (in the names and types of Alexander).

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I've seen a number of different date ranges proposed for my hemidrachm, so am not sure of an exact mint date. However, the coins of this design all appear to be exact obverse / reverse die matches, indicating a single emission with the same dies. The fact that there are no variants indicating that more than one obverse and reverse set of dies was used also suggests that these coins weren't minted over an extended period of time, but at one specific point in time for a specific purpose (the actual Olympiad festival itself).

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