The ancient Greeks produced many beautiful coins that are highly sought after by collectors today. The Greek historian Herodotus recorded that the world’s first coins were struck in the Kingdom of Lydia around the Seventh Century BC. The Lydians struck their coins in electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, and they depicted the head of a lion.
Within a century, the island of Aegina, who traded with Lydia, had become the first Greek city-state to see the potential of currency. They struck an astonishingly beautiful coin featuring a sea turtle in high relief. Other regions eagerly followed their example and created distinctive coins depicting the emblems of their society.
But while Athens coinage depicted a wide-eyed owl, and Corinth used the flying horse Pegasus, one Greek city-state stubbornly refused to embrace the concept of coinage. The legendary warrior city of Sparta was so resistant to currency that they actually forbade its use for several centuries.
Given Sparta’s staunch opposition to coins, it is an amusing irony that their only colony, Taras, situated hundreds of miles away in southern Italy, not only fully embraced the concept but produced what is arguably one of the most intriguing and iconic coins of the ancient world.
The story of how and why the children of Sparta travelled to Italy and then chose the image of a boy on a dolphin as the emblem of their city to depict on their coins is a fascinating one.
City of Warriors
The Spartans were arguably the most fearsome, ruthless and accomplished warriors in the ancient world. Located on the Peloponnese peninsula next to the mighty Eurotas River, Spartan citizens were bred for war. Their society was dedicated to producing physically fit, fiercely loyal and highly disciplined warriors who considered death on the battlefield the highest possible honour.
Training began at birth. Newborn Spartan babies were carefully examined for defects or illnesses, and if any were found, they would be taken outside the city and left to die on a hillside. Those fortunate to survive the selection procedure were sent to a state-run military school at the age of seven. They were taught to fight and endure pain through discipline, physical exercise, combat skills and weapons training.
The Sons of Virgins
During the Messenian War, circa 743-724 BC, the Spartan army pledged not to return home until they had secured victory. Having so many warriors away from home led to a dramatic drop in the birthrate, which threatened Sparta’s long term future. It is reported that a delegation of Spartan women travelled to Messenia to demand that their husbands procreate with them. However, as the war dragged on, it became clear that a different approach to solving the low birthrate problem was required.
To honour their pledge not to return home until the war was won, it was decided that young soldiers who had not yet sworn the oath to Sparta would be sent back with a special mission. In what must be one of the most unusual military orders ever issued, the soldiers were commanded to reproduce with as many young Spartan women as possible.
The children that resulted from these unorthodox unions were called Parthenians. The name means ‘sons of virgins’ because their mothers were considered to have done their patriotic duty for the state and so maintained their legal status as virgins.
Partheniae, however, had no legal status within Spartan society and were deprived of civil rights. Spartan warriors returning home at the end of the war refused to accept children conceived by their wives and daughters during their absence, particularly as it was rumoured that some babies had been fathered by slaves who had taken advantage of the situation to have illicit relationships with women outside of their social class.
After growing into adulthood, the Parthenians refused to accept their inferior status and organised a revolt. Anticipating the situation, the Spartan government proposed a peaceful alternative to bloody conflict. Perhaps due to their unique status as the children of Spartan women, there does not appear to have been the usual Spartan desire to crush their opponents by force. Instead, they asked their leader, a man called Phalantus, to lead the Partheniae out of the Peloponnese region and establish the only Spartan colony somewhere else.
Rain from a Clear Sky
To decide where they should go, Phalantus travelled to the temple of Delphi, located on Mount Parnassus in Central Greece. The Greeks believed Delphi to be the centre of the known world, and it became a place of great spiritual pilgrimage for those in search of divine guidance. At Delphi, it was believed that the gods could speak directly to humans.
Delphi was built to honour the god Apollo who the Greeks believed could transform into a dolphin. According to the legend, it was as a dolphin that he appeared to a group of terrified Cretan sailors. After taking on human form, he instructed them to build his temple in the mountains and name it after the aquatic mammal. They dutifully built a temple in his honour and named it Delphinios (Delphi) even though it is located several miles inland, far from a dolphin’s usual habitat.
Within the temple, the ancient Greeks believed that the gods would communicate through the Oracle, an older woman of good reputation who lived among the peasants in Delphi. She was kept alone in an inner sanctum built over a fissure in the rock. Fumes rising from this chasm had intoxicating properties that produced a trance-like effect. At pre-arranged times during the year, the Oracle would go into a trance, and according to legend, Apollo would speak directly through her. The priests in the temple would be on hand to transcribe and interpret any ‘divine’ instructions received.
Phalantus asked the Oracle to tell him where he should build the new colony, but he received an answer that puzzled him. She informed him that he should go to a place where rain fell from a clear sky. After all of his attempts to identify a place that fitted the description failed, a despondent Phalantus became convinced that the Oracle was telling him that there was nowhere on Earth for them to go.
After returning home in despair, his wife Aethra consoled him as he lay sobbing with his head in her lap until she also became upset. As her tears trickled down and splashed onto her husband’s face, Phalantus suddenly realised the meaning of the Oracle’s vision. His wife’s name, Aethra, meant ‘clear sky’. She had been born in the Apulia region, which is today in Southern Italy. He knew immediately that this was where the new colony had to be built.
The Partheniae arrived in the Apulia region in 706 BC and built Sparta’s only colony there. They chose a perfect geographical location for trade, as it provided a naturally safe harbour for sea-going vessels on the Mediterranean. They named their city Taras (later, Tarentum) after the son of the Greek sea god Poseidon and a local nymph Satyrion. The colony was initially modelled on Sparta’s constitution and grew quickly to become one of the most important commercial centres in the region. Today, the city is called Taranto.
Little is known of what happened to Phalantus after he established the colony. There is no history that he was buried in the city, which was the traditional way to honour a founder. One legend has him leaving Taras and returning to Sparta, where he met an untimely death at the hands of jealous government officials threatened by his popularity.
Sparta had no need for coinage which they considered the product of an inferior society. With a huge underclass of slaves, known as Helots, and a separate class of merchant craftsman called the Perocei, Spartan citizens were allocated food, clothing, housing and possessions according to their rank and status within society. All of their day-to-day needs were provided by the state, so money was redundant as a medium of exchange. In fact, Spartan citizens were forbidden to embark upon profit-making ventures, as this was considered a distraction from their training as warriors.
Taras did not have the same structured society as Sparta. Without an abundance of slaves, and skilled craftsmen to provide for their needs, they had no alternative but to engage in widespread commerce with their neighbours. In a significant departure from the Spartan model, they decided to strike their own coinage to facilitate the trade that fueled their economic prosperity. Production of Taras coinage was prolific and began about 500 BC, making them the first coins to have a direct connection with Sparta.
Boy on a Dolphin
Like most cities, Taras chose to place an emblem that symbolised their city on the face of its coinage. They selected the image of a boy riding on the back of a dolphin which appears on most of their coins. The popular theory is that he is Phalantus, the founder of the city. The dolphin appears on the coin because Phalantus chose the colony’s location after consulting the Oracle at Delphi.
However, the Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed that the Taras coins depicted the mythical figure of Taras himself. According to the murky world of Greek mythology, Taras was rescued from a shipwreck by his father, the sea-god Poseidon, who dispatched a dolphin to save his son from drowning. The creature dutifully carried Taras to shore at the spot on which the city that bears his name was built.
While it is always dangerous to base even tentative historical conclusions on ancient mythology, this theory does, on balance, appear to be the more plausible of the two, as it explains why the male character is actually riding on the dolphin than simply asking it for directions. In addition, the story of a parent protecting a child from danger may have appealed to the children of Sparta, separated as they were from their strong parent city by hundreds of miles of sea.
What is clear is that the people of Taras revered both Phalantus and Taras as heroes. In the Second Century AD, a Greek travel writer called Pausanias described visiting Delphi and seeing a votive offering to the gods that depicted both men side by side.
The coins of Taras have always boasted a wide variety of reverse designs. The earliest included a four-spoked wheel, representing either a war chariot or a racing chariot. Others featured a head, possibly Taras or a cockle shell, which would have been abundant on the shoreline. One of the most popular and enduring designs appears to have been a man on horseback, which appeared on coinage from around 450 BC. These are generally considered to depict equestrian games at the hippodrome, where athletes competed in contests of skill and strength.
Why the reverse designs appear to have been changed so frequently is not immediately apparent. Certainly, the city’s economic prosperity was offset by less successful military campaigns against the native inhabitants of Apulia, the Iapyges. This instability might be reflected in the changing designs and help to explain why depictions of charging warriors, chariot wheels and trident wielding deities rub alongside images of young people, equestrian sports, musical instruments and fruits.
Conquest and Commerce
Initially, Taras sought to imitate the military glories of their parent city and secured important military victories over the Iapygian tribes of the Messapians and the Peucetians, two of the indigenous tribes within Apulia who objected to the expansion of Greek settlers on their land.
However, the colony’s victory celebrations were premature. In 475 BC, they were soundly defeated by the Messapians in a battle described by Herodotus as the greatest slaughter of Greeks in his knowledge. In 466 BC, they suffered another major defeat. So many of the ruling class were killed in the fighting that a democratic party was able to assume control of the government and introduce democracy to the city.
Afterwards, Taras restricted its future expansion to coastal regions and became one of the most successful Greek colonies that spread out across Italy, the Mediterranean islands, Syria, Egypt and the Middle East. She continued to grow throughout the Fifth Century BC, assisted no doubt by the decline of her long term coastal rival Croton.
The value of coins would change from city to city. Merchants would usually only accept coins from their own city, which meant that visitors would have to seek out a moneychanger to exchange their coins before they could make purchases. The Athenian monetary system, adopted by most Greek city-states (except Sparta), ruled that the Drachma was worth six Obols and a Didrachm worth two Drachma. A Tetradrachm was worth four Drachma, and a Dekadrachm worth ten Drachma.
In the Fifth Century BC, it is believed that a Drachma would have been about a day’s wage for a manual worker. Soldiers in the Greek armoured infantry could expect to receive up to two Drachma, while sculptors and physicians could be paid up to six Drachma a day for their services.
Meat in ancient Greece was expensive, and only the wealthy could afford to eat at home. Lamb would cost eight Drachma, a gallon of olive oil about five Drachma and a loaf of bread, typically an Obol. A pair of shoes in Ancient Greece would typically cost between eight and twelve Drachma. For those wealthy enough to own slaves, one could be purchased from between twenty to thirty Dekadrachm.
Interestingly, travel costs between cities in ancient Greece appears to have been relatively inexpensive. According to the Greek philosopher Gorgias writing in the Fifth Century BC, a ferry crossing from the island of Aegina to Athens would cost just two Obols. In contrast, a long voyage across the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt to Athens would cost about two Drachma.
In 433 BC, the Spartan colony even founded a colony of her own in the west. Named Heraclea after the Greek god Heracles, she became the seat of the Italiote League just thirty years later. Taras controlled this association of Greek-speaking inhabitants in southern Italy, and coins were struck portraying the mythical hero fighting a lion, an allusion to the strength of the Greeks against the native population.
It was not until Sparta was in terminal decline as a military and political power that it became necessary for them to produce their own coinage to trade with their neighbours. The strict laws prohibiting the use of coinage were relaxed, and the first Spartan coins, comprising silver Tetradrachms and Obols, were struck, albeit in very low quantities from the Third Century BC.
Taras flourished as a major centre of commerce for nearly five hundred years before she was captured by the Romans and renamed Tarentum after 213 BC. The Romans named the coastal areas of Southern Italy ‘Magna Graecia’ (Great Greece) due to the number of Greek colonies established throughout the region. The minting operation at Taras, which had struck the coins that circulated widely throughout Magna Graecia fell silent, and her reign as a significant economic and political power came to an end. However, the large number of iconic coins found throughout the region provide evidence of the prosperity, power and influence that the children of Sparta achieved.