After the Greeks became well established in Sicily, Syracuse emerged as their leading city. This was due partly to the city’s strategic position, with its two harbours, and partly to the dynamism of its rulers. As the city developed, coins were minted in large numbers. These coins were more than a means of transacting business or paying wages. They also served a political purpose in promoting the ruler’s agenda and in communicating an image of the city. The design of coins became important, attracting talented artists, and reaching high levels of creativity. Syracusan coins are considered to be among the most notable works of art to have come down to us from classical times.
In the sixth century BC Syracuse was run by aristocratic families, the Gamoroi, who were the descendants of the city’s original founders. The aristocracy raised horses on their land and provided the cavalry for military ventures. In this period Syracuse became the first of the Sicilian Greek cities to feature the quadriga (four-horse chariot) on its coinage. The quadriga was a symbol of the aristocracy who competed in equestrian contests.
In 485 Gelon made himself ruler of Syracuse after he had helped the Gamoroi subdue a rebellion. Gelon had risen to prominence as cavalry commander to the ruler of Gela whose place he took. Renowned as a horseman, he was described by Herodotus as riding like a flame through the ranks of his enemies. Established in Syracuse, with his brother Hiero put in charge of Gela, Gelon set about expanding the city. New residential districts were built on the mainland surrounded by defensive walls while residents of Gela were brought in to the city. The army was strengthened and dockyards were built to support the navy’s expansion. Gelon strengthened his position by marrying Demarete, daughter of Theron, ruler of Akragas (modern Agrigento). Together, Syracuse and Akragas represented the most powerful alliance in Sicily.
Early example of the tetradrachm introduced by Gelon
To pay builders, craftsmen and mercenaries, as well as to facilitate trade, Gelon needed a stable coinage acceptable to professionals across Sicily and beyond. Early in his reign he introduced a newly designed silver tetradrachm or four-drachma piece. Weighing around 17grams, with a diameter of 24-26 millimetres, it complied with the accepted standards in Greece. It was a valuable coin at a time when one drachma represented a day’s pay for a craftsman or soldier. Smaller denominations were minted for everyday transactions.
The design of this tetradrachm marks a leap in quality from its predecessors. The obverse (front face) features a quadriga with walking horses driven by a charioteer. A new element is introduced in the form of the goddess Nike (Victory) flying to crown the horses. This could be a reference to Gelon’s win at the Olympic Games in 488. The reverse shows a female head, identified as the water nymph, Arethusa. Around the head is the inscription “SYRAKOSION,” meaning “of the Syracusans,” while four dolphins swim clockwise. These designs, engraved like miniature sculptures, became symbols of the city. They promoted the image of a city prized for its horsemanship, represented by a nymph whose freshwater spring flowed at its heart, and by dolphins which in ancient times could be seen in the encircling waters of its two harbours.
This coin continued to be produced after Gelon’s rule and that of his brother, Hiero I, becoming known as the imperial coinage. In total, some 1.5 million coins of this type were produced between 485 and 425. As time progressed, so the designs were modified, becoming less static in style, while maintaining the same elements. The coin set a standard for the other Greek cities of Sicily to follow.
The Syracusans coins, with their chariot/Arethusa designs, reached an artistic peak on the larger decadrachms, or ten-drachma pieces. These were medallions struck in limited numbers to commemorate special events, such as military victories. The first, known as the Demareteion, appeared in the 470s or ‘60s, possibly to commemorate Gelon’s victory over the Carthaginians in 480. While the elements of the design remain the same as on the tetradrachm, greater detail and delicacy of touch resulted in a coin of quite extraordinary quality. Perhaps the greatest Syracusan coins of all were struck following victory over the Athenians in 413. Here the precision of engraving coupled with the wealth of detail reached an even higher artistic level. These medallions, some of which were signed by their engravers, represent a testimonial to Syracuse’s greatness in antiquity.
Collections of the coins from ancient Syracuse can be seen at the archaeological museum in Syracuse, at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and at the British Museum in London, which holds one of the very few Demareteions in existence.