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NUMISMATIC COLLECTION
PLANTS ON ANCIENT COINS

Coin iconography is a fascinating subject, from antiquity to the present day. The iconographic types stamped on both sides of the coin refer to the issuing authority and are an important source of information of all kinds. 

Many were the ancient engravers’ sources of inspiration, among them religion, mythological tradition, historical events, even the natural environment of a particular region. The depiction of flora is one of the most interesting aspects ancient coin iconography. Plants sometimes appear as the main iconographic types, sometimes as symbols engraved in the field of the representation, even as wreaths on the head of different deities. They confirm the imagination of the ancient Hellenic spirit, capable of endowing with beauty even objects of everyday use, such as coins. 

On class of plants encountered as iconographic types on ancient coins are agricultural crops. These are mainly local crops that were a significant source of wealth and prosperity for the city. The coin issues of Metapontion in the region of Lucania in South Italy bear witness to the cultivation of cereals, as the city chose for its coins an ear of wheat. 
                                          
                         Metapontion, Lucania. Silver stater, 520 BC. 

In Thessaly, the granary of Greece, Skotoussa represented on its coins a barley grain, a subject appropriate to the region. 
                                         
                Scotoussa, Thessaly. Silver drachma, 480-400 BC. 

In areas well known from Antiquity for wine-production, vine branches and bunches of grapes appear on the coins, such as of Maroneia in Thrace, which was famed for its excellent wine (as it is today). 
                                        
                   Maroneia, Thrace. Silver didrachm, 400-350 BC. 

A fig leaf decorates the coins of Kameiros, the most important city on the island of Rhodes, prior to the founding of the city of Rhodes. Rhodian fig trees were famed in antiquity and it was widely claimed that their figs rivalled those of Attica. 
                                   
               Kameiros of Rhodes, Karia. Silver stater, 500-480 BC. 

Another plant encountered in ancient coin iconography is the olive, which is linked with the cultivation of the tree in the wider area of the issuing authority, as for example on Lesbos, renowned to this day for its olive oil. On an archaic lesbian stater, an olive branch is visible between two confronted bovine heads.
                                      
                       Lesbos, Aiolis. Silver stater, ca 500 BC

The same iconographic element exists on a coin from Samos.
                                     
                    Samos, Ionia. Silver tetradrachm, 400-365 BC 

The olive was also the attribute of Athena, since the sacred tree was the goddess’s gift to the city of Athens, to which she gave her name.
                    
                         Athens. Silver tetradrachm, 479-454 BC

On the famous “owls”, as the Athenian tetradrachms are known to posterity, an olive branch features on the reverse, while after 479 BC and the end of the Persian Wars, the olive was added to Athena’s helmet, as a reminder of the great victory over the foreign foe. On the reverse of Athenian “New-style” tetradrachms, which circulated during the second and first Centuries BC, the representation is encircled by an olive wreath, an iconographic element which gave these particular coins the other name of “stephanephora”.
                    
                            Athens. Silver tetradrachm, 195/194 BC

Another class of flora is the sacred plants, which are associated with a particular deity. These plants, attributes of the particular deities, help us to identify the effigies represented on the coins. Zeus Dodonaeus has an oak wreath, Apollo a laurel wreath, Dionysos an ivy wreath. 
                                      
                 Pyrrhos, Epirus. Silver tetradrachm, ca 280-278 BC         
                                 
     Chalcidian League, Macedonia. Silver tetradrachm, 379-348 BC 
                                    
                     Naxos, Sicily. Silver tetradrachm, ca 460 BC 

Very often the existence of a wreath alone, which usually encircles the representation on the reverse, alludes to the particular deity who was worshipped in the territory of the issuing authority. The oak wreath represented on the tetradrachm of the King of Macedonia, Perseus, is undoubtedly associated with the worship of Zeus, father of the gods and protector of the entire Macedonian kingdom.
                     
            Pyrrhos, Epeiros. Silver tetradrachm, ca.280-278 BC

Particularly interesting are the plants represented on coins and functioning as “types parlants” or “prating symbols”. These are iconographic types whose name puns the name of the city that minted the coin: Rhodes represented the rose (Gr. rhodo) and Selinous the celery plant (Gr. selino). 
                                       
                 Rhodes, Κaria. Silver tetradrachm, ca. 230-205 BC
                                 
                Selinous, Sicily. Silver didrachm, ca. 530 BC

Plant representations on ancient coins include the palm tree, impressive on account of its size. The palm engraved on the coins of Priansos in southeast Crete is obviously linked with the existence of this tree as a native species in the wider region, while on the coins of Carthage, a city on the coast of North Africa, near modern Tunis, it possibly functioned as a “type parlant”, since the city was a colony of the Phoenicians (Gr. phoenix = palm tree and Phoenician). 
                                         
                    Priansos, Crete. Silver drachma, 330-270 BC
                                         
                                    Carthage, Zeugitania. 
                       Silver tetradrachm, ca 350-320/315 BC

Coins can even be testimonies of now vanished species of plants. Represented on the issues of Kyrene, in what is today northeast Libya, is the plant silphium, which was prized for its therapeutic properties and flourished exclusively in this region.
                                  
                                          Kyrene, Kyrenaica. 
                                Silver tetradrachm, ca 500 BC