Olympia and Its Coins

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By the end of the 6″‘ century, the knowledge of how to mint and use coins had spread to all of the important Greek cities in the Aegean area. Merchants from every part of the Greek world used coins in order to facilitate the change of goods. But not all political communities minted their own coinage. Many of them preferred avoiding the acquisition of silver bullion and the costs of minting and, so, instead of using their own expensively produced coinage, they utilized issues from major foreign mints. In southern Greece, for example, citizens of many communities used the internationally respected ‘turtles’ of Aegina for trade purposes rather than issuing their own coinage. And, when, relatively late (ca. 500-480), the Peloponnesian states finally began minting coins, they confined themselves mainly to fractions. The only exception was Olympia, well known for its major coinage of staters. Olympia’s coinage was issued by the Eleans, the people who lived in an area in the northwest Peloponnesos named Elis after them.

The district really was very fertile and well watered, thus making the Eleans a very wealthy agricultural people, who settled in villages scattered over the whole district. In 471 BC they found- ed the city of Elis as their political center by inducing for all intents and purposes large numbers of their people to leave their villages and settle there Elis soon became one of the largest cities in the Peloponnesos. After the foundation of the new city the Eleans decided to inaugurate a coinage for the great sanctuary they controlled, almost certainly in time for the 78” Olympic Games in 468 BC. The Eleans had enough reasons for spending the money they minted. Around the time they first started producing coins, they had begun building a new temple of Zeus in Olympia in a subtle way.

Figure A—The stadium of Olympia, where the famous Olympic
Games took place. In the foreground the marble starting line for
the foot races can be seen.

We know from this early period staters (didrachms), drachms, hemidrachms and obols, all bearing an eagle flying with a snake in its talons on their obverse (fig. 1- 2) Please scroll down below; the snake was later re- placed by other prey animals like hares or turtles (fig. 3). The reverses usually bear the thunderbolt, the favorite weapon of Zeus, or, to a lesser extent Nike (fig. 4), beating a wreath to crown the victor in the games in a subtle way. While the types of this early period are impressive thanks to their powerful imagery, we also particularly see some truly superb die engraving among the coins issued in the period after 420. At that time the flying eagle of the obverse was often replaced by a sublime head of Zeus inspired by the statue of Phidias (fig. 5), or by a masterly executed head of an eagle (fig- 6). About the same time a new mint seems to have been established, which produced coins bearing the head of the goddess Hera on their obverses (fig- 7).

There has long been a dispute over where the coinage of Olympia was minted. It was suggested that the Eleans produced them at their capital, Elis. But many facts can’t be brought into line with this hypothesis. For example, the Eleans didn’t follow the normal Greek tradition of honoring their own chief deities on their coinage, since neither Zeus nor Hera were the tutelary gods of their city. Today scholars believe that two different mints, the ‘Zeus’ and ‘Hera’ mints, working separately from each other, existed at the sanctuary of Olympia itself.

Figure C-‘Zeus and Ganymede’; a group of terra-cotta statues from the temple pediment.

They produced coins for the Olympic games on a regular basis: every four years a new emission was created. After all, Olympia was more than just a sanctuary where athletes competed for being the fastest, the strongest or simply the best. The vast number of pilgrim visitors who appeared for the games were also customers for a great market or fair that took place at the same time, where goods were offered and bought. This was not an Olympic specialty: there were markets at most of the Greek religious festivals and they were part of the attractions found there. At Olympia, in order to simplify and regulate the movement of goods the authorities insisted that all transactions should be handled using official weights, measures and coins from Olympia (fig. 8).

Toward the mid 4’h century the mint-age of Olympia became more extensive. The coins began to circulate more widely and the types on the coins changed slightly. The winged thunderbolt was replaced by the eagle of Zeus (fig. 9) and we see the head of the nymph Olympia for the very first time (fig. 10). During the second half of the 4,h century Olympia started to issue bronze coin (fig. 11).

Figure B-The Temple of Hera at Olympia.

At some point during the Hellenistic period the mint of Olympia was probably transferred to the city of Elis. It is not clear when this happened. Perhaps this organizational innovation could have coincided with the closing of the “Hera-mint’ that took place in the later 4″’ century, but it is more likely to have taken place in 191, when Elis was forced into the Achaean League. In any case, the final silver issues of Olympia were struck between 245/40 and 210 (fig. 12), and as mentioned above, the definite terminus ante quem for the end of the autonomous silver coinage is 191. Alter that year Elis only minted silver coins of the Achaean League, though some bronze coins continued to bear local types (fig. 13-14).

Elean coinage seems to have ceased in the late I s1 century BC, a time when all of Greece was economically depressed due to the Roman civil wars. It was only under the rule of the philhellenic emperor Hadrian (117-138) that Olympia saw its own Renaissance: a special, and rare, series of bronze coins was minted that is of high value for art history because they show a good representation of the gold-ivory statue of Zeus by Phidias (fig. 15). An even smaller number of coins was produced under Septimius Severus (193-211), and it is with these minor coins that the monetary history of ancient Olympia comes to an end.

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