The Incuse of South Italy

0
80

For about 100 years, from the late sixth century to the mid-fifth century B.C., an unusual style of coinage flourished among the most prominent cities of southern Italy. These coins had the obverse type in relief, as is common for all Greek coins, but the reverse type was an incuse version of the obverse type. This style of coinage may have appeared as early as 550 B.C. at the south Italian cities of Sybaris and Metapontum, and soon thereafter appeared at Croton, Poseidonia, Caulonia, Tarentum, Rhegium, Pyxus, and Laiis l And in 1895, Arthur Evans discovered some previously unknown incuse coins of Zancle in Sicily, just off the south Italian shore, a coinage which began c. 500 B.C.

What did this coinage look like? How was it made? And why did these cities adopt such an unusual style of coinage? These are the questions we’ll explore. On each of these coins, the obverse is in relief and the reverse is incuse. Un­like the coins of some other Greek marks on the reverse, the Italian cities used reverse types which were the same as the obverse types except for a few details. Usually the name of the city appears only on the obverse, although sometimes even this is repeated on the reverse. Often, subsidiary symbols are missing from the reverse, such as the snake which appears at the feet of the tripod on the obverse of the staters from Croton.


The most unusual feature of these coins is their unusually thin and broad fabric. Clearly, this is a very different style of coinage. These coins were all minted between 550 and 440 B.C., a span of only 110 years. How were these unusual coins made? Obviously, the minting technique dif­fered from that of the common double-relief style of coinage. Produc­tion of the incuse coinage presented a host of problems not found elsewhere.

To produce these coins, the obverse dies would be cut intaglio as usual, resulting in a raised type on the coins. Cutting the intaglio dies presented no unusual prob­lems the same methods of die engraving were used at all other Greek mints.
However, the reverse dies had to be cut in relief to result in an incuse type on the coins. To produce the reverse die for one of the high-relief coins of Metapon­tum, the die-cutter would have to remove as much as four millimeters of metal all around the die, while leaving the fine details intact. To make this process more practical, the relief die used for these reverses may have been made from a sunken hub.

The possible use of hubs in the manufacture of ancient coin dies was supported by the die-making ex­periments of David Sellwood. But whether hubs were indeed used to pro­duce the reverse dies for the incuse coinage continues to be the subject of debate. Difficulties in hardening the hubs well enough to withstand multiple blows may have resulted in the hubs only being used once to create one die. This would account for the lack of evidence for the same hub being used to produce multiple dies. If hubs were used at all, they were probably only used at Metapontum, where the high relief coinage involved more difficul­ties. The coins of other cities, such as Caulonia and Poseidonia, were in much lower relief, making die production easier.
Stater of Croton with incuse reverse

Once the dies were engraved, more problems had to be overcome. The thin flans used for these coins would easily break if the dies were not perfectly aligned during striking, and the dies themselves may have suffered damage. Perhaps the obverse and reverse dies were hinged to ensure proper alignment each time, as Seltman and Sutherland have suggested.8 But there is controversy over this point also. Hinged dies did not become common until the Hellenistic period, so if hinged dies were used for the incuse coinage, it was one of the earliest uses of this technique. If hinged dies were not used, the mint workers must have used great care in

Once the dies were engraved, more problems had to be overcome. The thin flans used for these coins would easily break if the dies were not perfectly aligned during striking, and the dies themselves may have suffered damage. Perhaps the obverse and reverse dies were hinged to ensure proper alignment each time, as Seltman and Sutherland have suggested. But there is controversy over this point also. Hinged dies did not become common until the Hellenistic period, so if hinged dies were used for the incuse coinage, it was one of the earliest uses of this technique. If hinged dies were not used, the mint workers must have used great care in aligning the dies before each strike.

George MacDonald a Ancient Coin Numismatist did not believe fixed dies were used. In his view, skilled workmen were able to maintain the necessary alignment. His conclusion was based on the observation that once a mint began using a fixed die alignment, that mint generally did not go back to the use of loose dies. But in the later years of the incuse coinage, after the flans had become thicker, the careful die alignment was abandoned and rotated reverses are commonly seen. Seltman suggests the transition to thicker flans may have been brought about by the desire to allow the use of dies of smaller diameter while maintaining the same weight. The smaller dies would be easier and less expensive to make, and would last longer. Now we know what the coins looked like and how they may have been made. This leaves the main questions unanswered.

Why did these? Several reasons have been suggested for the introduction of this coinage. The simplest theory is that this coinage was designed to make stacking easier. George Hill initially supported this view, stating “the object of the Italian fabric was to make it possible to pack or pile coins.” But he later changed his mind these coins actually do not stack very well. The next possibility is that these cities were part of a political or commercial confederation, an idea suggested by Lenormant. These cities did have some historical connections with each other: Sybaris, Metapontum, and Croton were each founded by Achaean settlers from the Peloponnese. Caulonia was founded by colonists from Croton, and Poseidonia was a colony of Sybaris. As we know, commerce between cities is facilitated when the cities are willing to accept each other’s coins in trade.

Stater of Sybaris with incuse reverse

To accomplish this, the coins of each city should be minted on the same weight standard, and a uniform and recognizable type is also desirable. Coins which are immediately recognizable as being minted by a nearby city with a reputable coinage would be readily accepted in the marketplace. And indeed, the coins of most of the cities, coinage were struck on the Corinthian weight standard staters weighing 8.6 grams, divided into thirds weighing 2.8 grams. However, Poseidonia used the slightly lighter Campanian standard of a 7.5 gm stater divided into two drachms. And the incuse coins of Zancle were struck on the significantly higher Aeginetic weight standard of 12.2 gm, indicating Zancle’s involvement in a different sphere of trade.

The varying weight standards cast doubt upon the theory of a commercial union. Three different standards would not make for ease of commerce. And the commercial theory provides no explanation for the incuse style and thin, spread fabric, another argument against the commercial alliance theory is that only the fabric of these coins is similar. Each city used its own types. In practically all other alliances (such as the Boeotian League, the Lycian League, and the Achaean League), political or commercial confederations were indicated by a uniformity of type.

Clearly it was less efficient and more expensive to produce the incuse coin­age, so a good reason must exist to explain its origin and popularity in the Italian cities. What other reason could there be for this unusual fabric?
Two other strong theories have been put forward. Both revolve around the fact that Italy did not have a good supply of silver during this period, and needed to import silver, in the form of coins, from other cities. The first theory maintains that this incuse fabric was intended to make it easier for these cities to over-strike the coins of other cities. Humphrey Sutherland also suggested that the incuse fabric was necessary to add strength to these thin coins, much as raised ridges make corrugated cardboard stronger. Sutherland suggested the incuse fabric was ideally suited for over striking the early coins of Corinth. He believed the early Corinthian coins with the incuse swastika pattern on the reverse could have been easily over-struck without having to melt or flatten them before striking. And as we’ve seen, several of the Italian cities utilized the Corinthian weight standard.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here