Decadrachm Coin from Syracuse, 400 BCE [Object of the day #1]

Decadrachm Coin from Syracuse, 400 BCE

Decadrachm Coin from Syracuse, 400 BCE

This Syrakosion (meaning “of the Syracusans”) coin from around 400 BCE is a decadrachm—a silver coin equal to ten drachmas. It depicts the head of the goddess Arethusa surrounded by four dolphins on one side. Greek coins often display a god on the obverse. Later, in the Hellenistic and Roman period the portrait of a political figure or emperor became more common.

The reverse depicts a four-horse chariot with a flying Nike personifying Victory crowning the driver. The space below is filled with captured Punic arms. This spectacular coin may commemorate the victory of Dionysius I over the Carthaginian general Himilcon and the deliverance of Syracuse from its Punic siege in 396 BCE.

On rare occasions the coin engravers, or die-cutters as they are sometimes known, were allowed to sign their works. The reverse of this coin is signed by Euaenetus, one of the most renowned coin designers of antiquity. Commemorative types became especially popular in the Hellenistic period after Alexander’s death in 323 BCE.

The first true coins appeared around 650 BCE in western Anatolia.

Penn Museum Object #29-126-41.

Read more about the Ancient Greek World: Economy and Coins

View this object and more in Penn Museum’s Online Collections Database

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  • Mary Bartlett

    I believe that the head depicted on a Syracusan decadrachm is of Arethusa, not Persephone. Can you clarify?

    • Lynn Makowsky

      The original catalog card for this coin describes the female as Persephone, but scholars have also identified her as Arethusa, Arethusa-Persephone or Cyane based on the water reed bracts entwined in the woman’s hair. For more about this discussion, please see Donald White’s 1986 Expedition article: