The John Thompson Morris Collection of Coins and Medals

By: Dr. Eleanor E. Rambo

Originally Published in 1920

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At the present writing, this room contains also four tables of coins and medals—The John Thompson Morris Collection. About one-fourth of the total collection is comprised in a group of Greek and Roman coins. These include good specimens of the chief mintages of Hellas, mostly silver coins. The oldest coin is a silver stater of Croesus, king of Lydia in Asia Minor in the sixth century B.C., whose name is used in the well known proverb, “rich as Croesus.” Another old coin is a gold piece of Darius II of Persia (516-495 B.C.).

The Greek coins are the most interesting artistically. The decoration is not fortuitous, but is deliberately symbolic in character. Kings and emperors, e. g., the Diadochi, the successors of Alexander the Great in Syria, Macedonia and Egypt, put on their coins portrait heads. City states use designs that recall some famous local legend; or a type which is a pun on the name of the city, as for instance the rose (rhodos) used on the coins of Rhodes. In the case of important cities, the type is frequently so well known that the coin is not always lettered to show the place of issue. Athenian coins show a head of Athena Parthenos and on the obverse an owl, the symbolic bird of the goddess; Corinthian coins show a helmeted head of Athena and on the reverse Pegasus, the winged horse, the symbol of the Corinthian hero Bellerophon. Coins of these two cities were from their types respectively known through the ancient world as “owls” and “pegasi.” Almost equally famous were the types of Tarentum in South Italy, showing Taras, the eponymous hero of the city, riding on a dolphin or on a horse; and of Rhodes, with the head of Helios, the sun god, full front on the obverse, and the rose on the reverse. Probably the most beautiful coins ever minted are those of Syracuse showing on the obverse a head of Arethusa, surrounded by swimming dolphins. The type refers, of course, to the famous fountain in the city into which, according to legend, the nymph Arethusa had been metamorphosed as she fled from the embraces of the river god Alpheus. When the Carthaginians were in the ascendancy in Sicily they borrowed the Syracusan type of Arethusa for the obverse of their coins, but on the reverse they put some essentially Punic type such as the horse standing before a palm tree or the head of a horse—compare Vergil’s phrase, caput acris equi.

In Rome the coins were less beautifully made. They are almost always lettered. The Janus head is a frequent type, so also is the head of Roma; but generally Roman coins are patterned after the imperial coins of the East, and show heads of political heroes, e.g., Mark Antony, Brutus, etc., and later, heads of the emperors. The head in profile was early discovered to be the most satisfactory sort of decoration for the face of a coin, and for that reason still persists as the most acceptable form of decoration. The Roman coins extend in time down through the Holy Roman Empire as late as the fifteenth century, and include a coin of Charlemagne and several of the issues of the Crusaders.

Cite This Article

Rambo, Dr. Eleanor E.. "The John Thompson Morris Collection of Coins and Medals." The Museum Journal XI, no. 2 (June, 1920): 48-49. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/822/


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