This article first appeared in The Celator, Vol. 11, No. 11, November 1997, p. 22.
In the ancient world, the distribution of population centers required
the establishment and use of trade centers to facilitate trade between highly
localized indigenous populations. The Greek city-states were one of the
early forces behind colonization and the establishment of trade centers. One
of the initial steps in the large scale Greek colonization involved the migration
of Ionic speaking Greeks (from the Ionian Islands off the west coast
of Greece) into western Asia Minor south of the previously settled region
of Aeolis, and the nearby islands. This region then became the source of
further colonization aimed at obtaining trade goods arriving in Asia
Minor from regions further east and south. These Greek colonists would
settle, beginning in the 8th Century B.C.E., in the Black Sea region and in Italy.
Further colonial expansion occurred in the 5th Century B.C.E. after the
unsuccessful rebellion of the Ionian cities of western Asia Minor against
their Persian overlords.
The coinage of the Ionian
colonies had a number of common themes related to the Greek gods, Apollo
and Demeter. Apollo was the second most venerated god in Greek
mythology, and the cult of Apollo was prominent in most Ionian cities and
colonies. Therefore, he was frequently represented on their coinage. One
myth related Apollo's transformation into a dolphin in order to induce the
Cretans to act as the attendants at his temple at Delphi, where he was
worshipped as Apollo Delphinios. Thus, many coins of these cities portrayed
dolphins, including the dolphin carried by an eagle motif.
Demeter was worshipped by the Greeks as the goddess of
agriculture and fertility. She was evidently important to the Apollo cult, as
evidenced by the coins from Delphi bearing her image. She was the patroness of
the Amphiktyonic League which held its Council meetings at Delphi.
Among the attributes of Demeter were grains such as corn and wheat.
One of the most important colonial Greek trade centers was
established at Olbia, located on the northern
shore of the Black Sea at the mouth of the Bug River,
and near the mouth of the Dnieper River in ancient Sarmatia.
This port became a major emporium for trade between Greeks
in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor and Scythians north of
the Black Sea.
The coastal plain north of Olbia (fed
by the Bug, Dneiper and Dniester Rivers) was rich in grain, a valuable commodity
to the highly concentrated Greek city-states, and difficient of
manufactured goods and more diversified commodites.
By the 6th century B.C.E.,
Olbia was using coinage of various sizes and materials to facilitate trade. There
is some evidence that the coinage of Kyzikos (including wheel
coinage, etc.) circulated freely as the exchange medium of preference. This
would seem reasonable since both were Ionian colonies with Kyzikos
being more advanced at that time. By the 4th century B.C.E. Kyzikos seems
to have lost any major infuence in Olbia.
The indigenous coinage of Olbia can be traced to cast copper dolphins
that were used as sacrificial tokens
in the Temple of Apollo during the mid-6th century,
and which later circulated as coinage. The first regular coinage
issues were silver coins of the Aeginetic standard and
large cast copper coins, both of which bore the Dionysiac
reference of a bull's skull. By the 4th century, most of
the copper and silver coins were struck rather
than cast, and the imagery of Demeter became more prevalent in both metals.
The eagle carrying dolphin motif also was adopted on
silver coins of this period.
A medium bronze bearing the
head of the river god Borysthenes was issued from about 320 to 300 B.C.E.
Borysthenes was the ancient name of the Dneiper. On its reverse was
depicted an ax and bowcasea design undoubtedly chosen with
the Scythians in mind.
By the end of the 4th century,
significant changes were occurring in Olbian silver coinage. As a
consequence of the decline of Aegina and the ascendence of Athens in
Greek trade, Olbian silver coins were issued on the Attic standard. A general
decline in the status of Olbia is marked by the use of inferior dies and
debased metal. This decline was brought about by warfare between the successors to Alexander the Great and the Scythians, and a concomitant
increase in tension between Olbia and the neighboring Scythians.
Eventually, slaves and foreigners were promised citizenship, freedom and a
cancellation of debt to defend Olbia against
The cancellation of debt resulted
in a further worsening of the Olbian economy and a further debasement
of its coinage. Both gold and silver coinage were issued, but became
heavily debased. The large copper cast coins were replaced by small struck
copper coins which still retained the familiar images of Apollo, Demeter and
the dolphin. By the beginning of the 3rd century, Olbia's coinage did not
circulate outside of the city, which had lost its status as a major trading center.
Eventually, Olbia suffered the fate of most Greek city-states and colonies.
The city was conquered and assimilated into the Roman world.
This marked the end of its autonomous coinage.
Grant, Michael. Atlas of
Karyshkovski, P.O. "On
Classification of the Silver Stater of Olbia in
the IVth Century BC", Academy of Sciences of the
66: 69-77, 1956.
____."On the Circulation of
Cyzicenes of Olbia", Numismatika i Epigrafilsha
II: 3-13, 1960.
____. "Comments on Coins of
Olbia", Sovietskaya Arkeologia
Mechnikova, I.I. "From the History
of Olbia in the IVth Century BC", Historical Sciences