Carmen Arnold-Biucchi, the Damarete Curator of Ancient Coins, traces the history of a beautiful—and rare—ancient coin in the Harvard Art Museums collections.
Art in Miniature
Today we think of coins as small change in our pocket. They are made of cheap metal (nickel and copper alloys), and their designs are usually not very exciting. Because modern coins are struck by machine, they have a very flat surface with low relief. We certainly don’t view them as works of art or sculpture.
The silver and gold of ancient coins had a very high fineness—about 98 percent. The coins were literally worth their weight in precious metal. They weren’t used for daily shopping, but rather for making large payments, such as taxes or construction wages.
The coins were produced by hand: a blank piece of gold, silver, or bronze was placed on an anvil and struck from a pair of dies; the anvil die is called the obverse and the punch die is called the reverse. These dies were cut by skilled engravers, and the coins struck from them are original works of art in miniature.
A Rare Beauty
The coin collection of the Harvard Art Museums includes many beautiful examples, but today we’ll focus on one of the most spectacular, rare, and interesting coins in our collection: the dekadrachm of Akragas, from the 5th century BCE. Only 10 specimens of this particular coin are known to this day, and ours is the only one in the United States.
This large silver coin, about the size of a silver dollar, was in its day worth ten drachmas (thus, dekadrachm) and is one of the largest denominations of ancient coinage. The inscription on the obverse of the coin tells us it was minted in Akragas (modern Agrigento), a city on Sicily’s southwestern coast that rivaled Syracuse in wealth and art.
It was struck around 409–406 BCE in a period of political turmoil, just before the Carthaginian invasion that destroyed most of the Greek cities of Sicily, including Akragas. In those years the art of engraving had reached its apogee: it is referred to as “the period of the signing engravers” because from about 420 to 390 BCE, in Sicily and South Italy, names (signatures) appeared in minuscule letters on the obverse or the reverse of the coins.
Though this dekadrachm of Akragas is not signed, and tentative attributions to other known engravers at that mint are not convincing, its style indicates that it was made in that period and that it is a masterpiece. The chariot of horses, or quadriga, for instance, is a typical design of Syracusan and Sicilian coins in the 5th century. The racing chariot is an allusion to the victories of the Sicilian athletes at the games of Olympia or elsewhere in mainland Greece. The signing engravers are known to have introduced the galloping quadriga seen here.
On the obverse, a youth, naked but for a cloak fluttering behind his shoulders, drives the four-horse chariot. Who is he? The sun god Helios or the river god Akragas? The artist omitted the ground line to give the impression that the quadriga is flying through the skies. An eagle clutching a serpent in its claws hovers above; below is a crab. On the reverse, two eagles are preying on a pregnant hare, clutching her, one pecking and the other screaming in the air; behind is a giant grasshopper. The eagle is the sacred bird of Zeus, to whom a temple was erected in the city, and he appears on the obverse of the earlier silver didrachms and tetradrachms of Akragas. The two eagles have been compared to a passage in Aischylos’s Agamemnon (ll. 114–21, trans. R. Lattimore) and interpreted as an omen for the battles to come.
Kings of birds to the kings of the ships, one black, one blazed with silver, clear seen by the royal house on the right, the spear hand, they alighted, watched by all tore a hare, ripe, bursting with young unborn yet, stayed from her last fleet running. Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.
The Long Road to Cambridge
How did this exceptional coin arrive at the Harvard Art Museums?
The Akragas dekadrachm comes from the collection of Arthur S. Dewing, the great Boston collector and financier. He had a passion for the classics (Greece, in particular) and was a longtime trustee of the Archaeological Institute of America and councilor at the American Numismatic Society in New York from 1941 to 1971. He assembled an impressive collection of nearly 3,000 ancient Greek coins, now housed at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. Thanks to Dewing, the Harvard Art Museums house the largest collection of dekadrachms in the world—an astonishing distinction.
This outstanding coin, with a history spanning antiquity to the present, is not in display in the galleries. However, there’s a very good reason for this: it will be available for close-up examination in the museums’ expanded and enhanced Art Study Center—the perfect setting for viewing such a detailed work of art.