Silver Tetradrachm From Cyrene

In preparation for the upcoming August 2013 Chicago ANA World’s Fair of Money show, held from August 9th through 17th, we will be previewing items to be offered in that Stack’s Bowers and Ponterio auction. To begin this series we have an Ancient Greek coin from North Africa. The Greek colony of Cyrene was founded ca. 630 BC and became the capital of Cyrenaica (modern day northeast Libya). The Mediterranean Sea provided moisture-rich air which created an ample river system that supplied the flourishing city. This natural irrigation system allowed for the region to prosper as an exporter of agricultural products, including wheat, barley and olive oil. One other natural resource was so critical to its economy that it was adopted as a symbol for the city and regional coinage: sylphium. This mysterious plant, used for culinary, medicinal and pastoral uses, is believed to be extinct now, or at least drastically changed from its classical age form. Overgrazing, desertification, and overharvesting may have all contributed to its disappearance in the first century A.D., sometime after the Romans had established dominance over the region.

This Silver Tetradrachm (16.39 gms) from Cyrene offers a view into the cultural melding of ancient civilizations. The obverse portrait of this coin bears a familiar Greek deity – Zeus – chief deity of the Pantheon, but with some notable additions. When the Greeks colonized North Africa they perceived that the local god ‘Amun’ shared similarities with Zeus. The Greeks named him Ammon, which incorporates the Greek word for sand: Ammos. In short, they named the new god ‘Sandy Zeus’, a clever play on words. Zeus Ammon would be best known after Alexander the Great consulted him during his world conquests. Zeus Ammon is easily identifiable as wearing a ram’s horn which curls around his ear. For this coin, the bearded head of Zeus Ammon is shown facing right, and he is adorned with a pearled diadem which is underneath the ram’s horn – shown curling around his ear. Starting at four o’clock and moving counter clockwise the legend reads: “X I P A” but the first letters are most likely “K” and “Y” respectively. “KYPA” is a recurring legend on coins from this region and era and most likely indicates the issuing city of Cyrene. The flan is slightly oblong when the obverse is viewed, but it is centered nicely.

The reverse bears the sylphium plant, the unofficial symbol for the Cyrenaica region. The full plant is shown. The British Museum Catalog describes a multitude of types; this one is Type Ic. The plant is composed of a deeply ridged stem, topped by a terminal umbel (flower cluster). There are two pairs of opposite leaves branching obliquely off the main stalk. The leaves have deep, wide sheathing bases at the stalk and end in three small leaves. Four smaller umbels are attached to the sets of leaves as well. The reverse benefits from the oblong shaped flan, the long plant is nearly perfectly centered. This coin is a nice example of the interesting melding of ancient cultures and also provides physical evidence to support the writings concerning the now extinct sylphium plant.

This interesting coin is the first of many incredible Ancient coins up for auction in our upcoming August ANA Sale. Preview this impressive coin along with the rest of our auction this August at the Stack’s Bowers and Ponterio office located in Irvine California or New York City. For details please refer to the Auction Schedule/Details link under Current Auctions at To schedule an appointment, please call 800.566.2580.

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