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Changes in the Depiction of Arethusa on the Coins of Syracuse

One of the earliest depictions of the nymph
 
One of the earliest depictions of the nymph

The coinage of Syracuse began around 515 BC and, unlike the coinage of other city-states, tetradrachms were amongst the first coins minted. The availability of silver to the Syracusan coiners was the most likely reason for the prompt development of this large denomination. The silver coinage of Syracuse is interesting in terms of both its artistry and diversity. Arethusa was the water nymph associated with Syracuse. She was pursued by the river god Alpheos from Peloponnese to the small island of Ortegia, which is a part of Syracuse. When she re-emerged in the freshwater spring at Syracuse, she became the patron of this city-state which was dependent upon the water that surrounded it.

The first issues of Syracuse feature a very severe archaic style. Arethusa rests in a small medallion in a four part incuse square. Over the next several decades, her head was enlarged to take up most of the coin while the four corners of the squares metamorphosed into four dolphins, re-affirming Arethusa's status as a water-nymph. By the fifth century, the artists of Syracuse were experimenting with a multitude of different styles and images for the water nymph. Through varied hairstyles and different types of ornamentation, the artists achieved the greatest elaboration when they signed their work.

A usage of simple design and low relief mark the first issues of the fifth century. Arethusa has an archaic eye, a fleshy nose, parted and slightly upturned lips, as well as simply-punched hair that invites comparison to the immensely popular Athenian trade coins of the same time. Several years later, the artists developed a more naturalistic Arethusa with more realistic hair formed by lines rather than punched dots, a beaded diadem or laurel wreath instead of the modest linear diadem, and eye features that fill the voids prevalent in the earlier issues. The occasional tendril of hair that strays from Arethusa's coiffure and the emergence of eyelashes further illustrates this movement towards natural styling. These issues reflect the immense diversity in the hairstyles worn by women of Classical Greece. On some issues, hair is tied up with diadems, while other dies show hair pulled back and tied. Some issues show Arethusa wearing a cap, while others show her hair in a net and still others show it restrained by a cloth.

We know of the identities of several of the engravers, since they signed their dies. Their coins are among the most beautiful in the entire Greek series. Eukleidas perfected the three-quarter view of the face, widening the possibilities of Syracusan coinage. On another of his issues, the hair streams above the nymph rather than being done in an elaborate style. The impression that Eukleidas presents is one where Arethusa is unrestrained by convention, and serves as a reminder that she is a creature of the water and not of land. The decadrachms that are a product of Euainetos are the defining coins of Syracusan style. Amongst the most revered coins of all antiquity, they are masterful compositions that balance the curls of the hair with the planes of the face. The formality of her expression is contrasted by the freedom of movement in her hair. His work was widely admired in antiquity, and many engravers imitated his designs in Italy, mainland Greece, Africa and Crete. His influence even extends to South Italian pottery.

A discussion of the engravers of Syracuse could not be complete without mention of Kimon, perhaps the finest of the three discussed. His front-facing head is arguably the finest ever produced on a medallic issue. In its symmetry, elegance, and flawless execution, it stands as a masterwork of ancient art. Kimon's mastery of relief is illustrated with high relief and deep contrasts, and his flawless execution is noted on the hair, which is so free that it appears to be floating.

The coinage of Syracuse is both beautiful and diverse. The best engravers were able to inject their Arethusas with monumentality comparable to the finest sculptures. Michigan numismatist and avid collector of the coins of Syracuse Lawrence Sekulich says, "The Syracusans seemed to have a special pride in Arethusa. After all, her fountain was in their city. Unlike the great pan-Hellenic gods and goddesses (Zeus, Athena, etc.) that could be claimed by all of the Greek people, Arethusa was viewed as Syracuse's unique deity. Furthermore, Arethusa was beautiful, so she must appear charming, graceful, even stunning. Perhaps these attitudes motivated the Syracusan die-engravers to create numismatic art of the highest order." The engravers of Syracuse did a remarkable job of translating the history, styles, and culture of their land into its coinage and their efforts have fueled collectors for centuries.

Steven Roach was a PCGS intern in 1999.

She changed her hairstyle often, as this array of coins from different eras shows
She changed her hairstyle often, as this array of coins from different eras shows
One of Kimon's innovative, high-relief coins
She changed her hairstyle often, as this array of coins from different eras shows
PCGS Library