Keeping the Balance: a 2500 year old coin

The oldest coin that I’ve had the privilege to look at in the numismatic collections at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre has been preying on my mind since I first saw it several weeks ago, waiting to be photographed in its drawer.
This tiny coin is only 12 mm across, much smaller than a five pence piece, and much thinner too when you feel it. What first intrigued me about the coin was its ambiguous antiquity – its card label said “?5th century BC” – and I was struck by that. I had never (knowingly) held anything as old, and I have been thinking a lot more about where this piece came from how it ended up here. What makes the piece even more interesting to me are the animals shown on the obverse: a goose and a salamander. The goose is turning its neck round so it can look at the salamander and the Greek capital letter Η (theta).

A little research at told me that this coin is of a type that was produced at a town called Eion between 500 and 480 BC and is called a trihembiol.

Eion was a town in western Thrace that had been established as a trading post by Persian traders in the sixth century BC. Under Athenian expansion in the fifth century BC, Eion was seen as a strategically important port and soon after 476 BC the Persians had been removed and Athenian settlers arrived.
What is most relevant to our numismatic understanding of the piece comes from this tussle between Persian and Athenian powers. The quality of a coinage is based on its weight and on the fineness of the metal and these small coins from Thrace fitted both Athenian and Persian weight and fineness standards so could be used for trade with both commercial powers. Persian coins weighed around 3.85g; fractions (quarters of Athenian staters) weighed between 3.6–4.4g. The trihembiols still retained their own local identity through the distinct iconography on them.

The foundation of the city of Amphipolis by the settled Athenians put paid to the coinage and indeed the city of Eion, and by 440 BC it was uninhabited.

What is unusual about these trihembiols is that they are often found pierced with a hole so that they could be worn and are found, not just in the area near Eion, but across southern Thrace. Were these coins kept by people who came from Eion, unable to be used as currency, but perhaps carrying an apotropaic power of their own?

Just as the salamander balances the goose in the coin design, so too this fascinating local coinage of ancient Greece kept the balance between two major empires who were vying for control of the city. Producing this currency meant allegiance did not have to be formerly asserted to either power and at least a semblance of independence could be maintained. From this you can imagine the day-to-day lives of people using three different currencies with the threat of war constantly looming.

What began as curiosity becomes a quite melancholy window into the past.

Accession Number: LEEDM.N.2010.0004.0030
Author: Lucy Moore, Leeds Museums and Galleries Intern 2011

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