Thracian Tetradrachms
Imitations and Thrace

Typically coin collectors look down at coin imitations. They're not the real thing -- they're inauthentic, ersatz, artificial, bogus, false, fake.

But there's a wide range of imitations of ancient coins, from modern tourist fakes and marked replicas to fourees (ancient plated counterfeits) and contemporary (ancient) imitations and adaptations. They're all variations on a theme, and collecting and studying them can deepen your appreciation of original ancient coins and help you differentiate them from the copies. They can also be fascinating in themselves.

The most respected of the copies are the ancient derivations. Because of the widespread use and common acceptance of some ancient coins as good money, they were copied in other regions and circulated there as legal tender. From one perspective, ancient imitative coins are just crude knockoffs. But from another perspective, imitative coinage represents in a tangible and enduring form the intersection of different cultures, the borrowing of something from one culture by another culture and the alteration, and occasional improvement, of it. This is one of the agents of progress.

The most widely copied ancient coinage includes Athenian Owl tetradrachms; Philip II staters, tetradrachms, and drachms (prototypes of much Celtic coinage); Alexander the Great/Philip III tetradrachms and drachms; Thasos tetradrachms; Roman Republican denarii, Claudius asses; Roman Imperial denarii of various emperors (prototypes of limes denarii); Claudius Gothicus and similar antoniniani (prototypes of barbarous radiates); and Constantinian bronzes. Those doing the copying circled the classical world of the ancient Greeks and Romans and included, undoubtedly among others, the Celts, Franks, Goths, Vandals, Dacians, Thracians, Skythians, Anatolians, Kolchians, Huns, Persians, Baktrians, Arachosians, Indians, Ceylonese, Arabians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Samarians, Judeans, Philistines, and Egyptians. With some Roman-era coins, the distinction between ancient imitations and ancient counterfeits isn't always clear.

In a broad sense, most coins, including those today, are derivative of earlier ones. The common practice of using a person's head on the obverse (heads) and an animal (with a tail) or other symbol on the reverse (tails), for instance, derived from the coins minted by the ancient Greeks. But the term imitative coinage, as I'm using it and as others commonly use it, has a far narrower definition, meaning coins that closely copy contemporary or recent coins minted by others.

The most intriguing of the ancient imitative issues, in my view, and one of the least understood are the highly abstracted derivations of Thasos tetradrachms, which I'll be calling "Thracian tetradrachms." (I'm calling the former "Thasos tetradrachms," not "Thasian tetradrachms," because "Thasian tetradrachms" is too close to "Thracian tetradrachms" and potentially confusing.)

Thracian tetradrachms were minted during the first century BC. The originals, Thasos tetradrachms, are also a fascinating and underappreciated series of ancient coins, minted during the second century BC. Both are showing up in the coin market with greater frequency. To appreciate the derivations, it helps to understand the originals. The context surrounding these coins -- the larger historical and aesthetic issues -- is rich and provocative, every bit as interesting as the coins themselves.

"Proud." This Thasos tetradrachm was likely struck by Thasians on the island of Thasos, Thasos being a Greek colony in Thrace, though some might attribute it as an early imitation. Dionysos on this specimen is the best I've seen on a coin. 16.8g, 31mm. Göbl -, CCCBM -, Lukanc -, Castelin -, Kostial -, Dewing -, SNG Cop. -, SNG Lockett -, SNG Ash. -, cf. SNG Fitz. 1827, cf. Münzen and Medaillen 29 lot 567.

Thasos tetradrachms originated, logically enough, from Thasos, an island (and island city) in the northern Aegean Sea that today is a part of northeast Greece but in classical times was a Greek colony in southern Thrace.

Ancient Thrace was a fascinating place. It was a wild region on the fringes of the civilized world, bordering on Macedonia. The boundaries of Thrace have changed over time, but in ancient times it roughly corresponded to present-day Bulgaria along with parts of southern Romania and Transylvania, eastern Serbia, northeastern Greece, and European Turkey. Thrace was the crossroads between East and West, Asia and Europe, and it was fought over from the beginning of recorded history and undoubtedly earlier as well.

As a result of its location and its heritage, Thrace was the source of the wildest coins ever minted, anywhere. Coins from Thrace include those depicting a sexually excited satyr ravaging (or doing a ritual dance with) a nymph, a drunken satyr running off carrying a wine jug, the snake-haired Medusa whose gaze just might turn you to stone, a menacing war helmet without a trace of humanity, and Dionysos, the god of wine and mystic ecstasy in whose honor devotees were said to have torn apart and eaten live animals as part of frenzied religious rites.

Thracians for the most part were illiterate, with no alphabet of their own and no written history or literature. Aristotle, though no doubt exaggerating, wrote that Thracians were unable to count beyond four. What we know about Thracians is largely through the prism of what the Greeks and Romans have written and from archeological findings (including coins). We know they were fiercely independent, powerful, and feared, excelling in warfare, horsemanship, and metalwork. Thracians regarded war and plunder as the noblest way of life.

Another ancient Greek philosopher, Xenophanes, described Thracians as being "large, powerfully built men," with "a skin white, delicate and cold," and "largely red­haired." Xenophanes also indicated that the Thracians portrayed their gods as having red hair and blue eyes like themselves. Other ancient authors have described Thracians as being hot-tempered, violent, energetic, high-spirited, drunken, lusty, uninhibited, impetuous, musical, and artistic. Some Thracians wore tattoos and dyed their hair blue as an indication of noble birth. Among the noteworthy Thracians of history are thought to be the gladiator Spartacus and the fable-writer Aesop.

Thracians were polygamous. A man had many wives, buying them from their parents. Women were servile to their husbands. Before marriage young women were permitted to have sexual relations with men of their choice, but after marriage their activities were sharply restricted because their function was to rear children. Thracian fathers sometimes sold their children as slaves. Upon the death of a man, his favorite wife was slain and buried with him, which was considered an honor.

The great undoing of the Thracians was their failure to unite their 40-odd tribes, the most well known of which included the Odrysae, Getae, and Moesi, into a single nation (though the kings of the Odrysae would call themselves kings of the Thracians). As the ancient Greek historian Herodotos wrote, in an often repeated quote, "After the Indians, the Thracian people are the most numerous.... Were they under one ruler, or united, they would in my judgment be invincible and the strongest nation on Earth." If the Thracians had united in the way that the Greeks and the Romans did, subsequent history might have been written far differently. Political disunity would later become a persistent theme in Balkan history.

As it was, a century or two after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, the Thracians died out as a distinct people, having been battered by invasions of the Greeks, Skythians, Celts, Romans, Goths, Vandals, Huns, Slavs, Bulgars, Khazars, and Avars and finally absorbed by those who stayed, primarily the Slavs and Bulgars. All that remains of Thrace in Bulgaria today are Thracian names of some rivers, mountains, districts, and villages, and -- interestingly -- pre-spring kuker, or mummer, folk festivals in the town of Pernik every other year in which men wear colorful masks and costumes, scare away evil spirits, and carry a giant red phallus that "fertilizes" the soil.

"The Schnoz." A number of Thasos-type tetradrachms, like this one, feature a portrait of Dionysos with a huge honker of a nose that would have made Jimmy Durante proud. Herakles on the reverse looks like he's wearing Superman's cape. The legend is still intact, and the coin retains all of the major design elements of Thasos tetradrachms. The flan is slightly convex/concave, as were many of these coins. The reverse is slightly off-center. 16.7g, 31mm. Göbl Class II, Lukanc 707, "Celtic Coins in the Royal Netherlands Cabinet at the Hague," D.F. Allen, coin 133.
Perhaps it only follows that what was ancient Thrace is today one of the centers of the numismatic underworld. Much of the counterfeiting of ancient coins today takes place in Bulgaria, a country that still struggles after emerging in 1989 from nearly 50 years of domination by the Soviets and in 1878 from nearly 500 years of domination by the Ottoman Turks. According to the CIA's The World Factbook, "Corruption in the public administration, a weak judiciary, and the presence of organized crime remain the largest challenges for Bulgaria." One Bulgarian coin dealer, who asked to remain anonymous, says that most skilled ancient coin counterfeiters today operate out of Bulgaria and a few out of Turkey, while many others, not as skilled, operate elsewhere. (Lebanon is another frequently mentioned source of deceptive counterfeit ancient coins.)

Because of the sensitivity of this and related issues, of the six Bulgarian ancient coin dealers I tried to talk to in researching this article, all of whom operate in the U.S., one provided information and agreed to be identified, three provided information but asked to remain anonymous, and two chose not to be interviewed. One Bulgarian expert in this coinage, who resides in Bulgaria, agreed to be identified by name. All six of the American or Canadian dealers and experts I tried to talk with about this coinage agreed to provide information, but one asked to remain anonymous and two asked to remain anonymous about specific issues. One British coin dealer and expert I talked with agreed to be identified by name. One German auction house owner chose not to answer questions.

Forgeries originating from Bulgaria include the "Black Sea Hoard" of fake Apollonia Pontika and Mesembria diobols that surfaced en masse at the 1988 New York International Numismatic Convention and the "New York Hoard" of fake Apollonia Pontika drachms that surfaced at the 1999 New York International Numismatic Convention. "Bulgarian School" fakes -- produced in large numbers by forgery factories in Bulgaria -- include copies of Apollonia Pontika drachms and diobols, Mesembria diobols, Cherronesos hemidrachms, Parion archaic and classical drachms, and Histiaea tetrobols (forgeries of all of these coins have originated elsewhere as well). These forgeries frequently appear on eBay, and they've fooled collectors and dealers alike, though genuine hoards of these coins of course are dispersed on eBay as well.

Numerous authentic ancient Greek, Roman, and Thracian coins emerge each year from the grounds of Bulgaria. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, which opened up trade with Eastern European countries struggling economically, a flood of ancient coins have come out of Bulgaria and Romania, though this supply has dampened lately. One Bulgarian reports that about 30 percent of the people in her town engage in coin hunting to help support themselves. According to other reports, some Bulgarians are using bulldozers to get at coins buried deeper than can be found with metal detectors (and sometimes destroying Roman architectural ruins in the process).

There's a rough, shady element with the authentic ancient coin market in Bulgaria. I've heard of adventuresome collectors and dealers traveling to Bulgaria in search of hoards only to get beaten up and robbed. There also has been talk of kidnappings and ransoms. Some dealers with contacts travel to Bulgaria without incident, though some reportedly carry a gun or take a bodyguard. On the other hand, coin dealers have been robbed elsewhere in Europe and in the U.S. as well. What's more, the Bulgarians I've met personally have all been honest, conscientious, and friendly people, a pleasure to do business with. Still, one Bulgarian coin dealer says that if a foreigner travels to Bulgaria in search of coins, it's safer to travel with a Bulgarian host.

The vast majority of ancient coins emerging from the grounds of Bulgaria and other Balkan countries, however, are brought by middlemen to other countries in Europe, particularly Germany and England but also Switzerland and France, where they're typically dispersed inside, or outside, large coin shows.

One reason for the shadiness of the Bulgarian ancient coin trade is that exporting ancient coins out of Bulgaria is illegal, as it is in most other source countries as well. This is a short-sighted policy that, according to all indications, does little if anything to stem the outflow of ancient coins, which aren't a scarce resource in the first place, but instead encourages the black market, criminal activity, and secrecy while it discourages the acquisition, preservation, and dissemination of important historical and numismatic information.

"Angry Young Man." The move toward abstraction begins in earnest among the coins illustrated here with this Thracian tetradrachm, which like similar coins is thought to have been struck by the indigenous Thracians on the Thracian mainland to support their war effort against the invading Romans. Dionysos on this coin looks like he's had a bad millennium, with an angry, mean expression on his face. The lion scalp has disappeared from Herakles' left shoulder, as has the monogram from the reverse left field. The legend is badly blundered, indicating the die was produced by an illiterate engraver. The edges of the obverse are visibly hammered, and the flan is slightly convex/concave. 15.8g, 34mm. Göbl Class III, cf. Lukanc 1150. 
Bulgaria is also the source of the best ancient coin replicas, those of Slavey Petrov, who goes by his first name, Slavey (sometimes spelled "Slavei," which is a variation used by other Bulgarians with the same name, though Slavey himself spells it "Slavey"). Slavey replicas are high-quality pressed copies. The styling is expressive and flamboyant -- every muscle stands out. Some people admire these replicas for their artistry; others criticize them as being shams.

Slavey's earlier copies are typically not marked, but more recent ones are typically marked with small letters on the edge, such as "COPY" or "SL COPY." The latter marking is Slavey's attempt to distinguish his own work from that of other copyists copying his copies! Nonetheless, some skillfully produced replicas, marked and unmarked, have appeared on the market that seem to be products of one or more of his former students. When unmarked, these replicas and those of Slavey are sometimes sold as genuine coins, and for this reason they're controversial, though experts and advanced collectors can easily spot them for what they are. The U.S. Hobby Protection Act makes it illegal to make in the U.S. or import into the U.S. coin replicas that aren't visibly marked as copies on the piece's obverse or reverse, but it doesn't make their sale or purchase illegal.

In ancient Bulgaria, or Thrace, most of the coinage emanated from the Greek colonies there, beginning in the mid-sixth century BC. These colonies, situated on the coasts of the Aegean and Black seas, included Abdera, Maroneia, Ainos, Lysimacheia, Cherronesos, Byzantion, Apollonia Pontika, Mesembria, Odessos, Kallatis, Tomis, and Istros, along with Thasos. Indigenous Thracian coinage from the Thracian interior was struck as well, beginning in the late sixth and early fifth centuries BC, by Thraco-Macedonian tribes such as the Derroni, Orescii, Bisaltae, Ichnae, and Edoni and continuing with Thracian kings, primarily those of the Odrysae, the most powerful Thracian tribe, such as Sparadokos, Seuthes I, Teres III, Kotys I, Seuthes III, and Kotys II.

The Bulgarian numismatist Stavri Topalov believes from the latest hoard evidence that some of the coins traditionally attributed to the Greek colonies along the Thracian coast may actually have been issued by indigenous Thracians of the interior. Even if these issues did all originate from the Greek colonies, the colonies themselves had a significant Thracian population.

Other early coinage emanated from Thrace, including a large number of coins minted by Lysimachos, one of Alexander the Great's successors, a large number of coins minted in Lysimachos' name after his death, a small number of coins by the Celtic kings Skostokos and Kavaros, and an issue of gold staters by Koson, who may have been a Geto-Dacian (Thracian) or Skythian king. Much Roman Provincial coinage was also struck in Thrace, and though not as aesthetic, inspiring, or provocative as its Greek forbears, it can be interesting as well.

What's most interesting about the Greek coinage minted in Thrace is its heavy influence by the wild and uncivilized nature of the Thracians. I personally collect coins from ancient Thrace because of their artistic celebration of the beastly side of human nature. In my sedate suburban existence, from the bosom of a family and work life circumscribed by safety and responsibility, I collect these coins depicting the other side -- the uninhibited, the wanton, the crazed, and the dangerous. And I tuck my kids into bed each night.

"Giraffe." On this Thracian tetradrachm, Dionysos has long neck, unusual horizontal wavy lines for hair, a large angular nose, and a mysterious protuberance rising from his nose. The berries of Dionysos' diadem have disappeared, as have the lion scalp from Herakles' left shoulder and the monogram. The legend is illiterate, with the Greek letter theta having transformed into a sun symbol. When I bought this coin it smelled strongly of cigarette smoke and matches, perhaps having been smoked to give it color after it had been cleaned. 15.3g, 33mm. Göbl Class III, Lukanc -, cf. Youroukova 125. 

Among the coins from Thrace that I collect are Thasos tetradrachms, big, broad-flan silver coins that were minted during the historically fascinating period of the last two centuries BC when Rome was tightening its grip on the once great Greek civilization. These coins also feature two of the classical world's most fascinating mythological figures. A feminine portrait of Dionysos (usually pronounced die-uh-NIE-sus, also spelled Dionysus, and known to the Romans as Bacchus) adorns the obverse, while the reverse portrays a standing and naked Herakles (Hercules to the Romans), the greatest and most popular mythological hero of ancient times, who's often depicted on these coins thrusting his pelvis forward.

Dionysos and Herakles were both patron gods of Thasos. Much is commonly known about Herakles, who remained in popular consciousness through the Roman and medieval worlds and who today is still a pop hero. Much is commonly unknown about Dionysos, who has remained mysterious.

In ancient Greece the male god Dionysos was often portrayed in art and coinage as having feminine features. The reason is that the qualities he represented -- the wild, the unrestrained, and the chaotic -- were considered at the time to be feminine in nature... by men, of course! Sometimes, however, Dionysos appeared as bearded and masculine, on Thasos tetradrachms, didrachms, and similar coins of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, for example. Dionysos was thought to embody both the feminine and the masculine, a paradoxical multifaceted deity.

The worship of Dionysos may have originated with ancient Thracians living in Asia Minor before they migrated to Thrace. From Thrace the cult of Dionysos spread to Greece, then Egypt, then Rome. Another theory is that the worship of Dionysos originated in Crete, from where it spread first to Greece.

Dionysos can be thought of as the flip side of Apollo, as the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche wrote about. Whereas Apollo, god of poetry and art, represented cool rationality and civilized restraint, Dionysos, god of wine, fertility, and animalistic excess, represented the intuitive and emotional, the wild and uninhibited. Apollo is high culture, Dionysos base instinct.

Other lesser gods and demigods representing similar naturalistic and animalistic qualities to ancient Greeks were depicted on coins. Pan, a licentious god of fields and flocks with goat's legs, horns, and ears, appeared most prominently with his devilish visage on the coins of Pantikapaion from the fourth to second century BC. Silenos, an old man with the ears and sometimes feet of a horse, appeared most frightfully on bronzes in second-century BC Macedonia. On the staters and drachms of fifth- and fourth-century BC Thasos, a naked and sexually aroused satyr, a licentious woodland half-beast often portrayed with goat ears and sometimes goat feet, is either (depending on the interpretation) ravaging or engaging in a ritual dance with a nymph, a beautiful maiden who personified trees, waters, and mountains. A centaur, a creature with the legs and body of a horse, acts similarly with a nymph on archaic coins of northern Greece in the sixth and fifth century BC. But Dionysos, one of Hesiod's twelve Olympian gods, had a larger following than any of these other bad boys.

In her 1983 book The Gods of Greece, Arianna Stassinopoulos called Dionysos "the god of the here and now, of overwhelming immediacy, the god of eternity who holds life and death together." "Dionysus," she continued, "embodies this madness of the supreme moment of creation, of the enchanted moment when man is flung out of his routine world... and dives into the cosmic depths in which the forces of life dwell…. The bringer of liberation, ecstasy, inspiration, and the most blessed deliverance is also the bringer of madness, wildness, terror."

Worshippers of Dionysos engaged in uninhibited drinking, dancing, and emotional displays that created an altered mental state and a loss of individual identity, from which it was thought insights into truth could be found. These practices were similar to those of Moslem whirling dervishes and practitioners of Kundalini yoga, among others who engage or have engaged in ecstatic religious rites. The Dionysian altered state, in fact, was known as ekstasis, from which the word "ecstasy" is derived. Ekstasis has been described as "a deep immersion in animal unconsciousness" or "divine madness." Plato differentiated this state of inspired possession from lower forms of madness.

The ecstatic rites themselves were called orgia, from which the word "orgy" is derived, though they didn't necessarily involve sexual activity. Some devotees, however, were thought to have gone so far as tearing apart live animals such as deer, goats, oxen, or bulls and eating their flesh and blood raw, a ritual feast called omophagia. They believed they were identifying with Dionysos this way, consuming his essence. The common thread is frenzy, or mania. As Walter Burkert wrote in his 1987 book Ancient Mystery Cults, "Mania is the special province of Dionysus."

This is all very dramatic, and it's believed, in fact, that Greek drama itself originated from the play-acting of these Dionysian rites. Also originating from the rawness of Dionysos are thought to be several Christian beliefs and practices. The Christian sacrament of the Eucharist, the symbolic eating of Jesus' body (some believers would say nonsymbolic), may have been derived from the worship of Dionysos and the consuming of his essence. In his 1922 book A Short History of Christian Theophagy, Preserved Smith discusses in detail the origins of the Eucharist from "hoary antiquity," when "man was just emerging from the animal."

There are other parallels between Dionysos and Jesus. One of Dionysos' miracles was the turning of water into wine. Like Jesus, Dionysos was said to have been born of a mortal mother and a divine father (in his case Semele, a daughter of the king of Thebes, and Zeus). Dionysos was considered to be the divine in human form, died and was resurrected, and was associated with the immortality of the soul.

The worship of Dionysos today is most closely approximated with rock music. Many rock stars and some rock fans engage in Dionysian excesses. The late Jim Morrison of the Doors specifically identified with Dionysos, reading about him and his cult. Morrison expressed his desire to bring back the old pagan religions, and he attempted to recreate the cathartic experience of Greek tragedy on stage.

Wiccans (witches) today can also be thought of as spiritual descendants of Dionysos devotees (their beliefs and practices owe much to the Celts as well). One Wiccan devotee of Dionysos, Delia Morgan, practices a Dionysian ritual involving wine and ecstatic dancing. She listens to rock bands such as The Doors, Santana, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, with intermittent pauses for spontaneous prayer or invocations. You can read her expansive thoughts regarding Dionysos at The Dionysos Page, her Web site. Thiasos Dionysos until recently was an active mailing-list discussion group devoted to Dionysos, "a community of Dionysos worshippers who have gathered to revive the ancient forms of worship for the god of wine and ecstasy," but it has since switched to a Web-based forum and doesn't appear to be as active.

"Jowly." This is a beautifully designed, struck, and preserved Thracian tetradrachm. Dionysos is skillfully abstracted, consisting of simple lines, dots, curves, and hatches (hatched or triangular markings were used decoratively on pottery in Thrace since at least the 3rd millennium BC). Herakles sports spiked hair, sometimes described as a "radial nimbus" or halo. The legend, as on all highly abstracted specimens, has been transformed from letters into dots. The flan has an attractive frosted silver appearance. 15.4g, 31mm. Göbl Class V, Lukanc 1756, "Celtic Coins in the Royal Netherlands Cabinet at the Hague," D.F. Allen, coin 133.

Another way to celebrate Dionysos, even if sublimated, is through collecting Thasos tetradrachms, the best of which arguably feature the most compelling portrait of Dionysos on any ancient coins. Dionysos/Bacchus appears on the obverse or reverse of many other Greek and Roman coins, in a variety of ways, including (but undoubtedly not limited to):

  • Portrait that's clean-shaven (young) -- typically on later coins -- or bearded -- typically on earlier coins -- adorned with ivy and facing right or left
  • Standing or sitting figure holding grapes, a kantharos (drinking cup), a thyros (magical staff or wand), and/or a rhyton (drinking cup shaped like an animal horn)
  • Drunken reclining figure or sitting figure on a donkey, panther, or lion (which were among the animals considered sacred to him)
  • Drunken reclining figure on a rock
  • Standing figure pouring wine for a panther or with a panther at his feet
  • Standing figure next to Herakles or a satyr
  • Standing figure on top of a cista mystica (sacred basket) or inside a temple
  • Standing figure crowning an emperor
  • Sitting figure on a liknon (fan used to separate wheat from chaff)
  • Sitting figure in a biga (chariot drawn by two animals) being drawn by a panther and a goat, by a panther and a satyr, or by two centaurs
  • Boy held by the god Hermes, the goddess Nikaias, or a satyr
  • Kneeling infant holding grapes

These coins have their appeal, some more than others, but Thasos tetradrachms, in my unopinionated opinion, are the most appealing. Not everyone agrees with this (as with just about everything else involved with ancient coins!). In his 1933 book Greek Coins: A History of Metallic Currency and Coinage Down to the Fall of the Hellenistic Kingdoms, Charles T. Seltman described the obverses of Thasos tetradrachms as having "a Dionysiac head of singular unattractiveness." To each his own, though it would be difficult for me to call the obverse of the Thasos tetradrachm pictured here labeled "Proud" as anything but attractive.

I also don't subscribe to the "decline of art" theory, applied universally, which Barclay Head employed at the British Museum more than a century ago and which some still subscribe to today. It holds that among other things the aesthetics of ancient Greek coins declined beginning in the third century BC. But much beautiful work came from this and later periods. What's more, there's much aesthetic variation with Thasos tetradrachms (though not nearly as much as with Thracian tetradrachms). Thasos tetradrachms as a whole may not represent the pinnacle of ancient numismatic art, but the best pieces are stunning in their stylish evocativeness.

Thasos tetradrachms, large coins struck using the Attic weight standard popularized by Athens beginning in the sixth century BC, feature on the obverse the head of a young, beardless Dionysos facing right and wearing a diadem, or headband, of ivy leaves and berries. With some specimens leaves also appear above the berries, with some they don't. In ancient times, a diadem was a sign of royal or priestly distinction, and it would later evolve into a gold crown. Ivy, a symbol of fecundity, was one Dionysos' attributes. Dionysos sports long hair that's braided into a curl or loop at the back.

On the reverse, a standing and naked Herakles is looking to the left. With some specimens he stands on a base, with some he doesn't. Crowned with a laurel wreath, he leans on a club with his right hand and holds a lion skin with his left. On his left shoulder rests what is sometimes identified as a lion scalp, sometimes a quiver (arrow case). In carefully engraved, fully struck, and well-preserved specimens, it's clear that it's a lion scalp. Most references don't identify it at all. The laurel wreath in ancient times was a mark of honor conferred upon victorious athletes, heroes, generals, and poets. The club and quiver refer to Herakles' feats as a great warrior, the lion skin and scalp to his killing the Nemean lion in his First Labor.

On Thasos tetradrachms, Dionysos can be seen as being symbolic of nature, Herakles as being symbolic of man's power over nature.

The reverse legend, "HPAK-lambda-EOY-sigma sigma-omega-THPO-sigma theta-A-sigma-I-omega-N," translates into "Of Herakles, Savior of the Thasians." An M, modified M, delta-I, or similar monogram typically appears in the reverse left field (not all Thasos tetradrachms have monograms), which as with many other ancient coins may identify the local magistrate responsible for minting the particular issue. A. Rogalsky identified nine different monograms used on Thasos tetradrachms and 19 used on early imitations of them, and Topalov added eight additional monograms used on the early imitations.

"Maroneia." This is a Maroneia tetradrachm, which is similar in size and style to a Thasos tetradrachms, both featuring a portrait of Dionysos on the obverse. On the reverse, in contrast to Thasos tetradrachms, which feature a standing Herakles holding his club, Maroneia tetradrachms feature a second rendering of Dionysos, standing and holding grapes. The reverse legend is also different, translating into "Of Dionysos, Savior of the Maronites" rather than "Of Herakles, Savior of the Thasians." 16.3g, 31mm. Sear Greek 1635.
Thasos tetradrachms (Sear Greek 1759) are similar in appearance to Maroneia tetradrachms (Sear Greek 1635), though the latter feature Dionysos on both obverse and reverse. On the reverse of Maroneia tetradrachms, Dionysos is standing like Herakles is on Thasos tetradrachms but is holding grapes, two grape stalks, and a cloak, while the legend, "delta-IONY-sigma-OY sigma-omega-THPO-sigma MAP-omega-NIT-omega-N," translates into "Of Dionysos, Savior of the Maronites." Maroneia tetradrachms were also a product of a Greek colony in Thrace -- Maroneia was on the mainland close to Thasos in what is also present-day northeastern Greece. Maroneia tetradrachms were issued at about the same time as Thasos tetradrachms, but they were issued in smaller numbers and imitated far less.

Regarding other denominations, Thasos Dionysos/Herakles drachms are rare, while Maroneia Dionysos/Dionysos bronze denominations in various sizes are common. Other less frequently seen bronze types emanating from Thasos and the Thracian interior during the first two centuries BC include coins depicting on the obverse a bearded Herakles, Artemis, Apollo, Zeus, jugate heads of Zeus and Hera, jugate heads of Demeter and Persephone, and local Thracian rulers such as Mostis and Kotys II. Mostis may have been king of the Bessi tribe, according to Yordanka Youroukova in her 1976 book Coins of the Ancient Thracians, while Kotys II (sometimes referred to as Kotys III) was king of the Odrysae tribe.

The silver tetradrachms were likely used throughout the region for such purposes as bribes to hostile tribal dynasts, tribute from one tribe or state to a stronger or more aggressive one (including Rome), payment to soldiers, and payment for war supplies, slaves, and goods bought through intraregional trade. The bronzes were likely used largely for local commerce. Silver for the production of Thasos tetradrachms came not only from Thasos but also from the Thracian mainland and Macedonia.

It's unclear exactly what the value of these coins were at the time. But taking into account what has been written in various numismatic and historical texts as well as in the Bible about the value of Greek and Roman coins in general, it's probably not far off to say that the tetradrachms were worth about three or four days' wages, perhaps the equivalent of $200 today.



Abstraction Progression


Imitations and Thrace

Art and Barbarism

Chronology and Attribution

Origins and Collecting



More Info

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Oldest Coins

 Athenian Owls

Alexander the Great Coins

Medusa Coins

Thracian Tetradrachms

House of Constantine

Draped Bust Coins

Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles

Coin sites:
Coin Collecting: Consumer Protection Guide
Glomming: Coin Connoisseurship
Bogos: Counterfeit Coins

© 2013 Reid Goldsborough

Note: Any of the items illustrated on these pages that are in my possession are stored off site.