Myths were central to the ancient Greek and Roman sense of identity. They helped to give communities a common past. While intellectuals might have debated whether there really ever was a time when gods and heroes interacted, many cities in the eastern Mediterranean – particularly in the period of Roman rule – incorporated particular myths as elements of local history. A city might claim that this was the place where the hero Perseus rescued Andromeda from the sea monster, or this was the place where the infant Dionysus had been nursed by a nymph called Nysa. Some cities were lucky enough to be central to certain well-known stories, like Ilium, the successor of Troy; however other, more obscure cities were forced to be creative. They adopted and adapted certain myths and claimed them as their own. In practice, it’s not that different from the association of diverse places in Britain with remote and shadowy figures like King Arthur.
We know about this local appropriation of myths partly through contemporary literature and partly through the local art of the cities, but especially through the images found on coins that the cities produced. Under Roman rule, the cities of the Greek-speaking east were permitted to issue their own small change, and they used this medium to advertise themselves: their festivals, their famous cults, and the myths that made up their ‘history’. So, for example, the city of Ilium used scenes from the Trojan War: Hector in his chariot; Ajax falling on his sword; and Aeneas escaping from the destruction of Troy, carrying his father on his back.
Here, we explore three examples – two quite obscure, and one very famous – a small taster of the rich picture-language of myth appearing on city coins of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Hero and Leander
The first (depicted on the coin shown in the main picture) is a love story. The cities of Sestus and Abydus faced each other across the Dardanelles, a body of water also known in antiquity as the Hellespont. This was a case where two cities shared the same myth, and both of them used the myth as a design on their coinages. Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, lived at Sestus, the city on the European side of the Hellespont. Leander, from the city of Abydus on the Asian side, swam the Hellespont every night, guided by a lamp held by Hero at the top of a tower. But one night, a storm blew the lamp out and Leander drowned; and the grief-stricken Hero threw herself from the top of her tower, joining her lover in death.
Though obscure today, this romantic story was well-known in Renaissance Europe and later. Shakespeare referred to it in several plays. An unfinished poem penned by Christopher Marlowe celebrated the lovers, and in 1810 Lord Byron made the swim himself from Sestus to Abydus. In ancient times this myth, so specific to two cities, was their equivalent of, perhaps, Coventry’s myth of Lady Godiva. On this coin of Abydus we see Leander swimming, having left his clothes and sword behind on a rock, and Hero standing in the top of her tower, holding out the fateful lamp. Above them flies Eros, holding a torch (a metaphor for the fire of love). Everyone who handled the coin would connect the story with the city that issued it, and think of the myth as part of the two communities’ shared histories.
The side of the chest depicted on this coin bears the name ‘Noe’, the Greek version of the name Noah. (© Kevin Butcher)
One of the strangest images to appear on these city coins was issued by a city called Apamea, in the highlands of western Turkey, in a region then called Phrygia. It’s a well-known story, though it isn’t a Greek myth, and that is what makes it so peculiar in this context. Normally the cities employed Greek myths as part of their ‘history’, but here we have something else. On the right-hand side, we see two figures in a large chest – what the Greeks called a kibotos and the Romans an arca (we get the word ‘ark’ from the Latin word). Above, a bird approaches with a branch; on the left, we see two figures: one male, one female, their hands raised in an attitude of prayer. To make it even more explicit, the side of the chest bears the name Noe, the Greek version of the name Noah.
Though at first glance a modern viewer may not recognise the image, there is no doubt that the coin depicts the biblical story of Noah. On the right-hand side, Noah and his wife are in the ark (which is literally a big chest rather than the plump ship that tends to dominate modern representations), with the dove bringing proof that the waters had retreated. Below the ark we can see a representation of waves. On the left, we see the scene afterwards: Noah and his wife on dry land once again, giving thanks to God for their deliverance.
Why a biblical scene should appear on a Greek city coin under pagan Roman emperors has naturally elicited a lot of comment and speculation. The city of Apamea had a nickname, kibotos, ‘chest’, and it has been suggested that this derived from the packing chests used in trade, for which Apamea was an important centre. But it is probably no coincidence that the city had an important Jewish population, and that a nearby mountain was identified as Mount Ararat. A Christian work called The First Sibylline Oracle told how the ark came to rest there: ‘There is in Phrygia on the dark mainland a steep, tall mountain; Ararat its name, because upon it all were to be saved from death, and there was great desire of heart; thence streams of the great river Marsyas spring. There on a lofty peak the ark abode when the waters ceased…’
Another coin design from Apamea shows the river god Marsyas reclining on the mountain, with not one but multiple chests on its peak. It looks as if the biblical story of Noah was somehow grafted on to some other, pagan tradition involving the mountain and the chests. We may speculate that the Jewish population helped promote the Noah story, and Greek-speaking pagans of Apamea were happy to adopt it as part of their ‘history’.
The city of Damascus in Syria issued a coin commemorating the ‘capture of Lycurgus’. (© Kevin Butcher)
The nymph Ambrosia
In the fifth century AD, an Egyptian poet called Nonnus wrote an immensely long poem in Greek about the adventures of the god Dionysus. In one scene, the god of wine encounters a hostile, teetotal figure called Lycurgus, and a battle develops between them and their supporters. In earlier versions of this encounter, Lycurgus was a king of Thrace (roughly corresponding with part of modern Bulgaria and European Turkey), but a rival version of the story developed where Lycurgus was a king of Arabia. Nonnus took this ‘Arabian’ version and recounted how the battle between Dionysus and Lycurgus took place in the ‘Near East’. In the end, Dionysus prevails – but it is one of his former nurses, the nymph Ambrosia, who captures Lycurgus in an unorthodox way. She sinks into the earth and transforms herself into a vine that entangles and throttles the Arabian king.
The city of Damascus in Syria seems to have adopted this story as part of its ‘history’, and issued a coin commemorating the ‘event’. It shows Ambrosia standing, her legs disappearing into the earth to be transformed into vines, which she holds in her hands. Her adversary, Lycurgus, is nowhere to be seen, but on an ancient glass cup, now in the British Museum, we see him caught in the vines’ embrace, the nymph Ambrosia having fully transformed. The coin shows the first stage of the metamorphosis. Other coins of Damascus show one of the city’s temples with a prominent vine growing next to it, and it may be the case that this vine was thought to be the very one had once been the nymph Ambrosia.
While scholars may be able to recognise these three myths through comparison with other versions in different media such as mosaics or poetry, not every mythical scene on the city coins is intelligible today. In adopting certain myths as part of their ‘history’ the cities sometimes changed the details, so that the version depicted does not match the versions that we are familiar with from ancient texts. The past, whether legendary or historical, could be adapted to local requirements, which means that we are a long, long way from the last words on the myths of ancient Greece and Rome.
Professor Kevin Butcher from the University of Warwick is the co-author of The Metallurgy of Roman Silver Coinage: From the Reform of Nero to the Reform of Trajan, (Cambridge University Press, 2014). His research interests include Greek and Roman coinage, particularly the civic and provincial coinages of the Roman Empire, and the Hellenistic and Roman Near East, particularly coastal Syria and Lebanon.