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Sybaris, synonymous with Hubris? Stories and History of Sybaris, its Coinage, Allies, Enemies – and its Doom in 510 BC

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They were notorious for their sumptuary way of life, those Sybarites, whose city was destroyed in 510 BC. But they should have been known for being a member of the probably first monetary union in history.

 

Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Sybaris. We are in the year 510 BC.

 

A Sybarite once visited Sparta. He was friendly welcomed by the Spartans and invited to their famous meals. But the meal was meagre, the bench was stony, and his verdict on the Spartans withering: “I used to admire the Spartans for their bravery. Now I am not impressed by your courage anymore because even the biggest coward would rather die than live such a life to the end.”

 

Here’s another one: Smindyrides, a rich Sybarite, set off to Sicyon to woe the daughter of the city’s tyrant. They bedded him on rose petals and in the morning Smindyrides bitterly complained that his bed had been too hard and uncomfortable.

 

And here’s a last one: A Sybarite wanted to travel to Crotone and chartered a ship just for himself. He tried to convince a friend to accompany him by saying: “I told the captain to keep close to the mainland at all times.” Horrified, his friend replied: “Are you serious? You could hardly convince me to a journey on land along the sea, let alone a journey on sea along the land.”

 

Such were some stories that the ancient Greeks loved to tell each other. Sybaris was their synonym for a luxurious and excessive lifestyle. But the Sybarites, target of so much scorn, cannot possibly have been as incapable as they were made out to be. After all, they accumulated enormous wealth.

 

Sybaris was founded around 720 BC in a fertile plane on the coast at the Gulf of Taranto.

The city grew rapidly to an impressive size. According to the reports of Diodorus Siculus, this wasn’t only due to the fertility of the fields, but the result of a remarkably clever move by the Sybarites: they offered anyone who wanted to settle in Sybaris citizenship. The ancient Greeks could not believe their ears when the heard about this. And even today, such a policy might upset some conservative politicians. If we’re to believe Diodor, the city had 300,000 inhabitants around 500 BC and the Sybarites ruled over four tribes and 25 subject cities!

 

The coin I am showing you here dates back to that time. In the exergue, the city’s first two letters are inscribed, sigma and epsilon. Above, the picture of a bull, turning his head back. That is a remarkable artistic solution because it fits the bull’s outline perfectly to the coin’s round shape. The bull probably represents the two rivers Krathis and Sybaris to which the plane owed its fertility.

 

It is well known that in Ancient Greece river gods were often symbolised by bulls, like in this sample from Gela. It was believed that the river’s high tides and raging spring floods had something of the nature of an angry storming bull.

 

The reverse doesn’t look like anything we’d expect from a Greek coin. It takes up the motif of the obverse but incuse.

 

Many neighbouring cities also minted similar coins with the same weight at this time: the reverse an incuse variation on the obverse. Metaponto, for instance, depicted an ear.

Crotone a tripod. Caulonia Apollo. Poseidonia Poseidon. And Laos the man-headed bull.

 

Today, it’s easily conceivable that all of those coins may have been part of an early monetary union of some sort and that all coins were accepted in all participating cities.

 

Maybe the wealthy Sybarites were the initiators behind this. After all, two of the five participating cities were Sybarite colonies: Poseidonia and Laos.

 

However that may be, Sybaris was to go down in the year 510 BC. Diodor writes about a decision by the Sybarites to banish the 500 richest citizens so they could confiscate their fortune. When the exiled citizens fled to Crotone, the Sybarites demanded their delivery. But the Crotones decided to protect the refugees. It came to a battle. Crotone was victorious and Sybaris razed to the ground. In Antiquity, people believed this to be the rightful punishment for the Sybarite hubris.

 

Even if this is primarily a literary topos which bears little relation to the actual historical events in 510: apart from their coins, the Sybarites hardly left anything behind that could tell us even a little bit about the city’s former wealth!

 

Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.