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Taking a loan from the Gods: The 'Eagle-and-Crab' Emergency Gold Coinage of Akragas during the Carthaginian Siege of 406 B.C.

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In 406 a Carthaginian army was laying siege to Akragas. Mercenaries were standing on the other side of the wall. They were well paid, but at some point the politicians of Akragas ran out of money. What happened then, you will be told here.

 

Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Greek Sicily, in the city of Akragas, known today as Agrigento. We are in the year 406 BC.

This is what the coins of Akragas usually look like. On the obverse they show an eagle, and on the reverse a crab.

 

And this is what a very special Akragas coin looks like. I’m going to tell you the story of this coin today.

 

See the difference? That’s right - one coin is made of silver, the other of gold. One is fairly large, the other relatively small. And if you look closely at the reverse of the gold coin, you can see the name of the official, Silanos.

 

Well, it was quite unusual to mint gold coins in classical Greece. The coins of the Greek cities were usually made of silver or bronze. Gold was only minted if you couldn’t get hold of any silver, but still really needed coins. And that was always the case when a city was besieged. As Akragas was in 406 BC.

 

But let’s start from the beginning. Sicily was rich in ancient times, very rich indeed. This was due to the fact that the soil was so fertile. And in addition, Sicily had a handy location. It was a bridge between east and west, and between north and south. Any trading nation would gladly have had as many outposts as possible at Sicily.

 

In the north-west, the Carthaginians had set up their trading stations. In the south-east lived the Greeks. In between, some settlements of local origin tried to assert themselves. And of course, all of them wanted the biggest possible piece of the pie. The Greek city of Akragas lay roughly in the middle of Sicily’s southern coast.

 

In the 5th century BC, Akragas was one of the island’s richest cities. Pindar described it as “the most beautiful of mortal cities”. The municipality, which had grown scandalously rich through trade built not one but a whole series of magnificent temples. The philosopher Empedocles said at the time that the citizens of Akragas enjoyed their luxury as if they were going to die tomorrow, but constructed buildings as if they were going to live forever.

 

But no one lives forever, and Akragas was far too rich not to evoke the envy of others. The demise of Akragas began in Segesta. Segesta had argued with the city of Selinunte. It requested military assistance from Carthage. And the Carthaginians took their chance. First they conquered Selinunte, then Himera. Their next target was the rich city of Akragas.

 

But it was not quite so easy. Akragas had a mighty city wall, which held the enemies at bay for the moment. The pitiful remains of the wall which have been excavated in modern times give little idea of what must have been a major obstacle for the attackers.

 

By the way, the city of Akragas was not defended solely by its own citizens. The city council had to hire expensive mercenaries, who were to be found throughout the Mediterranean. Whole armies of mercenaries would fight for anyone, as long as they were well paid; for the Great King of Persia, for the Egyptian Pharaoh, for the city of Carthage, for wealthy Greek tyrants, and of course also for the citizens of Akragas.

 

And here is where our coin comes into play. At some point during the siege the city fathers of Akragas ran out of money. They had to take a loan from the gods.

 

In ancient times, temples served as large treasuries. In good times, the faithful trusted their wealth to the gods. When times were hard, they would come to ask the gods for a loan.

The great Phidias, for example, designed the gold and ivory statue adorning the Parthenon in Athens so that its gold accessories could be removed. They would have weighed 44 talents, approximately 1150 kg.

In fact, in the year 296 BC, the Athenians paid the mercenaries who defended their city against Demetrios Poliorketes using exactly this gold. The golden votive offerings were melted down and minted into coins.

We know which coins were minted. Here you can see one of them. On the obverse it shows the head of Athena, on the reverse her sacred animal, the owl. And even if I am only able to show you a black-and-white picture of this rare coin, you can take my word for it: This coin is made of gold from Phidias’ statue.

In Akragas, the golden votive offerings of the gods were also melted down to pay the mercenaries. Perhaps the Silanos named on the coin was responsible. On the obverse, an old design popular in Akragas was reused. The eagle snatches at its prey, which it will kill in due course.

This design was often used in Greek art to represent the omnipotence of Zeus. As it was the eagle’s decision to seal the fate of its prey, Zeus alone determined the fate of the people. He could condemn them to death or award them victory. This shows that the inhabitants of Akragas had not yet given up hope.

And yet the Carthaginians were victorious. They conquered and plundered the city. Those who failed to escape were sold into slavery. Of course, at some point enterprising traders settled once again in the city, but by then the heyday of Akragas was finally over.

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