Horse Chariot and Arethusa: Discussing the Background of the Coins of Syracuse, after 500 BC


Do you know, what is the obverse of the coins from Syracuse? The winning quadriga or beautiful Arethusa? In order to answer the question we have to talk about the pantheon of Syracuse.



Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Syracuse. We are in the years shortly after the turn of the 5th century BC.


Every coin has two sides. They are equal. Nevertheless, it is common procedure in numismatics to refer to the two sides as obverse and reverse. Deciding which is which is not always simple. What’s the obverse of this coin? The horse chariot? The female head?


To answer that question, we have to take a look at the very first coin of this coin series.

Our coin comes from Syracuse. That can be read on the coin. Syrakosion, coin of the Syracusans. But take a close look at it. The engraver used strange letters. The Sigma resembles a Latin S with pointed angles, the R looks more like our letter than the Greek Rho, and, finally, the Koppa, it recalls an O with a downward bar. These are the Greek letters in a very old form. After all, our coin has already been struck shortly after the turn of the 5th century BC.


It depicts a quadriga driven by a charioteer.

The Syracusans adhered to that subject for more than a century.

Its meaning becomes clear by comparing later issues.


They show the charioteer running the galloping horses while being crowned by the goddess of victory.


Sometimes Nike likewise crowns the chariot that is driving slowly after its victory.

For a period of 100 years, therefore, Syracuse had celebrated the victory in a chariot race.

What kind of victory should have been this? Did Syracuse won every single chariot race, over the course of 100 years?


Of course, it didn’t. There is a completely different background story to this depiction. Since Ulrich Sinn has reconstructed the history of Olympia, we know that the priests of the sanctuary played a decisive role in the colonization of southern Italy and Sicily. Sicilian cities, like Syracuse, felt obliged to send a feast delegation to the great festival at Olympia that took place every four years. Athletes of course were part of this delegation, including quadrigas with fast horses. They entered the competitions that were a vital part of the celebration in honor of the god.


A victory at Olympia was considered a sign of divine grace. Of course, a Syracusan chariot won sometimes and proved to the Syracusans what they experienced in their city on a daily basis: Zeus was benevolent towards them. Zeus had given them their hometown. And he also proved his benevolence by ensuring that – from time to time – a Syracusan chariot won the race.

The quadriga on the obverse of the their coins is a symbol of the divine grace Zeus was felt to have bestowed on the inhabitants of Syracuse.


But what about the female head? Was it of secondary importance and thus relegated to the reverse?


Looking at our coin, made shortly after 500 BC., we can see clearly how the head started as a small-scale accessory on the reverse.


When the Greeks minted their first coins, they inserted the die into the anvil and pressed the planchet into the form by hammering the metal with punches. Soon after they decorated these punches, and later they produced large reverse dies that looked as if four punches had been hammered in with four individual strokes.


The reverse die of our coin exhibits a particularly beautiful motif. It imitates a quadripartite incuse square in windmill pattern with a female head in its center.


By depicting this female head, the Syracusans referred to another symbol of divine grace.

The nucleus of Syracuse was the island of Orthygia. That island not only possessed two safe natural harbors but a productive spring as well that supplied the entire population with water and made the city invulnerable even when under siege.


The fountain is called Arethusa. Nowadays, it is a messy, rat-infested tourist spectacle. 

What Arethusa may have looked like in ancient times can be inferred from the Cyane spring not far away, that likewise was worshipped once. It is still a place full of magic. Papyrus grows there, an unusual sight in Europe. It is easy to understand why the Greeks believed the springs with its fresh sparkling water to be inhabited by nymphs, young women surrendering themselves ever so often. Harboring such a fountain nymph was considered divine grace by every city.


That was the reason why Arethusa was depicted on coins again and again, always as a young woman, soon encircled by four dolphins symbolizing the great sea that surrounded Arethusa.

It goes without saying that Zeus’s benevolence ranked first, while Arethusa’s came second. Our charioteer, therefore, is the obverse, Arethusa the reverse.


And we certainly don’t want to join in the discussion which one is the obverse of our euros the national or the European side.


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

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