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An Electrum Obol


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by Michael E. Marotta


"Long ago, even Miletos was great," the Greeks of the classical era would say in response to some appeal to tradition. When the Greek cities of Ionia lost their revolt of 499-493 BC against the Persians, Miletos was conquered and depopulated. The failure of the Ionian revolt brought Milesians to Athens. One result of this was the Golden Age of Athens. Philosophers made Athens their new home. Aspasia of Miletos is known as the girlfried of Pericles. In fact, it was likely she who taught philosophy to Socrates.


Miletos had been the home of Thales, called the father of philosophy and the father of geometry. Anaximander and Anaximenes were his contemporaries, In their day, Miletos had been great.


When the numismatists of the 19th century sought the origin of coinage, Miletos and Sardis in Lydia were both considered likely prospects. Miletos had been the largest of the Ionian cities before the Revolt.


From that early time, I have an electrum obol. The coin can be dated reasonably to no later than 550 BC and perhaps a generation earlier. The oblong nugget is about 10 mm by 7 mm and from 1 mm to 3 mm thick from the edges to the center. Weighing 2.4 grams, it can be called a "hekte" a one-sixth stater, on the Milesian standard.


The coin has a recumbant lion on one side and incuse punches on the other. The lion is looking right over his left shoulder. This is badge of Miletos, just as the owl was the symbol of Athens. Rounded from wear, this nugget might grade Very Good by modern American standards. Crystalization and corrosion deep in the incuse punches validate its extreme age.


This coin is similar to others catalogued as Babelon 167;IV,33 and as SNG Von Aulock 1796. However, it is somewhat different from them. It is also similar to, but different from coins in the Rosen Collection of the Getty Museum shown in publications by Rosen and by Waggoner. It is also very much like a coin I saw at the table of dealer James Beach, but his is a paler gold. With these attributions I published both his coin and mine in The Anvil, the semi-monthly of the Classical and Medieval Numismatic Society.


I bought the coin from Andreas Gordon Singer, a dealer specializing in medieval coins. In its flip, it was misidentified as being from Samos. The recumbant lion spoke of Miletos. Singer could not identify the coin, it being outside his bailiwick. He made me a deal; I accepted it.


Having sold off my collection, I kept this one (and a few others) because it is special. It represents the birth of coinage and the birth of philosophy. The intellectual glory that we ascribe to Athens was really imported to that city by Pericles. After all, the Athenians condemned Socrates, as they had tried Aspasia and Anaxagoras. Pericles traded his status and force of personality to win an acquittal for Aspasia. Anaxagoras chose exile. New ideas were not welcomed in Athens. The rational curiosity that we identify with "Greece" was born in Ionia and centered in Miletos. This coin is an artifact from that time and place.


[Below: Two Miletos staters from the American Numismatic Society Collection.

Bottom: Reverse and Obverse of my own one-sixth stater or obol]



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