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Coins, Artists, and Tyrants: Syracuse in the Time of the Peloponnesian War

Coins, Artists, and Tyrants: Syracuse in the Time of the Peloponnesian War

By Wolfgang R. Fischer-Bossert, edited by Ute Wartenberg (NS 33). Pp. xxviii + 402. American Numismatic Society, New York 2017. $200. ISBN 978-0-89722-341-6 (cloth).

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Numismatists and ancient art historians will hail this new book by Fischer-Bossert, a leading specialist in the coinage of Sicily and Magna Graecia: its focus is on the tetradrachms minted at Syracuse in the age of the “signing engravers,” the heyday of Greek minting in Sicily in the classical period, whose chronology has long been controversial (cf. K. Rutter, “Dating the Period of the ‘Signing Artists’ of Sicilian Coinage,” in D.B. Counts and A.S. Tuck, eds., Koine: Mediterranean Studies in Honor of R. Ross Holloway [Oxford and Oakville, Conn., 2009] 125–30). Two virtually simultaneous innovations—the change in the composition of the obverse type from a quadriga in slow motion to one drawn by horses in dynamic postures, and the addition of die cutters’ signatures to several dies—mark the starting point of this series of issues. For over a century, the standard reference on this subject has been the essay by Lauri O. Th. Tudeer, “Die Tetradrachmenprägung von Syrakus in der Periode der signierenden Künstler” (ZfN 30 [1913] 1–292). Published in 1913, it comprised one of the first die studies as well as a corpus of the Syracusan tetradrachms of the signing engravers. Although the original goal of this book was to provide an English translation of Tudeer’s article and to expand his database, the final product is much more than just “an updated catalogue of Tudeer’s original work.” The volume is the result of a collaboration between Fischer-Bossert and Wartenberg, who conceived this project and helped integrate into Tudeer’s catalogue the hundreds of coins that have become known since 1913. It also includes a short biography of Tudeer by T. Talvio and an excellent translation of Tudeer’s preface and commentary ([1913] 1–3, 94–287] by O. Mulholland. The bulk of its contents, though, including the annotated bibliography, collection index, and concordance (295–355), is by Fischer-Bossert. His discussion of the historical background, die links, epigraphy, imitations and remodelings, hoards, views of older scholarship, and his conclusions (5–117), are an essential introduction to these issues and an example of contemporary numismatic methodology.

Tudeer identified 37 obverse and 73 reverse dies, representing 106 die links, and was able to reconstruct nine die chains that he assigned to three periods between ca. 425 and 387 B.C.E. However, both his chronology and the internal arrangement of the die chains (particularly those in his second period, which he dated ca. 413–399 B.C.E.) needed to be emended in light of the evidence that is now available. Fischer-Bossert’s exhaustive analysis aimed to reassess Tudeer’s die sequence and to provide more reliable datings for this coinage. After reviewing the history of Sicily in the last quarter of the fifth century B.C.E. and establishing several key points for Syracusan coin chronology, he has improved Tudeer’s corpus by identifying two new obverse and four new reverse dies and by correcting the placement of die links within the series (26–7, 67–9). His examination of the evidence for the adoption of the East Ionic alphabet in the ethnics and legends of the signed tetradrachms in Tudeer’s Period I and Period II has also led him to conclude that “Syracuse was certainly the first to adopt the Ionic vowels” (40). In particular, some tetradrachms in Tudeer’s Period I, those bearing the Ionic letter omega in the ethnic, were minted before the fall of Selinus in 409/408 B.C.E. and provide a terminus ante quem for the signing engravers’ series.

The most interesting chapter in the book is Fischer-Bossert’s discussion of imitations and remodelings of specific coin types and their compositions (41–79). He has convincingly shown how dies cut by Euainetos for Syracuse served as models for several engravers in other Sicilian cities as well as at Syracuse itself. Euainetos’ depiction of a charioteer striving to control a team of four horses to avoid an impending crash and his masterly use of perspective to represent this dramatic scene were unprecedented. Fischer-Bossert is at his best in his description of another dazzling composition by Euainetos (made for the obverse die of a tetradrachm for the mint of Katane), in which “the movement of the chariot virtually takes shape in a cluster of springy curves” (53). An enlargement of this image, the only enlargement in the book, illustrates the author’s visual analysis of Euainetos’ “compositional movement” (fig. 43). The composition of Euainetos’ quadriga was imitated by Kimon on the reverse of a tetradrachm bearing the facing head of Arethusa, which influenced coin iconography in Sicily and farther afield. Fischer-Bossert suggests that the placement of the head of Arethusa on the obverse may have been partly a reaction to the flaws caused by using the reverse die (which is more likely to break under the hammer’s direct pressure) for another famous creation: Eukleidas’ head of Athena. In his view, the innovations of these die cutters can be explained as the result of a process that was set in motion by Syracusan magistrates who “decided to allow, or to demand” (76) that the quadriga, Syracuse’s distinctive obverse coin type, be made in the most flamboyant contemporary fashion—that is, as a dynamic composition seen in perspective. In turn, this led die cutters employed by other Sicilian cities either to imitate Syracusan dies or to produce their own compositions. “The fact that many dies of Sicilian late fifth-century coinage are signed by engravers underlines that competition and pride were driving factors” (74). Yet, competition eventually became conformity, as the last Syracusan tetradrachms in this series imitate the style of the decadrachms of Kimon and Euainetos. The latter were probably minted after 400 B.C.E., under the rule of Dionysius I.

Since only two hoards that included these tetradrachms were known to Tudeer, he could not make chronological inferences about their sequence of issue from the hoard evidence (292–93). In contrast, Fischer-Bossert’s examination of 22 hoards has shown that two groups of hoards buried in 406/405 and ca. 400 B.C.E. help date the entire series between 415/414 and ca. 395 B.C.E., even though “neither the starting point of the signing artists’ series nor its end can be defined to the exact year” at present (82). The new sequence of die chains that he has established spans approximately two decades between the years of the Athenian expedition against Syracuse and the beginning of the fourth century B.C.E. (98–9). Thanks to Fischer-Bossert and Wartenberg, Tudeer’s die study has been brought up to date and placed within the framework of current numismatic and archaeological research on Greek Sicily. Their revised catalogue, which includes more than twice as many specimens as were recorded by Tudeer but relatively few new dies and die links (115), attests to the thoroughness of Tudeer’s work. It will be indispensable for future research on these Syracusan issues. Each specimen has been listed alphabetically in order of decreasing weight, whereas the coins known to Tudeer were listed alphabetically by collection name or sale catalogue and often lacked weights. Fischer-Bossert and Wartenberg have also added or updated the accession numbers of several tetradrachms held in museums, such as the de Luynes collection in Paris. This coinage now comprises a total of 38 obverse and 77 reverse dies, representing at least 115 die links. If Fischer-Bossert’s chronology is acceptable, these data would suggest that the scale of production of Syracusan tetradrachms by the signing engravers was comparable to the combined output of silver by Motya, Panormos, and Carthage in the same period of time (cf. G.K. Jenkins, “Coins of Punic Sicily: Part 1,” SNR 50 [1971] 31–9; and “Coins of Punic Sicily: Part 2. Carthage Series 1,” SNR 53 [1974] 23–40).

The usefulness of this important book is greatly enhanced by 95 figures in the text plus 27 plates. However, the occasionally uneven quality of the photographs (see figs. 30, 39, 48, 93–4; pls. 2, 10b; 23, 93b) does require sharp eyes and sometimes makes it difficult to follow Fischer-Bossert’s arguments (48). Readers will be puzzled by the presence of an unlabeled foldout opposite page 68 that is not mentioned anywhere in the text. This omission is especially regrettable because the foldout illustrates Fischer-Bossert’s critical rearrangement of the sequence of die chains in Tudeer’s Period II and at the start of Period III. In contrast, the plates at the end of the book follow the structure of Tudeer’s catalogue. Another unlabeled foldout, after page 100, contains a breakdown of the contents of the 22 hoards that are relevant to the signing engravers’ series and have been listed in table 1 (62). A few errors have slipped in (e.g., 25: Obvs. 25 and 27 shared 3 not 4 reverse dies; 62, table 1: “S. Maria V’mosa” should be S. Caterina Villarmosa); there are some unclear or awkward sentences (see, e.g., 70, 104, 106); and infelicities in the list of abbreviations, in the footnotes, and in the annotated bibliography, could have been avoided by more careful editing. These flaws notwithstanding, Coins, Artists, and Tyrants underscores the enduring value of Tudeer’s corpus and is a towering achievement.

Paolo Visonà
University of Kentucky

Book Review of Coins, Artists, and Tyrants: Syracuse in the Time of the Peloponnesian War, by Wolfgang R. Fischer-Bossert, edited by Ute Wartenberg (NS 33)

Reviewed by Paolo Visonà

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.visona

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