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Tuesday, 4 November 2014

156) Coinage of Greece: (Part III): Ancient Olympic Games on Greek coins of Antiquity:

156) Coinage of Greece: (Part III):  Ancient Olympic Games on Greek coins of Antiquity:

1) For more on the Olympics and Paralympics held in the past, including the origins and history of the Olympics and Commemorative coins issued both on London Olympics and Paralympics please read my post on the London Olympics 2012 link as follows: History of the ancient & modern Olympics and Paralympics & commemorative coins issued during the London Olympics and Paralympics

2) For the Moscow Summer Olympics held in 1980: please read the post on the following link: Commemorative Coins issued on the occasion of Moscow Summer Olympics 1980 by the Russian Mint

3) For the Winter Olympics held at Sochi, Russia and the Commemorative Banknote issued, please read the post on the following link:A 100 Rouble Banknote Commemorating the Sochi, Russia Winter Olympics 2014

4) For Rio 2016, please click on the following link to get interesting insights into the mascots of the Rio Olympics Vinicius and Tom, the Games and the Commemorative Coins and stamps issue programme: 1)The 31st Summer Olympics "Rio 2016"
2) Commemorative Stamps and booklets issued by the Department of Posts, India on 05.08.2016 
5) For Ancient Olympic Games on Greek Coins of Antiquity, please click on the following link: Ancient Olympic Games on Greek Coins of Antiquity
6) For a set of Post cards titled "Olympic Events" : please click on the following link:  "Olympic Events": A set of 12 Post Cards issued by the Karnataka Postal Circle, India Post on 11.07.2016
7) For a presentation set of two stamps titled "Spirit of Olympics, Athens, Atlanta" please visit the following link: Spirit of the Olympic Games, Athens-Atlanta: Celebrating the Centenary of the Modern Olympic Games  
 8) For a presentation set of four stamps titled "XXVIII Olympic Games" (2004 Summer Olympics Athens, Greece, please visit the following link: XVIII Summer Olympic Games, Athens Greece (2004)
9) For a presentation set of two stamps titled "XXIX Olympic Games" (2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing, China, please visit the following link: XXIX Olympic Games Beijing, China: 08.08.08- 24.08.08: A Presentation set of four stamps issued by India Post on 08.08.08

The origins of the Ancient Olympic Games and the period during which the first Athletic Games were held is not very clear from historical traditions, which were mostly oral but, it is generally believed that sports-persons from the various city-states of Ancient Greece conducted the Event in Olympia in 776 B.C.  or 765 B.C. in honour of Zeus, the King of the Gods.

During the Olympic Games held in 776 BC, there was only one sporting event – the stadium race. The word “stadion” race which was then a race of about 190 meters or 620 ft. and it is said to have been measured after Herakles’ (Hercules) stride which was the only event held in the first few Olympic Games. Later, the word stadium was derived from this foot race.

 The first Olympic Games lasted only one day, but eventually the event was held over five days.

The Games thereafter were generally held every four years or once every “Olympiad” (as the unit of time-period came to be known), with a few exceptions, commencing on the first full moon after the summer solstice – that is in July or August. The term “Olympiad” was used as a means of date determination and reference throughout Greece.  The ancient Olympic Games came to an end when Emperor Theodusius stopped the Games in 391 AD.

The concept of the Olympic Games developed as a means through which residents of the city could feel involved in the Games even if they could not witness them in the stadium, particularly women who were banned from watching the Games.

An interesting feature of these Games was that, when these Games were held, an “Olympic Truce” or “Sacred Truce” was agreed upon by all participating countries, which enabled participants to travel without fear even through enemy States and all war activities stopped during the period the Games were held. The territory around Elis (in Olympia) was declared sacrosanct.

 Athletes and their relatives and any other persons who wanted to watch the spectacle which the Games offered could travel to Olympia in safety. The Sacred Truce was meticulously adhered to by all cities and its violation meant disqualification from the Games.

The popularity of the Games was so immense that athletes and spectators came from all parts of the ancient Greek world including the most distant and remote colonies.

Laurel leaf wreaths were given as recognition to the victors who were honoured, their feats mentioned in chronicles and their statues carved for posterity. Poets were commissioned to write verse and prose in honour of the victors. Also, winners were awarded olive leafs and huge sums of money.

A huge statue of Zeus, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, presided over the Games which has now been lost in History, with the passage of time. The statue which was over 13 meters tall was made by the Greek sculptor Phidias and was made of gold and ivory and was placed in one of the largest temples of Ancient Greece, built by the renowned Greek architect Libon.

The Games provided an opportunity for forging political alliances between the City States, religious, artistic and cultural inter-actions/events and all-round festivities and worship and tributes to Zeus and other lesser Gods.

Most of the early sporting events were foot races. Only free men, who spoke Greek, could participate in the events. Nevertheless, before the Olympic competitions would commence, young women aspiring to serve as priestesses in the temples of Hera, Zeus’ wife, competed in foot races, with the privilege of serving Hera going to the winners.

Afterwards, the foot races for women were declared an official event, when women took part in the Heraea Games held in the 6th century B.C. Also, in the Games of 396 BC and 392 BC, the horses of a Spartan Princess named Cynisca won her the four-horse race. She is the first woman to be listed as an Olympic Games winner.  Even Nero, the much hated Emperor of Rome is said to have won a ten-horse chariot race in fair competition.

Gradually, more sporting events were added to the Ancient Olympic Games viz., the Diaulos (Two stadium race), the dolichos (another foot race), the hoplitodromos (or the Hoplite Race), pygmel pygmacia, (Boxing), Pale (Wrestling), chariot racing, long jump, javelin throw, discus throw etc. were introduced.

 Some of the Games like, Boxing, chariot racing, running the races in full or partial armour, were brutal spectacles and on quite a few occasions resulted in grievous injuries/fatalities.

There was a strange rule in Boxing, where bouts would continue till one combatant surrendered or died. A death resulted in the dead boxer being declared the winner. Perhaps, this rule had been incorporated, to protect the combatant’s lives.

Olympic Games on Greek coins:

In the Roman Period/Age of Greek Coinage, the Olympic Games and the Pythian Games were instituted all over the Greek world.

More than a hundred city-states celebrated the introduction of the newly instituted games with coins and it is believed that at least 3000 different coins were minted to commemorate the Olympic Games.

Originally, the Greek coins honoured the patron gods & goddesses of Greek cities – Apollo and Athena. The coin designs were based upon various events that athletes could compete in and depicted Olympians taking part in various sports. The coins reveal interesting facts about the ancient games, for example athletes are depicted in the nude which is how the participants in the early Olympics took part.
 These coins were usually struck on the occasion of the victory of a King/ruler at the Olympic Games or to celebrate the inclusion of new sporting events in the Games.

The first Olympic coinage was typical of the Classical period and here was prolific coinage commemorating the Olympic games during the Roman period when the number of games increased substantially in the Greek part of the empire.

Of the four important places/sanctuaries which hosted the Games in the Classical period – Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea and Olympia, only Olympia issued commemorative coins in various denominations – staters, drachms, hemidrachms, obols etc. at the time of when the Games were held there.

A usual practice was to mention the name of the Games after the name of the city on the coins commemorating the Olympic Games. Some of these coins depict athletes during the sortition (meaning “casting or drawing of lots”), before the Games started, or when they were crowned as victors, but only sometimes the athletes are shown in action.

 Greek coins usually depicted a God or Goddess on the obverse while in the Hellenistic and Roman period/Age of Greek coinage portraits of Kings and emperors replaced them, however on the reverse, many motifs were generally engraved.  Nevertheless, on seeing the popularity of the sporting events in the Ancient Olympic Games, several themes connected with these sports also figured on these coins.

 Some popular representations on Olympic coins were prizes, crowns, palm branches, amphoras, tripods and even bags of money kept on a table, much like the trophies/shields which are displayed at present day sporting events.
  Image of table displaying prizes for winners including amphoras, bags of money etc.

The coins of Aspendos and Selge showed a wrestling match like the Bronze coin given below.

                     An image of wrestling match engraved on a coin
The Hoplitodromos was the hoplite race which was a 2-4 stadia race where the athletes competed in full copper armour i.e. helmet, shin protection and shield. 25 such shields of the same weight were kept in the temple of Zeus in Olympia which were given to athletes so as to ensure that the competition was contested on equal terms.
 An image of a coin showing a participant in a Hoplitodromos (hoplite race) in full armour, carrying a shield.
             An image of a discus thrower represented on a coin

      Image of a Synoris (chariot drawn by two horses) on a gold coin
                Image of an Apene (chariot drawn by two mules) on a coin

The Chariot races were one of the most popular events. There were various chariot events: “Tethrippon” (chariot drawn by four horses), “Synoris” (chariot drawn by two horses), “Apene” (chariot drawn by two mules), “Tethrippon for foals” (chariot drawn by four foals) and “Synoris for foals” (chariot drawn by two foals).

An image of a Keles display (horse-riding on fully grown horse) on a coin
Horse riding was considered to be an aristocratic competition in character. The horse owners were rich and noble families who could breed horses. Equestrian events included “Keles” (horse riding on fully grown horses) introduced in the Olympic Games in 648 BC for the first time. The horse rider was required to race his mount for six laps of the Hippodrome, “Kalpe” (which was a race for mares) in which in the final lap, the rider had to get off the mare and run along with it to the finish line and a race for foals which was introduced in 256 BC.

The above is an image of a silver Stater from Elis, Olympia (420 BC) showing on the Obverse a portrait of Hera wife of Zeus, King of the Gods, wearing a ornamented wreath with palmettes and tendrils facing right. On the Reverse, this coin shows a winged thunderbolt within an olive wreath. On either side of the thunderbolt are the letters F & A.
(This coin was issued during the 90th Olympiad).
 The above is an image of a silver Stater from Elis, Olympia (408 BC) showing on the Obverse an Eagle’s head facing left, below which placed a poplar leaf. On the Reverse, this coin shows a winged thunderbolt within an olive wreath. On either side of the thunderbolt are the letters F & A.

(This coin was issued during the 93rd Olympiad)

Among the best known coins are those celebrating the victories of the Sicilian tyrants in the Olympic quadriga races. 
 Syracusan coins had developed a high standard of uniformity in their strikes/imprints – most coins featured on one side the head of the nymph Arethusa and on the other a victorious “quadriga” as the Syracusans were frequent winners in this event (a “quadriga” is a chariot drawn by four horses abreast, the Roman equivalent to the Ancient Greek “tethrippon”, which was raced in the Ancient Olympic Games and other contests).

A Syracusan Tetradrachm coin (415-405 BC). The Obverse shows the head of the nymph Arethusa surrounded by four dolphins and a rudder, while the Reverse shows a four horse racing quadriga, its charioteer crowned by the goddess Victory who is in flight. (In the later Roman coins, a similar image of the Goddess Victory was called Nike).

The coins of Philip of Macedonia celebrate his victory in the category of horse with rider (356 BC) and two horse chariot racing (352 BC). Both coins have the name of the King on the obverse.

The two-horse Philip’s victorious chariot is being guided by the goddess Victory (Nike on Roman coins) which symbolises Philip’s victory not only in the Olympic Games held at Olympia but also those on the battle-field.

Athena and Phoebus

Athena and Phoebus (Apollo) were two of the most important Gods of the Greek Dodecatheon (meaning “the twelve Olympian Gods”) and they held a prominent place in the religious consciousness of the ancient Greeks and their qualities embodied all that is  considered spiritual and moral by the Greek civilization. Their lives and myths have inspired Artists of Ancient Greece to portray them on statues, pots, vases and artifacts in addition to depicting them on coins.

Interestingly, in the modern Summer Olympic Games held at Athens in 2004, the mascots chosen were Athena (the goddess of wisdom) and Phoevos (or “Phoebus” or “Apollo”, (the god of the sun and music). The two mascots were twins and symbolised brotherhood among all participants in the Games. The blue and orange colours of the mascots represented the Greek sea and sun. The mascots represented a link between Greek antiquity and the modern Olympic Games.

      The mascots of the Athens Olympics 2004 - Athena & Phevos.
The mascots were in the style of two modern children resembling ancient Greek dolls. The mascots were based on an archaic terracotta “diadala” (a statue in the nature of a religious artefact) at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.


  1. Anand Varma has commented:
    "Greece had a great civilisation. Interesting information about world history through your study about coins of different countries".

    1. Thank you for the encouragement, Anand.

  2. Ramchandra Lalingkar has commented:
    "Very interesting information about "Olympic Games'' being held and its origin. I was amused to see the coins, especially the one over which 'Wrestling match' has been shown and the wrestlers are shown naked".

    1. Quite a few of the races in the ancient Olympics were conducted without any clothes on, except for some foot races, where the participants had to wear full armour & carry a shield or in Boxing, chariot racing, where full or partial armour was worn. That is why only a few coins like the wrestling coin were made, while the others depicted items like the prizes, chariot races etc.