The Gift of Dionysus

Greek Wine on Ancient Coins

Triobol from Korkyra (Illyria)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Wine makes the coins jingle

Wine and money - the two belonged together for the people of ancient Greece. Images of grapes and drinking vessels or of the god of wine Dionysus and his followers on coins show the importance of wine for the prosperity and self-image of several Greek cities. Each coin is in itself a small work of art, which shows us the attention to detail, appreciation for beauty, and sense of humor of the ancient coin die cutters…

Triobol from Maroneia (Thrace)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Wine cultivation and the trade in wine were important economic factors in many regions, for example Sicily, Corfu, and the islands on the Aegean Sea as well as in Macedonia and Thrace in the southern Balkans.

Lekythos (525–500 BC)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Dionysus - god of wine and intoxication

The god Dionysus was especially venerated wherever wine was cultivated. People not only hoped for a good grape harvest, but as the god of intoxication he was also responsible for the consequences of wine consumption: debauchery and the transgression of boundaries, wantonness, and lust for life.

Mask of Dionysos (450–400 B.C.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

As the god of wine, he was depicted on coins from numerous cities. 

Hemidrachm from Thasos (Thrace) Hemidrachm from Thasos (Thrace) (after 280 B.C.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

The various representations of Dionysus from the 6th to the 2nd century BC clearly illustrate how the image people had of him changed over time:

Drachm from Naxos (Sicily) Drachm from Naxos (Sicily) (530–490 B.C.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Faces of Dionysius

The oldest coin bearing an image of the god of wine was minted in the Greek colony of Naxos in Sicily in 530 BC. 

According to the fashion of the period, Dionysus is depicted with a full pointed beard and long curly hair. 

The wreath of ivy vines, supposed to cool the intoxicated head, is his typical attribute.

Stater from Thebes (Boeotia)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Wild, lustful, sinister

A hundred years later, Dionysus appeared on coins in the city of Thebes in Boeotia. The god was worshipped here as the son of Semele, the Theban king’s daughter. 

His depiction with wild hair and unkempt beard indicates his dissolute and impulsive nature and association with the natural world …

Tetradrachm from Maroneia (Thrace) Tetradrachm from Maroneia (Thrace) (168–80/79 B.C.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Young and beautiful

...while in Hellenistic times, in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, Dionysus was depicted as a young man,...

...radiating an almost feminine beauty with his long curls.

The drunken and intoxicated nature of the god is barely discernible.

KylixLandesmuseum Württemberg

Drunk and in frenzy

The consequences of wine consumption, such as lack of inhibitions and ecstasy, can also be observed in the followers of Dionysus. 

Grotesque mythological figures, known as satyrs, as well as frenzied maenads or graceful nymphs perform wild dances and give free rein to their sexual desires. 

Stater from Thrace ("Lete"-Type) Stater from Thrace ("Lete"-Type) (530–480 B.C.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

The wine-filled followers of Dionysus were often depicted in lively scenes, not only in ceramic art but also on coins.

Trihemiobol from Thasos (Thrace) Trihemiobol from Thasos (Thrace) (411–350 B.C.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

The Satyr

A tiny silver coin from the Thracian island of Thasos shows in great detail a running or dancing satyr holding a drinking cup, a kantharos. The flabby-bellied, bald-headed old man is deliberately drawn in a ridiculous manner. Animal attributes such as his horse's tail identify him as a libidinous nature spirit.

Stater from Thasos (Thrace) Stater from Thasos (Thrace) (460–425 B.C.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

This stater, depicting the abduction of a nymph, was also minted in Thasos. Thrace, rich in forests and vineyards in the north of the Aegean, was considered by the Greeks to be the home and playground of the followers of Dionysus.

Drachm from Thebes (Boeotia)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Costly wine vessels on coins

Vessels for drinking, transporting, and mixing wine were a popular motif on the silver coins of the Greek city of Thebes in the 5th century BC. The city saw itself as being associated with the drink of Dionysus for reasons that had more to do mythology than economics: the Thebans considered the wine god to be a son of their royal house.

Stater from Thebes (Boeotia)Landesmuseum Württemberg

The volute crater, an impressive mixing vessel for water and wine, was the only pictorial theme on the reverse of Theban staters in the 4th century BC. The makers of the coin dies executed the fine curved handles as well as details of the decoration with great artistic skill.

Stater from Thebes (Boeotia), Reverse, From the collection of: Landesmuseum Württemberg
Volute krater from Derveni, 4th century B.C., Original Source: Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki
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These coins did not depict a clay vessel but a valuable object made of metal. The similarity between the material of the object bearing the image and the motif portrayed in the image was perhaps intentional. In the Late Classical period, the volute krater had lost its original function and was used primarily as a grave good or for votive offerings  or as a symbol for the god Dionysus.

Cistophorus from Pergamon (Mysia)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Enigmatic basket-bearers

The cult of Dionysus found a particularly symbol-laden expression on coins from the kingdom of Pergamon in the 2nd century BC. So-called cistophori, literally "basket-bearers", show the god in the form of a serpent crawling out of a basket surrounded by an ivy wreath on the obverse.
The Greek god of wine is here represented in an Asian-influenced cult tradition.

Cistophorus of M. Antonius Cistophorus of M. Antonius (39 B.C.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

The New Dionysus

The Roman general Mark Antony used the symbolism of these cistophori for his self-portrayal as the “new Dionysus”. 

Marc Antony in Ephesos (1741) by Charles-Joseph NatoireOriginal Source: Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures / Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nîmes

Disguised as Dionysus, he is said to have celebrated lavish parties with his mistress Cleopatra in Alexandria.

His dissolute “Dionysian” character seems not to have merely been a product of malicious slander from a more sober Rome.

Greek coins forming a bunch of grapesLandesmuseum Württemberg

Little ambassadors

Wine, as well as Dionysus and his followers, were depicted on coins in ancient Greece especially from the 6th to the 2nd century BC. As a means of payment, these coins traveled from hand to hand, their pictorial motifs seen by many eyes and associated with the places where they were minted - even today.

These small objects communicate vivid images from the imaginations of the people of ancient Greece across the millennia.

Credits: Story

Concept & Texts: Sonja Kitzberger
Editorial Work & Realization: Anna Gnyp
English Translation: Sharon Adams

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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