Thursday, 19 November 2015

The silver coins of Taras: part two

Calabria, Taras stater, 510-500 BC
Apollo Hyakinthios naked to left, hair bound with fillet, kneeling on left knee, right foot advanced, holding in right hand a hyacinth, and in left hand a tetracord chelys.
description: Michel P. Vlasto op. cit. part one


The complexities of mythology cannot be exaggerated, but whenever we have to add political and monetary history to this picture as is quite common in numismatics, it is no small wonder that the subject of numismatics can only be presented, academically, in an introductory fashion. No single work presents a complete picture of this coin, and the issues (including those of other cities) to which it is related. All I will do here, is to present samples of these very different viewpoints.

We will start with Apollo Hyakinthios: He exists only at Taras and his name is a conflation of a deity and a legendary prince. One of my favourite works on Greek mythology is the two-volume (avoid abridgements) The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. There should be little need to describe Apollo here. His main reference to Hyakinthios follows:
"There was also the case of the beautiful youth Hyacinthus, a Spartan prince, with whom not only the poet Thamyris fell in love – the first man who ever wooed one of his own sex – but Apollo himself, the first god to do so. Apollo did not find Thamyris a serious rival; having overheard his boast that he could surpass the Muses in song, he maliciously reported it to them, and they at once robbed Thamyris of his sight, his voice, and his memory for harping. But the West Wind had also taken a fancy to Hyacinthus, and became insanely jealous of Apollo, who was one day teaching the boy how to hurl a discus, when the West Wind caught it in mid-air, dashed it against Hyacinthus’s skull, and killed him. From his blood sprang the hyacinth flower, on which his initial letters are still to be traced."
Hyakinthios is also a conflation: Graves says "the mark on the Greek hyacinth concerns the Cretan Flower-hero Hyacinthus, also apparently called Narcissus." Graves continues:
"Dorian Apollo usurped Hyacinthus’s name at Tarentum, [Taras] where he had a hero tomb (Polybius: viii. 30); and at Amyclae, a Mycenaean city, another ‘tomb of Hyacinthus’ became the foundation of Apollo’s throne. Apollo was an immortal by this time, Hyacinthus reigned only for a season: his death by a discus recalls that of his nephew Acrisius."
We next must diverge slightly to the more familiar dolphin riders of Taras. John Francisco (an independent scholar and numismatist) in The Incuse Coinage of Tarentum and the Pythagorean Theme of Friendship says:
"The scene on the dolphin-rider stater is of a dolphin jumping left with a human rider on his back. The idea in antiquity of riding a dolphin was a popular one, in Herodotus, Arion the poet on his way back from Tarentum was saved by dolphins. Here though on the coin the rider was probably either the eponymous hero Taras, son of Poseidon, or Tarentum’s founder Phalanthos, who was reportedly saved by a dolphin. Aristotle (fr. 590 Rose) is the source for the former suggestion, Pausanias (X.13.10) the source for the later.
The identity whether Taras or Phalanthos (also mentioned in part one) is "time sensitive" and dependent on whether the Spartan foundation of the city or its later autonomous identity is to be emphasized. We see, also, that the story of Arion is also conflated with Phalanthos/Taras but I think that mythological "drift" rather than syncretism is the most likely reason. I have also seen the dolphin rider on the Gundestrup cauldron described as Arion, but his identity as Taras is certain. A lot of the confusion about the Gundestrup cauldron is due to a lack of mythological/iconographic knowledge (especially of the Greek), and the fact that, while made by Thracians, the artists were in Italy at the time. Its date is also wrong (it was made before 200 BC). (Hooker, forthcoming). To complicate matters even further, the tetracord chalys held by Apollo Hyakinthios is a form of lyre which uses a tortoise shell as a sound box and was also played by Arion. Lyres appear on many dolphin rider staters of different periods.

Numismatists also take into consideration the many weight standards under which Greek coins were struck and the connected political/historical  implications, there is wealth of pertinent discussion to these topics  in this discussion by "JBF" (John Francisco).

More tomorrow.


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