PHOKIS. Delphi. Circa 485-475 BC. Tridrachm (Silver, 28 mm, 18.65 g), Aeginetic standard. ΔAΛΦ[I]KON Two rhyta in the form of ram's heads; above, two dolphins swimming towards each other. Rev. Quadripartite incuse square in the form of a coffered temple-ceiling, divided by four deep punches forming a cross; each coffer decorated with a laurel spray and a dolphin swimming towards the center of the reverse. Asyut 239-245 var. (differing reverse). BCD Lokris 376 var. (differing reverse). HGC 4, 1116 var. (differing reverse). Svoronos, Delphi, pl. XXV, 3-4 var. (differing reverse). Extremely rare, one of apparently just fifteen known tridrachms from Delphi. Boldly struck in high relief, and with an exceptionally deep and sharp punch on the reverse. A hitherto unpublished variety and hence of great importance. Light die wear on the obverse and with the usual small die breaks and a test cut, otherwise, extremely fine.
From a European collection, formed before 2005.
The Delphian tridrachms are unquestionably among the most prestigious and mysterious coins issued in ancient Greece. Although surely dating to the period of the Greco-Persian Wars, we actually know little about their specific historic background. The most common suggestion is that the rhyta on the obverse are a reference to the capture of the Persian treasury in the Battle of Plataia in 479, which propagated the use of these eastern drinking horns in mainland Greece, and that the coins may even have been struck from the looted Persian silver. However, such a connection is far from being certain, and the coins themselves - our only source - have more interesting iconography to offer. First, the small dolphins above the rhyta are surely a reference to Apollo, who could appear in the form of a dolphin, but they also serve as a pun on the name of the sanctuary. Furthermore, the incusa on the reverses show a very unusual design believed to depict the coffered ceiling of a temple, no doubt that of the Delphian Apollo. The coffers themselves are decorated with small dolphins jumping over small laurel sprays, the latter perhaps referring to a military victory such as the Battle of Plataia. It is worth noting that our example reveals a hitherto unknown reverse variety, showing the coffers of the ceiling divided by incuse cuneate punches rather than by raised lines. Whether this was an intended variety or simply a new interpretation of the motive by a different artist is unclear, but the frequent die breaks in the coffers of almost all coins - including this one - bear witness to the technical difficulties originating from the innovative high relief design of the dies.
It is remarkable that all the recorded find spots of Delphian tridrachms are in Egypt, which, together with the use of the unusual denomination and weight standard, indicates that the issue was perhaps struck specifically for export. In this context, Herodot's note that Amasis II (570-526 BC), the Pharaoh of Egypt, contributed 1000 talents of alum to the reconstruction of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi after a great fire (Hdt. 8.180) is of particular interest, as the alum was likely used in the mixing of paints. These would be used to decorate, among other things, the ceiling of the temple, and its rendering on the reverse of the Delphian tridrachms may thus have served to flatter the intended recipients by referring to the earlier generosity of an Egyptian pharaoh. If this is true, the proposed connection to the Battle of Plataia becomes far less convincing, as Egypt had long become a Persian satrapy at the time the coins were issued, with the Persian Great King now acting as the pharaoh of the land on the Nile. In conclusion, the enigmatic Delphian tridrachms still leave much room for speculation and we may perhaps never know for certain what prompted the sanctuary to strike them. What thankfully remains are these magnificent pieces of early Classical art, shrouded in mystery but timelessly beautiful.
|Price realized||40'000 CHF|
|Starting price||28'000 CHF|