For about 100 years, from the late sixth century to the mid-fifth century B.C., an unusual style of coinage flourished among the most prominent cities of southern Italy. These coins had the obverse type in relief, as is common for all Greek coins, but the reverse type was an incuse version of the obverse type. This style of coinage may have appeared as early as 550 B.C. at the south Italian cities of Sybaris and Metapontum, and soon thereafter appeared at Croton, Poseidonia, Caulonia, Tarentum, Rhegium, Pyxus, and Laiis. And in 1895, Arthur Evans discovered some previously unknown incuse coins of Zancle in Sicily, just off the south Italian shore, a coinage which began c. 500 B.C.
What did this coinage look like? How was it made? And why did these cities adopt such an unusual style of coinage? These are the questions we’ll explore.
On each of these coins, the obverse is in relief and the reverse is incuse. Unlike the coins of some other Greek
marks on the reverse, the Italian cities used reverse types which were the same as the obverse types except for a few details. Usually, the name of the city appears only on the obverse, although sometimes even this is repeated on the reverse. Often, subsidiary symbols are missing from the reverse, such as the snake which appears at the feet of the tripod on the obverse of the staters from Croton.
The most unusual feature of these coins is their unusually thin and broad fabric. Clearly, this is a very different style of coinage. These coins were all minted between 550 and 440 B.C., a span of only 110 years.
How were these unusual coins made? Obviously, the minting technique differed from that of the common double-relief style of coinage. Production of the incuse coinage presented a host of problems not found elsewhere. To produce these coins, the obverse dies would be cut intaglio as usual, resulting in a raised type on the coins. Cutting the intaglio dies presented no unusual problem the same methods of die engraving were used at all other Greek mints.
However, the reverse dies had to be cut in relief to result in an incuse type on the coins. To produce the reverse die for one of the high-relief coins of Metapontum, the die-cutter would have to remove as much as four millimeters of metal all around the die, while leaving the fine details intact.
2 To make this process more practical, the relief die used for these reverses may have been made from a sunken hub.
3 The possible use of hubs in the manufacture of ancient coin dies was supported by the die-making experiments of David Sellwood.
4 But whether hubs were indeed used to produce the reverse dies for the incuse coinage continues to be the subject of debate.
5 Difficulties in hardening the hubs well enough to withstand multiple blows may have resulted in the hubs only being used once to create one die.
6 This would account for the lack of evidence for the same hub being used to produce multiple dies. If hubs were used at all, they were probably only used at Metapontum, where the high relief coinage involved more difficulties.
7 The coins of other cities, such as Caulonia and Poseidonia, were in much lower relief, making die production easier.