♥ The Ancient Origin of the Heart-Shaped Valentine ♥

This very rare coin is a silver hemidrachm struck in Cyrene (modern Libya) around 500 to 480 BC. Both sides of the coin show the now extinct* heart-shaped silphium fruit. The silphium plant, a large relative of the fennel plant, was abundant and a lucrative cash crop in ancient Cyrene, which is why it appears as the symbol of the city on its coinage.

Since it allegedly went extinct, silphium is a bit mysterious to us. We do know that it was greatly prized for its medicinal and culinary properties. It was  used as an herbal birth control method, thus forever associating the shape of its fruit with passionate love and thus, matters of the heart. Ancient writings also help tie silphium to sexuality and love. One such reference appears in Pausanias’ Description of Greece in a story of the Dioscuri staying at a house belonging to Phormion, a Spartan: “For it so happened that his maiden daughter was living in it. By the next day this maiden and all her girlish apparel had disappeared, and in the room were found images of the Dioscuri, a table, and silphium upon it.”

Pliny reported in his Natural History that the last known stalk of silphium found in Cyrene was given to the Emperor Nero “as a curiosity,” because it was nearly extinct by then.

*There is some debate about whether or not this plant is really extinct. You can read about that on the Silphium Wikipedia page.

Silver hemidrachm of the Arcadian city of Tegea.  On the obverse, Zeus Lykaios, seated, with an eagle; on the reverse, the head of the Arcadian nymph Kallisto.  Ca. 460-450 BCE.  Photo credit: Exekias/Wikimedia Commons.

Phemius, The Ithacan Poet From The Odyssey

Phemius is portrayed here on the reverse of a silver hemidrachm coin from ancient Thessaly, minted by the Ainianes. They were essentially a tribal people/state with their capital at Hypata, rather than a conventional Greek polis. The coin dates from the 360s to 650s BC. Phemius is shown nude but for a belt holding a short sword in a scabbard and a chlamys draped over his shoulders and arm. He’s hurling a javelin with his right hand and holding his petasos, as if it were a small shield, with his left.  ΑΙΝΙΑΝΩΝ is inscribed and on the ground line between his feet is a sideways Φ (=Phemios). The obverse shows the laureate and bearded head of  Zeus.

About Phemius…

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Rare Delphic Amphictyonic League Coin

This is one of of three known examples of this silver hemidrachm from the ancient city of Delphi in Phocis, Greece. It was struck circa 336-335 BC. It shows the veiled head of Demeter with a wheat wreath and one wheat ear. The reverse is a serpent coiled around a net-covered omphalos which was a sacred religious stone (or baetylus) in the shape of a navel. In Greek lore, Zeus sent two eagles across the world to meet at its center, the “navel” of the world. Omphalos stones marking the center were erected in several places around the Mediterranean Sea; the most famous of those was at Delphi.

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Rare Olympic Silver Drachm from Elis, Olympia

This is a rare Olympic coin that was used during the 132nd Olympiad in 252 BC through the 143rd Olympiad in 208 BC. The obverse shows an eagle with a hare in its talons. The reverse has a winged-thunderbolt and inscription.

The first Olympic coins were minted around 471 BC. The exact starting date of the Olympic games is not known, but written records start at 776 BC. The Olympics continued until 391 AD when the Emperor Theodosius ended the games. Of the four big sanctuaries - Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea - that hosted crown games during the Classical period, only Olympia had a regular coinage that was associated with its festival.

This coinage would serve as the only legal tender during the games. All foreign coins had to be exchanged. This exchange was done for a fee which went to pay for the upkeep of the sanctuary at Olympia. Besides being a source of income for the sanctuary, this exchange to a common currency made commerce easier as the home currencies of the various visitors were sometimes based on different weight standards. A common currency was also needed because one of the great attractions of the Olympic Festival was the vast market or fair that took place there at the same time as the games, drawing an immense audience of buyers and sellers from all over the Greek world.

The fact that there were a wide variety of denominations of Olympic coinage - staters (or didrachms), drachms, hemidrachms and obols - shows that these coins were for commerce and were not just souvenirs as was once thought.

Greek Hemidrachm issued by the tyrant Alexander, Pherae, Thessaly, c. 369-358 BC

This coin shows the youthful head of Jason wearing a petasos. On the reverse is ALEXA - NDREION on either side of a horse’s hoof and lower leg to right. An extremely rare and fine coin, the very best of few known examples, as close to perfection as any Greek coin can be.

Pherae was an ancient Greek town in southeastern Thessaly. In history, Pherae is famous as the home of the fourth-century BC tyrants Jason and his son, Alexander of Pherae, who took control of much of Thessaly before their defeat by the Thebans.

The accounts of how Alexander of Pherae came to power vary somewhat in minor points. Diodorus Siculus tells us that upon the assassination of his father, the tyrant Jason of Pherae, in 370 BC, his brother Polydorus ruled for a year, but he was then poisoned by Alexander, another brother. However, according to Xenophon, Polydorus was murdered by his brother Polyphron, who was, in turn, murdered by his nephew Alexander, son of Jason, in 369 BC. Plutarch relates that Alexander worshiped the spear he slew his uncle with as if it were a god.

Alexander’s tyranny caused the intervention of a number of city-states in Thessalian affairs. The other Thessalian cities, refusing to recognize Alexander as head magistrate, appealed to the Thebans, who sent Pelopidas to their assistance. Alexander imprisoned Pelopidas, and the Thebans had to send a large army to procure his release. In 364 Pelopidas defeated Alexander at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly. Alexander was then compelled by Thebes to acknowledge the freedom of the Thessalian cities, to limit his rule to Pherae, and to join the Boeotian League. He was murdered at his wife’s instigation in 357-356 BC. She waited until he was sleeping and then let her brothers in his chambers to assassinate him. His body was then cast into the street and ridiculed.