Coins and sport

Greek coins normally depict a god on the obverse – in the Hellenistic and Roman period replaced by a portrait of the king or emperor – but on the reverse, many motives were possible. Considering the popularity of sport and games, it does not surprise that also themes in connection with sports figured on the obverse. These coins were usually struck for the occasion of the victory of a ruler at one of the major games or to celebrate the institution of new games. The first occasion is typical of the classical period, the second of the Roman period, when the number of games increased exponentially in the Greek part of the Empire.

Among the best known coins are those celebrating the victories of Sicilian tyrants in the Olympic horse races. The obverse of the Syracusan coins depicts the city goddess Arethusa, surrounded by delphins and the inscription 'of the Syracusans'. On the obverse, there is a four-horse chariot in full gallop, above which Nike flies holding a victory crown. This scene does not depict a particular victory, but is rather a symbol for victory in general, also military (Gelon conquered the Carthaginians in 480 BC and won around the same time at Olympia).

The coins of Philip of Macedon celebrate his victory in the category of 'horse with rider' in 356 BC and with a two-horse chariot four years later. Both are depicted on coins with the name of the king. The two-horse chariot is driven by the goddess Nike, which again makes this victory at Olympia a symbol of all his victories, including those on the battle field.

In the Roman period, and in the late second and third centuries in particular, is-Olympic and iso-Pythian games were instituted all over the Greek world. More than hundred cities celebrated the introduction of new games with coins. More than 3000 different coins refer to games. Often the name of the games is mentioned after the name of the city. Some of these coins depict athletes, during the sortition before the games started, or when they were crowned, but only rarely they show athletes in action. Only on coins from Aspendos and Selge (cities in present day Turkey) we can see a wrestling match. The most popular representations are prizes, often exposed on a table: crowns, palm branches, amphoras, apples (for Pythian games), tripods and even bags with money.

© KU Leuven, 2012