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A Litra from Akragas

"Good things come in small packages" - this is certainly the thought I have today with this 0.56 gram coin. Although unusual for Greek coins, sometimes we do have a clue on the coin about the denomination. On this coin, we can read the ΛI on the reverse, below the crab. This mark of value - LI for litra gives clear confirmation that this is NOT an Attic standard obol. On some of these coins there is an additional letter: ΛIT.

The philosopher, Empedocles, was born in Akragas circa 495 BC, and would have been alive at the time that this coin was minted. He is credited with the theory that all things are made of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Amongst conflicting sources for his death is a story that he jumped into the volcano Etna to prove that he was a god...ooops. [See: Dogenes life of Empedocles]

Sicily, Akragas (Agrigentum), circa 450-440 BC, AR litra, (10 mm, 0.56g, 3h). Obv: ΑΚ - RΑ, eagle, with closed wings, standing left on Ionic column capital with large volutes, dots at center of volutes Rev: ΛΙ Crab Ref: HGC 2, 121. Westermark 455-504 (dies appear to be O21/R20 see image below) I was pleasantly surprised to find the full book online from Ulla Westermark, "The Coinage of Akragas c. 510–406 BC" (Vol 1. Text & Plates, Vol 2. Catalog). After staring intently at the small images from the plates, my best guess is dies O21/R20 match my coin. My coin has volutes on the capital (O20-O25) so it falls in this range of 478.1-486.1 and the description for O21 seems right "thick capital, volutes with dots":

Some notes from the paper on this eagle and crab:

"Dr. Carl Edelstam, Museum of Natural History, Stockholm, whom I consulted long ago, was convinced that the eagles on the coins of Akragas, which are best executed with characteristic details and therefore possible to identify, are sea-eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla). The large size of the beak, the rich feathering of the upper part of the legs and the bare lower part are typical features for these species. The sea-eagles catch preys from both land and sea, or as Aristotle (HA VII.3, 593b25) puts it ‘the crook-taloned birds take any other animal that they can overcome including birds, except that they do not eat each other…’" -Westermark, Vol 1 p. 20 "The crab on the coins of Akragas has long been recognized as a freshwater species. Dr. R. W. Ingle, Museum of Natural History, London, who – many years ago – examined a large selection of photographs of coins from Akragas found that the majority of the crabs belong to different species of the Potamonidae family (the most common being Potamon fluviatile fluviatile occuring in Italy, Greece and the Balkans)." -Westermark, Vol 1 p. 29 The interpretation of the crab type is uncertain with an interesting discussion of whether or not it might be a representation of a "river god" or perhaps Apollo. Kos, Islands off Caria, is another city that used a crab on coins for a long time and dating earlier than the coins of Akragas, and perhaps this suggest a link with the inhabitants of these two cities. Here's a beautiful example from a CNG auction (not my coin), Islands off Caria, Kos, circa 500-480 BC, AR Hemiobol (8mm, 0.57 g):

This next coin is an early Akragas experiment in bronze coinage, a fairly crude but interesting coin, also described by Westermark, and from the same rough time period as the litra.

Sicily, Akragas, circa 450-440 BC, cast AE Trias or Tetras, 16.08g

Obv: Eagle standing left

Rev: Crab; on base, four pellets (mark of value)

An story is told in Ancient Greece in Sicily – Akragas (Agrigento) of the bronze bull built for Tyrant Phalaris by Perillos of Athens in the first half of the 6th century BC. A person would be put inside the bull, and a fire lit underneath to hear the screams of the tortured prisoner as the bellowing of a bull....Akragas was sacked in 405 BC by Carthage, and the bull taken. The bull was an idea that would resurface again.

Perillos forced into the brazen bull that he built for Phalaris, Pierre Woeiriot, circa AD 1556, engraving, Public Domain

Overall an interesting, small coin, unusually well engraved and in good condition, unusually, bearing the name of the denomination: litra (NOT obol), from a city with interesting and sometimes gruesome history.

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Alfred Kowsky
Alfred Kowsky
Jul 16, 2021

Amazing engraving for such a tiny coin 🤤!

Jul 17, 2021
Replying to

Thanks, Al, my thought as well - amazing artistry and technology >2400 years ago.

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