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Home to Homer

"It’s for each of us to decide whether to believe in one Homer or in many, in a blind bard or in a spirit that encapsulates the most astonishing process of preservation of stories told long ago."
-Daisy Dunn, The British Museum Blog, January 22, 2020 

"Ulysses and the Sirens" by Herbert James Draper (1863–1920) circa 1909, oil on canvas, image Public Domain via Wikipedia

My coin of interest today features Homer, legendary author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, on the reverse. I will not attempt to review in depth the myth of Homer. Here is a high level summary of the path of the mythical artist:

"Homer is the best of poets, a sacred figure, who is reduced to wandering and beggary. He is marginal, blind. He suffers inhospitality where he had expected support; offending a powerful political figure, he is exiled by a political meeting; he curses the town prophetically, so that they are afflicted with poetic sterility from that time on. He looks on the god who inspired him as his persecutor. The Muses set up his death after he fails to understand a riddle. He then receives hero cult."

The ancient coin

Ionia, Smyrna, AE 22mm, circa 125-115 BC, Apollodoros, magistrate

Obv: Laureate head of Apollo right

Rev: ΣΜΥΡΝΑΙΩΝ / ΑΠΟΛΛΟΔΩΡΟΣ, Homer, left hand lying on knees holding a closed scroll, a staff or scepter at his side. right hand supporting chin, seated left on plinth, left foot forward, right drawn back, himation (a Greek cloak or shawl) passing under right and over left shoulder.

Size: 21mm, 9.1g

Ref: SNG Copenhagen 1147

The coin a testament to the status of Homer in Smyrna, one of the towns that claims him as a citizen. Although this coin doesn't mention "Homer" in the legends, there are coins that do such as these two from Chios:

See Esdaile (1912) for additional examples.

According to a biography by Herodotus, Homer left Smyrna for lack of means to support himself:

"But when he came to Colophon, it happened that his eye ailment recurred, and he could not get rid of it but became blind there. From Colophon, as a blind man, he went to Smyrna, and in these circumstances he began to essay poetry. Some time later, finding himself short of the means of livelihood in Smyrna, he decided to go to Cyme."
- Pseudo-Herodotus, Lives of Homer 2. On Homer's Origins, Date, and Life, p.363

He was first called Melesigenes or Melesagoras and took his second name from the Greek word homēroi which means "hostage" and can also be "blind" in the dialect of Cyme. A judge in Cyme refused public support for Homer on the grounds that "if they decided to provide for homēroi, they would have a large, useless crowd on their hands".

"It was from then that the name Homer prevailed for Melesigenes, from his disability, for the Cymaeans call the blind homēroi; so that whereas he had previously been called Melesigenes, this became his name, Homer, and people from elsewhere disseminated it."
- Pseudo-Herodotus, Lives of Homer 2. On Homer's Origins, Date, and Life, p.367

Aeolis, Kyme, circa 250-200 BC, Æ Obol (19mm, 6.54 g, 12h), Pythion, magistrate

Obv: Head of Kyme right

Rev: Horse right, foreleg raised; one-handled cup (oinochoe) below raised foreleg; ΠΥΘΙΩΝ in exergue

Ref: SNG Ashmolean 1386-9; SNG Copenhagen 101

Notes: for more on this coin see "Amazon Kyme"

Relevant to my coin of interest, Strabo describes that Smyrna claimed to be the birthplace of Homer, and had a shrine to him, as well as a bronze coin that they call a "Homereium". The statue shown on the reverse of the coin from Smyrna potentially shows the cult statue referenced here.

"There is also a library; and the Homereium, a quadrangular portico containing a shrine and wooden statue​ of Homer; for the Smyrnaeans also lay especial claim to the poet; and indeed a bronze coin of theirs is called Homereium."
-Strabo, Geographia, XIV.1.37 

The British Museum has a relief of the "Apotheosis of Homer with Zeus, Apollo and the Muses" from late 3rd Century Egypt which shows Homer seated in a similar position. Strabo describes other cities as having a claim on Homer. Cicero reinforces this:

"Colophon asserts that Homer is her citizen, Chios claims him for her own, Salamis appropriates him, while Smyrna is so confident that he belongs to her that she has even dedicated a shrine to him in her town; and many other cities besides engage in mutual strife for his possession."
-Cicero, Pro Archia Poeta, p.27

Where is Smyrna?

Strabo, in his Geography, tells us that after Chytrium you come to the gulf which was the old Smyrna. This is twenty stadia from the city of Smyrna as it is known in Strabo's time. It is a city that he he calls "most beautiful of all" with good straight stone paved streets, with large quadrangular porticos, the harbor, mountains, and the River Meles flowing near the walls of the city.

Lydia, circa 50 AD, by Caliniuc, used under license CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This coin also provides an illuminating example of ancient coin pricing. Here are the four of this exact coin (same magistrate) that can be found in ACSearch.

Condition is a big factor in the price - the coin with the most detail is many times ($1806) the most damaged ($28). Doing a search for "Smyrna Homer" gives a longer list with many coins falling between $200 and $400. With each coin unique in artistry, condition, patina, and wear. A coin that appeals to a very small number of buyers can vary a lot in price when the right two or more people are in the bidding.

For me the artistry of the obverse portrait of Apollo on this coin is exceptional and overall a coin from Smyrna depicting Homer is an artifact from the late 2nd century BC that I am pleased to add to my collection.


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