Græske mønter fra Failaka


  • Otto Mørkholm


Greek coin, Failaka, græsk mønt, Hellenistic, hellenistisk, møntskat, hoard of coins, tetradrachmas, tetradrachm, Antiochus III


Greek Coins from Failaka

Among the many important discoveries which made the excavations on Failaka in 1960 so noteworthy was a hoard of coins from Hellenistic times. A hoard of coins! The phrase tempts the mind with visions of the Arabian Nights and all the riches of the Orient. And even though this board comprises but a modest portion of these riches, it is well worth while to look more closely at them. The object of the lines that follow is to describe and date the coins, so that their happy discoverers, the archeologists, may use them to date the various buildings within the Greek colony of Ikaros which they have dug forth from oblivion. It would be natural, in addition, to add a few remarks on the significance of the coins for our understanding of the politics and economics of this part of the world in the Hellenistic Period.

One fine day in March 1960 a parcel arrived at the Royal Coin and Medal Collection in Copenhagen, bearing exotic stamps and superscriptions, and coming from Kuwait. Opened, it turned out to contain a mysterious lump of metal (Fig. 2). It could be seen that it was composed of coins, and their weight and size made it fairly certain that they were of Hellenistic date. Apart from that, imagination could be allowed full play. After being treated by the experts of the Conservation Department of the National Museum the coin­hoard now appears as shown in Fig. 3. There is some slight difference. It occasioned some immediate disappointment that no less than 12 of the 13 silver tetradrachmas into which the lump of metal had resolved were of the same type. But just this circumstance will be seen to be of especial importance.

The dating of the hoard is dependent upon the one outsider in the collection. Fig. 3, no. 1 can be said with certainty to have been minted by the Syrian king Antiochus III, who ruled the Seleucid Empire from 223 to 187 BC. We can come even closer. The portrait of the monarch on the obverse shows Antiochus III as a very young man, and our knowledge of the development of his portraiture allows us to place this coin in the beginning of his reign, to about 223---212 BC. On the reverse is a picture of the god Apollo, the ancestor and patron god of the Seleucid dynasty. He is seated upon his holy omphalos and is regarding an arrow which he holds in his right hand. His left hand is resting upon a bow. To either side of the god is the name of the king: BAΣIΛΕΩΣ ANTIOXOY, while at the extreme right and left has been placed a monogram of the minters responsible for the striking of the coin. The style in general suggests one of the eastern mints of the Empire, and the monograms point to Susa, which is also, as it happens, the Seleucid mint which lies closest to the place of discovery, Ikaros/Failaka. The coin is still in such excellent preservation that it can hardly have been in circulation for very many years. If we therefore date its burial, and with it that of the whole hoard, to about 210-200 BC, we shall certainly not be far from the truth.

The remaining twelve coins (Fig. 3, nos. 2-13) must be approximately contemporary with the Seleucid coin, as they are just as well preserved as it. On the obverse there is a representation of the hero Herakles, bearing the lion skin which he wore after his victory over the Nemean lion. On the reverse Olympian Zeus is enthroned, bearing on his out­stretched right hand his sacred bird, the eagle. In his left hand he holds a long sceptre. Behind the enthroned figure can be seen the Greek inscription: AΛΕΞANΔPOY in somewhat barbarianized characters, and before it has been placed a minter's mark in the form of a W. The coins were therefore minted in the name of Alexander the Great, even though there must have been an interval of about a hundred years between his death in 323 BC and the date of their striking.

A comparison with a coin from the time of Alexander (Fig. 4) also shows that much water must have flowed through the Persian Gulf since his time. The coins from Failaka are in every respect barbaric in style. This can perhaps be seen most clearly in the strangely distorted seated figure on the reverse of the coins, but the representation of the head of Herakles on Fig. 3, nos. 12-13 must also cause any philhellene to shudder. Moreover the die-cutters were clearly not entirely sure of their Greek script, as there is in the inscriptions a happy Jack of precision in the use of the letters A, Λ and Δ. The letter P is more often written as Ϙ.

It will perhaps appear remarkable that at this period the coin-types and name of Alexander the Great were still used on the coins, but the explanation is not far to seek. A consequence of Alexander's enormous minting of gold and silver coins of very high quality was that his coins were for several hundred years the favourite medium of payment in international trade, as innumerable hoards from almost all parts of the Greek world bear witness. In the third and second centuries BC they were therefore imitated in many places in the Greek world by cities, which wished to secure for their coinage the good-will which had attached itself to this design.

Where, then, can it be supposed that the barbarianized Failaka coins originate? Exactly similar coins, of unknown place of discovery, have previously been ascribed to the Danubian area, where Celtic tribes very frequently imitated the coins of the Macedonian kings 1). However, in 1951 two specimens of our type were discovered in a hoard at Gordion in Phrygia, which can be dated to about 210 BC. The publisher of this discovery rightly points out that the prototype for the barbarianized Alexander-coins must be looked for in the East, and proposes the Galatians, a Celtic people which emigrated in the middle of the third century BC from Europe to central Asia Minor, as the originators of the minting of these coins 2). The discovery on Failaka, however, forces us to seek their origin even further to the east. A closer examination of the hoard shows that no less than 8 of the 12 Alexander-coins have been struck with the same obverse die (Fig. 3, nos. 2-9), and that the same reverse die also occurs in several cases (Fig. 3, nos. 3-5, nos. 6-7, nos. 8-9). Such a concentration of dies in a single hoard normally means that the coins have gone by a fairly direct route from the mint to the place of burial without having been in circulation in the interim. It indicates, too, that the place and time of burial is not far removed from the place and time of minting, even though there can naturally be no certainty on this point. The problem is thus to find a locality in the East which lies outside the frontiers of the Hellenistic kingdoms (where, of course, coins were struck in the name of the reigning king) but which at the same time was so closely associated with the Greek world as to make it reasonable to expect an "á la grecque" minting there. It should moreover lie on one of the main trade-routes in that area, for without trade there would be no coins. It would be tempting to indicate Failaka itself as the location of the mint, but an argument against this identification is the fact that Failaka appears precisely at this period to have been under Seleucid rule, as appears from the inscription also discovered in 1960 (see p. 194 ff.). Another hypothesis is attractive. The leading trading people in eastern Arabia at this time were the Gerrhaeans, an Arab tribe whose capital, Gerrha, lay on the Arabian mainland just opposite Bahrain. From the geographer Strabo 3), who lived in the time of Augustus but who used earlier, Hellenistic source-material, we know that this people made enormous incomes by trading the precious wares of Arabia and India, in particular spices, and we learn in addition that their trade-route ran from Gerrha to the mouth of the Euphrates and the Tigris (in other words immediately by Failaka), and on up these rivers to the large cities of Seleucia and Susa. From there the enterprising traders proceeded along the upper course of the rivers and on by the ancient caravan routes to the coast of Syria and Phoenicia. They even reached as far as Delos in the Aegean Sea, as is shown by inscriptions on this island from the middle of the second century BC4). In this connection it is worthy of note that Antiochus III felt it necessary in 205 BC to make a large-scale military demonstration against the Gerrhaeans, with the object of securing for himself a reasonable proportion of their trade 5). There is no suggestion, however, of a subjection of their territory, and peace appears to have been speedily reestablished. It is tempting to see a connection of some sort between the burial of the treasure on Failaka and this campaign. But however this may be, it can be said that there is a reasonable probability that the barbarianized Alexander-coins in the Failaka hoard originated in Gerrha. This is, however, only a hypothesis, which must naturally be taken up for reconsideration, if new material comes to light.

Apart from this hoard, the excavations at Failaka have already produced in 1958 and 1959 some few coins found singly. Three of these are Seleucid copper coins from Susa or Seleucia on the Tigris. One was struck by Seleucus I in the name of Alexander the Great about 310-300 BC 6), while the other two belong to the reign of Antiochus III, 223-187 BC, and are thus approximately contemporary with the hoard 7). Few as they are, these coins provide an excellent illustration of Failaka's close economic connections with the large cities of the eastern provinces of the Seleucid Empire. Connections to the southward are illustrated by a modest little silver coin, a so-called drachma (Fig. 5, no. 1). For this can be attributed to the Minaeans, an Arab tribe which lived in south Arabia a few hundred miles north of the Aden area.

This coin is of particular interest on account of its great rarity. This minting was previously only known from a single tetradrachma in Aberdeen, which is identical in all details, and is illustrated in Fig. 5, no. 2. It is again an imitation of Alexander the Great's types, but the Greek inscription has here been replaced by the royal name Abyatha, written in Old Arabian script. We know nothing of the reign of this Abyatha, but for stylistic reasons one would be inclined to date these two coins to about 150 BC. The style is moreover considerably more Greek than that of the imitations of Alexander's coins in the Failaka hoard, which is about 60 years older, so that the latter cannot have served as prototypes for the Minaean die-cutters. Their inspiration came undoubtedly from the Greek imitations of Alexander's coins produced in Asia Minor and Phoenicia, as these have the same broad and comparatively thin form.

As can thus be seen, the Danish excavations on Failaka have, through the coins they have discovered, also contributed significant material for the understanding of the importance of the island in Hellenistic times. And there is every reason to believe that continued excavation will increase very considerably our knowledge of the history of this area. We await with excitement the results of future years' campaigns.


Otto Mørkholm.





Mørkholm, O. (1960). Græske mønter fra Failaka. Kuml, 10(10), 199–207. Hentet fra