Saturday, July 03, 2010


I once had a friend who would call me occasionally at work during the day and say: “What are you doing? Forget about work. Drop everything and come here.” Invariably I would stretch my imagination in order to construct some plausible pretext for leaving the office and drive off through the traffic. My friend would always be found sitting behind his desk, a book open before him, thoroughly absorbed. Upon my approach, he would look up, smile, point to where he was reading and ask: “It says in here that Greeks invented coinage. What do you think?”
That friend was Spiros Stamoulis, a man with a unique love of Greek history. Though during my wag the office sessions we would come to discuss innumerable aspects of obscure Greek history, constructing such alternative outcomes as the consequences for world history had Greece successfully fulfilled its mandate in Asia Minor in 1919, one of the questions we would always return to was whether the Greeks actually invened coinage.
Spiros Stamoulis loved to quote Aristotle, who stated that possibly the first coins were struck by Demodike of Kyme, who married Midas, the King of Pessinus. I would counter through Herodotus, in whose History it is maintained that the Lydians, an Indo-European but non-Greek people ‘were the first to coin in gold and silver.’ This however, ignores the indisputable fact that coins of that era have been totally absent from archeological finds in Sardis, the capital of Lydia. A coin, by definition, is an object used to facilitate commerce and exchanges. Lydian ‘coins’ were likely not used in commerce or industry. They were not standardized in weight and were rather used as badges, medals or ceremonial objects issued by priests. That most Lydian coins have been found, not in Lydia itself, but rather in the Greek Temple of Artemis, seems to support their striking for religious, rather than commercial uses.
Further, the most ancient inscribed coin at present known, is from nearby Caria. This coin has a Greek legend which can be translated either as "I am the badge of Phanes" or as "I am the sign of light" One assumption is that Phanes was a wealthy merchant, another that the inscribed Phanes maybe was the Halicarnassian mercenary of Amasis, mentioned by Herodotus, who escaped to the court of Cambyse, became his guide in the invasion of Egypt in the year B.C. 527 and was probably buried alive by a sandstorm, while trying to conquer the temple of Amun in Egypt.
This being settled, we would then go on to consider the Aeginian ‘turtle’ coins, minted as early as 700BC. One of these can be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and we would daydream about acquiring it. Spiros Stamoulos would then discount my suggestion that the earliest known Chinese metal tokens, made in 900 BC, and discovered in a tomb near Anyang, may be the oldest coins.
In many ways, Spiros Stamoulis was one of those who inspired the growth of my own paltry Greek coin collection, not only through his interest in coins in general but also, because, upon my acquisition of say, a Byzantine coin from the reign of Alexius I, he would turn enthusiastically to that chapter in his books and debate with me, among other things, the true motives of the Crusaders. Further, unlike my parents, who would scratch their heads in wonderment as to why I was spending my money on such luxuries, Spiros Stamoulis would be genuinely excited about each new addition to the collection.
My sister is also another inspiration. As a young, idealistic and very enthusiastic amateur devotee of Byzantine history, I was often at a loss to understand why she, ten years yonger than me, did not share the same passion. I conceived a dastardly plain to surreptitiously teach her about things Byzantine, by acquiring Byzantine coins, and telling her the stories of the emperors they depicted, while she held them in her hand. If my memory serves me correctly, we had a lot of fun with the coin belonging to the emperor Phocas, for diverse reasons.
The collection took a turn for the ancient when a friend of mine at university, (the lean years when we were both flat broke) upon learning of my passion for coins, actually purchased a Syrian Graeco-Roman coin on lay by and presented it to me on my birthday. Sadly, on a trip to Rhodes, the ‘ancient Greek coins,’ the lovely man sold her and which were intended as a gift for me turned out to be brass, poorly cast fakes. These are my favourites.
Add to this mix, the 1926 Greek republican coins I found in my father’s 1968 Lacrosse trophy (my father is way cool. Not only was he a Lacrosse champion, but he also has original mint condition Simon and Garfunkle records. I on the other hand, am unco-ordinated and boast in pride of place in my own music collection, «Το Χρυσο Κλαρίνο,» featuring Tasos Halkias) and the modern Greek coins I purloined from his own coin collection, resplendently housed in a blue plastic piggy bank, and it can be comprehended how my collection has come to include coins from the time of the invention of coinage, right up until the present.
In collecting coins from the Greek world, one partakes in a tangible way, in 4,000 years of continuous Greek history. To hold in one's hand, an Athenian tetradrachm that may have been used by Socrates himself, or a coin depicting Alexander the Great, which would have been used by one if his soldiers, or a cup shaped coin, used by the Komnenos Emperors of Byzantium during the time of the Crusades, or even an obol issued in the early years of the Free Greek State, is to step back in time and establish an immediate connection with a diverse, fascinating, and always convoluted cultural heritage.
Some of the coins in my collection tell their own story. One can trace the decline of the unitary vision of Alexander through the coinage of his generals and their successor states. One can also see how Greek culture permeated through Asia, right up to Afghanistan, through the coins of the first Greek Buddhist King, Menander. Through the Byzantine collection for example, one can see how art in the years of Constantine morphed from its Roman beginnings to something approaching Christian propaganda, with depictions of Christ and the Emperor. The coins of the iconoclast emperors are written in Greek but using Latin letters. They feature slogans designed to propagate a belief in the minds of the people that the Emperors were pious servants of God. The coins of the successor states of the Empire, such as those of Nicaea and Pontus place emphasis on depicting local saints, while the kingdoms established by the Crusaders in Greece employed coin designs recognisable in Western Europe, proving that our experience can only be understood in relation to that of others. Showing how cultural diversity can overstep the boundaries of ethnic or religious propaganda, I have a coin from the reign of Basil the Bulgar Slayer which has been overstamped by Islamic coiners and incorporated into the coinage of the Islamic Empire.
Other coins show just how piecemeal the development of the modern Greek world was: Coins from the Republic of the Ionian Isles, depicting Britannia and the Venetian Lion of St Mark, the Principality of Crete and the independent principality of Samos. The coins from the 1926 Republic draw as their inspiration, the Goddess Athena, whereas the coins of the dictatorship revert to depicting mythological beasts. The parallel should not be lost on us. Quite apart from the thrill of connecting in such a direct way with past millenia, Greek coins are an obviously ideal visual medium for creating interest in our history in people who otherwise consider the discipline heavy and tedious, which is why I feel privileged to be able to exhibit a small part of my collection in the Hellenic Museum’s latest exhibition.
The Hellenic Museum’s latest exhibition, aptly entitled “Millenia,” is amazing. Not only does it, through the vision of its curator, Peter Minard, trace the history of the Greek speaking people over four millennia and across three continents, asking what is Greece, where is Greece and who is Greek, it does so through the collections of local collectors, proving that even in the Antipodes, we are able to commit ourselves to preserving and propagating our heritage. Coins aside, the Mitrakas collection, comprised of ancient Cypriot pottery, along with (the highlight), a breathtaking Roman copy of Praxiteles’ faun, only of three known surviving copies, compels viewing again and again.
Back in the winter of 2001, I spent two glorious days in Thessaloniki, exploring Roman ruins, poking through Byzantine churches, Galerian arches and Rotondas with a friend who revelled in times past as much as I did. That friend was Nafsika Stamoulis. To know now that the fruits of a shared interest are exhibited in a museum founded in her memory, by her late and sorely missed father grants the presence of my coins within it a bittersweet poignancy and a resolve that the great man’s broad and prescient vision of Antipodean Hellenism, as embodied by the Hellenic Museum, must be fulfilled, for millenia to come.

The Millenia Exhibition is currently being held at the Nafsika Stamoulis Hellenic Museum, 280 William Street, Melbourne.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 3 July 2010