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Coin of the Greek poet Sappho

2nd century AD
Mytilene, Island of Lesbos, Greece

This copper alloy coin depicts the head of Sappho, a lyric poet who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos in the second half of the seventh century BC.

Although only one complete poem and various fragments of Sappho’s work survive (in quotations from other writers or on papyrus), the subject matter is varied. It includes hymns to deities as well as personal concerns such as the safety of her brother or her daughter Cleis.

Sappho is most famous in modern times, however, for the references in her poetry to the love between women or girls.

Sappho was a hugely accomplished poet who, from references in her poems, seems to have gathered a circle of followers. References to absence and partings suggest that many of these followers were only part of the group for a short while before marriage. There are many parallels with similar male groupings where singers and poets praise each other in erotic terms. Sappho’s group invoked Aphrodite, the Graces and the Muses, the embodiments of love, beauty and poetry.

During the second and third centuries AD, cities in the Roman provinces increasingly used portraits of local historical or mythological citizens on their coins. There was great interest amongst historians in local history, and knowledge of this was important as part of a cultured discourse. The famous citizens chosen by cities very often included poets, philosophers and statesmen. More than one city might claim a local ‘hero’, particularly if they lived in the ancient past. Homer, for example, was claimed by at least eight cities as a citizen.

Sappho was claimed by both Mytilene and Eresus (both cities of the island of Lesbos) and appeared on their coins.

Mytilene used a series of local famous citizens from the distant past on its coins, including Sappho, the poet Alceaus and the historian Theophanes, as well as from its more recent past. Examples of this include local distinguished citizens of whom we have no other knowledge – Dada, Pancratides and Nausicaa. There are also other, unnamed portraits, presumably of local citizens. The series includes both male and female portraits and celebrates citizens of Mytilene both famous beyond the island and particular to the city.

A Burnett, M Amandry and I Carradice (Ed), Roman Provincial Coinage: Volume II From Vespasian to Domitian (AD69-96) (British Museum Press/Bibliothèque nationale de France 1999)

C Howgego, V Heuchert, and A Burnett (Ed), Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces (Oxford University Press 2005)

K Butcher, Roman Provincial Coins: An Introduction to the Greek Imperials (Seaby, London 1988)

S Hornblower and A Spawforth (Ed), The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Third Edition) (Oxford University Press 1996)

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