The Polis’s Female Face

A silver decadrachm, die cut by Kimon, minted in Syracuse, Sicily, circa 406-400 B.C. 8-5534.

The obverse of this coin bears the imagery of a woman’s head, identified as Arethusa, the patron nymph of Syracuse. Arethusa transformed into a spring to escape from the amorous pursuit of Alpheus, a river god. In the end, Alpheus succeeded in uniting with Arethusa, both in their watery forms. An eighth-century BCE Delphi oracle is said to have dictated the place of the future city of Syracuse at where the Arethusa spring and Alpheus river converged. The inscription above Arethusa’s head reads, ΣΥΡAKOΣІΩΝ, “of the Syracusans.” The choice of Arethusa’s face conveys a sense of pride in Syracuse’s founding legend. The face of a city’s founding deity can be found on the coins of other Greek city states, such as Athena for Athens and Tyche Astarte for Greco-Phoenician cities.

-Ashley Young

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