Thracian Tetradrachms
Art and Barbarism

"Thracian tetradrachms," the name I'm proposing for the highly abstracted derivations of Thasos tetradrachms minted in large numbers by Thracian tribes on the Thracian mainland during the middle of the first century BC, are among the most varied and visually striking of all ancient coinage. The first of the Thasos imitative issues, the Thasos-type tetradrachms, as a rule may be somewhat crudely styled knockoffs of Thasos tetradrachms. But the later derivative issues, the Thracian tetradrachms, are distinctive and impressive.

"Cezanne." This striking coin, one of the most beautifully designed Thracian tetradrachms I've seen, features an angular, Cezanne-like rendering of Dionysos and a Herakles with a bird's beak and feet and dots accentuating his erogenous zones. Like most Thracians tetradrachms, this specimen is well-centered on both obverse and reverse. This specimen appears to have slightly smoothed surfaces. aEF. 15.8g, 33mm. Göbl Class V, Lukanc -.

Thracian tetradrachms present a stunning variety of beautiful, highly abstracted renditions of Dionysos and Herakles, often with a simplified geometric style used for the devices and lines or dots used for the legend. Some of these coins, in my view and the view of others, are no less brilliant than the best works of the Impressionists and Expressionists that followed them two millennia later. Thracian tetradrachms can look like a miniature Picasso or Cézanne painting. For examples, see the coins pictured here that are labeled "Cézanne" and "Picasso."

Like modern art, the best of the Thracian tetradrachms are characterized by the communicating of emotion and the inner vision of the artist rather than a portrayal of the exact representation of nature, an expression of subjective rather than objective reality. By straying from the strict figural or idealized representationalism practiced in the Greek world in favor of highly stylized abstraction, Thracian die cutters brought out the essence of their forms in a strikingly individualistic and evocative manner. Just as Impressionism, Expressionism, and other schools of modern art were a reaction to the prevailing aesthetic standards of the time, so was the numismatic art of these coins.

"Picasso." Here's another beautifully abstracted Thracian tetradrachm, one with an obverse and reverse design reminiscent of Picasso. Herakles sports spiked hair, female breasts, and arms that have grown into the club and lion skin they once held, reaching nearly to the ground. 16.0g, 28mm. Göbl Class V (No. 21), Lukanc 1765, Castelin 1376.
Not everyone agrees with this. Some numismatists describe these and other imitative issues as "barbarous copies" and refer to the styling as "degraded." David R. Sear in his 1978 book Greek Coins and Their Values, Vol. I: Europe described Thracian tetradrachms as "crude." Barclay Vincent Head in his 1911 book Historia Numorum: A Manual of Greek Numismatics used the words "base style." In a recent Harlan J. Berk catalog, for his 127th Buy or Bid Sale, these issues are described as "perversions in coinage." A recent Leu Numismatik catalog, for Auction 83, called these coins "bizarre." CNG in the catalog for its recent Mail Bid Sale 64 used the words "style highly degraded."

Robert Forrer in his 1908 book Keltische Numismatik der Rhein- und Donaulande theorized that these and similar imitative issues became progressively abstracted because unsophisticated die cutters kept copying from less and less realistic designs. This phenomenon is similar to what happens in the children's game "Whisper Down the Lane" when utterances lose their fidelity the more they're copied. Harlan Berk has described this as the "Master Die Theory," where skillful die engravers create "master dies," less skillful die engravers copy their work to create slightly degraded dies, and even less skillful die engravers copy the work from the degraded dies to create even more degraded dies.

The fact is, some Thracian tetradrachms are ugly, with devices that are sloppily engraved, dull, and uninspiring. Coin dealer Rob Freeman of Freeman & Sear feels that most Thracian tetradrachms are merely derivative, not creative. Similarly, Robert Kokotailo of Calgary Coin and Antique Gallery feels that only a few hundred of the hundreds of thousands of Thracian tetradrachms that have been found could be considered works of art. Bill Puetz of Twelve Caesars is more charitable: "Many of the imitative pieces achieve a level of style and design that far exceeds that of mere 'barbarous' pieces," he said in an e-mail conversation. "I believe that it is a serious disservice to the creators of these pieces to simply lump them together as 'barbarous imitations.' They clearly are much more than that."

Hans Rauch described well the differences between stylish imitative issues and crude ones when writing about Celtic coinage in his October 1969 article, "The Celts and Their Coinage," which appeared in the Journal of the Society of Ancient Numismatics (SAN). "Frequently the impression is obtained that the artist avoided the reproduction of nature by skillful exaggeration, almost bordering the abstract... culminating in a strange modern and sometimes beautiful effect. It should be stated, however, not all coins... are of artistic merit. Many... were crude, ugly, and truly barbaric."

An important question is whether there was intent among these Thracian die engravers to create original numismatic artwork. I believe that with the many of these pieces, the move to abstraction was both deliberate and successful. These coins are individualistic, a result that can't be accidental. While there are recurring motifs -- specific stylistic renditions of Dionysos on the obverse and Herakles on the reverse -- there are dozens of different ones. These artisans offer remarkably personal, creative, and emotive visions of their subject matter. The designs, created by those who were linguistically illiterate but artistically adroit, exude intelligence.

Thracian die engravers also introduced additional and often fanciful design elements to a significant number of the coins, particularly to the reverse. Thracian tetradrachms may depict Herakles with a bird face, bird feet, a boar face, antlers, wings, female breasts, fingers half the length of his body, a spiked nimbus (halo), or a nimbus of dots; Herakles holding a branch, torch, or scepter instead of a club; or Herakles drinking wine from an amphora (wine jug).

Other design elements are likely symbolic. The circles around a central dot in many of the abstracted reverse legends may have evolved from the Greek letter theta into a sun symbol. This circle around a central dot is a widespread sun symbol, used among other places in Egypt, where it was the hieroglyphic sign of the sun. The spirals in the hair braids on some of the obverses may also be sun symbols.

For all of these reasons -- the employing of creatively individualistic designs, the introduction of fanciful design elements, and the use of symbols -- Thracian tetradrachms, unlike some other imitative coinage, couldn't have been merely copies of copies. As Edward Gans wrote in his article "A Vindication of the Barbarians" in the June 1951 issue of the Numismatist, "Such coins [Thracian tetradrachms and Celtic coinage] cannot be called imitations any more, but creations of individual artists."

Similarly, André Malraux in his 1953 book Voices of Silence also disagreed with the notion that "barbarians" at the periphery of the classical Greek world were mere copyists. In talking about the artists who engraved Celtic coins, he asked rhetorically: "When they substitute a sun for an ear, need we assume they failed to notice that a face has ears?" Malraux believed that the "startling modernism" on these coins was a conscious repudiation of Greco-Roman representationalism and a "triumph of the 'barbarian' creative impulse," which represented a "new significance." He called the celators of these coins "Great Masters," with each "no less obsessed by the circular surface he was about to pattern with abstract lines than is a modern artist by the rectangle of his canvass."

Thracian tetradrachms no less than Celtic coins are exercises in imagination. In her 1976 book Coins of the Ancient Thracians, Yordanka Youroukova described Thracian tetradrachms as being characterized by a "naive, almost childlike presentation of the images"... with the die engravers "giving free reign to their imaginations and creating creatures which seem to come from a strange fairlyland."

The fact that the die work of Thracian tetradrachms is nonrepresentational doesn't mean that the coins are degraded, crude, and inferior. In the past, the supremacy of Greek representationalism was assumed, and nonrepresentationalism was regarded as degenerately derivative. The publication of Paul Jacobsthal's 1944 book Early Celtic Art did a lot to change this thinking among many academics, but prejudice toward the abstract has persisted, just as some people today uncritically regard the representational work of a Rembrandt as superior to the nonrepresentational work of a Picasso.

Some might argue that the die work of Thracian tetradrachms, particularly the simple dots and stick figures, didn't require much skill. Digging dots into a die with a bow drill, one of the engraving tools used by ancient celators, would have been easier than executing complex curves. You see evidence of this same "globularized" technique, this simplifying of letterforms and design elements into dots, in other ancient and later coins that unquestionably were crudely designed. The same was true with straight lines versus curves. Few regard the stick figures on Parthian and Byzantine coins as artistic.

On the other hand, simplified doesn't necessarily means simplistic. It's naive to think that a child could create the kind of modern art hanging in museums and galleries. As collector Mark Lehman said in an e-mail conversation, "The prevailing artistic paradigm of the last few centuries was that because the imitations seemed crude, they were the product of backward people unable to reach the 'perfection' of the Hellenic ideal. This viewpoint exhibits a profound narrow-mindedness. Many of those whose eye has been trained to appreciate the multiplicity of different forms of artistic expression from other cultures find in the imitations a vitality and freshness missing in the prototypes."

Dave Liebl, a collector who specializes in Thracian tetradrachms and who also collects primitive and tribal art, agrees. "What intrigues me is the progression of the design from the realistic to the abstract. I find the imagery of the more abstracted coins to be a form of 'modern' art -- ancient modern art. It's fascinating that these celators had the vision to produce eye-popping Picassoesque and Daliesque numismatic artwork. Though the designs are reduced to the lowest common denominator, less is actually more. The mind's eye creates more complex images than it does from more realistic devices. These coins are truly greater than the sum of their parts."

Because coins traveled more than artifacts, sculpture, or paintings, I don't think it's unreasonable to describe Thracian tetradrachms, along with Celtic and other "barbarous" coinage, as being among the world's first widely popular "modern" art, the first extensively available abstract design. Just as there's much that's "modern" in cave and other primitive art, there's much that's artistic in Thracian tetradrachms. At its best, the style of Thracian tetradrachms isn't degraded but elevated.

"Abstracto." The obverse of this well-preserved specimen is among the most abstracted of all Thracian tetradrachm obverses, with Dionysos completely indistinguishable. On the reverse, the club is growing out of Herakles' left arm and his right arm ends with a scissor hand that looks like it could do someone some serious harm. This is a wild coin in every sense. At the edges, the flan is visibly hammered and severely curled. The flan as a whole is thin and among the largest of Thracian tetradrachms, with a diameter of nearly 40mm. 16.8g, 39mm. Göbl Class V, cf. Lukanc 1830, 1831.

I suspect that much of the negativity toward these coins, even if subconsciously, stems from language. These coins are often described as "barbarous imitations," which creates negative connotations. "Barbarous," as the word is typically used today, means lacking in refinement, course, and even savage, despite the fact that one of its definitions is simply primitive and that the word "barbaric" is probably better suited to conveying these negative elements. "Barbarous" used in connection with coinage suggests course, even cloddish, styling. And "imitation" isn't quite right either because these coins aren't slavish copies and because the best of them are interpretative, not imitative. These coins should more correctly be referred to as adaptations, not imitations.

This is the reason I'm proposing that these particular derivative coins be called "Thracian tetradrachms" rather than "barbarous imitations of Thasos tetradrachms," "imitative Thasos tetradrachms," "Celtic-style Thasos tetradrachms," or any of the other names that have been used for them. These coins may have been inspired by Thasos tetradrachms, as many Celtic coins were inspired by the coins of Philip II. But as with Celtic coins, Thasos tetradrachms have earned the right to their own moniker because of their stylistic flair and sheer numbers.

The term "barbarous" used in conjunction with these coins is especially unfortunate. To the ancient Greeks, "barbarian" meant "non-Greek speaker" or "foreigner" (the Greeks felt that non-Greek people when talking made sounds like sheep -- ba-ba -- which is how the word "barbarian" originated). Even the most civilized Greeks, including Aristotle, looked down at non-Greeks as being uncultured and brutish, feeling that barbarians were slaves by nature, that they lacked the ability to reason and the moral responsibility needed to exercise political freedom. Barbarians, according to this ancient stereotype, also lacked self-control regarding food, drink, sex, and cruelty.

"Punch Drunk." Dionysos has a weak chin and puffy eyes on this Thasos-type tetradrachm, and the legend is beginning to become pointilistic. But Herakles is well-styled, and the coin retains the major design elements of the originals. 16.7g, 32mm. Göbl Class II (No. 5), Lukanc 767.
The issue of barbarous imitations inevitably leads to this larger issue of barbarism, sensitive though it may be. Ethnocentric (barbarian-phobic) views have existed through the ages among many well-respected individuals and institutions of civilized society, including the very pillars of the Western world. Some scholars, in fact, have connected this to the Greco-Roman heritage. It's not anti-Catholic to relate that during the age of exploration, acting in behalf of the Church, Christians killed or enslaved millions of "barbaric" indigenous people to bring their own "civilized" religion to these cultures.

In a Papal Bull issued in 1493 known as the Inter Caetera, the Catholic Church proclaimed, "Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself." In another Papal Bull issued in 1455 called the Romanus Pontifex, the Church said, "[W]e bestow suitable favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes,... athletes and intrepid champions of the Christian faith... to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all... pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and... to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery."

This thinking about barbarism still exists today, as exemplified by this excerpt from a Roman Catholic editorial published in the October 1999 issue of The Seraph: "The vast majority of people throughout the world were cultured because most of them had the blessing of dedicated missionaries teaching them not only natural sciences, but also the highest and noblest of all intellectual pursuits: the study of God and sound morality. Any 'culture' of genuine value has come to the world through the dedicated efforts of Catholic missionaries. And, conversely, whenever the salutary moral doctrines of the Church were ignored, that civilization became corrupt and died of its own degenerate promiscuity."

This kind of thinking among some Greeks and Christians, that people living in other ways and believing in other ways are barbaric and inferior, isn't uncommon. Other nations and religions throughout history have also based behavior on such views, with regrettable results. It could be argued, persuasively, that thinking this way about "barbarous" peoples is itself barbaric.

In diametric contrast to the view that barbarians are inferior and need to be raised up is the equally erroneous view that they're superior and need to be emulated, a notion given voice by the English writer John Dryden in his 1670 play The Conquest of Granada: "I am as free as Nature first made man, Ere the base laws of servitude began, When wild in the woods the noble savage ran." The romantic ideal of the noble savage -- uncivilized man whose innate goodness isn't corrupted by the evil effects of civilization and who lives in harmony with nature -- was most popularized by the eighteenth century writings of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.

In actuality Cro-Magnon man (the noble savage) likely played a larger or smaller part in wiping out the saber-toothed cat, the mastodon, Neanderthal man, and entire ecosystems as he moved from habitat to habitat. More recently, primitive peoples including the Polynesians, Hawaiians, Easter Islanders, Anasazi, and Creeks caused irreversible, large-scale damage to their environments. War, the most brutal of pastimes, has existed from the most primitive of times. The history of humankind is the story of stronger peoples migrating to more fertile or otherwise hospitable lands and killing off or displacing weaker peoples. There's nothing noble (or ignoble) about any of this. It's just nature.

The popular image of the barbarian was romanticized still further in the twentieth century by the Conan stories of pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard. The hero, a barbarian of gargantuan strength, follows his own code of ethics, indulging in good food, strong drink, and willing wenches as he tries to stay alive in a world full of danger. This sounds as if it's made for both comic books and Hollywood, and it was, with Conan comic books first appearing, then Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movies Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer, then a TV series. The fictional Conan, incidentally, was a Kimmerian (Cimmerian) -- Kimmerians are believed to have been a branch of the Thracians or closely related to them who lived to the northeast of Thrace in present-day Ukraine.

Going beyond this escapism, the reality of barbarism raises interesting questions about progress. It's commonly believed that societies progress through stages, from barbarism to pastoralism to agriculture to commerce. But is progress linear, or at least cyclical, with more literate and technologically developed societies, such as the Greeks in ancient times and Western society today, being superior to those closer to the land? Are their culture, art, and coinage better?

As with many things, a balanced, middle-ground approach may be best, a "Golden Mean" course that appreciates the advantages and disadvantages of both civilization and nature, contemplation and instinct, Apollo and Dionysos, one that recognizes different types of achievement and tolerates other groups who are at different levels. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1841 essay "Self-Reliance," "Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts."

When matters become unbalanced, unfortunate consequences may ensue. One reason for the demise of ancient Greece, in fact, may have been that it became too contemplative, too Apollonian (effete), that it lost its Dionysian primal energy and vitality, an energy that was exemplified well by Thracian tetradrachms.



Abstraction Progression


Imitations and Thrace

Art and Barbarism

Chronology and Attribution

Origins and Collecting



More Info

Other glomworthy coins:

Oldest Coins

 Athenian Owls

Alexander the Great Coins

Medusa Coins

Thracian Tetradrachms

House of Constantine

Draped Bust Coins

Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles

Coin sites:
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Glomming: Coin Connoisseurship
Bogos: Counterfeit Coins

© 2014 Reid Goldsborough

Note: Any of the items illustrated on these pages that are in my possession are stored off site.