Coin of the Month

May 2024: A Tragic Love Story

The Coin of this Month is presented by Daniel Fendius

With an impressive history of reception, involving poets such as Ovid, Marlowe and Schiller, the theme of this month's coin stands out. The bronze coin was selected by our new student assistant, Daniel Fendius, who has been actively and passionately contributing to our team since January. He chose it as an example of numerous ancient coins that convey specific messages through the adoption of particular narratives and myths.

To this end, the coinage of Sestos and Abydos can be referenced. In these mints, one of the most famous love stories of antiquity, the local myth of Hero and Leander, has been immortalized. For the first time in literary form, the narrative appears in Ovid's Epistulae Heroidum. According to the tale, Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite from Sestos, fell in love with Leander from Abydos. The geographical location of the two cities plays a crucial role, as Sestos, situated on the Thracian Chersonesos Peninsula, lies directly across from Abydos, separated by the Hellespont, the strait connecting the Aegean Sea to the Euxine.

After falling head over heels in love with Hero, Leander is said to have swum across the Hellespont every night to meet her in Sestos, as they could only meet in secret. The reverse side of the selected coin, which can be examined more closely at the Berlin Coin Cabinet, depicts Leander swimming naked to a tower near Sestos through the strait. To find the opposite shore and Hero, he is guided by a lamp set up by his beloved, shining into the night. On the selected coin, Hero herself holds the lamp into the night. The legend on the reverse side, ϹΗϹΤΙΩΝ, states that the coin originates from the mint of Sestos. It is understandable that Sestos, with its strong local connection, drew upon the myth. However, not only Sestos but also Abydos utilized the motif of the two lovers, as evidenced by coinage under Caracalla (CN Type 3519) and Alexander Severus (CN Type 8283). The representation of the coin minted in Abydos under Caracalla is complemented by Eros, accompanying the swimming Leander as he flies above him, holding a torch to guide Leander to fulfil his love desires on the shores of Sestos. Furthermore, this coin accentuates the clothing left behind on the shore of Abydos and Leander's sword, emphasizing Abydos's spatial involvement in the events.

The obverse side of the coin from Sestos places it within the coinage of Septimius Severus. A "touching" love story serves as a counterpart to Septimius Severus, depicted with a draped bust and a laurel wreath. Thus, an honourable imperial representation can be combined with deeply emotional local myths that have become established in the affirmation of the cities. However, the further course of the story of the two lovers, Hero and Leander, which ends tragically, should not be overlooked. One day, as Leander swam across the Hellespont, a strong wind extinguished Hero's lamp. As a result, Leander lost his way in the strait and drowned. The following day, when Hero discovered the body of her beloved, she leaped from a high tower into the same strait and drowned. In the coinage of the imperial era, one can find more literarily tangible fates of ordinary people embedded in myth, which still touch our hearts today.

A. Berthold, Raumbezogene Identitäsverweise auf thrakischen Münzen, in: U. Peter, V. F. Stolba (Hrsg.), Thrace – Local Coinage and Regional Identity. Berlin. Studies of the Ancient World 77

(Berlin 2021) 343–358

G. Schlüter, Hero und Leander auf den antiken Münzen von Abydos und Sestos, in: 25 Jahre Berliner Münzenfreunde 1960-1985 (Berlin 1985) 59 Nr. 2 Abb. 14

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