Spotlight on a copper coin featuring the poet Sappho


01 July 2018
Sappho-85595.jpg Coin featuring the lyrical poet Sappho
This copper alloy coin from the collections of the British Museum features the 7th-century lyric poet Sappho, who lived on the island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean. By Richard Kelleher.

This copper alloy coin from the collections of the British Museum features the 7th-century lyric poet Sappho, who lived on the island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean. By Richard Kelleher.

The use of coins as visual conveyors of national or civic identity has a long history which spans at last two millennia. For this spotlight we visit the Greek island of Lesbos close to the modern Turkish coast which was formerly part of the Roman province of Asia.

During the second and third centuries AD, cities in the Roman provinces increasingly depicted local historical or mythological citizens in portrait form on their coinage. At this period there was great interest amongst historians in local history, and knowledge of these famous forebears was an important aspect 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.

Coins featuring famous citizens

Sappho, who is the subject of the coin discussed here, 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 a number of local distinguished citizens who we know only from their depiction of the coins – Dada, Pancratides and Nausicaa.

There are also other, unnamed portraits, which are presumably of other local citizens. The series includes both male and female portraits and celebrates the citizens of Mytilene that were famous beyond the island and those that held a special place in the affections of the city.

Coin details

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This copper alloy coin was struck at Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean. Coins were issued on the island at both Mytilene and its great rival Methymna as well as the smaller towns of Antissa, Eresus and Pyrrha. Our example depicts on its obverse the head of Sappho facing right with the Greek inscription for her name ΨΑΠΦΟ. On the reverse is a lyre, which seems to be an emblem of the poetess, and the inscription MVTIΛH NAIΩN – of (the people of) Mytilene.

Sappho was a lyric poet who lived on the island in the second half of the seventh century BC and 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.

This piece came to the Museum as part of the Bank of England loan of 1865 which expressed the wish to make it accessible to the general public. This remained as a separate Collection until 1877 when the Bank Directors decided it would be more useful to the museum and the public if incorporated into the national collection. The Bank of England collection was therefore presented to the British Museum in 1877, any duplicates being sold to create a coin and medals purchase fund.

Further reading

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).

W. Wroth, A Catalogue of the Greek Coins in the British Museum. Greek Coins of Troas, Aeolis and Lesbos (British Museum, London 1894).