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Small Change from a Big Island: The Spread of the Sicilian Silver Litra Standard and its Implications for the Tyrrhenian Trade

Giuseppe Castellano

The University of Texas at Austin

The Iron Age indigeni of Sicily used bronze objects as currency, weighed against a pound that the Greeks called the litra. With the introduction of Greek-style coinage in 550 BC, the litra took on new significance as a small silver coin equivalent to the native bronze measure. Though the first litrai were minted at Greek cities, indigenous Sicilians were minting their own by the mid-fifth century. Initially bound to the native bronze standard, as at Himera, the litra was soon assimilated into the Attic standard at Syracuse as one-fifth of a drachm. These coins allowed for conversion between native bronze and imported silver, suggesting significant contact and trade between native Italic peoples, Greeks, and hybrid populations.

            Though it is often said that small coinage did not travel, this is untrue of the silver litra. A Syracusan litra of the mid-fifth century BC was found at Morgantina, and another in the ANS collection bears a countermark of a selinon leaf, suggesting that it travelled to Selinus and was accepted as good currency. Two mid-fifth century hoards, at Agrigentum and Messina, contained almost exclusively small silver from all over Sicily, including litrai. That such small coins travelled the breadth of the island, from Eryx to Syracuse, suggests widespread acceptance of the silver litra. By the late fifth century the litra had become the preferred standard, supplanting traditional Greek fractions like the obol.

Though the litrai themselves did not travel beyond Sicily, the standard did. The earliest Etruscan coinage (475–400 BC) of Populonia and Vulci was on the same Chalcidian standard used in several Sicilian cities, including Himera. Populonia, however, soon switched to the Attic-Syracusan standard, despite the absence of Sicilian litrai in Etruria, and despite the circulation of Greek coins on the Attic standard (as seen in the Pyrgi hoard). The Populonian “First Metus” issue of 450–400 BC included Attic-Syracusan litrai and multiples, all with marks of value. Though these coins enjoyed limited circulation, a notable exception is the 10-litra silver Populonian “Gorgoneion” from a 450–425 BC context at Prestino, in Lombardy. This site, in the far northern province of Como, was at the fringe of Etruscan influence and was a possible consumer of Populonian metalwork. This find provides rare archaeological evidence for early coin circulation in non-Greek Italy, perhaps related to the metal trade.

Some scholars have hypothesized that these first Etruscan coins were minted by resident Greeks, or perhaps with Greeks in mind. Whatever the case may be, the Etruscan adoption of the Sicilian litra standard – possibly in the aftermath of their defeat by the Greeks at Cumae in 474 BC – may shed light on the nature of Greco-Italic relations. Perhaps the Greeks pushed the litra standard as an “international” currency in the Tyrrhenian Sea, possibly in recognition of the native preference for a currency based on the native standard. It may also speak to Etruscan agency and the influence of indigenous tradition. In any case, such an “international” currency would have greatly facilitated the Tyrrhenian trade.

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Coins and Trade

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