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Eleian Zeus: Political Change in the Fifth-Century Eleian Coinage

Stefano Frullini

King’s College, Cambridge University.

In my paper, I propose a new interpretation of the Eleian coinage (Seltman 1921) as evidence for a change in political relations in the region of Eleia, in the western Peloponnese, during the central decades of the fifth century BCE. I focus on the earliest group of coins, whose common feature is the combination of Zeus-related symbolism—such as thunderbolts and eagles—with the legend ϜΑ(ΛΕΙΟΝ), “Eleian”. Minting activity began after the Persian Wars (Kraay 1976, 104), following the alleged foundation of the city of Elis in 471 (Diod. 11.54.1; Strab. 8.3.2), but insufficient attention has been paid to the circumstances that enabled and facilitated the emergence of minting activity in Eleia in this period and to the political significance of the message the coinage conveyed and disseminated.

To this end, I move beyond literary evidence. Firstly, I assess the importance of the simultaneous construction of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia as a reassertion of the long-established cult of Zeus in the sanctuary. Secondly, I investigate the change in the nature of the epigraphical material found at Olympia. A number of late archaic inscriptions follow a fixed structure whereby an impersonal wratra (decision) is imposed upon local communities (e.g. Minon 2007, no. 10). However, there is evidence that around the mid-fifth century this structure was abandoned in favor of a simpler formula according to which, more straightforwardly, the Eleians make the decision (e.g. Minon 2007, no. 16).

This points towards a transformation of Eleia from a regional “peer-polity” network founded upon the shared recognition of the binding nature of the wratrai to a hegemonic network led by Elis. This transition, however, was also marked by substantial continuity, as suggested by the continuing importance of Olympia as a ritual and cultic hub. My contention is that the Eleian coinage epitomizes this duality quite effectively and can shed further light on one of the major political developments in the fifth-century Peloponnese. 

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Usurpers Rivals and Regime Change: The Evidence of Coins

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