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Ancient Vessels on Ancient Coins

You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.

Many ancient Greek coins, and some Roman, show an urn, jug or cup, almost all of recognisable ancient types. In most cases they are there to serve a particular symbolic purpose. But some important distinctions are lost on most of those who write descriptions of ancient coins. You will see many of them described on line as "an amphora," whereas actually, the majority are kraters.

Amphorae, kraters and other vessels were quite different in design, in use, and in symbolic meaning. Knowing some basic facts about them helps to understand the coins properly. This page goes through the various types and shows their differences, and then shows more examples of kraters, the type most commonly found on ancient coins.

(For the other type of vessel, galleys and boats, please see my page about safe journeys and sea power.)


The Amphora

The reverse of a bronze AE10 of Chios in Ionia, 2nd-1st Century BCE. The reverse of a bronze AE10 of Chios in Ionia, 2nd-1st Century BCE.
The reverse of a silver hemidrachm of Cherronesos in Thrace, 480-350 BCE. The reverse of a silver hemidrachm of Cherronesos in Thrace, 480-350 BCE.
The reverse of a silver new style tetradrachm of Athens, c. 100 BCE. The reverse of a silver new style tetradrachm of Athens, c. 100 BCE.

It's easy to find definitions of "amphora" .. "A large narrow-necked Greek or Roman jar with a handle on either side, used for storing liquids such as wine or oil." That's from Chambers Dictionary on line.

Large numbers of amphoras have been found in shipwrecks, so we know they were stacked on galleys and used for transport.

They came in more than one design. The earliest transport amphoras had ovoid bodies and a base, like the one on the Athenian tetradrachm on the left of the row above. The olive tree was supposed to have been the goddess Athena's gift to Athens, so that one will have been used to transport olive oil.

The reverse of a small bronze coin of Sestos in Thrace, c. 300 BCE. The reverse of a small bronze coin of Sestos in Thrace, c. 300 BCE.

Some later models were taller, thinner and had a pointed "toe." They had a long, narrow neck, and two handles parallel to the neck.

Some, like those on the coins on the middle and right of the row, had a neck that met the body at a sharp angle; others had a continuous flowing shape. The strong toes could be pushed into sand or soft earth, or lodged in prepared holes. The necks were narrow so that they could easily be sealed with wax or clay.

The capacity of these later types seems to have been gauged so that they could be lifted and moved around by a man, and their size and shape worked well when stacking many together.

An amphora on a coin would therefore normally symbolise trade, and that's probably the intent on the coin on the far right, from Chios in Ionia. On the other coin, a silver hemidrachm of Cherronesos, it serves as one of a wide range of common objects pictured, it is thought, simply to distinguish one issue from another.

Other amphoras had rounded bodies and flat bases, like that on the coin on the left, from Sestos in Thrace. That, too, was a standard type used for bulk transport; but the flat base would also allow this design of vessel, in a smaller size, to be used for domestic storage.

* Coin descriptions always name the amphora correctly.


The Krater

The reverse of a silver stater of Thebes in Boeotia, c.425-400 BCE. The reverse of a silver stater of Thebes in Boeotia, c.425-400 BCE.
The reverse of a silver obol of Lamia in Thessaly, 400-334 BCE. The reverse of a silver obol of Lamia in Thessaly, 400-334 BCE.

Kraters were used in the ancient Greek world in much the same way that punch-bowls are used in more modern times. They would contain a mixture of wine and water, to be drunk at a party called a symposium, where men would gather for an enjoyable evening of merriment, good conversation, and perhaps some entertainment. In polite ancient Greek society, it was regarded as bad form to get too drunk too soon, though, of course, not all society was polite!

So, kraters appeared on coins to symbolise just that sort of occasion; and sometimes more, to show an association with the god Dionysos, who was responsible for the divine madness produced by alcoholic intoxication. Elsewhere, I have a page about coins showing Dionysos and his Roman equivalent, Father Liber.

There were four types of standard krater design in the ancient world. The majority of vessels found on ancient coins are the type known as volute kraters. They are so called because the curled tops of the handles resemble the curled decorations, volutes, at the top of Ionic columns, and those curled-over handle tops are quite definitive in identifying a volute krater.

The reverse of a copper AE16 of Nikopolis ad Istrum, 2nd-3rd century CE. The reverse of a copper AE16 of Nikopolis ad Istrum, 2nd-3rd century CE.

This was the most ornate and decorative type of krater, and most or all of the originals represented on coins would have been expensive and showy models made in bronze or silver, perhaps even partly gilded. The more stylised types would have been just for display, and some were clearly impractical for real use at parties.

The two examples above right are typical, well-formed volute kraters, and both have an additional symbol which adds to their meaning. The vessel from Thebes has a bunch of grapes by its side, symbolising wine, of course; and that from Lamia has an ivy leaf, belonging to the god Dionysos, over its mouth. And in fact the Lamian obol has Dionysos himself on the obverse, as you will see if you click on the photo. So the imagery on both sides of the Lamian coin is religious in intent.

The coin on the left also shows a krater, though it does not match any of the ancient design types and is certainly not volute. But the coin was struck 600 years later than those well-formed types above, during the reign of the Roman Severan dynasty; and it came from a Roman province in the Balkans, not one of the Hellenic centres of culture. So it is reasonable to expect some changes. It has some striations on the body and stem which suggest a decorative design in metal-work, and the marks just below the rim might be garlanding. The bunch of grapes over its mouth once again clarifies its purpose.

There are some more coins with kraters at the bottom of this page.

* Coin descriptions always get these wrong and usually call them amphoras, though sometimes you will see a krater described as a kantharos, and in the case of one coin type, shown below, a hydria.


The Kantharos

The reverse of a bronze AE10 of Teos in Ionia, 3rd century BCE. The reverse of a bronze AE10 of Teos in Ionia, 3rd century BCE.
The obverse of a silver trihemiobol of Thasos in Thrace, 411-350 BCE. The obverse of a silver trihemiobol of Thasos in Thrace, 411-350 BCE.

This is also often seen on ancient Greek coins. It was a large drinking cup, and would have been used at a symposium, being replenished with drink from a krater. The krater itself would have been too heavy to move.

Symposium drinkers were often pictured using kylikes, which were shallow, dish-like cups on stems, but I have not found these on any coins.

The handles of a kantharos were large and flamboyant, and looped high above the rim, unlike the tight curves of the volute krater's handles. This is how a kantharos on a coin can be distinguished.

Their capacity was up to about a pint, though in use they would not be filled to the brim. This, and their large handles, made them suitable for being passed around.

A silver obol of Taras or Tarentum in Calabria, 280-228 BCE. A silver obol of Taras or Tarentum in Calabria, 280-228 BCE.

The first coin above, a trihemiobol of Thasos, shows a tailed satyr running with a kantharos in his hand. This represents the divine madness of alcoholic intoxication. And this coin has a krater on the reverse, as another such symbol.

To its right is another kantharos, not very elegantly formed, with a bunch of grapes over its mouth. The high looped handles are clear on both of these specimens.

Taras, or Tarentum, an important town in Calabria, issued obols with a kantharos on both sides, as shown on the left.

These kantharoi are particularly spidery and elegant, and you can see that the handles have reinforcing struts that run between the top of the high loop and the lip of the cup.

This suggests that these are representations of actual vessels rather than artists' conceptions.

* Coin descriptions always get the kantharos right.


A Wine Jug

The reverse of a bronze provincial coin of Septimius Severus showing Dionysos. The reverse of a bronze provincial coin of Septimius Severus showing Dionysos.
Detail of a bronze provincial coin of Septimius Severus showing Dionysos' jug. Detail of a bronze provincial coin of Septimius Severus showing Dionysos' jug.

These coins show Dionysos, the Greek god of wine and drunkenness, and his Roman equivalent, Father Liber, in a typical and representative pose. They are pouring wine from what is always described as a kantharos. But this is no kantharos; it is some sort of wine jug.

Normally, one would expect a Greek wine jug to be an oinochoe, with one handle and a pouring spout. There were many variations of the oinochoe, but the jugs on these coins don't match any of them. They are more basic, with two handles and no spout.

The reverse of a silver denarius of Septimius Severus showing Liber Pater. The reverse of a silver denarius of Septimius Severus showing Liber Pater.

Nevertheless they are clearly wine jugs of a sort.

On the first coin, from Nicopolis ad Istrum in Lower Moesia, Dionysos is pouring wine from his jug. The flowing liquid is quite clear on the coin. His other hand holds his staff, a thyrsos.

This coin has a particularly clear depiction of the jug, and you can see in the enlargement that this vessel does not have a kantharos' fine, elegant construction or high looped handle; nor is it anything like a classical oinochoe. It is two-handled, stocky, with a thick lip, and looks heavy. The handles are loops attached to the sides, and do not rise above the rim.

On the Roman denarius to the right is Father Liber. He, too, holds a thyrsus (Romanised spelling) and a jug, and he is pouring wine into the mouth of his panther below, who lifts his head upwards to receive the flow. This jug is similar to that carried by Dionysos on the previous coin, except that the body is more globular. The flow of the wine is not shown, but you can see the two handles and the thick lip.

* Coin descriptions always get these wrong and call Dionysos' jug a kantharos; perhaps an understandable error, as that is what Dionysos is expected to carry, and these vessels do not match any expectations.


The Rhyton

The reverse of a bronze coin of Gordian III from Berytos in Phoenicia. The reverse of a bronze coin of Gordian III from Berytos in Phoenicia.

The rhyton was a drinking horn which was very popular in ancient Persia, and which the Greeks took up after their Persian wars.

In its simplest form it was just a hollow animal horn, but the Persians in particular made many elaborate variations.

The coin on the right, rather worn but with the outlines still clear, shows Dionysos again. This time he is holding a simple rhyton rather than a jug or a kantharos. As usual, his thyrsos is in his other hand, and once again his panther waits below for a sip.

Rhytons of this type could not be set down without spilling their contents, so must have been intended for serious drinking. Others were provided with peg-like feet so that they could stand.

Below left is one of a series of coins from Skepsis which show a pegasosrhyton; that is, a rhyton with the base modeled into a detailed representation of the forepart of a winged horse.

The obverse of a bronze coin of Skepsis showing a pegasosrhyton. The obverse of a bronze coin of Skepsis showing a pegasosrhyton with a fluted horn.
The reverse of a bronze coin from Thessalonika showing a Kabeiros with a goat rhyton. The reverse of a bronze coin from Thessalonika showing a Kabeiros with a goat rhyton.

Various ornate animal rhytons of this type are known from Persia, often made in silver or gold and richly decorated. But they are usually symmetrical, unlike this Pegasos which has one wing trailing behind. The engraver has probably used a standard representation of Pegasos rather than accurately depicting an actual vessel. Elsewhere, I have a page of coins showing Pegasos which includes some protomes with this trailing wing, as well as two other pegasosrhyton coins.

Next to that coin is another animal rhyton, this one resembling a goat. It is being carried by a Kabeiros, in Greek myth a son or grandson of Hephaistos, the god of the forge and metal-working. This Kabeiros is clearly meant to share Hephaistos' skills, as he holds a huge hammer as well as a delicate rhyton.

So far I have been describing rhytons made of animal horn or metal, but they were also made in pottery, in both simple and elaborate forms. For example, here is a link to a nice donkey head rhyton in the Louvre; the photo is on Wikipedia.

* Coin descriptions always get the plain rhyton correct, and usually also correctly call the pegasosrhyton a rhyton with the forepart of Pegasos, but also often get that one wrong and just call it a protome of Pegasos or forepart of Pegasos.


Kyme's Cup

The reverse of a bronze coin of Alexander III, Macedonia, 336-323 BCE. The reverse of a bronze coin of Alexander III, 336-323 BCE.
The reverse of a bronze coin of Tisna in Aeolis, 4th century BCE. The reverse of a bronze coin of Tisna in Aeolis, 4th century BCE.
The reverse of a bronze coin of Kyme in Aeolis, 4th century BCE. The reverse of a bronze coin of Kyme in Aeolis, 4th century BCE.

The city of Kyme had some standard images on its coins. A horse, and the head of the nymph Kyme, were two of them.

The third was a one-handled cup, clearly a metal cup, of a shape which is typical of the bronze age. This must have been a local icon for a long time.

The cup appears by itself on bronze coins, and as a smaller symbol on many silvers. But it isn't quite exclusive to Kyme. The first coin here, a small one at 11mm, is from Kyme, and has an eagle on one side and the cup on the other. But the second coin, this one 18mm across, is from another Aeolian city, Tisna, and has the same cup.

The third coin is a bronze from Macedonia, and the obverse shows the head of Herakles, typical of coins struck under Alexander the Great. The side shown here has Herakles' club, bow and quiver, and as a control mark, the cup of Kyme.

* Coin descriptions usually call this cup a vase.


Other Vessels

Detail of the reverse of a silver obol of Lamia in Thessaly, 400-334 BCE. Detail of the reverse of a silver obol of Lamia.

You will have noticed, on the coin of Lamia above, another small vessel to the right of the krater. It is a prochous, a pouring jug like a smaller version of the oinochoe. A thin neck or spout is its typical feature.

The obverse of a bronze prutah of Judaea, 66-70 CE. The obverse of a bronze prutah of Judaea, 66-70 CE.

It is odd but true that ancient Judaean, Persian and even Celtic coins are often classified as "Greek" even though the connection is only through the form of the coins, and not through any cultural similarities or in the origins of the objects depicted on them.

This classification of convenience, which really means "not Roman," is probably what leads to vessels like the one on the left, on a Judaean prutah, being incorrectly labelled with a Greek name.

Although the neck is narrow, the top is flared. There are two small handles, placed on the upper part of the bowl, which is flat. The lower curved part is deeply fluted. The thin stem is decorated, and there is an ornate foot which also seems to be fluted.

This is not a Greek type at all. It looks like something made of metal, and might have its origin in a Jewish liturgical vessel. There are several similar vessels on Judaean coins.

* Coin descriptions always get the prochous correct (while calling the krater next to it an amphora!), and, just as consistently, incorrectly call the vessels on the Judaean coins amphoras.


The reverse of a silver trihemiobol of Thasos in Thrace, 411-350 BCE. The reverse of a silver trihemiobol of Thasos in Thrace, 411-350 BCE.
The obverse of a silver triobol of Korkyra, c. 4th century BCE. The obverse of a silver triobol of Korkyra, c. 4th century BCE.

More Kraters

There are several varieties of ancient coins that show kraters, all of them described on line as amphorae or kantharoi.

First, a silver hemidrachm from Korkyra, modern Corfu. The base of the krater is not visible, but the shape, with those volute handles, is unmistakeable.

To its right is a silver trihemiobol from Thasos in Thrace. This is clearly a finely made krater, which is pictured consistently on coins over a range of time from Thasos, so perhaps the bronze original was housed in a local temple or sanctuary. The satyr shown above carrying a kantharos is on the reverse of one of these coins, so it does have a religious association with divine drunkenness.

The reverse of a bronze coin of Sardes, 2nd-1st century BCE. The reverse of a bronze coin of Sardes, 2nd-1st century BCE.

Those two coins have been holed, presumably for use as pendants. Holed coins have a certain interest of their own. Elsewhere, I have a page about holed coins, and some holed coin galleries.

The next coin, on the left, struck more than 200 years after the practical containers shown so far, shows a vessel with a very narrow neck, clearly completely impractical if it was intended as something to scoop drink from.

This looks like a krater made purely for decorative purposes, to stand somewhere where drink was to be taken or to symbolise the hosting of expensive parties, perhaps in a religious context. Or, it might simply be a whim of the coin engraver to draw it this way. But the shape and the handles leave no doubt that it is still a volute krater.

The reverse of a bronze AE12 of Myrina, 2nd century BCE. The reverse of a bronze AE12 of Myrina, 2nd century BCE.
The reverse of a bronze AE16 of Myrina, 2nd century BCE. The reverse of a bronze AE16 of Myrina, 2nd century BCE.

Here are two coins from Myrina in Aeolis from about the same period, of different sizes and therefore, presumably, of different denominations.

That on the left is 16mm across; the coin to its right is only 12mm. Both show nicely formed volute kraters with thin, rather impractical-looking stems.

This next coin, below left, shows a volute krater being carried on a cart with large wheels. On coin descriptions, this is absolutely always called a hydria. Although a few of this type might possibly show a hydria, which is a rounded water jar with three handles, most of them are like this.

The story behind this image is that the device of the city consisted of two crows seated on a chariot. When there was a drought, it was customary to drive the chariot through the city while petitioning Zeus for rain. Presumably they would take some water with them, in a suitably grand and ornamental container, to show Zeus what they wanted. And what could be more grand and ornamental than a volute krater?

The reverse of a bronze AE16 of Krannon, 4th century BCE. The reverse of a bronze AE16 of Krannon, 4th century BCE.
The reverse of a bronze AE19 of Krannon, 4th century BCE. The reverse of a bronze AE19 of Krannon, 4th century BCE.

This story comes from a Greek writer of the 3rd century BCE called Antigonus of Carystus, known among other things for his "Collection of Wonderful Tales." It might or might not be true; it is certain that this is not what one would normally describe as a chariot, and that only a few of these coins actually show a (single) crow on the cart.

The vessel shown is not always a krater. Sometimes it is the indeterminate form shown on the second Krannon coin. This is a large water container, probably metal, with a broad flat brim and no handles. It is neither a krater nor a hydria, nor any other classical Greek form.

Next, two coins on which the krater is used as one of a range of familiar symbols, apparently just to distinguish one issue of the coin from another.

The first is a bronze coin from Leukas in Akarnania, with an image of the monster Chimaera. Although on the vessel above it you can't see the volute curls on the handles, the shape is that of a krater.

The reverse of a silver stater of Ambrakia in Epeiros, c. 450-338 BCE. The reverse of a silver stater of Ambrakia, c. 450-338 BCE.
The reverse of a bronze AE16 of Leukas in Arkanania, 350-250 BCE. The reverse of a bronze AE16 of Leukas in Arkanania, 350-250 BCE.

This interesting coin tells a story over both sides, which you can see if you click on the image. This side shows the deadly monster, with a lion's head at the front, a goat's head in the middle and a snake for a tail.

On the other side is the hero Bellerophon, riding the flying horse Pegasos, on which he was able to defeat the monster.

Set among such a vivid group of images, the krater is incidental.

On the right is a silver stater from Ambrakia in Epeiros. Behind Athena's head is a rather elongated volute krater, and you can just make out a bunch of grapes above it.

The krater and grapes appear together on several similar coins, as do other symbols, some quite complex. Athena's head is the consistent main image.

This coin, too, has Pegasos on the other side, though without a rider. Athena and Pegasos made a very standard design for coins of Corinth and its colonies, acting as a badge of origin.



Thanks to Patricia Lawrence for her generous help: for information and advice about several images, particularly amphoras, kraters and Dionysos' wine jug; and for reading this page and helping me not to make any mistakes about ancient Greek vase types.


The content of this page was last updated on 18 January 2013

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