The “Dolphin Rider” Coinage of Tarentum

​An ever-popular collecting motif on ancient coins, the “dolphin rider” types represent an extremely important iconography for the coinage of Tarentum, the city upon which modern Taranto, Italy was built. Tarentum was founded in the 8th century B.C. during a period of Greek colonization, whereby oikistes were sent forth from various Greek cities to establish footholds in the Italian peninsula, which resulted in that area being referred to as “Magna Graecia.” According to tradition, the Spartan Phalanthos founded Tarentum in 708 B.C. and, as was the case with the founders of many of these colonies, he was celebrated as a cult figure following his death. Given the rich mythologies which were seemingly omnipresent in the ancient world, however, there was a rival, competing explanation for the city’s founding. Some attributed the civic beginnings instead to Taras, the legendary son of Poseidon and Satyria, a local nymph. In this mythos, Taras falls from his ship during a storm, and is miraculously rescued and brought to shore by a dolphin. On these shores he would establish Tarentum, which was named after him. At some point, it would appear that these two foundation stories were merged; Phalanthos gained Poseidon as his ascribed father in a case of mythical patrimony and his arrival in Italy was not by boat, but instead astride a dolphin. In essence, much of the fantastic lore surrounding Taras was retained, with the mortal Spartan substituted in name.

Starting in the very late 6th century B.C., Tarentum began issuing coinage paying tribute to this figure and reiterating the dolphin as a crux of the foundation story. Though numerous denominations were struck over the ensuing three centuries, the most iconic was that of the nomos, a silver coin equivalent to two drachmai. Corresponding roughly in size to U.S. nickel—though somewhat thicker—these coins were a staple in regional trade. A vast quantity were struck owing to the fact that Tarentum was one of the most populous cities in the world around 500 B.C. Today, these nomoi are among the more popular and sought after types with collectors and jewelers alike on account of their interesting iconography. Our May Collectors Choice Online (CCO) auction offers five such nomoi—the first five lots of the sale—presenting an excellent opportunity to add this classic, iconic type to a collection.

To view our upcoming auction schedule and future offerings, please visit where you may register and participate in this and other forthcoming sales.

We are always seeking coins, medals, and pieces of paper money for our future sales, and are currently accepting submissions for our Official Auction of the ANA World’s Fair of Money (until May 29th) as well as our Official Auction of the Hong Kong Show (until June 9th), both taking place in August. Our next CCO (Collectors Choice Online) auction will be in June. If you would like to learn more about consigning, whether a singular item or an entire collection, please contact one of our consignment directors today and we will assist you in achieving the best possible return on your material.

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