Olbia: Greek, Scythian, Roman Trade Center That Had Dolphin Money

Olbia (also spelled Olvia) began as an ancient Greek colony on the northern coast of the Black Sea, in the southern part of modern-day Ukraine. Olbia was famous as an emporium, and the importance of trade to the settlement is reflected in the coinage found at the site. The Olbians minted their own coins, the most enigmatic of which were their bronze “dolphin” coins.

As its name suggests, this type of money takes the form of a dolphin. The dolphin money of Olbia first came into circulation during the 5th century BC, and continued to be used in the following century, when more traditional types of coins were also minted. Although Olbia dolphin money was used as a form of currency, it is thought that they originally served as votive objects, which points towards their religious significance.

The ruins of the ancient Old Town of Olbia, a major trade center governed by the Greeks and later empires. (Ivengo / Public domain)

The ruins of the ancient Old Town of Olbia, a major trade center governed by the Greeks and later empires. (Ivengo / Public domain )

The Beginnings Of Hellenistic Olbia on the Black Sea

The ancient Greek settlement of Olbia was located close to where the Bug estuary meets the Black Sea . The settlement was founded by the Ionian Greeks of Miletus during the 6th century BC. To the ancient Greeks, this area was considered as the northernmost part of the Greek world.

The Greek colonists who settled in Olbia took advantage of the fertile land in the area, and established farming settlements. These were not concentrated around the main settlement alone but founded as far as 10-15 kilometers (6.2-9.3 miles) away from the city. A variety of grains, mostly barley, wheat, and millet, as well as legumes, were grown. Additionally, animals were raised on these farms.

Agriculture, however, was not the only activity contributing towards the economy of Olbia. The settlement also benefitted greatly from trade. The Olbians developed trade networks not only with their neighbors in the area, but also with cities further afield. The former includes the nomadic Scythians and Sarmatians, whereas the latter included the Greek city states of Athens and Corinth. The products that the Olbians traded in included agricultural goods, dried fish, textiles, slaves, and ceramics. Pottery from Rhodes, Corinth, and Chios, for instance, have been unearthed at the site, evidence of the trade that was being conducted in the area.

Another piece of archaeological evidence pointing towards the role of Olbia as a trade center are the coins from the site. The settlement began to mint its own coins in the 6th century BC, shortly after its founding. The coins produced during this time were considered to be “proto-money,” and are in fact pieces of bronze in the shape of arrowheads. This is different from the more traditional round coins.

Although the archaeological evidence supports the idea that these coins were made by the Olbians, others are of the opinion that they were made by the Thracians or the Scythians. It has also been suggested that the arrows are meant to represent Apollo, who, amongst other things, was associated with archery. Apollo was also the main deity worshipped by the colonies founded by the Milesians.

The front and back of one of the distinctive Olbia dolphin coins made from bronze. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The front and back of one of the distinctive Olbia dolphin coins made from bronze. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The 5th-century-BC Dolphin Currency of Olbia

In the following century, the Olbians started minting another type of proto-money, the enigmatic dolphin money. No doubt this is one of the most interesting and unique coinages of the Black Sea area. Like the arrowhead coins, the dolphin coins were also made of bronze, and are thought to be connected to Apollo. Some of these coins, however, were made of silver.

The dolphin coins of Olbia came in various sizes. For instance, one of the largest examples weighs 2.83 grams (0.01 ounces), and with a maximum diameter of 47.9 millimeters (1.9 inches). Some of the coins had inscriptions on them, whilst others did not. In some instances, it is thought that the inscription denoted the monetary value of the coin, whilst in others, it is thought to represent the name of the issuing authority.

It is speculated that the Olbians minted these unique coins based on their everyday experiences with dolphins. It has been pointed out that bottle-nose dolphins were commonly found in the Black Sea. This meant that the inhabitants of Olbia would probably have seen these creatures on a daily basis, and that they were amused by their playful antics. Additionally, dolphins would accompany ships over long distances, leading to their association with maritime transport and trade. Furthermore, there are numerous cases of dolphins coming to the aid of sailors who encountered troubles at sea, which contributed to their reputation as benevolent creatures. Consequently, they decided to mint their coins in the shape of the dolphins they knew.

Alternatively, it is speculated that the dolphin coins have a connection to religion. For instance, the coins may have been linked to Olbia’s patron deity, Apollo Delphinos. It may be added that a temple dedicated to this god was built by the Olbians. The dolphin may have also been associated with Poseidon, the god of the sea. In one myth, a dolphin helped Poseidon locate the Nereid Amphitrite. Having located her, the dolphin brought Amphitrite back to Poseidon, who made her his wife. As a reward the god of the sea turned the dolphin into a constellation.      

In relation to their religious connection, it is thought that the dolphin coins were initially used as votive offerings to Apollo. It was only later on that they became used as currency. In any event, the use of the dolphin coins continued into the 4th century BC. This is interesting, as by then, more conventional round coins were also in circulation. This is an indication of the value placed on these unique coins.

Evidence of the ancient settlement of Olbia in what is modern-day Ukraine, on the Black Sea. (Ukrainer)

Evidence of the ancient settlement of Olbia in what is modern-day Ukraine, on the Black Sea. ( Ukrainer)

Olbia Goes to the Scythians, is Sacked, and Becomes Roman

Due to the significance of Olbia as a trade center, there were many attempts to conquer the settlement. During the third century BC, for instance, Zopyrion, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, besieged the city. This is attested archaeologically in a layer of charred ruins at the western gates.

Later on, Olbia became a protectorate of the Scythians, and during the 1st century AD, was sacked by the Getae. Eventually, Olbia became part of the Roman Empire. As a result of the Gothic Wars , Olbia went into decline, and was finally abandoned around the 5th century AD.

Today, Olbia is a popular archaeological destination. Its remains bear witness to the importance of the site, as well as the prosperity that it once enjoyed through trade. This is reflected as well in the dolphin coins, which further strengthened Olbia’s connections with the sea and maritime trade.

Top image: Sarmatia bronze dolphin coins, 5th-4th century BC, from the ancient city of Olbia, which was first Greek, and then Scythian and then Roman. Source: catawiki

By Wu Mingren


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