PHOENICIA, Byblos. Uzibaal. 350-335 BCE*
AR dishekel, 26 mm, 13.3 gm
Obv: Three hoplites with shields in war galley left, roaring lion's head on prow, waves below galley; hippocamp left below; murex shell beneath; Z O (N O?) in field
Rev: Phoenician inscription*; lion attacking bull left
Ref: SNG Copenhagen 132, BMC 26.95, 4.
acquired August 2014
* see notes
The date of this issue varies depending on source and ranges from 400 to 335 BC.
Various references translate the inscription to ‘zb‘l mlk gbl (Ozbaal, king of Byblus).
Masters of the sea
Positioned at the easternmost Mediterranean, Phoenicians capitalized on the waterways and were renowned for their seamanship. Keeled-hull ships allowed them to sail the open seas and as a result, Phoenicians developed a flourishing sea trade and unmatched naval power. You might consider them the world's first traveling salesmen.
Phoenician colonies extended to the Straits of Gibraltar. Some archaeologists believe they reached beyond Africa, even to the Americas.
The murex shell represents Phoenicia’s namesake and prized product: purple dye. Manufactured from decomposed sea snails, the resulting purple dye is remarkably colorfast. Items dyed with Tyrian Purple in ancient times still retain their color today. Historical records indicate Phoenician purple dye was worth its weight in silver in some trading locales. Royal purple indeed; you’d have to be wealthy to afford a purple garment.
Mythologic tradition credits Herakles's dog with discovery. Per second century mythographer Julius Pollox, Herakles was strolling on the beach and noticed his dog chewing on a rotting murex snail. The dog’s mouth was stained vibrant purple. Rubens painted the scene but apparently he didn’t study marine biology. The sea snail in this painting is a nautilus, not a murex.
Who doesn’t love a hippocamp?
The reason behind the appearance of a hippocamp on these coins is speculative. Perhaps to reinforce the “we rule the seas” message? Given the location and gentle appearance of the beast, I interpret it as protecting the ship and occupants… that the Phoenicians were on good terms with this mythical creature (and Poseidon). However, hippocamps and Poseidon were not part of traditional Phoenician religion and lore, or if they were, I haven’t found the sources. This coin was struck late in Phoenician history. Perhaps some Greek myths were woven into the Phoenician tapestry by then.
The ever-popular allegory
The reverse scene of a lion attacking a bull is similar to that found on many coins from many issuers. Is it merely a statement of power? An astronomical allusion? A specific threat? By the time of this coin’s striking, Phoenicia was divided into four vassal kingdoms of Persia. Was the coin a message to Macedon? Only mere decades later much of Phoenicia would fall to Alexander the Great.
If you are reading this, you can thank the Phoenicians
Our alphabet along with virtually all others have their origin in the Phoenician’s innovative 22-letter all-consonant alphabet. Even the word “alphabet” has a Phoenician origin: an elision of the first two letters, aleph and beth, which became alpha and beta —> alphabet.
Gebal (called Byblos by the Greeks) was a hub of this erudite activity as well as a papyrus producer. The English words book and bible stem from this city’s name.
While researching this coin I thought it would be fun to translate the reverse legend. Many hours later, I gave up. The Phoenician alphabet morphed over the centuries and I’m not sure of each character's identity. Even if I were, the next step of translating it to English is impossible for a linguistic novice. I did however learn that when researching coins, it is advisable to take a break now and then and to remember to eat. I failed to do so and by the end of the translation misadventure had become giddy and started playing with substitution cryptograms.
(In case you're curious, ONBOLMLWGBL solves to “BIG BEVERAGE”. Big Beverage. This coin was just a promotional token. Buy two vials of Tyrian Purple and get a free flagon of wine.)
Additional reading and fun links:
A Phoenician enthusiast's website
Traces of cocaine and tobacco found on Egyptian and Sudanese mummies. Proof of Phoenicia's travel to the Americas, or not?
Evidence of Phoenician presence in Brazil?
Early history of sea warfare. The Phoenicians cranked it up a big notch.
Assorted facts about Tyrian Purple dye