A Coin from the Ancient Olympics

A silver stater minted for the 93rd Olympiad from Elis, Olympia c. 408 BC with and Eagle’s head left, below poplar leaf inscribed [DA]. On the reverse, F - A on either side of winged thunderbolt, all within olive wreath. This coin sold for $19,000.

The first Olympic coins were minted around 471 BC so this coin is a fairly early example. The exact start date of the Olympic games is not known, but written records start at 776 BC. The Olympics continued until 391 AD when the Emperor Theodosius ended the games.

Of the four big sanctuaries - Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea - that hosted crown games during the Classical period, only Olympia had a regular coinage that was associated with its festival. This coinage would serve as the only legal tender during the games. All foreign coins had to be exchanged. This exchange was done for a fee which went to pay for the upkeep of the sanctuary at Olympia. Besides being a source of income for the sanctuary, this exchange to a common currency made commerce easier as the home currencies of the various visitors were sometimes based on different weight standards. A common currency was also needed because one of the great attractions of the Olympic Festival was the vast market or fair that took place there at the same time as the games, drawing an immense audience of buyers and sellers from all over the Greek world.

The fact that there were a wide variety of denominations of Olympic coinage - staters (or didrachms), drachms, hemidrachms and obols - shows that these coins were for commerce and were not just souvenirs as was once thought.