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Boy on a Dolphin

Boy on a Dolphin

The Greek colonies spread far beyond what we now consider to be Greece in the modern day. Grecian colonies spread to Italy, the Mediterranean islands, Syria, Egypt and the Middle East. One of the more successful of the Greek colonies was one founded by refugees from Sparta on the southern end of the Italian peninsula in about 700 B.C. Named Taras, it flourished for nearly 500 years before it was destroyed by the Romans c. 207 B.C.

One of the most popular stories of the founding of the city is one involving dolphins. In 708 B.C. a group of Spartan refugees, following the instruction of the oracle at Delphi (whose name comes from the word for dolphin, and who is the sacred oracle of Apollo, whose symbol is the dolphin), set sail toward the southern end of the Italian peninsula to found a colony there. It's said that Phalanthos, the leader of the Spartan colonists, was shipwrecked before reaching land, but was saved by a dolphin that carried him to the shore. The tale echoes the popular Greek myth of Taras, son of Poseidon who was also saved from shipwreck by a dolphin. The city that was founded there was named Taras, in his honor, and the city's patron was Apollo, thus it was a natural that the standard of the city would be a boy riding a dolphin.

The colony of Taras was founded at the point that offers the first safe harbor on the Mediterranean after one leaves Greece. This put it in the perfect geographical spot to become a major trading center, and it did. Its position at the very heel of the boot allowed it to control both the outer bay for sea-going vessels, and the inner port, flowing into the river inland further into Italy. Between the need for coin for merchant trading and for paying mercenaries who protected the city from invaders, the city of Taras was one of the most prolific producers of coinage in the middle centuries of the Greek empire.

Like most cities, Taras chose to place symbols of its city on the faces of its coins. The figure of a boy riding a dolphin is found on the front of most coins from Taras. The earliest examples of the coinage of Taras had various other symbols on the reverse side. These included the four-spoked wheel, representative of a racing chariot, perhaps, though scholars are divided on that meaning. Within the first fifty years, some larger denominations of the coins featured a head on the reverse, possibly that of Taras, or of his mother, Satyra. Occasionally coins are found with a cockle shell on the reverse. The rider on horseback, which is often the earmark of the Taras coins in today's market, did not actually appear on the coins of Taras until about 450 B.C.

From that period until about 200 B.C. when the city fell to the Romans, there were many different versions of the horseback reverse on various coins in many denominations. Most experts believe that those horses were meant to represent the games at the hippodrome, where athletes competed with each other in contests of skill and strength. The artwork on the coins by this time was stunningly detailed and these coins are among the most beautiful ever minted.