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Mytilene on Lesbos

Located on the southeast side of the island, facing Asia Minor with Pergamon slightly further inland, Mytilene has always been the chief city of the island, reflective of its development and synonymous with its fate. Theophilos paintingGiven that lyrical expression - in its original sense of rhythmic poetry of non-epic themes, rendered to the accompaniment of the lyre - set its standards and bloomed here, it is no wonder that the patron god of such expression, Apollo, had special veneration, readily apparent on coinage. This is particularly true of silver and bronze issues, where he frequently appears along with his most relevant attribute here - the lyre, which also serves as the badge and mintmark of the city.

However, Mytilene is also famous for a remarkable and more diverse series of coins - those of electrum, an alloy of gold (about 40%) and silver. Denominated as "hektai" (i.e., sixths of the formal unit, called stater) these beautiful small, thick, carefully measured and struck pieces spanned almost 200 years, starting around 521 BC, and rank as one of the finest Greek series. Struck in high relief and characteristically with no inscriptions, these coins feature a remarkable variety of themes on both sides - numerous gods, mythological creatures, real animals and more. The exact rationale for their inclusion and sequencing remains elusive, but they stand as numismatic testimony to the inspired and free Greek spirit this island has come to symbolize. It is worth noting that the Mytilene hektai series is complemented by that of its sister city of Phokaia (across the straits on the Asia Minor mainland, part o ancient Ionia); the two alternated production every year, and the famous monetary treaty between the two cities governing production (along with purity regulations, punishment for forgery, and much more) carved in stone is displayed to this day in the city's rich National museum. (The Phokaia issues are primarily discernible by the square incuse reverse common to all its designs, but otherwise share the same artistic qualities and precise "al pezzo" strikes remarkably close to the 2.55 g ideal). For those touristically inclined to further explore these relationships on the ground, the good news is that since 2008 a summer ferry operates between the two locales, even though they are now in different countries, technically even continents...

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