SICILY. Gela. Circa 490/85-480/75 BC.
Didrachm (Silver, 17 mm, 8.52 g, 6 h). Nude bearded warrior riding horse to right, brandishing spear in his right hand and holding reins in his left. Rev.
CE[ΛA] Forepart of the river-god Gelas, in the form of a man-headed bull, to right. Gillet 408 (this coin
). Jenkins, Gela, 3 (O2/R2). SNG ANS 2 (same dies
). SNG Fitzwilliam 983 (same dies
). SNG München 253 (same dies
). Rare. A superb piece with a magnificent river-god. Struck from a slightly worn obverse die and with minor marks, otherwise,
Privately acquired from Anne Demeester, ex Münzen & Medaillen AG 72, 6 October 1987, 504 and Münzen & Medaillen AG 54, 26 October 1978, 86, and from the collection of C. Gillet ('Kunstfreund', 1879-1972), photofile no. 408.
The nude warrior on horseback on the earliest coinage of Gela refers to the importance of the aristocratic cavalry in Sicily: unlike the mountainous Greek motherland, the south and east of the island provided ideal pastures for horses, and cavalry hence played a much more important role in warfare. This brought along significant political consequences, as the breeding of warhorses was expensive and thus in the hands of an elite class of landowners that dominated the Sicilian cities - differing, quite significantly, from the Greek mainland, where hoplite warfare was a major factor in the evolution of the Spartan state in the Archaic period and the rise of the Athenian democracy in the late 6th and 5th centuries.
In late Archaic Gela in particular, the aristocratic cavalry shaped the political landscape: the tyrant Hippokrates (whose name literally means 'horse power'!) conquered considerable parts of eastern Sicily with a force of horsemen in 505-491 BC. He was succeeded by his senior cavalry officer, Gelon, who, after the conquest of Syracuse, became the dominant political figure in Magna Graecia and gained immortal fame for repelling the great Carthaginian attack on the western Greeks in 480 BC.