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The Coin Pythagoras Might Have Touched
bibliomaniac
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Powell's Books Powell's Books

The section headings of Tetraktys are ornamented with a silver coin.  The coin’s faces also compose the circles of the Tetraktys emblem illustrated at the beginning of the book.

 

 

Stater of Kroton; Image (c) CNG Inc.

Stater of Kroton (530-520 B.C.E.); Image (c) CNG Inc.

This coin overlapped in time and place with Pythagoras himself. It’s intriguing for a few reasons, some historical, some mystical…

The coin was minted in Kroton, the Greek colony in the south of Italy where which Pythagoras founded his school. It dates to 530-520 B.C., years during which Pythagoras most likely lived in the city. Pythagoras himself might—just conceivably might—have touched this very coin.

Some scholars see Pythagorean influence in the iconography of Kroton’s coinage. The tripod represents Apollo, a god with whom Pythagoras identified closely. The legs of the tripod boldly call out the number Three.  (I have no idea what the number’s significance is here, but the Pythagoreans were hardcore numerologists.) Pythagoras’ father, Mnesarchus, is believed to have been a gem engraver—the same profession that designed coinage in the ancient world.

In Tetraktys, Ambrose Jerusalem buys a coin like this one to get a material whiff of the Pythagorean spirit. He wonders: If Pythagoras touched his coin, could atoms from the sage’s fingers still cling to it? I wonder too. (Is there a physicist out there who wants to venture an educated guess?)

This coin image was located for me by Aaron Emigh, a colleague in computer security. Aaron explores security issues offline in his own way, by collecting ancient counterfeit coins. (You can see his collection here.) The coin image was graciously provided for use in Tetraktys by the Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.