by Adrienne Mayor (Wonders and Marvels contributor)
The Amazon strides along, dressed in a tunic and leather boots, carrying her crescent shield and trusty battle-axe. At first glance the image on the ancient coin looks like a typical ancient Amazon, those mythical warrior women modeled on nomadic archers of Scythia, the immense territory stretching from southern Russia to Mongolia. But hold on—what is that object in her right hand? A ship’s anchor! What could be more incongruous? The Amazons were horsewomen galloping over the vast plains, not sailors on the “wine dark seas.”
Historical facts provide some clues to explain the curious image of an Amazon with an anchor. The bronze coin was issued by Ancyra (modern Ankara, Turkey) in the second century AD. Ancyra/Ankara is situated in the arid high plain of Turkey, hundreds of miles from the sea. A Hittite settlement in the Bronze Age, Ancyra was later populated by Phrygians, Mysians, Persians, Greeks, and even Gauls all the way from southern France, before becoming the capital of the Roman Province of Galatia in the first century BC.
Alexander the Great had conquered the city in 333 BC. Soon afterward, Greek merchants and traders settled in Ancyra. These Greeks came from Pontus on the southern coast of the Black Sea (northestern Turkey), an important center of commerce linked to the Mediterranean. The Greeks from Pontus developed Ancyra into great trading hub connecting the Black Sea with the Silk Routes to Asia.
The city’s original Hittite name (Ankuwa) sounded like the Greek word for “anchor,” leading the maritme Greeks from Pontus to make an anchor the town’s emblem, a reminder of their seafaring traditions. The Greek-sounding name demanded a story and several tales were told to explain why the landlocked city was called “Anchor.” For example, some sources traced the name to a dream of King Midas, the mythic founder of Ancyra. The Greeks dedicated anchors in the city’s temples and anchors began to appear on the city’s coins. But why does an Amazon hold the anchor?
The Greek traders who settled Ancyra were originally from Pontus. In Greek mythology, Pontus was the fabled home of the Amazons, who were believed to have made conquests throughout Asia Minor in the deep past. Numerous cities in Pontus and Asia Minor—and even some Aegean islands—claimed that they had been founded by Amazon warrior-queens. It is likely that the Greeks from Pontus who settled in Ancyra took pride in hailing from the legendary homeland of the Amazons. The deck of a ship is last place one would expect to find the archer horsewomen of the steppes and mountains of Eurasia. Yet the coins of Ancyra are not the only evidence for surprising stories of seafaring Amazons. The logistics and geography of several Greek myths about Amazons require that the warrior women must have sailed ships and crossed large bodies of water. We might guess that a lost oral tradition in Ancyra about Amazons and the sea once drew the two symbols together. At any rate, the juxtaposition of an Amazon and an anchor was certainly an eye-catching, memorable image for the trading city’s coinage.
About the author: Adrienne Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. She is the author of “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World” (2104) ; and “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.