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CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz….
 

THE LEPORIDAE ARE A FAMILY OF MAMMALS, including some 60 species of rabbits and hares. With a wide range of symbolic associations (good luck, fertility, cleverness, swiftness, et al.), the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and hare (Lepus europaeus) have a long history in Western art, mythology and folkore.

Naturally, they appear on coins.

The Hare in Magna Graecia

Many ancient Greek cities adopted symbolic or mythical animals as badges or totems. Athens chose the owl due to its association with Athena. Corinth chose the Pegasus. For Cyzicus in Anatolia, it was the tuna fish. And so on.

Americans have a similar custom: the dolphin for Miami, the colt for Indianapolis, the bear for Chicago. Several cities in “Magna Graecia” (the region of southern Italy and Sicily settled by Greek colonists beginning in the eighth century BCE) adopted the leaping hare as a distinctive symbol on their classical-era coinage.

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Anaxilas, Tyrant of Rhegium

The story begins with Anaxilas, son of Cretines. In 494 BCE he seized power at Rhegium (or Rhegion, known today as Reggio Calabria at the tip of the boot of Italy) and soon extended his rule to Sicily. Anaxilas is credited with importing Greek hares to Sicily for the aristocratic sport of hunting. A leaping hare appears on his small silver litra at Rhegium as early as 480 BCE.

When his mule-chariot (biga) team won in the Olympic games, he placed that image on his coins. Coinage is conservative, and this basic design – mule chariot obverse, leaping hare reverse – was continued for generations.

Neighboring cities that allied with Rhegium or came under its control soon adopted the leaping hare as a symbol, notably Messana. Early coinage of Messana closely copied Rhegium’s design, changing only the “ethnic” (the inscription giving the name of the city). About 420 BCE, Messana issued a magnificent silver tetradrachm depicting the nature god Pan, seated on a rock playing with a leaping hare[1]. Another tetradrachm from this period shows the hare leaping over a head of Pan.

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Messana Tetradrachms

On a coin dated after 460 BCE, the nearby city of Lokroi[2] shows a hare leaping over an overturned amphora. A century later (ca. 360) the city of Croton placed the hare on the reverse of its small silver diobols, with its own traditional symbol of the tripod on the obverse.

A very different representation of the hare makes its appearance on Greek coinage about the year 400 BCE. The hare appears as a victim, being torn by the beak of an eagle as it grips the hare in its talons.

The magnificent silver decadrachm of Akragas is perhaps the most famous example.

On the reverse of this large coin, a pair of eagles perch on a rocky crag, about to dine on a dead hare. One bends down toward the prey, the other stretches its neck upward to screech in triumph. A cataloguer of the Hunt collection relates the image to a chorus in the play Agamemnon:

The eagles are an omen sent from Zeus to Agamemnon and Menelaus commanding the sacrifice of Iphigenia before the Greek fleet might set sail for the Trojan War.” (Lorber, 182)

Attributed to engravers named Myron and Polykrates, less than 10 examples of this coin are known.

A similar design appears on the less rare Akragas tetradrachms of the same period, and was eventually copied at Lokroi, Croton and other cities.

Other Greeks

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Akragas Silver Decadrachm

The Greek town of Elis controlled the sacred site of Olympia and was responsible for managing the Games held there every four years. This responsibility included issuing special coinage for the use of visitors attending the event. In the fifth century BCE, this coinage reached a high standard of artistic excellence. The obverse of a silver stater struck for the 87th Olympiad (432 BCE) depicts an eagle tearing with its beak a hare held in its talons. Two centuries later, we see the same design (executed with less grace, perhaps) on a silver drachm of Elis.

About 400 BCE, the very obscure town of Atarneus (or Atarnios, now Dikili, on the Aegean coast of Turkey opposite the island of Lesbos) issued charming tiny silver half obols with a hare on the reverse. Only a few examples are known; one sold for US$700 in a February 2014 auction[3].

Roman Rabbits

There is also a species of hare, in Spain, which is called the rabbit; it is extremely prolific, and produces famine in the Balearic Islands, by destroying the harvests[4].

                                 -- Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 CE)

One theory for the origin of the name “Hispania” is that it derives from the Phoenician word for “rabbit” [ s-p-n ] because rabbits were so abundant there. The poet Catullus (ca. 84 – 54 BCE) described a friend as “a son of rabbity Spain,” (cuniculosae Celtiberiae fili[5]). The Emperor Hadrian (ruled 117 – 138 CE) spent much of his long reign traveling among the provinces and his coins commemorated his travels. Hadrian’s gold, silver and bronze issues depicting Hispania on the reverse show the female personification of the province accompanied by a little rabbit at her feet (even on well-preserved examples, magnification is often needed to see the animal).

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HADRIAN, A.D. 117-138. Gold Aureus

More than a century later, this design reappears on an extremely rare gold aureus of the obscure and short-lived ruler Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus (February to June 269). Laelianus was an army commander from a Spanish family, possibly a relative of the Emperor Trajan (ruled 98 – 117 CE). Early in 269 he declared himself emperor at Mainz (Moguntiacum) on the Rhine frontier. On the reverse, the figure of Hispania reclines, holding an olive branch and petting a rabbit. The inscription Temporum Felicitas (“Happiness of the Times”) is ironic, considering the murderously anarchic condition of the empire in these years.

Besieged by the troops of Postumus (ruled 260 – 269), Laelianus was probably murdered by his own men. Postumus suffered the same fate when he refused to let his mutinous army sack and pillage Mainz. Only about a dozen examples of this coin are known, most in museums. The famous forger Carl Wilhelm Becker (1772-1830) made some well-known counterfeits of this type. The only authentic example of this coin to appear in a recent sale sold for over US$ 107,000 in May 2005[6].

Medieval and Modern Rabbits

The image of an eagle tearing at a hare has such emotional power that it continued to appear (however crudely executed) on Medieval coinage, notably the silver denars of the Polish ruler Ladislaus II (“Władysław Wygnaniec” ruled 1138 – 1146) and the Hungarian King Bela IV (1235 – 1270).

Hulagu (or Hülegü, ruled 1256 – 1265), one of Genghis Khan’s many grandsons, established a Mongol empire in Persia. Eventually (1295) the “Ilkhans”, as they were known, converted to Islam, but for several decades their coins–though inscribed in Arabic script–bore occasional animal images.

bunny4From their long contact with Chinese civilization, the Mongols associated the rabbit with the moon. On a copper fals of Hulagu, a stylized rabbit jumps over a crescent moon[7].

A hare appears almost lost in a thicket of Arabic calligraphy on a silver dinar of Arghun (ruled 1284 – 1291). A most remarkable image appears on a copper fals of Abaqa (ruled 1265-1282) struck at Irbil in Kurdistan: three running hares arranged in a circle, so that their ears form a triangle. This enigmatic design is found in Buddhist cave paintings, carved in eastern European synagogues, and (supposedly as a symbol of the Trinity[8]) in western church windows.

The hare continues to pop up on modern circulating coins, notably the Irish Republic’s handsome threepence, issued from 1925 to 1972, and the Canadian centennial five-cent piece of 1967.

Notes

[1] An example of this coin sold for over US$85,000 in May 2015 (Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 82, Lot 44).

[2] Called Lokroi Epizephyroi, meaning “Lokroi on the West Wind”, to distinguish it from its ancestral region Locris in central Greece.

[3] CNG Electronic Auction 321, Lot 83

[4] Pliny the Elder (1855). Chapter 81

[5] Catullus (1913). XXXVII, line 18

[6] Leu Numismatik Auction 93, Lot 98

[7] Where Westerners see the face of a man in the moon, the Chinese have long seen the image of a rabbit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rabbit.

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_hares

References

Catullus (F.W. Cornish, transl.). Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus. Harvard (1913, reprint 1976)

Gardner, Percy. The Coins of Elis. London (1879)

Lorber, Catharine. “The Coins of Nelson Bunker Hunt: Catalogue”, Wealth of the Ancient World. Kimball Art Museum. Fort Worth (1983)

Numismatica Ars Classica. Auction 82, The J. Falm Collection: Miniature Masterpieces of Greek Coinage Depicting Animals. Zurich (2015)

Pliny the Elder (John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley, eds.) Natural History. London (1855)

Stevenson, Seth. A Dictionary of Roman Coins. Seaby (1889; reprint 1964)
 

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