The business of a sphinx is to be mysterious
By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek ….
…somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs…
— W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1920)
IN 1939, A GEOLOGIST excavating in a German cave found a broken 12-inch (31 cm) figurine carved from mammoth ivory. The “Lion-man” (Löwenmensch) has the head of a lion on a human body. Possibly the oldest known sculpture created by human hands, it is 35-40 thousand years old. Images like this, of creatures part human and part animal, have an ancient and powerful grip on our imagination. It is not surprising, therefore, that such images began to appear on the coins of many cultures soon after the invention of coinage.
Sphinxes have a human head on the body of a lion. There are two distinct representations. Egyptian sphinxes are mostly male, and stretch out at full length. They were benevolent guardians of gates and temples. Greek sphinxes are mostly female, have wings, and usually have a seated posture. They were ferocious man-eaters, who taunted their prey with riddles. Both appear on ancient coins.
By the time coinage emerged in the Mediterranean world around 650 BCE, Egypt had accumulated over 25 centuries of dynastic history. The Egyptians who built the pyramids and carved the Great Sphinx did not use coined money. When trade bought early Greek and Persian coins to Egypt, they were treated as silver bullion, and rarely penetrated far from the coast. The ancient Phoenician city of Byblos (now Jbeil, Lebanon) traded with the Pharaohs; at some periods it was practically an Egyptian colony. Silver shekels of Byblos from the fifth century BCE bear a sphinx wearing the pharaoh’s head cloth (nemes) and the double crown (pschent) of Upper and Lower Egypt. An example sold for over $17,000 USD in a 2008 European auction.
Although ruled by Rome from the time of Augustus (reigned 27 BCE – 14 CE), Egypt retained a separate monetary system. When the Roman emperor Domitian reformed Egypt’s provincial coinage, he issued bronze obols with a reverse closely resembling the familiar Great Sphinx of Giza. A well-worn example of this rare type sold for $2,000 in a 2005 auction.
Numismatists divide “Greek” coinage into three broad periods, based on artistic style:
- Archaic: Before circa 500 BCE
- Classical: c. 500 – 323 BCE
- Hellenistic: From the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE down to the end of Greek city coinage under Roman rule during the reign of Diocletian, c. 300 CE
The earliest crude representation of the Greek sphinx on a coin appears on a unique electrum stater from an uncertain mint (possibly Miletos or Ephesus) in Ionia (Western Asia Minor) circa 650-600 BCE. These lumpy coins with irregular punch-marks on the reverse are enigmatic. Were the symbols emblems of the issuing city, or the personal seals of individual merchants or officials? This coin sold for $23,000 in a 2006 auction.
A more detailed archaic image of a sphinx appears on a little electrum hecte (one sixth of a stater) of Kyzikos. Below the sphinx is the city’s emblem, a tunny (or “tuna fish”). A leafy little sprig or “ornamental tendril” seems to sprout from the top of the sphinx’s head–a detail that appears on many Greek sphinx images.
At least two Aegean islands, Samothrace and Chios, adopted the sphinx as their emblem. Silver didrachms of Samothrace bearing an archaic Sphinx are great rarities. When one (of only three known) appeared in a European auction in 2012, it sold for over $109,000.
The Chian badge was a seated sphinx with a curled wing, and this sphinx, a creature familiar in Minoan art, remained the type of Chian money down to the third century AD (Seltman, 31).
In contrast, the sphinx coinage of Chios in silver and bronze is abundant. Chios was famed for its wine, and the Chian sphinx usually appears with an amphora (the ceramic jar used to ship wine in antiquity) and a bunch of grapes. A superb tetradrachm (“among the finest specimens known”) in classical style with this image sold for over $75,000 in 2011.
The small town of Gergis, not far from the site of ancient Troy, also used a sphinx on the reverse of its civic coinage for centuries. Gergis was the birthplace of a legendary Sybil (a woman who resided at a holy place and foretold the future, in frequently cryptic language) whose idealized portrait appears on the obverse.
Not much is known about Titus Carisius, who served in 46 BCE as one of the “moneyers” (or triuviri monetales) responsible for supervising Rome’s coinage. He later had a military career, fighting Iberian tribes in Asturias, Spain.
One of the coins issued under his authority bore a sphinx on the reverse, and a female head on the obverse, identified in many references as a Sibyl  from Rome’s early history. In a brilliant recent paper, David Woods demonstrates that the obverse of this common denarius is simply the head of the sphinx on the reverse (Woods, 243-257). The identity is quite clear on well-preserved examples, but previous numismatists seem to have missed it.
The CoinArchives Pro database lists 108 examples of this type, many sold at prices under $200, but few are sharp enough to show that the tiny sphinx head on the reverse is identical to the woman on the obverse. Possibly the best example (“exceptional strike for issue”) went for $2,800 in a recent auction. The British Museum has an even sharper example (BM 1901.0407.156).
From his mother Atia (85 – 43 BCE), Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) inherited a signet ring showing a sphinx. In his early career he used it as his personal seal; later he adopted a seal with the image of Alexander the Great. A rare and beautiful silver tetradrachm struck at Pergamum c. 27-26 BCE is thought to be a close copy of the emperor’s seal. In Harlan Berk’s list of the “100 Greatest Ancient Coins”, this type is #28.
Legends depicted the sphinx as a creature of preternatural intelligence, keeper of the most profound secrets, wise and extremely secretive. Augustus’s own signet ring was engraved with the sphinx and historians feel that the emblem reflected his own personality (Berk, 83).
A rare gold aureus of Augustus circa 19 BCE also depicts this sphinx. In a 2013 auction one example sold for $55,000. Some examples have the word CAPTA below the sphinx, claiming the “conquest” of Armenia.
Though in ancient history, Armenia never stayed conquered for very long.
Greek-style sphinxes appear on the bronze coinage of Roman Egypt; not surprising, since Alexandria was an essentially Greek city. A bronze drachm of Hadrian struck in 133-134 CE bears a sphinx holding an eight-spoked wheel. We don’t know what the wheel represents, but the business of a sphinx is to be mysterious.
The last appearance of a sphinx on a Roman provincial coin that I could find is a civic bronze of Erythrai in Ionia, issued during the reign of Philip “the Arab” (244-249 CE). Erythrai was located on the mainland just a few miles from Chios. The coin celebrates the city’s friendship (“homonoia”) with Chios, using the Chian symbol, a sphinx resting a forepaw on an amphora.
Egypt adopted the Great Sphinx as a national icon beginning with some of its earliest postage stamps in 1867. The Great Sphinx (its nose miraculously restored) has appeared on a variety of Egyptian coins for decades. The reverse of the current Egyptian 100 pound banknote bears an engraving of the Sphinx as it actually appears.
Austria’s 50 schilling banknote, which circulated from 1986 to 2002, showed a portrait of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) accompanied by a stylized sphinx, in a sly reference to the tale of Oedipus and the sphinx.
* * *
 Yeats, 185
 The word “sphinx” derives from the Greek root sphingo, meaning “strangle”. An alternative theory derives the word from ancient Egyptian: sheshep-ankh, meaning “living image.”
 A notable exception is the seven-ton red granite sphinx of Queen Hatshepsut (c. 1460 BCE) in New York’s Metropolitan Museum: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544442
 The beginning of the First Dynasty is dated to c. 3218 – 3035 BCE
 One of the Egyptian commodities Byblos handled in bulk was papyrus paper. In Greek the city’s name was applied to all kinds of books. Hence our word “bible”.
 Numismatica Ars Classica (NAC) Auction 46, 2 April 2008, Lot 291.
 Classical Numismatic Group (CNG) Sale 69, 8 June 2005. Lot 1281. A sharper example in a private collection can be seen at http://www.colosseocollection.com/p444364358/h384777E2#h384777e2
 CNG Triton IX, 10 January 2006. Lot 949.
 Roma Numismatics, E-sale 29, 27 August 2016. Lot 161. Realized US$660.
 Nomos Auction 6, 8 May 2012. Lot 35.
 The modern flag of Chios echoes the coin design.
 NAC Auction 59, 4 April 2011. Lot 626.
 CNG Triton XVI, 8 January 2013. Lot 818.
 Tradart, S.A., 18 December 2014. Lot 237. Price realized: US$23,550.
 CNG Auction 94, 18 September 2013, Lot 1139
 CNG Auction 88, 14 September 2011. Lot 1088. Price realized: US$3,500.
 Gitbud & Naumann Auction 9, 3 November 2013. Lot 348. Price realized: US$944.
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