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Griffins on Ancient Coins

Griffins on Ancient Coins. Image: Adobe Stock / Numismatica Ars Classica / CoinWeek.
Griffins on Ancient Coins. Image: Adobe Stock / Numismatica Ars Classica / CoinWeek.

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

But in the north of Europe there is by far the most gold. In this matter again I cannot say with assurance how the gold is produced, but it is said that one-eyed men called Arimaspians steal it from griffins.

–Herodotus, The Histories, 3:116[1]

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THE GRIFFIN (gryps in Greek) IS a mythical beast with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. Long before the emergence of coinage in the seventh century BCE, griffins featured prominently in the art of ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, and other peoples. As guardians of treasure, griffins were a particularly appropriate symbol for coins, and they appeared very early in numismatic history. A griffin adorns the reverse of the current record holder for the highest price ever paid for an ancient coin (see below).

Phokaia

IONIA, Phokaia. Circa 625/522 BCE. Electrum Hekte – Sixth Stater. Image: CNG.
IONIA, Phokaia. Circa 625/522 BCE. Electrum Hekte – Sixth Stater. Image: CNG.

One of the earliest coins bearing the image of a griffin was issued by Phokaia (or Phocaea) in Ionia at an uncertain date around 600 BCE. On this little electrum hekte (2.55 grams), the head of the beast is rendered with its beak open and its tongue extended [In heraldry and numismatics, this would be refered to as langued.CoinWeek]. This archaic griffin has prominent upright ears, and a scaly rather than feathered neck. Behind the griffin’s head, a tiny seal (the marine mammal) is shown at full length. The seal was the badge of Phokaia, because the Greek word for seal, phoke, sounds like the name of the city. In a 2023 US auction, this rare coin brought $6,500 USD against an estimate of $2,000[2].

Kyzikos

Mysia, Cyzicus Electrum Stater circa 500-450 BCE. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Mysia, Cyzicus Electrum Stater circa 500-450 BCE. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

The city of Kyzikos (or Cyzicus) on the Sea of Marmara, prospered by harvesting the annual migration of tuna fish between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The fish appears as an emblem on the city’s lumpy electrum staters (which circulated widely in the ancient world) with designs that changed annually. On one type, dated to c. 500-450 BCE, we see a roaring griffin standing on the fish, with one paw raised[3].

Mysia, Kyzikos EL Stater. Circa 400-330 BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Mysia, Kyzikos EL Stater. Circa 400-330 BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.

A century later, the coins were still lumpy(ish), but the designs were far more ambitious and the sculptural quality of the engraving was remarkable. An electrum stater dated to c. 400-330 BCE shows the muscular god Apollo riding on the back of a griffin in flight, his arm around the beast’s neck. This griffin has the head of a leopard, a common variation of how the creatures were depicted[4].

Teos

Ionia, Teos Silver Stater. Circa 478-449 BCE Image: Roma Numismatics.
Ionia, Teos Silver Stater. Circa 478-449 BCE Image: Roma Numismatics.

Teos[5] (near modern Sığacık, Türkiye) was one of the 12 cities that made up the “Ionian League”. Teos adopted the griffin as its civic emblem. A silver drachm in fine archaic style (c. 510-500 BCE) shows a griffin with curved wings raising one paw[6]. A generation or two later (c. 478-449), a silver stater in richly detailed classical style bears an elegant crouching female griffin[7].

IONIA, Teos. Circa 510-500 BCE. Silver Drachm. Image: CNG.
IONIA, Teos. Circa 510-500 BCE. Silver Drachm. Image: CNG.

In 546 BCE, the Persians invaded Ionia, and many people of Teos fled north to Abdera in Thrace, taking their griffin emblem with them. On coins of Teos, the griffin faces right, while on coins of Abdera, the griffin consistently faces left.

Abdera

Abdera, Silver Octodrachm circa 490. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Abdera, Silver Octodrachm circa 490. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Abdera. Circa 360-350 BCE. Silver Tetrobol. Image: CNG.
Abdera. Circa 360-350 BCE. Silver Tetrobol. Image: CNG.

Described as “[v]ery rare and in exceptional condition for the issue. Of magnificent Archaic style and with a superb old cabinet tone,” a large silver octodrachm (29.94 grams) of Abdera shows a stylized griffin within a dotted border, its head thrown back, raising a paw[8]. Dated c. 490 BCE, these massive coins used the abundant silver from nearby mines. This coin was formerly in the famous collection of Texas oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt.

More than a century later, the griffin still appeared on the coinage of this city, with the feathered wing rendered much more naturalistically[9].

Assos

Troas, Assos Silver Obol. 5th century BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Troas, Assos Silver Obol. 5th century BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.

Founded as early as 1000 BCE, Assos boasted the best port on the coast of the Troad region in the northwest corner of Anatolia. The philosopher Aristotle lived there for a time. Assos placed a seated griffin on its coinage of obols, diobols, and tetrobols from about 450 to 400 BCE. A little silver obol dated to the fifth century BCE combined a griffin on one side and the head of a roaring lion on the other[10].

Panticapaeum

Panticapaeum. Gold Stater circa 350-300 BCE. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Panticapaeum. Gold Stater circa 350-300 BCE. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Panticapaeum. Bronze circa 325-300. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Panticapaeum. Bronze circa 325-300. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

Panticapaeum was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Cimmerian Bosporus, located near the modern city of Kerch on the Crimean peninsula. It grew fabulously wealthy exporting grain and produced an extensive coinage – including gold staters of about nine grams. The city’s distinctive emblem was the head of a satyr, a punning reference to the name of King Satyros I[11], who ruled the area from 432 to 389 BCE. The image on the reverse is a griffin standing on an ear of wheat, holding a broken spear in its beak. This gold stater is #39 on American ancient coin expert Harlan J. Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (Berk, 60). A superb example of this coin set a record price for any ancient coin in a 2023 Swiss auction: $4,860,267[12]. A similar design, with only the front half of the griffin, appears on the more affordable bronze small change of Panticapaeum[13].

Kaunos

CARIA, Kaunos. Circa 490-470 BCE. Silver Hemidrachm. Image: CNG.
CARIA, Kaunos. Circa 490-470 BCE. Silver Hemidrachm. Image: CNG.

Kaunos on the coast of Caria in the southwest corner of Anatolia, was founded in the 10th century BCE. It was famous for its dried figs. During the fifth century BCE, a standing griffin within a dotted square border was the usual reverse used for the fractional silver coinage of Kaunos[14]. Iris, the winged goddess of the rainbow, appears on the obverse.

Soli

Soli. Silver Stater, c. 350-330 BCE. Image: The New York Sale.
Soli. Silver Stater, c. 350-330 BCE. Image: The New York Sale.

The griffin often appears in ancient art as an ornament on the helmet of the goddess Athena. A superb example is the silver stater of Soli[15], a city on the southern coast of Anatolia (near modern Mersin, Türkiye). Dated to c. 350-330 BCE, it shows a detailed leaping griffin adorning the bowl of the goddess’s fancy crested helmet[16]. Some gold staters of Alexander the Great show a griffin on the helmet of Athena, although others show a coiled serpent.

Orthosia

PHOENICIA, Orthosia. Cleopatra VII. Year 2 (35/6 BCE). Æ 18mm. Image: CNG.
PHOENICIA, Orthosia. Cleopatra VII. Year 2 (35/6 BCE). Æ 18mm. Image: CNG.

A small town on the coast of Phoenicia, Orthosia came under the rule of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt in the first century BCE. It issued rare bronze coins bearing a portrait of Queen Cleopatra, with a pair of griffins yoked to a chariot on the reverse. The chariot carries the Phoenician god Baal. Portrait coins of Cleopatra are in high demand from collectors and this example, dated to 36/35 BCE, brought $2,000 in a 2003 US auction[17].

L. Papius

L. Papius, 79 BCE. Silver Denarius, Rome. Image: Leu Numismatik AG.
L. Papius, 79 BCE. Silver Denarius, Rome. Image: Leu Numismatik AG.

The only thing known for certain about Lucius Papius is that he was one of the triumviri monetales (“moneyers” or officials elected annually to manage coinage in the Roman Republic) for the year 79 BCE. His family came from Lanuvium, a small town south of Rome, where there was a temple of Juno Sospita, the goddess that appears on the obverse of his silver denarius. One reverse type shows a griffin leaping vigorously over an oil lamp[18]. The coin is “serrated” with a series of small chisel cuts around the rim. This labor-intensive process was thought to make counterfeiting more difficult.

Hadrian

Hadrian Bronze Obol of Alexandria, Egypt. AD 126-127 CE. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Hadrian Bronze Obol of Alexandria, Egypt. AD 126-127 CE. Image: Roma Numismatics.

For centuries under the Roman Empire, Egypt maintained a separate closed monetary system, with bronze coins that maintained the Greek denominations used under the Ptolemaic kingdom (305-30 BCE). During his reign of 21 years (117-138 CE,) Emperor Hadrian issued hundreds of different coin types with a wide variety of designs. A coin of Hadrian issued in Egypt (127 or 126 CE)[19] depicts a seated griffin with one paw resting on a wheel: “[W]hen a griffin is depicted on an ancient Roman coin with its paw on a wheel, it represents Nemesis, with the wheel representing the cyclical nature of fortune[20].” Nemesis was the Greek goddess of retribution or vengeance.

Gallienus

Gallienus, Billon Antoninianus. Rome, 267-268 CE. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Gallienus, Billon Antoninianus. Rome, 267-268 CE. Image: Roma Numismatics.

Possibly the last appearance of a griffin on a Roman coin is an antoninianus of the emperor Gallienus, dated to 267 or 268 CE[21]. During the Crisis of the Third Century, the standard of workmanship on coins declined sharply. Crudely engraved, the griffin is depicted walking to the right, its wings extended. The surrounding abbreviated Latin inscription APOLLINI CONS AVG translates as “To Apollo, Preserver of the Emperor”. Griffins were sacred to Apollo. The coin (3.72 grams) is struck in billon, a copper alloy with a small amount of silver.

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Notes

[1] www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Hdt.%203.116&lang=original

[2] CNG Triton XXVI, January 10, 2023, Lot 234. Realized $6,500 USD (estimate $2,000).

[3] NAC Auction 126, November 17, 2021, Lot 201. Realized CHF 5,600 (about $6,031 USD; estimate CHF 7,000).

[4] Roma Auction XVII, March 28, 2019, Lot 488. Realized £25,000 (about $32,982 USD; estimate £20,000).

[5] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teos

[6] CNG E-auction 196, October 1, 2008, Lot 42. Realized $825 USD (estimate $500).

[7] Roma Auction 9, March 22, 2015, Lot 294. Realized £8,000 (about $11,937 USD; estimated £10,000).

[8] NAC Auction 88, October 8, 2015, Lot 387. Realized CHF 38,000 (about $39,297 USD; estimate CHF 30,000).

[9] CNG Triton XXV, January 11, 2022, Lot 126. Realized $2,500 USD (estimate $750).

[10] Roma E-Sale 107, March 16, 2023, Lot 385. Realized £95 (about $115 USD; estimate £100).

[11] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satyrus_I

[12] NAC Auction 138, May 18, 2023, Lot 155. Realized CHF 4,400,000 (about $4860,267 USD; estimate CHF 1,250,000).

[13] NAC Auction 138, May 18, 2023, Lot 360. Realized CHF 600 (about $663 USD; estimate CHF 750).

[14] CNG Auction 121, October 6, 2022, Lot 400. Realized $1,000 USD (estimate $1,000).

[15] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soli_(Cilicia)

[16] The New York Sale XX, January 7, 2009, Lot 228. Realized $2,200 USD (estimate $550).

[17] CNG Sale 63, May 21, 2003, Lot 1083. Realized $2,000 USD (estimate $2,500).

[18] Leu Web Auction 26, July 8, 2023, Lot 3603. Realized CHF 320 (about $360 USD; estimate CHF 50).

[19] Roma E-sale 15, January 31, 2015, Lot 355. Realized £170 (about $255 USD; estimate £100).

[20] www.cointalk.com/threads/griffins-as-representations-of-nemesis.374292/

[21] Roma E-sale 109, May 11, 2023, Lot 1198. Realized £110 (about $139 USD; estimate £100).
 

References

Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 2nd edition. Whitman: Pelham, AL (2019)

Kimball Art Museum. Wealth of the Ancient World: The Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt Collections. Fort Worth, TX (1983)

Kraay, Colin. Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. New York (1976)

Sear David. Greek Coins and Their Values, Vol 1: Europe. London (1978)

–. Greek Coins and Their Values, Vol 2: Asia & Africa. London (1979)

Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire (2 vols). Sidney, OH (1999)

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Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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