By Steve Benner for CoinWeek …..
I have seen several articles on ancient coins discussing animals such as mammals and birds, but it’s time the more numerous members of the animal kingdom get some attention. I’m talking, of course, about insects – with “insects” referring here to the six-legged variety. I would have also liked to cover arachnids (eight legs), but I ran out of space.
I have been collecting ancient coins for a long time and am aware that cities did sometimes put bugs on their coins (the obvious example is the bee on the coinage of Ephesus). In general, there are not many cases where they appear as the major feature on one side of a coin. Usually, the bug was a small feature on the coin and could refer to a mythological event; a god or goddess; a political, family, or religious leader; an ability associated with the bug; economic importance; or even artistic whim. Like bugs in the real world, they are sometimes hard to notice.
When I started researching for this article, I wondered: How many kinds of bugs could there be on ancient coins, and how many types of coins could there be that have them? My cursory search yielded nine major bugs that appear on ancient Greek and Roman coins: the grasshopper; the ant; the butterfly; the scarab; the cicada; the cricket; and the bee, wasp, or fly. I’m sure this is not a complete set, but it is a good sample.
As to the second part of the question, the types of coins that have a bug on them number in the hundreds. A feature article could hardly scratch the surface of a subject that would take an entire book to do it justice. So, I’m going to hit the highlights of some of the more attractive and unusual buggy coins.
In no particular order, the grasshopper is the first of our six-legged friends up for discussion. This bane to cereal crops has been around since mankind planted its first seed. Figure 1 is a nomos of Metapontum showing a grasshopper on a barley ear. It is probably just a reference to the threat of locusts and is an attempt to appease the god or goddess of grasshoppers. Some say the dolphin on the reverse could refer to Apollo, who could eliminate a plague of these insects.
The grasshopper was a very popular insect judging from my quick search of cities that had them on their coins. There are at least five cities in Sicily; several in Southern Italy, Thrace, and Macedon; and one in Rhodes that had a grasshopper on their coins. Surprisingly, there did not appear to be any mainland Greek coins in this group.
In addition to these coins, the Roman Republic also placed grasshoppers on their coins (see Figure 2), though I could find only about half a dozen examples where it was done. Apparently, the Roman Empire was not into putting bugs on their coins, with one exception: the butterfly (see Figure 4).
The next insect to consider is probably the rarest on coins: the ant. The only city that put this insect on their coins, that I could find, was Pantikapaion in Cimmerian Bosporos. The city produced only the tetartemorion, though sometimes one will see it listed as a hemitetartemorion. As to why they put an ant on the obverse is up for grabs. It could have been because the coins are so small (5.5 mm or less than a quarter-inch) like an ant or just to easily indicate the denomination. In Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper, the ant is characterized as an industrious insect. Some other issues of this coin had a reverse with a star, an empty incuse square, and the quadripartite incuse but with two pellets in it.
The butterfly is different from the other bugs in this article in that it stood for something in Roman culture, representing the liberation of the soul after death – the butterfly-soul being liberated from the cocoon of the dead body. For this reason, perhaps, it can be found on several Republican coins and even on an Imperial coin of Augustus (Figure 4). Of course, it is just as likely to stand for the initials of a moneyer or other official.
Almost no ancient Greek city put a butterfly on its coins with the exception being that of Rhodes (Figure 5).
The next critter to consider is the cicada. Cicadas only show up after a set interval of time, but, when they do come, it is usually in large quantities. This may have represented a rebirth to the Greeks. Athens gets the honors for the cicada because the city minted small bronze coins with a cicada on the reverse and an amphora (Figure 6) or owl on the reverse. Athens also added the cicada to the field of its new style tetradrachms.
Athens was not the only Greek city to put a cicada on its coins. Several cities featured the cicada on their coins as well including, at least, two cities in Sicily; several in Southern Italy, Thrace, Asia Minor, and Macedon; and at least one in Thessaly and Kyrenaica. Figure 7 shows an excellent example of the cicada on a stater of Ambrakia. In addition, the Roman Republic placed a cicada on several of their denarii.
As any student of ancient history knows, the scarab was sacred to the Egyptians. The scarab rolling its dung ball to its den symbolized the sun moving across the sky and was depicted on many wall inscriptions that way. Though they are found all over the world, scarabs are not usually associated with Greece or Rome and are not commonly found on their coins.
Surprisingly Athens again takes the lead with a didrachm having a scarab on its obverse (Figure 8), but this is a very rare coin ($60,000). Apparently, beetles on Athenian coins did not catch on. Note that this is not necessarily a reference to Egypt since the beetle may just be a junebug.
In the sixth century, the Ionians placed a scarab on the obverse on many of their electrum coins (Figure 9). Again, it is not known what the significance of the scarab was to the Ionians, but they stopped using scarabs by the end of the century.
Overall, putting scarabs on coins was not popular in the ancient Greek or Roman worlds after that. Although there are a few others: a diobol of Vulci with a scarab reverse and a tetradrachm of Abdera that has one in its obverse field.
This insect is a little more controversial.
Though insects may be small in real life, they can be absolutely tiny when carved into a coin die. Crickets are similar to grasshoppers with the cricket having a shorter stubby body and the grasshopper being longer and sleeker. I will leave it up to the reader to decide if the insect on the coin in Figure 10 is a cricket or a grasshopper. The Republican grasshopper for comparison can be seen in Figure 2. The Romans were the only ones to have put a cricket on their coins, and they seemed to have done it only twice. This might suggest it is the symbol of some official or family.
Bees, Wasps, and Flies
Now we come to the most confusing of the insects on coins.
The bee coins of Ephesus have been covered very well by other numismatists (such as my fellow CoinWeek author Mike Markowitz). So I won’t go into detail about this prized insect. An example coin is shown in Figure 11 to see how the bee was depicted.
What I would like to cover are a couple of other insects that get lumped in with the bee: the wasp and the fly. Figure 12 shows all three for comparison.
On this scale it is easy to tell the difference, but as a symbol on a coin, pretty much all winged bugs look alike. I’m sure when the celator was cutting the die, he knew what insect he was supposed to depict, a nickname or a symbol representing that the moneyer wanted on the coin. But it wouldn’t take very long before that information was forgotten, and the numismatist would have to guess at what it is. There are several occasions when one description of the coin calls the insect one thing, and another description calls it something else. This is totally understandable because there aren’t many cities, like Ephesus, that clearly indicate the type of insect on their coins. The fact that there are many species of bees, wasps, and flies (e.g. bumblebees) also obscures the issue.
Figure 13 is a Roman Republic denarius with a wasp on the obverse. The elongated body of the insect may be why it’s called a wasp here. There is no economic benefit to having wasps, so it must be a symbol for a person, family, or characteristic. There are very few coins that have a winged insect on their obverse or reverse that refer to the insect as a wasp; examples include a stater of Dyrrhachium and a hemidrachm of Rhodes.
Last, and probably least, is the fly. The disease-carrying, soup-swimming insect was surely a major part of Greek life. Its stubby body and large wings make it a little more distinctive than the other previous two flyers, and there seem to be many more coins that have a fly on them than feature a stinger-laden alternative. A few of the cities that have a fly on their coins are Messana, Kaulonia, Soloi, Tarsos, Chersonesos, Metapontium, Gela, and Nagidus. Macedon and the Roman Republic used the fly on their coins as well. Figure 14 shows a tetradrachm of Messana that has a large fly on its reverse. Though as always, it may be in the eye of the beholder as to which bug it is.
The same bugs that are around today were probably around then, so there were many bugs that don’t appear on coins. I can’t see bugs like mosquitos, gnats, and fleas being very appealing to a moneyer (I actually looked for them) – plus, I don’t think leaders would want them as nicknames (Scipio “The Gnat” Cornelius).
As to what insects stood for when they were used, aside from the bee, this information has been lost through the ages – though I’m sure they had their purpose at the time. I’ve already mentioned some possible reasons for the bugs being on coins, but I didn’t mention that most of them are a good source of protein (my grandfather ate grasshoppers as a snack, for real). In some countries around the world, they are a traditional part of the culinary and cultural heritage.
I have already emphasized the difficulty of identifying some of the insects on coins, but fortunately, there are some that are readily recognizable and that gives us a little more insight into the ancient world.
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About the Author
Steve M. Benner has a Ph.D. in engineering from the Ohio State University and worked for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for almost three decades before retiring in 2016. He has been an ancient coin collector since the early 1970s and is a member of the ANS, the ANA, and the ACCG. He specializes in coins of the ancient Greek leagues and in Roman Imperial bronzes. Dr. Benner has published over 30 ancient coin articles in various publications and is the author of Achaian League Coinage of the 3rd through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2008) and History and Coinage of the Ancient Greek Leagues, 5th through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2018).