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HomeAncient CoinsCoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: Lions on Ancient Coins

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: Lions on Ancient Coins

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..

Hektor came on against them, as a murderous lions on cattle who in a low-lying meadow of a great marsh pasture by hundreds, and among them a herdsman who does not quite know how to fight a wild beast off from killing a horn-curved ox…

Homer, Iliad, Book 15:630-636

MORE THAN 30,000 years ago, humans and lions competed for the same prey as food, and the same caves as shelter. Sensitive, lifelike drawings found on the walls of Chauvet Cave[1] in southern France attest to the profound impact these animals had on our ancestors. Lion-hunting was a favorite aristocratic pastime for millennia, and many rulers have been patrons of artists who skillfully depicted combat with the big cats in stone, pigment or metal. The Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (reigned 668 – c. 631 BCE) decorated the walls of his palace with realistic carvings of his lion hunts[2], and such imagery strongly influenced the royal iconography of many ancient empires.

Lions appear on coins at the very dawn of coinage, and many rare and spectacular ancient coins portray the king of beasts.

lions on gold lydian coin

The earliest image to appear on any coin is the head of a roaring lion on the electrum coins of the Lydians, an Indo-European people who may have invented coinage around 650 BCE (perhaps a little earlier, the date is controversial). Lydia’s capital was Sardis, and they traded extensively with their Greek neighbors, who quickly adopted the use of coins and the lion imagery. The prosperous Greek town of Cyzicus, for example, which frequently changed the design of its electrum coins, used a crouching lion (c. 500 – 450 BCE) above its city emblem of a fish[3]. Croesus, the last king of Lydia (reigned 560 – 546 BCE), innovated the production of pure silver and gold coins (at a ratio of about 13:1) in a wide range of denominations, all bearing the image of a lion confronting a bull[4].

The wealthy Phoenician trading city of Sidon used a very archaic image of a king fighting a lion on its silver coinage (fifth century BCE). The lion stands improbably on its hind legs, while the king seizes a lock of its mane, preparing to stab it with a dagger[5]. This is an image often seen on Mesopotamian cylinder seals, and may reflect Sidon’s formal allegiance to the Persian Empire (although the city was effectively independent).

When Lions Attack

Silver tetradrachms of Acanthus, in northern Greece, have been found from Sicily to Afghanistan. For over a century (c. 525 – 380 BCE) these coins bore a dramatic image of a lion attacking a bull. A cataloguer explains:

lions attacking a bull

Explanations for the symbolism and its power over the ancient peoples who reproduced it with prodigious enthusiasm have ranged from it being an expression of royal power, to it being an astronomical allusion, as well it being an embodiment of the constant struggle between civilisation [sic] (represented by the domesticated bull), and nature (represented by the untameable lion [sic]). This latter argument may well hold true for the Mesopotamians of Uruk, who it is known took a rather grim view of the world, seeing it as a battleground of opposing powers[6].

This highly stylized archaic design, probably copied from decorative imported Eastern luxury objects, gradually evolved into a much more naturalistic and dynamic image.

The nearby city of Stagira used a lion attacking a wild boar on a rare tetradrachm c. 520-500 BCE; a “playful adaptation of the lion-bull issues of Acanthus.”[7] A more common design found on coins of a number of cities (including Velia in southern Italy and Kition on Cyprus) is a lion attacking a stag. A particularly artistic example is the silver stater issued by Mazaios, Persian satrap (governor) of Cilicia at Tarsus c. 361 – 334 BCE[8].

A slim walking lion appears on handsome “Lion Staters” issued at Babylon (c. 328-311 BCE) after Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire[9]. A similar but far more elegantly engraved beast is on the reverse of the rare and magnificent “Dido” tetradrachm of Carthage, issued to pay mercenaries fighting in Sicily (c. 320 -310 BCE)[10].

The Nemean Lion

The Nemean Lion was a supernatural creature with golden fur impenetrable by any earthly weapon. It terrorized the region of Nemea, near the Greek city of Corinth. As the first of his Twelve Labors, the hero Herakles (Hercules) was required to hunt and kill it. When his arrows failed to hurt the beast, Herakles stunned it with his club, and used his superhuman strength to strangle it. He skinned the lion with it’s own razor-sharp claws, and then wore the magical lion skin as his armor. The struggle between Herakles and the lion is one of the most popular images in ancient Greek and Roman art, and appears on many coins.

hercules fighting a lion

One of the most artistic is a 5.8 gram gold piece of Syracuse issued c. 400 BCE. On Harlan Berk’s list of the 100 greatest ancient coins, this type is #19. Herakles kneels, wrapping himself around the lion, in a way that perfectly fits the circular space of the coin[11].

The Sicilian Greek town of Leontini, on the edge of the fertile Plain of Catania with its rich volcanic soil, used a roaring lion’s head as its civic emblem. A cataloguer writes:

Similar stylized lion heads were also used as water spouts. The mane is characteristically reduced to a stiff fringe. The snarling expression is emphasized by the deep parallel wrinkles of the lion’s upper lip and nose, by the exposure of the scalloped lining of the mouth and by the lolling tongue (Houghton, 173).

A superb tetradrachm of Leontini, dated to c. 430-425 BCE, brought $4,900 USD in a recent European auction[12]. In April 2017, when our tour group from the Washington Ancient Numismatic Society visited Sicily, we drove past the local hospital in Lentini, and were delighted to see that the local hospital uses an image of this coin as its logo.

Roman Lions

Romans adopted much of their art and culture from the Greeks, but some of their deities came from exotic sources farther East. The goddess Cybele[13], from Phrygia in Anatolia, typically appears in a chariot improbably drawn by a pair of lions. This startling image appears on the reverse of a Roman denarius of 78 BCE[14].

lion on roman coin

The Roman taste for watching men fight wild beasts hastened the extinction of European and North African lions. A few representations of such gladiatorial combat appear on Roman coins, notably a denarius issued by L. Livineius Regulus in 42 BCE[15]. As urban prefect, Regulus was responsible for staging these popular entertainments, and he boldly placed his own portrait on the obverse – something Romans would have considered shocking even a decade earlier.

For the thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome, celebrated in April of 248 CE, Emperor Philip “The Arab” (reigned 244 – 249) staged an epic series of games (the Ludi Saeculares) that were commemorated on his coins, which are quite common. Besides a thousand gladiators, hippos, giraffes, leopards, lions, and even a rhino were killed to entertain the spectators. Many of these animals appear on Philip’s base silver antoniniani. These are probably the most affordable examples of lions on ancient coins; the quality of the engraving is cartoonish, indicating the decline in artistic standards during this troubled era[16].

The emperor Aurelian (ruled 270 – 275) tried to reverse the decline in Rome’s fortunes and nearly succeeded. He reconquered breakaway provinces in Gaul and Syria. On the reverse of a rare gold aureus struck at Cyzicus in 272, a leaping supernatural lion clenches a thunderbolt in its jaws while spiky rays of light emanate from its head. As a symbol of triumph, it seems to foreshadow the rampant lions that appear so often in medieval heraldry.

Postumus, who ruled the breakaway Gallic Empire (c. 260 – 269) tried to identify himself with Hercules on his coinage. On a unique gold aureus, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, issued from his capital at Cologne on the Rhine, a standing Hercules fights the Nemean lion[17]. A cataloguer writes:

This particular reverse with its striking rear view derives from a venerable Greek original probably attributable to Lysippus[18]. The mere allusion is indicative of Postumus’ cultural level, and the plasticity of the coins type is vastly superior to the sketchy technique of most contemporary Roman reverses (Houghton, 257).

With the Christianization of the empire in the fourth century, lions vanish from Roman coinage. Pagan emperors had supposedly fed Christians to lions in the arena, and it was probably impolitic to remind people of it. Not until the 17th century in Europe would realistic images of lions based on observation of the living animals appear again on coins[19].

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chauvet_Cave

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion_Hunt_of_Ashurbanipal

[3] Roma Numismatics Auction XIV, 21 September 2017, Lot 207. Realized $1,761 USD.

[4] Roma Numismatics Auction XIV, 21 September 2017, Lot 244. Realized $9,480 USD.

[5] New York Sale XL, 11 January 2017, Lot 1129. Realized $4,000 USD.

[6] Roma Numismatics Auction XIII, 23 March 2017, Lot 148. Realized $26,306 USD.

[7] NAC Auction 52, 7 October 2009, Lot 96. Realized $116,167 USD.

[8] CNG Electronic Auction 376, 15 June 2016, Lot 231. Realized $525 USD.

[9] CNG Triton XVIII, 6 January 2015, Lot 245. Realized $10,500 USD.

[10] Roma Numismatics Auction XII, 29 September 2016, Lot 65. Realized $71,401 USD.

[11] Chaponnière & Firmenich Auction 8, 5 July 2017, Lot 8. Realized $16,561 USD.

[12] Nomos AG Auction 13.

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cybele

[14] Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 97, 12 December 2016, Lot 18. Realized $443 USD.

[15] Ira & Larry Goldberg Auction 69, 29 May 2012, Lot 3400. Realized $2,350 USD.

[16] CNG Electronic Auction 397, 17 May 2017, Lot 646. Realized $170 USD.

[17] Sotheby’s Nelson Bunker Hunt Collection, 19 June 1990, Lot 145. Estimate $40,000 – $60,000 USD.

[18] Sculptor, lived c. 390 – 300 BCE

[19] The lovely 1837 British £5 gold coin of Queen Victoria known as “Una and the Lion” is probably the most spectacular image of a lion in all of numismatics: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Una_and_the_Lion


Bliquez, Lawrence. “Lions and Greek Sculptors”, The Classical World 68 (1975)

Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Atlanta (2008)

Houghton, Arthur. Wealth of the Ancient World: The Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt Collections. Fort Worth (1983)

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

Lattimore, Richmond (translator). The Iliad of Homer. Chicago (1951)

Lethaby, W. R. “Greek Lion Monuments”, Journal of Hellenic Studies 38 (1918)

Lonsdale, Steven. “Attitudes towards animals in ancient Greece”, Greece & Rome 26 (1979)

Markoe, G. E. “The Lion Attack in Archaic Greek Art: Heroic Triumph”, Classical Antiquity 8 (1989)

Thomas, Nancy. “The Early Mycenaean Lion up to Date”, Hesperia Supplements 33 (2004)

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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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