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This Little Piggy Went to Market: Boars, Hogs, Sows and Piglets on Ancient Coins

Pigs on Ancient Coins - CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
INTELLIGENT, ADAPTABLE, AND omnivorous, pigs have long been companions to humans. We know from cave paintings that Palaeolithic hunters pursued wild boars. The earliest evidence for the domestication of pigs dates from about 8000 BCE (Larson). Even though it is surrounded by many cultural and religious taboos, it’s no surprise that such a succulent and versatile animal features prominently on ancient coinage.

The Greeks: When Pigs Flew

The Greek imagination added wings to all sorts of unlikely creatures, including horses (Pegasus), sphinxes, and even girls (Nike, goddess of Victory).

greekpigcoin1And at least six Greek towns used the image of a winged boar on their coins: Klazomenai, Samos, Kyzikos (or Cyzicus), Ialysos, Kisthene, and Mytilene. This winged boar is usually identified as Chrysaor, the brother of Pegasus. On coins, we only see the front half of the animal (the technical numismatic term is “protome” – which roughly translates as “first cut”). The rest of Chrysaor shows up painted on the shield of Geryon, who fights Herakles on a famous cup painted by the artist Euphronios (ca. 500 BCE).

Non-magical, wingless pigs also appear on Greek coins, notably from the small town of Abakainon (or Abacaenum) on the northern coast of Sicily, where oak forests in the nearby mountains provided pasturage to great herds of pigs.

The pig was sacred to Demeter, the goddess of grain, and figures prominently on special coinage struck by Athens for use by participants in the Eleusinian Mysteries, a series of very ancient secret rituals held every spring at Eleusis (now Elefsina, 18 km, or 11 miles, from Athens). Pigs were sacrificed to Demeter as part of the preparation for initiates:

The purification, however, was not regarded as complete until the following day, when there was added the sprinkling of the blood of a pig sacrificed. Each had carried to the river or lake a little pig, which was also purified by bathing, and on the next day, this pig was sacrificed. The pig was offered because it was very pernicious to cornfields. On Eleusinian coins the pig, standing on a torch placed horizontally, appears as the sign and symbol of the Mysteries.[1]


Mostly small and medium-sized bronzes struck in the fourth century BCE, these coins show a piglet standing on a “mystic staff” – possibly a torch used in the rituals. The obverse depicts Triptolemos, a mythic hero who brought mankind the secrets of agriculture, riding a flying chariot drawn by serpents.

Igpay Atinlay: The Romans

Even before they issued coins, Romans put pigs on their money. A cast bronze ingot (Aes Signatum) of five Roman pounds (1.746 kg) and dated to 275 BCE shows a fat sow. Since the other side of this heavy ingot shows an elephant; this may be a reference to the “Flaming Pig” tactics used by the Roman army to panic the elephants of King Pyrrhus.

According to legend, the legionaries released pigs with burning torches tied to their tails. Running from the flames, the pigs stampeded into enemy lines, creating such chaos among the war elephants that the frantic beasts trampled their own troops.

During the Second Punic War in 216 BCE, an emergency issue of Roman gold coins depicted the sacrifice of a pig to seal an oath of alliance between Rome and one of its Italian allies. This solemn scene was later described in Book VIII of Rome’s national epic, Virgil’s Aeneid:

The friendly chiefs before Jove’s altar stand,

Both arm’d, with each a charger in his hand:

A fatted sow for sacrifice is led,

With imprecations on the perjur’d head.[2]

In the ceremony shown on the coin, an attendant kneels holding a piglet (which is just a lump on all but the best-preserved examples), while the parties to the alliance simultaneously stab the victim. The design reappears 79 years later on a silver denarius issued by T. Veturius, perhaps because the issuer claimed descent from a participant in such a wartime ritual.


One of the most celebrated legendary swine of antiquity was the Calydonian boar, an enormous beast sent by the goddess Artemis to ravage the land of Aetolia because the king had failed to pay her proper homage. The warrior prince Meleager gathered a team of heroes to hunt the terrible porker. The story was a popular theme in classical art[3], and we see the great shaggy boar, pierced by an arrow and harried by a slender hound, on a denarius of 64 BCE issued by Hosidius Geta.

On Imperial coinage, the sow and piglets often appear, symbolizing prosperity to pork-loving Romans; for example, on a denarius of the emperor Vespasian issued in 77 CE.

ErymanthianThe boar was a common design on the smallest regular denomination, the copper quadrans–notably those struck by the emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117 CE). The obverse of Trajan’s quadrans bears the bust of Hercules, so the reverse is surely the Erymanthian boar captured as the fourth labor of Hercules[4].

According to the myth, a giant, savage boar lived on Mount Erymanthos (at 2.224 kilometers, or 7,297 feet, the fourth-tallest peak in the Peloponnese). As punishment for killing his family in a fit of madness, Hercules was obliged to perform a series of 12 impossible tasks or “Labors” for King Eurystheus of Argos. Capturing the Erymanthian boar was the fourth task. Hercules chased the animal into deep snow on the mountain and subdued it with his superhuman strength. When he carried the beast back to Argos, the king was so terrified of it that he hid inside a huge storage jar.

The scene is represented on a rare bronze drachm of Alexandria struck about 146 CE under the emperor Antoninus Pius. Roman Egypt had its own coinage, with Greek inscriptions and themes, and the large bronzes provided ample space for graphic storytelling.

legionariesA running boar was the symbol of the 10th Legion (Legio X Fretensis), one of the most celebrated military units in Roman history. Raised by Octavian around 20 BCE, it fought in the Jewish Wars and served until about 410 CE. The symbol was particularly offensive to the Jewish population of Judaea. Small change from various towns in Palestine was countermarked with the boar for use by the legionaries. The third-century emperor Trajan Decius and his son Herennius Etruscus honored the legion with a special issue of bronzes depicting its boar standard.

After Antiquity: Pigs on Modern Coins

modern pigsIn 1616, Bermuda became the first English-speaking settlement in the “New World” to issue coins. Spanish explorers had released some hogs on the island, where they thrived and multiplied. When King James I granted the British governor of the island permission to mint coins, the curly-tailed hog was a natural design choice, with a ship on the reverse. Crudely struck in brass, these rare shillings, sixpence, threepence, and twopence are usually severely worn and corroded but command high prices when they appear on the market. Hogs have continued to appear on the modern coinage of the island.

From 1928 to 1967, a sow and piglets appeared on the reverse of the Irish halfpenny.

Collecting Swine

It takes some diligence to track down particular animal types on ancient coins since standard references are rarely organized or indexed by theme.

A casual online search on CoinArchives Pro[5] found 279 matches for “pig”, 97 for “piglet”, and 223 for “sow” – but it pulled up an astonishing 4,497 for “boar”. A truly determined searcher would also use all the French and German equivalent terms. It would be a challenge to assemble a collection of pigs on ancient coins since many of the most historic and attractive types are quite scarce.

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[1] Wright, (1919) Ch. 3

[2] Aeneid 8.639–41 (Dryden translation)

[3] The Calydonian Boar Hunt by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) is a spectacular early modern rendering, now in the J.Paul Getty Museum: http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=267599

[4] A superb article on the Labors of Hercules by Steve Benner appears in the October 2014 issue of The Numismatist

[5] Currently archiving over 718,000 records from 1337 auctions: http://pro.coinarchives.com/


Ekroth, Gunnel. “Meat in Ancient Greece: Sacrificial, Sacred or Secular?”, Food & History 5:1 (2007)

Har-Peled, Misgav. The Dialogical Beast: The Identification of Rome with the Pig in Early Rabbinic Literature. Johns Hopkins. Baltimore (2013)

Larson, Greger et.al. “Ancient DNA, Pig Domestication, and the Spread of the Neolithic into Europe”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104:39 (2007)

Lobban, Richard A. “Pigs and Their Prohibition”, International Journal of Middle East Studies 26:1 (1994)

MacKinnon, Michael. “High on the Hog: Linking Zooarchaeological, Literary and Artistic Data for Pig Breeds in Roman Italy”, American Journal of Archaeology 105:4 (2001)

Wright, Dudley. The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites. London (1919)

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Mike Markowitz - CoinWeek Ancient Coin SeriesMike 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.

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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  1. I work for an auction company in New Mexico and we acquired a large heavy bronze coin/medallion. On one side appears to be a soldier wearing a helmet (possibly Roman) and a woman (busts) with lettering, on the opposite side is a sow pig with piglets and what appears to be 3 items above them. I would like to send you pictures and was wondering if you might be able to help identify it (or advise me where I might seek help otherwise). Thank you for your time.


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