By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
This reptile, as an image of divinity and of nature, is figured both in its natural shape, and under a variety of monstrous and imaginary forms, on a great multitude of coins of Greek cities … It is less frequently found on coins with Latin inscriptions, but still there are not a few instances in which it is represented both on the Consular and Imperial medals of Rome (Stevenson, 734).
MOVING SILENTLY AND mysteriously without legs, the snake has always held a powerful grip on the human imagination. The snake is a complex and multi-dimensional symbol in Western art. At various times and places, it has represented fertility, rebirth, healing, and guardianship, as well as the forces of darkness and evil. In the CoinArchives Pro database, which records almost two million ancient coin auction sales that took place during the last two decades, a recent search for the term “snake” produced 36,918 hits. The synonym “serpent” produced 39,759 hits. That’s nothing to hiss at.
Snakes with Beards
A peculiarity of ancient Greek art is that snakes are often depicted with beards. Real snakes have no beards. A third-century Roman author, Claudius Aelianus (or “Aelian”) in his book De Natura Animalium explained that the beard showed that the creature was male. Lacking external sex organs, as well as legs, snakes present no visible indication of gender. A bearded snake appears on the reverse of a little electrum hekte of Mytilene on the Aegean island of Lesbos, c. 357-326 BCE.
One of the most charming snake tales in Greek mythology concerns the infant Herakles. A coin cataloguer retells the story:
The birth of Herakles, son of Zeus and Alkmene, enraged Zeus’ wife Hera, who tried to kill the infant by sending two serpents to strangle the sleeping baby in his crib. The following morning, the nurse discovered Herakles playing with the serpents’ lifeless bodies: he had strangled one in each hand.
This striking image even has a name: Herakliskos drakonopnigon (“Little Herakles the Serpent Strangler”). It appears on the coins of many Greek cities, including Kroton in southern Italy; Rhodes; Samos; Kyzikos; and notably Thebes, on a unique gold drachma dated to 395 BCE, symbolizing the Theban struggle against Sparta.
In 1783, when Benjamin Franklin, American ambassador to France, commissioned a silver medallion celebrating victory over Britain, the image of the infant killer of snakes was chosen to symbolize America. With only about 25 surviving examples, this “Libertas Americana” piece is considered the most important early American medal.
The venomous Egyptian cobra or uraeus was a symbol of power for the pharaohs, who incorporated it into the design of their crowns.
In Greek mythology, Agathodaemon (meaning “good spirit”) was a guardian of grain fields and vineyards, represented as a serpent. The culture of Roman Egypt combined many ancient Egyptian and Greek traditions, and this is neatly symbolized on a bronze coin of Alexandria from the time of the emperor Hadrian. On the reverse, the Greek and Egyptian snakes confront one another. Dated to year 10 (125-126 CE), this coin came from the famous collection of Giovanni Dattari (1853-1923), whose 1901 catalog is still an important reference (Carbone, 7).
Snake and Eagle
The image of an eagle holding a snake in its beak is common in ancient art; an evocative symbol of the powers of earth and sky in conflict. For example, it appears on the Mexican flag via an Aztec legend.
The city of Chalcis (or Chalkis) on the Greek island of Euboea used this image as an emblem on its coinage. A superb example is a silver drachma dated to c. 290-271 BCE that brought over $30,000 USD in a recent Swiss auction.
Ceres and Triptolemos
Because they prey upon rats and mice that threaten grain crops, snakes were sometimes viewed as protectors of agriculture and companions of deities and heroes associated with farming.
The goddess Ceres (whose name gives us the word “cereal”) is sometimes depicted on coins riding a chariot improbably drawn by a pair of huge snakes. A fine example is the denarius of the mint official M. Volteius, dated to 78 BCE. The mythic hero Triptolemos (or Triptolemus) was taught the skills of agriculture by Ceres, and he passed on this learning to the ancient Greeks. He appears on many coins of Roman Egypt, driving the snake chariot of Ceres.
Asklepios (or Asclepius, or Aesculapius to the Romans) was a god of healing. Temples of Asklepios functioned as hospitals, and many of these temples kept sacred (non-venomous) snakes. Asklepios is usually depicted as a bearded standing figure holding a staff that has a snake wound around it. The staff of Asklepios is still used as a symbol of the medical profession. A typical numismatic example is a small bronze of Anchialus on the Black Sea coast (today Pomorie, Bulgaria) from the reign of Maximinus Thrax (reigned 235-238 CE).
Around 200 BCE, the kingdom of Pergamum introduced a lightweight silver coin for local circulation. While the old tetradrachm weighed about 17 grams, this “cistophoric” tetradrachm weighed only about 12.7 grams.
These remarkably hideous coins became the chief currency not only of the Pergamene kingdom but also of all Asia Minor. Livy records that the triumphs of the years 190 and 189 (BCE) brought into Rome a booty of 960,000 such cistophoroi, and when the Roman province of Asia was constituted, the proconsular governors of Rome continued the issue of the unsightly money (Seltman, 239).
Cistophoros means “basket bearer”. The obverse features the cista mystica, a ritual basket of snakes, surrounded by an ivy wreath. On the reverse, a pair of snakes entwine themselves around a richly decorated bow case honoring Herakles, who carried a bow and strangled a pair of deadly snakes in his infancy (see above). Under Roman rule, the design of the cistophoroi evolved. For example, on a coin of Apameia dated c. 49 BCE, the bow case on the reverse is replaced by a little temple topped by the statue of a goddess. A coin issued by Mark Antony at Ephesus in 39 BCE replaced the basket on the obverse with portraits of Antony and his wife Octavia, sister of Octavian. An image of Antony’s patron, the god Dionysus, tops a basket between the snakes on the reverse.
One of the most bizarre snakes to appear on an ancient coin was the human-headed, blond-wigged Glycon.
According to Lucian of Samosata (c. 125 – 180 CE), Glycon was actually a hand puppet – or a trained snake with a puppet head – created by false “prophet” Alexander of Abonoteichos, a small town in Asia Minor (today Inebolu, Turkey). An extensive cult of Glycon developed across the Greek-speaking cities of the Roman East, and the snake appeared on many local coins, beginning during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE) and continuing for decades. A very fine example from Nikomedia (c. 198-217) brought $3,000 in a 2016 US auction.
The Cosmic Egg
Snakes are born from eggs, and a snake wrapped around an egg was a very ancient symbol of the “Cosmic Egg”, Creation, or Eternity (Bijovsky, 143). This image appears on coins of Tyre under Roman rule, for example, a large bronze from the time of Elagabalus (c. 220-221 CE).
Salus, the goddess of health and well-being, appears frequently on Roman coins. She is invariably depicted as a seated or standing woman feeding a snake from a shallow dish (patera), often accompanied by an inscription like SALVS REIPVBLICAE (“Well-Being of the State’) or SALVS AVG (“Health of the Emperor.”) A superb example is a gold aureus of Commodus, issued at Rome in 188 CE.
One of the first explicitly Christian images to appear on a Roman coin is a rare bronze follis of Constantine I issued at his new capital, Constantinople. A recent study dated this coin to c. 324 or 325, rather than the previously accepted date of 327 (Ehling, 78 ff).
On the reverse, a serpent is pierced by the staff of a labarum. The labarum was a military standard, with an embroidered fabric panel carried on a crossbar. The panel is adorned with three pellets, possibly medallions of Constantine and two of his sons. The staff is topped by a “Christogram” — the monogram of Christ, combining the Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P). For Romans, the Cross, a horrific and humiliating instrument of execution, had strong negative connotations. It did not appear on the coinage until later in the fifth century, long after Christianity had become the official state religion. The inscription SPES PVBLICA (“Public Hope”) and the image allude to Constantine’s victory over the pagan forces of Licinius, represented as an evil serpent. An exceptional example of this historic coin brought over $9,400 in a 2018 Swiss auction.
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 NAC Auction 123, May 9, 2021, Lot 647. Realized CHF 1,000 (about $1,101 USD; estimate CHF 250).
 CNG Triton XXV, January 11, 2022, Lot 42. Realized $16,000 USD (estimate $7,500).
 Nomos Auction 7, May 15, 2013, Lot 89. Realized CHF 100,000 (about $103,000 USD; estimated CHF 125,000).
 Nomos Auction 21, November 21, 2020, Lot 396. Realized CHF 108,000 (about $118,382 USD; estimate CHF 100,000).
 Naville Numismatics Auction 50, June 23, 2019, Lot 268. Realized £400 (about $508 USD; estimate £50).
 NAC Auction 126, November 17, 2021, Lot 164. Realized CHF 28,000 (about $30,153 USD; estimate CHF 3,000).
 NAC Auction 120, October 6, 2020, Lot 561. Realized CHF 1,800 (about $1,961 USD; estimate CHF 1,500).
 CNG Electronic Auction 481, 2 December 2020, Lot 274. Realized $550 USD (estimate $100).
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 92, December 16, 2021, Lot 1017. Realized £75 (about $99 USD; estimate £50).
 Naville Numismatics Auction 70, December 12, 2021, Lot 144. Realized £80 (about $106 USD; estimate £30).
 Nomos Auction 23, November 30, 2021, Lot 132. Realized CHF 900 (about $973 USD; estimate CHF 500).
 Leu Numismatic Auction 7, October 24, 2020, Lot 1298. Realized CHF 2,800 (about $3,087 USD; estimate CHF 750).
 CNG Auction 94, September 18, 2013, Lot 999. Realized $1,900 USD (estimate $750).
 CNG Auction 103, September 14, 2017, Lot 569. Realized $3,000 USD (estimate $ 500).
 Kölner Munzkabinett E-auction 3, June 25, 2017, Lot 305. Realized €75 (about $84 USD; estimate €60).
 Roma Numismatics, Auction XXII, October 7, 2021, Lot 823. Realized £18,000 (about $24,520 USD; estimate £10,000).
 Leu Numismatik Auction 3, October 27, 2018, Lot 284. Realized CHF 9,500 (about $9,487 USD; estimate CHF 1,000).
Adkins, Lesley and Roy Adkins. Dictionary of Roman Religion. New York (1996)
Bijovsky, Gabriela. “AION: A Cosmic Allegory on a Coin from Tyre?”, Israel Numismatic Research 2. (2007)
Carbone, Lucia. “Giovanni Dattari and His Fabled Collection of Alexandrian Coins”, ANS Magazine 17:2. (2018)
Ehling, K. Konstantin 312. Ausstellung in der Staatlichen Münzsammlung München. Munich (2012)
Lewis, Peter E. “Snakes on Ancient Coins”, Australasian Coin and Banknote Magazine. (October 2016)
Melville Jones, John. A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Coins. London (1986)
Murdoch, Jaimee. Shaking His Hairy Chaps: The Iconography of Bearded Snakes. M.A. thesis, Victoria University, Wellington, NZ (2015)
Rodriguez Perez, Diana. “The Meaning of the Snake in the Ancient Greek World”, Arts 10. (2020)
Seltman, Charles. Greek Coins. London (1955)
Stevenson, Seth W. A Dictionary of Roman Coins. London (1889; 1964 reprint)
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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.