Creature Currency [Stamp and Coin Mart, December 2009, Pages 96, 97 and Cover]
Given the British penchant for all things RSPCA and RSPB, it is hardly surprising to find an interest in living creatures spiling over into our coin collecting habits, writes Brett Hammond of TimeLine Originals
Given the British penchant for all things RSPCA and RSPB, it seems hardly surprising to find an interest in living creatures spilling over into our coin collecting habits. And when it comes to ancient coins this particular niche is a popular one for beginners and for a substantial number of advanced collectors willing to pay top prices for numismatic rarities in order to add less common animals, birds and fishes to their coin menageries. Fortunately for the rest of us there are plenty of reasonably priced coins that allow even absolute beginners to acquire interesting examples depicting creatures that were intimately bound up with both the everyday concerns and the widely held beliefs of people who lived at a time when relationships between humans and other living creatures were far more complex than we experience them today. To the ancient mind there was no strict separation between animals and humans; it was widely believed that humans could enter the bodies of animals and vice versa; and a deity would not hesitate to take on the appearance of an animal when revealing him/herself to a human.
An animal depicted on a coin might have been regarded, on the one hand, as a domesticated beast, or as quarry for a hunter, or as a sacrificial offering. At the same time the creature might have been the emblem of a city, or a representation of a god. Take, for example, the she-wolf seen on many late Roman coins and usually depicted suckling Romulus and Remus, founders of the Eternal City. A beginner could add an f-grade bronze example to his collection for under £5 and smile at the naivety of Romans who could imagine human infants thriving on wolf’s milk.
But a Roman citizen would have instantly, and quite naturally, associated the scene on the reverse of his small change with the Lupercalia festival (lupus is Latin for wolf) in which young men from noble Roman families ran naked through the city’s streets on the 15th of February, whipping the hands of any women and girls who held them out as the youths ran past. A stroke from one of the ritual whips was thought a certain cure for infertility and insurance against pains in childbirth. Lupa, the she-wolf who offered her milk to Rome’s founders, was believed to have occupied a cave on the Palatine Hill, the centremost of Rome’s Seven Hills, where she continued to guard city and citizens from external threats. The reverse of the coin in the palm of his hand would have given more than monetary comfort to the poorest Roman.
(* In 2007 archaeologist excavating on the Palatine Hill came across a huge cavern with decorated walls. Coins with the she-wolf reverse also came to light.)
The use of non-human creatures as emblems for cities can be traced, like so much in the Roman world, back to Ancient Greece, where city states used them as signs of official authority to issue money, and where the very name of the animal, or perhaps its behaviour, sometimes gave the city its name. For example, a silver tetradrachm issued by the city of Klazomenai depicts a swan in the act of screeching an alarm call, the sound of which approximates to the city’s name.
In the 5th century BC the Carthaginians colonized parts of Sicily and issued large silver tetradrachms which featured a horse’s head on their reverses. This was in reference to a legend from Carthage, ancestral home of the colonists. Their forefathers had been told by their gods to establish a new colony where they discovered a horse's head in the ground. So whenever a coin was lost then found again the image reinforced the colonists’ belief that in Sicily lay their destiny.
A commemorative tetradrachm issued by Athens following the Greek victory in the Persian Wars, depicted an owl, sacred to Athena, facing the observer, with its wings outstretched and holding a spray of olive leaves. These owl coins became emblematic throughout the Ancient World, declaring Athens powerful and victorious, but nevertherless peace-loving and as wise as an owl.
Moving forward to the Roman era once more, we can find examples of creatures struck on coins to carry all manner of messages. For example, a crocodile, a hippopotamus, an ibis, and a scorpion, were all used as emblems for a conquered and colonized Roman Egypt. After his famous crossing of the Rubicon with his legions in defiance of the Senate in 49BC, Julius Caesar issued a silver denarius depicting an elephant trampling a snake - the elephant emblematic of Caesar’s might; the serpent of his contempt for the Senate. And time and again Roman rulers used eagles on their coins to symbolize the emperor’s power.(Modern American dollars perpetuate the habit.) Birds were also depicted on coins because of their association with divining the future. Priests known as augurs watched the behaviours of flying birds and from the flight patterns foretold the days ahead.
A sub-group within this collecting theme includes coins that depict mythical creatures such as gryphons, which combined the attributes of lions and eagles; hippocamps, which had the head and forelimbs of a horse with a sinuous fishy rear end; the winged horse known as Pegasus to the Romans and Pegasos to the Greeks; and the Chimaera, which according to Homer, had the body and head of a lion, the tail of a snake, and a goat's head growing from its back. The Homeric type appears on several coins; it was killed by the legendary hero Bellerophon, who rode upon winged Pegasus. More interesting are creatures such as centaurs, satyrs, gorgons and others that possessed part-animal and part-human features. They emphasized the ever-present ancient belief that gods could transform themselves to human shape.
Finally, let me urge you to look closely at the veritable Noah’s Ark of creatures you will find on ancient coins. The skills of the engravers shine through across two thousand and more years. Notice also how, whenever possible, the creatures were depicted in action rather than stationary as dumb animals. Animals, birds and fishes as living creatures provided yet another link to humans. Even on the very earliest Ancient Greek coins, which had no inscriptions, the symbolic lion roars his message like the king who issued the coin.
by Brett Hammond
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