Top 11 animals featured on ancient coins
Emblems, myths, symbols…
There’s no doubt about it: be they gods or myths, emblems or parables, terrifying or powerful, fighting or posing, immobile or in motion, animals are everywhere to be found on ancient coins.
Allow us to present our non-exhaustive menagerie of the most beautiful coins issued in ancient times featuring animals.
1 – THE EAGLE
FROM ZEUS TO JUPITER VIA GAUL
The eagle is everywhere to be found when it comes to ancient coins. It is not merely royal; it also represents the most powerful of the gods. It is Jupiter for the Romans and clearly also Zeus for the Greeks. It features on the coat of arms of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, borrowed from Alexander the Great’s Macedonia, but also hovers over the Carnutes in Gaul, sometimes with a serpent grasped in its talons.
Bronze, Pergamon (Mysia)
Tetradrachm Septimus Severus (Laodicea)
It is also found among the Parthians , fierce opponents of the Roman legions, whose emblem is likewise...the eagle. The ancient eagle is a symbol of strength, success, and power.
Quite the résumé.
2 – THE HORSE
Power, courage and strength
First of all, there is the unmistakable Macedonian horse with Philip II’s biga (two-horse chariot) representing his victory at the Olympic Games. When I was editing this article, a friend of mine remarked that this was probably one of the first selfies in history. And who is to say she’s wrong...
We also think of Alexander the Great’s horse Bucephalus – and the Gauls’ stylized “copy”, representing a solar deity and military strength.
One must also not forget the foundation of Carthage, when its queen, Dido, found a horse’s head at the foot of a palm tree, a symbol of courage and – once again – military strength. The mythological twins Castor and Pollux accompanied by their respective horses, Xanthus and Cyllarus, on the coins of the Bactrian Kingdom are also worth a notable mention.
Last but not least, the Greek city of Larissa in Thessaly is renowned for its horses, which it confidently features on the reverse of its coins.
In both Greek and Roman mythology, the horse is usually associated with the god Apollo and his sun chariot.
3 – THE CRAB
Water versatile symbol!
The crab is a more prosaic animal in its representations. You can opt for the freshwater crab, for example, which hasn’t got its sea legs and prefers the banks and bed of the river Akragas. Or the crab from the Aegean island of Kos (also Cos), in the Dodecanese island chain, which is more or less a pleonasm in itself, since the name Κῶς is said to be derived from καρκίνος (karkínos = crab in Ancient Greek). In this way, we add yet another layer (or perhaps more precisely a carapace) to the reverse of the island’s coins and medals.
4 - THE OWL
Knowledge, wisdom and perspicacity
The owl is to the goddess Athena (or Minerva for the Romans) what the eagle is to Zeus: an inextricably linked symbol.
It is therefore completely logical that the city protected by Athena...Athens (let’s not go looking for Zeus on Mount Sinai) should choose to decorate the reverse of its coins with the image of an owl. And, by extension, there is also the philosophical flavor there of a city opting for a bird embodying wisdom.
5 – THE BULL
The Eastern spring
Just like the eagle, the bull was a highly prized animal frequently associated with the gods in ancient times, from the West to the East. Of particular note are Apis, the bull god of Ancient Egypt, the Indian god Brahma, and the bull/lion duo associated with Shiva and Parvati.
However, we also can’t forget Hera in Greece, who shares the bull at the pantheon with her husband, Zeus, as well as Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans). In the East, the bull was also sometimes associated with the spring and the lion with the summer.
The interpretation of the famous and splendid type of tetradrachm from Akanthus (Macedonia) representing a fight to the death between a lion and a bull is therefore questionable. However, a number of sources agree on a pronounced Eastern inspiration (considering in particular the 7th century Lydian coins).
It should also be noted that there were lions living on Macedonian soil at that time and that hunts were organized there.
Also to be admired is this electrum hekte from Lesbos depicting Persephone on the obverse and a charging bull on the reverse. A representation which is not without its irony, considering that – according to the myth – Persephone’s father (Zeus, sorry!) had taken on the appearance of a bull to seduce her mother, Demeter.
6 – THE LION
The solar guardian
The lion is also frequently represented. It is a guardian figure for both the Greeks and the Romans. The Lion Gate in Mycenae and the Terrace of the Lions on the island of Delos are prime examples.
However, it is on the coins of Asia Minor that this regal animal proves a roaring success. Starting with the coins originating in Lydia in the 7th century BC. These are actually the oldest known Ancient Greek coins, made of electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, carried along by the River Pactolus. The lion takes a prominent place among the known designs. It is probably represented here as a symbol of the sun to evoke the Lydian kings.
The coin from Lycia, also in Asia Minor, is characteristic with its triskelion on the reverse and a lion mask on the obverse. The Mysian coin, in turn, impresses with its style and the finesse of the representation. Can we get a round of applause for that magnificent roar? You’re ever so kind! We should also not forget, more “recent”, the truly splendid lion of the city of Massalia (Marseilles) in Gaul, on this silver drachma.
In terms of its symbolism, the meaning of the denarius of the Roman coin is easier to identify: it is a representation of the famous lion of Nemea as slain by Hercules.
7 – THE RAM
Gold and fleece
In Ancient Greece, the ram is linked to the notion of sacrifice and the myth of the Golden Fleece. Although depicted less frequently than its fellow beasts, it can notably be found on the reverse of certain coins from the prolific island of Lesbos, alone and in pairs, horns outwards or butting heads.
8 – THE DOLPHIN
The dolphin is the rescuer of shipwrecked and lost sailors, an interface between the sea and dry land. Very often associated in ancient times with Poseidon (Neptune to the Romans). The oldest collectible items here are the Olbian dolphin coins. This form of proto-money, issued by the flourishing Celtic city of Olbia on the coast of the Black Sea, was used for trading. The dolphin is also found on the reverse of Calabrian coins, ridden here by Taras, son of Poseidon.
9 – THE BEE
Ephesus was home to one of the most important ancient sanctuaries dedicated to the goddess Artemis. The Temple of Artemis is listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
This Greek goddess (Diana to the Romans) is associated with hunting, wildlife, and nature. She is represented in particular by the bee, which is found in the temple decorations in Ephesus. Similar to the Athenian owl, she is also the one who buzzes on the coins of the Ionian city.
10 – TURTLES AND TORTOISES
To swim or not to swim, that is the question.
The turtle of Aegina is a little more mysterious than its owl or bee counterparts and can be found on the obverse of the coins of this Greek island. Here, too, we find traces of the oldest Ancient Greek coins, this time on the European side. At that time (6th century BC), Aegina was famous for its arts, ceramics, and perfumes.
At first marine and very rough in its engraving, the sea turtle evolves into a land tortoise from 457 BC, when the island submitted to Athens. The terrestrial design might evoke the loss of the island’s maritime hegemony, but the tortoise still retains its hard shell...
11 – THE SNAKE
Healed with a hiss
This time, the Roman civilization, which we had lost a little along the way since the eagle took flight and which was often overshadowed by the flamboyance of the Greeks, returns to the limelight.
This concludes our overview of animals in ancient times.
The origin and symbolism of these representations often remain obscure, even if some, such as the owl of Athens or the crab of Akragras, are less so...
This French article here, however, does offer some interesting (albeit purely theoretical) leads concerning astronomy.
And when we know how obsessed the Greek gods were with immortalizing any deceased hero or deity as a constellation, it perhaps would also not be all that unlikely...
Thank you to Aurélie-Anne for the idea of Philip II of Macedonia’s selfie at the Olympic Games.
TRANSLATION: Michael Wright
- “The Procession of the Bull Apis” by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1879)
- “Goddess of Youth and Cupbearer Hebe and Eagle of Zeus” by Louis Fischer (1827)
- “Phaeton on The Chariot of Apollo” by Nicolas Bertin (circa 1720)
- “San Biagio church, built on the ruins of the temple of Demeter (Agrigento)” by Serradifalco
- “Little Owl and Scops Owl” by Archibald Thorburn (1925)
- “Lion” by Albrecht Dürer (1494)
- “A Swaledale Sheep and Ram in profile” by William Taylor Longmire
- Dolphins of Knossos
- “Eracments at Ephesus” by Luigi Mayer (1810)
- Illustration taken from the book “Reptiles and birds. A popular account of the various orders” by Louis Figuier and Parker Gillmore
- “Distels en een slang” (Thistle and a Snake) by Nicola van Houbraken (circa 1700)