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Taurokathapsia: Thessaly's Bull-Wrestling Coins, Archaic to Provincial

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Curtis JJ:
NOTE: I noticed there’s no Numiswiki entry on the Thessalian bull-fighting sport known as "Taurokathapsia," or much Discussion. So, I’m taking the occasion to share a few of my coins & some background on the event. Of course, I’d love to know more & see examples from member collections.

My five examples below are in my Gallery's “BCD Collection-Collection” album: [sort by "Position"]. I've also included two sets of illustrations from BCD Thessaly II -- those ones are not my coins.

What makes Thessalian coins wonderful is their array of mythological and cultural imagery. The “Taurokathapsia” series are among the most interesting, illustrating the Thessalian horseback “bull-wrestling” games. (The sport may have had its origins in Minoan culture, centuries earlier. Cf. the “Bull-Leaping Fresco,” Knossos, c. 15th BCE [wiki LINK]. Is bull fighting today in the Mediterranean and Americas a distant descendant?)

A pair of well-preserved specimens from BCD Thessaly II, p 85 to illustrate (NOT MY COINS):

BCD Thessaly II 152 (Drachm):
BCD Thessaly II 153 (Hemidrachm):

I’ve just added this mid-5th cent. BCE Archaic AR Drachm from Larissa. Several other Thessalian cities struck very similar Drachms, differing only in the ethnic, including Pherai, Krannon, Olosson [Perrhaiboi], and a Pelinna unicum. (Many more for the AR Hemidrachms and Obols.)
better photo (CNG):

The most famous event in the Taurokathapsia involved an athlete leaping from a horse and wrestling a young bull to the ground. As some coins illustrate, the wrestler controlled the bull by wrapping a band around its horns. If the coins are an accurate depiction, it must have been all the more dramatic for the athlete’s nakedness, but for his petasos and perhaps a cape (chlamys) – and the horse’s, but for a rope and bridle. (But see Mack’s [2019: 1-19, esp. 6-7] Koinon II article, suggesting that the athlete may have worn chlamys, chiton, and/or boots.)

During the sixth through fourth centuries, the Taurokathapsia was probably held as part of the “Petraia” celebration in honor of Poseidon, who was responsible both for the first of Thessaly’s famous horses, and for creating the Thessalian plain itself. Some coins include references to Poseidon, such as the trident above the bull on my Krannon bronze (BCD Thessaly II 115.4):
better photo (Leu):

Much of the evidence for Taurokathapsia's existence comes from Thessalian coins – primarily those of the 5th and early 4th centuries. There are a few literary descriptions, including Heliodorus’ much later account in Aethiopica (c. 3rd-4th cent. CE, but set at the turn of the 5th BCE) [LINK].

It's unclear when the Taurokathapsia ceased to be held, but possibly during the Hellenistic Period. It may be better to say it changed over time, as Taurotheria sports (bull-chasing) and acrobatic equestrian events (e.g., Roman Desultores) persisted.

(The second important Thessalian celebration was the “Peloria” feast in honor of Zeus Peloris. It gets less attention, but I strongly suspect some of the common Thessalian bronzes were associated with it – especially those from Phalanna. More on that in the future! On both festivals, see, e.g., Helly 1995; Mili 2015; Aston 2020.)

Taurokathapsia coins vanish with the Macedonian hegemony in Thessaly (358 BCE-). The Tyrant of Pherai Alexander’s unpopularity with his Thessalian neighbors was probably critical to Philip II’s assumption of control over the region. It is fitting that his coins were (apparently) the final contemporaneous Taurokathapsia issues.

During the Roman period (i.e., after c. 168 BCE), two final issues were produced – both of them Koinon (or League) issues. Notably, these were probably reprisals of earlier issues rather than representations of contemporary games. As Walker wrote in BCD Thessaly I 1391 [LINK]: “The reprise, in the late 1st century BC of a coin type that dates to the 5th and 4th centuries, is an example of how contemporary viewers both knew about their past, and took pride in it.”

The four coins enlarged below (BCD Thessaly II 897 [LINK]) are NOT mine. These 1st century BCE Thessalian League bronzes depict Zeus on the obverse and, on the reverse, a “bull-leaping” scene involving a horse, a rider, and a bull:

A century later – 425 years after Alexander of Pherai’s final contemporary Taurokathapsia coins – the imagery would be resurrected one last time. Fittingly, they were struck for Nero.

(An interesting aside: Rogers [1932: 81, pp. 35-6] mistakenly described the scene as a “bovine centaur seizing a rearing horse” – at once understandable and absurd! We can forgive the great Rev. Rogers on several grounds, not least because – as Nick Molinari pointed out in another venue – “bovine centaurs are a thing!” Only 60 years later did Burrer [1993] correct the description in print.)

Nero had just completed his famous tours of Greek games and – perhaps more importantly – “liberated” the Province of Achaea, bringing him tremendous acclaim and gratitude. (See Levy 1984, 1989a, 1989b.) A second, roughly contemporaneous Neronian issue depicts Nero on the reverse playing the lyre/kithara (just as on the Roman Imperial Asses and Dupondii, famously mentioned by Suetonius). These coins were probably struck to stroke Nero’s ego and show gratitude, and perhaps secure his favor.

Nero did perform musically in Greek games. (Though probably not in Thessaly.) Consequently, we may be able to interpret the coins of Nero-as-Apollo Musagetes somewhat literally. Presumably not so for the other. Given his physical proportions by this time, it seems doubtful that Nero was leaping upon bulls from horseback!

Aston, E. (2020) “Thessalian medism and its repercussions.” Hermathena (204205).
BCD Thessaly I. Alan S. Walker (cataloger). Nomos Auction 4 (10 May 2011).
BCD Thessaly II. CNG, Triton XV (3 Jan 2012).
Burrer, Friedrich. 1993. Münzprägung und geschichte des thessalischen Bundes in der römischen kaiserzeit bis auf Hadrian (31 v. Chr. – 138 n. Chr.). Saarbrücken: Saarbrücker Dr. und Verl.
Helly, B. 1995. L’État thessalien. Aleus le roux, les tétrades et les tagoi. Lyon : Maison de l’Orient.
Levy, Brooks. 1984. "Nero's Liberation of Achaea: Some Numismatic Evidence from Patrae," pp. 165-186 in Heckel & Sullivan (eds.), Ancient Coins of the Graeco-Roman World: The Nickle Numismatic Papers. Waterloo, ON: Nickle Arts Museum.
Google Books:
--. 1989a. "Nero's 'Apollonia' Series: the Achaean Context." Numismatic Chronicle 149: 59-68. Online:
--.1989b. "When Did Nero Liberate Achaia–and Why?" in Rizakis (ed.), Achaia und Elis in der Antike (Akten des 1. Internationalen Symposium, Athen,19-21 Mai 1989).
Mack, Rosanagh. 2019. “Numismatic evidence (or not) for the aphippodroma horse race at Larisa.” Koinon II: pp. 1-19.
Mili, M. 2015. Religion and Society in Ancient Thessaly. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Google Books Preview:
Rogers, Edgar. 1932. The Copper Coinage of Thessaly. London: Spink & Son.
Online via Numiswiki:
RPC (series). Burnett, A. (BM), M. Amandry (BNF), C. Howgego (Ash), and J. Mairat (Ash) [General eds., c. 2022]. 1992 – forthcoming. Roman Provincial Coinage. 10 vols. British Museum Press.
RPC Supplement 1: [I have the PDF but can’t find a URL online; the Consolidated Supplement theoretically includes all the material].
RPC Consolidated Supplement:

Tracy Aiello:
Hello Curtis,

I created a very brief Numiswiki page on this subject but titled it "Bull Wrestling" instead of "Taurokathapsia". It can be found here:

Your information above is excellent. You should consider enriching the brief entry that I wrote with some of what you wrote.

All the best,


Curtis JJ:
Tracy, thanks! Great Numiswiki page, I'm glad you let me know. It's a fascinating motif with a lot of interesting variety and historical detail.

I really love those little obols (especially the variant that purportedly shows the athlete rewarding the bull with a "small treat"!

Tracy Aiello:
Thank you, Curtis.

I too love the Larissian bull wrestling obols. I loved BCD's description of the hero rewarding the bull with a tasty morsel of a tuft of grass. Can't recall if that reference is in BCD Thessaly I or II.


Curtis JJ:
Haha, yes, "tasty morsel" is such a memorable phrase! That's Triton XV, 353.2 (emphasis added):

--- Quote ---On these taurokathapsia series one would expect the hero to either hold a band around the forehead of the bull or to get ready to jump on its back. On this die it seems as if he is in friendly terms with the animal and is offering him a tasty morsel (in the case of a bull it would probably be just a tuft of grass). Unfortunately there is a die flaw exactly where the grass would be, so we cannot be absolutely sure...
--- End quote ---

It was a group lot, and continues after the other coins (353.3 & 353.4):

--- Quote ---Although here we have the work of another die-cutter and the obverse scene is viewed from the opposite side, the attitude of the hero towards the bull remains friendly. Perhaps, after the contests were over, the bull riders would reward their bulls with a little something, the same way today riders give a small treat to their horses after they have performed well in a competition....
Although ASW in the Nomos 4, description of an identical coin sees the bull grazing, this writer has not seen any grass on a ground line on any dies of this type of obverse. Anyway (ASW would ask here) what else could the bull be doing? This writer would then venture to say that the bull is trying to get rid of the stinging flies that annoy all animals with very short hair on their bodies.
--- End quote ---

I have about half a dozen favorite little excerpts from the BCD sales, either commentary by BCD or by ASW (or both in tandem). This one is definitely up there!

Why not share one more? Here is ASW's commentary on the genesis of "The Maleatas Collection of Epidauros" (sold in Nomos 24), most of which had been acquired by the collector from BCD:

--- Quote ---[The collector was] spurred on to this interest by the serendipitousness of the fact that he was reading L-J. Renauldin’s rare book of 1851, Études historiques et critiques sur les médecins numismatistes, when BCD, who was at the same restaurant, suddenly had an attack of synchronous diaphragmatic flutter combined with hyperhidrosis, which our savant, putting aside his book, was immediately able to cure. This led to an enduring friendship and the genesis of the collection.
--- End quote ---

The details of that story sound too terrifying to fact-check. But I was so glad to read that, because it gave purpose to another recent purchase: I had actually just bought a copy of Renauldin's 1851 tome on French-physician coin collectors (ex ANS Library Duplicates, previously David Bullowa's copy), and I didn't yet know why I had done so. After seeing ASW's account, though, I discovered I had purchased Renauldin's weird book so that it could become part of my sub-collection of Epidauros-Maleatas-BCD coins & literature!


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