Lions on Coins

An Example of Topical Collecting

Animals provided most of the earliest designs used on Archaic Greek coins. Several of the issuing authorities chose the lion to represent their city. Nearly every imaginable pose was used somewhere in the Greek coin series. Our example here, while not the first, is the earliest use of a lion on a coin that can be called common today. These small (1.1g) silver 1/12 staters were issued at Miletos near the end of the 6th century BC. The forepart of the lion is shown facing right with the head turn back to the left (the mirror image also exists). The mouth is open as if caught in a roar. Weak strikes and small flans usually disguise the full detail of the coin but the example shows the foreleg pointing right and the rear edge of the half body just to the left of the mouth. The reverse is a fancy star. This coin is considered one of the first to have a reverse design rather than a simple incuse punch. Certainly quite a page could be made showing Greek lion types but that will have to wait for a later update. Our subject here is later.

Fewer Roman coins used animal types; fewer still showed lions. Of the various types, most are scarce compared to reverses showing gods or the personifications of virtues. An exception is this city goddess riding a springing lion issued by Septimius Severus to commemorate the water works he built in Carthage. Of all the coins of this very common emperor, this was the third most frequently found in the Reka Devnia hoard (an excellent measure of rarity for this period). It is a popular and interesting type but certainly not a rare one. The civic use here is exceptional; generally we consider Roman uses of the lion as a symbol of bravery with the issues related to the military. The same coin was issued in the name of Caracalla who later issued a walking lion as one of the early types of his new denomination, the antoninianus.

Several of the 'Barracks Emperors' of the third century AD issued lion types. Our example is an antoninianus of Gallienus struck in 265 AD at the 'Asian' mint (exact location unknown). Characteristics of this mint are well struck large flans (unusual for late Gallienus!!!) and the rather small devices. This lion is particularly tiny. A small head of a bull is shown in front of the lion. Many coins of this mint bear dating devices of the style more popular a century earlier. This one bears both TRP and consulship dating. As shown here with the 'C VI' (6th consulship), the abbreviations were not always the old standards. 'COS' was shortened to 'C' and 'TRP' was often rendered 'P'. The portrait here seems awkwardly placed on its bust almost as if the Emperor were twisting around into this pose.

Another small lion appears on a Rome mint issue of Aurelian (270-275 AD). Here, however, the lion is part of the mink mark. I have been unable to convince myself on the meaning of the lion used in this way. Help or suggestions would be appreciated. Was the metal for this issue obtained from some special source? Were these issued to distribute at some special show in the arena? Chances are good we will never know. Most interesting is the moving of the XXI from the exergue to the field. At the time this issue was made, the XXI must have been considered important or it could have simply been omitted. Presumably, the lion would not fit in the field so the move was made. Mintmarks other than letters include stars, crescents and a few other simple devices. Few are anything near the complexity of this little lion.

Oddly similar to the Miletos coin at the top of this page is the last appearance of a lion on Roman coins. In fact, this AE4 (1.0g) bronze of Leo I (457-474 AD) is the last animal except for an eagle used by Zeno and a few tiny horses on decorated shields of the Byzantine period. (Correct me if I missed something!!!) The (full length) lion crouches left and turns its head back to the right to roar. A thousand years separates these two lions but they are similar in so many ways. Condition conscious collectors should note that this is a very difficult coin to find with full details so I will not apologize for the appearance of the obverse.

Lions are only one of dozens of animals that could be used as a collecting specialty. A complete collection of horses would be thousands of coins while it would be difficult to find a handful of spiders or frogs. A grouping of one of each available animal would produce surprising variety for the numismatic zoologist.

Back to Main page

(c) 1998-2000 Doug Smith