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Research Coins: Feature Auction


Very Rare Depiction of Lioness

CNG 91, Lot: 105. Estimate $7500.
Sold for $7508. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

MACEDON, Akanthos. Circa 480-470 BC. AR Tetradrachm (28mm, 17.26 g). Attic standard. Lioness right, attacking bull crouching left, with head right; floral ornament in exergue / Quadripartite incuse square. Cf. Desneux Type G.2, obv. die 83, otherwise unpublished. Good VF, toned. Extremely rare type, with only four examples recorded in the ANS photofile, but none without a subsidiary symbol above the lioness on the obverse.

Akanthos is located in the Chalkidike near the point where the Akte peninsula joins the mainland. Beginning in the late sixth century BC, this city began striking coinage (as were other regional cities and tribes) to facilitate the increased trade with those Attic Greek colonies and emporia that has recently been established there. During this same period, as the Persian Empire began its westward expansion into Europe, these coins also served as a source of tribute, part of the Medizing process, in which the locals allied themselves with the Persians. During the Greco-Persian Wars (499-479 BC), Akanthos supported the Persians and, in early 480 BC, provided labor for the construction of a canal across the peninsula, so that the Persian fleet could avoid sailing around the treacherous waters below Mt. Athos at the peninsula's southernmost tip (Her. 7. 22-24, 115, 117).

The lion and bull design is common to the tetradrachms of Akanthos from the sixth to the early fourth century BC. The earliest tetradrachms are characterized by thick, dumpy flans, a variable style of incuse, and the head of the lion in three-quarter perspective. Subsequent issues, however, have a flan that is relatively thinner and broader, an incuse of a more regularly quadripartite style, and the head of the lion in profile. The floral symbol in the exergue, which first appeared in some of the earliest tetradrachms, became more stylized in these subsequent issues, as well. Subsequently, a pellet-in-annulet appeared above the lion in the upper field of the obverse, followed by the addition of a subsidiary letter, and, finally, letter combinations and symbols to distinguish later issues in this large series.

Most of these tetradrachms show a stylistically archetypal lion attacking the bull, evidenced by its thick mane and bold joints and lines. However, two groups of tetradrachms (Desneux Types C and G) have felines that are represented with much finer lines, smooth joints, and a subdued, evenly constructed mane that Desneux identified as depictions of lionesses. Some dies show the lioness decorated with spots, leading some to suggest that it may be a panther, but the scene is certainly a representation of the archetypal lion and bull motif that was imported to Macedon from the east (Persia), and is found on many coinages of the period.

The lion and bull motif appears frequently in art of the ancient Near East and ancient Greece (see Willy Hartner, “The Earliest History of the Constellations in the Near East and the Motif of the Lion-Bull Combat,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 24 [1965], pp. 1-16, who identified its earliest representation on a prehistoric Elamite seal of the fourth millennium BC. For its appearance in Greek art, see the KY Painter in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens [Accession Number 12688] and Desneux, p. 55). Reliefs from the Persian capital at Persepolis depict this same type and the Lydian coinage of this same period, though they do not show this type specifically, are surely a conscious echoing of a definitely masculine theme.

Why then the use of a lioness, rather than a lion? Herodotos may provide a possible clue. According to him (7.125-126), the Persian army was attacked by lions while bivouacking on the eastern fringes of Greece and Macedonia. Since these animals and their habits would have been well-known to the regional population, the die cutter chose to be more accurate in his description of the scene, rather than following a more traditional and foreign representation.