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MACEDON, Akanthos. Circa 480-470 BC. AR Tetradrachm (27.5mm, 17.14 g). Attic standard. Desneux Type G.2, unlisted dies; AMNG –; HGC 3, –; CNG 91, lot 105 (same dies). 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.

Ex Gorny & Mosch 232 (5 October 2015), lot 111.

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 depicting 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.