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Research Coins: Printed Auction

Triton XXII, Lot: 176. Estimate $5000.
Sold for $4750. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

MACEDON, Akanthos. Circa 525-470 BC. AR Tetradrachm (27.5mm, 17.28 g). Attic standard. Lioness right, attacking bull crouching left, biting into its hindquarter; above, head of roaring lion right; floral ornament in exergue / Quadripartite incuse square. Desneux Type G.1, 82 var. (unlisted dies); AMNG III/2, 4 var. (control mark); HGC 3, 383; de Luynes 1536 = Traité I 1678. EF, attractively toned. Well centered and struck. Rare issue with lioness.

From the sixth to the early fourth century BC, the lion and bull design was common to the tetradrachms of Akanthos, though a few rare issues depict a lioness rather than a lion. The earliest Akanthos tetradrachms are characterized by thick, dumpy flans, a variable style of incuse, and the head of the lion in three-quarter perspective. Subsequent issues 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 later issues. 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 in any case the design is certainly based on 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 motif appears frequently in art of the ancient Near East and 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 type and the Lydian coins of this same period, though they do not show this type specifically, are surely a conscious echoing of this theme.

Why then the use of a lioness, rather than a lion on this particular type? Herodotos may provide a possible clue. According to him (7.125-126), the Persian army was attacked by lions (οἱ λέοντες) while bivouacking on the eastern fringes of Greece and Macedonia. Accordingly, although lions were rare or nonexistent in most of Greece by the classical period, we know that they still roamed areas near Akanthos. Artists (including die cutters) knew the characteristics of both male and female from direct observation, which has apparently been reflected on the coin designs.