A Zoo in my Roman Pocket

Take the change out of your pocket or your purse and look carefully at it. What can you see? Some hind legs? A lion? A unicorn? If you look carefully at the coins in your pocket, you’ll see a range of animals begin to emerge from the designs on them, but did you know that there were even more animals on Roman coins than there are on our own?

As part of my internship at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre I am working on cataloguing some of the Numismatics collections and have been photographing and identifying Roman Republic coinage from 78 BC to 37 BC. What has struck me as unusual are some of the animals shown on the coins. Roman moneyers often chose mythological motifs for the reverse side of their coins, and it is to these myths that many of the animals allude. For example, the Erymanthian boar below refers to the Fourth Labour of Hercules, where he had to capture this huge boar alive.

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Some animals, however, symbolised places or deeds. The camel, for example, symbolised Arabia and this coin celebrated the surrender of King Aretas of Nabataea to Praetor M. Aemilius Scaurus. The camel is being held by the reins, but the figure holding onto it is also offering the camel an olive branch, showing conquest as well as peace.

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Some seemingly simple designs have a complicated story. Here we see a denarius with a girl facing a snake on the reverse. This refers to the practise within the worship of Juno Sospita at Lanuvium, where in order to ascertain how fruitful the coming year would be a girl was chosen who offered a cake to the snake at the temple. If the snake accepted the cake, it showed the girl was a virgin and augered well for the coming year. If the snake refused the cake, the reverse was true.

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It is not just creatures from land that feature on Roman coins. Dolphins and seahorses are shown too. Both are associated with the god Neptune. On the coin below, Neptune is shown riding in a biga (chariot) drawn by seahorses.

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In the next image the dolphin is shown next to an eagle. Here, the dolphin symbolises control over different realms, because the Romans realised that although dolphins swam in the sea, they breathed air, so were at home in two spheres. This is pertinent as the mint that produced the coin moved alongside the campaigns of Pompey. In March of 49 BC (when his coin was minted), Pompey had just fled from Caesar at Brudnisum, fleeing by sea to Epirus in Roman Greece. So by using the iconography of a dolphin, Pompey’s mint puts on a show of control and fortune, that perhaps was absent in reality.

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Lastly, and most surprisingly of all, is an image I found of a scorpion. (You can see it in the bottom left corner, underneath the horses’ hooves.)

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I hope you’ve enjoyed a short tour of the zoo that could be found in the pocket of a Roman – quite a wealthy one I should add!

Author: Lucy Moore, Leeds Museums and Galleries intern 2010

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