Greeks and Cattle
Updated: Jul 18
Humans have been making images of cattle for many millennia - this painting from Lascaux caves depicts aurochs (wild ancestors of domesticated cattle), horses and deer. The Magdalénien people of the Upper Paleolithic in western Europe that produced these paintings are estimated to have lived 12,000-17,000 years ago.
My latest ancient coin has a beautiful image of a bull facing on the obverse and Artemis on the reverse. I will save for another day that history associated with this coin: the rise of Philip II, Philomelos' seizure of Delphi, the Third Sacred War, mercenary armies, The Battles of Crocus Field, and Thermopylae...all of which are aligned to this coin issued under Philomelos circa 357-354 BC. Recently, I have been reading a book by Jeremy McInerney about cattle and the Greeks. The book covers many aspects of the relationship between cattle and the ancient Greeks:
“The accumulation of experience between cattle – hunted, tamed, bred, nurtured, yoked, milked, killed, eaten, worshiped – fixes them firmly in the habitus of the Greeks.”
- Jeremy McInerney
Habitus is defined as the collection of ideas that shape a culture’s thoughts, perceptions, and actions. I will not attempt a review of the book at the level of depth that one can find online by Susan A. Curry. The book available in hardcover and kindle eBook versions: Jeremy McInerney, The Cattle of the Sun: Cows and Culture in the World of the Ancient Greeks. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. xvii, 340. ISBN 97806911400. The title is a reference to the myth of Odysseus and the Cattle of the Sun. When Odysseus' men disobey him and eat the cattle of the sun, they are condemned by the gods.
Unfortunately the eBook is missing images by design - perhaps an issue with copyrights? This unfortunately means that the 2 coin images in the book (a Poseidonian stater, a nomos from Thourioi, Lucania) are replaced with:
Considering that the kindle edition was more expensive than the paper hardcover, this is a little disappointing. I prefer electronic copies as my library shelf space ran out years ago, and I don't like prioritizing which books I keep. The electronic shelf space is infinite, but has some risks of greater impermanence as well. I hope that my digital library will be readable still in 20 years, I doubt that it will be usable in current form 500 years from now.
The book is rich with facts and stories about cattle in ancient Greece and also draws an arc from Greek pre-history to modern peoples. It is also well researched, well written, very engaging in its style and has a useful bibliography. I will make up for the lack of images in the book with my own ancient coins depicting cattle, starting with this recent addition:
Phokis, federal coinage, circa 357-354 BC, AR Triobol/Hemidrachm, Philomelos, strategos
Obv: facing head of bull
Rev: Head of Artemis right; branch to left
Ref: Williams 303 (O220/R189); BCD Lokris 463.1 (these dies); HGC 4, 1046
Before reading the book I had not heard of the "auroch" - the wild ancestor of cattle.
The auroch was much larger than its domesticated cousins (more on the auroch in this thought.com article). Domestication and the associated reduction in size is one of the stories shared the book. This evolution perhaps due to human preference for a more manageable animal. This next coin showing a docile looking bull from Macedonia:
Macedon, Acanthus, circa 470-390 BC, AR tetrobol
Obv: forepart of bull left, head right; ΓE above
Rev: Quadripartite incuse square with granulated recesses
This coin depicts "bull leaping" which perhaps serves as demonstration of the mastery of man over wild bull.
Thessaly, Larissa, crca 450/40-420 BC, drachm
Obv: Thessalos striding to right, naked but for chlamys over his shoulders, his petasos attached to a cord around his neck and flying in the air behind him, holding a band with both hands around the forehead of a bull leaping right\
Rev: ΛΑΡ-IΣΑΙΑ, bridled horse with trailing rein prancing right; all within shallow incuse square
Ref: Cf. BCD Thessaly II 372.3 (arrangement of ethnic); HGC 4, 418
This coin is a favorite Roman republican coin which shows a plowman with his oxen and comes with a story of Sulla's caution to those who would annoy him:
C. Marius C. f. Capito, 81 BC, AR Denarius
Obv: CAPIT. behind, draped bust of Ceres right, wearing grain-ear wreath and earring; LXXXXVIII above, ring? control mark below chin
Rev: C. MARI. C. F. / S. C in two lines in exergue, husbandman plowing left with a yoke of oxen; LXXXXVIII above
Ref: Crawford 378/1c
Killing of a domesticated animal came with rituals of sacrifice and forgiveness to reconcile the violence and appease the gods. The scene on the reverse pointing to the Battle of Lake Regillus (circa 496 BC), where the moneyer's ancestor A. Postumius Albinus, in command of the Roman army, defeated the Latin League, led by Tarquin the Proud, former king of Rome. Before the battle, the Romans sacrificed to Diana.
A. Postumius A.f. Sp.n. Albinus, 81 BC, AR serrate denarius, Rome mint
Obv: Draped bust of Diana right, with bow and quiver over shoulder; bucranium above
Rev: Togate figure standing left on rock, holding aspergillum over head of a heifer standing right; lighted altar between them
Ref: Crawford 372/1
Note: Livy, History of Rome 1.45, describes the sacrificed animal as: "A cow is said to have been calved to a certain person, the head of a family among the Sabines, of surprising size and beauty. Her horns, which were hung up in the porch of the temple of Diana, remained, for many ages, a monument of this wonder."
Finally, perhaps this coin from Campania is an appropriate coin to conclude, with man and bull combined. This Neapolitan bull is meant to represent Achelöos, the water god of ancient Greece. Wild aurochs lived in the marshy areas and floodplains of rivers and required a much wetter environment than modern cattle.
Campania, Neapolis, circa 275-250 BC
Obv: ΝΕΟΠΟΛΙΤΩΝ, laureate head of Apollo left; uncertain letter or monogram to right
Rev: Man-headed bull standing right, head facing; above, Nike flying right, crowning bull; IΣ below
Despite the lack of coin images, I can easily recommend the book for its engaging writing and well researched overview of Greeks and cattle, with many interesting references modern and ancient from a study of strontium and zinc levels in Athenian bones to determine the level of meat in their diet to Demosthenes in Aristophanes’ Knights use of sausage, meat eating and cattle as metaphors.