The Rhino on the Roman Coins



For as long as coins have been in use, humans have stamped them with images of things they found important or impressive: kings and rulers, symbols of nations and gods, and powerful animals. Animals are one of the most common motifs on coins, as attributes of a particular animal can be used to represent particular attributes of a country: the strength of a bull, the majesty of a lion, etc.
But sometimes, an animal might make it onto a coin just because people are fascinated by it.
Naumachia_DomitianiDuring the reign of the Emperor Domitian, Colosseum games came back into popularity, given the emperor’s fondness for chariot races and other competitions. It was during Domitian’s time that the Colosseum was flooded for a mock naval battle. During this time, the rhinoceros made its first appearance to the Roman Empire.


Not much is known about the first time a rhinoceros appeared in the wild animal fights at the Colosseum, except that the rhino scored a decisive victory and became a favorite among the Romans for its strength. The poet Martial even wrote two epigrams about the beast:


667. “The Nose-horn, Caesar, that for recreation
You gave, in battle passed all expectation.
Well might the torrent of his wrath appal;
Bull found his master, and became a ball.”

669. “Long time in gathering rage the monster bore
Each saucy thrust of trembling picador;
All hope of desperate conflict was in vain;
At length the wonted fury blazed again.
On his twin horns a bear he tosses clear
As play-ball gored by Andalusian steer.”


According to the English Cyclopaedia: Geography, “By this description [of the second epigram] it appears that a combat between a rhinoceros and a bear was intended, but that it was very difficult to irritate the more unwieldy animal, so as to make him display his usual ferocity; at length, however he tossed the bear from his double horn, with as much facility as a bull tosses to the sky the bundles placed for the purpose of enraging him.”



The emperor was so fascinated by this strange new beast with peculiar horns and immense power that he began issuing coins with the rhinoceros on them. (Coins with both left- and right-facing rhinos were minted.) Rhino coins were minted in relatively small numbers, and often sell for several hundred dollars in good condition.


[Image at top is property of forum user Imperator.]

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