Featured Apollo Sauroktonos: No Lizards Were Killed in the Making of These Coins

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Roman Collector, Sep 8, 2019.

  1. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    The traditional interpretation of one of the major works of Greek statuary, the so-called Apollo Sauroktonos, is that it depicts a young Apollo about to slay a lizard climbing on a tree. The earliest reference to the sculpture is by Pliny, who attributes it to the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles, and describes what the piece looked like: “[Praxiletes] also made a pubescent Apollo with an arrow watching a lizard as it creeps up with the intent to kill it; this is known as the Sauroktonos.”[1] Sauroktonos is typically translated as “lizard-slayer.” Art historians date the work to c.350-340 BC.

    The sculpture was well-known by Roman times and numerous copies and variants in virtually all media are known. The most famous are the Roman copies in the Louvre and the Vatican museums. The Cleveland Museum of Art claims to own a bronze original (or part-original) of this work.[2] The work is currently being analyzed to verify this claim by scholars and archaeologists. The sculpture showed the god leaning against a tree or tree stump, with a lizard climbing up the trunk. The god carried a bow and arrow, as if preparing to shoot the animal, hence the epithet, Sauroktonos, attached to the figure by Pliny.

    The example in the Louvre

    Apollo Sauroktonos Vatican.jpeg
    The example in the Vatican

    Martial wrote an epigram about the statue (14, CLXXII), titled Sauroctonos Corinthius: “Spare the lizard, insidious boy, as she creeps toward you; she wants to die by your fingers.”[3]

    Patricia Lawrence has cataloged twenty-one different coins, issued from the reigns of Antoninus Pius through Macrinus, depicting the Apollo Sauroktonos motif.[4] This coin, a recent acquisition for my collection, serves as an example:

    Macrinus Nicopolis Apollo Sauroktonos.jpg
    Macrinus, AD 217-218.
    Roman provincial Æ pentassarion, 12.64 g, 27 mm, 1 h.
    Moesia Inferior, Nicopolis, Legate Marcus Claudius Agrippa, AD 218.
    Obv: ΑV Κ ΟΠΠΕΛ CΕVΗ ΜΑΚΡΙΝΟC, laureate head, right.
    Rev: VΠ ΑΓΡΙΠΠΑ ΝΙΚΟΠΟΛΙΤΩΝ ΠΡΟC ΙCΤΡΩ, Nude Apollo with crossed legs standing right, his right arm drawn back, his left on a tree trunk, from which a lizard (?) leaps across to him.[5]
    Refs: AMNG I 1687; Moushmov 1210; Hristova and Jekov; Varbanov 3348; Mionnet Suppl. 2, p. 148, 541.

    Despite the similarity of the scene on the reverse to the extant Roman copies of Praxiletes statue, the coin does not depict a lizard crawling along the trunk of the tree. In fact, it’s unclear, even on well-struck and well-preserved examples of coins from this die,[6] what is going on between Apollo’s right hand and the trunk of the tree.

    Macrinus Nicopolis Apollo Sauroktonos CNG.jpg

    Patricia Lawrence rightly notes the right hand is “strangely absent, with the ‘connector’ from torso to tree being not quite a laurel and not quite a lizard (which end is its head?).”[7] Pick, as noted above, was unsure about his identification of the object spanning the distance from the tree to Apollo’s right hand and marked it with a question mark in his description of the coin’s reverse. Mionnet doesn’t identify the object as a lizard at all, but rather as a “shaft” of some sort.[8] But let’s assume for the sake of argument, that it is a lizard.

    But is Apollo actually trying to kill the lizard in any of the representations, numismatic, sculptural, or otherwise? Recent scholarship, most notably by Renate Preisshofen[9] and by Irving Lavin,[10] has called this long-standing notion into question.

    Preisshofen argues that Pliny was simply in error, misinterpreting the meaning of Apollo’s gesture, and especially misunderstanding the action of the reptile, which climbs up, toward the sun, rather than scampering away to hide, as is the animal would be expected to do under such circumstances. And certainly, Martial’s epigram notwithstanding, the lizard wouldn’t want to die by anyone’s hand. Preisshofen suggests that Pliny may have conflated the motive of the young Apollo observing a lizard on a tree with that of the Delphic Apollo who killed the monstrous Python.[11] While the god carries weapons in the Praxiletes statue, they are at rest. Preisshofen argues that the so-called Apollo Sauroktonos represents a different and much more widespread manifestation of the god, greatly elaborated in the long tradition of animal physiology, of Apollo as healer, that is, Apollo Medicus, most notably healer of maladies of the eyes. Lavin notes that the mythographer Hyginus describes Apollo as the first to practice the art of treating the eyes.[12] This ability of Apollo to heal eye diseases is frequently represented in art by the god’s encounter with the lizard. The ancients believed that as the animal molts, it emerges blind, but its sight is restored by the healing rays of sunlight cast upon it by the sun god, Apollo. Far from slaying the lizard, Apollo’s purpose is probably to heal the blind creature. The point is crucial since it explains why the Apollo of this type is canonically represented as a sweet, nubile, sympathetic youth, and not the mature and wrathful slayer of Python at Delphi.

    I find this argument thought-provoking and convincing.



    1. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 34. 69–70: “fecit et puberem Apollinem subrepenti lacertae communis sagittae insidiantem quem sauroctonon vocant.”

    2. See: https://www.clevelandart.org/magazine/cleveland-art-2013-highlights/apollo-python-slayer

    3. Martial’s Epigram in Latin reads, Ad te reptanti, puer insidiose, lacertae/Parce: cupit digitis illa perire tuis. See: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:2008.01.0506:book=14:poem=172

    4. Patricia Lawrence, Forum Ancient Coins, “Apollo Sauroktonos: The Evidence of the Coins,” http://www.forumancientcoins.com/ayiyoryitika/saurcoins

    5. This description is taken from Behrendt Pick. Die antiken Münzen Nord-Griechenlands, Vol. 1: Dacien und Moesien. Druck Und Verlag Von Georg Reimer, 1898, p. 433. The original German reads, "Nackter Apollon mit gekreuzten Beinen r. stehend, den r. Arm zurückgezogen, die L. auf einem Baumstumpf, von dem eine Eidechse (?) zu ihm hinüberspringt (Sauroktonos)."

    6. CNG electronic auction 388, lot 224, December 14, 2016, https://www.cngcoins.com/Coin.aspx?CoinID=326763

    7. Op. cit.

    8. The term Mionnet uses is flèche; his description of the coin’s reverse reads, “Figure virile, nue et debout, (Apollon) tenant une flèche de la main droite, et ayant la gauche sur un arbre ébranché,” which I translate as, “Male figure, nude and standing, (Apollo) holding an arrow in the right hand and having the left on a lopped tree.” See Mionnet, T. Description de Médailles Antiques Grecques et Romaines, Supplement 2: Thrace. Paris, 1822, p. 148. It is certain that the Paris specimen described by Mionnet is of the same reverse type as the specimen in Athens described by Pick because Pick notes they were struck with the same dies (Pick, ibid.).

    9. Renate Preisshofen, “Der Apollon Sauroktonos des Praxiteles,” Antike Plastik 28 (2002): 41–115.

    10. Irving Lavin, "The Fable of Apollo Sauroktonos and the Beauty of Apollo Medicus," Institute for Advanced Study. Available online at https://publications.ias.edu/sites/default/files/LAVINApolloFableBeauty.pdf

    11. I have previously written about the motif of Apollo slaying Python on coins here at Coin Talk. See https://www.cointalk.com/threads/apollo-versus-python.327205/

    12. Lavin quotes Hyginus: Apollo artem oculariam medicinam primus fecit, and cites Fabulae, 174, M. A. Grant,The Myths of Hyginus, Lawrence KA, 1960, 173; P. K Marshall, ed., Hyginus. Fabulae, Munich and Leipzig, 2002, 196.
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  3. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish) Supporter

    Beautiful @Roman Collector ! Somebody feature this post!

    Your articles always inspire me to go do extra reading. The sun healing the blind is a great metaphor for a sculpture.
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  4. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    No thread on Sauroktonos will escape my posting of my favorite coin of the type even though Pat used it in her article. Pat Lawrence was a professor of art history at LSU before her retirement. She saw this coin on one of my pages and wrote asking if I knew where she might get one since she was a fan of the statue and did not know it was so well represented on coins. I put her in touch with a favorite dealer who sold her the first of her many lizard coins leading to the article. The original image she saw was not good but served us well making contact and leading ro wonderful discussions. Several of my web pages came from her suggestions and were used in her classes. Remember there was not as much available online back then.
    Later I updated a bit but her research made my lightweight page useless.
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  5. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    Fantastic coin and writeup, RC!

    As for your coin, the object is between Apollo's hand and the tree sure looks like a lizard to me... a lizard being pulled by its tail.

    I suspect this is indeed the case.

    Very interesting!

    As for the Praxiteles sculpture, I don't see Apollo's stance as being one of threat. He's leaning casually against the tree, holding an arrow in his supinated hand. That would be an extremely odd and inefficient way of dispatching the critter :). He looks more like he's observing the animal, using the arrow to goad the lizard towards his left hand (resting on the tree above the lizard).

    Per the article by Patricia Lawrence cited by RC, my coin (below) is a variant of the usual pose, with Apollo holding a laurel branch in a nonthreatening manner.

    MOESIA INFERIOR, Nikopolis ad Istrum. Caracalla
    Ovinius Tertullus, legatus consularis.
    AE 28, 13.05 gm
    Obv: AV K M AVP ANTΩNINOC; laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right
    Rev: VΠA OOVI TEPTOVΛΛOV ΝΙΚΟΠΟΛΙΤΩΝ ΠΡΟC Ι; Apollo Sauroktonos standing right, holding laurel branch and leaning hand upon a tree stump with a lizard climbing up it.
    Ref: H&J; Varbanov -.
    Last edited: Sep 8, 2019
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  6. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    That issue must be the tiniest coin bearing this reverse type! The backstory of how Pat contacted you when she was writing her paper is very interesting. Thanks for sharing it!
    I have always admired this coin, @TIF ! I particularly like the way it depicts the lizard climbing up the tree. And, of course, I agree with you when you say Apollo is completely nonthreatening here.
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  7. Ryro

    Ryro You'll never be lovelier than you are now... Supporter

    Wonderful coin and write up on a type I've wanted for some time. (Ie, I don't have one... Yet)
    But here are a couple lizards sans pretty boy Apollo and plus some gnarly Gorgoneions!
    AA22D06C-9BC9-424B-8BB9-2AA6DF47B130.png 4B4FE46B-7267-4373-9A12-EE8961B302BD.png
    From: LANZ
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  8. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    I really would like to know how/why we have the minor variations if the type was a copy of the statue represented by the Louvre example. My Geta assarion copies the standard pose which I call 'grabbing' because I see the boy slowly sneaking his hand closer so he can make a quick grabbing capture. I have grabbed lizards this way but most got away.
    The most common type is was I call 'darting' because it looks like Apollo intends to throw the sharp object and kill rather than capture. I usually show my larger one but this pose also comes in the single assarion size.

    This thread shows two poses I do not have. The first (TIF's Caracalla) show him holding a branch down by his side....but why??? Roman Collector'a Macrinus appears to me to be extending the branch toward the tree but the lizard is gone.
    What TIF sees as a skinny lizard with a few weak legs strikes me as a branch.

    Is there meaning to these differences. Can we date/sequence them? (I believe the grabbers were first and the darters later). We need a lot more coins to have any chance three.

    I bought the one below for a reason I expect no one to appreciate. There are always differences in die quality. This one makes a serious error in leg placement. The left leg is crossed over in front of the straight right leg when it should be behind as in all the others shown here. I am not suggesting you try standing like that because it would be easy to fall flat in the attempt.

    The lizard is on the right side of the tree on darting coins but on the left on grabbing? Is this consistent? The lizard on the grabbing coins is definitely a lizard but I could accept the one on the darters as a snake. Were there once several statues of the general type but only the Louvre type survived?
  9. ValiantKnight

    ValiantKnight I AM the Senate! Supporter

    No lizard but it still has Apollo with a reptile on a tree.

    Septimius Severus, Roman Empire
    Obv: Laureate, draped, cuirassed bust right
    Rev: YΠ ΦAYCTINIANOY MAΡKIANOΠOΛITΩN, Apollo standing, head right, bow in left hand, right hand over head, with serpent-entwined tree stump before, and altar to left
    Mint: Marcianopolis (stuck under Magistrate Faustinianus)
    Date: 193-211 AD
    Ref: Moushmov 369

  10. randygeki

    randygeki Coin Collector

    Great post.
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  11. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    Very interesting article, thanks! Apollo Sauroktonos is one of my most favourite motifs. Because of your article I have made a short recherche:

    In my collection I have today 15 different Sauroktonos types from Nikopolis. From these coins only 5 show an arrow, where 4 of these, the small ones from Severus, differ only by their legend and show the same depiction. So we have actually 12 different types from which only 2 show an arrow. And this is remarkable!

    Because in general it is believed that Nikopolis has owned a copy of this famous statue it can be supposed that the inhabitants should hav known the picture of this statue.

    I have added 4 pics from my collection:

    (1) A rare coin of Commodus:
    Commodus, AD 177-192
    AE 22, 6.83g, 22.15mm, 105°
    obv.: [M ANTΩ]NEIN - OC KOMOΔ[OC]
    Bust, cuirassed, laureate, r.
    rev.: NEIK[OΠOΛI - ΠP]OC ICTP.
    Apollo Sauroktonos, nude, with crossed legs stg. r., resting with l. hand on tree stump, on which lizard is creeping upwards, and holding in r. hand twig; l. behind him bow and quiver
    ref.: a) not in AMNG
    b) not in Varbanov (engl.)
    c) Hristova/Hoeft/Jekov (2018) No. (plate coin)
    d) cf. Gorny&Mosch, Auktion 212, Lot 2321 corr. (Heavily tooled and then misinterpreted as Artemis!)
    extremely rare (R9, only 2 ex. known), F+, dark green patina, corroded
    The dot behind ICTP could well be a part of the tree stump too! Although corroded a beautiful and interesting example of the coinage of Nikopolis at the time of Commodus!

    (2) Another rare coin of Commodus:
    Commodus, AD 177-192
    AE 19, 4.18g
    laureate head r.
    Apollo Sauroktonos, nude, with crossed legs stg. r., resting with raised l. hand on long rod on which in height of his knees a lizard is creeping upwards, holding his r. arm at waist with a branch in the hand
    ref.: a) not in AMNG
    b) not in Varbanov
    c) Hristova/Hoeft/Jekov (2018) No. (plate coin)
    d) not in Pat Lawrence "Sauroktonos the Evidence of the Coins"
    very rare (R7), F+, dark green patina

    (3) Detail of a coin of Severus showing Apollo holding a branch:
    Septimius Severus, AD 193-211
    AE 18, 3.10g, 18.33mm, 210°
    obv.: AV K Λ C - CEVHPOC
    Bust, draped and cuirassed, laureate, r.
    rev.: NIKOΠOΛIT - Ω - N ΠPOC IC
    Apollo Sauroktonos, nude, with crossed legs stg. r., resting with extended l. hand on tree stump on which lizard climbs upwards, r. hand drawn backwards.
    ref.: a) AMNG I/1, 1355 (2 ex., Bukarest, Wiczay)
    b) Varbanov (engl.) 2496
    c) Hristova/Hoeft/Jekov (2018) No.
    scarce, about VF, black green Patina
    Pick (AMNG) writes: "(holding) in r. hand, drawn backwards, an arrow". But actually the rev. of this coin matches the depiction of the coins of Antoninus Pius and there is no arrow in his hand. Instead of this in this magnification it could well be a twig hanging down fom his hand.

    (4) My newest acquisition:
    Septimius Severus, AD 193-211
    AE 25, 11.08g
    obv.: [AV] - KAI Λ CE - CEVHPOC
    Laureate head r.
    Apollo Sauroktonos, nude, with crossed legs (r. leg in front), tg. r., l. hand on tree
    stump on which lizard is creeping upwards, r. hand with olive branch drawn
    ref.: a) not in AMNG
    b) not in Varbanov
    c) Hristova/Hoeft/Jekov (2018) No. corr. (writes r. hand with arrow
    drawn backwards)
    rare, EF
    Best regards
    Last edited: Oct 15, 2019
  12. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    Die duplicate? I bought this one from the same seller that Pat got her first one from. I always preferred the grasping type over the darting or branch drawn back types but felt I needed each. Now I find I need a lizard by the tail and a holding branch down type. Will it never end?:banghead:
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  13. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    It might be worth mentioning that the Cleveland Museum of Art has what some believe to be an original bronze by Praxiteles.

    It's hard to overstate exactly how rare and important this would be, if true. Praxiteles was extremely famous for his bronze statues, every single one of which are lost and only exist in later copies in marble and bronze.

    If this is, in fact, an original, then it gives us invaluable insights to
    1. the original appearance of the statue
    2. bronze statue making techniques of the period

    There's only around 3 dozen largely complete, large-scale bronze statues from the entire Greek period. Most of them are not originals from the very famous artists. IF this is, then it's basically the statue of the century, if not the millenium.
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  14. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Indeed. You might enjoy this related thread, at the bottom of which I make mention of this statue.
  15. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    Thanks!! Im in love with the history of statues :D
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  16. savitale

    savitale Active Member

    Great write up, thanks!
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