Astronomical Symbols on Ancient Coins


Preface: I grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania, one of the few places in the country with areas without significant light pollution. As kids we would spend nights laying on the ground playing with the stars above. We created our own constellations, saw meteors and fireballs, anticipated Orion returning in the fall, and watched the colors of the moon change during solar eclipses. Occasionally, the aurora borealis would really make things interesting. Even at this young age we would speculate about what the "cavemen" thought of all this. It was so easy to see how that face in the moon was transformed into a god. To the right is a sketch I made of a cave painting at Lascaux, France. It may or may not depict the Plaeides star cluster and the constellation of Taurus the bull. Taurus has been a bull in the heavens since the earliest written records - possibly before. Even to us kids the the anomalies stood out: things in the heavens that were different looking or that moved contrary to other objects. The fuzzy star was the Andromeda galaxy, Antares glowed red, and the Plaeides, was just beautiful. Of course we had references for finding accurate scientific information about these objects; the ancients did not. I still gaze at the skies through the lights of suburbia using my 8" reflecting telescope. When I first saw ancient coins with astronomical symbols, I was taken back to my childhood musings about how the ancients would have interpreted the night sky. I thought I would try to put together some thoughts about the subject in this essay.

Astronomy Primer:

While the night sky is full of wondrous objects, most of the action takes place in the line of the ecliptic: the plane followed by the sun and the visible planets. The moon moves along a path inclined about 5o to the ecliptic. It is the moon playing tag with other members of our solar system as it moves back and forth across the ecliptic that gives rise to what the ancients would have viewed as wondrous events, portents, and omens. Of particular interest to them were occultations and eclipses [from the Greek, ekleipsis meaning "failure"]. These two terms are almost synonymous; however, the term eclipse is usually reserved for Earth, Moon, Sun events and occultation for planetary and stellar mergers. The picture at the top left of this page depicts an occultation of the moon and the planet Venus with a near occultation of Jupiter. In Roman and Greek times, this would have been a momentous event. The movement of the planets [from the Greek word for wanderer or nomad] through the ecliptic was also a major area of study for the ancient astronomers. The movement of planets as viewed from the Earth seems erratic due to the Earth's own movements around the sun. Planets may progress in a line across the sky, stop, and even start moving backwards. The planets Venus and Mercury being nearer the sun than the Earth, appear only in the evening and morning hours. It was the movement of the planets through the zodiac [the constellations within the line of the ecliptic] that was and is the basis for astrology. Besides the North Star and constellations that appear during planting and harvest times, much of ancient astronomy focused on what went on in the ecliptic plane.

The ancient view of the Universe:

Modern astronomy is concerned with the observation of the motions and compositions of heavenly bodies. Astrology is the study of the effects the movements of these celestial bodies have on humans and their affairs. In ancient times, across most civilizations, the distinction between these two studies was not made. However, the Greeks were able to work out a fairly reasonable view of the universe based on the work of scientists and philosophers such as Pythagorus, Ptolemy, Plato, Socrates and others. The center of the universe in this geocentric model was, contrary to popular belief, not the Earth, but the universal fire or hearth. The Earth revolved around the hearth accompanied by an "anti-Earth" and then outward from here revolved the moon, sun, the five planets and finally a fixed celestial sphere of stars.1 This system was accepted as truth, more or less, for almost 2,000 years. It was in this geocentric* model that the moon, sun, and planets did their dances through the zodiac. Heavenly bodies, as representations of gods or divine cosmology, ruled the lives and affairs of humans. It is hard to imagine the power celestial events had on the ancients until you delve into their literature.

Astronomical events in History:

Eclipses are recorded in neolithic rock art and ancient Chinese and Sumerian documents. In total and annular solar eclipses, the moon is invisible in the sky. These eclipses only occur during the new moon when the moon is exactly between the Earth and sun. Thus, the observer on the ground sees only the complete or partial disappearance of the sun. There would appear to be no rational explanations for the phenomenon. Herodotos (1.74) details the impact the total eclipse of 585 BCE had on two warring nations. The Lydians and Medes in Asia Minor had been engaged in a brutal war for over 5 years without resolution. On May 25 in the middle of a battle there was a total eclipse. The warring parties broke off the conflict, returned home and soon made peace.

Lunar eclipses occur when the Earth passes between the sun and moon. While not as spectacular as solar eclipses, it still held significant power as an omen. As the earth's shadow moves across the surface, the moon often appears to become blood red. One can imagine the interpretations put on this event. Thucydides in his The Peloponnesian War relates how a lunar eclipse changed history. A lunar eclipse occurred on August 27, 413 BCE during the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians were in the process of removing their forces from Syracuse when the Moon was eclipsed. The Athenians and their commander Nicias were so frightened that they delayed their departure for twenty-seven days. The Syracusans used the time wisely, regrouped, and handed the Athenians a devastating defeat. 2

Other relatively rare celestial events made their way into ancient astronomy texts, history, and thus to coins. Probably the most noted of these phenomena was the comet (Greek: long haired star). The appearance of comets was often linked to the birth of a great leader. This was another legacy of Alexander the Great, as he was born during a comet's visit. Other leaders such as Ptolemy V and Augustus issued coins with comets as propaganda to solidify or justify their rule.

Possibly the rarest of visible celestial events is the supernova. Depending on distance from the Earth, this can be a remarkable sight. The supernovae of 1006, 1572, and 1604 reached a magnitude greater than Venus and were observable in broad daylight. Since that time the only supernova visible to the naked eye occurred in 1987 and was only visible in the southern hemisphere. (Interestingly approximately 375,000 years ago, Geminga exploded at a distance of between 50 and 75 light years. Early humans would have seen a star as bright as the moon.)3 There is only one recorded supernova that occurred in ancient Roman and Greek times. The Chinese recorded this event beginning on December 7, 185 CE in the constellation of Centaurus. The astronomers Clark and Stephenson translated the Chinese texts and identified a likely remnant of the supernova as the radio source G 315.4-2.3. Huang and Maoriarty-Schiven calculated that this exploding star would have been visible from Rome at a maximum of 5 to 6o above the horizon. They also calculated that the supernova would have been visible at magnitude -8 (much brighter than Venus, thus easily seen in daylight), and that it lasted for 7 to 8 months.4 (See below for other celestial events happening at this time.) Other phenomena such as variable stars that wax and wane in brightness, and meteor showers were certainly noticed, but did not seem to be remarkable enough to make their way onto coins. While meteors did not seem to make the grade, meteorites did. Many were venerated as cult symbols such as the Stone of Emesa, the Stone of the Temple of Aphrodite at Paphos (actually excavated and confirmed as a meteorite), and the Stone of Zeus Kasios.

While eclipses must have panicked ancient viewers, their daily lives were also entwined with more predictable celestial movements. Astrology as an influence in politics and human affairs was practiced by the Chinese and Sumerians. The Greeks borrowed it from the Babylonians and then the Romans borrowed from the Greeks. There was an obsession with astrology, but the state also understood that there was danger in terms of self-fulfilling prophecy and ill omens. The emperors treated astrologers in an approach-avoidance kind of way. They often had their own personal astrologers, but passed laws restricting the practice and on several occasions all astrologers were banished from Rome. Augustus, Tiberius, and especially Domitian [not to mention Nancy Reagan] were among the rulers who are known to have made state decisions based on astrological readings. During the reign of Septimius Severus and successors the reliance on astrology became a mania. Despite this love-hate relationship, celestial events appeared regularly on Roman and Greek coins and most of these were related to astrology.

The heavens represented on coins:

While researching this essay, I tried to locate the earliest coin with an astronomical reference. The earliest coin I could find using astronomical search terms such as "star", "crescent" and "globe" were the silver staters struck at Knossos, Crete. Some of these contain a star at the center of the labyrinth with groups of 5 pellets in the corners. And here is where the speculation begins. Any grouping of 5 or 7 pellets or stars leads one to conclude that these represent the moving celestial objects: 5 planets and 2 luminaries (sun & moon). Why there were 4 groups of five and what they represented in relation to the labyrinth is unknown. It may have been done for aesthetic reasons to balance the design. It also may have had deeper meaning with the labyrinth representing the seemingly random wanderings of the planets through the maze of the zodiac.

It wasn't until I received an email from a fellow Moneta_L member reminding me to include the Julian II large bronze of the Apis bull in my research that I realized that the first coin with astronomical significance - was the first coin. The bull facing lion on the first electrum coins minted in Lydia surely relate to Taurus, represented in the constellation as the forepart of the bull, and Leo, the Nemean lion. There are several reasons why the Lydians may have used these symbols. First, Leo is high in the sky in the spring while Taurus is best viewed in the winter. Their confrontation on the coin may well represent the triumph of spring over winter. Secondly, it was thought by the Greeks that regions/ countries of the ancient world were ruled by certain signs and that these were sometimes adopted as symbols on their coins. A list of minting cities that used a zodiacal sign on coins is presented in Table 1. This is not to mean that every coin that bears the image of an animal in the zodiac actually refers to the astrological creature. The reasons to place animals on coins are many including: tying the city to a myth, cult figures, animal magnetism and fertility, food sources or exports, etc. Additionally, the coins included in the search for this table were those that had the animal as the main or co-main motif on one of the coin sides. Lion skins and scalps were not included even though these tie into the myth of Herakles and the Nemean Lion which is the source of Leo. A search for the term "lion" on Wildwinds.com produced almost 1200 hits in the Greek coin section.


Table 1. Zodiacal signs on Greek coins by region and city
Note: based on online sources, thus not an all inclusive list.

What is interesting is that Libra, Virgo, Aquarius, and Sagittarius are missing from the list. Searches for scales (Libra) and the terms Virgo and Aquarius produced no results on search engines. Many archers (Sagittarius) were found, but none that had obvious celestial origins. Virgo was often associated with Demeter and later Ceres. There are many Greek coins with Demeter, but none where I could disassociate her from her role as goddess of the fields.

Symbolism on coins:

The three most common symbols associated with celestial objects were pellets, stars, and crescents. The crescent and star symbol is one of the most ancient designs. It appears on petroglyphs and steles of the first civilization in Sumer. This symbol was adopted by the Greeks and was associated with many of their gods including: Selene and Helios, as one would suspect, but also with Artemis of Perge, the Artemis of Ephesos, the Aphrodite of Paphos, Zeus Casios, the Zeus of Tarsos, Nemesis, Tyche, and Astarte.5 It is not surprising that this symbol found its way onto Greek and Roman coins. Often times the stars and crescent were presented on the same coin. Typically, the crescent symbol is associated with the moon and the stars with the planets. I would argue that there may be an alternative explanation. There is a paradox evident on some star/crescent coins: stars appear within the crescent. This, of course, is impossible as the moon is the closest celestial object to Earth. This impossible juxtaposition may be attributed to ignorant engravers or to artistic license, but I believe there are coins of Hadrian that hint at something else. Below are the images of these denarii minted around 128 CE. The first has the star in crescent, the second coin has an additional pellet under the crescent, and the third has a crescent and 7 stars.



Now it so happens that Hadrian probably experienced two solar eclipses; one shortly after the death of Nerva on March 21, 98 CE and another on Sept. 3, 118 CE.6 It is not clear from ancient texts whether these were total, annular, or partial, but the odds are that he viewed a partial eclipse. Totality in an eclipse is seen over a short swath of the Earth with a width often less than 250 kilometers. Still, a partial eclipse would have an enormous impact on ancient viewers. The three views below are of recent eclipses. Photo 1 is of the total eclipse of 1998 at totality. Photo 2 is of the same eclipse, but illustrates the diamond ring or cosmic egg effect. Just before and after totality the sun's rays penetrate through the moon's valleys to create a short star burst effect prior to the sun disk's reappearance. This diamond ring effect in itself has spawned numerous myths and conjectures among ancient people. Photo 3 shows an annular eclipse shortly before the moon is completely centered on the sun. Annular eclipses occur when the moon is furtherest from the earth. In these eclipses the sun is not totally obscured. While the moon is centered on the sun, a ring near the sun's edges is always visible; thus, while impressive, it does not have the same impact as the total eclipse. Nevertheless, it does not take a stretch of the imagination to see a correlation between Hadrian's denarii and eclipses. If the crescent represents the sun, and the star the moon, the star within the crescent makes sense. It may represent a partial eclipse or a total eclipse nearing totality. I mention this latter possibility because it is possible that the second denarius in the photo represents the diamond ring effect. The third denarius could represent a commemorative issue celebrating that fact that the eclipse failed to destroy the sun and things were back to normal. Given the Roman proclivity for propaganda, this also makes sense: "The emperor saw us through another trial". Faustina the wife of Hadrian's successor Antoninus Pius also had coins [denarii and Ases] minted with the 7 stars/crescent motif. On her coins six of the stars circle the crescent while one resides distinctly in the center of the crescent.


There is one more enigma in this series which is also evident in other coins with the seven stars with crescent motif. Seven celestial objects are all that are visible unless one counts the Earth. Thus, the crescent is either used as a generic symbol representing the heavens or the Earth is included as one of the planets (or, as stated above, the "anti-Earth" may be included in this model). One other possibility that was suggested by Marshall Faintich is that the seven stars represent the Plaeides. He notes in his book Symbolic Messengers that once in 125 and again in 126, a thin crescent moon occulted the Plaeides. One other piece of circumstantial evidence that may support the eclipse theory is the sporadic way in which this reverse design is used in Roman history. Almost all of the appearances of the star/crescent motif occurred during the reigns of Hadrian, Commodus, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, Geta, and Percennius Niger. The provincial coins of Septimius Severus seem only to be mainly minted at Nikopolis. The minting of these coins in Nikopolis could indicate an eclipse focused on that region. Because of the sporadic use of these designs, it seems likely that the star and crescent symbols were used to mark events (Images of star/crescent coins from my collection can be viewed here). Furthermore, the grouping of these coins in the latter part of the 2nd century may have significance. Computer models have suggested that two eclipses, one annular the other total, occurred in the northern hemisphere in 186 CE.7 This would place it in the reign of Commodus**. Two eclipses in the same year (July 4, and Dec. 28) would have been exceedingly rare and noteworthy especially with the Annular eclipse occurring almost at the new year (the July 4, eclipse was total). All of the emperors mentioned above ruled within 19 years of each other. The minting of the crescent/star motifs seem to be linked to a celestial event. Whether they are related to eclipses or conjunctions of the Plaeides and planets, or both, (or the supernova mentioned above) may never be known for sure. Maybe Hadrian noticed the symbols in his travels in the east and brought them back to Rome. Just as with today's coins, the reverse design may have been very popular and was thus adopted by subsequent emperors. It is difficult to be certain.
The star and crescent symbol may or may not represent an eclipse. There may be evidence to support another symbol that could be eclipse related: the "wreath above". One famous eclipse occurred on November 11th, 120 BC. The Romans declared this event indicated divine support for their recent conquering of southern France.8 A search for coins minted in 119 BC revealed two interesting coins. The reverses of these are shown to the right. The coin on the left minted by Tullia M. Tullius has Victory in quadriga right,with a wreath above in field. This is generally thought to represent the moneyers ancestor's (Ser.Tullius) victory over the Sabines; he being the first Roman to receive a laurel-wreath. Having the wreath positioned in the field above is unusual as most wreathes appear in hand. A search of 225 coins on Wildwinds with the search terms "wreath above" revealed this as the only coin with this format. On each of the coins of this type, Victory seems to be looking directly at the wreath in the sky (nose angles used for that). A wreath would bear much resemblance to the effects of a total or annular eclipse. The second photo of a denarius of M. Furius L.f. Philus, has Roma standing left placing wreath on a trophy which stands over gallic arms. There is a star over her shoulder which some have associated with the eclipse of 120 BC. Crowning the trophy with the wreath may have dual symbolism. As a footnote to this discussion : A beautiful coin of Juba II has one of the clearest depictions of the star and crescent. In this case, it is difficult to make assumptions because Juba was married to the only surviving child of Cleopatra VII, Selene (goddess of the moon). That may be Juba's wife on the reverse.

Some coins of the Roman Republic actually use the personification of the moon, Luna or Selene in place of the crescent symbol. In 109-108 BCE Man. Aquillius produced a beautiful denarius with Luna driving a biga through an interesting grouping of stars. As can be seen in the photo, there is a crescent moon and 3 stars above and a lone star below the horses. A radiate Sol graces the obverse. Marshall Faintich has linked this coin with a known celestial event. According to Faintich:

"Soon after sunset on 17 June 109 BC, a very thin crescent moon was in conjunction with Jupiter, Mars, and Venus. Mercury was just above the horizon, but may have been lost in the twilight. Saturn was not too far away in the southwestern sky. This would have been a spectacular sight to see, as the trio would have remained visible as the sky darkened into night. Either Mercury or Saturn could be represented by the star below the biga."9

An earlier Republican Uncia minted anonymously in 217-215 BCE is similar in that a radiate Sol appears on the obverse and an arrangement of stars, pellet, and crescent appears on the reverse. Usually a two star arrangement is used to symbolize the Dioscouroi [Gemini], but the addition of the pellet, crescent and the Sol marker on the obverse, makes one wonder whether this coin represents a conjunction of moon and planets. Another possibility is that this represents an eclipse with stars visible in the daytime. One of the interesting phenomena associated with total eclipses is that bright stars [planets] become visible in daytime. (Of course this could also have been an early engraver's attempt at creating the first smiley face. :-) Other Roman coins with images of 3 stars, 4 stars, and even 5 stars may also represent lunar conjunctions.

The Roman and Greeks were not the only civilization to mint coins with stars and crescents. The rulers of Elymais were often depicted with the star and crescent over their shoulders. The Parthians often used this symbol on coins. On the coins of Parthamaspates [116 CE] he is depicted wearing a crown decorated with stars within crescents. Probably the most common coin found in collections that feature stars and crescents are the coins minted in Macedon just before and while under Roman rule. The shield of Macedon features a border of 7 star/crescent symbols. The Celtic peoples also minted coins with the star-crescent symbol, but their use of stylistic representations make interpretation problematic.

There are other coins of mystery and interest in terms of astrological symbolism. Probably the most interesting of these is the series representing each of the signs of the zodiac with an accompanying planet that were minted in Alexandria by Antoninus Pius. Besides the coins of the individual signs, there is one fascinating coin that bears a disk of the complete zodiac. These coins are beautiful in design with Olympian gods representing the planets and luminaries. They also illustrate the Roman's understanding of the planetary movements. For example, the "sun in Leo" coin has the bust of Helios over a charging lion, with star above. When the sun is in Leo, the constellation is not visible in the night sky. On the "Mercury in Gemini" coin, Hermes is pictured facing a star while the figures representing Gemini are Apollo and Hercules. It is interesting that they used this pair rather than Dioscouroi to represent Gemini.The image to the left of the BMC plate of these coins is clickable for an enlarged picture.

Marshall Faintich makes another connection between a known planetary conjunction and a Roman coin; this being the famous AE 1 coin of Julian II featuring the bull with two stars reverse design. Julian came to power in 360 CE in a revolt against Constantius II and tried to reinstate pagan gods. Julian would certainly be looking for a heavenly sign to offset the Christian vision of Constantius' father, Constantine the Great. This event materialized on May 4, 360 as Mars and Venus occulted, thus forming one very bright star. This occultation happened to occur in the constellation of Taurus directly between the horns. Two weeks prior to the occultation, the planets were in the exact location indicated on the coin. This was probably the last coin minted by the Romans that had an astrological base. The Christians who regained dominance following Julian's attempt to restore the ancient ways would never again depict pagan-related events.

It makes sense that celestial events that were both spectacular and related to the ancient people's cosmology and religion would find their way onto coins. The heavens ruled destiny and was the abode of the gods. If you have ever gazed up at the night sky under clear conditions away from city lights and pollution, you can relate to the power and awe this view must have had on human imagination. I am sure there is much more in the way of astronomical symbolism embedded in ancient coins. I am also sure that there are inaccuracies in this text. The Romans did not leave extensive astronomical records and, unfortunately neither did the minters. We can only speculate. The coins of India and China probably hold a wealth of information, but the ancient astronomy associated with these civilizations is foreign to me. I have seen crescents on Chinese coins that normally have blank reverses. It makes one wonder what event this is linked to. I would also like to have software that allowed views of the night sky on any given day in history. It would be interesting to try to match "wondrous" celestial events with the coins of that time.


References

1Brundige, E. H. Inventing the Solar System: Early Greek Scientists Struggle to Explain How the Heavens Move.
online at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/GreekScience/Students/Ellen/EarlyGkAstronomy.html

2Espenak, F. Solar Eclipses of Historical Interest. online at: http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/SEhistory/SEhistory.html

3Stephenson F. R. & Green, D. A. (2002). Historical Supernovae and their Remnants. Cambridge: Clarendon Press.

4Culver, R. G. & MacDonald D. (1989). An Astronomical Interpretation of Caracalla's Shield. The Ancient History Bulletin, 3.1, 18-24.

5Brody, L. R. The Iconography and Cult of the Aphrodite of Aphrodisias
online at: http://www.geocities.com/lisa_brody/diss.htm

6 Annals of Ravenna [ca. 576] as cited in (Newton, 1972) Ancient astronomical observations and the acceleration of the earth and moon, The Johns Hopkins University Press
note: Recent computer models (which have a considerable standard error of measurement) indicate that eclipses occurred in 110 and 121 AD.

7Espenak, F. Eight Millennium Catalog of Long Solar Eclipses -2999 to +5000 (3000 BCE to 5000 CE )
Online at: http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/SEcatmax/SEcatmax.html

Mossman, A., Archibald, G., Rideout, D. & Murphy, J. Astronomy, History & Religion
Online at: http://collections.ic.gc.ca/universe/history.html

9Faintich M. Symbolic Messengers Astronomical Symbols on Ancient and Medieval Coins.
online at: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/symbolic_messengers/homepage.htm

Notes:
*The Earth was still considered the center of the physical universe. The Universal Fire or Hearth was a stoic philosophical construct.

**According to the computer models both of these eclipses lasted over 6 mins at totality. The total eclipse was centered over the Azores, the annular eclipse approximately on the Pakistan - Iraq border. Both would have created at least partial eclipses over parts of the empire.

Special thanks to:

Dave Suber at Wildwinds.com where many of the links in this essay lead.
Chris Hopkins at Parthia.com for the links to coins of Parthia and Elymais
Michael J. Covili at Coins of Roman Egypt for the BMC plate of the Alexandrian coins
And Thomas Burger for insightful email assistance.
A very interesting site on the star of Bethlehem by Michael R. Molnar

Marshall Faintich's site on Symbolic Messengers
Astronomy resources - directory of Astronomy related websites.


E-mail: tom.buggey@siskin.org


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