By Mike Markowitz for Coinweek ….
Ancient Coin Series
THE NIGHT SKY WAS ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT to ancient people. This can be hard for us to understand, living as we do in a world where light pollution denies us a clear view of the stars. What people saw in the sky – or thought they saw – they expressed as myths, as symbols, and even as designs on their coins. The crescent moon and spiky stars, for example, appear frequently on ancient coins.
Most ancient cultures believed in astrology – the notion that changes observed in the heavens above were strongly linked to events on earth below. Along with the reassuringly predictable motions of the stars and planets, more troubling things sometimes appeared in the sky. Rare and unpredictable, comets and meteors were particularly potent symbols, and their appearance on a few ancient coins has sparked the interest of historians and astronomers as well as numismatists.
We know now that comets are large “dirty snowballs” with eccentric orbits that sometimes bring them close enough to the sun that long tails of gas and dust reflect enough sunlight to make them visible. The Greek word kometes means “long-haired”. One Latin term for comet was stella crinita – “hairy star”.
Aristotle thought comets were the result of combustible gas igniting in the upper atmosphere. Some ancients believed they were wandering planets. But many believed they were omens of natural or political catastrophe – wars, plagues, famines, and especially the death of rulers. This was a potential PR problem if you happened to be a king and a comet appeared.
Mithridates VI “The Great” (ruled 134–63 BCE) was the king of Pontus, a kingdom on the southern coast of the Black Sea. His ancestry included both the rulers of Persia and the successors of Alexander. He ruled for 56 years, conquered a great empire, and was a master of spin control. In a world where only a small elite could read, imagery on coins was an important official propaganda channel.
In the year Mithridates was born, a comet appeared in the constellation of Pegasus. Justinus, a 4th-century historian, reports that “it burned so brightly for 70 days that the entire sky seemed to be on fire.” In 119 BCE, when the 15-year-old Mithridates deposed his mother and seized the throne for himself, another comet appeared. Uh-oh!
On his silver coinage, Mithridates made Pegasus his personal badge, an indirect reference to the constellation where the comet of 134 was seen. A starburst and crescent in the field reinforce the celestial connection. Small bronze coins of this period, which bear no inscriptions, show a horsehead and starburst, and a starburst with a long tail. One reverse, often catalogued as a “palm branch” (a traditional symbol of victory) looks very much like a comet.
Under Tigranes II (140-55 BCE), Armenia became a great power in the East, stretching from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Sea. Tigranes fought successive wars against the Parthian and Seleukid empires and the Roman Republic. On his abundant silver and bronze coinage, Tigranes appears wearing a distinctive Armenian “tiara” or crown ornamented with an eight-pointed starburst between two eagles. On some rare issues, the starburst has a definite long tail. Modern astronomers calculate that Halley’s Comet made its closest approach to the sun (perihelion) on 6 August 87 BCE. In Babylon, it was visible for a month.
By placing this image on his coinage, Tigranes, in effect, declared to his subjects that far from fearing the omen in the sky, he embraced it, and wore it as a symbol of his new era.
Roman custom prescribed that funeral observances for powerful elite men be celebrated with gladiatorial “games.” Four months after Julius Caesar’s assassination (15 March 44 BCE) his nephew and adopted son Octavian duly organized a 10-day spectacular (July 20-30). In his commentaries, Octavian writes:
“On the very days of my games, a comet was seen for seven days in the northern section of the sky. It arose about the eleventh hour of the day, and was bright and visible from all countries. The crowd believed that this…signified that the soul of Caesar had been received among… the immortal gods…”
Chinese sources confirm this sighting–probably the brightest daylight comet in recorded history. It was “non-periodic” (a comet that does not return), and may have disintegrated as it approached the sun. By promoting the idea that the comet was Caesar’s soul ascending to the heavens, Octavian diminished the risk that people would interpret the event as an omen of impending doom. He ordered gold stars affixed above the foreheads of deified Caesar’s cult images, as we see on a denarius of 17 BCE.
The best-known representation of Caesar’s comet, and perhaps the most detailed comet image on any ancient coin, appears on a denarius of about 19 BCE from the mint of Emerita (Merida, Spain). The comet, accompanied by the inscription “Julius the God” is depicted as a pellet with eight rays, one of which extends as a shaggy tail.
The Black Stone of Emesa
Ancient people regarded stones that fell from the sky as objects of wonder, and often as manifestations of the divine. Some of the earliest-known iron weapons were forged from pieces of nickel-iron meteorites. The Syrian town of Emesa (now the war-torn city of Homs) had a temple enshrining a conical black stone that was almost certainly a stony meteorite. On 8 June 218 CE, through a bizarre series of dynastic intrigues, the 14-year-old hereditary high priest of this temple, Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus, became the emperor of Rome. He is known to history by the Latinized name of his god: Elagabalus.
His first official act was to transfer the sacred meteorite to Rome’s main temple, the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (“Jupiter Best and Greatest”) on the Capitoline Hill. This is commemorated on a beautiful gold aureus, showing the stone borne on a four-horse chariot, or quadriga. A shroud, richly embroidered with an eagle and stars, covers the stone, while an eight-pointed star in the field above alludes to its celestial origin.
The conical shape is often seen in meteorites that have survived the fiery passage through the atmosphere.
Following the assassination of Elagabalus in 222 CE, the stone was deported back to Emesa, but it makes a brief reappearance in 253 on the rare coinage of Uranius Antoninus, an obscure usurper known only from his coins. He may have been another temple priest. The stone was probably destroyed in the 4th century CE, when surviving pagan temples were converted into churches. A mosque now occupies the site.
The Great Comet of 1106
The best-documented appearance of a comet on a Byzantine coin is the reverse of a very rare electrum aspron trachy struck at Thessaloniki for Alexios Komnenos. Alexios’ daughter Anna was a talented historian, and she reports that the comet was the largest ever seen; it appeared in the daytime, and remained visible for 40 days.
From other sources we know the comet was first sighted on 2 February 1106. Michael Hendy, a leading expert on the coinage of this period wrote:
“[T]he star of the specimen in question …is placed in a most inconvenient position between the Emperor and the Virgin who is attempting to crown him – it seems to be almost an afterthought despite its rather elaborate form.”
Astronomers now think this comet, designated X1106/C1, was a “sun grazer” that broke up, with parts returning as the Great Comet of 1882 and Comet Ikeya-Seki in 1965.
It’s worth noting that some numismatists believe the Supernova of 1054 is recorded on Byzantine coins of Constantine IX, but that is a story for another day…
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Barrett, A.A. “Observations of Comets in Greek and Roman Sources Before AD 410.” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada 72:2 (1978).
Bellemare, Pierre M. “Meteorite Sparks a Cult.” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada 90:5/6 (1996).
Caesar’s Comet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesar’s_Comet). Web. Accessed 7 June 2014.
Gurzadyan, V.G. and R. Vardanyan. “Halley’s Comet on the Coins of Armenian King Tigranes?” Astronomy and Geophysics 45 (2004).
Hendy, Michael. Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire 1081-1206. Dumbarton Oaks (1969)
Molnar. Michael R. “Mithradates Used Comets on Coins as Propaganda Device.” Celator 11:6 (1997)
Ramsey, John T. “Mithridates, the Banner of Ch’ih-Yu and the Comet Coin.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 99 (1999)
Scott Kenneth. “The Sidus Iulium and the Apotheosis of Caesar.” Classical Philology 36:3 (1941)
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