Star and Crescent Ancient Coins

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz ….
 

OUR MOON IS SOLID, not transparent. So it is impossible for a star to appear between the points of a crescent moon. But ancient artists did not care about this, even if they understood it. Because the orbits of the Earth, the Moon and the planets all lie in nearly the same plane, a bright planet or star can appear very close to the Moon (what astronomers call a “conjunction”) or even be eclipsed by it (an “occultation”[1]).

Living in a world without electric lights, most ancient people were much more familiar with the night sky than we are, and the stars and planets were very important to their view of the universe. Many believed that events in the sky were closely linked to events on earth; a belief that developed into the pseudo-science of astrology. In Sumerian cuneiform writing, a star and crescent is the ideogram for “incantation” or magical spell.

In Egyptian hieroglyphics, a star below a crescent forms the symbol for “month”. The Nebra sky disk[2], a bronze artifact inlaid with gold and dated to c. 1600 BCE, is one of the earliest representations of a crescent and stars in Western art. Found in Germany in 1999, its purpose is uncertain.

At least four different Greco-Roman goddesses had a lunar connection: Hecate, Selene, Artemis (Diana), and Aphrodite (Venus). The star and crescent appears as a powerful symbol with many meanings, and it is often found on ancient coins.

Athens Owl

Athens Tetradrachm - Crescent Owl
Head of Athena to right, wearing crested Attic helmet adorned with three olive leaves and palmette, round earring and pearl necklace. Rev. ΑΘΕ Owl standing right, head facing; behind, olive spray and crescent moon; all within incuse square. Cf. Dewing 1594 and Svoronos pl. 14, 3 . A splendid coin with a wonderful archaizing head of Athena. Minor flan fault in the reverse field and some minor marks, otherwise, virtually as struck.

The best-known crescent moon on an ancient coin is a small symbol behind the shoulder of the owl on the reverse of the silver tetradrachm of Athens, a popular trade coin accepted for centuries and widely imitated across the Mediterranean world. The crescent first appears on the coins shortly after Athens’ victory at the Battle of Marathon, fought beneath a waning moon (August or September 490 BCE). The crescent may also recall the crescent formation of the Greek ships at the decisive Battle of Salamis (September 480 BCE).

Tarentum

Tarentum Trihemiobol - Crescent and Star coin
Tarentum Trihemiobol (Silver, 0.78 g 2), c. 450-380. Diphros, or table with four legs, with two pellets on top. Rev. Distaff between two eight-rayed stars; below left, crescent to left. HN III, 855. Vlasto 1200. Rare.

Tarentum, a prosperous Greek city on the heel of the Italian “boot”, issued a tiny silver trihemiobol (0.78 g) c. 450 – 380 BCE showing a distaff (a tool used in spinning thread, symbolic of the local wool industry) between two stars and a crescent. In a 2005 Swiss auction, this rare piece realized $705 USD[3]. On the more common and even tinier hemiobols of Tarentum (c. 325 – 228 BCE), stars and pairs of crescents, back to back, are the only designs on both sides of the coin.

Uranopolis and Byzantium

The small town of Uranopolis (“sky city”) in Macedon was dedicated to the sky goddess Aprhrodite Urania. On its bronze coins (c. 300 BCE), the goddess appears seated on a celestial globe. The star and crescent are depicted on the reverse, in a pattern that will be repeated on coins for centuries to come: the “horns” of the crescent point upward, and the star is a pellet with six or eight rays.

Uranopolis - Crescent and Star Ancient Coin
MACEDON, Uranopolis. Circa 300 BC. Æ 13mm (1.44 g). Eight- pointed star and crescent / Aphrodite Urania seated left on globe. SNG ANS 918; SNG Copenhagen 458. VF

The Greek city of Byzantium (which would become Constantinople in 330 CE, and, Istanbul after 1453) adopted this symbol on its coinage in the first century BCE. According to legend, in 340 BCE, when Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) besieged Byzantium, the appearance of a sudden light in the sky warned the defenders in time to prevent a surprise night attack on the walls. In gratitude to the lunar goddess Hecate, the city placed a star and crescent on its local coinage. This custom continued well into the Roman era.

Thrace, Byzantium featuring Trajan and Crescent and Star Reverse
THRACE, Byzantium. Trajan. AD 98-117. Æ 22mm (6.35 g). Radiate, draped and cuirassed bust left, seen from behind / Star and crescent. Schönert-Geiss 1356 (31/R42)

Roman Republic

A striking bronze uncia of the Roman Republic[4], c. 217 BCE depicts Sol, the sun god, with his crown of rays on the obverse and a crescent with a pellet and two stars on the reverse. To modern viewers, this is amusingly familiar as a “happy face”, but ancient Romans might not have made the same association.

Lucretius Denarius - Crescent Star on Ancient Coin
L. Lucretius Trio. Denarius, 76 BCE. AR 3.93 g. Radiate head of Sol r. Rev. L. LVCRETI / TRIO Crescent surrounded by seven stars. Cr. 390/1. Syd. 783. Seaby Lucretia 2.

The combination of an obverse image of Sol with a star and crescent reverse appears again on a silver denarius of 74 BCE issued by L. Lucretius Trio[5]. On this coin, seven stars accompany the crescent. The most visible cluster of seven stars is the Pleiades[6], important to ancient peoples because its appearance above the horizon marked Spring planting and Autumn harvest seasons. Occultations of the Pleaides by the moon occurred in October and December of 75 BCE, and would have been noted by Romans of that time. The design with just five stars appears again on silver[7] (and rare gold issues[8] of P. Clodius Turrinus) on 42 BCE.

Mithradates

Mithradates VI[9] (135-63 BCE), King of Pontus in Asia Minor, was one of the most determined and resourceful enemies who ever fought the Roman Republic. In the year he was born, a comet appeared in the constellation of Pegasus. A fourth-century historian reported that it “burned so brightly for 70 days that the entire sky seemed to be on fire.”

King of Pontos Mithradates VI Eupator - Crescent Star
KINGS of PONTOS. Mithradates VI Eupator. Circa 120-63 BC. AV Stater (20mm, 8.46 g, 12h). Amisos or Sinope mint. Struck circa 93/2 BC. Diademed head right / BAΣIΛEΩΣ EYΠATOPOΣ, star above crescent within ivy wreath. Callataÿ p. 4, dies D1/R1, a = SNG von Aulock 5 = G. Kleiner, “Pontische Reichsmünzen” in IstMitt 6 (1955), pl. 1, 6 (this coin); HGC 6, 331 (this coin illustrated); SG 7246 (this coin referenced). Good VF, lightly toned, scrape on obverse, obverse double struck. Unique, and the first gold stater of Mithradates’ reign.

In 119 BCE another comet appeared, when 15-year-old Mithridates deposed his mother and seized the throne for himself. The star and crescent was the badge of his dynasty and it appears consistently on his coinage. A large star and crescent surrounded by a wreath forms the reverse of a unique gold stater of c. 93 BCE[10]. On his abundant silver coinage, the star and crescent appears on the reverse as a small symbol beside a stag or Pegasus[11].

Defeated in battle repeatedly by Roman armies, and faced with a rebellion by his own son, Mithradates killed himself in 63 BCE.

Juba

The kingdom of Mauretania, in what is now Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, became a Roman client state in 27 BCE. King Juba II (c. 52 BCE – 23 CE), who had been raised and educated as a royal hostage in Rome, married Cleopatra Selene II (40 BCE – 6 BCE), daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. A silver denarius of Juba bears his portrait on the obverse with a Latin inscription, and a star and crescent on the reverse, with the Greek inscription “Queen Cleopatra”[12]. Since Selene was a moon goddess, the symbol is a reference to her name.

Roman Imperial

Many Roman emperors took astrology seriously; some even employed court astrologers. Beginning with the first emperor, Augustus, the crescent symbol with one or more stars appears repeatedly on the coinage[13], probably at times when significant lunar events were observed and taken as favorable omens.

Augustus Star Crescent Ancient Coin
Augustus. 27 BC-AD 14. AR Denarius (3.92 g, 3h). Rome mint. P. Petronius Turpilianus, moneyer. Struck 19/8 BC. CAESAR AVGVSTVS, bare head right. TVRPILIANVS • III • VIR •, six pointed star above large crescent. RIC I 300; RSC 495; BMCRE 32-4; BN 161-6.

A denarius of Hadrian c. 127 CE[14], shows the star and crescent above a pellet, another c. 128 CE shows the crescent with the familiar cluster of seven stars[15]. Because the moon was associated with various goddesses, the symbol also appears on coins of empresses, notably a posthumous bronze honoring Faustina (died 141 CE), the wife of Antoninus Pius[16].

On the CoinArchives Pro database, which documents nearly four million auction results, a search for “star and crescent” produced 9,721 hits. A brief survey like this can only scratch the surface of this vast and complex subject. The star and crescent is a recurrent symbol on coinage of the Persian Sassanian Empire and, following the Muslim conquests, it became a widely recognized symbol of Islam. But that is a story for another day…

* * *

Notes

[1] On September 18, 2017 the moon occulted Venus, Mercury, Mars and the bright star Regulus in the constellation of Leo: http://earthsky.org/?p=263294

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nebra_sky_disk

[3] LHS Numismatik Auction 95, 25 October 2005, Lot 435

[4] CNG Triton V auction, 15 January 2002, Lot 7. Realized $475.

[5] New York Sale III, 7 December 2000, Lot 417. Realized $350. Some sources date this coin to 76 BCE.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleiades_in_folklore_and_literature

[7] New York Sale III, 7 December 2000, Lot 577. Realized $180.

[8] NAC Auction 100, 29 May 2017, Lot 374. Realized $56,480.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithridates_VI_of_Pontus

[10] CNG Auction 100, 7 October 2015, Lot 64. Realized $19,000.

[11] Roma Numismatics Auction 7, 22 March 2014, Lot 746. Realized $9,896.

[12] CNG Auction 100, 7 October 2015, Lot 1616. Realized $280.

[13] CNG Triton XI, 8 January 2008, Lot 701. Realized $2,800.

[14] Roma Numismatics E-sale 37, 24 June 2017, Lot 419. Realized $405.

[15] CNG Electronic Auction 264, 21 September 2011, Lot 413. Realized $380.

[16] CNG Auction 63, 21 May 2003, Lot 1369. Realized $600.

References

Anson, Leo. Numismata Graeca: Greek Coin-Types Classified for Immediate Identification, Part VI. London (1916)

Faintich, Marshall. Astronomical Symbols on Ancient and Medieval Coins. Jefferson, NC (2007)

Rovithis-Livaniou, Eleni and Flora Rovithis. “Stellar Symbols on Ancient Greek Coins”,
Romanian Astronomy Journal 21 (2011)
 


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