Sasanian bronze coin with unusual inscription and symbols

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Parthicus, Feb 1, 2023.

  1. Parthicus

    Parthicus Well-Known Member

    (photo borrowed from seller because I had trouble getting a decent shot)
    Yazdegard I AE.jpg
    Sasanian Kingdom. AE pashiz (15 mm, 1.69 g). Yazdegard I (399-420). Obverse: Bust of king right, inscription in Pahlavi script "ShMS" at right. Reverse: Usual Zoroastrian fire-altar with two attendants, eleven stars around. This coin: Pars Coins Auction 34, lot 107 (January 23, 2023).

    Yazdegard I (399-420 AD) was the son of Shapur III (383-388) and brother of Vahram IV (388-399). His three immediate predecessors had all been killed by high-ranking nobility (which still included many of the Parthian noble families, nearly two centuries after the last Parthian king died) and conflict with the nobles would continue in his reign as well. He also came into conflict with the Zoroastrian priesthood for his considerable toleration of both Christians and Jews in his realm; indeed, some sources call him "the sinner", though Christians and Jews referred to him as a new Cyrus the Great, and Yazdegard himself took the title Ramshahr, "peacemaker in [his] realm". Yazdegard maintained good relations with the Eastern Roman Empire, and was declared a guardian of Arcadius' young son, the future Theodosius II. He died around 420 in the northeast (in the traditional homeland of the Parthians), probably murdered by the nobility although accounts differ. We do know that the nobles tried to prevent Yazdegard's sons from taking the throne, but one of them, Bahram V, with help from an Arab army was able to succeed his father.

    This is a decent specimen of Sasanian bronze, but what really intrigued me were the obverse inscription and the reverse stars. The reading of the inscription as ShMS seems pretty definite; while the first letter could possibly be read as S instead of Sh, I think I can see the initial starting line of Sh, which should be absent on S. Now, what could this mean? The seller suggests it could stand for the Arabic word Shams, meaning "sun". While the sun does have a role in Zoroastrian religion, so honoring it on a coin makes sense, why would Yazdegard use the Arabic word, rather than the Persian word for sun, "aftab"? (Some Arab-Sasanian coins spell Arabic words in Pahlavi script, but the portrait style is very clearly Yazdegard I, so we can rule out a much later Arab-Sasanian origin of this coin.) On the reverse, the use of stars around the border is not surprising. However, we can clearly count 11 stars, which is a number with no obvious (to me, anyway) significance in Zoroastrian religion or Persian culture. The seller suggests that it might stand for the seven Amasha Spenta (seven minor celestial beings in Zoroastrian religion) plus the four fundamental elements. I suppose this could be the case, but would prefer stronger evidence before committing myself to this interpretation. In any case, this is an interesting little coin and worthy of further study. Please post your theories, or whatever related coins you have.
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  3. medoraman

    medoraman Supporter! Supporter

    Interesting piece. I too would highly doubt an Arabic word being used on Sasanian pieces of this timeframe. My only thoughts would be two fold:

    1. If Sasanian, the word is of unknown significance and I would think maybe the number of stars was a celator design decision. I think 7 minor celestials and 4 elements is a HUGE stretch. Much more likely the celator wanted to surround the fire alter with stars and 11 fit the design.

    2. Could be an unknown Arab-sasanian piece. I have seen some copying the artistry very closely of Sasanian prototypes. This could have been a local bronze issued under Parthian nobility under the Arabs.
    Parthicus likes this.
  4. Parthicus

    Parthicus Well-Known Member

    Over on the other site, DLTcoins pointed me to a coin on Zeno with the same obverse design. There, the inscription is read as ShPWR, which is interpreted as a mintmark for Eranshahr Shahpur. I'm not entirely convinced by this reading (the "W" in particular doesn't seem quite right) (insert standard rant about terrible Pahlavi script) but it is at least plausible, and more likely than random use of Arabic. The use of 11 stars could very well be a random choice by the engraver- not every detail necessarily needs to have a greater symbolic significance.

    I think we can safely rule out an Arab-Sasanian origin of this piece, however. While there are a number of Arab-Sasanian bronzes with recognizable Sasanian bust types, the earliest I can find in Gyselen or elsewhere looks like Hormazd IV (579-590), much later than Yazdegard I (399-420).
  5. medoraman

    medoraman Supporter! Supporter

    You well could be right about Arab Sasanian. I was thinking it could have been a one off, kind of like figural Turkish bronzes, a celator ran across an earlier piece and emulated that. A proper Sasanian minor is much more likely.
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