L'astronomie sur les monnaies

If you are reading this, you probably have already heard of stars, crescents or other astronomical symbols that can be seen on coins struck in antiquity. That's right, there are many references to astronomical events on ancient coins, but sometimes these stars or crescents are not what you think.

This article will show and explain the meaning of these symbols, their history and also their numismatic utility! You will sometimes be surprised by the result. You will be able to see which events marked the elders and their interpretation. This article will also be useful in comparing interpretations of various peoples far apart. A psychological analysis therefore, on the look of the man wherever he is on the globe, about the same sky. the article will be cut according to the peoples and also according to the type of astronomical symbol studied. Also keep in mind that without light pollution in their time, the sky was much more impressive to see. (forgive me if some terms are not correctly traduces, im french and traduce by myself).

image from: https://www.corelight.org/staging/store/.


In the roman world


The star or group of stars


Let's start with what most people know: Julius Caesar's coin with the star. The star represents a particularly visible comet that has been interpreted as a sign. Indeed, the comet passage coincides with the death of Caesar and was therefore used as a symbol of his deification. This comet is known today as C/ -43 K1. Clearly, C / designates that it is a non-periodic comet. Which means that his observation has not yet been confirmed by several passages ... to really popularize this, it can be a comet whose trajectory causes a very long return (often comets with hyperbolic trajectory who do not come back for hundreds or even thousands of years). Also, they are also comets that will not come back because of their trajectory or simply because they have disintegrated. So we have C / for non-periodic comet, and  - 43 for the date of observation. Note that a comet is bright (of course) and especially that we see his tail also. This tail is the light trail created by the slow disintegration of its components when a force (such as solar winds) applies.

Photo from: https://www.franceinter.fr/emissions/sur-les-epaules-de-darwin/sur-les-epaules-de-darwin-16-decembre-2017.


Here are two coins, the first shows you a star behind the portrait, star which symbolizes this comet:

Photo of a coin sold by Roma Numismatic Limited, link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=4870944, link to their website: https://www.romanumismatics.com/.

You also notice on the reverse (on the right in the photo) that the scepter is placed on a star that seems to have the same number of rays, probably the same comet. Note that the star behind the portrait is sometimes absent from the coins but that under the scepter still seems present.

The second coin shows you that same comet with its represented tail: 

Photo of the reverse of a coin sold by Roma Numismatic Limited, link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=5160199, link to their website: https://www.romanumismatics.com/.


Another older story whose origin could possibly be astronomical. I say possibly because nothing proves that the observation is astronomical and even real or invented. Here is the story: The city of Byzantium in -340 was besieged by Philip of Macedonia. A light in the sky warns the city that an attack would happen at night. Since then, the city will strike coins with a star placed on a crescent in thanks to the goddess Hecate. This tradition was perpetuated among the Romans.

This seen, I must say it now: in the context of Roman numismatics, almost all astronomical symbols on coins have nothing to do with an observable event. I even see many passionates in astronomy, maybe even professionals, thinking that these stars have a direct relationship with astronomy. In reality, it's more complicated. A star, in Roman and Greek mythology, may refer to the deification of a personality. Take the myth of Heliceus: Zeus, to thank her, makes her immortal by turning her into seven stars, the brightest of the Big Dipper. When you see a crescent with seven stars on a coin of Septimius Severus, for example, it commemorates the deification of personalities like Paulina or Faustina ... In a sense, the origin of the myth is linked to a constellation, but the presence of these seven stars on this coin is a symbol and not an astronomical event.

This symbol represents the desire to be among the stars of the myth developed earlier in the article. Another thing: a star or a crescent for example, can refer to a myth about a deity worshiped by an emperor. In this case it is an allusion to this personality. again, nothing to do with an astronomical event that would have resulted in the striking of a coin. However, astronomy has played an important role in all these myths.

Below, the coin of Lucretius:

Photo of a coin sold by Cgb.fr, link to the sale and their website: https://www.cgbfr.com/lucretia-denier-ttb,v23_0251,a.html.

Quote the commentary provided by cgb.fr about this coin: ''La composition du revers serait, d’après H. Grueber, un rébus en rapport avec le nom du monétaire : l’association du soleil et de la lune représente la plus grande lumière (lux), jeu de mot avec Lucretius ; les sept étoiles, en latin, “septem triones” forment la constellation de la grande ourse et le jeu de mot est facile entre le cognomen de Lucius Lucretius, Trio et le mot étoiles, triones.''. Traduction: The composition of the reverse is, according to H. Grueber, a rebus in relation to the name of the monetary: the association of the sun and the moon represents the greatest light (lux), word game with Lucretius; the seven stars, in Latin, "septem triones" form the constellation of the Big Dipper and the word game is easy between the cognomen of Lucius Lucretius, Trio and the word stars: triones.


This same Lucretius also had struck coins showing Castor and Pollux with a star above each other's heads. Here is one of these coins:

Photo of a coin sold by Numismatik Naumann, link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=2078493, link to their website: https://www.numismatik-naumann.at/.

The names of these stars today are Castor and Pollux. Myths have given a name to stars. So we have the myth of twins and here is why the wolf is represented with Romulus and Remus, topped by two stars. The following URBS ROMA type:

Photo of a coin sold by Classical Numismatic Group, link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=6483889, link to their website: https://www.cngcoins.com/.

You see the portrait of Rome helmeted and on the reverse a second allusion to the city through the myth of Romulus and Remus. These two stars therefore do not designate any known star or constellation. Even though it is assumed that they are similar to Castor and Pollux as an attribute of twins. In a general order, a star designates a divine character.

The star can also be the sun and not another star of the nocturnal sky.

Photo of a coin sold by Leu Numismatik, link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=221185, link to their website: https://leunumismatik.com/.

In my opinion, it is the sun. Unlike usual we see a big star on the coin and more, it's a round with rays coming out. Finally, the character looks at this star placed high. We will make the difference with the star below. Most of the time, the star is placed behind a character, a character who does not look at that star.


On this coin, the star has just symbolized the link with the divine or simply the sun:

Photo of a coin sold by Leu Numismatik, link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=6505375, link to their website: https://leunumismatik.com/.


Whether it's the sun, another star or an allusion to a deity, the observation of stars, astronomical events, is anyway still at the origin. By the way, let us mention an supposed comet passed during the period of Commodus which would be represented on its coins, but nothing is certain. In any case, you have seen the main cases here. Note for the conclusion, the star above the camp doors on the Roman coins. What meaning? In my opinion, perhaps a kind of method to show the greatness of the empire whose camp doors rise to the heavens, or simply a kind of perspective with the horizon showing the sun or a star behind the door. But in most cases, the star symbolizes the link with the divine. It is common in the middle of numismatists of all levels, to consider that these stars that we see for example above in the middle of two soldiers, before an allegory (ie a character not being a deity but symbolizing abundance or something else), a divinity, symbolizes the sun. For example, it is obvious that a star in front of Sol is the sun ... unless it is a mintmark and I invite you to read this chapter that comes after the one on the globes.


The globe


Among the Romans, we represent '' the world '' through the image of a globe. This globe is decorated, crossed by intersecting lines, which one can think that they connect the cardinal points or a race of the stars. We sometimes even see imbricated stars in this globe. On the coin below, the emperor holds a globe surmounted by a victory. On the reverse is an altar on which a decorated globe is placed and surmounted by three stars. The number of stars has no particular meaning. It seems that this simply represents the celestial vault. Here is an example of a coin:

Photo of a coin sold by cgb.fr, link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=6106504, lnk to their website: https://www.cgbfr.com/.



Astronomical symbols as symbols of striking issues.


We have seen the main events or representations of myths from astronomical observations. Now let's see something special and that deceives an astronomer: stars or crescents having nothing to do with astronomy.

These symbols are "mint marks". They appear from the third century among the Romans. Each mint  inscribed an abbreviation of its name. Example: TR for Trier, Lyon was called Lugdunum and used the letters LG. Then they added the number of the officina of this mint having created the coin. P for primera (first officina), S for seconda etc ... but we could also put Greek letters: A for first offician, B for the second, devil for the third, no etc... These letters were added at the beginning or end of the mint name. Imagine that the second offician in the mint of Trier is striking a coin, the mark will be STR or TRS. The coin in the photo at the end of the chapter on globes, has the mark PLG, it is therefore the first officina of the Lyon mint. With all this, they sometimes added symbols like: a star, a crescent, a crescent surmounted by a star. These symbols help to differentiate a specific strike. We do not know much on the choice of using one symbol over another.

These symbols are inscribed in the exergue, ie under the line of ground, but can also be in the field (word designating the smooth part of the coin, not inscribed, around the drawing if you prefer). Let's analyze the coin below:

Photo of a coin sold by Auctiones.Gmbh, link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=5557357, link to their website: https://www.auctiones.ch/.

This coin is struck in Alexandria, we find the mark ALE (thus the first three letters of the mint) to the exergue. Forget the letters K and P for this article. Move to no which means the fourth officina. The crescent on the left is also a mint mark... not related to astronomy, even if the origin of this symbol is the moon.

In the same vein, we have the star as an indication of a series. Here the mint has nothing to do. This coin of Vetranio is complex:

Photo of a coin sold by Roma Numsiamtic limited, link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=2710840, link to their website: https://www.romanumismatics.com/.

The star to the right of the portrait indicates that it is a series with light weight (weighing around 4.70 grs). While the heavy series (5.00 grs) will have no star. At the exergueSIS is the mintmark. The point is an issue symbol, just like the star at the end. is the officina and SIS designate Siscia, the mint. When to the star above the head of the character, well ... nothing special, probably still a symbolic of the divine bond of the emperor.


In the kingdom of Pontos


A short story to once again to show the look at the events of the sky, beyond the Roman Empire. A very bright comet passed into the constellation of Pegasus at the birth of Mithridates VI. At the age of fifteen, another comet has passed. A star placed on a crescent has become the symbol of his dynasty and is found on the coins of this king. Here is one of the coins displaying this symbol (top left of reverse):

Photo of acoin sold by Roma Numismatic Limited, link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=1844760, link to their website: https://www.romanumismatics.com/.

This symbol is the exact replica of what is found on Roman coins. We see here that the crescent probably has nothing to do with the moon.


In the Gauls and Celts


Like other peoples, the Gauls and Celts also used astronomical symbols. And even a lot. Let's get straight to the point, their coins do not speak directly of events such as the comets that we see on Roman coins among others. Here, each symbol has a relation with a myth and more particularly with an animal. For example, the horse will have a sun above or below him. This sun can symbolize the chariot of Helios ... Elsewhere, there can be a crescent moon also associated with a horse.

But there is more interesting, for example the boar symbolizes the Big Dipper. Beyond the shape of the constellation that gave a myth related to hunting, this animal is also probably linked to this constellation because of its nocturnal activity (among others). Here is a coin with a boar:

Photo of a coin sold by cgb.fr, link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=6106582, link to their website: https://www.cgbfr.com/.


The next part is an idea wich is my own. We see on the Gallic coins, a type of representation very particular. The characters are disarticulated and many points, globules or annuli, come together to form an element of the face or part of an animal. Could it be from an idea of drawing something in the manner of the drawings they attribute to constellations? A Gallic coin is a kind of subtle blend of common objects like a torque, whose shape would serve to illustrate something else. Elements are intertwined to form a global pattern. Are these numerous points, lines and circles inspired by the celestial vault? In my opinion, this question is to be studied. This picture shows you perfectly the style used on coins:

Photo of a coin sold by Jean Elsen et ses fils S.A., link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=1800583, link to their website: http://www.elsen.eu/.


Finally, a theory that still belongs to me: the boar is often represented with points under his body. The work of the specialists, describe these points as and I quote cgb.fr in its description of the coin in photo below: ''Un annelet pointé au centre du potin ; un sanglier enseigne à droite au-dessus, un torque pointé surmonté de cinq globules au-dessous et un annelet derrière le sanglier'' . Traduction: A ring pointed at the center of the potin; a boar teaches on the right above, a pointed torque surmounted by five globules below and a ring behind the wild boar''. Aware of the proven link between the wild boar and the Big Dipper constellation, I am surprised that no one has noticed that these points are supposed to be the composition of a torque .. are still seven in number. As the brightest stars of the constellation.. Of course I found some copies with 6 or 8 balls, but of course all this, as always, is the free choice of the engraver. You can also connect the dots with the center and see that the overall shape evokes the Big Dipper, however we would bring the number of balls to 8 ... I let you make your own opinion. Here is the coin that I describe:

Photo of a coin sold by cgb.fr, link to the sale: https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=3000908, link to their website: https://www.cgbfr.com/.

Compare the shape of the constellation and the shape of the globules under the boar.

By way of conclusion, it is interesting to know that some Native Americans also associate this constellation with the hunting of a bear





I did not mention the moon because its symbol is used to either illustrate a comet, as explained in the article. Either to symbolize a deity or to serve as a mint mark. In the same way, other peoples, like the parthians, operates mainly in the same logic as the Romans.

This article flies over the subject, but develops the most interesting points. Indeed it is already very complete but does not cover all the coins with stars. On the other hand, all these coins not shown, fall in the same category as those analyzed here. it is therefore of little use to show them all, and in any case this would require an entire book on the subject. In addition, our current knowledge does not allow us to push the subject much further, because problems occurs: the quality of representation, the omissions of the engraver and mixtures that sometimes prevent us from knowing what is exactly represented. We analyze rather archaic art works, of which we often only have remains (wear, breakage). Add to that that even today we have not shed any light on beliefs, ancient myths.

These last sentences should perfectly summarize this article and the vision we should have on astronomy on ancient coins: It's all about history, the story of a constellation marking a period of the year ... the history of an animal and its attributes, of a god, of a king ... The coin tells a story, it is also a feeling of belonging to a culture, a link, a means of communication with others peoples when it crosses the borders. But the main basis of all these stories is that one day they also raised their eyes to the sky...