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A Zoroastrian symbol on a Sasanian bronze coin


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(image borrowed from seller as my photos didn't come out well)


Sasanian Kingdom. AE pashiz (19 mm). Vahram V (420- 438). Obverse: Bust of king right, crescent and Varavahar symbols in front. Reverse: Zoroastrian fire-altar with two attendants. This coin: Pars Coins Auction 31, lot 208 (October 31, 2022).

(historical section contains re-used text)
Vahram (also spelled Vahrahan or Bahram) V was born around 400 AD to the Sasanian king Yazdegard I (399-420) and his wife Shushandukht, the daughter of the Jewish exilarch (leader of the Jewish community in Mesopotamia). As his mother was Jewish, Vahram would therefore be considered Jewish under Jewish tradition, even though there is no evidence that he ever practiced the Jewish religion. Young Vahram was sent off to be raised at the court of the Lakhmids, an Arab dynasty that ruled part of southern Iraq and northern Arabia. In 420 AD, a conspiracy of nobles and Zoroastrian priests murdered Yazdegard and placed one of his sons on the throne as Shahpur IV, but they soon after murdered him and replaced him with Khusro (who was so short-lived he doesn't even get a number). Vahram rushed back to the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon to claim the throne for himself. A folk tale claims that he had the royal crown placed between two lions, and challenged Khusro that whoever could retrieve it by killing the lions should be king. Khusro proved a coward and refused, while Vahram successfully passed the challenge and was accepted as king. While this almost certainly never happened, it is certain that Vahram was able to claim the throne fairly quickly, with support from the priests.

The first major incident of his rule was a brief war with the Eastern Roman Empire. At the urging of the Zoroastrian priests, he began persecuting Christians in his realm, many of whom fled to Roman territory and attracted the sympathy of Theodosius II. In 421, the Romans and Sasanians fought in Armenia and Mesopotamia, to a relative standstill. A peace treaty the next year reset relations between the two empires, with no territory exchanged, and with both sides guaranteeing religious freedom in their realms. He then fought a more significant war with the Kidarite Huns, who had been ravaging the eastern part of Sasanian territory. This war proved far more decisive, with Vahram ultimately killing the Kidarite king and forcing out the Kidarites. He also ended the practice of giving Armenia a semi-independent king, incorporating it as a frontier province of the empire under a margrave. His policies of cancelling many taxes and public debts made him popular with the people. He encouraged musicians, and loved hunting; his nickname of "Vahram Gor" (Vahram the Onager, or wild ass) reflects his favorite prey. Vahram died in 438 AD, in unclear circumstances; different sources claim he died peacefully in bed, or fell into a cave, or a swamp, or drowned. Vahram has had considerable popularity in Persian culture, and is the subject of several major poems.

Vahram was an interesting and historically important ruler, but this coin especially interested me because of the uncommon symbol it uses. On the obverse, you will note what looks like a human stick-figure, with a circle head and single-line limbs. This is actually a stylized version of a Faravahar:
The Faravahar is a Zoroastrian religious symbol, and was most often found on Achaemenid-era carvings, although it also occurs in Persis and Sasanian contexts. Its exact meaning is unclear, and it derives from pre-Zoroastrian precursors, but it has been used to symbolize the Zoroastrian faith. It is also sometimes used as a secular symbol of Persian culture. The reason for its use on this coin is not known; perhaps Vahram wanted to burnish his credentials as a supporter of the Zoroastrian faith? Regardless, it's an interesting and scarce symbol to find on a coin, and this coin will likely make an appearance on my forthcoming end-of-year Top 10 list. Please post whatever coins you have that are related.



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Very interesting. I'll look out for the stick man in future!

I can't match bronze or a Faravahar, only Bahram V in silver.

Bahram V Drachm, 420-438image.png.1dd53f656168cad1378726182dbf0dc6.png
Aspanvar, Sassanid Empire. Silver, 28mm, 4.20g. Bust right, wearing mural crown with korymbos set on crescent. Fire altar flanked by two attendants, ’s to right and vrhr’n to left (SNS I/1).

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