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A Sasanian bronze coin with unusual inscription and symbols


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(picture borrowed from seller because I had trouble photographing this coin)


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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Thanks @DLTcoins for bringing this to my attention.  I'm not entirely convinced by the reading of "ShPWR" (the "W' in particular doesn't look quite right), but it is at least plausible.  (insert standard rant about the problems with Pahlavi script.)  ShPWR isn't on the standard lists of Sasanian mintmarks, but given how many mintmarks they used that isn't a very strong objection.  I will include it in my holder as an alternate reading of the obverse.

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On 2/1/2023 at 10:29 PM, Parthicus said:

This is a decent specimen of Sasanian bronze, but what really intrigued me were the obverse inscription and the reverse stars. 

As for the stars, if you look up the copper coins of Yazdgard I on Zeno, you find variant numbers of stars: 7 or 9 or 11, but there's also a lead coin (283441) with nine crescents instead of stars.

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