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Ugly but rare: A Sasanian lead coin


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Sasanian Kingdom. Lead pashiz (17 mm, 3.76 g). Varhran V (420- 438). Obverse: Bust of king right, uncertain symbol in front. Reverse: Zoroastrian fire-altar with two attendants. This coin: Stephen Album Internet-only Auction 15, lot 136 (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 ruler, but what caused me to buy this coin despite its poor condition was its material. Silver coins (mostly drachms) are the majority of Sasanian coins encountered, with bronzes rather scarce and gold generally rare. One could conclude that the Sasanians used mainly silver in commerce, with just small amounts of bronze for low-value transactions, and gold issued intermittently mainly to show the king's power rather than as an important part of the circulating coinage. But there are also rare lead coins known from a number of Sasanian rulers, including Vahram V. These coins show the normal obverse bust and reverse fire-altar designs, though often with additional symbols in front of the portrait. The purpose of this lead coinage remains obscure. They don't seem to have been meant to pass (officially or otherwise) for silver coins, otherwise why make them of much smaller diameter than the official silver drachms (fractional silver was always very scarce) and often with different obverse symbols? Possibly they were issued during crisis periods when other metals weren't available, but I don't know of any direct evidence for this theory. Regardless, I was happy to win this piece despite its rather poor condition, as an example of one of the remaining mysteries of Sasanian coinage. Please post any ancient lead coins you have, or whatever else is related.

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@Parthicus....That's a neat coin!

I see there are a few types for sale on vcoins ....

Interesting write up, I remember reading somewhere that possibly these were used as a token payment whilst at battle and if you lived these could be basically cashed in when returning home?....Easily produced whilst in transit?....Who knows!

Here's my only lead coins...

Chutas of Banavasi. Rajno Mulanandasa AD 125-345


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Interesting coin. I don't have anything in lead until the 1400s, when they were all religious tokens. A few Roman lead coins have been found in Britain, and no-one knows what they are either. The current theory seems to be that they were votive, since sometimes they are folded. They're obviously not meant to be counterfeits, and it doesn't seem right that they were emergency money, since there aren't many lead coins found and it seems to have been no trouble to make plenty of emergency money in bronze.

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This post was the first time I've been interested enough to read anything about Sassanian Kings, but that was great! Jewish Exilarchs, persecuted Christians, scheming Zoroastrian priests... fighting lions for crowns... then falling into caves or swamps and drowning! I'm amazed how much I have in common with these guys 🙂 Moral of the story: Don't mess with the Zoroastrian Priests!

I've got a handful of Numidian AE (Masinissa / Micipsa) that are sometimes struck in lead or "leaded bronze." Most look like ordinary bronze, and none of mine look like the really lead-y ones, but this one's weird patina (which I love) always got me wondering if it was a higher-lead alloy (should prob. check specific gravity):


Greek North Africa. Kings of Numidia, Massinissa (203-148 BCE) or Micipsa (148-118 BCE) AE Unit or Obol (13.60g, 28mm, 12h). Struck in Cirta (?), 203-118 BCE.
Obv: Laureate, bearded head left; beaded border.
Rev: Horse galloping left.
Ref: SNG Copenhagen 510; Sear GCV 6596 var.; MAA 12; Mazzard 23; Müller 25. Cf. MAA 11-22; SNG Copenhagen 495-518 (510-513).
Prov: Ex-Gary Dayton (Specialty Coin; Champaign, IL), c. 2010-2015; ex-Harlan J Berk, Ltd. (privately purchased in large group of ancient coins forming Dayton’s initial ancient coin inventory, possibly from Curtis Clay).

Edited by Curtis JJ
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Parthicus, that's a fantastic OP-addition ... congrats on adding that lead-winner


I had a couple of cool Pb examples ... 


EGYPT, Uncertain, PB Tessera (below)

2nd-3rd centuries AD

Diameter: 15 mm

Weight: 4.82 grams

Obverse: Head of Serapis right, wearing calathus; uncertain object before

Reverse: Griffin seated right, resting right paw on wheel

Reference: Milne –; Dattari (Savio) –; Köln

Other: 5h … even gray patina with a spot of green, minor surface cracking


Tessera Egypt Serapis and Griffin.jpg


ASIA MINOR, Uncertain (Ionia?). PB Tessera (below)

1st-3rd centuries AD

Diameter: 14 mm

Weight: 3.07 grams

Obverse: Ant, ΓA IOV around

Reverse: Blank

Reference: Gülbay & Kireç

Other: very cool


Asia Minor Ionia Ant.jpg

Edited by Steve
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Sasanian lead coins are very interesting, but hard to decipher. Göbl thought the designs and functions were the same as those of the Sasanian coppers, but in his days (1960-1980) you very rarely saw anything other than silver and some very scarce gold dinars on the market. The last few years saw some lead coming up in little gushes, so I thought 'now or maybe nevermore'. 


Shapur II (309-379), lead pashiz. Obv. Head right with hairball-topped crown, korymbos to the left and a round form to the right of the head. Rev. Fire altar with assistants, both in an oblique position. Head in the fire? 18.5 mm, 4.32 gr. Zeno 266926 (this coin). Bought in September 2020.

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