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Reading the Ancient Stars


August Signs

I picked up this little coin mostly for the well executed scorpion. It is a little bronze weighing, 2.88mg and 13mm in diameter that has a Capricorn on the obverse and a nice scorpion on the reverse. So why might these two symbols be on a coin from some time near year 4 AD? These are likely the astrological signs that are associated with Augustus (Capricorn) and Tiberius (Scorpio). Augustus was born 23 September 63 BC and his lunar sign of Capricorn appears on many coins. According to Suetonius, Augustus seems to have had some early sensitivity about his horoscope - perhaps that explains why he used his lunar sign instead of solar sign (which based on his birth-date would have been Libra)?

"Agrippa was the first to try his fortune, and when a great and almost incredible career was predicted for him, Augustus persisted in concealing the time of his birth and in refusing to disclose it, through diffidence and fear that he might be found to be less eminent. When he at last gave it unwillingly and hesitatingly, and only after many requests,Theogenes sprang up and threw himself at his feet. From that time on Augustus had such faith in his destiny, that he made his horoscope public and issued a silver coin stamped with the sign of the constellation Capricorn, under which he was born."
-Suetonius, The Life of Augustus 94.12

For anyone interested in ancient sources - the Loeb Classical Library is a worthwhile investment - many sources easy to search and often not available from older internet available editions : e.g. this reference from Manilius:

"Capricorn on the other hand turns his gaze upon himself (what greater sign can he ever marvel at, since it was he that shone propitiously upon Augustus’ birth?) and catches with his ears the height of topmost Cancer."
-Manilius, Astrologica, 507-509

Tiberius was born on 16 November 42 BC and would have been a Scorpio. This symbol also associated with the Praetorian guard, even before the time of Tiberius, and used on their armor...not a bad sign for a future emperor.


Succession Planning

Gaius and Lucius, the children of Julia and Agrippa both died within 18 months of each other. In AD4, Augustus adopted Tiberius to ensure a suitable successor. Livia was about six months pregnant with Tiberius by her first husband. She divorced Tiberius Claudius Nero to marry Octavian/Augustus in 38 BC. According to Cassius Dio this instigated a popular proverb:

"Now the populace gossiped a great deal about this and said, among other things, "The lucky have children in three months"; and this saying passed into a proverb."
-Cassius Dio, Roman History, 48.44 

There were no great plans for Tiberius as successor until the deaths of Augustus' grandsons.

"But at the height of his happiness and his confidence in his family and its training, Fortune proved fickle. He found the two Julias, his daughter and granddaughter, guilty of every form of vice, and banished them. He lost Gaius and Lucius within the span of eighteen months, for the former died in Lycia and the latter at Massilia."
-Suetonius, The Life of Augustus, 65.1 

The Mint

These coins have been mostly found in Cyprus, and Hill attributed these to "Cyprus under the Romans" in 1917. Others have attributed them to Commagene (Imhoof-Blumer 1889) or Gallatia. The zodiac symbols of the two emperors lead to a hypothesis that the coin was minted at the time of the adoption of Tiberius under Augustus. The die axis matches the die axis of 12 for Cypriot coins. See RPC for references - although note that they incorrectly reference the Numismatic Chronicles (NC) from 1927 for Hill - should be NC 1917 as referenced by Cox in 1959 for coin 131).

Caesar's Divinity

The stars on this coin are likely sidus Iulium - Caesar's comet (or star) which was seen as a sign of Caesar's deification when it appeared July 44 BC. The appearance of this comet in 44 BC has been verified by an assessment of evidence by Ramsey and Licht published in 1997. The star appears on quite a few Roman coins associated with the divine Julius Caesar including this denarius (on the reverse - centered on the pediment):

For a discussion of Augustus' use of the comet and the popular acceptance of this sign of Julius Caesar's divinity see: PANDEY, NANDINI B. “Caesar’s Comet, the Julian Star, and the Invention of Augustus.Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014) 143, no. 2 (2013): 405–49. The Julian star which may have first been greeted as a sign of Julius Caesar's divinity and perhaps with dread of civil war that came with his death, grew in mythical proportion as it was leveraged by politicians, on coins, by poets, politicians, and historians.


The AE Coin

Finally, returning to the coin of interest: here much larger than it's true size of 13mm:

Cyprus, under Roman Administration under Augustus, pseudo-autonomous issue, early 1st century AD, Æ (13 mm, 2.88g, 12 h), minted circa AD 4

Obv: Capricorn right; above, star

Rev: Scorpion; [star to below]

Ref: RPC v.1 3916


Always interesting to see what might be hidden in a little scorpion and 13mm of bronze. With 2018 years of distance from its minting, there is lingering uncertainty about where, when and why it was issued. For more on Scorpions see Adrienne Mayor's note in "Wonders and Marvels": "Scorpions in Antiquity".

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