Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Moving A Star

Silver denarius of Elagabalus. SVMMVS SACERDOS AVG. RCV (2002) 7549; RIC IV 146; BMCRE V p.565, 232. 18x19mm, 2.7g.
Silver denarius of Elagabalus. SVMMVS SACERDOS AVG.
These are denarii of the emperor known to us as Elagabalus. He was the nephew of a Syrian princess, and the hereditary high priest of a local sun god. When he became emperor he brought his family's religion to Rome. We call him by the name of his deity, Elagabalus, which comes from a Syrian phrase meaning "the god of the mountain." Sometimes you might see him called Heliogabalus, a version which converts the start of his name into the Greek name for the sun.

These denarii have the emperor on both sides. The usual imperial headshot is on the obverse, with one odd change from tradition: the strange horn attached above his forehead. No-one really knows what this was, but it must have been connected to his religion in some way.

Silver denarius of Elagabalus. P M TR P IIII COS III P P. 221 CE. 19x20mm, 3.00g. RCV (2002) 7536 var; RIC IV 46 var; BMCRE V p.569, 257 var (no beard).
Silver denarius of Elagabalus. P M TR P IIII COS III P P.
On the reverse, he is sacrificing in the Roman style, pouring from a patera onto a lighted tripod altar, but he is clothed as a Syrian priest. You can see a belt with a large round buckle at his waist. One of the coins has the legend P M TR P IIII COS III P P, an abbreviated list of some of Elagabalus' titles and roles. The other has SVMMVS SACERDOS AVG, the imperial high priest.

On both coins you can see a star in front of the emperor and a blurred area behind him. A star like this usually means divinity. The meaning of the blur was discovered by Curtis Clay, who wrote: "the engraver first placed the 'star' behind the emperor, then eradicated it in the die and re-engraved it in front of the emperor, obviously because it represents the emperor's sun god, so should be placed before him when he is depicted sacrificing to his god!"

You can see that the new star is engraved more deeply and emphatically than the old one, probably to distract attention from it.

Mr. Clay also wrote: "There are quite a few dies of each of the four 'emperor-sacrificing' types on which this correction was made, and NO surviving coins of these regular types with the star erroneously behind the emperor. On the rare first versions of the types, in contrast (...) the star is invariably wrong, that is behind the emperor rather than in front of him. The eradicated star dies are obviously the first of the new types, as confirmed by the portrait of the emperor, with moustache but still without beard, whereas most coins of these types show the chin beard."

Silver denarius of Elagabalus. SVMMVS SACERDOS AVG. 221 CE. 17x19mm, 3.2g. RCV (2002) —; RIC IV 147; BMCRE —.
Silver denarius of Elagabalus. SVMMVS SACERDOS AVG.
By "regular types" Mr Clay means those showing the emperor sacrificing to the left, which was the standard production run. Here is one of the rare first versions mentioned by Mr. Clay, on which the emperor is shown sacrificing to the right, with a (small, unemphatic) star behind him. I imagine someone seeing this first type and saying "Hey, that's not right, the Boss should be facing the other way!" and then, on seeing the revised version, saying "No, no, you fools! I mean, facing towards the star!"

Coin dies were very rarely altered. Unless the alteration was minor it would have been quicker and cheaper to make a new die. But here we have a clear example. I have had one of these, with Curtis Clay's explanation, for a while, but as I have just obtained my second example I thought it was worth posting here.

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