Varahran V, Silver Drachm
The Sasanian Empire: Rome’s Ablest Neighbor
Succeeding the Parthian Empire, the Sasanian Empire (or Neo-Persian Empire), ruling from 224 to 642 C. E., was powerful, rivaling the Byzantine. The Sasanian Empire also marked the last period of the Persian Empire’s rule over Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Iran, and portions of south and Central Asia before the coming of Islam.
Bahram-Gur: A Larger-than-Life King of Kings in the Iranian Epic
Varahran V is also known as Bahram-Gur (gur being a horse-like wild ass, the onager), a nickname he earned for his hunting passion and prowess. The hunting stories of Bahram-Gur have been capturing the imaginations of poets and painters, past and present, making him a larger-than-life character. These stories mark central places in Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s masterpiece Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings, Iran’s national epic; in recent years, Hamid Rahmanian created a luxurious, innovative version of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh based on illustrations from thousands of Iranian, Mughal Indian, and Ottoman manuscripts, and you can learn more about this from his talks at the Library of Congress on YouTube.
Varahran V assumed the throne in A.D. 420 and ruled for 18 years; he exhibited certain skillfulness as a king, and during his reign, largely peaceful, Persia flourished. For example, he made peace with Rome in A.D. 422 in an effort to attend to the troubled, kingless Eastern Armenia, which had collapsed into a state of anarchy since A.D. 418 or 419. The Marzpanate period in Armenian historiography, in which Marzbāns (Persian, Marz, meaning "border, boundary" and -bān, "guardian") nominated by the Sasanian emperor, was created during the reign of Varahran V. For his subjects, he was a big-hearted king: he reduced taxes and supported the developments of arts, science, and agriculture.
The Observe of the Coin:
Bahram V Blessed in a Zoroastrian Inscription
The silver drachms of Bahram, like other Sasanian coins, were modeled after the Roman’s, and also in competition with the Kushan’s: the observe features the portrait of the king; the reverse, the deities. But unlike the Roman coins, most of the Sasanian coins were much thinner because they were struck hard on thin flans placed on anvils; moreover, Sasanian silver coins often contain a higher percentage (about 1%) of gold impurities than others of the same period because Sasanians had not yet mastered the skills to reduce gold impurities from silver.
The inscription of the observe of this Varahran V coin reads: Mazdisn bagi Varahran malha, meaning Mazda-worshipping Divine Varahran. Mazda-worshipping refers to Ahura Mazda, the creator deity of Zoroastrianism, the Lord of Wisdom: Ahura means “lord”; Mazda, “wisdom”. (Mazda, sound familiar? The Mazda car company uses the name of this Zoroastrian deity.) Ahura Mazda, for the Sasanians their only god, was frequently worshipped in royal inscriptions.
At the center we see the exalted bust of Bahram V facing right, with a big eye, a prominent nose, a full, tight mouth, with short beard and moustache, and a big pearl ear wing. He wears a high, erect royal tiara, encircled with a diadem tied at the back with short ribbons (emulating the Greek royal practice) to create a curled topknot and globular bunches of hair over his ears. On his mural crown lie a circle and a crescent, emblematic of the sun and moon gods. His hair is gathered in a big ball-shaped silk headdress called korymbos, and many Persian kings and Zoroastrian deities are depicted with korymboi as signs of reverence.
The Reverse of the Coin:
Deities Stoking the Flame of the Zoroastrain Faith
On the reverse is an enthroned Zoroastrian ateshtan, a fire altar of the faith of the Shahs, supported by an Achaemenid-inspired, lion-legged throne. The fire altar is a ritual feature of the Zoroastrian faith, which bore the sacred flame. It is through this flame that Zoroastrians receive spiritual guidance and wisdom from Ahura Mazda. The altar was guarded with Mithra on the left and Anahita on the right. Ahura Mazda (father), Anahita (Mother), and Mithra or Mehr (Son) are often invoked in a triad, much like the holy trinity. Anahita is being venerated as a deity of a group of divinities of the Waters (Aban), and thus associated with fertility, purity, and healing; Mithra, a deity of covenant, light, and oath, is also a judicial deity, a protector of Truth overseeing contracts, and a guardian of cattle, harvest, and of the Waters (Aban). Anahita and Mithra, each holding a ritual implement, called a barsom, a bundle of twigs (in the Avestan language, barez means “to grow high”), tend the spiritual flames. The fravahar, represented by the symbol on the left side of the altar, is Ahura Mazda, depicted as a winged figure. The fravahar is an iconic symbol in Zoroastrianism; the tomb of the writer Ferdowsi, built in the early 1930s, for example, bears the fravahar, blessing the eternal soul of a Zoroastrian.
Zoroastrianism: Its Flame of Goodness Enlightening our Culture
Some argue that Zoroastrianism is the first monotheistic faith, introducing to us the concepts of Heaven and Hell, as well as of angels and demons, of Judgment Day and of the final revelation—all sprung from the teachings of Zarathustra. The influence of Zoroastrianism has gone beyond its devotees to enkindle enthusiasm for the practices of kindness and acts of love in our culture, more than we acknowledge. In pop music, the late Freddie Mercury of Queen, for example, was proud of his Zoroastrian faith, inspiring him to pursue his dreams: “I’ll always walk around like a Persian popinjay”. In classical music, the libretto of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is charged with the Zoroastrian dualisms, such as light versus darkness and trials by fire and water; these themes are also present in Game of Thrones and Star Wars. Likewise, the French fashion label Zadig & Voltaire: Voltaire published Zadig, or The Book of Fate (Zadig ou la Destinée) in 1747, recounting Zadig, a Zoroastrian philosopher, who earns the love of a Babylonian princess after overcoming a series of trials. Some of the designs of Zadig & Voltaire do appear to feature the lookalike faravahar winged symbols. Our culture seems to have become so ennobled by the goodness of Zoroastrianism, without much recognition of it as an inspirational source.
This silver drachm of Bahram V, with a lustrous tone, weighted 4.18 gr, with mint mark AW/AY (Ahwaz / Erankhvarrah-Shapur) on the reverse and a designated condition, AU (Almost Uncirculated) 55-58, was minted during the reign of Varahran V, 420 – 438.
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