Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Astrology and Astronomy, one and the same in antiquity

The subtitle could be: What a coin could tell us, for this is about a Greek coin minted around 120 BC showing King Antiochus VIII of Syria on one side but on the reverse we find the unusual picture of Zeus with a crescent of the moon above his head while his right arm is reaching out to a star (maybe the planet Jupiter?) hovering above the palm of his hand. It is a one-of-a-kind iconography, meaning that is was worth investigating further.

Antiochus VIII was king of the Seleucid Empire, which in his days had its capital in Antioch-on-the-Orontes at the border of modern Turkey and Syria. His empire was threatened by the expansionism of the Parthians in the east and that of the Romans in the west. He started his kingship at the side of his mother, Cleopatra Thea, a very domineering woman who had gone so far as to kill her oldest son so Antiochus could be the ruler of her choice. This did not reassure Antiochus who decided to put his mother to death in 121 BC.

The abovementioned coin is indeed out of common; maybe there is a meaning beyond the simple picture of Zeus. Dr Robert Weir, a classic professor with an interest in astronomy and ancient coins started to make some calculations to see what the sky of Antioch-on-the-Orontes would have looked like in Antiochus’ days. He found that on January 17, 121 BC, the planet Jupiter was blocked out by the moon, a phenomenon that today is called an “occultation”. When this occultation happened, the moon was in the constellation of Cancer, a very significant constellation. This was explained as a sign that a great king was coming, or would be born in Syria since the Cancer constellation governs that part of the world according to the ancient astrologers. 

Yet, there was more happening in the night sky at that time. Dr Weir discovered that another occultation of Jupiter happened within the year and just one week after the first one, there also was an occultation of Venus, considered to be a very good omen too. This was especially well received by King Antiochus ruling over his ever shrinking Seleucid empire barely delivered from his murderous mother.

But appearances are deceptive and the following years did not favour the king. His half-brother and cousin, Antiochus IX, claimed the throne and in the end what was left of the once proud Seleucid Kingdom was split between the two of them. Over the next few years several bad luck eclipses of Mars and Saturn lit the night skies. The final blow came in 114 BC, shortly before the coin was stopped being minted: the Moon eclipsed Mars and Saturn at the very same time. Such an eclipse happens only once in 2,000 years and is recorded as being about the worst omen one can get.

The death of Antiochus VIII was all but glorious; he was killed by one of his ministers in 96 BC. The Seleucid Empire was doomed. In 64 BC Pompey conquered Syria that became part of the Roman Empire.

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