The story of these buttons is one of my favorite examples of the ways that ancient Greek motifs are translated through the Roman Empire, passed on to Napoleon and the picked up by the Victorians. At our first National Button Conference, I came across a beautiful set of buttons modeled on Roman coins minted in Alexandria Egypt in the year 144/145. Beginning in 138AD, Hadrian's adopted son, Antoninus Pius, sat at the head of the Roman Empire, which encircled the Mediterranean Sea. The coin mints of Alexandria made a remarkable number of designs during this time, thought in part to celebrate the completion and renewal of the Great Sothic Cycle. Both the Egyptians and the Romans loved a good commemorative celebration, especially when history and religion were involved. Let's not forget about one of Alexandria's famous residents, Ptolemny.
Born in Egypt in 100AD under the Roman Empire, Ptolemny was a Roman citizen and a scholar. He wrote in Greek and was thought to either be ethnically Greek or a Hellenized Egyptian. A great polymath of his day, he studied, and helped develop the fields of astronomy, music, optics, mathematics, philosophy and geography. Three of his works in became foundation documents in Byzantine, European and Islamic science. His geocentric model, where the earth was at the center of the universe, ruled scholarly thought for centuries, even though it was wrong.
Back to the coins... The zodiac set was minted in the 8th year of Antoninus Pius' reign, probably to mark the completion of the Sothic cycle. The Sothic cyle marked the point when the star Sirius, or Sothis, rises on the same point on the horizon as the sun. This cycle takes 1461 years to complete, and was renewed in AD 139, prompting a renewal in the ancient Egyptian religion while showing connections to the Greco-Roman Pantheon. To be specific, the Sothic cycle was 1461 years in Egyptian civil year of 365 days and 1460 years in the Roman Julian calendar of 365¼ days per year. Each coin represents the constellations and the planet with which they were in conjunction during the start of the next Sothic cycle, day house and night house. So we have, the Sun in Leo, the Moon in Cancer, Mercury in Gemini and Virgo, Venus in Libra and Taurus, Mars in Aries and Scorpio, Jupiter in Sagittarius and Pisces, and Saturn in Aquarius and Capricorn. The imagery is stunning.
Only eight of the original coin designs were made into buttons. My thought is that some Victorian artist, fashionista or manufacturer knew that themes of Antiquity were popular and went into the archives of the British Museum, looked at the catalogs of works and transformed the designs into brass buttons. It has taken me more than three years to find all eight existing buttons.
I've made a limited edition collection available while they last
pictured L to R are: Saturn in Capricorn, Mars in Scorpio and Jupiter in Sagittarius.