Two Parthian Coins

Sources for the Parthian empire are few and far between. Their coinage is one way which we can reconstruct Parthian policy and political thought.

The Parthian empire was born out of the decline of another, the Greek successor kingdom of the Seleukids and, in 247 BC, Parthia was able to break away. The origins of the first king of Parthia and eponymous founder of the Arsacid dynasty, Arsaces, are greatly misunderstood. Strabo is our most reliable source on the origins of the Parthians and he seemed to have had access to histories written by Greeks living in Parthia. He suggests that the Parthians were either a tribe of Skythian descent known as the Parni, who invaded Parthia in 247 BC (Geography, 11.9.2) or that Arsaces I was a Bactrian who fled the revolt that happened there at the same time (11.9.3).

From the moment Parthia revolted against Seleukid rule they started minting coins. Coinage is a powerful statement of independence, since it was a declaration of economic power or in ancient terms, of wealth and status. And due to the mass-produced nature of coins, they were an excellent way of spreading propaganda.

Arsaces I 247 – 211 BC

Drachma_Arsaces I autocratos
Figure 1 Silver Drachm of Arsaces I, 247 – 211 BC Obv: Beardless figure wearing a bashlyk (traditional Central-Asian headdress) Rev: Seated Archer, wearing a cloak and a bashlyk, Arsaces Autocratoros (Independent Ruler)

 

Once the Parni had taken Parthia, they rule it. Little is known about the composition of the population during this period, but due to it’s position bordering the Northern Steppe, a large nomadic population is assumed. This makes the earliest surviving coinage particularly interesting. An attempt is made to assert the nomadic qualities that the Parni processed. Archery is an important martial quality that would have been shared by the other nomadic groups and the seated archer in a riding suit is a way of showing the prowess of Arsaces as a rider and archer in a context that would be easily accessible to the scattered population.

The format of the coin is based on those the Seleukids who previously ruled Parthia. But under the Arsacids there is a deliberate attempt to move away from the Seleukid model, creating a unique hybrid between Greek, Persian and Parthian elements. Thonemann notes in his highly authoritative text The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources, that once the various Iranian groups had become independent, they maintained the style and form of the Greek coinage, but the content emphasised the Iranian aspects of their culture (Thonemann 2015, 91). The term autocrator, found on several examples of early Parthian coinage (fig.1), shows that they wished to distinguish themselves from the Greek basileus. Although the title doesn’t have any historical precedent, it links to ideas of Iranian exceptionalism and how their independence defines them.

These features were maintained, until the Parthians expanded westward and gained a much larger population of Greeks and access to the tetradram dies (coin moulds) present at the former Seleukid Capital of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, which was captured by Mithridates I circa 140 BC.

 

Mithridates II 123 – 88 BC

Mithridates II
Figure 1 Silver Tetradram of Mithridates II, from the mint of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, 123-88 BC.  
Obvs: Head of Mithridates with Diadem Revs: Seated Demeter with cornucopia and Winged-Nike. Inscription runs: “of the Great King Arsaces, friend of the Greeks, God Manifest”

Parthian coinage became more ‘Hellenistic’ during this period, as the king sought to become a figure that would have appealed to all. This is most clear on the coins of Mithridates II, the king who solidified the borders in the west of the Parthian kingdom, by forming a bulwark against the Seleukid kings. The title “Philhellene” (friend of the Greeks) used on these coins shows the significance of the Greek population who lived under Parthian rule, showing that the kings wouldn’t disrupt the everyday aspects of the lives of their subjects.

 

When compared to the drachm of Arsaces, this coin more obviously takes inspiration from the coinage of the Hellenistic successor kingdoms: with the king in profile and the diadem as a symbol of his kingship. This iconographic shift could be to do with the familiarity of this imagery ensuring that the significant Greek population felt more at ease with the change of rulers. Whether this is evidence of Hellenising (adopting Greek traits) amongst the Parthians is debatable, since the title ‘ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ’ (Great(est) King) again harking back to Iranian symbols, in this case, the Achaemenid monarchy of Persia (ruled 553 – 330 BC).

Conclusions

The iconography and policy of the Parthian rulers was an evolving process, the two coins I have discussed are clear examples of how there was a shift in how the Parthians viewed themselves. This shift is most likely the acquisition of a large, multi-ethnic empire.

The development from autocrator to Great King, shows that amongst a single group or tribe, the notion of independence is enough to create an identity, whilst drawing on recognisable symbols that link the kings with the general population. But once the boundaries had shifted, the kings must be much more than just men and elevate themselves above. The coinage of Parthia charts the development of were Parthian power lies, and how it is wielded.

Bibliography

Strabo, Geography. trans. Roller, D.W. (2014) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

*

Colledge, M.A.R. (1967) The Parthians. London: Thames and Hudson.

Debevoise, N.C. (1938) A Political History of Parthia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Momigliano, A. (1975) Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thonemann, P. (2015) The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

*

Figure 1. Silver Drachm of Arsaces I, from:
http://parthia.com/arsaces1.htm [accessed 19/06/2018]

Figure 2. Silver Tetradram of Mithridates II, from: http://www.parthia.com/mithradates2.htm [accessed 19/06/18].

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