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Ancient Coin Insights: Coinage of Parthia

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..

Map of Parthia and her empire
                                               Fig 1: Map of the Parthian Empire

PARTHIAN ROYAL HISTORY (c. 247 BCE – 228 CE) is a dismal record of sons murdering fathers, and brothers slaying brothers to seize a shaky throne. Yet for most of this era, Parthia provided reasonably efficient government to a population of Greeks, Persians, and Arabs; tolerating Christians, Jews, Pagans, Zoroastrians, and Buddhists. Parthia fought the declining Seleucid Empire, resisted the rising power of Rome, held off waves of invading nomads from Central Asia and kept the Silk Road to China open.

Rise of Parthia

                            Fig 2: The Parthian Shot

About 430 BCE, Herodotus, the “father of history,” described the customs of the Persians:

Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their 20th year, in
three things alone—to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth.

[The Histories, 1:136]

Parthian excellence in horsemanship and archery compensated to some degree for their limited numbers and unstable politics. Roman legionaries learned to fear the accuracy and power of a “Parthian shot”, from the short, stiff bow of a retreating horse archer.

The Parthians began as a semi-nomadic Iranian tribe, the Parni, who migrated into northeastern Iran, which broke away from the crumbling Seleucid Empire around 250 BCE. The Parni soon issued their own coins, depicting their beardless chieftain Arsaces wearing the bashlyk, the distinctive soft felt cap of steppe horsemen. On the reverse, a seated archer holds a bow, and the name Arsaces is inscribed in Greek. On the earliest examples, the title “General” is added; on later issues, he is styled “King” and then “Great King” in Greek.

Under Mithridates I (ruled 171-139 BCE) and his nephew Mithridates II “The Great” (121-90 BCE) the kingdom conquered much of modern Iran and Iraq.

                              Fig 3: Arsaces I early drachm

“Friend of the Greeks”

The Parthians struck silver and bronze; there are no authentic gold issues. Gold was reserved for jewelry. Initially the silver was of high purity (95%). By the end of the empire it was a debased alloy with over 60% copper and other metals. The most common denomination was the drachm of about four grams. After the Parthians conquered the great Seleucid capital of Seleucia on the Tigris (about 20 miles south of modern Baghdad) the city struck handsome tetradrachms (4 drachms) in fine Hellenistic Greek style. Small change consisted of bronze chalkoi in denominations of 8, 4, 2 and 1 unit, with 48 chalkoi equal to one silver drachm.

       Fig 4: Bronzes of Mithridates II (bottom) and Orodes II (top)

About 50 Parthian rulers issued coins, but the name “Arsaces” became immobilized as the dynastic title (much as “Caesar” became a Roman title rather than a personal name). Few Parthian coins bear a ruler’s personal name, so establishing which coins go with which kings has challenged generations of numismatists. Like Roman emperors, Parthian kings loved to display their titles on coins; unlike Romans they spelled everything in full, without abbreviations.

For example, Orodes II (ruled 57-38 BCE) styled himself:

“King of Kings, Arsaces The Benefactor, The Just, The Illustrious, Friend of the Greeks.”

Fig 5: Tetradrachm of Orodes II (Obverse)

The die cutters struggled to make everything fit, and the titles often run off the edges of the coins. Many tetradrachms bear a date (some with the month as well as the year!) according to the Seleucid era, and some 14 different mints have been identified.

A peculiarity of the coinage is the “royal wart” – a dot on the king’s forehead that appears on coins of some 18 rulers beginning with Mithridates II (123 – 88 BCE). In some cases, a lock of hair discreetly conceals the wart. According to one theory (Hart) this “wart” is a trichoepithelioma, a benign facial tumor that is partly hereditary. Parthians might have regarded this as a mark of royal blood.

                                    Fig 6: The royal wart

War with Rome

In 53 BCE, seven Roman legions under Marcus Licinius Crassus (who had crushed the slave revolt of Spartacus) advanced into Parthian territory in Syria. They were annihilated by a Parthian cavalry force a quarter their size. Crassus and his son were killed and the sacred legionary eagle standards were captured.

Julius Caesar was planning a campaign against Parthia to avenge this defeat when he was assassinated in 44 BCE. In the ensuing civil wars Parthia sided with Caesar’s assassins. A Roman general, Quintus Labienus, joined a Parthian prince, Pacorus, fighting the troops of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in Anatolia. A military mint moving with Labienus struck magnificent gold aurei and silver denarii, showing a Parthian warhorse on the reverse.

       Fig 7: “Parthian War”; Parthian frieze from Ephesos (c. 169 CE). Ephesos Museum, Vienna.

In 20 BCE, in a triumph of Roman diplomacy, Augustus obtained the return of the legionary eagles lost by Crassus. This event was commemorated on the reverse of a Roman denarius, depicting a kneeling Parthian offering the sacred object, with the proud inscription SIGN[IS] RECE[PTIS] – “the standards returned.”

Article Continues on the Following Page(s) ……….

Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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