By Steve Benner for CoinWeek …..
The Kingdom of Sophene is another one of those ancient countries that has not received very much attention from ancient coin collectors. Usually, it is just lumped in with Armenia because it was absorbed into the Armenian Empire by Tigranes II the Great (140–55 BCE) after 95 BCE. But Sophene had its own unique history and distinctive coinage.
Kingdom of Sophene
The name Sophene comes from the ethnonym Suppani, a people who lived in the region dating back to the first millennium BCE; this area is now southeast Turkey. The terrain is quite mountainous and is crisscrossed by numerous rivers, creating river valleys that are very productive in spite of the harsh winters and hot, dry summers. The region was part of Urartu (Ararat) in the eighth and seventh centuries. Argishtis I of Urartu built the city of Erebuni (modern-day Yerevan) and resettled many of the inhabitants of the locality in the new city.
Around 600 BCE, Sophene became part of the Armenian Kingdom of the Orontids. Orontes I, a Bactrian nobleman, was the son-in-law of the Achaemenid King of Kings Artaxerxes II (r. 404–358 BCE). Armenia became a satrapy under the new Median Empire that later became the Achaemenid Empire of Persia.
After the destruction of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great, Sophene remained part of the newly created independent Kingdom of Greater Armenia. In the third century, the Seleucid Empire began to exert pressure on the Armenian Kingdom. As a result, Sophene split from Armenia and came into being as a distinct kingdom in the historical region of Armenia named Tsopani (see Figure 1). Commagene was part of Sophene at this time but later split to form a separate country. Sophene was ruled by a branch of the Armenian royal dynasty of Orontids, and the kings were followers of Zoroastrianism.
Sames I (ca. 260 BCE)
Not a lot is known of Sames’ reign. He is credited with founding the town of Samosata on the Euphrates River. He may have also ruled over Commagene, but it is unclear. During this time, the kingdom was dependent on the Seleucid Empire but still retained a degree of independence. Sophene was obligated to provide troops and pay tribute to the Empire. I could not find any coins attributable to Sames.
Arsames I (ca. 240 BCE)
Arsames I (Arsham) was the successor of Sames. He is credited with founding the city of Arsamosat (Arshamashat) on the left bank of the Euphrates. Arsames tried to break his country’s dependency on the Seleucids but failed. Arsames minted the first coins to honor Armenian kings and ruled the first Armenian kingdom to have a mint (Arkathiokerta?). Sophene minted only bronze coins.
Figure 2 shows a dichalkon of Arsames I with a clean-shaven King on the obverse and an eagle standing on a thunderbolt reverse. The King is wearing a kyrbasia, a type of headgear originally worn by the satraps of the Achaemenid Empire. The legend on the reverse is BAΣIΛEΩΣ AΡΣAMOY. BAΣIΛEΩΣ means king, lord, or patron, so the legend says “King Arsames.”
Figure 3 shows a similar coin with the same portrait on the obverse and a horse’s head on the reverse. The legend on the reverse is the same. This coin is listed as a chalkous. A side note: the chalkous was the smallest denomination in the ancient Greek world and was always made of bronze, but each locality had its own weight standard for the coin. For example, 8 chalkoi would be worth one obol in Athens, but only a 2/3 obol in Delphi, and half an obol in Priene. Since the value was not tied to silver content, the value was “fiat” (a Latin word that means, “Let it be so”), dictated by local authorities. So take the designation of a coin as a chalkous with the understanding that it may be very arbitrary.
These are only two examples of the coins attributed to Arsames I. On other coins, the obverses are all the same with the King facing either left or right. Some of the reverses feature a horseman spearing two infantrymen or an animal, a thunderbolt, Hercules standing, and the piloi (felt caps) of the Dioscuri.
Arsames II (ca. 230 BCE)
The reign of this king is controversial because some historians claim he didn’t exist, and all the actions (and coins) attributed to him are really from Arsames I. As a result, there is no information on his reign. It is possible that he was one of the sons of Arsames. The coins use the same reverse legend as the Arsames I coins shown above, so this does not provide any evidence of a separate king. Figure 4 shows an example of one of these coins. It has the Hercules standing reverse, mentioned above as one of Arsames I’s reverse types.
Xerxes (ca. 220 BCE)
A lot more is known about the reign of Xerxes, a son of Arsames I. He succeeded to the throne in 228, and his brother Orontes IV was the ruler of Armenia. In 223, several satraps of the Seleucid Empire rebelled against King Antiochus III, but most of the rebellions had been suppressed by 220. Antiochus invaded Sophene and besieged the main city of Arasomata. After Xerxes was defeated, Antiochus had his sister Antiochis marry Xerxes (what would he have got if he had won?). Within a year, she had arranged the assassination of Xerxes, opening the way for her brother to take over the kingdom. Antiochus installed an Armenian General, Zariadres, as the governor of the region.
Coins of Xerxes are very rare. Figure 5 shows the only photo of a coin of this king that I could find. It has the profile of the bearded king facing right on the obverse, and the reverse has Nike standing left holding a wreath. The legend on the reverse is ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ [ΞΕΡΞΟΥ], “King Xerxes.” The British Museum has three Xerxes coins; one has the same reverse and the other two have Athena standing left holding a wreath in her right and her left hand resting on a shield.
Anisades may or may not have been a king of Sophene, believed to have been a son of Zariadres. There is one coin attributed to him that has a portrait of the king in a leather tiara on the obverse and a goddess standing between two sphinxes on the reverse. The reverse legend includes ANISADW, “Anisades”, which may give some credence to his rule.
Mithrobouzanes (ca. 188-163 BCE)
Mithrobouzanes was also the son of Zariadres, and the length of his reign is uncertain. His brother, Artaxias I, King of Armenia, contested Mithrobouzanes’ right to rule Sophene but Mithrobouzanes managed to keep Sophene independent, probably due to diplomatic or dynastic links to Cappadocia. I could not find any coins of this king.
Ariaus (ca. 165-150 BCE)
Like Anisades, there is not much evidence of Ariaus being the king of Sophene. He may have been a son of Mithrobouzanes. There is one coin attributed to him that has the king’s head in a tiara obverse and a horseman galloping on the reverse. The legend on the reverse includes ARIAO, “Ariaus”.
Morphilig (ca. 150 BCE)
At the risk of being repetitive, like Anisades and Ariaus, there is not much historical information on Morphilig reigning as king of Sophene, but at least I found a coin photo of what is believed to be one of his coins. Figure 6 shows the king’s profile wearing a tiara facing right on the obverse and a figure standing left holding a filleted wreath. The legend above is not very legible, but the legend below the figure is MOΛΦIΛΣ, “Morphilig”.
There is another coin of Morphilig that has the same obverse but the reverse has a goddess standing left with the legend MOΛΦIOC below.
Arkathias (Second Half of the 2nd Century BCE)
Sophene was independent for most of the second century BCE, but near the end of the century, the country was forced to recognize the suzerainty of the Parthian Empire under Mithridates II (124-91 BCE). There is only one type of Arkathias coinage and that is shown in Figure 7. The king’s head is left on the obverse, and Nike advancing right is on the reverse. The reverse legend is ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ/APKAΘI, meaning “King Arkathias.” There seem to be a lot of these coins on the market.
Mithradates II Philopator (ca. 89 – after 85 BCE)
For the sake of completeness, I decided to add one more coin attributed to a king of Sophene. Usually, 95 BCE is thought to be the date that Sophene was taken into the Armenian Empire, but others have suggested that this actually took place in the 80s. If that’s the case, then Mithradates II may have been the last king of an independent Sophene. Nevertheless, I couldn’t find anything on his reign.
Figure 8 shows one of his coins. It has the standard obverse profile facing left wearing a bashlyk, and the reverse has an upright club inside a wreath. The legend is to the sides of the club and includes the king’s name, ΜΙΘΡΙΔΑΤ. Like Arkathias’ coins, they seem to be pretty common.
After his loss to Rome, the Armenian king Tigranes had to give up control of Sophene in 69 BCE. Pompey installed Tigranes II as ruler of Sophene, and then ceded it to Ariobarzanes I of Cappadocia. After 66, Sophene became part of either Greater Armenia or Cappadocia. About 54, the Romans installed Sohaemus of Emesa as the independent king of Sophene, but, soon after, Sophene reverted back to being a province of Armenia.
There seems to be little literature on the reigns of the Sophene kings, though there may be more sources that have not been translated into English.
I have to admit that I’m not going to rush out and start building a collection of Sophene coins. They are minted only in bronze, and, after 50 years of collecting, I have way too many Greek bronze coins in my collection. Speaking as a collector, Sophene coins are artistically unattractive and usually in poor condition. Not something one highlights in a collection.
However, speaking as a historian, which most ancient coin collectors are, these coins are significant. They were the first coins to honor Armenian rulers. The coins of Sophene kings are rare in most cases, some with only a few extant examples (e.g., Xerxes). Additionally, there are several kings that have only numismatic evidence to support their place in history (e.g., Anisades, Ariaus, and Morphilig). So in that sense, these coins are very important as part of the historical record and show again how important numismatics is in filling gaps in that record.
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Kovacs, Frank L. Armenian Coinage in the Classical Period. Lancaster, PA (2016)
Marciak, Michał. Sophene, Gordyene, and Adiabene: Three Regna Minora of Northern Mesopotamia Between East and West. Leiden (2017)
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About the Author
Steve M. Benner has a Ph.D. in engineering from the Ohio State University and worked for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for almost three decades before retiring in 2016. He has been an ancient coin collector since the early 1970s and is a member of the ANS, the ANA, and the ACCG. He specializes in coins of the ancient Greek leagues and in Roman Imperial bronzes. Dr. Benner has published over 30 ancient coin articles in various publications and is the author of Achaian League Coinage of the 3rd through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2008) and History and Coinage of the Ancient Greek Leagues, 5th through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2018).