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Those Sassy Sasanians: Persian Coins of Late Antiquity

Mike Markowitz, CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: Persian Coinage of Late Antiquity

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

The trouble with the Second Persian Empire was that it was not an empire… And while the tradition … required that the king of kings should be a member of the royal house, it was not specific about which member, so that there was usually a war of succession at the end of each reign, and sometimes one in between (Pratt, 74).

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FOR OVER FOUR hundred years, the Sasanian (or “Sassanian”) Empire of Iran battled with Rome and Constantinople, held off waves of invaders from the steppes of central Asia, and kept the Silk Road to China open. It maintained a stable currency in a multi-ethnic state often wracked by religious and political conflicts, and throughout that time about 30 Sasanian kings and two short-lived queens issued coins.

Some, of course, are common. Others are very rare.

Ardeshir I (224-241)

arashiriArdeshir, born about 180 CE, was a local warlord in Pars, the heartland of central Iran, when he rose in rebellion in 224 against his Parthian overlords. By 226 he occupied the Parthian capital Ctesiphon (just outside modern Baghdad) and was crowned “King of Kings of Iran.”

Ardeshir established the pattern for Sasanian coinage for the next four centuries, issuing nearly pure[1] silver drachms (or dirhams) of about 4.3 grams. There were half drachms (hemidrachms) of about 2.1 grams and tiny obols (one-sixth drachm) of about 0.7 gram, possibly thrown to the crowds at imperial celebrations.

On his coins, Ardeshir appears with a carefully dressed beard and hair, wearing an elaborate crown. Every Sasanian ruler had a unique crown combining symbols of various deities worshipped by Iranians. Major events in a reign were commemorated by the adoption of a new crown. Eventually, the crowns became so heavy that they had to be suspended on chains above the throne, but on coins, rulers are always shown wearing their headgear.

The obverse inscription proclaims, “Mazda-worshipping Ardeshir, King of Kings of Iran, descended from the gods[2].” Subsequent rulers followed this formula; the short-lived Hormizd I (ruled 270-271) adding “King of Kings of Iran and non-Iran.”

On a rare silver drachm issued two years before his death, Ardeshir appears facing a smaller portrait of his son and successor Shapur (crowned as co-ruler in 240), ensuring a smooth succession.

The standard reverse depicts a Zoroastrian fire altar, the focus of the state religion. The altar may be adorned with ribbons and flanked by mushroom-shaped incense burners.

Ardeshir issued rare gold coins (probably presentation pieces for high-ranking nobles, rather than regular circulating currency), weighing from 7.2 to 8.5 grams.

Some Sasanian rulers struck several denominations of small change in copper and even lead but this was sporadic, and such coins rarely survive in collectable condition.
Shapur I - Persian Coins of Late Antiquity

Shapur I (241-272)

Shapur I was born about the year 215. His mother was a Parthian princess. He defeated a series of Roman invasions, culminating in his capture of Emperor Valerian in 260 (the only Roman ruler ever taken as a prisoner of war by a foreign enemy). According to legend, Shapur used Valerian as a footstool for mounting his horse, and had him stuffed as a trophy after he died in captivity[3].

Shapur ruled for 30 years, and his silver coinage is fairly common. The obverse portrait shows him wearing a “mural” crown (shaped like the top of a city wall) topped by a korymbos (a decorative globe of silk stuffed with hair.) On the reverse, he added a pair of crowned, bare-chested attendants flanking the fire altar; these would remain a feature of the design until the end of the empire, gradually being reduced to stick-figures.

Shapur II (310-379)

After four decades of brief and troubled reigns, Shapur II “The Great” was “crowned” as ruler in 309 while still in his mother’s womb[4]. He would rule for a remarkable 70 years, assuming power at the age of 16. He lead an expedition against the Arabs and fought protracted wars against Rome (337-350, and 358-363). On his coins, Shapur II’s crown closely resembles that of his famous namesake. His coin inscriptions drop the claim to descent “from the gods.” Along with the old “heavy” 7.2 gram gold dinars, Shapur II issued “light” dinars (about 4.2 grams) for reasons that are still uncertain.

As one might expect for such a long reign, Shapur’s coinage is common.

peroz1Peroz I (457-484)

Peroz I began his reign with a civil war against his younger brother Hormizd III, who had seized the throne on the death of their father Yazdgerd II in 457. Peroz negotiated an agreement with the Byzantines to share the cost of defending the Caucasus passes against invaders from the North. The empire during this time also survived ruinous famines caused by a seven-year drought (464-471).

He fought a series of campaigns against the Hephthalites, a warlike tribe of steppe nomads whose origins are obscure[5], ultimately dying while leading his army in battle near Herat in Afghanistan in 484. Peroz was succeeded by a brother, Balash, who was overthrown in turn by Kavad (or Kavadh), a son of Peroz, with the assistance of a Hephthalite army.

On his coinage, Peroz wears several different winged crowns.

Kavad I (488-531)

Born about 473, Kavad was imprisoned during the reign of his uncle Balash, narrowly avoiding execution. He escaped, raised a revolt, and eventually seized the throne in 488, but only exercised effective rule after he executed his powerful prime minister Sukhra in 493.

Kavad then came under the influence of Mazdak, a prophet and reformer who preached a primitive form of socialism[6]. This did not sit well with the nobility, and in 496 Kavad’s brother Djamasp (or Zamasp) staged a palace coup. Kavad escaped to the Hephthalites, regaining his throne in 498. He eventually turned against the Mazdakites, who were massacred about the year 528.

khosrauiiKhosrau I (531-579)

Born about 501, Khosrau (or Khosrow, or Husrev, or Chosroes) was crowned in 531 following the death of Kavad, his father. To secure his position, he ordered the execution of all his surviving brothers. In 532 he negotiated a “treaty of eternal peace” with the Byzantines, which lasted until 540. He reformed the system of land taxation, eliminating exemptions that maintained the power of the great noble families. He promoted a “middle class” of small farmers, and the empire prospered.

Silver coinage was abundant, and, perhaps in imitation of Byzantine practice, bore the date (as a regnal year, spelled out in words) and a mintmark. About a hundred different Sasanian mintmarks are known, but there were rarely more than 20 mints in operation at one time.

Khosrau died in 579 and was succeeded by his son, Hormizd IV.

Khosrau II (590-628)

Born about 570, Khosrau II was named after his grandfather. At the age of 20, he was raised to the throne by two of his uncles, who deposed and blinded his father[7]. The army commander Bahram Chobin thereupon launched a civil war (590-591) and briefly held the throne (his coins are extremely rare) before Khosrau–with Byzantine aid–regained it.

Khosrau’s coinage is extremely common and often poorly struck, but a few special issues are some of the most attractive Sasanian coins.

A lightweight gold dinar[8] of year 21 (610 CE) shows the king wearing a winged crown adorned with stars and crescents, with the inscription “Khosrau, king of kings, may he prosper.” The reverse bears a facing bust of the goddess Anahita surrounded by a halo of flames, and the inscription “Iran has prospered.”

A rare silver drachm of year 23 (613) bears a front-facing bust of the king, rather than the usual right-facing profile.

Boran (629-631)

The failure of the Persian siege of Constantinople (626) led to a brilliant series of campaigns by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (reigned 610-641) that wrecked the Sasanian Empire. In 628, Kavad II deposed and murdered his father Khosrau II, along with most of his brothers. He then negotiated a peace treaty with Heraclius and died after a few months, leaving a seven-year-old son, Ardashir III, on the throne.

A violent struggle for succession eventually left no male heirs alive, and a daughter of Khosrau II, Boran (or Puran) was crowned as the first ruling queen in the empire’s long history. The sources on her reign are scant and contradictory. By some accounts, she ruled with wisdom and justice for two years; others suggest she was a powerless figurehead for six months. She either died of illness or was murdered.

On her scarce silver coinage, her portrait is recognizable by the absence of a beard. A single gold dinar survives, in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts[9].

Another daughter of Khosrau II named Azarmidokht ruled briefly (630-631) during this chaotic period and her coinage is very rare; an example recently sold for US$21,000[10].

Yazdgard III (632-651)

In 632, Yazdgard III (or Yazdigerd, or Yazdegerd), a grandson of Khosrau II, had the misfortune to be crowned as the 38th and last Sasanian ruler–just in time for the beginning of the Arab Muslim conquest of Persia.

He was a child, probably about eight years old.

His coins are relatively common, many struck by the “court mint” moving with the army as it retreated into the interior before the inexorable Arab advance. The last Sasanian army was destroyed in 642 at the Battle of Nahavand. Yazdgard sought to raise a new army from the tribes of central Asia but was murdered at Merv (in Turkmenistan) in 651.

His son, with the courtesy title of Peroz III, found refuge at the court of the Tang Dynasty in China[11].

Collecting the Sasanians

Sasanian silver coinage is abundant, the gold extremely scarce.

The 1967 Shiraz hoard contained some 37 thousand drachms, mainly from the reign of Khusrau II. Hoards and stray finds have been reported from Scandinavia, across the Middle East and Central Asia, and even in China.

Current literature on Sasanian numismatics is mostly in English. The standard reference for many years was Göbl (1971) translated from German. The SNS (Sylloge Nummorum Sasanidarum) project is a multi-year international scholarly effort to publish every major institutional collection of Sasanian coins; about five volumes have already appeared, with more in preparation.

The “Sunrise Collection” a major private collection that included many Sasanian rarities, was published in 2011 by CNG, and coins from this collection have appeared in a number of recent auctions.

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[1] Often as high as 97% silver, and rarely less than 90% (Sodaei, 2013).

[2] Mazda, or Ahura Mazda, was the supreme deity of Zoroastrianism.

[3] Modern scholarly consensus is that this is a myth, fabricated by later Roman historians hostile to Persia.

[4] This is probably a myth since court officials could not have known whether the unborn infant was a boy or a girl.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hephthalite_Empire

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazdak

[7] Possibly imitating Byzantine practice. Blinding was considered more humane than execution; it made the victim permanently ineligible for the throne.

[8] New York Sale XXXVII, Lot 638. Realized US$17,000.

[9] Acquired as an anonymous gift in 1935: http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/coin-147596

[10] New York Sale XXXVII, Lot 658, 5 January 2016.

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peroz_III


Alram, M, Bacharach, Jere and Adon Gordus. “The Purity of Sasanian Silver Coins”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 92 (1972)

Farrokh, Kaveh. Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. Osprey (2007)

Göbl, Robert. Sasanian Numismatics. Braunschweig (1971)

Göbl, Robert. “Sasanian Coins”, Cambridge History of Iran. V.III (1)

Malek, H.M. “A Survey of Recent Research on Sasanian Numismatics”, Numismatic Chronicle 153 (1993)

Malek, H.M. and Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis. “History and Coinage of the Sasanian Queen Bōrān (AD 629-631)”, Numismatic Chronicle 158 (1998)

Nelson, Bradley R. Numismatic Art of Persia: The Sunrise Collection. CNG (2011)

Pratt, Fletcher. “Kadisiyah and the Cost of Conquest”, The Battles That Changed History. Doubleday (1956)

Schindel, Nikolaus. “Sasanian Mint Abbreviations: The Evidence of Style”, Numismatic Chronicle 165 (2005)

Schindel, Nikolaus. “Sasanian Gold Coinage: An Overview”, Dal Denarius al Dinar: L’oriente e la Moneta Romana. Istituto Italiano di Numismatica, Roma (2006)

Sodaei, B., P.M. Khak, and M. Khazaie, “A study of Sasanian silver coins employing the XRF technique”, Interdisciplinaria Archaeologica 4. (2013)

SNS I. Album, S. and R. Gyselen. Sylloge Nummorum Sasanidarum Paris – Berlin – Wien, Band I: Ardashir I – Shapur I. (Wien, 2003).

SNS II. Alram, M and R. Gyselen. Sylloge Nummorum Sasanidarum Paris – Berlin – Wien, Band II: Ohrmazd I – Ohrmazd II. (forthcoming)

SNS III. Schindel, N. Sylloge Nummorum Sasanidarum Paris – Berlin – Wien, Band III: Shapur II – Kawad I. (Wien, 2004)

SNS Iran I. Curtis, Vesta S. et al. A Sylloge of the Sasanian Coins in the National Museum of Iran (Muzeh Melli Iran), Tehran. Vol. 1: Ardashir I – Hormizd IV. (London, 2010)

SNS Israel. Schindel, Nikolaus. Sylloge Nummorum Sasanidarum Israel: The Sasanian and Sasanian-Type Coins in the Collections of the Hebrew University. 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 2009)

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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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