Decline and Fall
As a diplomatic gift, Augustus sent Parthian king Phraates IV an Italian slave girl named Musa. She bore the king a son. In 2 BCE, she poisoned the king and ruled as regent for her young son, Phraataces, shocking the Parthians by marrying him. On her rare coins (inscribed “Heavenly Goddess, Queen Musa”), she wears an elaborate tiara that looks rather like a modern wedding cake. The incestuous couple was overthrown and killed about 4 CE.
The river Euphrates was a natural boundary between Roman and Parthian power. There were long periods of truce between recurrent wars. Roman armies sacked Ctesiphon the capital (now Salman Pak, Iraq, 15 miles south of Baghdad) in 116, 164, and 197. Rome could never maintain control over Mesopotamia – a frustration many subsequent conquerors have experienced.
The decline of Parthia is evident in the coinage of the third century. Die cutters no longer attempted Greek – the inscriptions are a garbled mix of Aramaic letters and random strokes and dots. Vologases VI (ruled 208-218) and his brother Artabanus V (216-224) fought a 16-year civil war that fatally weakened the empire. Engravers can no longer model a realistic portrait, so the king’s image is simplified to a cartoon-like drawing. Similarly, the seated archer reverse, endlessly repeated on Parthian coins, is reduced to a crude stick figure. In 224, Ardashir, tributary ruler of a southern client kingdom, overthrew the last Parthian king and established the dynasty that we know as the Sasanian Empire.
In numismatic references and auction catalogs, the coinage of Parthia falls under the heading of “Oriental Greek” or “Further Asia”. The standard references in English–Sellwood (1980) and Shore (1993)–are out of print and very expensive if you can find a copy. Fortunately, a superbly documented and illustrated website, www.parthia.com, provides an accessible source of information on the coinage and its geographic and cultural context.
Parthian tetradrachms typically sell for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Common drachms in nice condition can be found for two hundred dollars or less. The bronzes are inexpensive but usually well-worn and seldom seen in auctions. The highest recorded price I could find for a Parthian coin was $39,584 USD for an tetradrachm of Orodes I (ruled 90-80 BCE)
There are probably fewer than 20 serious collectors of Parthian coins in the world today. Yet the dearth of written and archaeological sources for this long era makes the coins an essential resource for establishing the “who, what, where and when” — which in turn, help us to understand the “why”.
In researching this coinage I was astonished at how many places mentioned in the old books appear in current headlines. We read, for example, that the retreating Roman army of Severus held off the Parthians in 196 by retreating into the Sinjar mountains — the very terrain where Kurds today are struggling to hold off the fighters of ISIS.
Our own monumental ignorance of Iranian history is both ironic and unfortunate, considering that the countries that make up this vast culture area — Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, Central Asia and the Caucasus are the battlegrounds of so many current conflicts.
* * *
Caley, Earle. “Notes on the Chemical Composition of Parthian Coins with Special Reference to the Drachms of Orodes I”, Ohio Journal of Science 50:3 (1950)
Colledge, Malcolm. The Parthians. Praeger. 1967
Curtis, Vesta S. “Parthian Coins: Kingship and Divine Glory”, The Parthian Empire and its Religions: Studies in the Dynamics of Religious Diversity. P. Wick and M. Zehnder (eds.). Gutenberg. (2012)
Farrokh, Kaveh. Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. Osprey. (2007)
Hart, Gerald D. “Trichoepithelioma and the Kings of Ancient Parthia”, Canadian Medical Association Journal 94. (1966)
Sellwood, David. An Introduction to the Coinage of Parthia (2nd edition). Spink. (1980)
Sellwood, David. “Parthian Coins”, The Cambridge History of Iran, v. 3, The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian Periods. Ehsan Yarshater (ed.). Cambridge. (1983)
Shore, Fred B. Parthian Coins and History: Ten Dragons Against Rome. CNG: Quarryville, PA. (1993)
Wroth, Warwick. Catalogue of the Coins of Parthia. British Museum. (1903)
* * *
Mike Markowitz is “Second Consul” of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington, D.C. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst, who writes for StrategyPage and Defense Media Network. He designed the game Alexandros, which won the 1991 Charles Roberts Award for Best Pre-WWII Wargame. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. He has worked as a technical writer, editor and trainer for a variety of aerospace and defense firms. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.