By Mike Markowitz ….
The Armenians have been described through the centuries as adaptable, resilient, enterprising and steadfast. How they managed to survive while larger and more powerful states disappeared, and how, at the same time, they were able to make significant contributions to world civilizations, is the amazing history of the Armenian people (Bournoutian, 4).
PEOPLE SPEAKING ARMENIAN (AN INDO-EUROPEAN language) have inhabited lands between the Caucasus and central Anatolia for many, many centuries. The earliest record of the name “Armenia” appears in the Behistun Inscription, carved on a rock cliff in western Iran for the Persian ruler Darius the Great around 520 BCE.
Soon after the invention of coinage (seventh century BCE), Greek and Persian coins reached Armenia in trade, but apparently the first coins issued by Armenian rulers were struck for kings of Sophene (now part of southeastern Turkey) in the third century BCE. These bronze pieces were in denominations of four, two and one chalkoi (the chalkous was a unit of about three grams). The ruler’s name and titles were inscribed in Greek letters, but the blanks were often too small for the dies.
A coin of Arsames I, one of the earliest kings, brought over $2,000 (against an estimate of only 250) in a recent auction. The ruler wears a pointed felt or leather cap that evolved into an elaborate royal “tiara” of later kings. The reverse is a horse head.
On the reverse of another bronze of Arsames, the king on horseback spears a lion. Armenia was renowned in antiquity for the quality of its horses, and the courage of Armenian cavalry in battle. A later king of Sophene c. 220 BCE bore the famous Persian name Xerxes, and the reverse of his rare bronze bears the classic Greek image of Nike, goddess of victory.
Under the Artaxiad dynasty (c.190 BCE – 12 CE) ancient Armenia reached its greatest power and territorial extent. After the Romans defeated the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BCE, a local governor named Artaxias declared Armenia’s independence. His very rare coins, struck in copper, initially bore legends in Aramaic, an administrative language of the old Persian Empire. Artaxias’ later issues are inscribed in Greek. A small group of these coins “from an important collection” appear in an upcoming European auction.
Artaxias I was followed by his sons, Artavasdes I (160-121 BCE) and Tigranes I (121 – 96 BCE).
On his rare copper coins, Tigranes I described himself as BAΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΜΕΓΑΛΟΥ ΤΙΓΡΑΝΟΥ ΦΙΛΕΛΛHNOC (“Great King Tigranes, Friend of the Greeks”). In a 2014 European auction, an example of this coin brought over $3,500.
Tigranes I was followed by his son of the same name, who ruled from 96 to 56 BCE.
“No reign in classical Armenian coinage has posed more problems for numismatists than that of Tigranes the Great. At first glance the number of types, mint marks, legends and the stylistic variations present a daunting obstacle to any notion of order (Kovacs, 13).”
Under Tigranes II, the Armenian empire reached its brief peak of glory (he is remembered as a national hero, “Tigranes the Great”). After conquering the great city of Antioch in Syria, Tigranes issued magnificent silver tetradrachms in fine Hellenistic style. On the obverse, the king appears wearing an elaborate jeweled tiara decorated with a starburst between two eagles. The reverse depicts a famous statue of Tyche, goddess of good fortune, holding the palm branch of victory, while the river god Orontes swims below.
Tigranes founded a new capital for his empire, Tigranocerta, which was so thoroughly sacked and destroyed by the Romans in 69 BCE that its location is uncertain. Other mints active during his reign included Artaxata and Nisibis.
On some of his coins, Tigranes identifies himself as BAΣIΛEΩΣ BAΣIΛEΩN (“King of Kings”) – a title traditionally reserved for the Persian emperor. On the small bronze coinage, a common reverse type is a standing figure of Hercules, who was identified with Vahagn (or Verethragna), the Zoroastrian god of victory.
In 67 BCE, in the midst of a war against Rome and Parthia, Tigranes faced a revolt by his son (also named Tigranes). Rare coins on which the star on the tiara appears as a comet with a tail are now attributed to the brief reign of Tigranes “the Younger”.
“The comet may be a birth sign referring to the comet of 100 BC, to a comet of 76 BC coinciding with his coronation, or to both occurrences (Kovacs, 22).”
Tigranes the Great defeated his rebel son and eventually made peace with Rome, after paying an indemnity of 6,000 talents (about 180 tons of silver, an indication of his vast wealth). After he died at the age of 85, another son, Artavasdes II, took the throne.
The obverse of a tetradrachm of Tigranes the Great appears on the modern Armenian 500 dram banknote (1993).
Artavasdes II ruled from 54 to 34 BCE. Initially he was a Roman ally, but after the Parthians crushed the Roman army of Crassus at Carrhae (53 BCE) he switched sides, marrying off his sister to the Parthian crown prince, Pacorus. In 34 BCE, Mark Antony invaded Armenia, capturing Artavasdes. He was held prisoner at Alexandria until Cleopatra had him beheaded in 31 BCE, shortly before her own death.
Only three tetradrachms of Artavasdes II are known. The portrait is an image of immense dignity and power from the hand of a master engraver; it is easy to believe this king refused to kneel to Cleopatra after he was bound with golden chains and forced to march in Antony’s triumphal procession. The reverse, in contrast, with the image of a quadriga (four-horse racing chariot), is carelessly engraved and struck (reverse dies, which wore out more quickly, were often assigned to apprentice engravers). In a 1989 auction this coin brought $50,000. It was acquired by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Silver drachms are slightly more common; bronze coins, some dated, some not, are also known.
Artaxias II, son of Artavasdes II, escaped Roman capture by fleeing to the Parthian court. In 30 BCE he returned to Armenia and took vengeance by slaughtering all the Romans he could find. His rare silver drachms (only four known!) bear his youthful portrait surrounded by a wreath, with a crude standing figure of the goddess Athena on the reverse. After a reign of 10 years he was assassinated, being succeeded by his brother Tigranes III (ruled 20-8 BCE).
A descendant of Tigranes the Great, Tigranes IV came to the throne in 8 BCE. When he made an alliance with Parthia, the Romans sent an army to depose him, replacing him with his brother, Artavasdes III, who proved so unpopular he was soon overthrown. Tigranes returned, to rule jointly with his half sister and wife, Erato, the only woman to appear on an ancient Armenian coin.
All his coins were struck in bronze at the capital, Artaxata, and most surviving examples are heavily worn. On one type, the royal couple appear together in profile on the obverse, and the reverse shows the twin peaks of Mt. Ararat, which are visible from the city.
A great-grandson of the Judean king Herod the Great, Tigranes VI was raised as a royal hostage in Rome and crowned by Nero a client king of Armenia around 58 CE. He appears bearded on his coinage, the fashion for clean-shaven rulers (dating back to the time of Alexander the Great) apparently having changed.
“Historical and numismatic evidence shows that Nero planned to restore Tigranes to the Armenian throne, however Nero’s plan for Tigranes and Armenia disintegrated with the outbreak of the First Jewish–Roman War in 66. His fate afterwards is not known… The surviving coinage is a reflection of his Hellenic and Armenian descent and is evidence that he relinquished his Jewish connections.”
From about 77 to 217 CE, no royal Armenian coins are known, and Armenian history is a complex web of intrigue and conflict between the Roman and Persian empires. About the year 300 CE, Tiridates III (ruled 287 -330) converted to Christianity, beginning a new chapter in the long history of this remarkable people.
Collecting Ancient Armenia
In the traditional arrangement of coin catalogs and reference books by region, the ancient kings of Armenia appear after “Cappadocia” and before “Parthia”. A search in the CoinArchives Pro database on “Armenia” produced 5336 hits, but the vast majority of these were Roman coins that make some reference to Armenian victories. Narrowing the search to “Kings of Armenia” produced just 559 hits, many of these being repeated sales of the same coin.
Collectors of Armenian ancestry pursue these coins with enthusiasm, and desirable pieces often bring many times the estimates at auction. Fakes and fantasies have been produced for centuries, even in gold, so collectors should exercise caution. For many years, the standard reference for ancient and medieval Armenian coins was Nercessian (1995), published by the Armenian Numismatic Society. This is out of print and hard to find. Kovacs (2016) incorporates the latest scholarship and includes many new attributions.
* * *
 Leu Numismatik Auction 1, 25 October 2017, Lot 97. Realized $2,021 USD.
 Künker Auction 295, 25 September 2017, Lot 353. Realized $1,424 USD (estimate 500 euro).
 CNG Auction 85, 15 September 2010, Lot 6. Realized $2,200 USD (estimate 600).
 Leu Numismatic Auction 2, 11 May 2018, Lots 130 – 132.
 Gitbud and Naumann Auction 23, 5 October 2014, Lot 485. Realized $3,503 USD.
 CNG Auction 85, 15 September 2010, Lot 13. Realized $3,600 USD.
 Savoca Numismatik Auction 13, 12 March 2017, Lot 330. Realized $139 USD.
 CNG Auction 85, 15 September 2010, Lot 15. Realized $11,501 USD.
 Numismatic Fine Arts Auction XXII, 21 June 1989, Lot 337. Realized $50,000 USD. Acquired by Boston Museum of Fine Arts; see superb online images at:
 CNG Auction 85, 15 September 2010, Lot 30. Realized $8,500 USD.
 CNG Mail Bid Sale 60, 22 May 2002, Lot 1014. Realized $1,750 USD.
 CNG Auction 85, 15 September 2010, Lot 33. Realized $6,500 USD.
 Leu Numismatik, Auction 1, 25 October 2017, Lot 96. Realized $657 USD.
Armenian Numismatic Society. Selected Numismatic Studies of Paul Z. Bedoukian. Los Angeles (1981)
Bedoukian, Paul Z. “Classification of the Coins of the Artaxiad Dynasty of Armenia”, ANS Museum Notes 14 (1968)
Bournoutian, George. A Concise History of the Armenian People. Costa Mesa, CA (2006)
Classical Numismatics Group. CNG Auction 85 catalog. Lancaster, PA (15 September 2010)
Foss, Clive. “The Coinage of Tigranes the Great: Problems, suggestions and a new find”, Numismatic Chronicle 164 (1986)
Hintz, Martin. Armenia. New York (2004)
Kovacs, Frank L. Armenian Coinage in the Classical Period. Lancaster, PA (2016)
–. “Tigranes IV, V and VI: New Attributions”, American Journal of Numismatics 20 (2008)
Masters, Tom, Virginia Maxwell & John Noble. Lonely Planet: Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan. London (2016)
Nercessian, Y.T. Armenian Coins and Their Values. Los Angeles (1995)
Newell, Edward. Royal Greek Portrait Coins. New York (1937)
Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values, Volume 2: Asia & Africa. London (1979)
Young, John H. “Commagenian Tiaras: Royal and Divine”, American Journal of Archaeology 68 (1964)
NGC-Certified Ancient Armenian Coins Currently Available on eBay
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