By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
During the first centuries of the Christian era, a vast inland empire stretched across Central Asia under the name Kushan. They have been referred to as a super power of their time along with the Chinese, Persians and Romans … Just how and when the Kushan dynasty was formed continues to be debated, and precise dates for the kings are still elusive, but the coinage alone reveals the Kushan dynasty as a major force in the cultural and political history of the ancient Silk Road trade routes (Jongeward, 6).
EXOTIC, OBSCURE, BEAUTIFUL, and under-appreciated, Kushan coins are gaining increasing visibility in the ancients market. For centuries, international trade in silk and spices sent a stream of gold flowing through this kingdom, and much of that precious metal became high-value circulating coinage.
“Kushan” seems to be the family name of the dynasty, rather than the name of an ethnic group. The origin of the Kushans is debated, but many scholars believe they were related to a nomadic tribe known to the Chinese as the Yuezhi (or Yueh-chi). The heartland of their empire included the valleys of the Oxus (Amu Darya) and Jaxartes (Syr Darya) rivers, which flow from the Hindu Kush mountains to the Aral Sea in Central Asia. There were about 13 Kushan rulers; their chronology has only recently been untangled, some are only known because they issued coins that survive.
Kujula Kadphises was a tribal warlord who conquered the “Indo-Parthian” kingdom in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan ruled by Gondophares (c. 19 – 46 CE). For many years, handsome silver tetradrachms issued by Kujula were attributed to a non-existent ruler named “Heraios” because a word in the inscription on the coins (HIAOY) was misunderstood as a personal name, rather than a transliterated title meaning something like “chieftain”. Kujula’s long-haired portrait appears on the obverse, wearing nomad garb and a diadem (the head-band that was the Hellenistic Greek emblem of kingship). On the reverse, the king appears on horseback, a winged figure of Nike (goddess of victory) crowning him with a wreath. An exceptional example of this coin brought $5,500 USD in a 2015 auction; worn examples have typically sold for $200 – 600 in recent years.
Kujula also issued an extensive coinage in copper in several denominations, including a 3.5 gram piece with a Roman-style obverse bust (described as the “Augustus” type).
Vima (or Wima) Takto was Kujula’s son. He reigned c. 90 – 113 CE and conquered the Kabul valley extending his rule into northern Pakistan. His name does not appear on his abundant copper coinage, but rather a Greek epithet, SOTER MEGAS (“Great Savior”). Denominations included a tetradrachm of eight to 12 grams and a drachm of two to three grams. The obverse bears a “radiate” bust (an array of short strokes around the head, signifying divinity). The reverse shows the king on horseback. On both sides, the coins bear the king’s tamgha, a graphic emblem or brand that changes with each Kushan ruler (it may have been an actual livestock brand).
Vima Takto’s son Vima Kadphises ruled from c. 113 to 127, roughly contemporary with the Roman emperor Hadrian (117 – 138). Kadphises’ reign saw the first issue of regular gold coinage in three denominations: a double dinar of 16 grams, an eight-gram dinar, and a two-gram quarter dinar. Some scholars prefer the Greek term “stater” for these coins; we don’t know what their users called them. On the obverse, the king, wearing a tall hat, sits on a cushioned throne holding a branch. An exceptional example of the double dinar realized $24,000 in a recent US auction. The reverse on both the gold and the copper coinage features a standing figure of the god Oesho in front of a bull. Oesho is usually identified with the Hindu god Shiva, and he appears prominently on the coinage for centuries.
Kanishka was an innovator and his coinage introduced new forms of imagery of importance to a modern understanding of Kushan and Indian religious and art histories (Jongeward, 65).
Under Kanishka “the Great” (c. 127 – 152 – contemporary with Hadrian and Antoninus Pius), the Kushan empire reached its peak of power and prosperity. Kanishka’s abundant coinage features over 30 different deities from the Iranian, Hindu and Greco-Roman pantheons. The main mint was probably located at Balkh in northern Afghanistan, but the coins are found across Central Asia and northern India.
As a patron of Buddhism, Kanishka issued very rare gold dinars bearing the earliest image of the Buddha to appear on a coin; an example of this type (only about five known) sold for $160,000 in 2009. On the obverse of his coins, the imposing bearded figure of Kanishka stands wearing a long robe and holding a staff while sprinkling incense on a small altar. The reverse of a bronze “didrachm” (8.34 grams) depicts a standing figure labled “Helios” – a Greco-Roman sun god.
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The son of Kanishka, Huvishka (c. 151 – 190, roughly contemporary with Marcus Aurelius) probably issued more gold coinage than all the other Kushan rulers combined. Reverses mainly feature the goddess Ardoksho and the god Oesho, but numerous other deities put in appearances, including Nana the moon goddess, Athsho the god of fire, and Maaseno the god of war. A rare gold dinar depicting Nana riding on a lion realized $55,000 in a recent auction.
In contrast to previous Kushan rulers, Huvishka is beardless. He evidently loved hats, since he appears in no less than 11 different types of elaborate headgear on his coins. His profile portrait is surrounded by a halo, a feature adopted by all subsequent Kushan rulers. On his abundant copper coins, he often rides atop an elephant.
Vasudeva reigned for 40 years (c.190 – 230, roughly contemporary with the Roman emperor Septimius Severus). His coins were issued from two mints: one in Bactria (possibly Balkh) and one in Punjab (probably Taxila). On his coins, Vasudeva stands in a long coat of scale armor, wearing a tall helmet, holding a trident and sprinkling incense on an altar surrounded by an inscription in Bactrian: “King of Kings, Bazodno the Kushan.” The standard reverse is the bare-chested god Oesho with a bull.
[B]eginning with the reign of Kanishka II, the dynastic history of the Kushans becomes increasingly difficult to decipher (Jongeward & Cribb, 149).
Kanishka II reigned for 17 years (230 -247, roughly contemporary with Roman emperors Maximinus and Philip the Arab). During this period the empire lost extensive territory in Afghanistan to the Sasanian Persians. Attributing Kanishka II’s coins can be difficult, because production standards were slipping (often a sign of crisis) and few coins carry a complete and legible inscription. The designs closely follow the coinage of Vasudeva. A sharp example of the gold dinar from the famous Dr. Lawrence Adams Collection brought $1,600 in a recent sale.
During Vasishka’s reign, the Sasanians pushed south of the Hindu Kush and also invaded Gandhara (c. 260 CE) restricting Kushan-held areas to Taxila and parts of northern India (Jongeward & Cribb, 150).
On the few coins of this 20-year reign that have a readable Bactrian inscription, Vasishka’s name appears as “Bazeshko”. The standard reverse shows the goddess Ardokhsho seated on a square-backed throne or the god Oesho with a bull. Stray letters in Brahmi (an Indian script) begin to appear on the coins; their meaning and purpose are uncertain.
The rare coins of this brief reign (c. 267- 270; only 16 examples listed in the CoinArchives Pro database) closely follow the pattern of the previous ruler. Although the standard of workmanship declined, the weight and purity of the gold remained consistently good.
Almost nothing is known about Vasudeva II (ruled c. 267-300, roughly contemporary with the Roman emperor Diocletian) except for his coins, which are surprisingly common; 502 examples listed in the CoinArchives Pro database. Either Ardokhsho or Oesho and bull is the reverse design. These are some of the most affordable high-grade Kushan gold coins, with very fine examples going for under $1,000.
Shaka ruled c. 300-335, contemporary with the Roman emperor Constantine I. On Shaka’s coins, the use of Greek letters to write coin inscriptions in the Bactrian language is abandoned and his name appears only in Brahmi script.
A short-lived ruler named Mahi (c. 300-305), known only from a handful of very rare coins, may have ruled during the same period.
…[U]nder this king the quality of the gold alloy progressively dropped until the coins appeared to have no gold in them at all, initially having a silver appearance, but finally looking like bronze. In this final phase of debasement the weight dropped to less than 7 grams (Jongewar & Cribb, 151).
The Kushan Empire was eventually overrun by the Sasanians from the west and invaders called Kidarites (related to the Huns) from the north. Dinars from early in the reign of Kipunada, the last king, are still about 18 kt. gold. A sharp example brought $800 in a 2014 auction.
Kushan coinage strongly influenced the design of “Kushano-Sasanian” (c. 230-379) and Gupta (c. 320 – 550) royal coinage, but those are stories for another day…
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 CNG Auction 90, 23 May 2012, Lot 879. Realized $1,600 USD.
 CNG Electronic Auction 409, 8 November 2017, Lot 370. Realized $425 USD (estimate $150).
 CNG Auction 69, 8 June 2005, Lot 838. Realized $350 USD.
 Heritage ANA Sale, 3 August 2017, Lot 30101. Realized $24,000 USD.
 CNG Electronic Auction 390, 1 Feburary 2017, Lot 271. Realized $300 USD.
 CNG Triton XII, 6 January 2009, Lot 428. Realized $160,000 USD (estimate $150,000).
 CNG Electronic Auction 414, 14 February 2018, Lot 344. Realized $100 USD.
 CNG Triton XXI, 9 January 2018, Lot 579. Realized $3,500 USD.
 Stephen Album Auction 29, 14 September 2017, Lot 1268. Realized $55,000 USD (estimate $15-20,000).
 CNG Electronic Auction 322, 12 March 2014, Lot 416. Realized $525 USD (estimate $100).
 CNG Triton XXI, 9 January 2018, Lot 584. Realized $1,100 USD (estimate $750).
 CNG Triton XIX, 5 January 2016, Lot 2140. Realized $1,600 USD (estimate $750).
 CNG Electronic Auction 412, 17 January 2018, Lot 333. Realized $1,260 USD.
 CNG Triton XXI, 9 January 2018. Lot 585. Realized $850 USD (estimate $600).
 CNG Electronic Auction 408, 25 October 2017, Lot 295. Realized $425 USD.
 Gemini XI Auction, 12 January 2014, Lot 322. Realized $800 USD.
Blet-Lemarquand, Maryse. “Analysis of Kushana Gold Coins: Debasement and Provenance Study”, Dal denarius al dinar: l’Oriente e la moneta romana. Rome (2006)
Bracey, Robert. “The Coinage of Wima Kadphises”, Gandaran Studies 3 (2009)
Bracey, Robert. “The Mint Cities of the Kushan Empire”, The City and the Coin in the Ancient and Early Medieval Worlds. Fernando López Sánchez (ed.). Oxford (2012)
Cribb, Joe. “The ‘Heraus’ coins: Their attribution to the Kushan king Kujula Kadphises”, Essays in Honor of Robert Carson and Kenneth Jenkins. Price, M., A. Burnett and R. Bland (eds.). London (1993)
–. “Kujula Kadphises and His Title Kushan Yavuga”, Sino-Platonic Papers 280 (2018)
Hiebert, Fredrik and Pierre Cambon (eds.). Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul. Washington (2008)
Jongeward, David and Joe Cribb. Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian, and Kidarite Coins: A Catalogue of Coins from the American Numismatic Society. New York (2015)
Jongeward, David. “Coins of the Kushan Kings – Part I”, Celator 14 (April 2000)
–. “Coins of the Kushan Kings – Part II”, Celator 14 (May 2000)
–. “Distinctive Features of Kushan Coins – Part I”, Celator 20 (April 2006)
–. “Distinctive Features of Kushan Coins – Part II”, Celator 20 (May 2006)
Keay, John. India: A History. New York (2010)
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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.”