The Seleucids and Their Coins: Part I

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
 

MURDEROUS AND TREACHEROUS, the Seleucids, a Greek dynasty who ruled much of the Middle East from 312 to 64 BCE, were a nasty lot. But they had exquisite artistic taste, rather like those brutal Italian Renaissance princes who sponsored sculptors, painters and architects who created sublime masterpieces of enduring beauty. Most of what the Seleucids created has long since crumbled to dust or been buried beneath modern cities, but their surviving coins preserve many portraits of remarkable sensitivity and power.

There were about 28 Seleucid kings and one ruling queen (sources disagree over how to count some rebels and usurpers). Ten died in the chronic wars of the era; many others died from poison or assassins’ blades, often at the hands of relatives.

The circulating coinage of the Seleucids was based on the “Attic” standard of Athens, a silver tetradrachm of 17.2 grams and a gold stater of 8.6 grams. Many Greek cities of the empire continued to strike coins in the name of and with the types of Alexander the Great (ruled 336-323 BCE) because they were so widely acceptable in trade. Cities also issued bronze small change for local circulation.

Important mints included Babylon, Susa, Sardis (now Sart, Turkey), Antioch on the Orontes (founded c. 300 BCE, now Antakya, Turkey) and Seleucia on the Tigris (founded about 311 BCE, south of Baghdad, Iraq). The boundaries of the empire varied greatly over its long history, taking in parts of modern Turkey, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and (briefly) Pakistan.

Seleucus I

Seleukos I Nikator
Seleukos I Nikator. 312-281 BC. AR Tetradrachm (26.5mm, 16.97 g, 5h). Susa mint. Struck circa 305/4-295 BC. Head of hero (Alexander or Seleukos?) right, wearing helmet covered with panther skin and adorned with the ear and horns of a bull / BAΣIΛEΩΣ ΣEΛEYKOY, Nike standing right, placing wreath on trophy; monogram to lower left, monogram in lower middle field. SC 173.4; ESMS Tr.21 var. (A18/P– [unlisted rev. die]); ESM 426 (unlisted dies); CSE 1023; SNG Spaer –; HGC 9, 20. EF, toned. Well centered and struck, among the finest known.
Founder of the dynasty, Seleucus I was born in Macedonia about 369 BCE. A close companion of Alexander the Great, he became satrap (governor) of Babylonia in 321. In the complex intrigues of Alexander’s successors, he was deposed, taking refuge in Egypt with his friend, Ptolemy I. In 312 BCE he made a daring dash across the Syrian desert to recapture Babylon. This event marked Year 1 of the “Seleucid Era”, used subsequently to date documents and coins. Seven or six years later (305/304 BCE) in the “Year of the Kings”, along with several of Alexander’s other surviving successors, Seleucus assumed the Greek title of basileus (“king”).

A handsome silver tetradrachm[1] of Seleucus I struck between 304 and 297 at the Persian royal city of Susa shows the helmeted head of Alexander (or possibly Seleucus himself – the features are ambiguous). The horned helmet is covered in mottled panther skin. The panther was the animal companion of the god Dionysus. On the reverse, Nike, goddess of victory, places a wreath on a “trophy of arms”. An ancient “trophy” (tropaion[2]) was a wooden post set up on a battlefield, decorated with the armor and weapons of a defeated enemy.

KINGDOM OF SYRIA. Seleucid Kings, Seleukos I Nikator (312-281 B.C.), Silver Tetradrachm
KINGDOM OF SYRIA. Seleucid Kings, Seleukos I Nikator (312-281 B.C.), Silver Tetradrachm, 16.70g, . Mint of Pergamon, struck 281 B.C. Bridled head of horned horse (Bucephalus?) facing to right, its mouth open. Rev. BAΣIΛEΩΣ / ΣEΛEYKOY, elephant walking to right, a bee above, an anchor below (Houghton & Lorber, Seleucid Coins, part I, 1 (1); Houghton, Coins of the Seleucid Empire’ 633

Seleucus campaigned in the Indus Valley against Chandragupta Maurya (ruled 321 – 297 BCE), eventually negotiating a treaty that traded a princess in marriage and several provinces for 500 war elephants with their trainers. The Indian elephant would become a prominent theme on Seleucid coinage. A magnificent silver elephant tetradrachm[3] struck in the name of Seleucus at Pergamon about 281 BCE realized a record price – $300,000 USD – for a Seleucid coin in 2012.

In 281 BCE, Seleucus crossed into Europe in an effort to conquer his homeland, Macedonia. Ptolemy Keraunos, eldest son of Ptolemy I and briefly the king of Macedonia[4], murdered Seleucus. The 42-year-old son of Seleucus I, Antiochus I, who was governing the eastern provinces of the empire, became king.

Antiochus I

Antiochos I Soter AV State
Antiochos I Soter AV Stater. Aï Khanoum, circa 280-271 BC. Diademed head right / Horned and bridled horse head to right, with braided, horn-like forelock; ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ to left, ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ below, pellet-in-Δ within circle at upper right. SC 426-7 (same reverse symbol position as 426, same obverse die as pl. 20, 427b); cf. ESM 676, 683-4. 8.43g

Early coinage of Antiochus I retains an idealized portrait of Seleucus. A rare gold stater issued at Ai Khanoum in Afghanistan c. 280 – 271 BCE bears a horned horse head on the reverse[5]. The horns were probably ornamental attachments to the bridle, to make the animal seem more fierce. This might be Alexander’s famous war horse Bucephalus, but the design probably commemorates the steed (name unknown) that carried Seleucus to Babylon in 312 BCE.

Antiochus eventually placed his own portrait on his silver tetradrachms[6], with a reverse showing the naked god Apollo holding an arrow, as though testing it for straightness. Apollo is seated on the omphalos, a sacred stone thought to mark the center of the world at Apollo’s shrine of Delphi in Greece[7]. This reverse design would be used for centuries by the Seleucids, and, in a crude version, by their successors the Parthians. An exception was Seleucus II (246-225 BCE) who mostly used a standing Apollo and tripod reverse.

Antiochos I Soter, 281-261 BC. Tetradrachm
Antiochos I Soter, 281-261 BC. Tetradrachm (Silver, 28 mm, 17.27 g, 6 h), Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris, c. 270-267. Diademed head of Antiochos I to right. Rev. ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ Apollo seated left on omphalos, holding arrow in his right hand and resting his left on a bow; to outer left and right, monograms of AP and HP. ESM 149. HGC 9, 128g. SC 379.3a. An exceptionally fine piece, beautifully toned, struck in high relief from new dies; one of the very finest examples of this type known.

The extensive bronze coinage of Antiochus and his descendants often depicts an anchor[8], which became a badge of the dynasty because Seleucus was said to have an anchor-shaped birthmark on his thigh. The Seleucid anchor is typically upside-down (relative to the usual way anchors are shown in Western art, as nautical symbols).

In 261 BCE Antiochus died fighting the Galatians, aged about 63, leaving the kingdom to his 25-year-old son Antiochus II, eventually known by the modest epithet Antiochus Theos (“Antiochus the God”) after ridding Miletos of a Ptolemaic garrison.

Antiochus II

The troubled reign of Antiochus II was largely spent fighting Ptolemy II of Egypt for control of Palestine and Phoenicia. Under the terms of a peace agreement in 253 BCE, Antiochus divorced his wife, Laodike (mother of his two sons, and the first of a long series of Seleucid queens to bear this name), to marry Ptolemy’s daughter Berenike.

Antiochos I Soter. 281-261 BC. Æ
Antiochos I Soter. 281-261 BC. Æ (14mm, 2.14 g, 9h). Uncertain mint in Mesopotamia or further east. Horned horse head right / Upright anchor; monograms flanking. Cf. SC 377 (larger denomination, possibly correction to monogram [see below]); cf. HGC 9, 175 (same).
When Ptolemy died in 246, Antiochus repudiated Berenike, and returned to Laodike, who “took the occasion to poison Antiochus while her partisans at Antioch murdered [Berenike] and their infant son.”[9] Antiochus was buried in a magnificent tomb, which can still be seen in ruins near Ephesus[10].

Antiochos II Theos. 261-246 BC. AR Tetradrachm
Antiochos II Theos. 261-246 BC. AR Tetradrachm (28.5mm, 16.97 g, 12h). Alexandreia Troas mint. Head right, wearing winged diadem / Apollo Delphios, testing arrow and placing hand on grounded bow, seated left on omphalos; monograms to outer left and outer right; in exergue, horse grazing right. SC 491.1; HGC 9, 238e. Good VF, lightly toned

The coinage of Antiochus II continued the basic designs of his father, but his youthful portrait is quite distinctive.

Seleucus II

Seleucus II, known by the epithet Kallinikos (Latinized as “Callinicus”) meaning “beautiful victory”, came to the throne at the age of 19. He immediately faced an invasion by the new Egyptian ruler Ptolemy III, understandably irritated by the murder of his sister Berenike and her son. Seleucus fell back into Anatolia, shoring up his position by marrying off his sisters to local rulers. On his coinage, Seleucus introduced an elegant new design: a slender standing figure of Apollo leaning against a tripod, still testing that arrow[11].

Seleukos II Kallinikos. 246-225 BC. AR Tetradrachm
Seleukos II Kallinikos. 246-225 BC. AR Tetradrachm (29mm, 17.21 g, 1h). Smyrna mint(?). Diademed head right / Apollo Delphios, testing arrow, standing left, leaning on tripod to right; two monograms to inner left. SC 647.2 (this coin referenced). Arthur Houghton Collection (Numismatic Fine Arts XVIII, 31 March 1987), lot 302; G. Hirsch XXXV (25 June 1963), lot 470; Asia Minor or North Syria, 1970 Hoard (CH I, 74). Estimate: 3000 USD.

A handsome bronze coin of Seleucus bears the head of Athena, along with a reverse featuring Nike and the emblematic anchor[12].

The “Third Syrian War” ended in a truce in 241, but in 239, the younger brother of Seleucus, another Antiochus, known by the epithet Hierax (“hawk”), revolted, defeating his elder brother in a battle near Ankara. Antiochus then established an independent kingdom in Anatolia. The relatively common coinage of Hierax is confusing, since some issues bear the portrait of his father, Antiochus I, some bear his brother’s portrait, and some bear his own[13] (with a marked family resemblance). In 229 the rebel was defeated in battle by his powerful neighbor, Attalus I of Pergamon. Antiochus Hierax became a fugitive and was killed by a marauding band of Galatian robbers in 226.

Seleukos II Kallinikos, 246-226 BC. AE
Seleukos II Kallinikos, 246-226 BC. AE (Bronze, 19 mm, 7.55 g, 12 h), Antiochia on the Orontes. Head of Athena to right, wearing crested Corinthian helmet. Rev. [Β]ΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ – ΣΕΛΕΥΚΟΥ Nike standing left, holding wreath in her right hand; in inner left field, large anchor. SC 692.1.
Seleucus II did not live to enjoy his brother’s defeat. He was killed by a fall from his horse in 226, and was succeeded by his eldest son (born c. 243 BCE), whose birth name was Alexander but who took the name Seleucus III. Officially known as Seleucus Soter (“Savior”), he was given the epithet Keraunos (“thunderbolt”) – apparently because of his violent temper. Seleucus III inherited an ongoing war with Pergamon, and a tense confrontation with Ptolemaic Egypt.

Seleucus III

Seleucus III issued magnificent gold octadrachms, perhaps in emulation of the heavy, high-value gold coins of the Ptolemies. An example brought $180,000 (against an estimate of just $50-60,000) in a 2013 auction[14]. The same dies were used to strike common silver tetradrachms[15].

Seleucus III Soter. (226-223 BC). Silver tetradrachm
Seleucus III Soter. (226-223 BC). Silver tetradrachm (17.01 gm). Diademed head of Seleucus III right / BAΣIΛEΩΣ ΣEΛEΥKOΥ, Apollo seated left on omphalos, examining arrow held in right hand and resting left hand on grounded bow, ΞΥ monogram in outer left field, ΩΡ monogram in outer right field. SC 921.1. WSM 1029.

A weak and unpopular ruler, Seleucus III fell victim to a conspiracy of his army commanders, dying by poison while on campaign in 223. After a brief struggle for succession, Seleucus’ younger brother came to the throne as Antiochus III. He would become known as Antiochus the Great, and his eventful reign will be covered in Part II of this series.

Collecting the Seleucids

In standard reference works, these coins are listed under “Seleucid Kings of Syria”. The classification scheme for Greek coins developed in the 18th century is based on geographical regions, so Seleucid coins are typically found after “Armenia” and before “Phoenicia”.

In addition to the standard reference books listed below, collectors should be aware of the web site Seleucid Coins Online, maintained by the American Numismatic Society and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Notes

[1] CNG Triton XX, 10 January 2017, Lot 339. Realized $20,000 USD.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tropaion

[3] New York Sale XXVII, 4 January 2012, Lot 610.

[4] Keraunos was killed in battle by invading Gauls two years later.

[5] Roma Numismatics Auction XV, 21 September 2017, Lot 308. Realized $108,342 USD.

[6] Nomos Auction 17, 26 October 2018, Lot 213. Realized $13,980 USD.

[7] A replica of this stone can still be seen at Delphi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omphalos.

[8] CNG Auction 97, 17 September 2014, Lot 284. Realized $1,700 USD.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antiochus_II_Theos

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belevi_Mausoleum

[11] CNG Auction 109, 12 September 2018, Lot 237. Realized $7,000 USD.

[12] Leu Numismatik Auction 3, 25 February 2018, Lot 420. Realized $59 USD.

[13] CNG Electronic Auction 421, 30 May 2018, Lot 284. Realized $550 USD.

[14] Ira and Larry Goldberg Auction 72, 5 February 2013, Lot 4088.

[15] Gemini Auction III, 9 January 2007, Lot 238. Realized $650 USD.

References

Bevan, Edwyn. The House of Seleucus (2 vols). London (1902)

Carradice, Ian. Greek Coins. London (1995)

Chaniotis, Angelos. Age of Conquests: The Greek World From Alexander to Hadrian. Harvard (2018)

Dodd, Rebecca. Coinage and Conflict: The Manipulation of Seleucid Political Imagery. (Thesis.) Glasgow University, UK (2009)

Gardner, Percy. Catalogue of Greek Coins: The Seleucid Kings of Syria. British Museum, London. (1878)

Houghton, Arthur, Catharine Lorber and Oliver Hoover. Seleucid Coins : A Ccomprehensive Catalogue I: Seleucus I through Antiochus III. New York (2002)

Houghton, Arthur, Catharine Lorber, and Oliver Hoover. Seleucid Coins : A Ccomprehensive Catalogue II: Seleucus IV through Antiochus XIII. New York (2008)

Newell, Edward T. The Coinage of the Western Seleucid Mints. New York (1941)

–. The Coinage of the Eastern Seleucid Mints. New York (1938)

–. Royal Greek Coin Portraits. New York (1937)

Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values, Vol. 2: Asia & Africa. London (1979)

Walbank, F.W. The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume VII, Part I: The Hellenistic World. Cambridge (1984)
 

1 COMMENT

  1. Excellent article! But I was surprised to see that you didn’t list Oliver Hoover’s Handbook of Greek Coinage Vol 9 in the references. Easier to use than Houghton and far more complete than Sear or Carradice.

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