CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz….
 

The handsome coins of the Greek kings of Bactria have always enjoyed high renown among both collectors and scholars, because of their excellent artistic qualities and their great historical value…And what portraits they are! They possess not only the purely objective and brutal frankness of later Roman portraiture, but to this they add that spiritual quality, that revelation of the inner soul and character of the subject which only Greek artists seemed able to secure.
(Newell, 64)

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BEFORE IT WAS “Afghanistan”, it was Baktria[1]. Persian shahs (550-330 BCE) ruled these wild lands and were sensible enough to leave them alone, extracting silver and military service in tribute from the skilled tribal horse archers who inhabited the region.

Then came Alexander the Great and his army of Greeks. Alexander retained the Persian Empire’s sensible structure, distributing territory to his generals as semi-independent “satraps”, or provincial governors. After Alexander’s death, these satraps carved the Empire into a patchwork of squabbling kingdoms. A general named Seleucus (born 358 BCE, assassinated 281) ruled much of the East, including Baktria, establishing a dynasty that would last for almost 250 years.

Greeks settled in the new lands and intermarried with the locals. A hybrid society emerged, combining Mediterranean, Indian and Central Asian characteristics. One tradition the Greeks brought with them was a taste for artistic coinage on precious metals.
 

From Satrap to King

Antiochus I
Antiochus I

Some of the earliest Greek coinage struck in Baktria is attributed to the mint of Ai Khanoum, a “lost city” rediscovered only in 1961[2]. Gold staters and silver tetradrachms were issued in the name of Antiochus I, son of Seleucus. Around 250 BCE, the satrap Diodotus, followed by his son Diodotus II, began to assert independence, eventually replacing the Seleucid reverse image of seated Apollo with their own symbol, Zeus hurling a thunderbolt.

Diodotus II
Diodotus II

The coins are rare, and debate over which Diodotus struck what coin when has entertained and enraged generations of scholars. Some cataloguers simply describe coins as “Diodotus I or II.”

There was at least one other mint besides Ai Khanoum, possibly at Bactra, the ancient capital (now a vast, circular ruin near the Afghan town of Balkh), and there may have been a third ruler, confusingly named Antiochus Nikator. They issued a range of gold, silver and bronze denominations. Many surviving Diodotid gold staters have deeply chiseled “test cuts,” perhaps because plated counterfeits circulated in later years. Undamaged specimens command prices up to $20,000 or more.
 

Euthydemus

mm_127_c_euthydemus
Euthydemus

Some time between 230 and 223 BCE, a general named Euthydemus overthrew the Diodotids. He fought the Seleucid king, Antiochus III (“The Great”), resisting a three-year siege of Bactra (208-206 BCE). Antiochus eventually gave up his attempt to reconquer Bactria, made peace, and gave his daughter in marriage to Demetrius, son of Euthydemus.

Unusually for a Hellenistic monarch, Euthydemus enjoyed a long reign, perhaps over 30 years. We see this in his coin portraits; at least four distinct versions show a progression from youth through middle adulthood to old age. On the reverse, coins of Euthydemus depict a weary Herakles resting on a rock pile, holding his emblematic club.
 

Conqueror of India

Demetrius I
Demetrius I

Born about 222 BCE, Demetrius I, son of Euthydemus, ruled from c. 200 to 180. He was never defeated in battle, earning the epithet Aniketos (“Invincible”). About 180 BCE he invaded India, conquering the Indus valley and advancing far into the Ganges plain. He commemorated this on his coinage, where he appears wearing the “Elephant Scalp” headdress. To Greeks, this was a bold claim to the glory of Alexander the Great, who was similarly depicted on coins struck for Ptolemy I of Egypt some 130 years earlier. On his handsome bronze coinage, Demetrius placed the head of an elephant, with a kerykeion on the reverse–the symbolic staff carried by Greek heralds, and by the god Hermes.
 

The Smile of Antimachus

Antimachus
Antimachus

Antimachus may have been a son of Euthydemus and brother of Demetrius. His reign is estimated as 171 – 160 BCE, but like most dates in Baktrian history the margin of error is wide, perhaps as wide as a decade. Aside from his coins, almost nothing is known about him.

He placed a graceful standing image of Poseidon on the reverse of his coins. Since Poseidon was god of the ocean, this might seem odd for a landlocked country. But Poseidon was also the patron god of horses, for which Baktria was famous. The inscription is BASILEUS THEOU ANTIMACHOU (“of King Antimachus the God”). Although Hellenistic rulers often asserted claims to divinity in their court protocol or monuments, for a living ruler to call himself a god on his coinage was unprecedented. The coin portrait of Antimachus shows him wearing a kausia, the Macedonian shepherd’s hat, similar to the distinctive Afghan pakol. On the best dies, the king’s face has a gentle, enigmatic smile that, like Mona Lisa’s signature grin, has fascinated generations of viewers.

We do not know the fate of Antimachus. He (or possibly one of his sons) was overthrown by Eucratides.
 

Mysterious Nickel

mm_127_f_nickel

For about 15 years (185-170 BCE), three obscure Baktrian kings issued coinage in a copper-nickel alloy–something otherwise unknown in ancient numismatics. The denomination was a dichalkon, or “double unit”, of 7-8 grams and about 24 mm in diameter, or more rarely a chalkon (about 3.7 grams, 18 mm). Two of the kings, Pantaleon and Agathokles, were probably brothers. They used the same design: an obverse bust of Dionysos the wine god; on the reverse a walking panther (pantaleon means “panther” in Greek, and the big cat was the companion of Dionysos).

Euthydemus II used an obverse laureate bust of Apollo, with a tripod on the reverse. We do not know where the nickel ore came from – probably trade with China. We do not know why it was alloyed with copper, but the experiment was evidently a failure. Greek furnaces were not hot enough to properly melt nickel and the coins tend to have pitted, grainy surfaces.
 

Eucratides the Great

Eucratides
Eucratides

Eucratides seized the throne by force, and ruled for about 25 years before being murdered by his own son. Judging from his coinage, which is nearly all we have to judge by, Baktria under his rule reached a peak of prosperity and grandeur. Eucratides issued the largest surviving gold coin* struck in antiquity[3], perhaps as a diplomatic presentation piece.

On that unique medallion, and on his very rare gold staters and more common silver tetradrachms, Eucratides appears in armor, wearing a plumed Macedonian cavalry helmet of surprisingly modern design. On the reverse we see the mythical heroes Castor and Pollux, holding lances and riding galloping war horses. When the Afghan central bank was established in 1939, it adopted this reverse design as its seal, and it still appears on current Afghan banknotes despite the well-known Islamic aversion to pagan imagery.
 

The End of Greek Baktria

Heliocles
Heliocles

Heliocles may or may not be the son who murdered Eucratides:

[A]s if he didn’t kill a father but an enemy, ran with his chariot over the blood of his father, and ordered the corpse to be left without a sepulture -Justin, Historiarum Philippicarum libri XLIV, book 41:6

A second-century Roman historian, Justin, describes the shocking deed but never names the perpetrator. On his coins, Heliocles adopts the epithet Dikaios (“The Just”), perhaps in justification of his act. About the year 130 BCE, a wild nomadic tribe–known to us from Chinese sources as the Yuezhi–conquered Baktria. Heliocles may have fallen in battle against them. Although “Indo-Greek” kingdoms south of the mountains would endure for another century or more, it was the end of Greek rule north of the Hindu Kush.
 

Collecting the Baktrians

Holt observes that “false coins, false hopes and false history have been the bane of Baktrian studies.”(72) Long ago, shrewd merchants in the bazaars of Peshawar and Kabul discovered that infidels would pay good money for Baktrian coins. A flourishing cottage industry grew up to provide fakes when real ones were lacking. Enormous hoards have supplied museums and collectors alike; some partly documented, like Mir Zakah (late 1940’s) and Kunduz (1946), others quickly dispersed in trade.

While Baktrian Greek gold coins command prices in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, some of the more common silver tetradrachms can still be found for a few hundred dollars in well-circulated condition. When the bronzes and even some of the rare copper-nickel pieces appear at auction, they can be relatively affordable. While the standard reference books are generally out of print and costly, two recent books by Holt (1999, 2012) are readily available and provide a good introduction.

*For more on the largest coins from antiquity, see “Metal Monsters”: https://www.coinweek.com/ancient-coins/metal-monsters-biggest-ancient-coins
 

Notes

[1] Numismatists increasingly prefer the Greek spelling “Baktria” over the older “Bactria” – perhaps because it is less easily confused with the unrelated word “bacteria.”

[2] The melting point of nickel is 2,651°F (1,455°C).

[3] We know of even larger gold pieces that didn’t survive, including some 72-solidus medallions (324 grams!) sent by Emperor Tiberius II Constantine (reigned 578-582) to Chilperic, King of the Franks.

References

American Numismatic Society. Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum. Part 9: Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek Coins (1998).

Bopearachchi, Osmund. Monnaies gréco-bactriennes et indo-grecques. Catalogue raisonné. Paris, 1991.

Bopearachchi, Osmund. Catalogue of Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian and Indo-Parthian Coins of the Smithsonian Institution. Washington D.C., 1993.

Gardner, Percy. The Coins of the Greek and Scythic Kings of Bactria and India in the British Museum. London, 1881 (reprint 1971).

Guillaume, Olivier (ed). Graeco-Bactrian and Indian Coins from Afghanistan. Oxford, 1991.

Holt. Frank. Thundering Zeus: The Making of Hellenistic Bactria. U. California. 1999.

Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan. U. California. 2012.

Kritt, Brian. Dynastic Transitions in the Coinage of Bactria. CNG. 2001.

Kvist, Kjetil “Tetradrachms of Antimachos exhibit the high quality of Greek art,” Celator 11:3 (1997).

Newell, E.T. Royal Greek Portrait Coins. New York. 1937.
 

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