By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
Ardashir V, King of Persis, defeated Artabanus IV, the last Shahanshah (“King of Kings”) of Parthia, at the Battle of Hormozdgan in 224 CE. Persis was located in what is now southwestern Iran, while Parthia was located primarily in what is now northeastern Iran; both kingdoms were once part of the mighty Persian Empire.
Ardashir then proclaimed himself Ardashir I, Shahanshah of the Empire of Iranians (reigned 224-241), but the nation he created is generally known as the Sassanian Empire, after Sassan, Ardashir’s (probable) grandfather. The Empire ended with the Arab conquest of 651, but it left a rich cultural legacy that includes a vast array of coins struck in gold, silver, billon, bronze, and copper.
The most important Sassanian coins were the silver drachms that the Shahanshahs struck in huge numbers. These were probably intended for military purposes. The weight and high silver content of the drachm remained constant until the Empire fell.
Sassania did not have significant silver deposits, and the Sassanians routinely recycled silver coins of the appropriate weight. The usual practice at their mints was to pound existing coins of the Parthians, the Seleucids, the Romans, and others until the prior design was completely obliterated, and then strike their own designs on the flattened planchets. This resulted in very thin, wide coins; indeed, the Sassanians were the first people to strike thin coins. The custom of striking precious metal coins on thin planchets would eventually become the standard all over Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Asia Minor.
The designs of the Sassanian drachm followed a consistent pattern for over 400 years.
The obverse typically depicted the king’s crowned bust, usually in profile. Each Sassanian king had his own distinctive crown. If a king were deposed and then restored to power, he would adopt a new, different crown for his new reign. The obverse inscription was written in Pahlavi script; it identified the king and included his title and various epithets praising him. The Pahlavi script takes its name from Pahlaw, the Middle Persian name for “Parthia”, and is derived from Aramaic; it was used until it was replaced by Arabic script around 700 CE.
The reverse depicted a fire altar, usually with an attendant on either side. Each Sassanian king had his own fire, which was lit when he became king and was put out when he died. The coin might also include a reverse inscription that identified the mint (using a monogram) and that provided the regnal year in which the coin was minted.
Drachm of the First Sassanian King
The obverse of this drachm depicts the crowned bust of Ardashir I the Unifier facing right. The inscription identifies him as “The Mazda Worshipper, the Divine Ardashir, the King of Kings of Iran who is descended from the Gods.” The object on top of Ardashir’s crown is a korymbos, a jewel-studded globe stuffed with the king’s top hair. There are no attendants shown on the reverse of this coin. The reverse inscription reads “Fire of Ardashir” in Pahlavi. This drachm sold for $280 at an auction in January 2004.
The national religion of the Sassanians was Zoroastrianism, an ancient monotheistic-ish system whose chief deity is Ahura Mazda, an all-good, benevolent deity of wisdom. Zoroastrianism teaches of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, with good eventually prevailing. Contrary to some portrayals, Zoroastrians are not fire-worshippers, but they do typically pray in the presence of fire (or another form of light), which is an important symbol of purity.
A Drachm of the Second Sassanian King
Shapur I the Great (reigned 240-270) was a son of Ardashir I and served as co-regent during the last years of his father’s reign. His crown includes distinctive earflaps. The obverse inscription identifies him as “The Mazda Worshipper, the Divine Shapur, King of Kings of Iran, Heaven-Descended of the Gods.” The reverse inscription translates to “Fire of Shapur.” The reverse of this coin depicts two attendants with their backs to the fire altar. This coin sold for $109 at an auction in February 2003.
Shapur was a great military leader who regularly bested the Romans. In his first campaign, he advanced as far as Roman Syria. In his second, he took Antioch, the capital of Syria. And in 260, during his third campaign, Shapur captured the Roman emperor, Valerian I (reigned 253-260). Shapur is said to have used Valerian as a footstool for mounting his horse, and after Valerian’s death Shapur supposedly had Valerian’s body stuffed and mounted on a wall in his palace.
Shapur’s victories resulted in the acquisition of much new territory, occupied by non-Iranian people, and he took the title “King of Kings of the Iranians and the Non-Iranians.” He rarely used the longer title on his coins, but his son and successor, Hormizd I (reigned 270-271), used the title routinely during his brief reign, as did many of the later Sassanian rulers.
Drachm of a Sassanian King (and Someone Else)
Barham II (reigned 276-293) was a grandson of Shapur I. The Iranian kings had been known for their religious tolerance, but this ended with Barham II. Mani, the founder of the dualistic religion that became known as Manichaeism, had been a favorite of Shapur I, but according to tradition, Bahram II had Mani flayed and crucified, and actively persecuted Mani’s followers.
The meaning of the obverse design of this drachm is disputed.
The traditional view is that it depicts Bahram II and his queen, Shapurduxtag, with a prince identified as “Prince 4.” If the middle figure is indeed Shapurduxtag, then this is the first appearance of a woman on a Sassanian coin. Some scholars have suggested that the small figure on the right is not a prince but is instead the god Verethragna, who epitomized victory, or the goddess Anahita, a water divinity who represents fertility, healing and wisdom. Göbl (1971) believed that the figures represent a procession of princes.
The inscription on the obverse translates to “Worshipping Mazda, the Divine Bahram, King of Kings of Iran and Non-Iran, Who is Beloved by [or Descended from] the Gods.”
The reverse depicts two attendants at a fire altar; on this coin, they face the altar, rather than stand with their backs to it. The Pahlavi inscription translates to “Fire of Bahram.” The symbol in the upper left field is the faravahar, which represents the Zoroastrian concept of the pre-existing soul of all human beings. The symbol in the upper right field represents Taurus, the astral bull.
This coin sold for $850 against a $500 estimate at a June 2005 auction.
Drachm of Another Great Shapur
Shapur II (reigned 309-379) was a great-grandson of Shapur I, and, like his great-grandfather, he is known as “Shapur the Great”. According to tradition he was crowned while still in utero, which accounts in part for his long reign. He was an enormously successful ruler and initiated what is known as the Golden Age of the Sassanian Empire. He is also noted for his persecution of Christians: the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (reigned 307-337) became a Christian during Shapur’s reign, causing Shapur to distrust Christians as potential “foreign agents” of the Roman Empire.
Shapur’s crown is much less elaborate than the crowns of most of his predecessors. It is sometimes referred to as a “mural crown”, representing as it does a city’s protective wall (from the Latin murus, meaning “wall”). The reverse design includes both the faravahar and the Taurus, as on the drachm of Bahram II.
This coin sold for $480 at an auction in September 2006.
A Fire Altar Without a Fire
Bahram IV (reigned 388-399) was probably the grandson of Shapur II (some sources indicate that he was the son of Shapur II). His reign was largely uneventful, its major significance being that it was during his reign that the use of mint signatures on the coins became regularized. The mints identified themselves only with initials or monograms, and there is much disagreement as to precisely which initials or monogram indicated which mint. The Sassanians struck coins at dozens of mints, but no one has ever precisely identified all of the mints, nor even how many there were.
Bahram is depicted on this drachm wearing a winged merlon crown. This is related to the mural crown, in that a merlon was the battlement portion of a castle wall. The Pahlavi inscription on the obverse translates to “”The Ma[z]da Worshipper Bahram, the King” (“Mazda” is misspelled). The reverse depicts a fire altar with two attendants, but somewhat unusually no flames rise from the altar; instead, a bare-headed bust sits above the altar, facing right. There is no reverse inscription.
The mint identification on the fire altar’s column transliterates to HRYDY or HLYDW, which is generally believed to refer to the mint in Herat.
This coin sold for $1,000 against a $500 estimate in January 2004.
Drachm of Khosrau I, Rival of Justinian the Great
Khosrau I (reigned 531-579) was the contemporary and great rival of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I the Great (reigned 527-565), with whom Khosrau engaged in a series of epic wars.
In 532, he and Justinian negotiated a “Perpetual Peace” – which lasted all of eight years. In 540, Khosrau sacked Antioch (which had been renamed “Theopolis” – the City of God – following devastating earthquakes in the 520s) and deported hundreds of thousands of its people to a new city he built in Sassania.
The historian Procopius tells us that during this particular conflict Khosrau marched all the way to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where he took a swim and hosted a series of chariot races in which he forced the “Blues” (which had been Justinian’s preferred team) to lose to the “Greens.”
The obverse inscriptions on this drachm translate to “Khosrau” (on the right) and “Prosperity” (on the left). On the reverse the mint signature “DL” appears to the right of the fire altar; this probably refers to Dārābgird, known today as Darab and one of the oldest cities in Iran. According to tradition, Darius the Great (reigned c. 522-486 BCE), the third Achaemenid King of Kings, founded the city, whose name means “the City of Darius”. The Regnal Year “21”, corresponding to 552, appears to the left of the fire altar. This drachm sold for $300 at an auction in October 2014.
Another Khosrau, Another War
Khosrau II the Victorious (reigned 590, 591-628) was the last of the great Sassanian rulers. He was the grandson of Khosrau I and came to the throne in 590. He was briefly overthrown by the general Bahram Chobin but recovered the throne in 591 with the assistance of the Byzantine emperor Maurice Tiberius (reigned 582-602).
Khosrau and Maurice established good relations between their countries, and Khosrau married Maurice’s daughter Maria.
In 602, Maurice was deposed and murdered by Phokas, a junior officer in the Byzantine army, who took the Byzantine throne for himself. Khosrau responded by attacking Byzantine territory, officially for the purpose of avenging his father-in-law. In 610, Heraclius, son of the Byzantine Exarch of Carthage, deposed Phokas and took the Byzantine throne as Heraclius I (reigned 610-641). Khosrau was neither satisfied nor impressed.
Khosrau continued his war against Constantinople, eventually taking control of virtually all of the Byzantine territories in Egypt, the Middle East, and Asia Minor. This was the high point of the Sassanian Empire, but it would not last. After years of preparation, Heraclius launched his counterattack in 622, and by 628 he had retaken all of the lost territory and virtually destroyed the Sassanian Empire. In February 628, Khosrau was murdered by his son Sheroe, who took the throne as Kavad II.
Kavad and Heraclius entered into a peace treaty in which Kavad gave up everything Khosrau had gained. Sassania never recovered, although it did continue to hang on for another 23 years.
The inscription on the obverse of this drachm of Khosrau II translates to “May it grow” or “May his kingship increase.” On the reverse the mint signature “ART” appears to the right of the fire altar, probably indicating Ardashir, a city named for the first Sassanian ruler. The Regnal Year “26”, corresponding to 615/6, appears to the left of the fire altar.
The coins of Khosrau II are very common, and this drachm sold for a fixed price of $65.
The Only Portrait of a Sassanian Queen During Her Sole Rule
The murder of Khosrau II led to four years of chaos and civil war.
Kavad II, Khosrau’s murderous son and successor, died of plague in September 628, leaving what was left of Sassania to his seven-year-old son Ardashir III (reigned 628-630). In April 630 the general Shahrbaraz murdered the young king and took the throne for himself. Shahrbaraz was murdered in his turn just 40 days later, whereupon the throne passed to Buran, a daughter of Khosrau II. Buran was deposed soon shortly afterward by Shapur-i Shahrvaraz, a son of Shahrbaraz who also happened to be a cousin of Buran. Shapur-i Shahrvaraz was deposed soon after by Azarmidokht, Buran’s sister. Azarmidokht (reigned 630-631) was murdered the following year by the son of a suitor whom she had spurned (and later executed), and the throne returned to Buran (reigned 630, 631-632). She was strangled in a palace coup in June 632, and the throne passed to her nephew, Yazdgird III (reigned 632-651), the last Sassanian King of Kings.
Buran was the first ruling queen of Sassania, and the only one to put her own portrait on the coins. The only other woman ever to appear on Sassanian coins was Shapurduxtag, who appeared on coins struck by her husband, Bahran II. Buran’s sister, Azarmidokht, struck coins which are extremely rare and were only identified in the 1970s; these give Azarmidokht’s name but portray her father, Khosrau II.
The obverse of this drachm portrays Buran wearing a crown with two wings and a korymbos. She is easily distinguished from her royal predecessors by her long hair braids and the lack of a beard or mustache. The obverse inscription identifies her as “Buran the Restorer of the Race of the Gods.” The “Race of the Gods” to which the inscription refers is Buran’s dynasty. The mint signature SK on the reverse refers to Sakastan, a town in eastern Iran that is now known as Sistān.
The Regnal Year shown on the coin is 3, which dates the coin to 631. It may seem odd that someone who reigned for just a few months spread across two calendar years could have three regnal years to her credit. A Sassanian ruler’s first regnal year began when the ruler took the throne and ended with the next New Year; subsequent regnal years ran from New Year to New Year. In Buran’s time, New Year occurred around the time of the summer solstice, in what would be late June under our calendar. Buran became queen, and her first regnal year began in early June 630 and ended about two weeks later with the summer solstice; her second regnal year began in in late June 630 and ran until late June 631 (she disregarded the fact that she was not actually on the throne during most of this time); her third regnal year began in late June 631 and ended with her death in early 632, just before the next New Year.
This coin sold for $1,000 at an auction in January 2003.
The End of the Line for Sassania
Eight-year-old Yazdgird III (reigned, sort of, 632-651) became the Sassanian King of Kings following the murder of his aunt Buran. He was never more than a figurehead and spent most of his reign on the run, trying to find troops to defend the few remaining scraps of his kingdom, which was under attack by the eastern Göktürks, the western Khazars, and most importantly, the Muslim Arabs from the south. In desperation, his ministers even sent multiple embassies to the Tang in China, seeking aid. All his efforts failed.
In 651, as the Arabs consolidated their control of what had been Sassania, Yazdgird III was murdered by a miller from whom he sought shelter after his last great defeat. The Sassanian Kingdom ceased to exist, but it did leave a legacy of fascinating coins for collectors.
The drachm shown here was struck in Yazdgird III’s Regnal Year 20, placing it in the last year of his reign. The obverse portrays him with a very elaborate mural crown with a frontal crescent, two wings, and a star set on a crescent. The obverse inscription translates to “Yazdgird Splendor Prosperity.” The SK mint signature on the reverse indicates that the Sakastan mint struck the coin.
This coin sold for $1,000 against a $150 estimate in January 2012.
Collecting Sassanian Drachms
The Sassanians struck drachms in huge numbers and many of them survive today, often in very nice condition. There are a few rarities, but a basic “type set” of coins that includes one drachm from each Sassanian king can be obtained fairly inexpensively; the price jumps if the queens are included.
The value (price) of a Sassanian drachm is generally based on rarity, artistic appearance, historical interest, and condition. Minor varieties are usually not at all important, except for specialists (non-specialists are generally unable to detect varieties in any event).
A small difference in the condition of a coin can impact the cost significantly: an “extremely fine” coin might cost twice (or more) as much as a “very fine” coin, which itself might cost twice (or more) as much as a “fine” coin. This is somewhat similar to the enormous price differences that we see with modern coins in higher Mint State condition, except that the sharp price increases for Sassanian coins occur at lower levels of condition.
Counterfeits are not a serious problem with these coins. Contemporary counterfeits are rarely seen – Sassanian drachms are so thin that it was simply impractical for a forger to fabricate a coin in base metal and then silver plate it, which would have been the usual practice for an ancient forger. There are a few modern fakes of Sassanian coins in the market, but these tend to involve the rarities of the series, not the common silver drachms that are of interest to the ordinary collector.
The greatest problem with collecting Sassanian drachms lies with the Pahlavi script in which the inscriptions are written. This script consists primarily of consonants and long vowels with symbols that are difficult to tell apart from one another but are necessary to fill in for “missing” letters. The script is often written with great artistry, to the point that it can be impossible to read unless you happen to be an expert in Pahlavi writing. A further complication is that the coin engravers were often illiterate or were foreigners unfamiliar with the script, so that sometimes the inscriptions are badly garbled. It is always a good idea to “buy the book before the coin,” but it is critically important for a collector of Sassanian coins.
A somewhat related but minor problem is that that there is no agreement on how to spell the name of the kingdom: “Sassania” and “Sasania” are both used, sometimes by the same writer in the same text. The difference is based upon different transliterations of the name “Sasan” (or is it “Sassan”?). On some websites, a search of “Sassanian” will yield no results, while a search on the same site of “Sasanian” will yield many results, while the opposite happens on other websites. There are also websites where a search of “Sassanian” will yield some results, and a search of “Sasanian” will yield completely different results.
Valentine (1921) was the first to provide a useful resource for collectors. This book was printed using Valentine’s own cursive writing, and he drew the images for the plates himself (he apparently ruined his eyesight in the process). Sellwood (1985) is also printed in a unique script; it is a bit easier for Westerners to read than Pahlavi, but it does require some effort. It provides much useful information for a collector interested in understanding the broad picture of Sassanian coinage. Göbl (1971) is the standard reference and is very useful.
Sylloge Nummorum Sasanidarum is an ongoing project that plans to publish the Sassanian coin collections (approximately 11,000 coins altogether) of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien in six volumes, with subsidiary volumes that present other institutional collections as well as at least one major private collection.
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Göbl, R. Sasanian Numismatics. Reprinted with new material by Klinkhardt & Biermann. Braunschweig, Germany. 1971.
Sellwood, D.; Whitting, P.; Williams, R. An Introduction to Sasanian Coins. London. Spink & Son. 1985.
Valentine, W.H. Sassanian Coins. London. Spink. 1921.
Image showing Shapur I with captured Roman Emperor Valerian and with Roman Emperor Philip the Arab suing for peace, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.
All coin photographs are courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group (CNG), LLC.
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About the Author
Michael T. Shutterly is a recovering lawyer who survived six years as a trial lawyer and 30 years working in the financial services industry. He is now an amateur historian who specializes in the study of ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, with a special interest in the art and history of the coins of those periods. He has published over 50 articles on ancient and medieval coins in various publications and has received numerous awards for his articles and presentations on different aspects of the history of the ancient and Medieval world. He is a member of the ANA, the ANS, the Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors, and numerous other regional, state, and specialty coin clubs.