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Satraps: Ancient Coins of the Persian Governors

Satraps: Ancient Coins of the Persian Governors

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
THE ACHAEMENID EMPIRE of Persia founded by Cyrus the Great (ruled 559-530 BCE) was eventually conquered (330 BCE) by Alexander the Great. Achaemenid kings ruled their vast, multi-ethnic state through a system of appointed governors or satraps, recruited mainly from a narrow elite of closely related Iranian families. “Satrap” is the Greek reading of the Old Persian word khshathapavan, meaning “protector of the province”. As the Persians gained control over regions inhabited by Greek-speakers, these governors issued Greek-style coinage in their own names, and even bearing their individual images. These were some of the earliest coins to bear portraits of living persons, and are of great historic interest to collectors.

An important visual element in the depiction of satraps was their distinctive headgear, the kyrbasia[1], a sort of loose hood with long ear flaps. But some satrap portraits are bareheaded, perhaps a concession to the customs of their Greek subjects.

Tissaphernes

Born about 445 BCE, Tissaphernes was a grandson of Hydarnes, who commanded the Persian royal guard (the “Immortals”) during the invasion of Greece by Xerxes. In 414 BCE, Tissaphernes was sent to suppress a revolt by the satrap of Lydia and Ionia (in western Asia Minor), taking control of these rich provinces. Tissaphernes played a significant role in the protracted Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, subsidizing the Spartan effort that broke the power of the Athenian Empire in 404 BCE. In 401 BCE, when Cyrus the Younger raised a revolt against his brother, Persian king Artaxerxes II, Tissaphernes fought on the king’s side — he claimed to have killed the rebel himself — and was rewarded with the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage.

Bronze Chalkous of Tissaphernes. Astyra. Circa 400-395 BCE. Image: Nomos AG.
Bronze Chalkous of Tissaphernes. Astyra. Circa 400-395 BCE. Image: Nomos AG.

The first appearance of Tissaphernes on a coin is probably a small bronze from the little town of Astyra[2] in Mysia[3]. The Greek inscription TIΣΣA (TISSA…) below the neck of the bust identifies the issuer. The leading expert on this coinage, Polish scholar Jaroslaw Bodzek, dates this issue to circa 413-407 BCE (Bodzek, 105). It is possible that Tissaphernes also appears on an electrum hecte of Phocaea[5], an important coastal city in Ionia, although this is now doubted by many numismatists.

We know a lot about Tissaphernes, because he figures prominently in the writings of two of the greatest ancient Greek historians, Thucydides and Xenophon, who wrote such pure Athenian Greek (the prestigious “Attic” dialect) that their works were copied and recopied down the centuries as models of good style.

In the murderous palace intrigues of the Persian court, Tissaphernes earned the enmity of the queen mother Parysatis, who blamed him for the death of Cyrus, her favorite son. At the age of about 50, Tissaphernes was murdered at Colossae in Phrygia in 395 BCE.

Pharnabazos

Electrum Hekte of Pharnabazos. Lesbos, Mytielene. Circa 412-378 BCE. Image: CNG.
Electrum Hekte of Pharnabazos. Lesbos, Mytielene. Circa 412-378 BCE. Image: CNG.

Pharnabazos II came from an elite Persian family that had governed the province of Hellespontine Phrygia for generations (his grandfather was Pharnabazos I). He married Apama, daughter of king Artaxerxes II (ruled 404-358 BCE). In the last phase of the Peloponnesian War, Pharnabazos supported Sparta against Athens (413-404 BCE). Later, he turned against the Spartans (395-387 BCE), commanding the Persian fleet in a major naval victory at Cnidus[6].

Silver Tetradrachm of Pharnabazos. Mysia, Kyzikos. Circa 398-396 BCE. Image: CNG.
Silver Tetradrachm of Pharnabazos. Mysia, Kyzikos. Circa 398-396 BCE. Image: CNG.

A number of Greek cities issued coins depicting Pharnabazos, including Mytilene on the island of Lesbos[7]. A magnificent silver tetradrachm from Kyzikos bears a portrait of Pharnabazos with his name abbreviated in Greek, and the prow of a warship with two dolphins on the reverse. With only 13 examples known, this rare Persian coin brought $70,000 USD in a 2013 US auction[8].

Orontas

Orontas I (or “Orontes[9]) was a Baktrian noble who became satrap of Armenia in 401 BCE. He married Rhodogune, another daughter of the prolific King Artaxerxes II. He led a revolt of the satraps of Asia Minor against the king only to betrayed his fellow rebels and resume his allegiance to Artaxerxes.

Gold Stater of Orontas I. Mysia, Lampsakos. Circa 367-344 BCE. Image: Künker.
Gold Stater of Orontas I. Mysia, Lampsakos. Circa 367-344 BCE. Image: Künker.
Bronze of Orontas I. Mysia, Adramytion. Circa 352-352 BCE. Image: CNG.
Bronze of Orontas I. Mysia, Adramytion. Circa 352-352 BCE. Image: CNG.

A magnificent gold stater[10] from the city of Lampsakos may bear his portrait, although this is disputed by some sources. A rare small bronze from Adramytion dated to c. 357-352 BCE is more securely attributed to Orontas[11]. A descendant, Orontas II, possibly his son or grandson, led the Armenian troops in the Persian army at the Battle of Gaugamela against Alexander in 331 BCE.

Tiribazos

Silver Stater of Tiribazus. Cicilia. Circa 388-380 BCE. Image: Leu Numismatik AG.
Silver Stater of Tiribazus. Cicilia. Circa 388-380 BCE. Image: Leu Numismatik AG.
Silver Stater of Tiribazus. Circa 365-380 BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Silver Stater of Tiribazus. Cicilia. Circa 365-380 BCE. Image: Roma Numismatics.

Tiribazos was satrap of Lydia (388-380 BCE). Persian coins in his name were issued from several mints in Cilicia. A silver stater of Tarsus bears the standing figure of the Phoenician and Canaanite deity Ba’al, holding an eagle on his extended arm–a depiction clearly influenced by Greek images of Zeus. The coin is inscribed with the name of Tiribazos in Aramaic letters. Aramaic served as the common administrative language for much of the Persian Empire. The reverse shows the Persian deity Ahura-Mazda[12]. A silver stater from Soloi in Cilicia bears the head of the Greek hero Herakles on one side and a portrait of Tiribazos on the reverse[13].

Hecatomnos

Silver Diobol of Hecatomnos. Circa 392-376 BCE. Image: CNG.
Silver Diobol of Hecatomnos. Sartraps of Caria. Circa 392-376 BCE. Image: CNG.

Hecatomnos of Mylasa was satrap of Caria c. 395-377 BCE. He was the first non-Persian to become a satrap, and he founded a dynasty that ruled Caria for most of the fourth century BCE. His coins were struck at his capital, Mylasa. Handsome silver tetradrachms in his name bear the standing figure of Zeus holding a double-bladed axe (labrys), with a walking lion on the reverse[14]. A small silver obol bears his bearded portrait[15]. Mausolus, son of Hecatomnos, constructed a marble tomb so magnificent that the word “mausoleum” is derived from his name.

Mazaios

Double-daric of Mazaios. Image: Heritage Auctions.
Double-daric of Mazaios. Persia under Alexander. Circa 328-321 BCE. Image: Heritage Auctions.

Born in 385 BCE, Mazaios (or Mazaeus) served as Persian satrap of Cilicia and later, under Alexander the Great, as satrap of Babylon. In Old Persian, his name was Mazday. At the decisive Battle of Gaugamela (October 1, 331 BCE), Mazaios led the powerful striking force of cavalry on the Persian right flank. Mazaios was engaged to marry Stateira[16], daughter of the Persian king Darius III, but following the king’s death, Stateira married Alexander instead.

Silver Dishekel of Mazaios. Circa 353-333 BCE. Image: CNG.
Silver Dishekel of Mazaios. Phoenicia, Sidon. Circa 353-333 BCE. Image: CNG.

An extensive coinage in the name of Mazaios was struck at a number of mints. An unusual facing portrait that may be Mazaios appears on a small silver obol from an uncertain mint in Cilicia[17]. As satrap of Phoenicia, Mazaios issued large silver dishekels at Sidon, bearing the traditional design of a warship on the waves, and a ceremonial royal chariot. At Babylon, he struck gold double darics bearing the image of the Mesopotamian deity Baaltars, and a lion attacking a bull[18].

Spithridates

Silver Tetrobol of Spithridates. Circa 334 BCE. Image: Leu Numismatic AG.
Silver Tetrobol of Spithridates. Circa 334 BCE. Image: Leu Numismatic AG.

Spithridates (Spithradata in Old Persian) succeeded his father Rhosakes as satrap of Lydia and Ionia from 365 to 334 BCE. He led the Persian cavalry at the Battle of the Granicus River (May 334 BCE), and would have struck Alexander the Great himself but for his sword arm being severed by a blow from Alexander’s companion, Kleitos “the Black”. The wound proved fatal.

Bronze Chalkous of Spithridates. Image: Le Numismatik AG.
Bronze Chalkous of Spithridates. Image: Le Numismatik AG.

Persian coins in the name of Spithridates bearing his portrait were struck in bronze and silver. A bronze chalkous from an uncertain mint, described as “a beautiful example of this interesting issue with a superb portrait,” bears the front of a horse on the reverse with satrap’s name abbreviated to ΣΠ-I (SP-I )[19]. A silver portrait tetrobol from Lampsakos bears the front part of Pegasus on the reverse, with the inscription ΣΠI-ΘPI (SPI-THRI)[20].

Sabakes

Egyptian bronze of Sabakes. Circa 353-333 BCE. Image: CNG.
Egyptian bronze of Sabakes. Circa 353-333 BCE. Image: CNG.

Egypt was conquered by the Persian Empire in 525 BCE. Although Egypt had a sophisticated civilization, a complex economy, and rich gold mines, it had no domestic source of silver, and the idea of coinage was slow to emerge. Coins (often imitations of the Athenian “owl” tetradrachm) were used mainly to pay foreign mercenaries, or for trade with Greeks and Phoenicians. Sabakes, one of the last Persian satraps of Egypt, issued small bronze coins (1.3 gram) bearing his portrait[21]. The reverse depicts an archer drawing a bow. Sabakes was killed in battle against Alexander at Issus on November 5, 333 BCE.

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Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyrbasia

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astyra_(Aeolis)

[3] Nomos obolos 14, December 15, 2019, Lot 170. Realized CHF 100 (about $102 USD; estimate CHF 50).

[4] CNG Auction 409, November 8, 2017, Lot 249. Realized $1,100 USD (estimate $750).

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cnidus

[6] CNG E-auction 391, February 15, 2017, Lot 256. Realized $950 USD (estimate $200).

[7] CNG Triton XVI, January 8, 2013, Lot 430. Realized $70,000 USD (estimate $50,000).

[8] “Orontes” is also the name of a river in Lebanon and Syria, so the spelling “Orontas” helps to avoid confusion. In Old Persian, the satrap’s name is Arvanta.

[9] Kunker Auction 312, October 8, 2018, Lot 2295. Realized €38,000 (about $43,603 USD).

[10] CNG E-auction 351, May 20, 2015, Lot 239. Realized $130 USD (estimate $100).

[11] Leu Web Auction 18, December 18, 2021, Lot 1360. Realized CHF 1,700 (about $1,843 USD; estimate CHF 200).

[12] Roma Numismatics E-sale 92, December 16, 2021, Lot 532. Replied £1,600 (about $2,114 USD; estimate £200).

[13] Nomos Auction 18, May 5, 2019, Lot 166. Realized CHF 3,600 (about $3,532 USD; estimate CHF 4,500).

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milas

[15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stateira_(wife_of_Alexander_the_Great)

[16] CNG Triton XVIII, January 6, 2015, Lot 105. Realized $1,400 USD (estimate $1,500).

[17] Heritage Long Beach Sale, September 25, 2013, Lot 23179. Realized $60,000 USD (estimate $50,000-$70,000).

[18] Leu Web Auction 16, May 22, 2021, Lot 888. Realized CHF 200 (about $223 USD; estimate CHF 50).

[19] Leu Web Auction 26 July 8, 2023, Lot 1016. Realized CHF 900 (about $1,011 USD; estimate CHF 100).

[20] CNG E-auction 251 March 9 2011, Lot 179. Realized $1,200 USD (estimate $200).

References

Bodzek, Jaroslaw. “On the dating of the bronze issues of Tissaphernes”, Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization 16 (2012)

Cameron, George. “The Persian Satrapies and Related Matters”, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 32 (1973)

Farrokh, Kaveh. Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. Oxford (2007)

Kraay, Colin. Archaic and Classic Greek Coins. New York (1976)

Olmstead, A. T. History of the Persian Empire. Chicago (1948)

Sayles, Wayne. Ancient Coin Collecting, VI: Non-Classical Cultures. Iola, WI (1999)

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

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Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
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.

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