The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
IRANIAN MINTS: PARTHIAN EMPIRE
By: M. Alram
A Coin of Arsaces I
AR Drachm, 4.04 g, die axis 11h
this heading are treated coins which were minted in Iran under the Arsacid
dynasty and which superseded Seleucid currency in the territories
successively taken from the Seleucids. In essentials such as
denominations, iconography, and script, they are markedly Hellenistic, but
in varying degrees they also show Iranian features. They form a
substantial complex of royal issues consisting of different denominations
from mints in different places.
The start of Arsacid minting
may be placed soon after the middle of the 3rd century B. C., when the
internecine conflict between Seleucus II and his brother Antiochus Hierax
opened the way for the irruption of the nomadic Parnis into the satrapy of
Parthava (after which they became known as Parthians). The subsequent
establishment of the Parthian empire took place in two main stages: under
Mithradates I (ca. 17II39/38 B.C.) and under Mithradates II, the Great
(ca. 124/2388/87 B. C.), when the territorial expansion was completed and
the need for provision of adequate circulation media became acute. Arsacid
minting ceased when the Sasanians seized power in A. D. 224. Thereafter
the typology was entirely different, but not all the denominations were
changed; the Attic drachma was retained.
Metals, denominations, mints
principal metal used was silver; there was no gold coinage. Copper was
minted to meet local market needs for petty cash, and in some periods the
output of copper coins was substantial.
contrast with the Seleucid model, the leading denomination is the drachm,
minted mainly at Ecbatana.
Tetradrachms are not so abundant; as a rule they were minted solely at
and in increasing volume from the reign of Phraates IV onward. Silver
denominations lower than the drachm are rare, the most current being the
obol mainly minted for festive occasions. The drachms are of the Attic
standard (ca. 4 grams); in fineness and weight they remain virtually
unchanged for four centuries, adulteration of the silver content being
found only in drachms from a few mints in the northeastern frontier
provinces. The tetradrachms however, soon show considerable debasement in
both assay and weight. In copper the values range from the octachalkon
(worth 8 chalkoi) to the chalkos. Chalkoi, being the lowest denomination,
are the most abundant.
production, when required, was normally done in the well-established mints
at Seleucia-Ctesiphon and Ecbatana; others are working at Rhagai,
Susa, and elsewhere. Each mint's issues are usually marked with the mint's
monogram, though in some cases no satisfactory identification has yet been
found. The tetradrachms bear monograms of mint officials on the Seleucid
model. Coins specially minted for war purposes were specially signed with
the name of the province most concerned, e. g. Areia (Herat), Margihne (Marv),
Traxiane in the reigns of Phraates II and Sinatruces (according to
Morkholm); sometimes they were also produced in moving mints (expressed by
terms such as katastr4leia).
annual minting does not appear to have been practiced. The tetradrachms
however are marked with the year of the Seleucid era and the month
according to the Macedonian calendar. Dates are seldom found on the
drachms, but sometimes occur also on copper coins of the later period.
designs appear in Hellenistic manner, but various traces of Iranian
tradition can be seen in the details.
obverse always shows the head of the king wearing either the Hellenistic
diadem or an Iranian royal tiara, in some instances with details of
obviously nomadic origin (e. g. a string of deer on the crest of the crown
of Phraates II). The first Arsacid kings still wear the leather cap of the
steppe warrior. The king's head usually faces left, and always so from
Mithradates II onward; but in coins of Mithradates I from mints in the
west of the empire, rightward direction on the Seleucid model is retained.
Frontal depiction is very rare, but there are no given reasons for
imputing any political significance to this fact. The royal attire appears
to be an elaborate form of armor, the neckband (torques) with griffin
carvings on the ends being a conspicuous feature.
reverses of the drachms bear the stereotyped figure of the dynasty's
founder, Arsaces I, enthroned to the right, copied from the seated Apollo
on the reverses of Seleucid coins-at first like Apollo sitting on the omphalos
(Mithradates I), later like Zeus on the throne (Mithradates II onward).
The tetradrachms show the enthroned king holding a bow or a Nike (as nikêphóros),
others a scene such as praise given by Tyche (several variants); rare
types show the king mounted, probably in connection with his investiture.
reverses of the copper coins (in contrast with the silver coins) bear a
rich and varied range of designs which scarcely will be found elsewhere
and of which some plainly refer to investiture, e. g, an eagle with a
wreath, a ram, or the wreath of investiture alone. Also represented are
deities, particularly Artemis-Nanaia, Nike, and the bust of Tyche, horses,
stags, and elephants, bow in case, and in some instances a city wall.
Legends, names & epithets
legends are usually on the reverse and always in Greek. From the reign of
Vologases I (ca.51-ca. 76 or A.D. 80), additional legends in Parthian
script appear exclusively on drachms first sporadically, and later on more
frequently. They are limited to the king's name and title, and when on the
obverse are always abbreviated.
Greek legends, almost invariably in the genitive case, are set in a
square, and always include the dynastic name Arsaces in addition to the
royal title Great King (busiléôs rnegálou) or, from Mithradates
II onward, more often King of the Kings (busiléôs basiléôn) and to
epithets which gradually become more numerous. The epithets are at first
manifestly political assertions, but later become stereotyped strings of
words losing their immediate political sense (e.g. busiléôs basiléôn
Arsákou euergétou dikaiou epiphanoûs philéllênos). The king's
personal name is only mentioned in exceptional circumstances such as
struggles for the throne when rival kings held power in different areas
(e.g. epikalouménou Mithradátou on coins of Mithradates III; kekalouménos
Gôtérzês on coins of Gotarzes II). After Vologases I, however,
the king's personal name appears regularly on the tetradrachms. On the
drachms the Greek legends become increasingly corrupt from about Orodes II
onward, first in the mints of the northeastern frontier provinces.
account of the fact that several kings bear the same name (homonymy) and
the tendency to standardization of royal epithets, attribution of some
coins to a certain reign must still remain in question in some cases.
coinage, local currency, and circulation. In addition to the imperial
currency, copper coins for local use were struck in the city of Seleucia
on the Tigris.
held a special minting franchise in Arsacid times. Although these coins
can be classed as autonomous on a narrow definition, they are always
coordinated with the imperial issues. Under Phraates IV, Susa enjoyed the
same privilege in 31/30-27/26 B. C.
indigenous dynasties which governed Elymais, Characene, and Persis also
exercised the right of coinage and largely displaced the Arsacid currency
from their domains. Their mints were at Susa and Seleucia on the Hedyphon
in Elymais, at Spasinou Charax in in Characene, and at Estakhr near
Persepolis in Persis. These so-called "sub- Parthian" dynasties
had begun to mint coins well before the Parthian conquest (in Persis as
early as the beginning of the 2nd century B. C.); they continued to do so
until the Sasanian conquest.
In Elymais and
copper was minted from the first half of the 1st century A. D. onward
(mainly drachms in Elymais and tetradrachms in Characene). On the other
hand, the local coinage of Persis is consistently pure silver (drachms and
fractions thereof); in respect of design and script it prefigures the
Sasanian coinage. Elsewhere the typology is initially Hellenistic, as in
coins of Characene which often portray Heracles in the Greco-Bactrian
style, but Parthian elements emerge in the later period, particularly in
coins of Elymais. In contrast, the coins of Persis, the stronghold of
Achaemenid tradition, are always purely Iranian in type. The legends are
predominantly in Greek, but are in Parthian on the coins of Elymais from
the middle of the 1st century A.D. onwards. On the coins of Characene
legends in Aramaic only appear at the end of series, whereas on the coins
of Persis the legends are at first in correct Aramaic and later in the
Middle Persian script as used under the Sasanians.
eastern Iran, in Sacastene (Sistan), the Pahlavas, a local dynasty of
Parthian origin and perhaps of the Suren
family began to overstamp coins with the name Otannes at the end of the
1st century B. C., and later to produce imitations of Arsacid drachms.
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