NGC Ancients: Coins of the Parthian Kingdom

Posted on 6/14/2022

The Parthian Kingdom — the arch-enemy of Rome — existed for over 400 years and stretched across the Middle East and Asia.

The Parthian Kingdom formally began in about 238 B.C., when its first king, Arsaces I (247-211 B.C.), conquered the region of Parthia, in modern Iran. From humble beginnings, the realm eventually grew to encompass a massive territory and have the military strength to challenge Rome. In this survey, we’ll examine a handful of Parthian coins and discuss some history of the kings who issued them.

The silver drachm above was minted for Arsaces I. Not much is known about this king except that he was able to wrest the lands of Parthia from the Greek Seleucid Kingdom to create a nation that endured more than four centuries.

The obverse shows the bust of Arsaces I wearing a bashlyk, a traditional headdress from the area. The reverse shows the king seated on a throne, holding a bow. The drachms of Arsaces I set the pattern for the empire's standard silver coinage for almost the whole of its history.

Shown above is a silver tetradrachm of Seleucus III, who from 226/5 to 222 B.C. ruled the neighboring Seleucid Kingdom. Its similarities to the drachm of Arsaces I are obvious, suggesting the Parthians adopted the traditions of coinage from the Greeks, including royal portraits, showing figures on the reverse, and using Greek inscriptions.

The Parthian government was led by the head king, who assumed the title “King of Kings” because he ruled over local satrapies and minor kings who gave their allegiance to him as vassals. This created a decentralized form of government which often invited dissent and outright rebellion. Multiple rulers vying to be the “King of Kings” was a common event in the realm. During these civil wars, multiple monarchs would create coinage labelling themselves as the “King of Kings”.

One of the greatest kings of the Parthians was Mithradates II (121-91 B.C.). He greatly expanded the boundaries of the empire through conquest. He also improved its finances by managing the relationship between the Chinese and the Romans, allowing the Parthians to profit as middlemen in their trade. However, the last years of his life were fraught with civil discontent that led to a 40-year civil war and dark age for the Parthians.

The tetradrachm above was minted for Mithradates II. The obverse shows the ruler in excellent style. The reverse shows the founding king, Arsaces I, holding a bow.

The Parthians had a mixed relationship with the Romans. They often fought over territory and actively competed in their support for client kings, especially in Armenia. High ranking hostages were often swapped, but this did very little to create lasting peace between the two nations.

The coinage of the Parthian Kingdom was mostly struck in silver or debased silver as drachms and tetradrachms (four-drachms). But bronze coinage was also issued, though in smaller amounts. No Parthian gold coins are known.

The 15mm bronze coin, above, of Mithradates II is exciting because it is so well preserved. It has decent surfaces despite the deposits that remain. The king is shown in pleasant style, opposite Nike advancing with a wreath and palm.

The bronze coinage of the Parthian Kingdom is rarer than its silver counterparts. When they are found, Parthian bronzes are usually low grade with rough surfaces.

Sinatruces (93-69 B.C.) seized power during the last years of Mithradates II, taking some territory from the king. Sinatruces had to fight many rival kings and the Armenians to hold onto his throne.

The 19mm bronze, above, was issued for Sinatruces. The obverse shows the king wearing a complex tiara decorated with a row of recumbent stags. Unlike the silver coins of Parthia, bronzes host a wide variety of reverse types. On this piece, the Greek mythological creature Pegasus appears.

The drachm above was minted during the reign of the king Gotarzes I (91-87 B.C.). He was the son of Mithradates II and spent most of his rule fighting Sinatruces for the throne.

This coin shows the king wearing an elaborate tiara with a star on it. On the reverse, Arsaces I is shown holding a bow within the inscription “(the coin) of the King of Kings Arsaces, the Just, Beneficent, and Philhellene.” The name Arsaces became a title that graced most of the empire's coinage. Indeed, it was a rare occurrence for a Parthian king to issue coins in his own name.

King Arsaces XVI (78-61 B.C.) issued the silver tetradrachm above. He spent the beginning of his reign fighting Sinatruces and the later part fighting another rival king, Phraates III (70-57 B.C.).

The obverse shows the diademed bust of the king. Like most Parthian silver coins, this one shows on its reverse the enthroned Arsaces I holding a bow. However, in this case the inscription reads, “(the coin) of the Great King Arsaces, Son of a Deified Father, the Just, Illustrious (and) Philhellene.” The term Philhellene means someone who is an admirer of the Greeks and their culture.

Phraates III fought against Arsaces XVI. He opposed the Romans and made a bid to seize Armenia, which eventually failed. His rule came to an end when he was killed by his two sons.

The drachm above is compelling because of the facing portrait on the obverse. The king is seen wearing a royal diadem and a medallion around his neck. The reverse again shows Arsaces I holding a bow. The inscription reads, “(the coin) of the Great King Arsaces, Son of a Deified Father, the Beneficent, Illustrious (and) Philhellene.”

The above tetradrachm was issued by a usurper, most likely Tiridates (27 B.C.). The obverse shows the diademed head of the king. The reverse has a king enthroned, holding Nike who crowns him with a wreath of victory.

It’s worth noting that by this time Parthia’s “silver” tetradrachms were significantly debased. Tiridates lived in another time of internal strife and civil war in the Parthian Kingdom. The Roman warlord Marc Antony was in Syria and tried to manipulate Parthian politics by supporting Tiridates. The usurping king was eventually overthrown by Phraates IV (38-2 B.C.) and had to seek refuge with the Romans.

The King Phraataces (2 B.C.-A.D. 5) has an interesting history. He was the son of the previously mentioned king Phraates IV and Musa, an Italian slave who was a gift from Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14). In an unimaginably Machiavellian act, it’s believed that Phraataces killed his father and married his mother. He was eventually killed in a civil war.

The above drachm is quite different from the usual Parthian types, with both sides showing a royal bust. On the obverse, Phraataces is being crowned on either side by a flying Nike. The reverse shows his mother wearing an elaborate crown. The reverse inscription reads, “(the coin) of the Heavenly Goddess, Queen Musa.”

From here we begin to see a simplification in the artistry for the nation's coinage. The designs become more uniform and the inscriptions crude, in some cases to the point of being illegible.

Vonones I (A.D. 8-12) had been sent by his father, Phraates IV, as a political hostage to Rome. Years later, Augustus sent him back to Parthia with a large sum of money to take the throne. He set himself up as the “King of Kings,” but was unpopular with the people, which led to the uprising by Artabanus IV (A.D. 10-38). Vonones initially beat back this rival, but eventually lost the kingdom after Artabanus IV returned with another force.

The above drachm was minted to celebrate Vonones’ I initial victory over Artabanus IV. The obverse shows the royal bust with the inscription, “King Vonones.” This is one of the very few times a Parthian king used his own name on coinage. Of equal novelty is the reverse, which shows Victory advancing, holding a wreath and palm. The inscription “King Vonones, Victorius over Artabanus” leaves no doubt concerning the event that led to the creation of this issue.

After the death of Vonones I, Artabanus IV took the throne. His rule was contested by others and he faced many revolts. He aspired to conquer Armenia, but was foiled by the Romans. Even so, he was able to reclaim his throne and secure peace with the Romans, only to lose it again soon afterward. Artabanus IV was able to regain the throne a final time and reigned until he died, supposedly from falling off a horse.

The billon tetradrachm above bears an arresting portrait of Artabanus IV, shown full-facing. The reverse alludes to an uncertain victory, the king sits atop a horse and receives a palm branch from the city-goddess Tyche. The inscription reads, “(the coin) of the King of Kings, Arsaces, the Illustrious.”

Another Parthian king who struggled to maintain his power was Pacorus I (A.D. 78-120), who faced immediate opposition for the throne from his brother. He eventually triumphed and spent much of his reign improving the financial state of the empire by strengthening relationships with China and increasing trade between the East and West.

The earliest coins of Pacorus I show him beardless, wearing a royal diadem. The reverse shows Arsaces I holding a bow. The letters of the inscription are significantly cruder than those observed on earlier drachms.

The final Parthian “King of Kings” was Artabanus VI (A.D. 212-227). He succeeded in taking control of the empire from his brother and even defeated a Roman army. Indeed, it looked like things were going well when the Sasanian king, Ardashir I, began to wage war against the Parthians. Artabanus VI was killed in battle, allowing Ardashir I to take the title, “King of Kings.” Although members of the Parthian royalty continued to fight against this new kingdom, the Parthian Kingdom was no more.

The above drachm is among the last issued by the Parthians. It shows the bust of Artabanus VI wearing a tiara and an extremely crude Arsaces I holding a bow, couched withing a crude inscription that names “King Artabanus.”

All photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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