NGC Ancients: Coins of the Seleucid Kingdom – Part 1

Posted on 9/12/2023

The Seleucid Kingdom issued many interesting coins throughout its long history.

After the death of Alexander III ‘the Great’ (336 to 323 B.C.) the greatly enlarged Macedonian Kingdom was divided up among his generals. One of these, Seleucus I (312 to 281 B.C.), created the Seleucid Kingdom in the Near East. His kingdom would survive for hundreds of years, and its rulers would issue a wide variety of coins.

We’ll introduce you to this vast coinage with a three-part series, starting with an early issue of the founder of this dynasty, pictured below.

Even though this silver tetradrachm mimics the types of Alexander III, it was struck under Seleucus I. The obverse shows Heracles wearing a lion skin. The reverse shows the god Zeus holding Nike, who reaches out to crown him. The inscription reads “of King Seleucus.”

Seleucus I became the satrap of Babylon after the death of Alexander III. He eventually declared himself king and began to seize control of large tracts of the Middle East. He eventually ruled much of Alexander’s eastern acquisitions, except for Egypt. He was assassinated during an attempt to conquer Macedon.

Seleucus I issued coins bearing types that had been introduced by Alexander III or bore designs of his own creation, though his own portrait never appeared on coins issued during his lifetime. The rare silver stater shown above bears a type introduced by Seleucus. The obverse shows the bearded bust of the god Zeus while the reverse shows a charging elephant with a spearhead above.

The elephant presumably represents the war elephants Seleucus I used in his battles.

The next Seleucid king was Seleucus I’s son, Antiochus I (281 to 261 B.C.), who took the throne after the death of his father. He was known as a founder of cities and also faced many wars, especially along the Eastern reaches of his kingdom.

This silver tetradrachm sets what would become the standard design for much of the history of the Seleucid Kingdom. The obverse shows the bust of the king Antiochus I, howbeit with a very large nose. The reverse has the god Apollo seated upon an omphalos (the navel stone of Apollo’s oracle at Delphi), holding a bow and testing an arrow.

This silver tetradrachm, also with Antiochus I on the obverse, features a more interesting design. The reverse shows the horned head of a horse. There is some debate about the identity of the horse: some experts believe it’s Bucephalos, the trusty horse of Alexander III, while others claim it’s the horse that carried Seleucus I from Babylon to Egypt when he fled the city.

The next king, Antiochus II (261 to 246 B.C.), was the son of Antiochus I and grandson of Seleucus I. He spent much of his reign at war with the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, where he had some success. He also took upon himself the epithet Theos (‘god’), and attempted to establish a cult to his worship across the kingdom.

This silver tetradrachm shows the bust of Antiochus II. The reverse shows the mythical hero Heracles seated upon a rock with his hand resting on a club. The detail on this coin is well rendered, making it an especially desirable piece.

The reign of the next king, Seleucus II (246 to 225 B.C.), the son of Antiochus II, was turbulent. He fought a losing war with the Ptolemaic Kingdom, along with a civil war against his younger brother Antiochus Hierax (242 to 227 B.C.). Seleucus II eventually regained control of most of his kingdom again, but he tragically died from a fall off a horse.

This silver tetradrachm of Seleucus II is extremely well detailed, especially the king's portrait. The reverse shows Apollo standing, testing an arrow and leaning on a tripod.

Antiochus Hierax was the younger brother of Seleucus II and rebelled against him, leading to civil war. After having some initial success, he lost the confidence of his allies and had to flee the kingdom. He then secured new alliances and attempted to again take the Seleucid Kingdom from his brother. His renewed assault failed, and he was eventually captured and killed.

The above silver tetradrachm shows Hierax wearing a royal diadem with the added feature of a wing. The reverse shows the now-familiar scene of Apollo testing his arrow. Interestingly, there is in the exergue a small horse, which was the symbol of the mint at Alexandreia Troas.

After the deaths of Antiochus Hierax and Seleucus II, the kingdom passed, in sequence, to the sons of the latter: Seleucus III (226 to 222 B.C) and Antiochus III ‘the Great’ (222 to 187 B.C.).

The first of these brothers was Seleucus III, whose reign was brief as he was assassinated by two of his officers during a bid to recover territory in Asia Minor. The silver tetradrachm above features an especially youthful portrait of the short-reigned king. The reverse shows Apollo seated, holding a bow and testing an arrow.

Next in line was Seleucus III’s younger brother, Antiochus III, shown on the silver tetradrachm above. His reign was almost constantly embroiled in conflict. However, he was extremely successful and eventually regained almost all the territories originally ruled by Seleucus I. He even invaded Greece but was rebuffed by the combined forces of the Greeks and their Roman allies.

In addition to having to cede to Rome a large expanse of territory and to pay heavy war indemnities, one other term of the truce was that Seleucid kings had to send royal hostages to Rome. This eventually led to their being two lines of royalty in the Seleucid house, which caused instability and conflict. This would weaken the Seleucid Kingdom in the long run. Antiochus III was killed by an angry mob as he attempted to pillage a temple of Zeus in a neighboring kingdom.

After the surprising death of Antiochus III, the throne passed to his eldest son, Seleucus IV (187 to 175 B.C.), shown on the tetradrachm above. However, the great expense of the Seleucid war indemnity to Rome meant that he had a very mild reign. He eventually was assassinated by his chief minister, Heliodorus.

In the aftermath, Heliodorus placed Antiochus (c.175 B.C.), the five-year-old son of Seleucus IV, on the vacant throne, with Heliodorus acting as regent. The extreme youth of Antiochus can be seen on this silver tetradrachm above, which bears the portrait of a small boy not yet ready to rule.

Objections were raised, however, and the boy-regent’s uncle, Antiochus IV (175 to 164 B.C.) — the younger brother of Seleucus IV — eventually came onto the scene and disposed of Heliodorus. He then made himself co-ruler with his young nephew, who died a few years later, perhaps on order from his uncle.

Antiochus IV issued many coins during his 11-year reign, including the usual large quantity of silver tetradrachms. However, he also struck many bronzes, including this 24mm coin bearing an intense portrait. The king wears a distinctive "radiate" crown. The reverse shows an unknown goddess holding Nike with a bird at her feet.

Antiochus IV was able to conquer most of the neighboring Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, making it a Seleucid vassal state for a time. This 35mm bronze, above, was made under Antiochus IV and mimics the types of Ptolemaic Egypt. Perhaps this was to show the power Antiochus IV had over his Egyptian enemies. The obverse shows an elegant portrait of the god Zeus, the reverse an eagle standing on a thunderbolt.

Another thing for which Antiochus IV is well-known was his persecution of the Jews in Judaea, where he killed thousands. On the eastern front of the Seleucid world, the Parthian Kingdom invaded, forcing Antiochus IV to respond. After pushing the Parthians back, the king died while returning home. His son, Antiochus V (164 to 162 B.C.) then took the throne.

Our final coin for this month, above, is a silver tetradrachm of Antiochus V. The bust does reflect the youth of the nine-year-old king, who succeeded his father. He attempted to quell a Jewish revolt but was eventually forced to make peace due to an uprising by one of his generals. He was subservient to the Romans, which angered his own Greek subjects. His fate was tied to the meddling of Rome, but that tale will be told in next month’s column.

All images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group and Heritage Auctions.

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