Review: Silver Coinage of the Artaxiad Dynasty

Y. T. Nercessian. Silver Coinage of the Artaxiad Dynasty of Armenia. Armenian Numismatic Society Special Publication 11. Los Angeles: Armenian Numismatic Society, 2006. Hb., 212 pp., index, 96 b/w plates. No ISBN. $60.00. Distributed by the Armenian Numismatic Society.

Just about anyone who has ever done work on money in the dying days of the Seleucid kingdom, the Mithradatic wars, or the early Roman client-kings of the Near East has been compelled to touch—if only lightly—on the coinages struck by the Artaxiad rulers of Armenia, but few have seriously dealt with them in their own right. Thus these interesting and enigmatic coins have often been treated more out of a sense of duty and with some trepidation, rather than with the full attention that they deserve. The anxiety caused by Artaxiad coinage is not entirely unfounded, since the chronology, mint, and ruler attributions of many of the coins are hotly disputed, and most of the standard English-language references are either outdated (i.e., P. Bedoukian, Coinage of the Artaxiads of Armenia [London, 1978]) or unconvincing (i.e., A. Mousheghian and G. Depeyrot, Hellenistic and Roman Armenian Coinage [Wetteren, 1999]). Y. T. Nercessian’s new book attempts to put better order to the silver issues of the Armenian kings (the bronzes still remain an attribution nightmare in many respects) by assembling and updating die studies and commentaries that have appeared in the Armenian Numismatic Journal (hereafter ANJ).

Before diving right into the die catalogues and discussion, Nercessian attempts to orient the reader who may not be intimately familiar with the Artaxiad dynasty and its coinage by providing brief histories of the kings believed to have struck silver coins (Tigranes II–Artaxias III). These synopses are fine, but they are frequently based on outdated secondary sources and include regnal dates that have been challenged by others. The most recent work utilizing the evidence of cuneiform documents and a passage from Cicero now suggests that Tigranes II could not have occupied Syria before the 70s BC (see G. R. F. Assar, “A Revised Parthian Chronology of the Period 91–55 BC,” Parthica 8 [2006]: 74; O. Hoover, “A Revised Chronology for the Late Seleucids at Antioch (121/0–64 BC),” Historia 56, no. 3 [2007]: 296–298), but this could not have been known to the author at the time of publication. Very much more useful and up to date is the survey of twenty-five known hoards containing Armenian silver, which includes finds as late as the Munich hoard of 2004/5, and the excellent overview of previous literature on Artaxiad silver coins arranged by ruler.

Following this introductory material, the author presents a die study of all of the known ancient coins with numismatic, metrological, and iconographic commentary. Modern Armenian summaries appear at the end of the book.

Those looking for some new discussion of Tigranes II the Great and his coinage are likely to be disappointed with Silver Coinage of the Artaxiad Dynasty of Armenia, since the bulk of the text on this king has been lifted directly from an earlier article (“Silver Coins of Tigranes II of Armenia,” ANJ 26, nos. 3–4 (2000): 43–108). Happily, the die catalogues for Tigranes (especially at Antioch) have been overhauled in order to include more than 162 new specimens discovered by the author between 2000 and 2005, thereby providing a substantial update to the ANJ article. Nevertheless, readers should use the catalogues with some caution, since a number of erroneous die identifications are evident from the plates. For example, Antioch A1-P31a in plate 4 actually involves the obverse die A4 in plates 8–9 and A10-P97a in plate 12 uses a different obverse die than the other illustrated A10 specimens. Die A25 in plate 26 is really a poorly preserved example of the preceding A24 die (the A25-P71a example is remarkable for its use of an obverse strike identical to that found on A24-P68a), while A28-P81 in plate 28 utilizes a different obverse die than the other illustrated A28 coins. In plate 38, die A35 is the same as A36, coin A42-P139a in plate 47 actually involves the obverse die A43, and A52 in plate 57 is really another example of A53. Likewise, die A54 in plate 58 is identical to A55, and A67 in plate 75 appears to be a doublestruck example of A66. Despite these problems, the new catalogue still represents an important expansion of the corpus of specimens from the first die study of this king by François de Callataÿ (L’histoire des guerres mithridatiques vue par les monnaies [Louvain, 1997], 215–221). In addition to Antioch, Damascus, and a controversial “Satellite Mint of Damascus,” Nercessian’s catalogue also includes the issues attributed to Artaxata and an enigmatic group of four small coins of uncertain origin described as “fractional drachms.” With an average weight of 2.95g, it seems difficult to escape the probability that the latter are tetrobols, but unfortunately these interesting coins are not discussed at any length in the text.

Nercessian identifies a series of tetradrachms depicting a comet on the king’s tiara—a detail otherwise found only at Damascus—as emanating from a “Satellite Mint of Damascus.” (John Ramsey, “A Descriptive Catalogue of Greco-Roman Comets from 500 BC to AD 400,” Syllecta Classica 17 [2006]: 215–218, has now connected this comet with the comet iconography of Tigranes’ father-in-law, Mithradates VI of Pontus.) Other commentators have suggested potential mints at Tigranocerta after 69 BC (!) or Nisibis for these coins (Mousheghian and Depeyrot [1999], 36–37; C. Foss, “The Coinage of Tigranes the Great: Problems, Suggestions, and a New Find,” NC 146 [1986]: 63), but the author is probably right to locate them in Syria on the basis of their use of the royal (ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΤΙΓΡΑΝΟΥ) rather than imperial titulature (ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ ΤΙΓΡΑΝΟΥ). The former seems to have been preferred in Syria, whereas the latter was apparently reserved for Armenia proper. However, while the shared use of comet tiaras indicates an obvious relationship with Damascus, the style, which is much superior to the somewhat crude local style of Damascus, provides a much closer link to Antioch. The curls of hair that escape from the earflap, the rendering of the facial features and some details of the tiara, and the use of a Tyche of Antioch rather than a Tyche of Damascus reverse type strongly points to the influence of Antioch, although the portrait on Antioch die A65 is hardly “identical” to that on A4 of the “Satellite Mint,” as Nercessian alleges. Nevertheless, the treatment of the tiara’s peaks and the consistent rendering of the diadem as a fillet on the “Satellite Mint” tetradrachms point to production at a separate facility (but see Antioch A49–A50 for other fillet diadems). Based on the relationships between the second comet tiara mint and both Antioch and Damascus, it is tempting to think that it may have been located somewhere between these two major Syrian cities—perhaps a northern Phoenician city during Tigranes’ campaign in the region? In any case, the mint in question might be more aptly described as a “satellite mint of Antioch influencing Damascus” until we can properly identify it by name.

The author also grapples with the serious problem of the sequential letters that appear on Tigranes’ drachms from the Artaxata mint. He wisely discards the commonly held view that Greek double letter combinations equivalent to the numbers 33 through 39 represent regnal dates and the suggestion that the single letters (1–10, 20, and 30) might stand for months. However, the attempt to explain the double letters by resurrecting Babelon’s old suggestion that they represent dates counted according to the autonomous era of Sidon (beginning in 111/0 BC) is far from compelling. This idea may have had some air of plausibility when the Artaxata coinage was still believed to be of Syrian manufacture, but there is no reason for the Sidonian era to have had currency in the Armenian heartland. Indeed, if Tigranes invaded Syria no earlier than c. 75 BC, as inferred from Cicero, a Sidonian era is completely out of the question, since the reverse type of the so-called Tyche of Artaxata is directly copied from the Tyche of Antioch on his Antiochene coinage. The Tyche of Artaxata type is not likely to have appeared in year 33 of Sidon (78/7 BC), several years before Tigranes took possession of Antioch. Nevertheless, we are tempted to agree with Nercessian in thinking that the double letters probably represent date numerals rather than simple controls. Perhaps they are based on some otherwise unknown Armenian era or possibly the king’s regnal years backdated to his period as a hostage of the Parthians. Based on the relationship between the Antioch and Artaxata Tychai, such a hypothetical era would have had to begin in 108/7 BC at the very earliest.

In addition to the relatively large coinage of Tigranes the Great, the much scarcer silver issues attributed to his successors in Armenia from 55 BC to the early Augustan period are also treated in the book. Having die studies for these rare coins assembled together in one place will no doubt be of great use for future research. However, readers should be cautioned that some of the issues are given firm ruler identifications when in fact there is some debate, and the authenticity of a few of the coins has been doubted in print.

The most extensive of the silver coinages struck after the death of Tigranes the Great was that produced by his son Artavasdes II, consisting of drachms and an extremely rare series of tetradrachms. Shared typology (king in Armenian tiara/king [really Helios?] in a quadriga) and a shared monogram seem to tie the two series to the same mint facility. Nercessian follows Mousheghian in identifying the mint as Artaxata, but as Bedoukian has pointed out (Coinage of the Artaxiads, 26), this is difficult to accept when the supposed mintmark contains nothing remotely resembling an alpha. Regardless of the mint identification, the apparent production of these coins at the same place and time raises a number of serious questions that the author leaves unasked and that seem unanswerable. For example, why is the ornamentation of the tiara different for each denomination? The drachms have a star flanked by eagles, as on the bulk of Tigranes’ coins, but the tetradrachms have the star alone. Why is the legend so different between the tetradrachms and the drachms? The latter refer to ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ ΑΡΤΑΥΑΖΔΟΥ, but the former name ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ ΑΡΤΑΥΑΣΔΩ ΘΕΙΟΥ. The royal name, given in the genitive on the tetradrachms as ΑΡΤΑΥΑΣΔΩ appears to be written with an eye on two different Greek dialectic traditions. On the one hand, it employs the Aeolic genitive ending omega when we would expect the usual omicron and upsilon ending of Attic/Koine, while the diphthong ΑΥ follows the pattern of Koine Greek in representing the sound “av” or “ab” rather than Attic “au.” The consciously Atticizing Greek textual sources give his name as Artaouasdes or Artabazes (see Dio 40.16; Plut. Crass. 19, 21–22, 24), never as Artauasdes. Also problematic for the name on the tetradrachms is the fact that it appears on the king’s drachms in a different form (ΑΡΤΑΥΑΖΔΟΥ) fully consistent with Koine Greek, the dialect that one would expect to have been used in late Hellenistic Armenia. The epithet ΘΕΙΟΥ used to describe Artavasdes on the tetradrachms is also curious. The theta and omicron have rare square forms, yet there seems to have been no difficulty in producing regular round omicrons for the drachms. It was not uncommon for eastern Hellenistic monarchs such as the Seleucid Demetrius II, the Arsacid Phraates III, and the Lagid Ptolemy XIII to describe themselves as theos (“god”), but the tetradrachms of Artavasdes stop short of proclaiming full godhead and instead hail the king as merely theios (“holy”). Why should this be? The entire situation is extremely puzzling.

Even more problematic are the four drachms of Artaxias II that Nercessian presents as authentic, though they have been condemned as modern forgeries by Anahit Mousheghian, Georges Depeyrot, and Ruben Vardanyan (R. Vardanyan, “Counterfeit Silver Coin of with the ΑΡΤΑΞΕΡΞΕΩ ΘΕΙΟΥ,” Patma-Banasirikan Handes 1 [1999]: 321–326; Mousheghian and Depeyrot [1999], 170). While there can be no question that they are beautiful pieces, they are made very suspicious by the use of a circular legend convention and monogram that only appears on civic bronzes of Artaxias in the first century AD and the peculiar inscription ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΡΤΑΞΕΡΞΕΩ ΘΕΙΟΥ, which obviously mimics that of the tetradrachms attributed to Artavasdes II. The form of the king’s personal name is also problematic, for all of the extant Greek textual sources call him Artaxias or Artaxes (see Dio 49.39–41, 49.44, 51.16; Jos. AJ 15.105) but never Artaxerxes (the Achaemenid dynastic name), as on these coins.

A unique drachm in the ANS collection (1944.100.62304) and two poorly preserved hemidrachms are also doubtfully attributed to the reign of Tigranes III (c. 20–8 BC). In 1986, Clive Foss argued that the drachm and associated bronze issues naming ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΜΕΓΑΛΟΥ ΤΙΓΡΑΝΟΥ ΦΙΛΟΠΑΤΟΡΟΣ ΚΑΙ ΦΙΛΗΕΛΛΕΝΟΣ probably represent early issues of Tigranes (II) the Great before he assumed the title King of Kings (NC 146 [1986]: 63). This view was largely based on the use of square, Parthian-style legends on the bronzes, but it is further supported by the artistic style (i.e., the flaps of the tiara still cover the ears, whereas the ears are uncovered on the issues of Artavasdes II and Tigranes V [really III?]; the drachm reverse is clearly related to a bronze type widely recognized as an issue of Tigranes II) and letter forms (especially Φ), which seem more appropriate to the early first century BC than to the post-Actian period. It is also probably no coincidence that the same titles were carried by Tigranes II’s contemporary Parthian enemy, Mithradates III (87–80 BC) (for the dating of this ruler and his relationship with Tigranes, see Assar, Parthica 8 [2006]: 69–75). Based on this evidence, it makes the most sense to agree with Foss in attributing the ANS drachm to Tigranes the Great rather than to Tigranes III. However, it is unclear what should be done with the two hemidrachms that Nercessian associates with the drachm. The a1-p1b specimen is almost completely illegible, while the fragmentary name or title on a1-p1a appears to be [?]ΗΡΑΝΟΣ rather than [Τ]ΙΓΡΑΝΟΥ. If none of these coins belong to Tigranes III, it then becomes possible to seriously consider the probability that two bronzes often attributed to Tigranes V are really issues of Tigranes III (for this suggestion, see RPC I, nos. 3841–3842).

The last silver series fully treated in the study is composed of drachms depicting the laureate portrait of Augustus on the obverse and the diademed head of a Great King Artavasdes, whom Nercessian identifies as Artavasdes IV (AD 4–6) without further comment. This attribution follows Bedoukian, but RPC I, 571, noting the use of the title ΕΥΕΡΓΕΤΟΥ, raises the good possibility that the king in question is really Artavasdes III (5–2 BC), who was appointed by the emperor.

The didrachms and drachms of Germanicus struck at Cappadocian Caesarea (RPC I, nos. 3629–3630) to commemorate the establishment of Artaxias III as the Roman client-king of Armenia in AD 18 are described in the catalogue and illustrated in plates, but receive neither commentary nor die study on the grounds that this is beyond the scope of the book. This is fair enough, but one must wonder: why have these pieces been included at all? The coins were not minted in Armenian lands and Artaxias III was merely the throne name of Zenon of Pontus—no true scion of the Artaxiad house to begin with. The last true Artaxiad monarch was actually Tigranes IV, after whom Armenia was ruled by various unsatisfactory Roman and Parthian clients drawn from other Near Eastern dynasties. In any case, the Caesarean series was probably fairly limited. The authors of RPC I report only five didrachm specimens using a single obverse die and two drachms also with a single obverse.

Despite our disagreements in interpretation and some disappointment with the often recycled and sometimes banal discussion of the text, the die catalogues and good plates make Silver Coinage of the Artaxiad Dynasty of Armenia a necessary work for anyone dealing with the series. If used with care, the data it contains will certainly provide an important foundation for future and much needed study of ancient Armenian coinage.

—Oliver D. Hoover