Category Archives: South Asian

Arsacid Fire-Altar Coinage

khounaniAlireza Khounani is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) focused on Archaeology of the Near East and Central Asia before Islam. Alireza’s main area of interest is the Parthian period in Iran and the role of landscape and cultural hybridity in forming local diversities which manifests itself in the material culture of this period including coinage.

The Arsacid Empire (248 BCE–224 CE) spanned the largest period of antiquity in the Near East and western Central Asia and ruled over a vast area between Mesopotamia all the way to Central Asia. Succeeding the Seleucid Empire, the Arsacids followed the Attic weight to strike their coins. Noteworthy is that within their Empire, the vassal states, for instance Elymais, Persis, and Characene, were also allowed to issue their own coinage, which is seen as a sign of their strong local autonomy. Furthermore, these political powers, who were usually amongst the native royalties, had the right to practice their own religious beliefs.

This social and political diversification of the Parthian period in addition to the scarcity of solid evidence make it difficult to determine what religion the Arsacid kings themselves adhered to. Scholarly tradition claims that ancient Iranian Empires follow Zoroastrianism, an Indo-Iranian religion that survived until today whose main stress is on the preservation and maintenance of the eternal/sacred fire, which is considered to be the manifestation of the great god Ahuramazda. However, most of the evidence for ancient Zoroastrianism comes from post-9th century literary sources and we do not know for a fact what the religion of the Achaemenid, Arsacid, and Sasanian Kings was. Nevertheless, one prominent element, “pedestal fire-altar,” has been seen on rock-reliefs and coins, and has been discovered archaeologically. It is usually accompanied by a king in an investiture scene. It is important to clarify that within this context a fire-altar is the one—predominantly a pedestal fire-altar—that is supposed to guard and maintain the sacred eternal fire rather than the much more common sacrificial altar.

There has been a great deal of confusion over distinguishing fire-altars, especially in the case of Arsacid material where this image is very rare. For instance, the form of the object and the offering gesture of the figure on a reverse type of bronze coins by Artabanus II (Fig. 1) is a sacrificial altar that finds later parallels on Kushan coins as well. A pedestal fire-altar can be seen behind the image of Arsaces (ca. 250–211 BCE), the founder of the dynasty, on the reverse of a silver drachm by Phraates IV (37–2 BCE) minted in Mithradatkert (Fig. 2). This altar is strongly comparable to those found on the Achaemenid tombs at Naghsh-e Rostam, on the Parthian period coins of Persis, and on the reverse of the Sasanian coins. The presence of a fire-altar on a Mithradatkert issue is very meaningful considering it was the first Arsacid capital where Isodore of Charax reports to have seen the “fire of Arsaces.”

Fig. 1. Arsacid bronze coin, Ecbatana, 10–38 CE (ANS 1944.100.83104).
Fig. 1. Arsacid bronze coin, Ecbatana, 10–38 CE (ANS 1944.100.83104).
Fig. 2. Arsacid silver Drachm, Mithradatkert, 38–2 BCE (BMC OR.8645).
Fig. 2. Arsacid silver Drachm, Mithradatkert, 38–2 BCE (BMC OR.8645).

Recent scholarship suggests the existence of a ruler-cult in the Arsacid house. The image of Arsaces is present on almost all the reverse types of his successors; all who were titled after him. Ammianus Macelinus compares this royal practice to that of the “Caesars” of the Roman Empire. Deification of Arsaces can further be suggested by the title Theopater that some of his successors used, and also by the fact that he is, in several cases, shown sitting on an omphalos.

Fire has long been seen as a sign of royal power and as the element through which the spirit of kingship (or Farah) is transferred from a king to his successor. The fire-altar on the relief of Darius I at Naghsh-e Rostam is accompanied by the king who is receiving the ring of kingship from the “winged figure.” Sasanian Kings have their own kingly fire on a diademed pedestal altar shown on the reverse of their coins in a scene of investiture where the king is receiving a diadem from his predecessor (Fig. 3). There are also examples where a figure in flames is on top of the altar, who is suggested to be the ancestral spirit of kingship (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. Sasanian silver drachm, 272–273 CE (SNS-Ib/2b).
Fig. 3. Sasanian silver drachm, 272–273 CE (SNS-Ib/2b).
Fig. 4. Sasanian silver drachm, 303–309 CE (Göbl-I/1a).
Fig. 4. Sasanian silver drachm, 303–309 CE (Göbl-I/1a).

The context in which a fire-altar is placed alongside the figure of Arsaces on a drachm by Phraates IV is comparable to that of the fire-altar and winged figure on Achaemenid reliefs; and the diademed fire-altar and figure in flames on Sasanian coins. It can be concluded that a form of Indo-Iranian royal cult with a focus on sacred fire was continuously practiced by Iranian royal dynasties throughout antiquity. This study attempts to demonstrate that the Arsacids were prominent actors in promoting this ideology and played the main role in developing its image and transferring it from the Achaemenids to the Sasanians. However, in order to confirm whether this royal cult was eventually evolved into a monotheist religion named Zoroastrianism after the arrival of Islam, requires much further investigation.

RSVP: Harry W. Fowler Memorial Lecture Monday, May 1, 2017

jpegHarry W. Fowler Memorial Lecture
Monday, May 1, 2017
5:30 pm Reception
6:00 pm Lecture

Prof. Phillip Wagoner

The Deccan as an Integrated Currency Zone:
New Approaches to the Study of Peninsular Indian Coin Hoards (1347–1687)

Phillip B. Wagoner is Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Wesleyan University.

The lecture will be followed by a response from Finbarr Barry Flood, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the Humanities at the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History, New York University.

RSVP required to: membership@numismatics.org or 212-571-4470, ext. 117.

The Harry W. Fowler Memorial Lecture was established in 1998 with a bequest from Mr. Fowler and with additional gifts from the Fowler family. Harry W. Fowler served as President of the American Numismatic Society from 1984–1990, and for his personal generosity was named a Benefactor of the Society in 1986. In 1995 he bequeathed his collection of Bactrian coins to the ANS, which together with the Society’s already strong holdings, has created one of the most comprehensive collections of Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek coins.

American Numismatic Society
75 Varick Street, Floor 11
New York, NY 10013

Making Sense of Greco-Roman Legends on Western Kṣatrapa Coinage

1D3_8405Today’s post is written by Jeremy Simmonsa PhD candidate in the Classical Studies program at Columbia University. He has written on the topic of Indo-Roman trade, and in particular, the spice trade in antiquity.  His dissertation will look specifically at patterns of consumption in the larger Indian Ocean trade network, including the engagement between Indian monetary systems and imported Roman coinage. His project, as a participant of the the 2016 Eric P. Newman Graduate Summer Seminar, focuses on Western Kṣatrapa coins.

 

For my ANS Seminar Project, I decided to look at silver coins of the Western Kṣatrapas, who ruled in the modern day Indian states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh from the mid-first to early fifth centuries CE (Figure 1). These coins have been indispensable for reconstructing the chronology of the Western Kṣatrapa kings, as well as the line of succession, due to the presence of dates (in the Śaka Era) and patronymics on coins. However, the feature of these coins that drew me to this project is the obverse legend, which appears to be written in a script that mixes Greek and Roman characters at random.

Figure1
Fig. 1: Rudrasiṃha I coin, minted in year 118 of the Śaka Era (c. 196 CE) [BM 1889.0105.25]
These legends have been little discussed in scholarship (as opposed to the Brāhmī legends on the reverse), and have been variously labeled “Greek,” “corrupt/pseudo/blundered Greek,” or “Greco-Roman,” without much consideration of the larger implications of these different descriptions. In fact, it is a general practice to not record the obverse legends of Kṣatrapa coins in catalogues or other publications: cataloguers justify their actions by stating that the legends become corrupt over time and cease to have any meaning; and those publishing or auctioning a single coin tend not to transcribe the obverse legend at all.

This lack of scholarly attention arises from the assumption that the obverse legends at one point communicated written language—specifically, the coins of the early kings like Nahapāna, which have Greco-Roman script transliterations of the Prakrit reverse legends (Figure 2)—but that later die-cutters, due to their lack of skill or knowledge of Greek and Latin, merely rendered corrupt versions as a form of ornamentation. I believe this narrative of decline, first suggested over a century ago, is not only based on the limited evidence of early collections, but has been perpetuated by a regrettable practice of not recording positive data.

Fig. 2: Nahapāna coin, with transliterated obverse legend ΡΑΝΝΙω ΞΑΗΑΡΑΤΑC ΝΑΗΑΠΑΝΑC (rannio ksaharatas nahapanas, “of king Nahapāna, the Kṣaharata”; mid first century CE) [CNG Auction 369, Lot 24, 24 Feb. 2016]
Fig. 2: Nahapāna coin, with transliterated obverse legend ΡΑΝΝΙω ΞΑΗΑΡΑΤΑC ΝΑΗΑΠΑΝΑC (rannio ksaharatas nahapanas, “of king Nahapāna, the Kṣaharata”; mid-first century CE) [CNG Auction 369, Lot 24, 24 Feb. 2016]
In order to correct the treatment of obverse legends on Kṣatrapa coins in scholarship, I have created a database of Greco-Roman obverse legends found on silver coins minted during the three-and-a-half centuries of Kṣatrapa rule (from Nahapāna to Rudrasiṃha III). I gathered these legends from specimens presented in various museum catalogues, auction listings, and publications. While this task involved some difficulties due to the damaged nature of most obverse legends (Figure 3) and the poor quality of photographs, I managed to assemble a large corpus of data in order to supplement existing descriptions and serve as the basis of my initial observations.

Fig. 3: Vijayasena coin, with corroded traces of obverse legend (r. 238-250 CE) [ANS 1978.51.6]
Fig. 3: Vijayasena coin, with corroded traces of obverse legend (r. 238-250 CE) [ANS 1978.51.6]
It is my hope that these observations will contribute to the following aims: 1) determining which paleographic features of the obverse script are Greek versus Roman, in order to mitigate the problem of variable terminology; 2) outlining possible sources of inspiration for these legends, whether it be local precedents (e.g., Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian, and Indo-Parthian), imported Roman coinage, or imitation Roman coinage produced in India (Figures 4 and 5); 3) uncovering any evidence of conscious design behind these legends (as opposed to mindless copying as previously suggested), indicated by similar patterns of letters, standardization of legends, etc.; 4) and, most importantly, speculating why the Kṣatrapa kings would design coins with unreadable obverse legends alongside very legible Brāhmī legends and numerals.

Fig. 4: Indo-Greek drachm of Apollodotus II, with Greek obverse legend (early first century BCE) [BM 1922.0424.120]
Fig. 4: Indo-Greek drachm of Apollodotus II, with Greek obverse legend (early first century BCE) [BM 1922.0424.120]
At the very least, it is my hope to show the merits in investigating elements of a coinage tradition that many have disregarded as “meaningless.”

Fig. 5: Imitation Roman aureus of Septimius Severus, found in India (early third century CE?) [ANS 1905.57.375; photo Klaus Vondrovec]
Fig. 5: Imitation Roman aureus of Septimius Severus, found in India (early third century CE?) [ANS 1905.57.375; photo Klaus Vondrovec]