The Empire’s Mirror: The Coinage of Seleucid Kings of Syria

12 January, 2023

The ACRPS has published The Empire’s Mirror: The Coinage of Seleucid Kings of Syria by Basileus Zeno (558 pp.), an iconographic and archaeological study of Hellenistic coins from Alexander the Great to Antiochus XIII, 333-64 B.C.E. The study focuses on the Seleucid dynasty that ruled Syria from 312-64 B.C.E and offers a detailed analysis of 224 coins, including the most important issuances of the Hellenistic period (i.e., those of Alexander the Great) and the coinage of the Seleucid kings of Syria, based on a chronology extending until the fall of their empire at the hands of Roman statesman Pompey the Great.

Zeno begins by discussing the geographical and historical context of Syria during the Seleucid period, then turns to the weight standards for gold, silver, and bronze coins, clarifying the difference between Attic and Phoenician weights. He explores monetary denominations, as well as the styles and engravings, largely of a religious character, these coins carried. The book includes a descriptive-analytical study of the coins of the Seleucid kings who adopted Alexander the Great’s economic policy and the policies of mints during his reign. It also addresses iconographic representations and subjects, offering inferences as to socio-economic changes in the Seleucid Empire.

Geographical and historical context

Numismatists and specialists on the Seleucid period have sought to divide the kingdom into districts to simplify the study and classification of its coinage based on where they were minted. The term “Seleucid Syria” refers to the region that includes the four Syrian cities of Antioch on the Orontes; Seleucia Pieria; Apamea on the Orontes; and Laodicea (Latakia) by the sea. It was part of “Northern Syria” located to the north of the Eleutherus River (Nahr al-Kabir al-Shamali). These cities became by far the most important centres of Hellenistic Syria. General terms have been used to refer to the places where coins were minted, popularised by specialists on Seleucid coins. The term “Western” denotes the region from Thrace until Asia Minor, Cilicia, Northern Syria, Phoenicia, and Mesopotamia to the west of Nisibis, whereas “Eastern” refers to Babylonia, the Arabian Gulf, Persia, Sousian, and Media.

Perhaps the greatest of the Seleucids’ accomplishments, after their establishment of colonies, is their innovation of a true calendar. Though it was not the first calendar of its kind, as some Phoenician cities had begun using a fixed date, it was the first complete calendar. Moreover, it was a tool of centralised imperial control that subjected the inhabitants of the Seleucid states to its temporal power; the circulation of money, epigraphical inscriptions, official administrative documents, and personal correspondences bearing the Seleucid date was an expansion of the empire’s borders.

The Seleucid calendar was widely adopted across Asia and used in all of the Parthian Empire and its subordinate kingdoms. It remained for many centuries after the collapse of the empire. It was used by the Jews who clashed with Seleucid forces in a series of wars during the subsequent Maccabean uprising. Until recently, the calendar was still in use among Syrian Christians; Syriac historians, in the manner of Michael the Great (1126-1199), used it in their manuscripts, and it has been found on the graves of 14th-century Nestorian Christians in Central Asia.

Weight standards

Weight is a key element for coins made from precious metals, as is reflected by the names chosen to express the basic denominations. The main unit of Greek currency was the drachma, with its divisions and multiples. The obol was one of its divisions, six of which equalled one drachma. The term obol was derived from the Greek word obelos, meaning an iron spit; in ancient times, cooking utensils were used as currency, as were tripods, cauldrons, and other metalware. It is hypothesised that iron rods and the silver obol were directly related and considered to be equal in value. The root of the term drachma is the Greek word drach, meaning a handful. It is thus believed that it used to mean the amount of obol rods that fit in one’s grasp. With the invention of bronze coins, the term chalkous was first used as an epithet, then as a term for a specific monetary denomination. Bronze is a mixture of the base metals copper and tin, and the term chalkous was once used to refer to both bronze and copper as the latter is the dominant metal in the mixture. The terms dichalkon (two bronzes) and tetrachalkon (four bronzes) were used as multiples of the chalkous, just as diobol (two obols) and tetrobol (four obols) were used to express multiples of the obol.

Coins of the Seleucid kings

No study on Seleucid or Hellenistic coins can overlook the “royal” styles that were common during the reign of Alexander following his Asian campaign, which had a direct impact on the coinage of his successors. Researchers also know these coins as “Alexandrian” coins, as they bear the forms Alexander implemented on the front and back. They are “royal” because they bear indications that they were minted on the orders of sovereign authority—first Macedonian, then Seleucid. Moreover, they are distinct from what are known as “local” Alexandrian coins minted during the third and second centuries B.C.E., representing the beginning of the cities’ independent currencies. The Macedonian invasion radically changed the monetary situation, in concurrence with the spread of a “unified mint” in Syria and in other regions, as the Macedonian army advanced. This mint produced gold, silver, and bronze coins based on Attic weight, which became the primary weight measure. All of these coins bear the name of Alexander in Greek, with new styles shared between all mints and comprising various denominations, such as the gold stater, the silver tetradrachm, and bronze coins.

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