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A Fierce Parthian Portrait

This week's coin of interest is a 13.24g tetradrachm of Artabanus II (also know as Artabanus III and IV by various historians). This table from Chris Hopkins @ Parthia.Com maps the various assignments:


Fred Shore writes about this coin:

"The rare series of tetradrachms of Artabanos with facing bust show a fierce warrior-king, certainly an image we would expect from a king who regained his throne wearing the rags he wore as a solitary hunter in exile.  They probably present a closer picture of what a Parthian really looked like that any other portrait coin".
-F Shore, Parthian Coins and History, p.140

Artabanus II brought an anti-Greek sentiment to the throne and the epithet ΦΙΛΕΛΛΗΝΟΣ (Greek Loving), does not appear on this coin with it's distinctive style. Assar, 2011 in The Sunrise Collection, writes:

"Given its overall unconventional iconography, it is possible that this comparatively rare coinage was issued to mark an unreported victory over hostile elements in Parthia". 

The Encyclopedia Iranica has a nice overview for Artabanos II.

"Artabanus II was brought to the throne by a wave of “national consciousness” among the Parthian nobles, who disapproved of Vonones, installed with Roman backing in A.D. 8/9, and, in their eyes, “made soft” by long residence in the West. 
-Encyclopedia Iranica 

Kings of Parthia, Artabanos II (or III or IV), Circa AD 10-38, BI Tetradrachm (27mm, 13.24 g, 12h), Seleukeia on the Tigris mint, dated Holöos 338 SE (July, AD 27)

Obv: Diademed facing bust

Ref: Artabanos on horseback left, receiving palm from Tyche standing right; T Λ H (year) oriented around Artabanos, monogram (month) below horse

Ref: Sellwood 63.4 (Artabanos II); Shore 336 (Artabanos II), Sunrise 411 (Artabanos IV)


This map shows the location of the mint "Seleucia" in Parthia.

Before we get too far into the story, let's take a look at the history leading up to Artabanos' reign.


Phraates IV

Vonones, eldest son of Phraates IV, had been educated in Rome for ~20 years before he came to the throne. He and his brothers were sent to Rome in 10/9 BC by their father to prevent a dynastic conflict. Phraates and his wife Musa, who was given to Phraates by Romen Emperror Augustus, bypassed his older sons in favor of Phraatakes his son by Musa.

Phraates IV, AR drachm, Sellwood 52.16; Shore 283. Laodicea is a rare mint with only 19 found properly attributed in ACSearch.


Phraates IV was murdered by his son and wife. Phraataces murdered anyone who might be in contention for the throne and married his mother. Phraatakes reigned for 2 years, 2 BC - 4 AD, before being ousted in civil war and replaced by Orodes III, a relative in the house of Arsakes. Orodes III reigned circa AD 6-8 was subsequently assassinated at a banquet or hunting party.

"But as the best sort of Parthians agreed together that it was impossible they should be governed without a king, while also it was their constant practice to choose one of the family of Arsaces, [nor did their law allow of any others; and they thought this kingdom had been sufficiently injured already by the marriage with an Italian concubine, and by her issue,] they sent ambassadors, and called Orodes [to take the crown]; for the multitude would not otherwise have borne them; and though he was accused of very great cruelty, and was of an untractable temper, and prone to wrath, yet still he was one of the family of Arsaces.

However, they made a conspiracy against him, and slew him, and that, as some say, at a festival, and among their sacrifices; (for it is the universal custom there to carry their swords with them;) but, as the more general report is, they slew him when they had drawn him out ahunting."
-Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 18.44-45

A Tetradrachm of Phraatakes

Phraatakes 2BC-4AD AR Tetradrachm 11.38g

Obv: Bare-headed bust left without royal wart, with medium pointed beard, wearing diadem, earring visible

Rev: King seated right on throne, Tyche standing before him, giving him diadem and holding cornucopia, standard legend, below Tyche's arm IT, above Tyche's arm, IT, ΓOPM(?)

Ref: Shore 312 (this coin) CNG Auction Catalog


Vonones, eldest son of Phraates IV became the next Parthian King. Augustus boasts in his Res Gestae Divi Augusti ("the achievements of the deified Augustus") that the Parthians sought their kings from Rome.

"From me the peoples of the Parthians and of the Medes received the kings for whom they asked through ambassadors, the chief men of those peoples; the Parthians Vonones, son of King Phraates, grandson of King Orodes; the Medes Ariobarzanes, the son of King Atavazdes, grandson of King Ariobarzanes."
-Res Gestae Divi Augusti 

His Roman tastes quickly alienated the Parthian people.

"The barbarians (Parthians), too, accepted him with the pleasure they usually evince at a change of sovereigns. It quickly gave place to shame:— "The Parthians had degenerated: they had gone to another continent for a king tainted with the enemy's arts, and now the throne of the Arsacidae was held, or given away, as one of the provinces of Rome. Where was the glory of the men who slew Crassus​ and ejected Antony, if a chattel of the Caesar, who had brooked his bondage through all these years, was to govern Parthians?" Their contempt was heightened by the man himself, with his remoteness from ancestral traditions, his rare appearances in the hunting-field, his languid interest in horseflesh,​ his use of a litter when passing through the towns, and his disdain of the national banquets.​
-Tacitus, Annals, II.2

Vonones departure from Parthian traditions can be seen in this unusual Parthian coin

Kings of Parthia, Vonones I, circa AD 8-12, AR Drachm

Obv: BACIΛEYC ONwNHC, Diademed head left

Rev: BACIΛEYC / ONΩNHC / NЄIKHCAC / APTABNOY, Nike standing right, holding wreath and palm; monogram below palm.

Ref: Sellwood 60.5; Sunrise 407; Shore 329.


Artabanos II, ruler of Media and Arsakid on his mother's side was sought out as the replacement. He was defeated in his first attempt, circa AD 8-10, to take on Vonones. Note the legend on the coin above (King Vonones, Victorious over Artabanos):

"Artabanus,​ an Arsacian of the blood, who had grown to manhood among the Dahae,​was brought into the lists, and, though routed in the first engagement, rallied his forces and seized the kingdom."
-Tacitus, Annals, III.1

His next attempt was more successful and he seems to have taken control of Seleukeia around AD 12. Sometime in AD 16, Vonones escaped Seleukeia and was supported as King of Armenia by Roman Emperor Tiberius. Artabanos threatened was with Rome and installed his son, Orodes as King.

"About the same time, Vonones, who, as I have related, had been banished to Cilicia, endeavored by bribing his guards to escape into Armenia, thence to Albania and Heniochia, and to his kinsman, the king of Scythia. Quitting the sea-coast on the pretence of a hunting expedition, he struck into trackless forests, and was soon borne by his swift steed to the river Pyramus, the bridges over which had been broken down by the natives as soon as they heard of the king's escape. Nor was there a ford by which it could be crossed. And so on the river's bank he was put in chains by Vibius Fronto, an officer of cavalry; and then Remmius, an enrolled pensioner, who had previously been entrusted with the king's custody, in pretended rage, pierced him with his sword. Hence there was more ground for believing that the man, conscious of guilty complicity and fearing accusation, had slain Vonones."
-Tacitus, Annals, II.4.68

There is a letter in the Louvre, written in stone, from Artabanus that defends the election of a  treasurer in Susa - with this as the concluding sentence:

"...we decide in general that the [illegality which] has been pointed out be expressly forgiven, no denial or investigation either general or specific being required (?). Year 268 Audnaeus 17"

Image CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons.


The full text and more information on this letter can be found in :


C. B. Welles, "Letter of Artaban III, King of Parthia, to Seleucia on the Eulaeus (Susa), validating the election of the city treasurer. Audnaeus 17, A.D. 21", Royal Correspondence in the Hellenistic Period (Chicago: Ares, 1979), pp. 299-306.


In AD 35, Artabanos installed his son Arsakes on the throne of Armenia and called for Tiberius to return the PArthis treasures that were taken by Vonones to Cilicia and Syria. At the request of Parthian nobility, who were also losing patience with Artabanos, Tiberius sent hoem Phraates son of Phraates IV home, and when he died along the route he sent one of Phraates IV's grandchildren, Tirdates, to replace Artabanos. Artabanos took flight and was found soon after in the tattered costume of a hunter earning a living with his bow. With the support of the satraps of Media and Elymais, Artabanos was restored to the throne in 36 AD.

At about this same time Artabanus, the Parthian, upon the death of Artaxes, bestowed Armenia upon his son Arsaces; and when no vengeance came upon him from Tiberius for this, he made an attempt upon Cappadocia and treated even the Parthians somewhat haughtily. Consequently some revolted from him and sent an embassy to Tiberius, asking a king for themselves from amongst those who were  p253 being kept at Rome as hostages. He first sent them Phraates, the son of Phraates, and then, after his death, which occurred on the way thither, Tiridates, who was also of the royal race.
-Cassius Dio, Roman History, 26.1-3

Tacitus tells the story that prompted Shore's explanation of the portrait on the Tetradrachm of Artabanus coin. Although these events came after the coin was issued.

Phraates and Hiero, with others who had not united in celebrating the day fixed for the coronation [of Tiridates], some from fear, some out of jealousy of Abdageses, who then ruled the court and the new king, transferred their allegiance to Artabanus. They found him in Hyrcania, covered with filth and procuring sustenance with his bow.

Tiberius then signed a peace treaty with Artabanos in 36 AD. This didn't end Artabanos' troubles with internal unrest in Parthia, and an assassination threat caused him to abandon his throne in 37 AD, which he again retook the throne shortly before his death.


Although the tetradrachm is a difficult to obtain coin, the drachm's of Artabanus II are among the most plentiful Parthian coins.

Kings of Parthia, Artabanus II (c. AD 10-38), AR drachm (21mm, 3.75g, 12h), Ecbatana mint

Obv: Diademed bust of Artabanus II left, with long pointed beard, wearing double banded diadem with double loop, spiral torque, and earring; dotted border

Rev: blundered legends, BAΣIΛEΩΣ / BAΣIΛEΩN | AΡ-ΣANOΥ | ΕΥΕΡΓΕΤΟΥ/ΔIXAIOΥ | EΠIΦANOΥΣ/ΦIΛEΛΛHXOΣ, archer (Arsaces I) enthroned right, in Parthian dress, with bow in outstretched right hand; AT monogram with pellet below bow.

Ref: Sunrise 412. Sellwood 63.6 (Artabanus II). Shore 341-343 (Artabanus II).


This coin Sellwood 63.13 is much harder to find:

Parthia, Artabanos II (aka III or IV) , circa 10-38, Drachm, BI 18mm, 3.49g, Mithradatkart

Obv: Diademed bust of Artabanos II to left; to left, star-in-crecent

Rev: Blundered legend consisting entirely of pellets Archer (Arsakes I) seated right, holding bow; below bow, blundered legend of Mithradatkart; behind, monogram

Ref: Sellwood 63.13. Cf. Shore 347


It is worth noting that there is another Artabanus (III or IV or V depending on whose numbering you are following) who ruled circa 80-90 AD.

This coin is Sellwood 74.6 which can be recognized from the blundered legends which have a vertical line for sigma in BAΣIΛEΩΣ yielding on this coin: BAIIΛtΛΣ / BAIIΛtΛN. Chris Hopkins' Parthia.com has a page worth consulting as a guide to differentiating close types in Parthian coins.




Succession: Artabanus II was succeeded by his son, Vardanes I.

Additional References/Sources:

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