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Parthian Invasion, 40 BC

The Parthians are mostly known from the writings of their Greek and Roman enemies - not the writers you would trust to document Parthian society and achievements objectively. Even the Sasanians who succeeded them in the East in the 3rd century AD preferred to emphasize their ties to the Achaemenids rather than the Parthians who were a bit too Greek. Arsakes began the empire and his dynasty in the mid 3rd Century BC leading the Parni and capturing the neighboring region of Parthava. From there Parthia grew to be a powerful eastern rival to Rome.

The Parthians and Romans clashed many times over centuries from their first diplomatic encounter in 95/4 BC (led by Sulla: see First Encounter). Today's coin is an artifact from one of these clashes in 40 BC. It comes from a brief period where Pakoros son of Parthian King Orodes II was successful in pushing across the Euphrates into Roman territory in Syria and Asia Minor.


After defeating Tigranes, general Pompey annexed Syria for Rome circa 64 BC. In 53 BC the Parthians humiliated the Romans in the Battle of Carrhae, killing Marcus Licnius Crassus and his generals. Crassus was known for his greed, he profited from Sulla's proscriptions and according to Plutarch (Crassus 2.3) built a large fortune "out of fire and war, making the public calamities his greatest source of revenue". There is a story of the Parthians pouring molten gold down his throat after his death, mocking his greed.

"And not only the others fell, but Crassus also was slain, either by one of his own men to prevent his capture alive, or by the enemy because he was badly wounded.This was his end. And the Parthians, as some say, poured molten gold into his mouth in mockery; for though a man of vast wealth, he had set so great store by money as to pity those who could not support an enrolled legion from their own means, regarding them as poor men."
- Cassius Dio, 40.27 

Following Pompey's death in 48 BC, and the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, civil war continued between supporters of Caesar (Octavian and Mark Antony) and Pompey (Longinus and Brutus). Quintus Labienus Parthicus, a Pompeian, allied himself with the Parthians against Caesar's Rome.

"When Pompeius' party was worsted [after the death of Caesar], they [Parthia] sent assistance to Cassius and Brutus against Augustus and Antonius; and, after the war was ended, they made an alliance with Labienus, and, under the leadership of Pacorus, again laid waste Syria and Asia, and assailed, with a vast force, the camp of Ventidius, who, like Cassius before him, had routed the Parthian army in the absence of Pacorus."
-Justinian, 42.4 

Labienus took part in the incursion into Syria led by Pakorus, eldest son of Orodes II King of Parthia, and successfully took Antioch from Rome. Early sources vary in their interpretation of events - Dio puts Labienus in the role of instigator and adds the rationale of Mark Anthony's distraction ("demoralization") by Cleopatra for the timing of the attack.

"Now as soon as Labienus was aware of Antony’s demoralization, of his passion, and of his departure for Egypt, he persuaded the Parthian king to make an attack upon the Romans. For he declared their armies were either destroyed utterly or impaired, while the remainder of the troops were in a state of mutiny and would again be at war; and he accordingly advised the king to subjugate Syria and the adjoining districts, while Caesar was busy in Italy with Sextus and Antony was indulging his passion in Egypt."
-Cassius Dio, Roman History 48.24 

A coin of Orodes II, King of Parthia

Parthia, Orodes II, circa 57-38 BC, AR Drachm, Ekbatana mint

Obv: Diademed and draped bust left, wearing torque ending in sea-horse or griffin, wart on forehead; eight-rayed star to left, crescent above eight-rayed star to right; all within pelleted border

Rev: BΛΣIΛEΩΣ/BΛΣIΛEΩN ΛPΣΛKOV EVEPΓETOV/ΔIKΛIOV EΠIΦΛNOVΣ/ΦIΛEΛΛHNOΣ, archer (Arsakes I) seated right on throne, holding bow; Ekbatana monogram below bow, anchor symbol behind throne

Ref: Sellwood 48.7 ("anchor ii" not "anchor iv" of Sellwood); Shore 259

Assar, in the Sunrise Collection identifies the coin above (S. 48.7) and the one below (S. 48.9) as probably issued "to celebrate Pakoros' capture of Gaza" after crossing the Euphrates and capturing Antioch.

Kings of Parthia, Orodes II, 58/7 - 38 BC, AR drachm, Ekbatana mint

Obv: Diademed bust left, wart on forehead, neck torque ends in sea horse; star before, crescent above star behind / BΛΣIΛEΩΣ/BΛΣIΛEΩN ΛPΣΛKOV EVEPΓETOV /ΔIKΛIOV EΠIΦΛNOVΣ/ΦIΛEΛΛHNOΣ, Arsakes I seated right on throne, holding bow; anchor behind, monogram below bow.

Ref: Sellwood 48.9 (subtle difference in the anchor on the reverse behind throne differentiate this coin from the one above); Shore 261

Parthian occupation was short lived, and Mark Anthony struck back in 39 BC sending Publius Ventidius to Syria in 39 BC. Early in 38 BC, the Romans diverted the Parthians with misinformation, successfully crossed the Euphrates, and crushed the Parthian armies. Pakoros . In a new push into Syria, Pakoros was killed near Gindarus on 9 July 38 BC, ending Parthian ambitions to extend their western frontier.

"When the news of this disaster reached Parthia, Orodes, the father of Pacorus, who had just before heard that Syria had been ravaged, and Asia occupied by his Parthians, and was boasting of his son Pacorus as the conqueror of the Romans, was affected, on hearing of the death of his son and the destruction of his army, at first with grief, and afterwards with disorder of the intellect."
-Justinian, 42.4.11

Orodes II, appointed his son Phraates IV as his successor and then subsequently abdicated. Phraates IV murdered his father, brothers and other relatives to avoid any contention for the throne.

Antiochia ad Orontem as it appears on the Tabula Peutingeriana a map of ancient Roman roads (cursus publicus) created by a monk in Colmar France, in AD 1265, on a1ft. by 22ft parchment scroll. The map may be based on an earlier map produced by Agrippa at the end of the 1st century BC. The inclusion of Pompeii which was destroyed in 79 AD by the eruption of Vesuvius supports a early imperial date. [Source: detail from a Public Domain image, via Wikipedia]

All of the above is context for this coin which comes from the Parthian occupation of Antioch on the Orontes in Seleucis and Pieria, Syria. Although the date is missing from this coin (off flan in exergue on the reverse) the legend is telling. The change in legend under Parthian occupation replaced "Autonomous" (ΚΑΙ ΑΥΤΟΝΟΜΟΥ) with "Sacred and Inviolable" (THΣ IEPAΣ KAI AΣYΛOY). This coin is either the type RPC 4223 (issued under Pathian rule and dated with a Seleucid Era date) or RPC 4224 (issued under Roman rule with year 9 of Caesarean Era). Coins after this returned to ΚΑΙ ΑΥΤΟΝΟΜΟΥ.

Syria, Seleucis and Pieria, Antiochia ad Orontem, in the year of the Parthian occupation, 41/40 BC, Æ tetrachalkon, (25 mm, 11.39 g, 1 h). Although date is off flan, year 272 of the Seleucid era or year 9 of the Caesarean Era (41/0 BC) is the only year issued

Obv: Laureate head of Zeus right / ANTIOXHΩN THΣ MHTPOΠOΛHΩΣ THΣ IEPAΣ KAI AΣY[ΛOY], Zeus seated left, holding Nike and scepter; before, pileus surmounted by star at feet on either side of throne; below, [BOΣ or Θ] (date)

These are not easy coins to read as the letters look more like scattered dots and even though this is a decent size flan (25mm), the words run off the coin. The pileus with star above also seems to be an element unique to this year, one on each side of Zeus' throne at his feet:

An interesting coin from 40 BC and an illustration of one of the challenges in ancient coins: small details can differentiate coins that look similar between Seleucid, Roman and Parthian rule over decades.

The next coin is an earlier one from Seleucid rule which has a very visible 3 digit date at the bottom of the reverse based on the Seleucid Era.

Seleucis and Pieria. Antioch. Year SE 230 (83/82BC). Æ 21mm (7.35 gm). Laureate head of Zeus right / ANTIOXEΩΣ THΣ MHTΡOΠOΛEΩN, Zeus seated left, holding Nike and sceptre, Λ Σ (date) in exergue.

Here's another one dated based on the Seleucid Era. The ones digit of the year is a little questionable- to me it looks like a delta (Δ) that started out as a another digit (Γ the year before?) - giving an unusual top bar. This brings to mind the shift we all have to make in a few days to start writing 2022 instead of 2021. Perhaps the die maker was making a similar transition. Coins do exist with the year 233 (not my coin):

Seleucis and Pieria, Antioch, 1st century BC, Æ Tetrachalkon (19.5mm, 9.41g), dated 234 (79/8 BC).

Obv: Laureate head of Zeus right

Rev: ANTIOXEΩN THΣ MHTPOΠOΛEΩΣ, Zeus Nikephoros seated left; ΔΛΣ (date) in exergue

and here is a late issue of the Seleucid Era from 62 BC or Seleucid Era ANΣ (251).

Seleucis and Pieria, Antioch, circa 82-81 BC, Year 231 of the Seleukid era, Bronze Æ (18mm, 8.25g)

Obv: Laureate head of Zeus right

Rev: ANTIOXEΩN THΣ METΡOΠOΛEΩΣ, Zeus seated left, holding Nike and sceptre, ΓA monogram in left field; Date AΛΣ below.

These coins change dating system several times:

  • Seleucid Era : dates from the Battle of Babylon in 312/11 BC

  • Pompeian Era: dates from 66 BC (end of the Third Mithridatic War or Start of Roman rule?)

  • Caesarean Era: starting in 48 BC with Caesar's defeat of Pompey at Pharsalus

  • Parthian rule : which restored the Seleucid era dates

And of course the other challenge: I am now in search of a Parthian, Pompeian and Caesarian variants of this coin with clear dates....

SYRIA, Seleukis and Pieria, Antioch. 1st century BC, Æ (20mm, 8.0 g), Dated Year 14 of the Pompeian Era (53/2 BC)

Obv: Laureate head of Zeus right

Rev: Zeus seated left, holding Nike and sceptre; ΔI in exergue

Here's my latest coin in this category - from Year 117 of the Caesarean Era (well into the Imperial period ).

Syria, Seleucis and Pieria, Antioch, Pseudo-autonomous, time of Nero to Vespasian (54-79), AE Trichalkon 4.42g 21mm, dated Year 117 of the Caesarean Era (68/9)

Obv: ANTIOXЄΩN, laureate head of Zeus right

Rev: Lighted and garlanded altar, with curved legs; ET ZIP (date) in exergue.

Ref: RPC I 4322; McAlee 115b; SNG Copenhagen 104.


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Alfred Kowsky
Alfred Kowsky
Dec 26, 2021

Sulla, another excellent article 😊! I find the dated bronze coins of special interest 😉. Pictured below is a drachm from the reign of Mithradates II, when Parthia was at the peak of their power & represented a serious threat to Rome.

Dec 26, 2021
Replying to

A great portrait, and overall an impressive Parthian drachm!


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