Coins, Seals, and Administration

Ancient Iranian kings were among the first to mint coins, creating an alternative to using metals by weight. Cyrus the Great introduced the first Persian coins in the middle of the 6th century BC after defeating King Croesus of Lydia, who had invented coinage in Asia Minor. At the turn of the 5th century BC, Darius I standardized Persian coins by minting darics - modestly naming the coins after himself - which were used widely in the western Achaemenid Empire.

Coins were an opportunity for rulers to shape the impression of their reigns, and the choices of numismatic imagery conveyed precise symbolic messages from the court. The diverse rulers of Ancient Iran over many centuries each made it a priority to mint their own unique coinage. Archaeologists have excavated Persian coins all across the world, from Great Britain to China, providing a window into ancient trade, religion, and government policy. 

Top: Iranian kings put their faces on their coins. 1. Darius I (r. 522 - 486 BC, sold at Numismatica Ars Collection Auction 96), 2. Alexander of Macedon (r. 330 - 323 BC, British Museum), 3. Arsaces I (r. 247 - 217 BC, sold at Classical Numismatics Group auction Triton XIII, Lot 501), and 4. Ardashir I (r. 224 - 242, sold at Classical Numsimatic Group auction Triton XXII, Lot 481). 

Coins bore perhaps the only images of the king his subjects might see in their lifetime. Thus, the front (obverse) side of a coin almost always displays the king's profile. We can learn much by observing how a king chooses to portray himself, as well as how his successor changed - or did not change - his own image from that of his predecessor. Images selected for the reverse side of coins showcase the achievements, lineage, or divine favor of particular kings. Lastly, the inscriptions on the coins of Ancient Iran reveal much about the ruling class, especially contemporary titles. While we do not know how much ordinary people grasped of these messages, the use of military, religious, and royal symbols were powerful reminders of how the king held their world together.

Bottom: The pictures kings put on their coins were useful for communicating with their subjects. 1. Artaxerxes III (r. 358 - 338 BC, sold at Classical Numismatic Group auction Triton XI, Lot 461), 2. Seleucus I (r. 305 - 281 BC, American Numismatic Society), 3. Mithridates II (r. 124 - 91 BC), and 4. Bahram I (r. 271 - 274 CE, Classical Numismatics Group collection).

Seals are stamps or cylinders decorated with a unique image. Used in both mercantile and administrative contexts, the image, stamped into clay or wax, symbolized the owner's authority. In the ancient world, sealing a document with wax ensured that only the intended recipient was authorized to open it. Like coins, the intricate images on seals provide information about power and symbolism in the Iranian world. For instance, some Achaemenid seals depict the Persian king in combat. The seals of Sasanian Zoroastrian officials, by contrast, avoid martial imagery and instead sometimes invoke their defense of the destitute as the basis of their office. By doing so, these magi sent the message that their positions were only valid insofar as they carried out their duties for the good of the people, rather than for their own self advancement. 

At Ancient Iran Day, we devoted a table to coins and seals because of their critical role in communication and the administration of the empires of Ancient Iran. Visitors were invited to peruse a selection of ancient Iranian coins, including Achaemenid, Arsacid, and Sasanian examples. Dr. Scott McDonough, who specializes in Sasanian history, guided attendees through the collection and delivered a lecture on Iranian numismatics. 

Though online databases for ancient Iranian coins are sparse, the Coins of Parthia website is an excellent resource for studying coins made during the Arsacid era (ca. 247 BC - 224 CE).