Parthian silver coins can be a little complicated to sort out when one first starts to study them, as few issues name the king whose portrait they bear, and there are only a few basic styles. The tetradrachms are the easiest as they often have dates written in Greek letters, but generally, and especially for the drachms, one has to look closely at the exact details of the portraiture and headdress to determine the issue involved.
Most Parthian coins seen by collectors are silver drachms, and the vast majority of Parthian drachms are struck on oval flans with the portrait perpendicular to the long axis. This assured the main features of the King's face (center of the design) would be clear, but almost guaranteed that parts of the design would not fit. The minters seem to have taken care to show the top of the headdress on the flan, so truncation of the bust and the tip of the beard on long-bearded types are often seen. Any specimen that has the entire beaded border visible on the obverse is rare. For the same reasons, you often find examples without the reverse inscription fully on the flan, particularly on the tetradrachms.
Prior to the appearance of the hoard found at Seleucia on the Tigris in 1968, most scholars had believed, following E. T. Newell, that the Parthians had neither the means nor the resources to mint coins before the second quarter of the second century B.C. [Olson, Greek Letterforms, p. 39] It is now accepted that coins were minted by Arsaces I, founder of the dynasty, but that tetradrachms did not appear until the reign of Mithradates I (c. 171 - 138 B.C.).
All Parthian tetradrachms, it is currently believed, were produced at the Seleucia mint. In place of the archer used on the reverse of silver drachms, these larger coins usually show other scenes such as the goddess Tyche giving a diadem to the king. Around the scene are lines of inscription which rarely fit entirely on the flan. The dynastic name ΑΡΣΑΚΟΥ (Arsaces) is found on almost every coin. Between the heads of Tyche and the king there is usually a Greek numeral indicating the year of the Seleucid era. Year dating was common on Seleucid coins but rare on Parthian issues from mints other than Seleucia. Some tetradrachms carry the name of the month. The calendar page explains the dating system.
While Parthian coins usually came from the royal mints, several dependencies were allowed to mint their own currency; these were Characene, Elymais and Persis. Other dependencies such as Media Atropatene, Adiabene and Mesopotamia seem to never have received this privilege nor did the city-kingdoms such as Hatra and Osrhoene. Several autonomous cities such as Ecbatana, Seleucia-on-the-Tigris and Susa evidently had the right to issue civic coinage. The use of Parthian coins does not seem to be necessarily tied to Parthian control as Dura-Europos in the Parthian period used money from Syrian Antioch; Southeastern Iran, though at times under direct Parthian control, does not seem to have used the royal coinage.1
Trade developed greatly under the Parthians and many Parthian coins have been found beyond its ancient boundaries. M. E. Masson reports finds of these in Volga, in the Caucasus, in Chinese Turkestan and elsewhere. Parthian art objects have also been found in Olbia and other sites in south Russia.2
1. Debevoise (1938) deduces this from the study by H.H. Wilson (1841) showing the almost total absence of Parthian coins from the area of Ariana.
2. M. E. Masson, Trudy Yuzhno-Turkmenistanskoi Ekspeditsii, 5 (Ashkabad, 1955), pp. 33-35.
This page last updated 17 Apr 2008