The humble currency of the first Seleucid king
Seleucus I Nicator, the founder of the Seleucid Empire, never put his own portrait on the Empire’s currency. Why?
Through Tyler rossi for CoinWeek … ..
Since coins were one of the most effective tools of mass propaganda in the pre-modern world, it quickly became common practice for a ruler to put their likeness and imperial images on the coins of the kingdom. . So why Seleucus I avoid tradition?
First, Seleucus borrowed legitimacy from his predecessor: the conquering general, Alexander The Great. Many of the first tetradrachmas of the Seleucid Empire under Seleucus I bear a striking resemblance to those struck by Alexander during his lifetime. These pieces represent Alexander as Heracles on the obverse, bearing the skin of Nemean lion. In addition, the standard image of a seated Zeus holding an eagle or miniature figurine of Nike on the reverse is very similar to the Alexandrian lifelong types.
Yet, as similar as these two series are, they are certainly not the same. On the obverse of the Alexandrian type, the bust has clearly smoother features and on the Seleucid type, the inverted legend proclaims “Basileus Seleucus”.
Seleucid type apart from most posthumous Alexandrines tetradrachmai who kept the legend AΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ. The example above, from the great rival of Seleucus I Ptolemy I, preserves this original legend in an additional link with the legitimacy of Alexander the Great. Using imagery while rejecting legend, Seleucus was declaring his individuality while strengthening his bond with Alexander.
We know that the design prerogative for higher value Seleucid coins was almost exclusively with the royal household. Since the smaller value bronze coins had “more limited circulation” as well as “much less value”, central authorities were less inclined to devote significant resources to the maintenance of their design and, in consequence, to as such, local currency workers had more “leeway” in their production. To ensure consistency between the most valuable types of money, the government created “sets of written instructions, drawings and / or portraits” for local mint workers and engravers. These instructions should have included examples of portraits, acceptable images and “tiaras, horns, laurel wreaths, etc.” relevant that were part of the royal portrait.
Another possible reason Seleucus never included his own portrayal on the Empire’s coinage could be that it gave him more room to promote his fledgling dynasty and personal triumphs. For example, the famous Bull-type helmet is a commemorative coin. Originally thought to commemorate Seleucus’ victories over the upper and eastern satrapies of Alexander the Great’s empire as well as his own royal ascension in 305 BCE. However, reverse imaging analysis suggests differently.
The inverted image on this guy is a standard military trophy constructed from the weapons and armor of a defeated enemy. Typically, this stylized image would represent the ethnic armor of the vanquished, and this trophy is “unmistakably constructed from Macedonian weapons.” This can be concluded due to the presence of a Sun Vergina, or Argead star, on the shield. This design is the famous Macedonian standard and is used to this day on the flag of the Republic of North Macedonia. Accordingly, we must assume that this coin commemorates the Seleucid victory at the Battle of Ipsos where Seleucus scored a spectacular victory over rivals Antigonid. Interestingly, the bull horn images refer to a time when Seleucus captured “with his bare hands” a sacrificial bull that had come loose in a religious ceremony with Alexander.
Interestingly, although the Seleucid War Elephants played an important role in battle, they are do not included on the Bull helmet type. However, two other sets of tetradrachmai minted under Seleucus I include elephants. The more common of the two was minted mainly in the Eastern Empire and depicts a laureate head of Zeus on the obverse. Its inverted image is of a quadriga (a chariot with four “horses”) pulled by elephants. This type refers to the “500 war elephants that Seleucus received in colony with Chandragupta in the peace of 303 ”, as well as the“ contemporary staters of Ptolemy I ”which represented“ the deified Alexander III riding a quadriga of elephants ”.
In 281 BCE, Seleucus ordered the production of a tetradrachm to commemorate his victory over Lysimachos at Battle of Corupedium. This simple yet elegant design shows the ‘heroic’ horse head that most numismatists believe to be the personal mount of Alexander the Great, Bucephalus. The inverted image is that of an elephant which symbolizes Seleucid power.
Another such theory is that it represents the horse that Seleucus rode as he was running away. Babylon in 316 BCE. We know that there are less than 10 examples of this “almost medalist” type.
Tetradrachmai isn’t the only place to look for the reasons Seleucus did not order his own portrait to be placed on the Empire’s coinage.
Since the Seleucid Empire encompassed so many diverse peoples, Sardis west for Bactria to the east, Seleucus was to make arrangements for local sensitivities. Such a great empire would prove difficult to maintain if a ruler decided to impose a foreign culture on the regional satraps.
An example of these cultural accommodations is the stater, or double shekel, minted in Babylon seen below. On this issue, Seleucus does not use the Greek god Zeus but rather the Babylonian god Baal. On the reverse, the emperor uses an ancient Babylonian icon, the lion. By using these symbols, and not imposing his own will, Seleucus lip-service praised the historical significance of Babylon, thereby appeasing the local elites.
Although there is no definitive evidence that the portrait of Seleucus I appeared on domestic currency during his lifetime, there is are two coins struck which bear his likeness.
Antiochus I, son of Seleucus I, deified his father shortly after his assassination in 281 BCE. To commemorate this event, Antiochus ordered a Bactrian mint to strike coins with a horned portrait of his father.
The second portrait piece of Seleucus I is not actually Seleucid. He was actually hit under King Philetairos of the kingdom of Pergamene in the west Anatolia. The obverse image is a simple diadem head of the Seleucid king while the reverse is of a seated Athena put it down Aegis shield on his knee and a spear on his shoulder.
Philetairos was originally a vassal of Lysimachos, who placed him in charge of Pergamum and his vast treasury of silver. However, when Lysimachos executed his son Agathokles for treason in 281 BCE, Philetairos incited Seleucus to help him rebel. Once Lysimachos was defeated and killed at the Battle of Corupedium, Seleucus became the undisputed “master” of the west. Asia Minor. This coin is the first “indisputable” image of the famous Seleucid ruler.
This official flattery did not extend to the legends of the reverse. Philetairos did not use the official Seleucid legend and instead placed his own name on the reverse, without the title “Basileus”.
The fact that the portrait of Seleucus never appeared on a Seleucid coin during his lifetime is very interesting. Especially when one considers that the coins of successive Seleucid emperors “constituted the most beautiful gallery of portraits of kings ever to appear on the coins”. It must therefore be assumed that it was a deliberate choice and not an accident that the portrait of Seleucus never appeared on his coin.
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Houghton, A., Lorber, C. and Hoover, O. Seleucid Coins, A Complete Guide: Part I, Seleucus I to Antiochus II (Vol. 1). Classical Numismatic Group and American Numismatic Society. (2008)
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About the Author
Tyler rossi is currently a graduate student at Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington DC, he worked for Save the children create and manage international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the United States after living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where it served as Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade he has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).