Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.06.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.06.09

Olivier Bordeaux, Les Grecs en Inde: politiques et pratiques monétaires (IIIe s.a.C. - Ier s.p.C.). Numismatica antiqua, 8.   Bordeaux:  Ausonius Éditions, 2018.  Pp. 324.  ISBN 9782356132192.  €40,00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lauren Morris, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (

Scholarly interest in the Greek kingdoms of Central Asia (c. 250 BC–10 AD)—the kings of which are conventionally described as either Graeco-Bactrian or Indo-Greek—has flourished in recent years, but faces many methodological difficulties. Alongside the famously scarce literary sources and relatively recent archaeological data, the interpretation of the coinage these kings produced is a central and contested project. Especially in reference to political history, specialised numismatic research remains a critical enterprise to strike down the flights of fancy found in the ground-breaking historical studies of the twentieth century, reassess prevailing hypotheses, and forward new ones.

The present monograph, based on Bordeaux’s PhD thesis defended in 2015 at the École Normale Supérieure (Paris), is such a piece of research. It is foremost a work concerned with political history as informed by the author’s die studies of the coinages of six kings (out of the forty-five thought to have existed)—the Graeco-Bactrian kings Diodotus I, Diodotus II, Euthydemus I, and Eucratides I, and the Indo-Greek kings Menander I, and Hippostratus—and spends a lot of time in the weeds of the latest debates. It is a highly critical and sometimes demanding read which deserves an engaged review.

The introduction establishes Bordeaux’s approach. The impetus for this work lies foremost in the fact that numerous hypotheses of foundational works dealing with the numismatics of the Greek kingdoms now must be reassessed due to the enormous influx of new coins onto the art market in the last decades, both via fortuitous discoveries and illicit excavation. Accordingly, Bordeaux’s dataset of over 4,000 coins was composed partly from the main published collections, but primarily from the market. Bordeaux further explains that his rather eclectic group of six kings was chosen for numerous reasons, including availability of data, and their roles in longstanding historical problems and current debates.

Bordeaux’s chosen methodology is the die study, which has recently attained popularity in this field. The author states that this methodology produces essential information about the organization of a mint, its production, and a sovereign’s monetary policy. He does not aim at full die studies, but ones tailored to his interpretative aims, entailing “une comparaison systématique de toutes les monnaies d’un corpus dont la composition varie en fonction du contexte de travail et des choix du numismate, toujours guidés par une finalité précise” (p. 17). The introduction concludes with a useful survey of relevant hoards.

The main contents of this monograph are divided into three chapters: “I. Commentaire Historiographique” (p. 25-50), “II. Commentaire Numismatique” (p. 51-94), and “III. Commentaire Historique” (p. 95-141). The latter portion of the monograph is occupied by a textual catalogue of Bordeaux’s database.

Chapter I tracks how historical knowledge has been produced about the six kings of Bordeaux’s study, setting up the debates that the author engages with throughout the monograph. This includes also discussions of the relevant ancient literary sources; Bordeaux’s attention to Indic texts in this context (also later in Chapter III) is rather unusual and thus commendable.

Chapter II presents the results of Bordeaux’s die studies, organised into ‘chrono-typologies’ presented in clear diagrams, alongside further remarks on stylistic, typological, and metrological aspects of the studied coinages. Here, the parameters of each study are clarified, which differ king by king. This is the monograph’s central contribution, and will surely be picked over with great interest by other specialists. The chapter ends with a brief engagement with quantification (p. 93-94), which does raise some questions. The application of numbers of obverse dies to estimate volumes of coin production constitutes a significant potential contribution for a die study, and although Bordeaux reiterates that a serious treatment is outside of the scope of his study, this feels like a missed opportunity for a work interested in monetary practice.

Chapter III draws on Bordeaux’s die studies to develop further historical argumentation. In particular, the discussion on Diodotus I and II will certainly stir up further debate. Significantly, Bordeaux’s die study contradicts both Holt’s and Kovalenko’s hypotheses about the existence of two mints under the Diodotids,1 in favour of one. Here, Bordeaux also casts doubt on Jakobsson’s Antiochus Nicator hypothesis, which postulates that the coins minted with a Diodotid portrait in the name of Antiochus (attributed to Diodotus I by Bordeaux and most others) were minted by a third hitherto unknown Graeco-Bactrian king called Antiochus Nicator.2 Ultimately, nothing seems decisively proven in this ephemeral debate. Indeed, an obverse die link between the portrait of a Diodotus ‘Antiochus’ gold stater and that of an early stater of Euthydemus I—which would seem to support Jakobsson’s hypothesis—was observed by Bordeaux, in addition to monograms common to the two. But Bordeaux interpreted these differently, positing that Diodotus I, perhaps Diodotus II, and Euthydemus I all shared a common mint, with the links between Diodotus I and Euthydemus I indicating a direct confrontation between the two, and Diodotus II reigning only briefly after his homonymous father.

A discussion of Antiochus III's siege of Bactra follows. This is the only historical episode of Greek Bactria treated at length in a literary source, and has also long shaped the interpretation of Euthydemus I’s coinage. Bordeaux does offer some nuance on this issue by downplaying the political significance of the anchor type on certain of Euthydemus’s bronze coins and the change in thickness of bronze flans during his reign.

Bordeaux also interprets Menander I’s coinage as articulated around his probable conflict with Eucratides I, citing numerous examples. The discussion of Menander’s putative eastern campaigns includes a useful list of toponyms from texts that may suggest the king’s trajectory. Bordeaux’s clarification of the weight standards and denominations of Menander’s bronze coinage—showing the adoption of a new, higher standard under his reign (from a unit of 2.45 g to 2.75 g)—is an achievement.

Turning to Eucratides I, Bordeaux argues that a group of nine monograms on the coinage in the name of this king indicate posthumous issues. He also contests recent arguments disputing the interpretation of the Heliocles/Laodice coins struck in the name of Eucratides I as issues of the latter. The discussion on Hippostratus places this king in the complex political milieu of the western Punjab following the division of Maues’s (Indo-Scythian) kingdom on the basis of monograms. Hippostratus’s monetary policy is explained as shaped by his political milieu, but also looking back to his predecessors.

One important point that emerges from this work is that uncertainty about the interpretation of monograms underpins many points of scholarly dispute. Bordeaux’s discussion of the different hypotheses (p. 136-139) is valuable, ultimately noting the possibility that these marks indicate, in some sense, “monétaires responsables de la frappe.” One gets the impression that a new approach is necessary to make further progress on this question.

Finally, some general conclusions are laid out, in addition to new avenues for future study (p. 145-148). Here, the author also clarifies that as a result of his die studies, he perceives that the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kings mostly adopted a ‘semi-interventionist’ monetary policy, in which reverse types (sometimes also obverse ones), the metal struck, and the legends were influenced strongly by the king, while most material and stylistic aspects were left to the discretion of engravers and monetary authorities.

Some general remarks may be offered about Bordeaux’s approach to interpreting monetary policy, which is made most explicit rather late in the monograph: “Au-delà de l’aspect purement matériel de la monnaie, ces études confirment bien que celle-ci est systématiquement un instrument du pouvoir royal, qui l’utilise à des fins personnelles, politiques ou encore idéologiques. Aucune série monétaire ne donne l’impression de ne répondre qu’à un impératif économique : au contraire, c’est le pouvoir qui provoque la monnaie, et non l’inverse” (p. 94). Accordingly, the minting of coinage is analysed as foremost reflective of a king’s political intentions and conflict, rather than state expenditure, let alone general coin use. This is surely true to some degree, but is also (so to speak) just one side of the coin. The ‘material aspect’ or economic function of coinage is generally relegated to the background, which does not fundamentally undermine Bordeaux’s arguments, but provokes questions as to some individual points of interpretation.

For example, Bordeaux states that after Diodotus I’s first silver tetradrachms, his striking of gold staters constitutes the real act of independence, “un acte royal par essence, beaucoup plus symbolique que celle de l’argent” (p. 98). Yet, one still wonders what these gold staters—for which Bordeaux identified 23 obverse dies—were minted to pay for. Similarly, when Bordeaux states that Diodotus I “a conscience du défi économique qui l’attend et amorce très rapidement une production monétaire conséquente” (p. 104), the specifics of this potential economic challenge may have been further explored. Likewise, the interpretation of Menander’s bronze coinage reform is posed in rather too abstract terms. Referring to Menander’s putative reconquest of territory captured by Eucratides, and an apparent subsequent increase in monetary production, the author posits that the reform was “un autre exemple de cette volonté de réappropriation de l’espace monétaire” (p. 121).

Furthermore, the use of Indic texts in this monograph would have been improved by a clearer acknowledgement of the serious source critical problems involved in their historical interpretation. For example, Bordeaux rightly notes that the Yugapurāṇa ought to be approached with caution (p. 40, n. 89), but the stakes of this could have been made more obvious to the reader. The Yugapurāṇa is a Sanskrit text of uncertain age concerned with the decline of the dharma, which ‘prophesises’ that a potentially historical Yavana (here, probably signifying Indo-Greek) invasion across the Gangetic plain will occur in the Kali Yuga (the age of strife). The interpretation of this text is complicated immensely by a difficult manuscript tradition. The disagreeing translations of Sircar and Mitchiner are both cited without clarifying that they are different because they are based on different editions. Indeed, it was not worth replicating the transliteration of Sircar’s edition to read alongside the translation of Mitchiner, published originally in the latter's comprehensive critical edition that made use of several more manuscripts than Sircar’s.3

A final issue may be raised with the treatment of hoards in this monograph, which seems to reflect broader tendencies in the field. This particularly affects the poorly-documented Vaisali hoard of Graeco-Bactrian gold staters. While reports differ dramatically as to its initial contents, only seven staters have been published. Bordeaux notes that he identified 175 more coins from this hoard from sales after 2000 (p. 23). Later, he reports that all gold staters of Diodotus I in his die study derive from this hoard, and suggests that the small number of attested dies among this group support this (p. 51, 55). This is certainly possible, but not an argument in and of itself. The criteria for attributing coins to this hoard could have been further clarified.

These points do not detract from the significant contribution of this work to a specialised body of numismatic scholarship, which continues to add new critical perspectives and raise questions towards the understanding of the political history of the Greek kingdoms of Central Asia (or, as the title provocatively calls them, Les Grecs en Inde).


1.   Sergei Kovalenko, “The Coinage of Diodotus I and Diodotus, Greek Kings of Bactria,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 4 (1995-1996), 17-74; Frank L. Holt, Thundering Zeus: The Making of Hellenistic Bactria (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
2.   Jens Jakobsson, “Antiochus Nicator, the Third King of Bactria?” Numismatic Chronicle 170 (2010), 17-33.
3.   John E. Mitchiner, The Yuga Purāṇa (Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 1986).

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