BMCR 2022.01.15

The early Seleukids, their gods and their coins

, The early Seleukids, their gods and their coins. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. 190. ISBN 9780415793766 $49.95.


In the 1990s, scholars working on the Achaemenid Empire lit a match and tossed it into the fireworks warehouse labeled “Seleukid Studies.” The result was a great and colorful explosion of interest in the Seleukid Empire at the end of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first, which has ignited numerous secondary explosions with each passing year and (happily) shows little sign of abating.

Kyle Erickson’s The Early Seleukids, their Gods, and their Coins represents a recent addition to the rapidly expanding secondary literature on the iconography (by necessity heavily based on coins) and ideology of the dynasty. It is a revised version of the author’s 2010 University of Exeter PhD dissertation that, over the course of four chapters framed by an introduction and conclusion, aims to delineate the process by which a Seleukid dynastic identity—in contrast with a purely personal charismatic kingship—was created through multivalent religious images disseminated primarily by coins.

As much of the following discussion hinges on images, hyperlinks have been inserted throughout to assist the reader. These link primarily (but not exclusively) to objects in Seleucid Coins Online, the international database of Seleucid coins maintained by the American Numismatic Society.

In Chapter 1, “Creation of an Empire,” Erickson charts the struggle of Seleukos I to disentangle himself from the ubiquitous and stifling coin iconography established by Alexander the Great and his efforts to create a new iconography allowing him to project an image of power and divine sanction on his own merits without reference to Alexander. With respect to Seleukos’ important relationship with Zeus, the author suggests a progressive disengagement from the standard Herakles/Zeus Aetophoros typology in which coins of Seleukos first replaced the eagle in Zeus’ hand with the figure of Nike and then moved to a personal type depicting the head of Zeus on the obverse and Athena driving an elephant chariot (a reference to the 300 elephants he obtained from Chandragupta Maurya) on the reverse. This development, however, is actually more complex than Erickson suggests. Hoard and metrological evidence show that Zeus Aetophoros, Zeus Nikephoros and elephant-chariot types circulated simultaneously in different regions. Likewise, the Zeus Nikephoros type may have been introduced initially on coins naming Alexander rather than Seleukos as an allusion to the supposed involvement of the dead king in granting victory to Seleukos and his allies at Ipsos.[1]

Although the bulk of the chapter is dedicated to establishing Seleukos’ connection to Zeus, Erickson also treats other elements of his personal iconography—apparent portraits wearing a horned helmet, bulls, anchors, and horned horses—particularly with an eye towards related logoi preserved in the works of Appian, Justin and John Malalas. With respect to the controversial portrait type of Susa and mounted portrait type of Ekbatana, the author recognizes it as a representation of Seleukos I rather than Alexander, or a more generic hero, but seems unaware of the convincing case for dating the Susian issues to the aftermath of Ipsos,[2] instead dating them to c. 304. The Ekbatana issue, which involves associated iconography and shares controls with coins early in that mint’s Alexandrine sequence, should probably also be dated after Ipsos, rather than to Erickson’s c. 304 or to c. 295 as given in Seleucid Coins Part 1.

The chapter concludes with a discussion of the bronze coinage produced by Seleukos at mints throughout the empire with the types of the profile head of Medusa and a humped bull (usually represented charging). Here Erickson attempts to derive the “type as a whole…from the contemporary (middle of the fourth century onwards) coinage of Mysia” (50), namely, silver drachms and hemidrachms of Parion. These feature a facing gorgoneion and a standing bull looking backwards, neither of which are particularly similar to Seleukos’ types except in broad terms of subject matter. Regardless, it seems highly unlikely that the types of Parion would have had the kind of broad visual cachet in Asia Minor that the author seems to suggest. The hoard evidence strongly indicates that fourth-century Parian silver was struck primarily for export to Thrace (via trade or the hiring of mercenaries). Erickson furthermore considers the Medusa/bull coinage to represent a failure at the creation of “a unified image of Seleukid power” (49), but this assessment is a little unfair considering that the typology was introduced only a few years before Seleukos’ assassination and, as he shows in Chapter 2, his son and successor had a different vision for the trajectory of Seleukid iconography.

Chapter 2, “The Creation of a Seleukid Deity,” illustrates the development of Apollo as the divine ancestor of the Seleukid dynasty and as the predominant precious metal (and frequently bronze) type for Seleukid coinage in the reign of Antiochos I. Erickson raises the possibility that Antiochus I may have been associated with Apollo already in his father’s lifetime on the basis of gold staters struck at Susa and a Bactrian mint during their period of co-rule and featuring the head of Apollo on the obverse and Artemis in an elephant biga on the reverse. While it is true that both Susiana and Bactria were in the eastern sphere of the empire ruled by Antiochus I it is not completely clear where the impetus for the type (essentially a modification of Seleukos’ regular Zeus/Athena in elephant chariot type) came from. It may be no coincidence that Susa (probably the originating mint) was the cult center of the Elamite goddess Nanaia, who was syncretized with Artemis in the Seleucid period and whose cult certainly reached Bactria.[3]

Nevertheless, the author makes a good case for the divine dyad of Zeus and Apollo as a reflection of the father-and-son kings Seleukos I and Antiochos I that provided a foundation for the latter to establish Apollo as the progenitor of the Seleukid dynasty. Erickson argues that Apollo was adopted by Antiochos I as a figure who could not only enhance his legitimacy among the Greek cities of western Asia Minor, but who was also recognizable to the Babylonian and Iranian ethnic groups who played important roles in the empire. In his view, Antiochos’ image of Apollo holding bow and arrow and seated on an omphalos could have been read as an archer representing traditional Iranian ideals of kingship or the native Babylonian deity Nabû. The link with Nabû is well taken, particularly since the deity had similar associations and was also the son of a storm-god, but one wonders how likely it really is that the arrow in Apollo’s hand on the coins was interpreted as the cuneiform stylus attribute of Nabû, especially considering that the god’s bow is normally in his other hand.

Erickson is probably right to discount the dubious tetradrachms of Nikokles of Paphos as a possible model for Antiochos’ Apollo-on-omphalos type, but perhaps some attempt should have been made to grapple with a recent treatment of the Paphian issues as authentic.[4] Likewise, no explanation is offered for the continuation of Alexandrine Herakles/Zeus types naming Seleukos at mints like Laodicea by the Sea and Susa, apparently after the diffusion of the new Apollo type.

An overview of Seleukid dynastic coin types (with emphasis on Apollo) and their use or modification between the death of Antiochos I (261 BC) and that of Seleukos IV (175 BC) is provided in Chapter 3, “Continuity and Rebellion: Developments in Seleukid Ideology.” Erickson shows how deeply entrenched Apollo types and especially the Apollo-on-omphalos type became for silver coinage over the course of this period while noting local variants. The emphasis here is on solid continuity and legitimacy through the reiteration of dynastic connections which are visible even when there are breaks with the established iconography. For example, when Antiochos II continued the anomalous Herakles type of his father at some Anatolian mints he was still appealing to the idea of dynasty. Likewise, when Seleukos II introduced  a standing Apollo type in contrast to the traditional Apollo-on-omphalos used by Antiochos Hierax, he was visually distinguishing himself while still remaining within the Apolline framework established by Antiochos I.

Chapter 4, “A New Start?” discusses the reign of Antiochos IV (175-164 BC) and what Erickson sees as a “conscious split in the iconography of the empire” (165), in which the king was associated with Apollo particularly in the East, but with Zeus in the West. He rightly sees the introduction of Zeus as part of the personalization of the coinage caused by intra-dynastic division and makes the interesting suggestion that the use of Zeus Nikephoros types intentionally linked him back to Seleukos I. Unfortunately, this is embedded in a larger, murky argument that the introduction of Zeus types was closely tied to the king’s ambitions in Egypt and legitimacy in Koile Syria (but that the iconography was somehow refocused on the East after his exclusion from Egypt by the Romans). All of this ignores the fact that the Zeus tetradrachms of Antiochus IV were struck to the Attic standard and did not circulate in the closed monetary zone of Koile Syria, which was still dominated by old Ptolemaic silver on the lighter Phoenician standard, and overlooks the author’s own recognition that the silver Zeus types of mints like Antioch and Ptolemais (Ake) never replaced the traditional dynastic Apollo type at the eastern mints.

While The Early Seleucids, their Gods and their Coins provides a competent overview of early Seleukid divine iconography, the period of almost a decade between dissertation and monograph means that large sections are not particularly new. For example, the treatment of Apollo in Chapter 2 adds little to the thorough discussion of the god’s development in a 2011 article by Panagiotis Iossif.[5] A less than rigorous use of numismatic methodology, as in the several cases mentioned above, leads to questionable conclusions because circulation patterns have not been taken into consideration. There is more to understanding a coin and properly using it as evidence than simply being able to read its types and legends.

The weakness in numismatic method is perhaps reflective of a larger trend in twenty-first century Seleukid historiography, in which some historians make use of the coins to support arguments without fully appreciating the numismatic scholarship that provides critical context for proper interpretation. Notable recent examples include the “end-user” theory, which posits the use of supplementary symbols on early Seleukid silver coins to indicate intended recipients,[6] but which is refuted by later Seleukid bronze practices and has never been published in a peer-reviewed numismatic journal, and the idea that Seleukid Era dates on coins was a vehicle for imperial domination,[7] despite the fact that they appear only sporadically, apparently at the discretion of the issuing mints. This kind of underinformed use of the coins not only fails to respect the numismatic discipline as it deserves but introduces unnecessary red herrings into the secondary historical literature.


[1] O. Hoover, “A Necessary Evil: Alexandrine Coinages and the Tension of Personal Kingship in the Seleukid Empire,” in Les alexandres après Alexandre, ed. S. Kremydi and M.-C. Marcellesi (Athens, 2019), 138-139.

[2] P. Iossif, “Les monnaies de Suse frappées par Séleucos Ier: une nouvelle approche,” NAC 33 (2004), 252-255.

[3] G. Azarpay, “Nanâ, the Sumero-Akkadian Goddess of Transoxiana,” JAOS 96.4 (1976), 536-542.

[4] Ibid., 259-261; A.-P. Weiss, “The Persic Distaters of Nikokles Revisited,” in KAIPOΣ, ed. U. Wartenberg and M. Amandry (New York, 2015), 365-368.

[5] P. Iossif, “Apollo Toxotes and the Seleukids. Comme un air de famille,” in More than Men, Less than Gods, ed. P. Iossif, A. Chankowski and C. Lorber (Leuven, 2011), 229-291.

[6] G. Aperghis, “Recipients and End-Users on Seleukid Coins,” BICS 53.2 (2010), 55-84.

[7] P. Kosmin, Time and its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire (Cambridge, MA, 2018), 66-76.