An ancient silver coin from Seleucia on the Tigris in Iraq

By Stefan Krmnicek

In our series on ancient coins, this article is about an ancient silver coin from Iraq in the coin collection of the Institute of Classical Archaeology at the University of Tübingen. On the obverse we see the bust of a man to the right. His face looks pathetically realistic. The eyes are deep set, the nose is quite prominently shaped. His curly hair falls neatly combed from the crown. A wide bandage is wound around the head. Readers of our previous posts already know that a bandage, also called a diadem, was the symbol of royalty for Greek rulers. The Greeks had taken it over from the Persian kings under Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). Since then, the diadem was an integral part of the Hellenistic royal regalia. So, the portrayed person must be a Greek king. Now we just have to find out what his name is.

The reverse of the coin answers this question. Here we see Apollo, the youthful Greek god of healing and music, seated with bow and arrow to the left. Thanks to the Greek legend, we now know who the ruler depicted on the front is: King Antiochos I (324-261 BC). The two monograms – the joined letters AP and HP – to the left and right of Apollo also tell us that the coin was minted in Seleucia on the Tigris, an ancient city on the right bank of the Tigris barely 35 km south of modern Baghdad.

Eine Silbermünze des Königs Antiochos I., Tüb. Inv. II 1431/9 (Foto: Stefan Krmnicek, Universität Tübingen).

Who was this Antiochos I and why were his Greek coins minted in a city on the Tigris in present-day Iraq? Antiochos I was the son of King Seleucus I (c. 350-281 BC), who had founded the Greek ruling dynasty of the Seleucids. The Seleucids ruled over large parts of Asia Minor and the Near East for several generations, centred in what is now Syria and Iraq. The father of the depicted Antiochos I had also founded the city of Seleucia on the Tigris, named after him – originally with the aim of being a new residential city. Due to the influx of population from neighbouring regions and cities, such as Babylon, Seleucia on the Tigris grew into one of the largest cities of the Seleucid Empire. After the capture of the city by the Parthians in the 2nd century BC, they founded their new capital Ctesiphon on the other side of the river. From the area of ancient Ctesiphon, we have the Taq-e Kisra palace ruin, the most important building still standing from the early period of Sassanid rule (3rd-7th century AD).

There is also a story about King Antiochos I that was already widespread in antiquity. As a young man, he is said to have fallen in love with his stepmother Stratonike – a princess from the Macedonian royal house – who was seven years younger than him, and even fell ill from lovesickness. However, the royal physician Erasistratos had quickly recognised the cause of his patient’s symptoms of illness and confided his son’s love for the unattainable stepmother to the king so convincingly that he could not help but release his young wife and marry her to his son. Antiochos I and Stratonike lived happily together ever since and had four children, one of whom, Antiochos II, succeeded his father Antiochos I as king on the throne and continued the Seleucid dynasty.

Eine Silbermünze des Königs Antiochos I., Tüb. Inv. II 1431/9 (Foto: Stefan Krmnicek, Universität Tübingen).

Those who are more interested in such exciting stories can view ancient coins from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan in the Museum of Ancient Cultures of the University of Tübingen at Hohentübingen Castle. Even in times of Covid and closed museums or for all interested parties outside Tübingen, the present coin can be admired virtually in the Digital Coin Cabinet of the Institute of Classical Archaeology free of charge at https://www.ikmk.uni-tuebingen.de/object?id=ID3300.

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Eine Silbermünze des Königs Antiochos I., Tüb. Inv. II 1431/9 (Foto: Stefan Krmnicek, Universität Tübingen).

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