Money and Identity: The Socio-Political Power of Ancient Coinage and the Emergence of Greco-Bactrian Culture

Michael breaks down the changes in coinage in the Greco-Bactrian kingdom and how this reflects socio-political change.

Deep in the heart of Central Asia, near modern Afghanistan, lies a civilisation lost to time, the Kingdom of Greco-Bactria, a symbol of the interconnected nature of the ancient world. For hundreds of years, the Kingdom of Greco-Bactria served as a hub of multiculturalism along the Silk Road. The taxation of luxury goods along the Silk Road and abundant natural resources allowed the Greco-Bactrians funded the building of hundreds of cities. Yet, despite this cultural impact the Greco-Bactrians had on Central Asia, little remains besides their coinage. Although some historians have argued how the traces of the Greco-Bactrian culture perished after the kingdom fell, the coins produced during and after the end of Greco-Bactrian control of the region hints at the contrary.



After Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C.E, his empire fractured between his generals in the period known as the Wars of the Diadochi. One of these successor states, the Seleucid Empire, founded by Seleucus I Nicator, owned the territory would become the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. In 250 B.C.E, Diodotus I broke Bactria away from the Seleucid Empire, ruled at the time by Antiochus II, and immediately began to change the coinage.

Three types of coins from the beginning of Diodotus’ reign have emerged: the normal omissions with the image and name of Antiochus; a new type with the figure of Zeus hurling a thunderbolt, bearing Antiochus’ name, but with Diodotus’ portrait and royal diadem; the third similar to the latter, but bearing the name and portrait of Diodotus. Diodotus consolidated control by replacing one aspect in each increment of the coins, which may have hid the transition from Seleucid to Greco-Bactrian rule. Later Greco-Bactrian rulers would continue this pattern of coinage, modelled after Diodotus’ designs. At the same time, the Greco-Bactrians continued using the “Attic standard”, a silver-based weight system for coins introduced by Seleucus.

Diodotus II “only issued coins with his father’s portrait”, transplanting the practice from Greece. This demonstrates how the Greco-Bactrian elites had not completely adapted to their new environment, clinging onto a more Greek culture than his successor. Euthydemus I usurped Diodotus II’s throne, founding the Euthydemid dynasty, which marked the expansion into India.

Before the Euthydemids began this expansion, Euthydemus repelled a Seleucid attempt to reconquer Bactria, celebrated by minting a Greek-style commemorative coin, suggesting the presence of Greek artisans and the start of the preservation and localisation of Greek minting techniques in Greco-Bactria. Euthydemus’ coin starts the Greco-Bactrian tradition of minting commemorative coins to celebrate accomplishments and predecessors, becoming popular amongst later Greco-Bactrian kings. The discovery of coins with differing depictions of the king suggests Greek coin-makers took on apprentices, cementing the localisation of minting practices and the development of a unique Greco-Bactrian identity.


Silver tetradrachm of Demetrios I

Euthydemus’ successor, Demetrius I, depicted himself with “an elephant scalp helmet” to represent his mig ht, starting a tradition of headgear on Greco-Bactrian coinage. Furthermore, Demetrius set a precedent for Greco-Bactrian rulers with bilingual Greek/Kharosthicoinage that weighed less than the Attic standard in order to integrate the local populations of his new territories.

Pantaleon, a successor king in Bactria, continued yet adapted many Greek traditions by issuing coins where Hekate holds two torches, whereas the reverse on Alexander’s coins depicts an image of Zeus. Pantaleon and subsequent Indo-Greek rulers changed the shape to a rectangle with Greek script on one side and Brahmi on the obverse, alongside foreign god Lakṣmī, highlighting the commitment to cultural syncretism which developed. This is exhibited (in addition to bilingual currency through rectangular currency) the placement of different gods and the depiction of more elephants to fit with the local culture’s assumptions on power.

Bronze coin of Agathokles

Eucratides the Great, after seizing the throne from the Euthydemids, continued their custom of bilingual coinage and elite headpieces, to compare his own successes during the civil war to the conquests of Alexander the Great. Eucratides introduced the usage of the uniquely Indian title, “rajadirajasa”, a translation of his own title, on his bilingual coins to guarantee his commitment to and dominance over his Kharoshti subjects. Eucratides perpetuates this trend of gradual changes in the Greco-Bactrian coinage started by Diodotus I, ensuring stability while adapting to the local culture.

After the collapse of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, Timarchus took Eucratides’ title of Great King and minted coins imitating Eucratides, unintentionally mimicking Diodotus I’s secession methods. Although Timarchus may or not have known who Eucratides was, these post-collapse coins provide proof that Greco-Bactrian culture lived on through the nomads. In India, Asoka the Great, erected several bilingual Greek/Prakit pillars to display regal messages, suggesting the presence of educated Greeks who integrated into the local populations. These archaeological discoveries provide a substantial piece of evidence to the survival of a distinctive Greco-Bactrian culture.

The Greco-Bactrians maintained control of the region because they respected the indigenous Bactrian culture, allowing the Greek and Bactrian cultures to form one distinctive culture. The coins which years of archaeological discoveries have yielded only seem to prove the mixture of these two cultures. Each ruler made gradual alterations to the coinage from Diodotus I to Eucratides the Great until a unique coin-making tradition emerged, paralleling the development of the Greco-Bactrian culture, which the successors to the Greco-Bactrian kingdom preserved in their very own coin minting techniques.



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