Numismatic and History Discussions > Parthian and Other Eastern Coins

The Probable (It Seems to Me) Origin of the Parthian Seated Archer

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The Arsacid era began when Arsakes (Arsakes I) was elected leader of a Central Asian Dahae tribe called the Parni, and then proceeded to wrest control of the Seleukid satrapy of Parthia to become the first Parthian king. He came to power around 247 BC and would rule until around 211 BC, perhaps the year of his death. For the duration of the empire, which lasted almost 500 years, coins honored the Parthian founder by depicting a seated archer - Arsakes - on the reverse.

What is not so well know is that the archetype for the seated archer reverses of Parthian coins (as well as, ultimately, the Indo-Parthian and other Eastern coins that imitated the motif) may well have been the reverses of coins from almost a century and a half before Parthia started minting its own. Fred Shore, in Parthian Coins and History: Ten Dragons Against Rome, states that the Parthian "reverse design was derived from the Seleukid drachms which showed Apollo seated on the omphalos..." For years I've taken that as gospel since, know, it's from Fred Shore.* However, I came across what I think is a more plausible theory that was put forth by Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis of the British Museum and Sarah Stewart of the London Middle East Institute at SOAS, in an article entitled The Iranian Revival in the Parthian Period. Curtis and Stewart make their cursory case in just two sentences (within the context of an article more focused on its titular theme), without doing any detailed comparisons. But those two sentences, and my own poking around the Web after reading them, were enough to convince me:

Datames (sometimes referred to as Tarkumuwa) was a satrap of Cappadocia from 385 – 362 BC, under the Achaemenid/Persian Empire. Around 375 BC he struck silver staters at the Tarsos, Cilicia mint that, on their reverses, depict him seated, wearing Persian dress (including the bashlyk and baggy trousers that the Parthians would later adopt), with empty sleeve (another motif borrowed by the Parthians), inspecting (or offering?) an arrow, with a bow to lower right and winged solar disk to upper right. As Curtis and Stewart state in their article: “This could indicate that the coins of the western satraps of the Achaemenid Empire (were) known to the early Arsacids once they took over power in Parthia.” Datames is shown in a 3/4 view whereas the Parthian archer is always in profile, and he (Datames) holds an arrow rather than the bow. But the similarities are clear enough. Compare, for example, the legs of the throne of Datames in the rightmost image of the top row in the pic below, with the throne legs in the leftmost image of the second row.  That leftmost coin of the second row is the first issue of the Parthians. Pics below courtesy of CNG and

*I should add I can accept that the transition from throne to omphalos as the seat of choice for the Parthian archer in the coinage of Mithradates I (171 - 138 BC) and some rulers afterwards, may well have been inspired by the omphalos of Apollo in the Seleukid issues.

Top row in the pic below shows reverses of coins of Datames; the lower row illustrates reverses of two drachms of Arsakes I from the beginning of the Parthian Empire, and an Artabanos IV (216 - 224 AD) reverse from the final years of the Empire, showing the degenerated image of the archer:

Great little piece Bob!  A lot of food for thought which does indeed make a lot of sense.  Thanks for sharing!

Steve S.

Hi Bob,

I am sure you are on the right track. The satraps in the Achaemenid Empire wore the bashlyk, and I am sure the throne and the Ahura Mazda sign were the symbols of legitimate rule. We know that ancient coins traveled far, so it is not surprising that the early Parthians would have been familiar with Kappadokian coins. Is the throne of Dareios to be their symbol of legitimacy? Strange that it is shown without a back on the early Parthians. Later, especially on the tetradrachms, we get the complete throne.
Good piece of cultural history. I had never seen these coins of Datames.

Below a picture of Dareios' throne from Persepolis.


Thanks for the comments!  It's not exactly on par with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, but I do think this is the basis for the Parthian archer.

--- Quote from: Schatz on May 16, 2017, 09:50:32 am ---Strange that it is shown without a back on the early Parthians.

--- End quote ---

Actually, Schatz, this only reinforces - for me, at least - that these issues of Datames served as the direct antecedent for the archer of the early Parthian reverses.

Note the seat of Datames on the coins of the top row.  There is no back (of the throne) to be seen.  Now, whether this is because there actually was no back, or whether it is because he is depicted in 3/4 view and thus blocks our view of the back, is irrelevant.  The important point is that if these Datames coins were handed to the first die engravers of the newly formed Parthian Empire, along with instructions like "Give us a rendition of Arsakes that looks like this, but have him hold a bow instead of an arrow" - well, these engravers might very well not show a back to the throne simply because the Datames archetypes here have no visible throne back either.

quite possible, although I was not certain if there was a covered back or not. The torso of the Datames coin reverse is so broad that it is difficult to be sure one way or the other. Perhaps it would have been presumptuous for a satrap to be portrayed to be sitting on a throne identical to that of the Achaemenid kings, therefore no back, or at least no visible back.
The hidden language of the coins is fascinating. The early Parthians as non-Iranians were eager to document legitimacy with the throne, but perhaps not with the entire throne, later continuity with the Seleukan omphalos, and then from S.26.1 with the confidence of Mithradates II. the whole Achaemenid throne. Much later, especially with Osroes, it degenerates to something like an Adirondack chair.



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