A Baktrian Nickel & Other Eastern Coins

A friend of mine is seriously interested in metal detecting. He spends every possible moment scouring new home sites (where bulldozers have scraped clean the surface) for Civil War artifacts. Since he lives in an area that saw heavy action in the early years of the war, many of his finds are copper nickel Flying Eagle or Indian Head cents. Most are in miserable condition with surfaces eaten away by the century of burial. It seems that the copper and lead artifacts he finds had an easier time in the ground than these copper-nickel alloy cents. Nickel alloy coins wear well and have become popular as replacements for silver issues. Nickel was relatively new as a coinage metal during the 19th century when it was used in the first United States small cents. New, that is, unless you count the single appearance of nickel used in ancient coins two thousand years earlier.

Euthydemos II - c.190-171 BC - Nickel didrachm
24mm diameter, 7g.
Apollo bust / tripod
monogram to left
" Of King Euthydemos"
Agathokles - c.171-160 BC - Nickel drachm
19mm diameter, 3.3g.
Dionysos bust / Panther touching vine
monogram behind
" Of King Agathokles"

Much of the history and numismatics of the Bakrian kingdom is lost or unclear. Three rulers in the early second century BC issued coins in nickel (a first in the world). On the left we see a Euthydemos II coin which collectors have named didrachm or dichalkous. Later, Agathokles and his brother Pantaleon issued Dionysos/panther nickel coins in two denominations of which we show the smaller: the drachm or chalkon. We really do not know the correct name of these coins or their relationship to the copper or silver issues of the same rulers. It is probably safe to consider the nickel coins a minor denomination since the style and workmanship more closely matches the copper coins than it does the silver.

The alloy is about 25% nickel 75% copper (same as modern U.S. 5 cent pieces). Much discussion has been given to the source of the metal used in these coins. It is known that the Chinese worked nickel alloys at this time and speculation suggests that these coins were a result of trade with China. Nickel retrieved from meteorites has also been mentioned. We simply do not know. The experiment was very short lived and ended the use of nickel in world coinage until the 19th century. Both the tripod and panther coins show a field monogram which appears to be the mintmark of Mirv. A complete collection of ancient nickel coin varieties would easily fit in the palm of your hand but most of the questions that it would raise will be, for now, unanswerable. Like these examples and my friend's Civil War cents, most coins of this series will be pretty rough due to two thousand years of burial. Still, Baktrian nickel coins are a sidelight of ancient numismatics that should not be overlooked.

Eukratides appointed sub-kings to administer parts of his empire. Many of these also issued coins in the Greek tradition. As time distanced the influence of Alexander and the West, the Indo-Greek coinage developed more of a local style. This silver drachm of the sub-king Menander (160-145 BC) shows the mixing of Greek legend on the obverse and local Karosthi on the reverse. Menander is best known for his conversion to Buddhism where he is remembered under the name Milinda. Portraits on the Indo-Greek issues include heroic and helmeted varieties that would have been considered unusual in the Greek homeland. The reverse type shows the Greek goddess Athena.

The defeat of the last Indo-Greek king Hermaios by the Kushan Kujula Kadphises (c.1 BC) did not end coinage in the region. The new rulers issued coins with a considerably more local flavor. Many Kushan coins still used Greek legends but the lettering began to become less clear. Upper left in this group is the most commonly seen Kushan coin. This ruler, now known to have been called Vima Takha (c.55-105 AD), felt no need to put his name on the coin and was long known to collectors only by the title Soter Megas. The full legend (often only partly on the flan) reads 'Great Savior King of Kings'. The horseman on the reverse shown here clearly carries an ax, the Kushan weapon of choice. (I'm told that this is a whip by one who knows better than I but I see an ax.) In the field is the royal monogram. Later Kushan rulers continued the use of distinctive royal monograms (a good thing for collectors since the legends include a mixture of hard to read Greek and local scripts). Many of the deities shown are identified in Greek. The lower right coin shows the Lunar god Mdo. The series includes some better known deities like Siva and Buddha (not shown, too expensive for my humble collection). Upper right (Vasu Deva?? 190-228 AD) and lower left (Kanishka c.232-260 AD) show the common obverse type of the king sacrificing over a low altar. These five examples (20 to 26 mm in diameter) in no way do justice to the wide variety of Kushan issues. Persons interested in these coins need to visit a great site on Ancient Oriental Coins.

This site is called 'Ancient Greek & Roman Coins' but the history of ancient numismatics hardly allows a fine line be drawn between what is 'Greek' and what is not. Most 'Greek' books include the Indo-Greek coins but exclude the Kushan. Collectors should take care not to overlook this (or other) fringe area coinage. It may not be wholly Greek but it is very interesting and collectable.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith