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XXI

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Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum

Volume VII Vologases I – Pacorus II
By Fabrizio Sinisi
Published by the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Centre for Ancient World Studies, 2012
Approximate cost = $200

Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum, Volume VII, is hardbound, 431 pages, 8 ½” (w) x 12” (h), and in English.  The coins covered in this volume span c. 51 - 110 AD (David Sellwood types 68 through 77).  Although this is volume seven of an anticipated nine-volume set covering the entire Parthian series, it is the first in the set to be published.

The forward and introduction explain the ambitious goals of the Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum which, when complete, will document approximately 17,000 coins from the collections of a number of museums worldwide, including the National Museum of Iran, as well as from the collection of David Sellwood.  (Volume VII catalogues and illustrates 1,315 coins)  Beyond merely providing an extensive record of Parthian coins, the project aims to “offer a reliable tool for the study of Parthian history as a whole.”  Towards that end the volumes will include historical essays that will “link the results of the coin analysis with evidence drawn from non-numismatic sources.”

In a footnote to the introduction, author Fabrizio Sinisi provides a brief rationale for respecting most of Sellwood’s attributions (Sellwood numbers are used in the catalogue portion of the book) and for avoiding Dr. G.R.F. Assar’s recent reassignment of some rulers.  Volume VII opts to refer to Sellwood’s Vardanes II as “son of Vardanes” (as per Tacitus) and it asserts that there is no compelling evidence that this individual issued anything other tetradrachms.  Thus Volume VII challenges Sellwood’s attribution of Vardanes II for his type 69 drachms.  The forthcoming SNP Volume VI, which will cover the period of 8 – 51 AD, will reassign type 69 drachms to Vardanes I - for more information see the Institut für Kulturgeschichte der Antike website at http://www.oeaw.ac.at/antike/index.php?id=344.  In addition, the current volume (VII) attributes both the tets and drachms of Sellwood’s type 72s to Vologases I, not Vologases II (as Sellwood assigned them).

After the introduction, Volume VII is essentially divided into two parts.  The first part consists of a brief (ten-page) historical overview of the period covered by this volume followed by a very thorough numismatic study, which itself consists of sections devoted to typology, metrology, chronology and history.  The historical overview contains an interesting suggestion that the Parthian move away from Greek cultural influences in language and art at this time was not really an “active negation” based on nationalism but rather a politically expedient decision to essentially just reemphasize components of the collective memory.  The question is posed whether the period (1st century AD) truly represented an abrupt cultural rupture with an attendant neo-Iranian revival, or “whether we might not be dealing with elements already present among the ideological tools available to the Arsacids since their very beginnings, which only came to the fore due to new circumstances” (referring to conflicts with Rome).

The second part of the book is the catalogue, which consists of a section devoted to basic typology (including drawn illustrations of all basic types), followed by the 73 plates of photographed coins.  The catalogue begins with clear and helpful remarks about its organization and abbreviations.  Coin photographs in the catalogue are B/W and presented at full (100%) scale.  While this works reasonably well for drachms and tetradrachms, it presents a challenge for readers attempting to study images from the chalkous denomination.  Since these are very small coins, often with rough surfaces, the details are hard to see as presented.  Enlargements could have helped here.

A number of passages throughout the volume are illustrated by drawings that are superior in detail to David Sellwood’s drawings in his classic An Introduction to the Coinage of Parthia.  As collectors of Parthian coinage well know, struck images on the coins are usually cropped (some motifs go off-flan); one rarely encounters perfectly centered, complete images and legends.  Whereas Sellwood illustrated coins as cropped (necessitating a separate, accompanying diagram of the completed reverse legend for each coin type), SNP Volume VII shows, in every instance, the entire obverse and reverse image as they existed on the dies, if not the coins themselves.  This is obviously beneficial to collectors since the degree and location of cropping on actual coins varies so much. 

The SNP illustrator is also more consistent than Sellwood in using the convention of a double contour line to describe each single raised linear mark on a coin’s surface (Sellwood often took a more economical approach by using single strokes of his pen for some of the details – particularly on the illustrations of drachms).  In SNP Volume VII each wave of hair and each Greek letter on illustrated coins are encircled by an inner and outer contour line, which helps convey dimensionality.

I particularly appreciated the several pages devoted to illustrations of contrasting types of diadems, tunics, and necklets to be found on the obverses of coins of this period.  In each drawing the illustrator wisely blackens in the parts of the image not being focused upon, essentially creating a silhouette for the ruler/issuer while leaving the motif being studied (diadem, tunic, or necklet) as a line drawing.

The bibliography provided toward the end of the volume is extensive (14 pages).

The book’s scholarship is, as we would expect, very impressive.  The volume contains everything you ever wanted to know about this period in the series, and then some.  It’s certainly easy to accept that the Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum will in many ways surpass all previous studies of the series: Wroth (1903), Newell (1938), Le Rider (1965), Sellwood (1980), and Shore (1993).  But, then, it’s not really a fair comparison.  SNP doesn’t aim to be a generalized survey for one-stop shopping to facilitate easy attribution of the coinage.  It delves much more deeply and systematically into typological details, stylistic analysis, die linkage, etc., while also providing more of the associated historical and economic context.  I think there will still be a place on our shelves for Sellwood (including, hopefully, a forthcoming third edition finalized by Dr. Assar) and Shore and The Sunrise Collection.

More information about the SNP project is available at http://sylloge.org/Info/Home.aspx.