Bactria: Agathocles. 180-165 BCE. Copper alloy. BMC 1844,0909.61
Obverse: Brahmi legend. Female deity.
Reverse: Greek legend. Maneless lion.
If I told you this was a Greek coin would you believe it? The writing on the obverse is decisively not Greek; the square shape is certainly not what we are used to in Greek coinage, and the female deity on the obverse doesn’t look like anybody in the Greek Pantheon. The only clue we get to this coin’s ‘Greek’ origin is the Greek legend on the reverse, which reads ‘BAΣIΛEΩΣ AΓAΘOKΛEOYΣ’, translated as ‘King Agathocles’. It is an Indo-Greek coin, minted in this way for a very specific political purpose: to try and assimilate the Greek king with his Indian subjects.
To understand how a coin like this can be produced, we must start by understanding its geo-political context. It was minted in Bactria (the area that comprises modern day Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Northern Pakistan and Uzbekistan) in the 2nd century BCE by the Indo-Greek king Agathocles. Bactria, by the 2nd century, had already established itself as a real mixing pot of Greek, Afghan, and Indian culture. The region was first exposed to Greek culture after Alexander the Great conquered the territory in the 320’s BCE. Then Seleucus I (a Greek successor to Alexander, one of the Diadochi) established himself as ruler in Asia and his dynasty retained power for another century, further reinforcing the Greek influence in the area. Bactria gained independence between 250-240 BCE, and the Greek Diodotus I became the first Greco-Bactrian king. In the 180’s Greco-Bactrian kings, notably Demetrius I and Menander, started to conquer parts of northern India. Consequently, scholars refer to the kings who ruled this new territory, comprising parts of India, as the Indo-Greek kings. It was in this context that Agathocles, the king who minted the coin in discussion, was operating.
Almost every aspect of this “unusual” coin serves Agathocles’ political purpose. “Unusual” is in inverted commas, as, in fact, Agathocles was following an extremely common trend. It just wasn’t a Greek trend. The kings of the Indian Mauryan dynasty who ruled from the 4th to the 2nd centuries BCE minted almost exclusively square coins. The script on the coin is called Brahmi, the script in which the local Indian language, Pakrit, was written. The legend reads ‘King Agathocles’ in Brahmi script (Rajane Agathuklayasa). Not only was Pakrit the language of the locals, it was also the language of Buddhism, and Agathocles put this script on his coinage to show a genuine attempt at assimilation of Greek and Indian culture.
The images on both sides of the coin also evoke Indian culture. The female deity on the obverse is believed to be Subhadra, the sister of Krishna. The animal on the reverse is agreed to be a ‘maneless lion’, and refers to the literal meaning of Agathocles’ brother’s name: Pantaleon. It was Mauryan custom to use symbols or images to refer to oneself, rather than simply put a portrait on the coins as the Greeks usually did, again, part of Agathocles’ agenda to blur the lines between Greek and Indian culture.
Coins such as these cause us to pause and think: what does ‘Greek’ mean? Does it mean the presence of the Greek language? Minted by a Greek? Because this coin certainly has those aspects. However, this coin would stick out like a sore thumb in a collection of ‘traditionally Greek’ coins. It reveals that in this part of the world, the definitions between Greek and Indian are not so clearly cut. Would an Indian local see this as a Greek imitation of something they had been used to, or would they see it and think there is nothing out of the ordinary, apart from a few (Greek) letters they didn’t understand? These are questions that I am unable to answer here, but that are important to consider when drawing the boundaries between ‘Greek’ and ‘non-Greek’.
This month’s entry was written by Tunrayo Olaoshun, a 4th year undergraduate of Ancient History. She developed a further interest in numismatics during her year abroad in Bologna. Her main interests lie in the later Roman Empire.
Avari, B. (2016). India: the ancient past: a history of the Indian subcontinent from c. 7000 BCE to CE 1200. (London, New York: Routledge)
Narain, A. (1989). The Greeks of Bactria and India. In A. Astin, F. Walbank, M. Frederiksen, & R. Ogilvie (Eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Tarn, W. W. (2010) The Greeks in Bactria and India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Library Collection - Classics).