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The History & Coinage of Baktria

Sale: Triton XIII, Lot: 249. Estimate $2000. 
Closing Date: Monday, 4 January 2010. 
Sold For $3000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

BAKTRIA, Greco-Baktrian Kingdom. Diodotos II. Circa 235-225 BC. AV Stater (8.30 g, 6h). Mint A (near Aï Khanoum). Diademed head right / BAΣIΛEΩΣ down right, ΔIOΔOTOY down left, Zeus Bremetes, seen from behind, advancing left, brandishing aegis and thunderbolt; in inner left field, N above eagle standing left. Cf. Holt Series C, Group 2 (drachm); Kritt -; Bopearachchi -; SNG ANS -; Triton VII, 693 (same obv. die). Good VF, a few light field marks and minute traces of deposits, usual test cut in hair repaired. Very rare. SOLD AS IS.

In the early 3rd century BC, Baktria was a satrapy at the far eastern edge of the Seleukid Empire. A huge expanse of territory separated its main population centers from the Seleukid heartland to the west, in Syria and Babylonia. Even the major Seleukid city of Ekbatana was distant to facilitate Seleukid control of Baktria. In the aftermath of the death of the Seleukid founder, Seleukos I, the Empire began to fragment, and, by the 250s BC, the Seleukid satrap in Bactria, Diodotos I, either proclaimed himself, or was proclaimed, king of Baktria. The circumstances of the event are still unclear today. From the beginning of the Seleukid Empire, it was difficult for the royal administration to exert firm control over its more isolated regions in the east, and it seemed only a matter of time before it lost some of these satrapies. Revolts were not uncommon, nor were external threats, such as the Indian kingdoms just to the south-southwest of Baktria. Thus, it is possible that Diodotos was simply acclaimed king upon the event of a decisive victory over any number of enemies (a situation common in the later Roman Empire). Or, perhaps, he was made king to give the local government more authority over the local population. What is known is that Diodotos was not a Baktrian, but a Greek, so this was not a nativist movement by any means. Most of the court would also be composed of Greeks. However, from the time of Alexander, the local Greek rulers were encouraged to marry into the local aristocracy, so by the time of Diodotos, he and his court may have been quite welcome.

The new Baktrian Kingdom roughly corresponded to the area of modern Afghanistan. It had many natural barriers protecting it from external threats: deserts and mountains to the southwest, the sparsely populated Iranian plateau to the west and northwest, vast isolated steppes to the north, and the rugged Himalayan Mountains to the east. Thus, the only external threat, at that time, lay to the south, India. Nevertheless, the two regions were separated by the Hindu Kush, which proved difficult for an invading army from either side. These natural barriers, however, were unnecessary to prevent the Seleukids from attempting to recover its lost satrapy. The threat to Seleukid territory in Asia Minor demanded far more interest, and although Seleukos II attempted to reestablish control over his fragmented eastern lands circa 228 BC, his efforts were limited, and futile. With this threat resolved, the Diodotids were free to consolidate their control over Baktria.

A diverse coinage was issued from the very beginning of Diodotos I's reign, with a full range of denominations in all metals. Interestingly, the earliest of these coins bore the name of the Seleukid king, Antiochos II, who ruled at the time Diodotos broke from the Empire. The reason for continuing to issue coinage in the name of Antiochos is one of the enduring mysteries of the kingdom's coinage, made more puzzling for the fact that the obverse portrait clearly must be Diodotos, not Antiochos. While the artistic quality of the Diodotid coinage was very good, compared to other Hellenistic kingdoms of its day, the coinage of Euthydemos I stands out, with an astonishingly beautiful aesthetic. Clearly, some of the best Greek engravers were employed by his mints. The realism that is a high water mark of the early Hellenistic coinage is most exemplified by his issues, and this high standard was continued under his successors. The beauty of Euthydemos' coins stands in stark contrast to the difficulties of his reign, most notably the invasion of a significant force under the Seleukid king Antiochos III 'the Great.' This was the last and largest threat the new kingdom faced from its former ruler, and although initially defeated in battle at the river Arius, Euthydemos successfully resisted a three-year siege of his capital, Baktra. In the end, Antiochos made peace with Euthydemos, and officially recognized Baktria as an independent state.

With the end of the Seleukid threat, Baktria was poised to change from a consolidating phase into one of expansion. In the remaining years of Euthydemos, Baktria expanded northward, gaining control of Sogdiana and Ferghana, and also added some territory westward into the eastern Iranian plateau. Euthydemos' son, Demetrios I, however, turned the kingdom's attention to the rich lands of India, and led an army across the Hindu Kush around 180 BC. The formidable Indian Mauryan empire had been recently overthrown by the Sunga dynasty, and the situation became ripe for Baktrian conquest. Demetrios' invasion was extremely successful, and by 175 BC, northwestern India was largely in his hands. We now refer to this area as the 'Indo-Greek' region of the Baktrian kingdom (the area to the north of the Hindu Kush is known as the 'Greco-Baktrian' region). The new region also precipitated a major change in the kingdom's coinage. While the Greco-Baktrian region retained a Greek coinage, the 'Indo-Greek' region developed a coinage that synthesized Greek and traditional Indian coinage. Most notably, these coins were bilingual, with one side retaining Greek inscriptions, while the other was inscribed in the Indian Kharoshthi. The Indo-Greek coinage was struck on a lighter, Indian standard, and local bronze issues were minted in a square module, a traditional coinage shape in Indian coinage.

By the middle of the 2nd century BC, two developments had occurred that would have a significant effect on the future of the kingdom. First, the size of the kingdom, especially as it was separated into two regions by the Hindu Kush, became untenable under a single authority based in Baktra. Thus, a separate king was created to administer the Indo-Greek region in the south. Although originally subordinate to the king in Baktra, the Indo-Greek kings soon began to act independently, creating an internal threat to the stability of the entire kingdom. Second, massive nomadic invasions, primarily by the Yuezhi and Skythian tribes, began from the north. These invasions completely changed the landscape of Central Asia and northern India over the subsequent two centuries.

The rift between the two regions was split wide by the usurpation of Eukratides I in the Greco-Baktrian north circa 170 BC. The Euthydemid ruler Antimachos I was overthrown, and an invasion by the Indo-Greek branch of the royal family failed. Euktratides soon took a force across the Hindu Kush, and subdued most of the Indo-Greek lands. For a short period, Eukratides ruled over all the Baktrian domains, and his massive coinage clearly reflects his success and the costs involved. Eventually, though, an Indo-Greek king, Menander I, repulsed his forces which retreated back across the mountains, and the separation between the two kingdoms was solidified. At the same time, Eukratides was threatened by a Parthian invasion to his northwest. The Parthians, under one of their greatest kings, Mithradates I, quickly defeated the Baktrian forces, and captured all of the lands east of the Arius. One of Eukratides' successors, Eukratides II or Heliokles I, possibly in conjunction with a Seleukid advance into Parthia in the west, attempted to repel Mithradates, but failed miserably. By the time of the reign of Heliokles, the Greco-Baktrian kingdom was reduced to a small region around Baktra, but soon the seemingly never-ending wave of Skythian invasions totally overwhelmed them, ending Baktrian rule north of the Hindu Kush about 130 BC. The mountains helped the Indo-Greek kingdom survive a bit longer, but even they eventually fell to the invaders by the late 1st century BC.