Front and back of coin showing headshot of King and King sat on throne.

Research project

Parthian coin project

Key project information

Duration

2009 – 2024

Contact details

Email: coins@britishmuseum.org

Partner

Austrian Academy of Sciences 

Supported by

Austrian Academy of Sciences 
British Institute of Persian Studies

What can Parthian coinage tell us about the Arsacid Parthians (about 248 BC – AD 224) within their Iranian cultural and historical background?

In power for almost 500 years, the Parthians are one of the most important dynasties of the post-Hellenistic and pre-Islamic Middle East. This Iranian dynasty revived pre-Hellenistic traditions, such as royal titles and regalia, which were then passed on to the Sasanians and also later Islamic dynasties.

Parthian coins are the most extensive and informative primary source of this dynasty yet they have largely been ignored by scholars working on the Parthians. The Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum: an international coin project (SNP) uses Parthian coinage as the key tool to provide a better understanding and interpretation of this important pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty. It will be a major source of information not only about Parthian coins, but also about the history, art history, culture and religion of the Parthian Empire.

The SNP project brings together researchers from various international museums and research institutes and is a collaboration between teams based in London, Vienna, Paris, Berlin, New York and Tehran. 

About the project

One hundred years after the Persian Empire was overthrown by Alexander of Macedon, a new Iranian dynasty emerged. By 140 BC, this new political power controlled Western Iran and Mesopotamia. 

Known for their riding and archery skills, the Arsacid Parthians became Rome's most feared enemies east of the River Euphrates. Roman accounts describe battles between Rome and Parthia in detail but no equivalent primary sources are available from the Parthian side. 

However, coins can still tell us a lot about the Parthians and this project will bring together all the Parthian coins from about 248 BC – AD 224 in the collections of the major museums in London, Paris, Berlin, Tehran, New York and Vienna. It will also examine coins in other collections and sales catalogues for comparison to produce a nine-volume catalogue – the Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum – containing detailed records of all of these coins. The British Museum team will produce volumes two and four. Together, these nine volumes will: 

  • Unlock the wealth of information contained in these coins for numismatists (coin specialists), archaeologists, historians and art historians. 
  • Illuminate Iranian and other Near Eastern art, archaeology and history. 

Aims

In a set of nine chronological print catalogues and a project database, this project will provide the documentary basis for the largest study of Parthian coinage ever attempted by:

  • Revealing the production and distribution of Parthian coins and mints. 
  • Drawing conclusions about the function of the royal court and the balance between central and local administration.
  • Deciphering the role of coinage as a propaganda tool at times of internal crisis and external threat. 
  • Considering the royal and religious iconography of the Parthian period in the context of Iranian and Near Eastern culture. 
  • Moving away from a Helleno-centric view of this period that is embedded in classical education and building a new picture of the non-Greco-Roman world. 
  • Restoring the Parthians, who ruled for almost five hundred years over a large geographical area in western Asia, to their rightful place as an important Iranian dynasty. 

Conclusion

The series of nine SNP print catalogues is underway. The British Museum team has already produced volume two: Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum 2, Mithradates II, which examines the history and culture of the reign of Mithradates II (about 122‒91 BC), who consolidated and expanded the Parthian state. They are now working on volume four: Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum 4, Mithradates III – Pacorus I. These kings reigned in the mid-1st century BC, a time of conflict between Parthia and Rome. 

A project database holds images and detailed information about more than 58,000 coins of the Parthian period. It is constantly updated with new material.

Another book, called Rivalling Rome, by Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis and Alexandra Magub, reveals important information about the development and expansion of the Parthian state and Rome's involvement in the region. This began during the reign of Mithradates II and culminated in the devastating defeat of the Roman army in 53 BC. This book also examines the impact of Parthian culture in neighbouring kingdoms, and on post-Parthian times right up to the present day. 

Meet the team

Headshot of Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis.

Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis

Co-Project Lead and Co-Editor of the SNP series
Department of Coins and Medals
The British Museum

Headshot of Colonel Edward C.D. Hopkins.

Edward C.D. Hopkins

Independent Researcher

Headshot of Alexandra Magub

Alexandra Magub

Researcher
Department of Coins and Medals
The British Museum

Headshot of Elizabeth Pendleton.

Elizabeth Pendleton

Researcher
Department of Coins and Medals
The British Museum

Project team

Project supporters

Project supporters

Supported by

Austrian Academy of Sciences

British Institute for Persian studies logo

Outputs

Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum 2, Mithradates II

BOOK

The second volume of Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum examines the history and culture of the reign of Mithradates II (c. 122/1‒91 BC), who consolidated and expanded the Parthian state. 

Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis; Alexandra Magub; Elizabeth J Pendleton; Edward C.D. Hopkins

Published in 2020

Rivalling Rome: Parthian Coins and Culture

BOOK

Coins from the period c. 248 BC – AD 224 reveal important information about the development and expansion of the Parthian state.

Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis; Alexandra Magub

Published in 2020

Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum 7: Vologases I – Pacorus II

BOOK

The first of nine volumes to be published in the SNP series. This volume covers the reigns of the Arsacid kings Vologases I – Pacorus II (AD 51 – c. 110). It is the first attempt to produce a full systematic reconstruction of the Parthian coin series and catalogues 1320 coins from museums and other sources.

Fabrizio Sinisi

Published in 2012