Alexandra Magub

Political and religious ideologies on Parthian coins from the 2nd and 1st centuries BC

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

A study of the British Museum’s collection of c. 2000 Parthian period coins minted during Parthia’s transformation from a nomadic kingdom to a vast empire.

Start Date: September 2013
End Date: September 2016
Theme: Objects, meanings, and knowledge, Ocean trade and connections, Image and authority, Seeing the divine
Research discipline: Money and economic history
Locations: Middle East
Staff member: Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis
Department: Department of Coins and Medals
University and department: Study of Religions, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
University supervisor: Sarah Stewart

What do coins tell us about the use of religion to promote the king’s power?

Religious symbols such as stars, crescent moons and eagles show the king’s power and legitimacy on coins.

Why were Greek deities shown on these ancient Iranian coins?

Greek deities were broadly known in ancient Iran after Alexander the Great’s conquest in 330 BC. These deities may have taken on Iranian religious elements on Parthian coins.

Who used each coin type, how does each type differ?

Silver coins were used by merchants along international trade routes while bronze coinage was used locally. These coins tell us more about cultural diversity inside the empire.

About my research

This research revisits the coin evidence that survives the ancient Iranian Parthian Empire, focusing on periods of fast expansion during the reigns of Mithradates I and II in the 2nd century BC, and periods of turmoil brought on by invasions and dynastic feuds in the 1st century BC.

Imagery and inscriptions struck onto these coins show how the Parthian kings conveyed political and religious ideologies to a culturally diverse empire and in the face of rival powers - both at home and abroad.

The extensive coin evidence is often studied alongside Greek and Latin written accounts to reconstruct the history of this period. However, the coins also resonate with evidence from the Iranian world, such as rock reliefs, fragmented inscriptions, and echoes of heroic rituals and battles narrated centuries later in works such as the national Iranian epic, the Shahnameh.

Aims of my research

A detailed study of Parthian coinage may challenge presumptions surrounding these objects and the culture behind its makers.

Contemporary Roman propaganda portrayed the Parthians as unequal in power, while the successive Sasanian kings and their priests saw their Parthian predecessors as neglectful of the Iranian religion, Zoroastrianism. Until recent decades, modern scholarship has often perpetuated these beliefs.

By reading these historical accounts critically and highlighting important features of the coin evidence, we may be able to dispel many of the uncertainties surrounding Parthia’s political and religious ideology, and to consider this Empire’s role in the waxing and waning power spheres of the time. This research explores the idea that Parthian kings developed intricate political frameworks and maintained strong Zoroastrian principles throughout their rule. It does so by following symbols and narratives throughout ancient Iran’s political and religious history.


Royal Numismatic Society meeting, London (January 2014) – Co-presented an update on the Sylloge Nummorum Parthicorum (Parthian Coin project) with Vesta Curtis and Elizabeth Pendleton of the British Museum, and Chris Hopkins of

Gallery Talk, room 69a at the British Museum (March 2014) – Exploring the objects in the temporary exhibition Wise Men from the East: Zoroastrian Traditions in Persia and Beyond.

Synoikismos Seminar, University of Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium (December 2014) – presenting on the meeting of Hellenistic and Iranian iconography on Parthian coins.

TAG Seminar ‘The Everyday Assemblage’, University of Manchester (December 2014) – Bronze Coinage from the Parthian Empire in the 2nd Century BC - Local Identities Forged within the Imperial Order.

Gallery Talk, room 68 at the British Museum (January 2015) - Revival of the Archer King on Persian Coins.

Also co-hosting a series of seminars at the British Museum with fellow CDA student Helen Chittock on Art Aesthetics and Function: Collaborative Approaches to Everyday Objects (April 2015).


Rivals, Rebels and the Parthian Empire