Greco-Bactrian coins in the Lahori Museum – 1908

After Alexander’s two years  campaign in India, the Greek power, thus established, gave place in less than 10 years’ time to Indian under the headship of Chandragupta, and later the dynasty of Asoka. Greek influence found its stronghold in Bactria, the modern Balkh, and it is from there that most of the coins of the earlier kings come.


About 250 b.c. Bactria became  independent of the Selucid Kings of Syria, under Diodotus and under a series of kings, or, perhaps more correctly kings and their viceroys—Diodotus, Euthydemus, Demetrius, Eukratides, Pantaleon, Agathokles, Antimachus I and Plato, ending with Heliokles—was ruled by Greek colonists till about 130 b.c, when the Greeks were driven out by Scythians from the north. During these 120 years, though several kings appear to have invaded India, Eukratides and Heliokles are the only kings whose coins are frequently found in India. After the Scythian conquest of Bactria, Heliokles established himself in India, with the Kabul Valley as the centre of his power. Of the kings that follow Heliokles very little is known. From the evidence of double struck coins, his immediate successors or contemporaries included Strato, Philoxenus and Antimachus II.


From Greek, or less certainly, Indian sources, the kings Apollodotus and Menander made wide conquests ; Apollodotus probably ruling the whole Indus Valley, while Menander’s conquests followed the course of the Ganges. From the find-spots of coins the kings Zoilus, Strato, Hippostratus and Artemidorus were probably local kings of a portion of the Punjab only, while the fact that Agathokleia,  3* the wife of Strato, and Kalliope, the wife of Hermaeus (Plate XII, No. 29), were honoured by their heads being placed on coins, (the double-headed Agathokleia and Strato coin has, so far, only appeared as a cast, but the Museum contains a copper coin bearing both names, and the queen’s head,—see Cabinet A-4, No. 4) which would indicate royal descent, suggests that there were, at times, several mutually independent kingdoms. This is also indicated, by the number of different kings, which have to be placed in the short space of 150 years, as in 25 A. D. the last king Hermaeus was displaced by Kadphises, who at first strikes coins as his colleague, and later, as sole ruler.

Many historical deductions have been suggested from the coins themselves, e.g., the head with “elephant’s spoils” (see Plate XII, No. 12), as indicating conquest of the native Indians; the kausia, (see Plate XII, No. 16) as Macedonian descent, etc. ; but such uncertain theories appear unfitted for discussion in a hand-book. The ransference of power from Bactria to the Kabul Valley neighbourhood, though unrecorded historically, is indicated, (a) by the localities in which the coins are found, (b) by the fact that Demetrius first strikes a few copper coins with Kharoshthi inscriptions, while with Heliokles, the Kharoshthi appears on both copper and silver coins ; while Antialkidas is the last king in date who strikes coins of the Greek standard of weight, Heliokles striking both standards. General Cunningham formed many theories, founded on his readings of the monogram mint marks as supposed to indicate the mint town of the coins on which they occur. These theories have not been accepted by continental authorities, but, as founded on the observations of the collector who had best opportunities of ascertaining the localities at which coins are discovered, they

appear to deserve more credit than has been given them. Indeed, to any one who has himself discovered coins, and noted the types that occur and their localities, it seems difficult not to accept his general conclusions. Excluding coins of same type, but of different value and varieties in mint mark, the kings of Greek names are responsible for nearly 200 types, known and catalogued. Evidence of the existence of at least a dozen more types is  available, in the form of casts of coins offered for sale by dealers. Of this total, the Lahore Museum possesses 95 types and many duplicates. It was, therefore, not difficult to select a set of representative coins for photography. The only noticeable deficiencies are,—(t) no good specimen of a coin of Alexander is in the Museum, (it) the very interesting 57 and historically, the most important of all the series, the medal of Eucratides, struck in honour of his parents Heliokles and Laodkie, is represented only by a poor cast (Electrotypes, Class I, No. 22).


The series, as illustrated in Plate XII, opens with,

(1) medal of Alexander, struck by Agathokles ; the king’s head is a good portrait and the coin though worn is very clear this medal forms one of a series of five struck bv Agathokles and Antimachus I, in honour of notable Greek rulers and probably   represents a temporary revival of the national ideas of the Greek colonists. Earlier in date, and contemporary with Alexander’s own coins, is No. 2, a didrachm of Sophytes, an Indian king contemporary with Alexander, ruler of the territory on the Jhelum and Salt Range, the coin is pure Greek in type, the reverse shows a very beautiful Indian gamecock. The actual series of Bactrian coins opens with a didrachm of Diodotus, No. 3, who is recorded in history as governor of Bactria, the modern province of Balkh, 250 b. c, and as setting himself up as an independent ruler, thus beginning the Greek Eastern Empire, the coinage of whose kings is here described. No. 4 is an obolus of Demetrius, and is shown here as a type of the frequently occurring Hercules with club and lion’s skin, which may be contrasted with No. 5, the draped and sceptred Zeus with thunderbolt, from the reverse of a tetradrachm of Heliokles. Nos. 7 and 8 are, respectively, obverse and reverse of the usual type of Eukratides, and show the helmeted portrait bust of the king, and on the reverse the mounted Dioscuri, (Castor and Pollux) charging on horseback with lances and palms.

No. 9 is a coin of Antialkidas, here shown for the caps and palm branches which again indicate the worship of the Dioscuri. The three following coins are selected, to show the representation of common Indian animals, and are, No. 10, a leopard, on a copper coin of Pantaleon, which probably also refers to the worship of the wine god Dionysus while No. 11, and the coin above, No. 6, are square hemidrachms of Apollodotus, and show the humped Indian bull and the elephant.


The next row of five coins is chosen to show, the styles cf head-dress favoured by the kings. It starts with No. 12 a Lysias, in the ” elephant’s spoils.” No. 13 a helmeted Menander, very much akin to the helmeted Eukratides, No 7. No. 14 the same king, bare-headed but clothed in scale armour, and thrusting with a spear. No. 15

an Apollodotus with a filleted head, which among the Greeks was the usual emblem of royalty. No. 16 an 3 Antialkidas wearing the royal cap of the Macedonia, the kausia. Two other types occur but no good specimens are in the Museum,—(a) a tiara head-dress or Phrygian cap peculiar to Amyntas and Hermaeus (Cabinet No. A, 6-29),

and (b) a laurel or ivy wreathed head, best shown in a large copper coin of Menander (Cabinet No. G, 4-33).


The next line is similarly selected to show the commoner deities. No. 17 is a victory with wreath, from the reverse of a coin of Azes, No. 18 is Minerva armed with thunderbolt, from a coin of Menander ; this is the commonest reverse, and occurs on coins of nearly all the  kings later than Heliokles. No, 19 is a victory with a palm branch, which occurs on the coins of Antimachus Nikephorus (the victory bearer). No. 20 is Hercules with a club and lion skin (compare with No. 4), taken from a

rare coin of Zoilus. No. 21 represents Zeus seated in a chair, taken from a coin of Antialkidas. These, with No. 24 showing Apollo, include all the commoner types, the’ Artemis shown on the rare coins of Artemidorus (the gift of Artemis) and Hermaeus ; and the scythes on the coin of Telephus (neither in Museum) being the only important omissions. The next line includes No. 22, the horseman type from a didrachm of Philoxenus (the horse alone, supposed to be typical of freed Bactria is not represented in the Museum collection). No. 23 is a didrachm of Hippostratus, showing either, Demeter, or a city deity, carrying the horn of plenty. – , No. 24 is Apollo, from a chalkon of Apollodotus (given by Apollo) which with No. 26, a square chalkon of Menander $re selected as typical of the coins, which, as we know from Greek sources, remained current in India down to 200 a. d. at least, No. 25 is a typical coin of Azes, a contemporary of Hermaeus, and king of the Punjab, it is selected, from many types of this king, as being the most artistic ; on the reverse is a Poseidon (god of the sea) which occurs on only one other coin of the Graeco-Bactrian series (Cabinet No. G, 8-36).


Following on with, No. 27, we get a rare coin of Epander, showing another treatment of the Indian bull; these with the three coins, Nos. 6, 10 and 11, and a series occurring in the copper ccins of Menander, of (a) the camel, (b) the Indian lion (Cabinet No. G, 4-36), exhaust the typically Indian animals represented, neither of these, nor the very interesting coins, bearing a wheel (type of universal dominion according to Buddhist ideas) occur in good condition in the Museum collection. On a rare copper 39 coin of Agathokles, Electrotypes, Class I, No. 18, and Cabinet No. A, 1-14, is to be seen a figure of a nautch girl. The next coin No. 28 of Hyrkodes is shown as an example of the deterioration of art, even when compared with No. 25 or still more with No. 7. No. 29 is the double headed coin of Hermaeus and his royal wife Kalliope, referred to previously, and No. 30 is a portrait of king Gondophares, a ruler of Eastern Afghanistan, shown, as by ancient tradition, a king of this name, is said to have martyred St. Thomas, the apostle of India. All that can be said, as to truth or falsity of this story, is, that the date of the king is about 50 a.d., and that in the legend, Gondophares’ nephew is called Labdanes, which may easily be a corruption of Abdagases, a contemporary and related king. The next row is rather disconnected, but the first, No. 31, i6 a gold coin of Kanerkes, and is principally interesting as showing the big boots, fur cap and ” postin” still worn in the Kabul valley.


No. 32 is the reverse of another coin of this king showing Lakshmi and the bull, and No. 33 is a Buddhist coin of about 300 a.d. Nos. 34 and 35 are punchedmarked coins, of far clearer and more legible character, than the usually occurring specimens; the elephant on No. 35 is supposed to refer to the ancient city of Taxila (now Shah-ki-deri near Hasan Abdal). This particular square punch-marked coin is probably of date about 50 a.d. as the elephant clearly shows traces of Greek’s art. It is, however, interesting to notice that India, of all the countries subject to Greek influence, seems to have retained its national characteristics in coinage best, the square form, so often occurring, is exclusively Indian, and is, no doubt, due to imiation of the square and oblong punch-marked coins the Greeks found in circulation on their arrival, so also, the inscriptions in Greek and Kharoshthi on  these coins are quite unusual, in no other case, did Greek kings condescend to employ their subject’s language on their coins. It is unfortunate, that the Museum does not possess any specimens of the unique, and metallurgically very interesting nickel coinage of Agathokles and Pantaleon.

Indian historians have reason to be grateful for this fact. The bilingual Greek and Kharoshthi coin inscriptions have been the ” Rosetta stone ” of Indian archaeology, and it is not too much to say, that without these, as a Starting point, Indian history from 30 B.c, to 400 a.d. would be a blank.


In conclusion, the visitor is recommended to look at the revolving frames, Classes, I, II and III, of electrotypes, 4o (supplied by the British Museum), which show exact reproductions of all typical coins, and may be consulted, to fill in the gaps of the Museum collection. It may be as well to state, that coins of these series may be found, on enquiry, in nearly every eld town of the Punjab. Such coins are usually of common types, and may be considered as likely to be genuine. Any person who wishes to collect Bactrian coins largely, and to buy the rare types from curiosity dealers, should realise that he is extremely likely to be deceived ; forgery by casting, and, less commonly, by actual dies, is carried on extensively outside British India, and the dealers themselves are frequently deceived, to such an extent, that it may safely be said that hardly one coin in ten in their possession is genuine. A set of forger’s dies and stamps may be seen in Case O. In a hand-book of this character any description of the methods of distinction between false and genuine coins would be out of place. Only constant handling and examination will give any skill, and there is little doubt that, in the present state of the forger’s art, the best expert is liable to be occasionally deceived. It is extremely improbable that a new type of coin has ever been successfully forged. All false coins appear to represent imitations of genuine coins, which are either known, or will sooner or later come to light.

Source: A descriptive guide to the department of Archaeology & Antiquities by Percy Brown

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