DOTS ON PARTHIAN COINS: CREATIVE MINT WORKERS OR INHERITED DISEASE?

by Stepan Koncha

The Parthian Empire was thriving from 237 BCE to 228 CE. Just like other kingdoms, the Parthians (modern Iran) minted their coins. Starting with Mithridates II, who reigned from 123 to 88 BCE, his coins and the coins of his successors depicted a mysterious dot on the face, which was believed to be a wart. Some numismatists seemed to imagine Parthian kings, eager to depict their family wart on their coins. Others pictured creative mint workers, which used a priorly unknown method to mark the die and the material that the coins were made of. A third point of view argued that political reasons could be influential to depicting dots on coins–the Parthians found a way to settle the Parthian king’s brother, Tiridates I of the Arsacid Dynasty, on the Armenian throne. The first one to notice these dots was a numismatist Warwick William Wroth. Since then, numismatists over the world debated the issue. This paper will argue that dots depicted on the coins of Parthian kings are not a sign of skin disease.

The facial mark on Parthian kings is not a sign of skin disease because the appearance of the nodule is occasional and irregular. According to a numismatist and historian Gerhard D. Hart who studied the issue, though Parthian kings’ warts appear on coins they do not appear on actual portraits of the same kings. This is extremely important to note because the portraits showed the same king, and must have been prone to depict the same facial features. According to the article, Facial Marks on Parthian Coins: a sign of skin disease?, Vologases I, who put the dot under his nose in the first issue from August to November 51 CE, disposed of it after November. At that time Vologases purposefully invaded Armenia to put his brother, Tiridates I, upon the throne. This is why there was a point of view among numismatists that the dots on particularly Vologases I coins were somehow related to the ascent of Tiridates upon the Armenian throne. Armenia, at that time, was a critical location. This fact is also worth noting due to the short period of time in which the wart was disposed of. If the king did not like the wart and had a medical process carried out to dispose of it, why even put it on the first issue? According to the numismatist Dr. Fabrizio Sinisi, a certain king, Orodes II, minted coins without a nodule on his face for a period of time and then abruptly the dot was seen. This statement is even more in support of the theory that the dot on coins was not a wart. The fact that the king did not have the dot before his ascent upon the throne is well-known and a wart growing coincidentally with the ascent upon the throne is unbelievable. According to the same numismatist, Vologases IV minted tetradrachms with the dot in 191 CE, however, a series of the same coins from 191 to 208 CE do not depict any kind of nodule. This case is important because it is similar to the case of the king’s ancestor and namesake. The wart’s appearance is irregular and abrupt.

According to the works of Murray L. Eiland, “There are some significant ‘gaps’ in the chronology where the hypothesis is supported by no evidence of lesions [SK: warts]”. This is very important to note, for the evidence of warts does not indeed point to inherited disease. As Sinisi pointed out, the cases of Vologases IV and his nodule’s “behavior” in terms of inheritance shows, that the nodule is almost definitely not inherited. This eliminates the fact of a disease or some kind of permanent mark. This is worthy of note due to the fact that inherited diseases simply cannot appear and disappear abruptly, in ripped time frames. According to the article Facial Marks on Parthian Coins: a sign of skin disease?, the nodule was most probably not present (or inherited) on the king’s face, for it is hard to form Orodes II’s coins with the wart into one time period. This means that the fact of it being a disease is not possible. This is also a very important point because the absence of pattern and logic is evidence against the dots being a disease.

This could be related to the Roman/Parthian conflict over Armenia. By that time, Tiridates I of Armenia (coin see above: Tiridates I (obverse) with Cleopatra (reverse) AD 52/3-60) was already crowned and the Treaty of Rhandia signed. This means that Vologases I did not need to emphasize his ruling with the dot because his brother was already on the Armenian throne and was not a candidate to the Parthian throne. This Treaty of Rhandia led to the final peaceful agreement between Rome and Parthia about the Armenian throne, which then could have strongly influenced Vologases I, who did not have to compete for the throne in his own empire.

The facial mark on Parthian kings is not a sign of skin disease because very similar signs were used to mark the die or the bulk from which the coins were minted, and the actual goal was to distinguish the coins. According to Murray L. Eiland, an archaeologist in the Middle East “…these lesions could have been no more than a common ailment. Their presence might be ascribed to an effective die-engraver, who perhaps did more than was necessary.” This piece of evidence clearly shows the great probability of the warts being just marked to distinguish die just like other signs on Parthian coins (half-moon, altars, etc.). According to Sinisi, the second issue of Vologases I’s tetradrachms (~61-69 CE)  does not show the dot, while the drachms from the same issue do. This is important because it shows that if the same king put a dot on tetradrachms and did not put a dot on drachms, then the dot was not present on the king’s face as he would be minting it on both types of coins. According to the article Facial Marks on Parthian Coins: a sign of skin disease?, the last issue of Vologases I’s drachms and tetradrachms does not include the dot at all when the previous ones do. Knowing that previous issues either had a dot on both tetradrachms and drachms or one of the currencies, this last issue could be deprived of the dot just to keep track of what issue it was. According to Dr. Fabrizio Sinisi, an Italian numismatist and archaeologist, “In all these instances we are clearly faced with the devices used by the mint personnel to handle production according to the plan.” This is also important because mint personnel had to find a way to keep track of their work without making it critical to the coin’s design. A little wart would perfectly be suitable for that. The facial mark on Parthian kings is not a sign of skin disease because such dots are likely to be used to mark the die or the bulk from which the coins were minted, and the actual goal was to distinguish the coins.

A coin of Phraates IV, who ruled c. 40 BC, a century before Vologases I.


Now some people may state that the nodules were purposefully put on the coins and were carefully and thoughtfully designed. I totally acknowledge that these statements have logic to them. According to Hart, the dots are real nodules mostly because of their different form. These dots are not similar and have a different shape. However, the purposefulness of the action cannot be fully supported, for minting facilities 2,000 years ago did not possess tools to unify all the details on coins, and the variety of dots is most probably accidental. Knowing the fact that even modern numismatists had problems distinguishing locks of hair from warts, it would be simply a great compliment for the minting workers of that time, to be able to purposefully change the shape of the dot. Thus, I still believe that the facts and the strongly supported evidence from modern numismatists can definitely outweigh these arguments.

All in all, in my opinion, warts on Parthian coins are not a sign of skin disorder on the actual sovereigns. The coins of Parthia are one of the most mysterious areas in modern numismatic studies of antique coins. The great empire has its own secrets. The paper states that the dots on the Parthian kings’ foreheads are not a disease because firstly, their appearance is abrupt and not logical, secondly, they were most probably used to mark the bulk or die of the coins, and finally, that the nodules are not a disease due to the fact that they are not inherited in a disease-like manner. The point of view presented in this paper is due to the painstaking work done by numismatists all over the world, who were able to dig even further into the evidence from Parthian coins to form an opinion, that in fact, Parthian kings were relatively healthy in terms of their skin. However, the statement that the workers at the ancient Parthian mint were creative shall not be denied. In addition, I would like to point out that the importance of Armenia to both sides (Armenia was a strategically important location for both empires) was an extremely important clue to realizing the truth about the warts for other numismatists and myself. Armenia, which seemed to not have any connection between itself and Parthian coins, could have influenced them directly, through politics. The arguments about the disputes over Armenia may be considered a fourth argument that also supports my point of view. From this, I infer, that the arguments against the dots being warts are clearly strong enough to convince me that these dots are not a sign of some kind of skin disease on the kings.


Sources:

Sinisi, Fabrizio. “Facial Marks on Parthian Coins: a sign of skin disease?” Numismatische Zeitschrift, no. 124, 2018.

Hart, Gerald D. “Trichoepithelioma and the Kings of Ancient Parthia.” Men and Books, 12 Mar. 1966, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1936547/pdf/canmedaj01155-0032.pdf. Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.

Markowitz, Mike. “Ancient Coin Insights: Coinage of Parthia.” coinweek.com, 26 Aug. 2014, coinweek.com/ancient-coins/ancient-coin-insights-coinage-parthia/. Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.

Eiland, Murray L. “The Parthian “Dark Age”: History from Coins”, The Celator. Academia.edu, 13 Mar.  1999.

Cartwright, Mark. “Ancient Armenia.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 6 Mar. 2018,  www.ancient.eu/armenia/. Accessed 29 Apr. 2019.

About the Author:

Stepan Koncha is a student at the American International School of Vienna and a member of the Austrian Numismatic Society.