Ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire Coinage

Ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire Coinage


A History of the Persian Achaemenid Empire and Xerxes II





Of all the empires of antiquity the Achaemenid Persian Empire was surely one of the most powerful and bewildering, one which is still improperly understood today. In the sixth century BC it emerged from being a local power in Persia (modern-day Iran) to conquer much of the known world. So successful was it that in the early fifth century BC it was able to attempt to conquer Greece. It is for those failed efforts that Persia is primarily remembered today, but the Achaemenids were a much more sophisticated people than this remembrance of them as a sideshow to Greek history during the Classical period gives them credit for.[1] Yet, so much of Persian history remains shrouded in mystery. What follows explores one particular aspect of that unknown history, the short reign of Xerxes II in late 424 BC and early 423 BC.



The Achaemenid Empire


The empire which Xerxes II would briefly rule in 424 BC and 423 BC was a relatively new power. Following the Late Bronze Age Collapse of the thirteenth century BC the Fertile Crescent across Egypt, the Levant and eastwards into Mesopotamia and Persia had fallen into a Dark Age, during which the civilizations of Egypt, Babylon and other powers had declined massively. This slowly began to change from the tenth century onwards as Pharaonic Egypt was revitalised, the Phoenicians and Israelites began building great cities in the Levant and Assyria and Babylon re-emerged as major powers in Mesopotamia. The former ruled a vast empire stretching from parts of western Iran westwards throughout Mesopotamia to the Levant and even briefly into Egypt under their great king Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BC. But then the Assyrians were replaced by the Babylonians who under their own great ruler, Nebuchadnezzar II, built up a great empire across the Fertile Crescent in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BC.


Yet the Babylonians’ period of ascendancy would also prove short-lived. In the seventh century BC a new power had arose to the east of Babylon in what is now Iran. These were the Persians, a people who had begun to conquer much of the region corresponding with modern-day Iran under their first ruler, a warlord called Achaemenes. The empire which he would begin to create would become known as the Achaemenid Empire in honour of its first ruler. However, it was under Achaemenes’s great-great-grandson, King Cyrus II, that the Achaemenids emerged as the greatest force in the known world. Cyrus the Great expanded the Persian Empire westwards during the mid-sixth century, first conquering the Medians and then moving into Mesopotamia. In 539 Cyrus captured the city of Babylon and occupied much of their former empire westwards towards the Levant and Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). His son and heir, Cambyses II, managed to bring Egypt, Nubia (northern Sudan) and Cyrenaica (Libya) under Persian control during his short reign, while Darius I, or Darius the Great, as he if often termed, extended the Achaemenid Empire to its greatest geographical extremity, conquering parts of what is now Pakistan in the east and extending the westward border of the empire into the Caucasus and the Balkans. Shortly before his death he made the first effort to invade Greece and conquer the rich city states there. He failed in this, but did bring many of the Greek states on the western coast of Turkey under Persian subjugation. His son, Xerxes I, is notable for having attempted to invade Greece again in 480 BC. This involved a much greater army than had been sent by Darius ten years earlier and led to several notable battles, the most famous being at Thermopylae where 300 Spartan warriors are deemed to have held off tens of thousands of Xerxes’s men for days while the wider Greek armies prepared themselves militarily to the south.   


            Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BC as part of a conspiracy led by Artabanus, the commander of the royal guards, which had become a powerful political body as the Achaemenid Empire had grown to dominate most of the known world in the sixth and early fifth centuries BC. He was succeeded by his son, Artaxerxes, a man who ruled for 41 years and did much to consolidate the empire’s control over the vast area which it had conquered in a very short period of time under its great rulers such as Cyrus and Darius. And here is where Xerxes II comes into the picture.[2]



Xerxes II


Artaxerxes had at least sixteen or seventeen children that we know of and possible many more given the nature of a ruler’s harem in ancient times. Of these, the ones who would have a claim to succeed Artaxerxes someday were generally restricted to the sons which had come about through Artaxerxes’s legitimate marriages or liaisons with powerful concubines. The future Xerxes II was born to Queen Damaspia, a Persian woman. Other potential claimants included Sogdianus, who was born to Alogyne, a Babylonian mistress of Artaxerxes, and Ochus and Arsites, two of Xerxes’s half-brothers whose mother was another Babylonian mistress of the king’s called Cosmartidene.


            What evidence we have for Xerxes II’s life and brief reign is frustratingly limited. The only major contemporary source on him are the writings of Ctesias of Cnidus, a Greek physician and historian who lived in a part of Asia Minor which was under Persian rule during his lifetime. He would subsequently serve as a royal physician to Artaxerxes II, the ruler of the Achaemenid Empire from 405 BC to 358 BC. On the surface of it this should have given Ctesias privileged information about what happened to Xerxes II, but on the other hand Ctesias is one of the most strikingly unreliable writers of antiquity, often deliberately introducing falsehoods into his writings.[3] 


            In his Persica, a history of the origins and growth of the Achaemenid Empire, Ctesias wrote about Xerxes II in book 18. Here he begins by noting that Xerxes was the only lawful son of King Artaxerxes as he was the child of Queen Damaspia, the king’s official wife. As a result Artaxerxes had bestowed the title of crown prince or mathišta on Xerxes and when Artaxerxes died in the last days of 424 BC Xerxes succeeded him as Xerxes II.[4] There are, very unfortunately, almost no records extant for Xerxes II’s brief reign with which to reconstruct the details of it. This is because Xerxes II only ruled for 45 days before he was assassinated in mid-February of 423 BC. The culprit was none other than one of Xerxes’s half-brothers, Sogdianus, who was the child of Alogyne of Babylon, one of Artaxerxes’s concubines. The details provided of the assassination are not extensive, with Ctesias simply telling us that Sogdianus and his mother were aided by two others named Pharnacyas and Menostanes who killed Xerxes when he was drunk. Because he had only ruled for less than seven weeks Xerxes had not even been proclaimed as ruler throughout all of the empire by the time he was killed.


            The assassination of Xerxes II triggered a brief civil war within the Achaemenid Empire. Sogdianus proclaimed himself as king, but another half-brother of his named Ochus quickly pressed his own claim, noting that he was not only a son of Artaxerxes, but also the old king’s son-in-law as he had married Parysatis, a daughter of Artaxerxes through yet another concubine. Consequently Ochus refused to pay homage to Sogdianus after he had killed Xerxes and usurped the throne. In the weeks that followed he began amassing supporters throughout the empire in an effort to challenge Sogdianus. Eventually after six months and fifteen days this proved successful. Ochus adopted the regnal name Darius II. Sogdianus had surrendered to him on the promise that he would not be killed by the sword, poison or through starvation, so Darius used the novel method of having him buried in ash. Pharnacyas and Menostanes, Sogdianus’s co-conspirators in the assassination of Xerxes II, were dispensed with too. The former was executed, while Menostanes was allowed to commit suicide.[5]


            These events are further confused by the survival of tablets from the period. There are none extant which give either Xerxes II or Sogdianus as King of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, but there are tablets extant from January 423 BC which refer to Darius as king. At this stage Xerxes II was still alive and this suggests that even before he was killed by Sogdianus, Darius had already begun pressing his claim to the throne. As such, for a brief period in the last days of 424 BC and into the opening months of 423 BC it is possible that there were three competing kings of the empire. Thus, Xerxes II’s brief reign was one for which the details of it are quite confusing and scant.



The Achaemenid Coinage


The Achaemenid Empire was notable for a great many things, notably its art and architecture for which alone it should be regarded as one of the great civilizations of the ancient world. However, a less well-known aspect of its cultural achievement was that the Persians were the first people to introduce a bimetallic monetary standard. This means that the central government in Persepolis, the Achaemenid capital, were the first to introduce a system of coins which had a fixed value based on the metal value of individual coins and the government’s awareness of what the material value of the total amount of coins in circulation was meant to be. Although the Persians were the first people to introduce such a system over a large expanse of territory and to do so systematically, the fifth century BC Greek historian and social anthropologist, Herodotus, suggested in his Histories that the Achaemenids borrowed the idea from the Lydians, a people of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) whom the Persians conquered in the late sixth century BC. Subsequent studies have revealed that a coin called the Croeseids was in circulation here prior to the conquest of the Lydians by the Persians. These monetary standards, which were typically based on gold and silver, were in use until the middle of the twentieth century when the so-called ‘gold standard’ was replaced by a fiat money system, which globally has nearly always been based on the US Dollar. Consequently the Achaemenids introduced a monetary system which persisted in one form or another for the next 2,500 years.


            The Achaemenids’ monetary standard was, like most others that followed it, based on gold and silver. There were two main coins involved: the daric and the siglos. The daric was a gold coin which weighed 8.4 grams and was named after Darius I, the Achaemenid ruler who introduced it in the late sixth century BC. The siglos was a silver coin and thus the less valuable of the two, but one which was used more extensively for everyday commerce throughout the Achaemenid Empire. Numerous iterations of the darics and sigloi appeared over the near two centuries of Achaemenid domination of the Near East. These often had slightly different weights and appearances. Recoinages, as in all pre-modern societies, had to be undertaken regularly to stop counterfeit coins entering into circulation. These typically consisted of some poor base metal which was then washed with gold or silver on the outside to give it the look of being a pure gold or silver daric or siglos. The daric and the siglos were only eventually replaced throughout the world between Greece and north-western India in the second half of the fourth century BC when they were superseded by the biga stater and Nike stater. These were gold coins which were introduced by Philip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, the latter of whom conquered the Persian Empire between 334 BC and 330 BC and introduced the Greek coins to the regions.[6]

Click here to see a choice example of an ancient Persian gold coin 



[1] Tom Holland, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (London, 2005).

[2] Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire (Berlin, 2002); Maria Brosius, A History of Ancient Persia: The Achaemenid Empire (London, 2021); M. A. Dandamaev, A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire (Leiden, 1989).

[3] Jan P. Stronk, Ctesias’ Persian History (Dusseldorf, 2010); Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones and James Robson, Ctesias’ History of Persia: Tales of the Orient (Oxford, 2010).

[4] Leo Depuydt, ‘The Date of Death of Artaxerxes I’, in Die Welt des Orients, Vol. 26 (1995), pp. 86–96.

[5] S. Zawadzki, ‘The Circumstances of Darius II’s Accession’, in Jaarbericht Ex Oriente Lux, Vol. 34 (1995–1996), pp. 45–49.

[6] William E. Metcalf, The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage (Oxford, 2016), p. 63; Michael Alram, ‘Daric’, in Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), Encyclopaedia Iranica (London, 1987); E. S. G. Robinson, ‘The Beginnings of Achaemenid Coinage’, in The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, Vol. 18 (1958), pp. 187–193; C. M. Harrisson, Coins of the Persian Satraps (PhD Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1982).

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