Featured Book review: Rivalling Rome: Parthian Coins & Culture

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Parthicus, Jun 2, 2020.

  1. Parthicus

    Parthicus Well-Known Member

    Rivalling Rome: Parthian Coins & Culture. Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis and Alexandra Magub. London: Spink and Son Ltd., 2020. ISBN 978-1-912667-44-4.

    This slim volume (118 pages) is intended to accompany a special exhibit at the British Museum, which was scheduled to run from April 2nd to September 6th, 2020. For obvious reasons (note to posterity: the COVID-19 pandemic) the exhibit has been postponed (the British Museum website says only that it is "coming soon") but meanwhile we are able to enjoy this book. Firstly, I will summarize that I found this book very enjoyable to read, and a useful overview of Parthian coins, history, and civilization. While I have a few minor quibbles, the book as a whole is very worthwhile, and I would suggest anyone with an interest in Parthian coins and history should purchase it.

    While the book does include many clear photos of Parthian and related coins, it is not a comprehensive catalogue or identification guide (and is certainly not intended as such). Rather, the coins are used to illustrate both the history of the Parthian kings, but more importantly, examined for what they reveal about the Parthians themselves, particularly their cultural practices and religious beliefs, as well as aspects of their material culture (i.e. clothing, tools, etc.). The photographs are of good quality, all coins are depicted life-sized or larger, and the various other objects are also beautifully photographed. Most photos are reproduced in full color, and there are several full-page photo spreads where the page background is solid black, which I found very aesthetically pleasing. If I had to make one complaint about this aspect of the book, it would be the shortage of maps. There is only one map in the whole book, and it is placed near the end, just before the first appendix.

    The book of course gives an overview of Parthian history, from its origins to the Sasanian conquest. The authors largely use the older dates and king sequence established by David Sellwood in 1980. While an appendix includes both Sellwood's chronology and the more recent modifications by Assar, I was a bit disappointed that the authors did not make more of an effort to include the very latest research in their main text. Of course, for a general book such as this, you don't want to get too bogged down in explaining why, for example, a new Mithradates has appeared between Gotarzes I and Orodes I. However, the historical text is clear, and is good at including relevant Roman and other regional history as needed.

    One aspect that I enjoyed was the subtle but consistent effort at situating the Parthians in their proper Iranian context. As the authors write in their Introduction, "For a long time, modern Iranians also regarded the Arsacid Parthians as a derivative dynasty of Hellenistic Greece." While the authors do not downplay the use of Hellenistic imagery or Greek language on Parthian coins, they also show how some imagery supposedly of Hellenistic origins may actually be intended to represent Iranian religious ideas. For example, the radiate deity usually considered to be Helios may be intended to symbolize Mithra (or perhaps a syncretic Helios-Mithra), and several supposedly Greek goddesses or personifications seem to equally well fit ancient Iranian theology. Also, while the book uses the usual Hellenized forms of Parthian names in the main text, Appendix I (chronological list of kings) also includes the proper Persian forms of the names. Some of these are pretty close (Arsaces- Arshak), while others may come as a surprise (Phraates is actually Farhad, a common name in modern Iran as Dr. Gholam Reza Farhad Assar could surely tell us).

    Another section that I found helpful is chapter 7, about local sub-kingdoms in the Parthian Empire, namely Persis, Elymais, and Characene. While the histories of these three are not well recorded, the authors do a good job in summarizing what is known. The descriptions of the coinages of these kingdoms, while again not a comprehensive catalogue, will be helpful as an overview for new collectors, and may even inspire a few collectors to venture into these exciting realms.

    In conclusion, this is a well-produced book that deftly summarizes what is known about the Parthians, and is well worth reading by anyone interested in the Parthians, or in Persian or Near Eastern history in general. The book is currently available in Britain directly from Spink for 20 pounds; I purchased my copy from Amazon (US) for $21.84. This is an absolute bargain, and I would suggest interested readers get a copy now.
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  3. Clavdivs

    Clavdivs Well-Known Member

    That sounds extremely interesting... thank you for the review.
    Order placed.

    Not an area I collect so this seems like a nice introduction... and the price is very reasonable.
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2020
  4. Bob L.

    Bob L. Well-Known Member

    A wonderful review, Parthicus. Thanks for taking the time to pull this together. I have enjoyed all of the articles by Dr. Curtis that I have read through the years. I have had several correspondences with her the past few years and found her to be supportive, cordial, and helpful. I look forward to picking up this new book. It sounds great.
  5. Clavdivs

    Clavdivs Well-Known Member

    This arrived in the mail this morning!... I just happened to have the day booked off from work - so was able to carve a bit of time between chores to sit in the sun and enjoy...


    As a complete beginner who has enjoyed the posts here on this topic (I own no Parthian coins at all) this book seems to be exactly what I was looking for: Outlines the empire from its beginnings, its influences, religion, dynastic troubles, the coins and their evolution are discussed throughout, a lot of great information on the Parthian interactions with Rome (I certainly did not know that the first diplomatic meeting between Rome and Parthia was attended by the then Proconsul Sulla), trade, outline of local kingdoms and legacy.. coins are displayed in colour on most pages and intertwined nicely into the narrative.
    The book is short (only 100 or so pages) but very well done and worth the $20 to be sure.
    Hopefully I can grab an hour or so tomorrow to finish it up... then I will be asking the experts here for more recommended reading for a newbie.

    And yes at some point a coin will have to be purchased!!
    TheRed likes this.
  6. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member

    You had me at "solid black". One great advantage of online photos is that black backgrounds are easier on the eye but cost no more than white backgrounds. In printed books, black backgrounds require better paper that does not soak through badly. Owners of inkjet printers might be aware that a coin image on black uses several time the ink as one on white and ink is not free. Real photo prints like you get at Costco or other labs are cheaper than the ink alone used to print at home.

    You lost me with the fact of not discussing or adopting recent scholarship.

    You lost me again with the author Curtis whose name leads the group responsible for the two volume Sasanian Coins which I consider the biggest waste of my money for my library so far in this century.

    You tried hard to get me back with the price but there are plenty of pictures online so I remain torn.
    ab initio likes this.
  7. Sulla80

    Sulla80 Supporter! Supporter

    @Parthicus, thanks for the review, my copy is on the way. "coins are used to illustrate both the history of the Parthian kings, but more importantly, examined for what they reveal about the Parthians themselves", sounds like an enjoyable read.
  8. Cachecoins

    Cachecoins Historia Moneta

    Looks very interesting, I have a coin of Pacorus I. I like to research the ruler on my coins bit have found very little about him and in fact it seems maybe just recently the coins of this ruler were thought to be of Pacorus Ii or some other ruler. There seems to be some confusion and a bit of lack of info on some of these rulers. Bit frustrating.
  9. Hamilcar Barca

    Hamilcar Barca Well-Known Member

    I ordered this book when I received the notice it was available from Spink - fast delivery by the way. I also got a copy of Ten Dragons Against Rome about the same time. Finished both of them in a matter of days. Fascinating material.
    Of particular interest to me were the discussions of an idea floated at that time of a union of sorts between the two empires combining Roman infantry with the superb Parthian cavalry to expand their empires. You have to wonder what might have been. Of course, it was a completely unworkable idea especially as the Roman emperors and Parthian nobility were busy killing themselves.

    Also, interesting how Parthia controlled Roman contact with China.

    Even if you don't collect the coins, the history is worth the read.
  10. Parthicus

    Parthicus Well-Known Member

    Woohoo, featured article! Thanks everyone who has enjoyed my review.

    @dougsmit : While I would have liked to see the latest ideas about king sequences and dates included, on the other hand, such facts don't really change out main ideas about who the Parthians were. The fact that the second king, who we usually refer to as Arsakes II, used the personal name Artabanos, and thus forces a renumbering of several subsequent kings- well, that's interesting and I'm glad we now know that, but in the broader picture, does that really change how we understand Parthian history? Will our understanding of how the Parthians expanded from their original homeland into the Iranian plateau be affected by knowing that their second leader was named Artabanos? I think it's okay, at least for a general work like this, to continue using the established dates and king names, and include the new ideas in the appendix (which this book does) for readers who are especially interested and care to know such things. As for Dr. Curtis' involvement in the Sasanian Coins book, I can't really comment since I haven't bought the book and don't plan to.

    @Cachecoins : The Pacorus who reigned c.78-105 (or possibly to as late as 120) AD was called Pacorus II in the older works, because there was a previous Pacorus (a son of Orodes II) who issued some very rare coins c.50 BC and was called "Pacorus I" in reference works. (Shore lists his coins as R5, the highest rarity level, and gives a value of $7500 for a drachm in Fine condition. I have never seen one in person.) But this prince is no longer considered to belong properly to the sequence of Parthian kings, so the king who reigned starting in 78 AD gets promoted to "Pacorus I". Unfortunately there have been a number of adjustments to the sequence of Parthian kings proposed in the last couple of decades, mainly by Dr. Assar. This can be confusing, but it's also good to know that the area is still a topic of active research.
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