Topics in Kushan History Kushan History

Dating the coins: Stylistic and Archaeological

Establishing a chronology for the Sapadbians involves addressing two questions:

1) What is the relative order of the coins? Does Agezilles precede or follow Sapadbizes? And where does the 'Nameless King' fit in?

2) How do the dates of these kings relate to the dates of the other Central Asian and North Indian rulers, namely the Indo-Parthians and the Kushans?

The evidence is too limited to establish an order for the Sapadbian kings. It is not even certain that these are the only kings to have minted coins, so more evidence could be forthcoming. However there is enough evidence to answer the second question...

Archaeology: The site of Kampir-Tepe

The site of Kampir-Tepe has yielded a number of coins. Among these there are many Bactrian Greek; the last Greek ruler represented is Heliocles (minted before the invasion of the Yu-chi). These are followed by imitations of Greek Kings (mostly Heliocles) which were probably the first minting of coins by the Yu-chi invaders. How long these coins were minted for is unclear. After these and before the first coins of the Kushans we find Parthian coins of the first and second centuries AD. If these represent the period of Parthian domination over the area established in the early first century BC by Mithridates II (according to Koshelenko and Pilipko) then it would be c.80 BC to c.50 AD. The coin of Sapadbizes cannot precede the imitations of Heliocles nor follow the coins of the Kushans. So it is possible to be confident that it belongs to the period of Parthian dominance (c.80 BC to 50 AD).

Letter Form

Within a series of coins developments tend to follow a logical and discernable path. A typography can be produced for the coins of one dynasty (as it has with the Kushans or Bactrian Greeks) that indicates the relative order. But attempts to produce relative dates between different dynasties can lead to disaster. A clear example is that of Göbl's attempts to connect the Kushan coin series to that of Rome on stylistic grounds. That attempt led him to the conclusion that Kanishka began his reign in the third century, a result completely at odds with all other evidence for the date of Kanishka. In this case, however, there is good reason to suspect that the coins of Sapadbizes were affected by those of Bactria and Northern India and as is shown below, this indicates a date in late first century BC.

From the third century BC to the second century AD Greek was used, in Bactria and India, on the obverse of coins. Greek. Even south of the Hindu Kush kings used the Greek script on their coins. It was the Kushan King Kanishka who replaced Greek with Bactrian although the Greek script was used to write that language.

Over the course of five centuries the script underwent a number of changes and the form of the letters slowly evolved. On the coins of the Bactrian Greeks letters were angular and at the apex where two lines met a dot was placed. So the letters appear as if they were formed by joining the dots. Between the end of Greek Rule and Kushan Empire the dots disappear and the letters become more rounded.
Letter Forms shown above are from the coins of Eucratides, Azes and Kanishka. The transition from angular, dotted letters to cursive letters can be seen clearly.

On the reverse of the Sapadbizes' coins the dots are not as pronounced on the alphas as on the nus and iotas but they are present. On the obverse the dots do not appear on Beta or Sigma at all. So in letterform the coins appear to be at a transition stage. Using this as a crude dating method it indicates they were minted sometime between Azes I and the first Kushan coins.

However, chronology is not the only important aspect of the letterform. It is clear that the coins are no simple imitations of Greek prototypes. Imitation is a common feature of the coins of the nomadic invaders. While they understood that objects were important they did not understand why they were important and often the imitation served just a ritual purpose. By contrast the person minting these coins understood the images and symbols they were using. The images on the coins of Sapadbizes are deliberate which has important implications for the countermarked coins of Phraates IV.

Material of the Coins

The material of the coinage offers a latest possible date of issue. At the end of the reign of Azes II (about 20 AD) and before the reigns of Kajula and Gondophares the currencies of India are rapidly debased. The Indo-Parthian coins cease to be minted in silver and are instead made from base metals (copper and bronze). The same change seems to be made by the Yu-chi. The Kushans had been minting imitations of the Greek king Hermaues in silver but from 20 AD this silver content vanishes.

Since twenty-nine of the thirty coins examined by Rtveladze are silver it seems they must have been minted before the debasement took place. So Sapadbizes must have come to power before both Gondophares and Kajula. Analysis of the coins to determine the silver content might give a more precise but at the moment the silver date can only be combined with the evidence of the letterforms to indicate a date between 40 BC and 20 AD.

Combining the dates obtained from archaeological, stylistic and material evidence allows a rough chronology to be constructed. This is shown below with Parthian kings (in black), Indo-Parthians (in blue), and Kushans (in light green) for comparison.


Evidence for Sapadbizes Sites of Coin Finds Chinese Sources
Overstrikes of Phraates IV Dating the Coins Bibliography
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Chronology of Kushan History Contacting the Author
© Robert Bracey, 2001