Topics in Kushan History Kushan History

Evidence for Sapadbizes and West Bactria under the Yu-chi


Obverse of a coin of Sapadbizes; from the collection of Peter Linenthal

In what is now northern Afghanistan and southern Uzbekistan a handful of coins have been found inscribed with the name Sapadbizes. This name does not appear anywhere else; there are no inscriptions, no documents, no reference in Greek, Roman, Buddhist or Chinese literature. Any individual minting coins is an important part of political history yet it is not clear who Sapadbizes was or how he fits into the geo-political context of his time. Sapadbizes coins resemble the coins of Bactria's nomadic invaders, the Yu-chi, but the image of the goddess Nana on the reverse indicates Parthian influence. Was Sapadbizes a Yu-chi prince? Or a vassal of the Parthian Empire? Was he even the ancestor of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka?

Sapadbizes coins are not unique, though they are rare. In addition to the coins of Sapadbizes there are coins of at least two other rulers, Agezilles and a 'Nameless King'. These other coins are so close in design to those of Sapadbizes that it is possible to conclude they are rulers of the same dynasty, the Sapadbians. It is important to remember that Sapadbian is only a convenient label; there is no reason to assume Sapadbizes was the founder of a dynasty or the most important of a member. Rtveladze collected only thirty examples of Sapadbizes coins, this makes it very likely that the list of Sapadbians is incomplete and may grow with future discoveries.

The boundary of the Sapadbian kingdom cannot be drawn. However the extent of Sapadbizes rule can be inferred from the locations at which his coins were found. These indicate that he ruled over the west of Bactria around the river Oxus, bordering the Parthian Empire to the west, the kingdoms of the Indo-Parthians to the south, and the Yu-chi to the north and east.

Each of the kingdoms that bordered the Sapadbians enjoyed its own brief period of dominance over the region. If it could be established when Sapadbizes minted his coins it would be clear which of these kingdoms dominated the political relations of the Sapadbians. Three sources of evidence can be used to infer the dates of coins. Firstly, the site of Kampir-Tepe at which coins were found implies that they were minted between 80 BC and 50 AD. Secondly, the material the coins were made of if indicates that they were minted before 20 AD. Thirdly the form of the letters point to a date in the late first century BC. All these sources of evidence imply that the Sapadbians were ruling at a time when Parthia in particular Phraates IV exercised considerable influence over Bactria.

Having established that the Sapadbians were minting coins on the border of Parthia at the height of the Empire's influence it is tempting to conclude that they were Parthian vassals. However the image on the reverse of the coins points away from this conclusion. Here Sapadbizes uses the goddess Nana who was a favourite symbol of the later Kushan kings, Kanishka and Huvishka. Understanding the complex use of Nana on coins is vital to understanding Sapadbizes. Unfortunately she might also indicate a western relationship for Sapadbizes.

The site of Tillya-Tepe gives the same mixed message as the image of Nana. Excavated in 1978, the burials at Tillya-Tepe were extremely rich and the five people buried there were probably part of the local nobility. Russian archaeologists Pugacenkova and Rempel felt that the site was Parthian, basing their opinions on the style of the treasures found in the graves. However, the Russian numismatist Zeymal was convinced that the burials were Kushan/Yu-chi. Both interpretations are based on the same evidence, which suggests that the site could be both Yu-chi and Parthian.

In addition to the finds at Tillya-Tepe there are other sources of evidence which while not naming Sapadbizes may relate to him. In west Bactria, alongside the finds of Sapadbian coins there are found coins of the Persian Phraates IV overstruck with the image of Eucratides. Each coin has the bust of Phraates IV facing left, and beneath it, stamped onto the coin an image of the Greek king Eucratides. Sapadbizes uses the image of Eucratides on his own coins so it seems reasonable to assume he also produce overstrikes. These overstrikes place Sapadbizes visually under the aegis of Phraates IV. This indicates the Sapadbians were vassals, or close allies, of Parthia.

The last source of evidence for the Sapadbians is the Chinese chronicles of Central Asia. Though the chronicles do not mention Sapadbizes by name they do describe several kingdoms in Bactria at the end of the first century BC. One of these kingdoms, the Yabgu of Kao-fu, may well be the kingdom of Sapadbizes. If it is then it would explain why the evidence points to Sapadbizes being both a Yu-chi it would explain why the evidence points to Sapadbizes being both a Yu-chi and a Parthian. Kao-fu was one of the five Yu-chi states (Yabgu) in Bactria but in the first century BC it became a Parthian vassal-state. The Yabgu of Kao-fu remained a Parthian vassal-state until it was conquered by Kajula Kadphises in about 50 AD.

None of these sources of evidence are useful on their own but combined they permit a reconstruction of the political history of the Sapadbians...

A Political History of the Sapadbian Dynasty

Shortly before the Chinese official Chang Ch'ien visits in 128BC the Yu-chi invade and conquer Bactria. The loose tribal confederacy then disintegrates (if it had not already done so) and in the west of Bactria one of the tribal leaders, the Yabgu of Kao-fu, established a kingdom. This and other parts of the Yu-chi continue to raid Parthia for the next fifty years until in about 80BC when Mithridates II puts a firm stop to nomadic incursions.

From the reign of Mithridates onwards Parthia slowly increases its eastern influence, first in India and then over western Bactria. In western Bactria the Yabgu of Kao-fu (the Sapadbians) fell under Parthian domination. In the first century BC they remain independent rulers but with subordinate relationship to Phraates IV & V.

Kajula Kadphises unites the Yu-chi with the exception of Kao-fu. Kao-fu, and its ruling dynasty, is so Parthianised it hardly makes sense to consider them part of the Yu-chi but Kajula could hardly tolerate an independent kingdom in West Bactria. So in the early first century AD the Kushans invade and conquer the region. The dynasty of Sapadbizes comes to an end though his descendents may well have ruled as vassals of the Kushans, just as many kings and Satraps did in India.
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