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Identifying Parthian Coins

Attribution Correlation Chart for Parthian Coins
Identifying Look-alike Parthian Bronzes
Identifying Look-alike Parthian Drachms
Inscription Finder


There are a number of problems associated with attributing Parthian coins; identification is principally one of visual comparison of your coin with the generic type-drawings in David Sellwood's An Introduction to the Coinage of Parthia (London: Spink, 1980, 2nd ed.). Sellwood has done a masterful job of capturing the general characteristics of each issue in his line drawings, and browsing through them is the best technique for someone who does not already have an idea of where to start.   Sellwood's book is a typology; anything else is just a catalog. It is the essential tool for identifying Parthians coins.

Your first page to visit for identifying Parthian drachms is "Identifying Look-alike Parthian Drachms" where a picture guide assists you with the late (A.D.) drachms, especially the four types of Parthian drachms that appear almost identical to the novice.

Help in differentiating the very similar bronze coins of Osroes II and Artabanus IV coins is available at Identifying Look-alike Parthian Bronzes.

A very helpful but not well-known tool is Sellwood's "Record of Parthian Coinage" (1971) chart. Though based on the 1st edition, it is a wonderful device for rapidly comparing all the Parthian silver types on one large sheet for an idea of where to start. It is quite artistic; I have mine framed in my office. It is an appealing decoration for a collector. For bronzes, which are not represented on the chart, you'll need to start in Sellwood's book.

Once you have the possibilities for obverse portrait identification narrowed (remembering that tetradrachm and drachm portraits can differ significantly for the same king within the same type), check for any devices or legends on the obverse; these appear only on a few types and are a quick path to identification where they appear.

Then study the reverse for devices and legends. A portrait on the reverse is a decisive clue for silver coins, but numerous bronzes have them. If the legend is readable, use the Inscription Finder page to check it out. That should narrow it further; Sellwood has excellent drawings of the reverse sides, where a visual comparison should make certain your final identification, especially for the so-called "illegible" or "blundered" legends. Many of these are actually quite readable, if you have studied the coins extensively. If you find a coin in the literature similar to the one you wish to identify, use the Attribution Correlation Chart to find other examples that will confirm your identification.

A caution, however: The paragraphs above discuss type identifications. The B.C. history of the Parthians is so unsettled that attributions by a king's name may easily change (and frequently have, the reason so many catalogs conflict); the history is a bit more sure A.D. I recommend you always consider the king as a tentative attribution and include Sellwood's type number with each reference to your coin. Sellwood numbers are the constant used by most scholars, collectors and dealers, but note that some texts are dated or the authors, such as Mitchiner and Sear, used the Sellwood 1st edition numbering. Scholars who worked in the Soviet Union and successor states commonly publish references to Sellwood also. The Sellwood type numbers are the common reference on which all agree, though the kings' names are not certain. For example, Sellwood is now working on a 3rd edition, and more changes are in the offing based on recent finds and studies, such as the reattribution of type 33 coins. Sellwood (19 71) originally attributed these to Sinatruces but revised to Gotarzes I (Sellwood, 1980). Recent research shows Sellwood was right the first time and type 33 does belong to Sinatruces, and will appear that way in the 3rd edition.

To avoid confusion, carefully use Sellwood's nomenclature to differentiate 1st and 2nd edition types -- a slash between type and sub-type for 1st edition, and a decimal for 2nd edition, e.g., 33/1 or 33.1. There are also several types reported by Sellwood in articles published since his 2nd edition. See notes following the Attribution Correlation Chart for a list of the most important published Parthian coin catalogs. While I don't provide an attribution service, I will post images of your coins for others to view on the Unattributed Coins page. You can then post a message to the various mail lists asking for assistance and point to the web page where the image appears. I am often intrigued by those unattributed coins and, if the image is suitable, might catalog it for you in return for permission to include it in my on-line catalog. I always credit the source of coins if not my own.

I hope this is helpful, and I will be happy to accept tips you may have for identifying and cataloging Parthian coins.

This page last updated 23 Feb 2021

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