Demetrius I of Bactria: An Analysis of Hellenistic Royal Power through Numismatic Evidence



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Literary and archaeological evidence for the Hellenistic Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms is extremely sparse, and scholarship relies heavily on extant royal coins. Innovative methodologies are required to extract information from these coins and better understand the mysterious monarchs who ruled a series of small kingdoms in Central and South Asia. In general, the political strategy of Hellenistic monarchs was directed toward the maintenance and expansion of one’s power. Therefore, political power is a valuable factor through which to assess the Bactrian kings. I developed a methodology that I term “power policy numismatics” for using ancient coins to measure political power. This involves treating and analyzing coins as pieces of government policy. Coins can function as policy in two ways. Firstly, they are physical pieces of policy, as they establish, legalize, and standardize a money economy. Secondly, coins contain “assertion policies,” or deliberately designed packages of information with which a monarch could assert his or her rule. Viewing royal coins in this way reveals a monarch’s administrative sophistication, military investment, and legitimization efforts. Combined, these policy aspects illuminate the power of their issuing monarchs. I apply this methodology to King Demetrius I of Bactria. Demetrius is crucial to the history of Hellenistic Central and South Asia. From the seat of power in ancient Afghanistan, Demetrius conquered and expanded south, across the Hindu Kush mountains, and established rule in ancient northwest India. He shifted the center of power to the Indian territories, and laid the groundwork for a significant Greek presence there for almost two centuries. His coins indicate a strong centralized government, a complex bureaucracy, and direct rule. They suggest a level of military investment greater than that of his predecessors and competitive with his large Seleucid neighbors. They also assert a governmental ideology that serves the interests of imperial hegemony. Evaluating coin policy helps to explain Demetrius’ role as a power-player in the international system of the eastern Hellenistic world.



Demetrius, Bactria, Graeco-Bactrian, Coins, Numismatics