Agathocles of Bactria

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Silver coin of king Agathocles r.c. 190-180 BCE.
Obv: Bust of Agathocles.
Rev: Zeus holding sceptre, with Hecate on extended arm. Greek legend ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΟΝΤΟΣ ΑΓΑΘΟΚΛΕΟΥΣ "Under the reign of King Agathocles".

Agathocles "the Just" was an Indo-Greek king, who reigned between around 190 and 180 BCE. He might have been a son of Demetrius and one of his sub-kings in charge of the Paropamisadae between Bactria and India. In that case, he was a grandson of Euthydemus whom he qualified as "God-King" on his coins.

Agathocles was contemporary with or a successor of king Pantaleon. He seems to have been attacked and killed by the usurper Eucratides, who took control of the Greco-Bactrian territory. Little is known about him, apart from his extensive coinage.


Pedigree coinage

Agathocles issued a series of "pedigree" dynastic coins, probably with the intent to advertize his lineage and legitimize his rule, linking him to Alexander the Great, the Seleucid king Antiochus II, the founder of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom Diodotus, Euthydemus,Pantaleon, and Demetrius.

Dynast or usurper?

The pedigree coinage has been seen as a token of his ancestry, but a critical view might be considered. All the associations provide a contradictory image. The Euthydemid kings (Demetrius and Euthydemus) are not known to be related to Diodotus - in fact, Euthydemus I overthrew Diodotus II! The Seleucids were enemies of the Euthydemids as well - in fact king Antiochus III had besieged Bactra for almost two years before claiming victory over Euthydemus I. It seems hard to believe that a king who had experienced this as a boy would have found it suitable to mint coins celebrating "Antiochos the Victorious" as the coins read.

Finally, the association with Alexander was a standard move for usurpers in the hellenistic world, such as the pseudo-Seleucids Alexander Balas and the Syrian general Diodotus Tryphon.

All in all, the coins might well support the view of an usurper, desperately gathering support from all quarters with his various memorial coins. However, their similar striking of Indian coins make it possible that he was indeed a relative of Pantaleon, who in that case might have been an usurper as well, possibly a Greek from the newly conquered Indian territories.

Nickel coins

Missing image
Nickel coin of Agathocles.
Obv: Bust of Dyonisos, coiffed with aegis, diademed, and wearing ivy wreath.
Rev: Panther with bell, raising paw towards a small tree. Greek legend: BASILEOS AGATHOKLEIOUS "King Agathocles".

Also, Agathocles and Pantaleon are unique in the ancient world, in that they were the first in the world to issue copper-nickel (75/25 ratio) coins 1, an alloy technology only known by the Chinese at the time (some weapons from the Warring States Period were in copper-nickel alloy 2 ). These coins are indicative of the existence of trade links with China around that time (see Greco-Bactrian kingdom). Copper-nickel would not be used again in coinage until the 19th century in the United States.

Bilingual coinage

At the same time, Agathocles issued an intriguing range of bilingual coinage, displaying what seems to be Buddhist as well as Hinduist symbolism. The coins, manufactured according to the Indian standard, using either Brahmi, Greek or Kharoshthi (a first in the Greek world), and displaying symbols of the various faiths in India, tend to indicate a considerable willingness to accommodate local languages and beliefs, to an extent unseen in subsequent Indo-Greek kings. They may be indicative of the considerable efforts of the first Indo-Greek kings to secure support from Indian populations and avoid being perceived as invaders, efforts which may have subsided once the Indo-Greek kingdoms were more securely in place.

Buddhist coinage

The Buddhist coinage of Agathocles is in the Indian standard (square or round copper coins) and depicts Buddhist symbols such as the stupa, the "tree in railing", or the lion. These coins sometimes use Brahmi, and sometimes Kharoshthi, whether later Indo-Greek kings only used Kharoshthi.

Hinduist coinage

Missing image
Indian-standard silver drachm of Agathocles.
Obv: Indian god Balarama-Samkarshana, wearing an ornate headress, earrings, sword in sheath, holding a gada in his right hand and a plow-symbol in the left. Greek legend: BASILEOS AGATOKLEOUS "Of King Agathocles".
Rev: Indian god Vasudeva-Krishna, with ornate headdress, earrings, sword in sheath, holding sankha (pear-shaped vase) and chakra (wheel). Brahmi legend: RAJANE AGATHUKLAYASA "King Agathocles".

The Hinduist coinage of Agathocles is few but spectacular. Six Indian-standard silver drachms were discovered at Ai-Khanoum in 1970, which depict Hindu deities.

These are the first known representations of Vedic deities on coins, and they display early avatars of Vishnu: Balarama-Samkarshana and Vasudeva-Krishna.

The dancing girls on some of the coins of Agathocles and Pantaleon are also sometimes considered as representations of Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu.

Preceded by:
Demetrius I
Indo-Greek Ruler
190-180 BCE
Succeeded by:
Apollodotus I

External links

  • Coins of Agatocles (
  • More coins of Agathocles (

1 Copper-Nickel coinage in Greco-Bactria. (
2 Ancient Chinese weapons ( & A halberd of copper-nickel alloy, from the Warring States Period. (

See also


  • "The Greeks in Bactria and India" W.W. Tarn, Cambridge University Press

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