Who Was King Eucratides and Why Did He Mint the Coolest Coin in History?

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

30 Nov 2019

Deep in the heart of Asia, over 3,000 miles east of the Greek mainland, an independent Hellenic kingdom ruled supreme for over a century. It was called the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, situated largely in modern day Afghanistan / Uzbekistan.

Limited evidence survives about this exotic kingdom. Much that we do know comes to us either through irregular mentions of kings and campaigns in literary texts or through archaeological discoveries: art, architecture and inscriptions for instance.

Most enlightening of all, however, is the kingdom’s coinage. Thanks to some remarkable numismatic discoveries we know of Greco-Bactrian monarchs otherwise unheard of.

Stunning detail survives on several pieces: kings wearing elephant scalps, rulers giving themselves epithets similar to the Homeric warriors of old – ‘the Invincible’, ‘the Saviour’, ‘the Great’, ‘the Divine’.

Greco-Bactrian King Demetrius I

A portrait of King Demetrius I, a Greek king who ruled a large empire in modern day Afghanistan.

The intricate detail of several Greco-Bactrian coins ranks them among the most beautiful numismatic designs in history.

One coin epitomises this more than any other: the massive gold stater of Eucratides – the last great Bactrian dynast.

With a diameter of 58 mm and weighing just under 170 g, it is the largest coin created in antiquity.

Who was Eucratides?

Eucratides ruled the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom for approximately 30 years, between 170 and 140 BC. During his reign, he revived his kingdom’s degrading fortunes, expanding his domain deep into the Indian subcontinent.

He was a renowned military general, the victor of multiple battles and a charismatic leader.

The ancient historian Justin:

Eucratides led many wars with great courage… (and while under siege) he made numerous sorties, and managed to vanquish 60,000 enemies with 300 soldiers

It was probably at the height of his success that Eucratides had this huge, celebratory gold coin struck in the major centres of his empire.

The writing on the coin reads basileus megalou eucratidou (BAΣIΛEΩΣ MEΓAΛOY EYKPATIΔOY ): ‘of Great King Eucratides’.

The portrait of Eucratides on his famous gold stater

The portrait of Eucratides on his famous gold stater. He is depicted as a horseman.

Master of horse

A clear military theme is visible on the stater. The coin is evidently aimed to emphasise Eucratides’ expertise at cavalry warfare.

The king’s self-portrait depicts the ruler wearing cavalry headgear. He wears a Boeotian helmet, a favourite design among Hellenistic horsemen. It is decorated with a plume.

The coin’s opposite face shows two mounted figures. Both wear clothing adorned with decoration and almost certainly represent either figures of Eucratides’ elite, heavy-hitting cavalry guard or the dioscuri: the ‘horse twins’ Castor and Pollux. The latter is more likely.

Each soldier equips himself with a one-handed thrusting spear, called a xyston. These horsemen were feared, shock cavalry.

Bactrian royal cavalry, depicted on Eucratides' famous gold stater

The two horsemen. They likely represent the dioscuri. The writing reads ‘of Great King Eucratides’.

Evidently Eucratides had this coin minted to celebrate some heroic, decisive victory he had gained with his cavalry against a formidable adversary.

Fortunately, we know the victory this coin is referring to.

The Roman historian Justin summarises the story:

While weakened by them (the enemy), Eucratides was put under siege by Demetrius, king of the Indians. He made numerous sorties, and managed to vanquish 60,000 enemies with 300 soldiers, and thus liberated after four months, he put India under his rule.

I would argue these 300 warriors were Eucratides’ royal guard – 300 was the standard strength for a king’s personal cavalry squadron during the Hellenistic Period.

Though 60,000 adversaries is an evident exaggeration, it likely has its basis in truth: Eucratides’ men were probably greatly-outnumbered but still managed to pull off a remarkable victory.

Eucratides certainly had the equine expertise to pull off this success. The region of Bactria was famed for its high-quality horsemen throughout history; the kingdom’s nobility were almost-certainly trained in cavalry warfare from a young age.

The kingdom falls

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Eucratides’ reign marked a brief revival in the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom’s fortunes. But it did not endure. In c.140 BC Eucratides was assassinated – murdered by his own son. The king’s body was left to rot on a roadside in India.

Following his death the Greco-Bactrian kingdom gradually withered in the face of multiple nomadic incursions, pushed west due to events originating in far away China. Within 20 years this Hellenic Kingdom on a far-edge of the known world was no more.

Legacy

Eucratides’ massive gold stater holds the record for the largest coinage ever minted in antiquity. Its depiction of two cavalrymen endures in modern-day Afghanistan, serving as the symbol for the central Bank of Afghanistan.

The emblem of the Bank of Afghanistan.

The coinage of Eucratides has been used in the design of some Afghanistan banknotes between 1979-2002, and is now in the emblem of the Bank of Afghanistan.

Though we still have so much more to learn, the discovery of coins such as the gold Eukratidou provide us invaluable insights into this ancient Hellenic state in Afghanistan.

The wealth. The power. The extent and dominance of ancient Greek culture throughout the kingdom’s elite: among its royalty and its nobility.

That is why this coin is the coolest in history.