Apollo Kitharoidos in the Istanbul Museum

Of all the Olympian gods, Apollo was one of the most dear to the hearts of the Greeks because he controlled many of the facets of life that were believed to separate the man of Hellas from his barbarian neighbors. Apollo was not only in charge of music, medicine and the prophetic arts, but also law, philosophy and colonization. In short, he was a god of civilization.

Despite his authority over important aspects of Greek life it is likely that Apollo was not originally a deity native to Greece since he is never mentioned in the Linear B tablets of the Mycenaean period. Instead it has been suggested that he was a northern god who may have been brought south into Greece through Thrace. Herodotos tells that a race of people sacred to Apollo, known as the Hyperboreans, lived in the far north whom the god visited for part of the year. They were thought to send special offerings to Apollo's shrine at Delos by relay.

Another theory, which seems particularly attractive, is that Apollo was a native god of Asia Minor and of the land of Lykia, especially since one of his titles is Lykeios, 'the Lykian One'. His cult was also especially popular among the cities of Asia Minor.

According to mythology Apollo and his sister Artemis were born, the children of Zeus and the goddess Leto, on the island of Delos which became one of his many cult centers. After slaying the dragon, Python, who encircled the mountain of Delphi with his coils, Apollo is said to have established his great oracle which forever after would be known as 'Pythian'. In the historical period people from throughout Greece as well as from non-Greek lands came to Delphi to ask for predictions from the god and his priestess.

A less famous oracle was established in Asia Minor at Didyma, a Milesian shrine which also may have been the seat of a cult honoring Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo. In Greek, the word didyma means 'twin'. This shrine was particularly important to the early Seleukids and as a result they took pains to enrich the sanctuary with the wealth of their victories. In return for their benefactions, some of the kings were given the right to receive oracular responses ahead of others who had come to learn the future from the god.


Apollo was so important to the Seleukids because a myth had begun to circulate during the career of Seleukos I Nikator that he was not actually the son of his father, Antiochos, but actually a secret son of the deity. Apparently while Antiochos was away on campaign Apollo had stolen into the bed of his wife, Laodike, and made her pregnant with Seleukos. She was told to keep his true parentage a secret until he was grown, at which time she should give him a ring marked with the symbol of an anchor as a token of his divine father. This miracle was supposed to have been revealed to Seleukos when he left Macedonia for the great eastern conquests with Alexander the Great.

During the the march to reclaim Babylonia from the forces of Antigonos Monophthalmos in 312 BC Seleukos tried to raise the spirits of his men by telling them that when he had been at Didyma (presumably in the days of Alexander) the god had greeted him as 'king'. Why should they fear Antigonos when their leader was sanctioned by Apollo?

Whether one considers these particular political myths to be apocryphal or not it is clear from the coinage that Apollo was a god of some importance to Seleukos. Apollo's imagery was built upon by Seleukos' son, Antiochos I Soter who did much to establish a canonical image of Seleukid Apollo. This in turn was developed and expanded by later members of the dynasty.

Heads of Apollo on Seleukid Coins

The obverse bust of Apollo was not static from the inception of the Seleukid Empire down to its final collapse. The god's head first appeared on the bronze coinages of Seleukos I where he is depicted with rather short hair. This image to some extent may have grown out of the portrayal of the god on the coinages of Philip II of Macedon.

Under Antiochos II Theos the depiction of Apollo on the obverses of coins could vary tremendously even within the same series issued at the same mint. A wide variety of types are known from the bronze coinage issued from the mint of Sardeis (shown here). Apollo can appear at this mint either with short hair which seems to be directly imitating the type of Philip II, with long curly hair or with formal locks reminiscent of archaic depictions of the god. It is unclear why there should be such diversity in the obverse Apollo types at Sardeis.

On the coins of Antiochos Hierax the god almost always appears with the formal locks that would have been worn by his old cult images. It is possible that this more conservative portrayal of Apollo may have appealed to the people of western Asia Minor, where Hierax claimed authority.

Nevertheless, at the mint of Antioch-on-the-Orontes several different images of Apollo were employed, making it difficult to believe that they represent the main cult statue of the god which was erected in the shrine of Daphne. Under Antiochos III he reverts to a relatively short haired deity whereas under the eldest son, of Antiochos, Seleukos IV Philopator, Antioch produced coins with the archaizing hairstyle that was so popular on the Asian coins of Hierax. The Apollo of Demetrios II has tightly bound hair with curls flowing over the back of his neck.

Apollo on Seleukid Coins

The reverse types of Apollo also developed and changed over time. During the reign of Seleukos I no coins were issued bearing images of Apollo on their reverses, but during the rule of his son they quickly proliferated. Antiochos I invented what would essentially become the canonical image of Apollo for the Seleukid dynasty. On much of his silver and bronze coinage Apollo can be found holding his bow and arrow and seated on the omphalos, the navel of the world. Until the late period of decline this was the most common reverse type for Seleukid silver and also frequently appeared on the bronze coinages.

Apollo on Seleukid Coins

In the course of the War of the Brothers between Seleukos II Kallinikos and Antiochos Hierax new Apollo types were developed based on the original image of Antiochos I. On the coinages of these two rivals the god can be found to have given up his seat, standing and leaning on his bow or on one of his sacred tripods. Despite the new fully erect pose it is always clear that this is Seleukid Apollo, following the pattern established by Antiochos I. It is worth noting that when the god is shown leaning on his bow it is always placed in the same position as it is on the coins where he is seated on the omphalos. Similarly, whether he stands alone, or is supported by a tripod Apollo is almost invariably depicted holding an arrow. Not surprisingly, the weapons are the key feature of the god's iconography for the Seleukids, a dynasty almost constantly at war either with external forces or with itself.

In a few rare cases in Asia Minor and the east Apollo can be found seated on the omphalos but holding his bow before him rather than the more customary arrow. This peculiar variant probably lies between the seated archer reverses that became commonplace on Parthian silver coinage.

Seated Archer on a Parthian Coin of Vologases III

Occasionally on the early issues Apollo holds more than one arrow in his hand. Unfortunately the reason for the different numbers of arrows is unclear. Each arrow probably does not refer to the number of scions of the royal house as was once suggested.

Antiochos III was sometimes depicted in the guise of Apollo with a laurel wreath in his hair. Antiochos IV Epiphanes and later kings sometimes wear radiate crowns on their coins which may also be allusion to Apollo as Helios, the Sun.

Antiochos IV with Radiate Crown

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