Seleukid Anchors on Coins

According to Greek tradition, the modern two-armed anchor was first invented around 600 BC by Anacharsis, one of the Seven Sages who were responsible for formulating such famous sayings as "know thyself." Prior to this great invention merchants and sailors anchored their ships with blocks of stone drilled at one end to receive the rope.

Under the Seleukids the anchor became much more than an important piece of nautical equipment. It became a vital symbol of Seleukos I Nikator, the founder of the dynasty, and later an emblem of the Seleukid royal house. Several political myths have survived in the literary sources suggesting that the anchor was an old family badge that was associated with Seleukos.

In one account it is said that Apollo, the supposed true father of Seleukos, left a a ring for his son which had the device of an anchor carved into the bezel. By this token the young man first learned of his divine parentage and had a glimpse of the great future for which he was destined. Another story gives a much less supernatural explanation for the anchor of Seleukos. He was thought to have been born with an anchor shaped birthmark on his thigh. Indeed, all true kings of the Seleukid house were supposed to have had this birthmark as a seal of their legitimacy.

The Seleukid anchor first appears as an adjunct symbol on the Alexandrine coins of Arados during Seleukos' tenure as nauarch for Ptolemy I Soter (315-313 BC). Because of this some have thought that the anchor must have been adopted by Seleukos as a badge of his naval office rather than as a proper family crest. In support of this view another myth is adduced in which both Seleukos and Ptolemy are walking through the desert as friends. Suddenly Seleukos trips over a stone which is found to be an old-style anchor. This incident is interpreted as an omen of the great stability of power that would come to Seleukos. Because of the friendliness between the two men in the myth it is thought to date to the time of Seleukos' leadership of the Ptolemaic navy. After the defeat of Antigonos Monophthalmos in 301 BC the friendship was destroyed by territorial greed.

Whether the symbol originated in the Macedonian homeland of Seleukos or whether while he was campaigning in the eastern Mediterranean the anchor soon developed into the badge of the dynasty. It appeared on coins almost until the end of the Seleukids in 68 BC as adjunct symbols and full reverse types. The anchor could also be found on royal seals and countermarks used to guarantee the validity of both documents and money.

Through the course of the dynasty the anchor took a variety of different forms. Sometimes it had broad flukes like those found on the anchor types of Apollonia-Pontike in Thrace while at other times the flukes and shaft were very thin.

Anchors on Non-Seleukid Coinages

The great impact that the Seleukid anchor had as a symbol of royal legitimacy can be seen in its continued use by the kingdoms that broke away from the empire.

The case of Judaean coinage of the Hasmonaean kings is of particular interest. During the short-lived domination of Jerusalem by Antiochos VII Sidetes in the 130s BC he compelled John I Hyrcanus (134-104 BC) to strike Seleukid coins bearing the reverse type of an anchor. When Alexander Jannaeus, (103-76 BC) a son of Hyrcanus, began to issue his own independent bronze coinage he also employed an anchor as a reverse type, apparently recognizing it as a general emblem of royal legitimacy. It is very doubtful that the anchor refers to that king's conquest of the coastal cities of Philistia.

In 34 BC the Hasmonaean house came to an abrupt end when Herod the Great, (40-4 BC) the Roman-supported king of the Jews, murdered the last male heir of the family. However, because of his immense unpopularity with the people he ruled, Herod occasionally tried to portray himself as a legitimate heir to the Hasmonaean legacy. As part of this propaganda he married Alexandra, an Hasmonaean princess, and struck coins with the type of an anchor. Thus by tying himself to the imagery of Alexander Jannaeus he was indirectly linking himself to the legitimizing force of the old Seleukid anchor emblem.

In the further east the independent rulers of Elymais, near the Persian Gulf, continued to use the anchor symbol as a badge of their kingdom from the second century BC until the time of the Orodid ('Arsakid') kings of the second century AD. The anchor from a coin of one of these later kings is shown above.

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