This article deals with the development of Kushan royal imagery as known from coins in the period between the 1st and the 3rd centuries
With the birth of the Kushan empire around the middle of the 1st century
The analysis of regnal iconography offers one of the most fruitful approaches through which these imperial traditions can be studied, providing crucial insights on their constitutive features and on the possible range of their contacts with other polities of the time. Coinage plays in this regard a fundamental role as a primary source under the direct responsibility of royal authorities. Indeed, despite progress in other fields of investigation, coin issues still represent the main evidence available to scholars on how Kushan kings chose to be portrayed, since no other medium has provided such a rich visual repertoire—both in mere typological variety and in chronological extension—and only thanks to their coins we know the official image of every Kushan king.
It may thus be instructive to analyze Kushan coin iconography in order to detect the main trends in the development of the relevant royal imagery and to explore its possible sources of inspiration. Indeed, as the main primary source on the Kushans, coinage has featured since the late 1940s (Monneret de Villard 1948; Göbl 1960) in academic discussion about the western connections of the area nowadays conventionally styled as the Indo-Iranian Borderlands, with particular reference to the links with the Roman eastern Mediterranean of broader art-historical phenomena such as Gandharan art. In this way, emphasis on the Roman contribution to the art-historical developments in
In this methodological approach, technical aspects of coin production became intermingled with the wider question of the transmission of western imagery to Kushan-period
At the same time, little attention has been devoted to the possibility of lasting contacts and exchanges, including in the field of the visual display of power, with other areas of the ancient world, particularly those of western Iran which were geographically and—above all—culturally closer to Bactria and home to lively imperial traditions.
In addition, as is often the case when the dialogue between different disciplines should be the departing point, art-historical and numismatic studies on the Kushans—or on the Indo-Iranian Borderlands during the Kushan period—have customarily progressed independently of each other. With regard to the research on Kushan coinage, this—as paradoxical as it may appear, given the long-prevailing intellectual trends outlined above—has resulted in the fact that emphasis upon Roman links has been accompanied by the setting of such links within an exclusively numismatic framework, thus limiting their impact to the sphere of coin-to-coin influences and thus producing a rather distorted general picture.
Consequently, not only we are still missing an all-round appraisal of Kushan royal imagery based on a systematic scrutiny of the evidence from different media centred on the crucial contribution provided by coin series,2 but the study of Kushan coin iconography must still be set free from the weight of old interpretative paradigms. Such paradigms have been challenged in the last two decades, with the emergence of works emphasizing the role of the local numismatic tradition,3 but we still have to fully set Kushan coin iconography into the framework of Kushan royal imagery tout court, and in turn define the latter’s place within a broader picture, i.e., that of the development of royal imagery in the wider Iranian world of the time.
In this regard a fundamental issue is the assessment of the role of the nomadic or Central Asian colouring commonly ascribed to Kushan royal imagery in a sort of mirror effect with the theories on the Roman patterns: is the image of the Kushan king really conveying the message of a nomadic cultural identity?
It will be seen that a wider and properly synchronic approach that sets the enquiry in Kushan matters within a broader perspective may produce quite interesting results, impacting our notions of the relationship between Iran and Central Asia, two terms that in several instances would be better spelled as Western and Eastern Iran. It will be accordingly highlighted how, at the moment in which the Kushans created a distinct imperial coinage following the evolution of their political construction, connections with the Iranian West had a major impact upon the development of a Kushan royal iconography. Indeed, such connections played their role in the framework of a broader phenomenon of transmission of patterns of visual display of power between western Iran and the Indo-Iranian Borderlands which involved several different kinds of media, to be set in its turn against the background of deeper cultural contacts between these two regions.
Once again, coins are here crucial, since their role as main primary source is the same in the Kushan empire as elsewhere in the Iranian world of the time. The enquiry here presented will focus on the Kushan coins struck between the 1st and the 3rd centuries
The study is divided in five sections, introduced by the presentation of the documentary evidence, i.e., the coin series, with obvious emphasis on the royal image. The theory of the Roman patterns is critically examined in the second section, while the third and fourth sections explore, respectively, the role of the pre-Kushan local numismatic tradition and the possible contribution of western Iranian, namely Arsacid, influences on the Kushan imagery of power and, consequently, on Kushan royal iconography on coins.
The fifth and last section before the conclusions is devoted to an assessment of what the results of the study of the coin iconography in connection with the evidence of royal imagery from other media can tell us about the cultural background of Kushan royal ideology.
1 The Typological Development of the Coin Image of the Kushan King from “Heraios” to Vasudeva
Four broad phases can be detected in the evolution of the numismatic depiction of Kushan rulers. The first, which might be styled as pre-imperial, is essentially represented by the so-called Heraios coinage. This is first followed by the formative stage of the series of Kujula and Soter Megas,4 and then by the properly imperial phase of Vima Kadphises, Kanishka and Huvishka. The last phase is that inaugurated by Vasudeva. Such a periodization is of course highly schematic, but it remains useful in allowing an overview of the evolution of the image of the Kushan king, as all such phases are marked by quite distinctive features.
The coinage commonly ascribed to Heraios is constituted by just two silver series, tetradrachms and obols of reduced Attic standard on which the ruler is depicted, in both cases, on the obverse as well as on the reverse (Fig. 1).5 The appearance of the word Kushan in the legend firmly establishes these coins as the first ones struck by the Kushans after the long issues of imitations of Greek series during the Yuezhi period. On the obverse the king is portrayed in the same way on both denominations, that is, as a frontal bust with the head turned to the right.6 This mixture of views already sets this image somewhat apart from the standard conventions spread in the area by Greek coinages,7 but the remaining features of the portrait are even more telling. While the head is diademed as on Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek coins, the king wears thin moustaches and the hair is cut in a completely different way from what we see in Greek portraiture, that is, thrown back and cut square at the end, level with the lobe of the ear.8 Furthermore, the king is dressed in a jacket with edge bands typical of the Iranian horseman tradition.
The reverses show another pattern, as different types were selected for the two denominations. Certain elements are, however, common to both issues: in both the king is depicted full-length, wearing the same costume visible only in part on the obverse, which accordingly also shows the trousers. On tetradrachms the ruler appears on horseback, a Nike flying behind him with a ring, either a wreath or a diadem,9 held close to the king’s head (Fig. 1b); with the left hand the king seems to hold the reins, while the right is engraved close to the belt, just above the large arrow quiver slung on the side. The obols show the king standing in a ¾ view to right, only the bust and head fully turned to the side (Fig. 1d). The right arm is held forward as if offering—or taking—something,10 while on the left-hand side only the hand is visible.11
The imagery visible on these coins has already been connected to the clay statuary recovered from the Bactrian site of Khalchayan (Pugachenkova 1971: 130),12 and, indeed, the link is manifest. Further materials displaying similar characteristics have recently been discovered in Noin Ula (Polos’mak 2010; 2015), where embroidered textiles decorated with the images of several characters with similar features in their haircuts, beardless portraits with thin pointed moustaches, and costumes have been found.13
The chronology, of the coin series as well as of the non-numismatic materials—one often depending on the other in a particularly vicious circle—, is disputed, the original hypothesis of a dating in the 1st century
With the coinage that can be ascribed with certainty to Kujula we enter a different phase, marked by extreme typological variation. Broadly speaking, the series minted by Kujula directly continued those that he encountered in the various regions he conquered, although numerous new types were introduced. We are thus presented with a highly fragmented picture, even with regard to the image of the king. Some types are clearly indebted to “western” models of royal imagery, such as the bust in Greek helmet that appears on the obverse of the so-called Macedonian soldier issue (Rosenfield 1967: 15, Type v; Mac Dowall 2002: 166, Type 2 of Kujula Kadphises) (Fig. 2a),16 or the obverse bust employed on coins struck by Kujula at the end of the so-called imitation-Hermaios series (Rosenfield 1967: 12-13, Type i; Mac Dowall 2002: 166, Type 1 of Kujula Kadphises) (Fig. 2c). Yet, placed at the end of a clearly defined sequence, the latter type is essentially the result of mere reproduction of an older image, from which we would expect no innovations. A simple diademed bust clad in a cloak is depicted, as shown by coins of Hermaios and their successive imitations prior to Kujula. However, with its combination of a head in profile on a facing bust, this type of Kujula actually introduces a brand-new feature, remarkably displaying the same peculiar mixture of profile and frontal view seen on coins of Heraios.
It is therefore of some interest to compare such an image with what we encounter on the obverse of the most famous series struck by Kujula, namely a Roman head (Rosenfield 1967: 13-14, Type ii; Mac Dowall 2002: 166, Type 3 of Kujula Kadphises) (Fig. 2e). Significantly, the image is that of a head as opposed to a bust, in accordance with the original Augustan model. Accordingly, the general western inspiration of such types may actually be ascribed to different sources, namely an older, originally Greek tradition, which had broadly become indigenized, and a more recent Roman one.
It is unlikely, of course, that these various western-inspired images offer a closely lifelike representation of the Kushan king, as becomes clear through comparison with Heraios’ series as well as with further images found on Kujula’s coins. Indeed, it remains an open question exactly whom they are supposed to depict, and the problem is only made more complex by the employment of a similar approach to obverse typology on Soter Megas’ coins. It seems possible to state that in this early period a phase of iconographic elaboration can be detected, during which the strength of royal imagery of Greek derivation was still able to make itself felt: over the course of centuries it had indeed became traditional,17 tightly associated with the very idea of visually translating kingship and power. This is illustrated well by the post-Greek depictions of local rulers wearing Macedonian helmets18 not only on the Macedonian soldier issue of Kujula and on coins of Soter Megas, but also on coins issued by the group of Sapadbizes in western Bactria (Rtveladze 1993/94), that is, in a context distinct from Kushan models.
Other coin images of Kujula provide some evidence of what Kushan royal attire of this early period really looked like. First we have the reverses of the series with the Roman head on the obverse (Fig. 2f), which depict a figure seated in ¾-view to right, wearing the rider’s costume of jacket and trousers. While the right arm is stretched forward,19 the left hand rests on the sword hilt, the scabbard being clearly visible behind the figure. A most important feature is the seat, a stool with thin crossed legs, which, in keeping with the Roman inspiration of the obverse type, has been traditionally identified as a Roman-type curule chair (Rosenfield 1967: 13; Carter 2005: 435, fn. 3), with the obvious implication of confirming the Roman connections of the whole series. Another less frequently discussed type ascribed to Kujula depicts a figure seated cross-legged on the obverse (Rosenfield 1967: 14-15, Type iii; Mac Dowall 2002: 167, Type 4 of Kujula Kadphises), with a T(?)-shaped object held aloft in the right hand (Fig. 3a),20 probably an axe. The figure is in fully-facing view, apparently wearing a tall conical headgear.
A similar device appears on the diademed head of a further type on the obverse of silver coins found in Sirkap and provisionally ascribed to Kujula,21 which depicts a bust in edged jacket turned to the left (Rosenfield 1967: 13-14, Type vi; Senior 2001, no. B4.1-2D) (Fig. 3c).
While the outfit worn by the cross-legged figure is not as distinctly visible as that of the figure on the reverse of the Roman head series or on the coins from Sirkap, the general picture is perfectly clear, as the costume exhibited by all these royal images distances them definitively from western prototypes, instead bringing them close to the local ones employed on Heraios’ coins.22
The series of Soter Megas show an approach to the use of images broadly similar to that of his predecessor, although the picture is somewhat simplified thanks to the stabilization of the coin system connected to the consolidation of the empire.
The only image that can be identified with certainty as the king shows the ruler on horseback in a type very similar to that on the reverse of Heraios’ tetradrachms. As for Heraois’ coins, the type is employed on the reverse (the reverses of Type 3 and 5 of Vima i in Cribb 1995/96: 113-115 and of Soter Megas in Mac Dowall 2002: 168-169) (Fig. 4b, 4d). The diadem ties are in evidence floating behind the king and the horseman trousers are clearly visible. A significant difference from the type of Heraios is that the Soter Megas’ type displays a pointed cap on the head of the king, as well as the object, an axe,23 held by the right arm stretched outwards. An almost identical type of Soter Megas, imitating a type of the Indo-Parthian Sasan (Cribb 1995/96: 119-120), portrays the same figure with just the diadem worn on the head, without additional headgear (the obverse of Type 1 of Vima i in Cribb 1995/96: 111-112 and of Soter Megas in Mac Dowall 2002: 167-168) (Fig. 4e). The right hand now seems to hold no axe, but is either displaying a gesture of blessing—or homage—with its bent forefinger (Cribb 1995/96: 111, Type 1b of Vima i), or holding an object, possibly identifiable as a goad (Cribb 1995/96: 111, Types 1a, 1c of Vima i). Remarkably enough, the apparently short-haired, diademed head of this figure is highly reminiscent of the obverse type of the Hermaios’ imitations struck by Kujula, despite the clearly oriental costume worn by the horseman.
To complicate the situation, the type with the mounted king in pointed cap is found on the reverse of two series which both exhibit very peculiar obverse types. The first portrays a bust in Macedonian helmet turned to the left (the obverse of Type 3 of Vima i in Cribb 1995/96: 113-114 and of Soter Megas in Mac Dowall 2002: 168) (Fig. 4g), the second, employed by Soter Megas for his general coinage (MacDowall 1968: 32-33; 2002: 168; Cribb 1995/96: 114-115, and 121), a short-haired diademed bust to right, surrounded by a conspicuous halo of rays (the obverse of Type 5 of Vima i in Cribb 1995/96: 113-114 and of Soter Megas in Mac Dowall 2002: 168-169) (Fig. 4a, 4c). Both figures are clad in a cloak, and hold a spear before their face with one raised arm.24 These types are difficult to interpret for several reasons, that is to say, the iconographic analysis is problematic because of the similarities as well as the differences. They are represented in the same posture and gesture, clad in the same outfit, and both occupying the obverse of a series that depicts the king on the reverse in a clearly different costume. However, while the first type with his helmet is reminiscent of the royal images of Greek inspiration we have already seen, the second, whose general appearance could also be connected to royal imagery, is quite strikingly associated with an iconographic mark—the rayed halo—that, save for a single exception,25 is normally used in this region only for divine images.26 So the question of how to connect these three images according to the iconography that they employ arises, taking into account that the reverse type of the horseman is the only one definitely depicting the Kushan king. While the possible Bactrian location of the series with the bust in Macedonian helmet can explain the background for such a choice in that specific instance (MacDowall 2002: 168), this is not the case for those coins with the rayed bust on the obverse, i.e. the general issue of Soter Megas reportedly found from Bactria to western Panjab (MacDowall 1968: 32-42; 1974: 247; Cribb 1995/96: 119). In addition, a Greek-looking diademed bust facing to the right occupies the obverse of another series of copper drachms of Attic standard struck by Soter Megas (Type 4 of Vima i in Cribb 1995/96: 114 and 119 and of Soter Megas in Mac Dowall 2002: 168)27 in Mathura and
The minting of a general issue by Soter Megas throughout a large part of the empire paved the way for the significant changes visible in the coinage of Vima ii Kadphises, associated with his introduction of a gold coinage.29 Under Vima ii the royal image is invariably reserved for the obverse, both on gold and copper series. The significant feature within the framework of an analysis of royal imagery is that, while a rich variety of types is employed, the royal iconography is clearly subject to a process of standardization, firmly establishing a new norm for the depictions of the king. On the coin series of Vima ii such a process appears as an accomplished fact, and royal iconography shows a remarkable homogeneity, clearly resulting from inputs originating from the court as part of a precise plan aiming at a thorough codification of royal imagery. The image of Vima ii shows two basic versions: one diademed only, which is less common, and one with the head covered by a domed headgear, i.e. a tiara. Both have two sub-variants according to the clothing of the king.
The first version is mostly represented by a type depicting the bust of the king turned to the right (Göbl 1984: pl. 157, Type ii of Vima Kadphises) (Fig. 5a).30 Vima is fully bearded, and clad in a cloak fixed with a clasp at the right shoulder, holding with the right hand a club against the same shoulder. While the head is in full profile, the bust is in a ¾ view to right, the left arm and hand not depicted. Around the bare head a diadem is visible,31 rendered with a knotted pattern and supporting a higher element that projects upwards from the forehead. The diadem bow and ties are engraved behind the king’s head. While all these features seem to reproduce the actual paraphernalia of the king as he would have really appeared to his subject, two further elements enrich the type by referring to the ideological dimension of royalty behind the choice of images: the bust emerges from rocks,32 probably symbolizing a mountain setting, and flames are visible behind the king’s shoulders.33 These latter two visual elements are, in all likelihood, both references to the concept of xvarenah, the luminous Royal Glory characteristic of pre-Islamic Iranian kingship,34 which is indeed connected to mountains in the Iranian tradition.
A rarer type, depicting the king turned to the left, represents the second variant of the royal portrait with diadem only (Göbl 1984: pl. 157, Type x of Vima Kadphises) (Fig. 5c).35 Both arms are now visible, the right bearing a club, and the left holding an object which is difficult to identify.36 Moreover, the cloak is replaced by a long-sleeved caftan fixed on the breast by two rounded clasps.
The next stage in the evolution of the portrait of Vima ii—a stage in which can be included all his remaining obverse types—, begins with the iconographic updating of the main variant of the previous type. The very same image of the bust to right clad in a cloak is now depicted with a domed tiara on the head (Göbl 1984: pl. 157, Type i of Vima Kadphises) (Fig. 6a), adorned by a wavy design on its side and a crescent-shaped, four-pronged appendage on top.37 The only other change affects the diadem, whose knot-like rendering disappears, probably due to the diadem being hidden by the tiara. The element projecting above the forehead is still in place.
This club-holding bust wearing a tiara is then used for more complex types, where the king appears in full length. One such type depicts him on a two-horse chariot under a large parasol (Göbl 1984: pl. 157, Type v of Vima Kadphises) (Fig. 6c), his legs hidden inside the chariot, while the diminutive figure of the chariot rider is visible in front of the much larger royal bust. Due to the dimensions of the image, the flames behind the shoulders are not engraved, as the place they normally occupy is now taken by the club, the flowing diadem ties and the parasol shaft on and over the king’s right shoulder, and by the chariot driver on the left one.
The king appears sitting cross-legged on a bed of rocks in a further type (Göbl 1984: pl. 157, Type vi of Vima Kadphises) (Fig. 7a). In this instance the bust, still depicted in the same posture, is fully facing as the left arm makes its appearance, the hand hidden within the sleeve. Moreover, the cloak is substituted by the caftan, its two clasps clearly visible on the breast. A belted tunic is visible underneath, while the trousers are tucked into heavy boots. The flames are regularly displayed behind both shoulders.
Even the rarer variant of the first type of bust with diadem only is subject to the same evolution, and now the bust to left with caftan in lieu of the cloak also appears in a tiara (Göbl 1984: pl. 157, Type ix of Vima Kadphises) (Fig. 7c), leaving all other features unchanged, save for the object held in the clenched left fist, whose hooked shape strongly suggests a sword pommel shaped as the head of a bird of prey.38
The full-length figure turned to left with tiara and caftan is instead used for two types depicting the king sitting on a throne (Göbl 1984: pl. 157, Type xii of Vima Kadphises) (Fig. 8a)39 and riding an elephant (Göbl 1984: pl. 157, Type iii of Vima Kadphises) (Fig. 8c).40 The same basic combination is then found in a type rare on gold coins but common on the copper series—to the point of completely dominating their typology—and destined to an enduring success in the successive Kushan numismatic history. The standing king is portrayed full-length occupying the whole field (Göbl 1984: pl. 157, Type iv of Vima Kadphises) (Fig. 8e), with his bearded head in profile to left while the body is fully facing, the feet showing the tendency to the symmetrical splayed rendering commonly associated with Kushan period imagery.41 Under the caftan the king wears the standard knee-length tunic, closed by a belt whose end hangs from the buckle.42 As usual the diadem knot is visible behind the tiara, its conspicuous ties flowing behind. While the left hand rests on the hilt of the sword held at the chest,43 the right arm is lowered to drop offerings on a small fire burner on the left. On the two sides a club and a trident combined with an axe are visible.
Vima also employed, exclusively on copper, a rare variant of this image (Göbl 1984: pl. 73, no. 765) (Fig. 8g):44 in this instance the fire burner is located on the right and the king is accordingly turned to drop offerings onto it, his right arm stretching across the body. It is not clear whether ceremonial weapons are also depicted.
The basic type of Vima Kadphises’ coppers—that of the king standing and facing to the left before the fire burner—was inherited by Kanishka, who used it with only minor changes for the vast majority of his series (Göbl 1984: pl. 157, Types i-iv of Kanishka).45 Most notably, we see that the left arm is depicted as holding a spear vertically, with two ribbons hanging from its tip, instead of resting on the sword hilt. The tiara is subject to an evolution, and a number of variants appear (cf. Tandon 2011: 387-393) (Fig. 9a, 9c),46 marking the two main mints according to Göbl. The cloak, no longer fastened at the shoulder but frontally at the breast, makes its return, hanging in large folds behind the king and with the upper part flowing on both sides of the king’s figure,47 displacing the caftan worn by Vima ii. The sleeved and knee-length tunic underneath, belted at the waist, is accordingly fully exposed. The treatment of the feet is the same as that seen on coins of Vima Kadphises, while the sword, now completely visible, is suspended from a special belt, its hilt displaying a pommel shaped as the beaked head of a bird of prey. As for his father, Kanishka appears fully bearded, with the addition of a circular shape on the cheek, usually associated in the literature with the feature known from Arsacid coins that is commonly interpreted as a wart.48 Flames, absent from the version of this type employed by Vima Kadphises, are again to be seen, emerging from the ruler’s shoulders. Sometimes the right hand over the fire burner holds a goad/aṇkuśa (Rosenfield 1967: 56) (Fig. 9c).49
The quarter unit discards the fire burner image, employing the same type cut at the waist (Göbl 1984: pl. 157, Type iv of Kanishka) (Fig. 9e),50 resulting in a spear-holding bust facing left which emerges from rocks, like the busts of Vima ii.
A rare type employed only on coppers shows the enthroned king in frontal view (Fig. 9g), only the head depicted in profile to left (Göbl 1984: pls. 80-81, nos. 798 and 803). The general composition is strongly reminiscent of the enthroned Vima Kadphises, but sadly nothing more can be added due to the poorly preserved condition of the published specimens.
The inspiration provided by the series of Vima ii is clearly apparent even on coins of Huvishka (cf. Rosenfield 1967: 61; Jongeward et al. 2015: 6). The vast majority of the types used by Huvishka on his gold coins are busts of the king emerging from rocks, usually looking to the left, though images facing the opposite direction are not unknown.51 All are a combination of profile head and facing or ¾-view bust, normally with both arms visible.52
For a large part of his gold series, i.e. the first two issues in both Mint A and B according to Göbl (1984: pls. 11-15, nos. 135-188, and pls. 21-25, nos. 291-337), Huvishka wears a hemispherical tiara and is clothed in a long sleeved, plain, pullover tunic (Figs. 10a, 10c), with a rounded collar at the neck bordered by beads (Göbl 1984: pl. 158, Types i-iv and Type xx of Huvishka).53 No cloak or caftan is visible. The tiara is surmounted by a crest decoration analogous to that displayed by Kanishka, while a crescent adorns its forepart and another one its side.54 The diadem ties now display a characteristic ribbing.55 The king, wearing moustaches and exhibiting two conspicuous side-burns in lieu of the full beard, holds a club in the right hand,56 and the hilt of a sword with the pommel shaped as an eagle head in the left one.57 The circular shape normally identified as a wart introduced by Kanishka is still found on the cheek. Flames are often visible emerging from his shoulders.
With the second part of his coinage, covered by the third and fourth issues (Göbl 1984: pls. 16-21, nos. 190-288 for Mint A and pls. 25-27, nos. 340-383 for Mint B), a few changes are introduced. The king’s bust still emerges from rocks, but while the right hand keeps on holding the simplified club as before, a spear held against the shoulder makes its appearance in the left (Fig. 10e), occasionally substituted by a staff with zoomorphic ending.58 The position of the arms in relation to the body is unaffected, and they are both depicted exactly as in the preceding types. A variously decorated tunic takes the place of the plain one worn by Huvishka in the preceding issues, almost invariably accompanied by a cloak or by a caftan open at the front as on Vima Kadphises’ series. Significant changes affect the head of the king, as a circular nimbus appear behind it, and the tiara is first subject to modifications of its decorative apparatus (Göbl 1984: pl. 158, Types v-xi of Huvishka), and then substituted by a mitre-like helmet (Göbl 1984: pl. 158, Types xii-xvi of Huvishka) (Fig. 10g). Cheek protections are normally visible, attached to both the tiara and the mitre, and completely hiding the side burns.59 Finally, the ribbing of the diadem ties is common to coins from both mints.
Occasionally the usual types employed in the gold series are further elaborated, for example by adding legs to the standard bust of the king in order to portray him full figure, exactly as seen under Vima Kadphises. This is shown by a type of the second phase depicting Huvishka sitting cross-legged (Göbl 1984: pl. 158, Type xxii of Huvishka) (Fig. 11a).60 Similar in concept, but different in its rendering, is an earlier type, also representing the king sitting cross-legged on a bed of rocks (Göbl 1984: pl. 158, Type xxiii of Huvishka) (Fig. 11c),61 but this time with the staff held high by the left hand, a posture inspired by the typology of Kanishka.62 The king is depicted frontally and no longer in the slightly ¾ view of the busts, and his head is turned to right. The staff ends with a zoomorphic termination, with two ribbons hanging.
The same early version of the king’s image, with rounded tiara and plain tunic, was used to depict Huvishka riding on an elephant (Göbl 1984: pl. 159, Type xxiv of Huvishka) (Fig. 11e), holding a spear63 in his right hand and an aṇkuśa in the left one.64
Remarkably enough, the latter types, unusual for the gold coinage, find their correspondence in the copper series, which, on the whole, show a different approach to typological selection. No busts are employed, and the king appears always depicted full-length. Of the three basic types commonly used by Huvishka, two are those just seen, portraying the king respectively as sitting cross-legged on rocks holding the staff (Göbl 1984: pl. 158, Types xxiiia-c of Huvishka)65 and riding on the elephant (Göbl 1984: pl. 159, Types xxiva-c of Huvishka).66 A third one shows Huvishka reclining on a couch, his left leg hanging down (Göbl 1984: pl. 159, Type xxvi of Huvishka).67 Among the few rarer types, one depicts Huvishka sitting on a throne instead of a bed of rocks, the only difference beside the seat being the posture of the legs, which are parallel in the frontal view used for the image and not cross-legged (Göbl 1984: pl. 159, Type xxvii of Huvishka). All these types share the feature of a conspicuous rayed nimbus surrounding the whole image of the king. Unlike on the gold coinage, where the nimbus appears only in the third issue, on copper coins it is visible from the earliest series. Moreover, the nimbus employed on gold coins never exhibits the rays that are so in evidence in the types used on copper coins.
All this variety comes to an end with Vasudeva, whose coin production is marked by a dramatic reduction in the range of typological choices.68 For his obverses he only employed the type of the full-length king at altar inaugurated by Vima ii Kadphises and inherited by Kanishka, regardless of denomination. The head of the king closely resembles the later model of Huvishka, as the king exhibits just a pair of moustaches and wears the same type of mitre, surrounded by the circular halo. The spear held by the king in the type of Kanishka acquires a pair of additional secondary points (Fig. 12a).69 Occasionally a trident is visible next to the fire burner (Fig. 12c). The only really significant innovation introduced by Vasudeva is that the king is depicted in heavy, cataphract-style armour, with a corselet and skirt of large square plates and laminated armour protecting the limbs. The choice of the portrait of the king in armour before a fire burner will be imitated by all his successors, albeit with minor variants, essentially bringing to an end the development of Kushan royal typology and inspiring similar images in the successive Kushano-Sasanian series.
2 The Theory of the “Roman Patterns” and the Work of Robert Göbl
As can be seen from this overview, the iconographic features composing Kushan royal coin imagery can be grouped into two categories. The first category pertains to the basic compositional schemes or conventions, such as, e.g., the choice of busts or full-length figures—the latter to be then subdivided into standing or sitting, for example—and their postures. Here the use of the image of the king on the obverse alone, as opposed to royal depictions on both coin faces, must also be included (cf. Cribb 1998: 87). To the second category belong instead the specific elements of royal iconography, that is to say, how the king effectively appeared, and what exactly were the paraphernalia identifying his image. In this regard, it is possible to define both general characteristics, connected to the wider concepts behind the image of the Kushan royal figure, and specific features pertaining to individual kings.
The proper appraisal of this distinction is crucial, as it provides a much more reliable framework in which to seek connections and models that can be of relevance to Kushan royal imagery.
Once this descriptive analysis is undertaken, the question to be tackled is the definition of the basic features of Kushan royal imagery in order to find their possible connections.
The most important attempt to give a meaning—and an answer—to such a question is no doubt provided by Robert Göbl’s monumental work on the Kushans. With his System und Chronologie der Münzprägung des Kušānreiches, which he published in 1984 after more than two decades of work on Kushan numismatics,70 Kushan coinage for the first time became the focus of study aimed at tracing its history and development through the reconstruction of its inner structure.71 Within such an approach the analysis of the types employed was crucial, since it was the basis of the reconstruction of the system of production. Indeed, the result of Göbl’s life-long study was to establish a tight link between Roman and Kushan coin series, based on their typological relations. More precisely, Göbl focused on the dependency of Kushan types on Roman models from the earliest stages of his work on the Kushans, his method revolving around “the supposition that coins form the prototypes for coins” (Göbl 1960: 80). From this, when applied to the vexing question of Kushan chronology, it was natural to deduce that Roman types may provide the termini post quos to date Kushan coin images.
These basic principles have always remained at the core of Göbl’s work (Göbl 1993: 25-26; 1999), even if the progress of his research led him, over time, to ascribe increasing weight to elements originally not considered of primary importance, such as the metrological dependency of Kushan denominations on Roman ones,72 as well as the termini produced by obverse typology in lieu of those possibly provided by the reverses.73 Indeed, such a modification resulted in the absolute priority finally being given to the links established by the obverses (Göbl 1984; 1993; 1999), that is to say, to the connections between different coin systems detectable in the royal portraits.
Among them, the most important and crucially emphasized was no doubt the wide-scale employment by Huvishka of busts with attributes, in particular those introduced by Huvishka in his third issue, which—according to Göbl—were modelled on the busts with attributes that became common on Roman coin series from
Further signs of Roman influence were seen in the cloak worn by Vima Kadphises, expressly identified by Göbl as a Roman imperial paludamentum (Göbl 1984: 34-35; 1999: 157),75 and in features such as the marking of the names of the deities on the reverses (Göbl 1984: 20; Cribb 1998: 88; 2007: 367). All this was ascribed to the fact that the inner pattern of the Kushan mint organization was understood by Göbl to have been structured, exactly like its Roman model, on several officinae, distinguished under Kanishka and Huvishka by the reverse types.76
In addition to such Roman connections, Göbl detected other links with Sasanian coinage which he was the first to consider, which had the effect of strengthening his late chronological framework for the Kushans (Göbl 1984: 15, 20, 34; 1993: 26-27; 1999: 158-159). These consist first of all in the peculiar treatment in Sasanian art of the diadem ties, which invariably exhibit a characteristic ribbing. Save for a few initial coin series of Ardashir (Alram/Gyselen 2003: 117-127, obverse Types i-iid, and occasionally iiia-iiib), all ribbons in Sasanian art are depicted in this way, be it on coins, rock reliefs, seals, or silver vessels, systematically covering the whole Sasanian period with a widespread presence in all kinds of visual documents. Therefore Göbl deduced a Sasanian origin for the ribbed diadem employed by Huvishka, resulting in a further occurrence of the transfer of features from a foreign coin system, in this case the Sasanian instead of the Roman one, to the Kushan series. Moreover, he suggested that the wreath offered by several deities depicted on the reverses of Huvishka’s third issue was inspired by Sasanian investiture scenes, in the context of “a sort of competition between two proclaimed Iranian dynasties” (Göbl 1999: 159).77
All this had an obvious impact on chronology, providing the basis for Göbl’s theory of a 3rd-century dating for the beginning of the era of Kanishka,78 then identified with the era that was supposed to start in Bactria in
Yet, upon closer analysis, the propositions that Göbl presented as conclusions extracted from the study of the materials could, in fact, be more fittingly defined as a methodological approach, i.e. as the premises of his work rather than results. In fact, Gérard Fussman already perceived in his review of Göbl’s work of 1984 (Fussman 1986) that the concept tying together all such single elements—i.e. the very idea of a direct transmission of Roman coin models to
Now, a proper assessment of the different elements that were used to create the imagery of the Kushan kings may help to further advance our analysis. We have seen that the successors of Vima ii Kadphises took constant inspiration from his series, as is to be expected since, with his monetary reform, he was the king who set the standard for a proper imperial coinage. What can be observed (Fig. 13) is that the mint personnel devised a system of alternation of the basic compositional formulas in order to make series belonging to different kings instantly recognizable (Cribb 1997: 25; Jongeward et al. 2015: 6; cf. also Göbl 1984: 12, 64; 1993: 36): the series of Kanishka took the standing king at altar of Vima ii, while under Huvishka it was the turn of the bust, widely used by Vima ii, to be re-employed. Vasudeva went back to the main type of Kanishka, which after him was, contrary to previous practice, canonized by his successors, effectively putting an end to the continuous development of the main features of Kushan coin typology.
The basic types on Kushan obverses from Vima Kadphises to Vasudeva.
Approached from this viewpoint, it is clear that Huvishka took his basic type of the royal bust from Vima ii, not from Roman models.79 Thanks to the series of his ancestor, the model of Huvishka’s busts was available directly in loco and his engravers had no need to look elsewhere. Indeed,—and this must be remarked here—save for the addition of the spear from his third issue onwards, all busts of Huvishka reproduce exactly the schema used by the engravers working under Vima ii for the latter’s busts (Fig. 14): the posture of the king, the use of a tiara (in fact the same for Vima ii and Huvishka’s earlier issues except for the decoration) and the rocks from which the bust emerges are identical.80
The bust with attributes on coins of Vima Kadphises and Huvishka.
If we try to imagine the mint crew at work, the environment in which the types under discussion were created comes to the fore, and it can easily be seen how all such images are strictly linked in a system in which they were—for example—turned in one or the opposite direction to produce an easy means of differentiation (cf. Bracey 2009: 31). For the same purpose they were above all variously combined, providing the bust previously seen alone with crossed legs to make the king seated on the rocks instead of emerging from them, or joining the bust to a throne to obtain an image of the enthroned king. It is clear that all these images are closely connected and that they developed from the constant elaboration of their original models from simpler to more complex depictions.81
The “genealogical tree” that can be reconstructed for these images—as shown by the evolution in the use of the royal bust under Vima ii (Fig. 15)—therefore excludes a massive arrival of elements from outside, even with regard to the compositional formulae used by the engravers.82 A feature that definitely shows a change from Huvishka’s first and second issues to the third one is style, but this need not be explained as a substantial modification originating outside of the mints, i.e. as coming from the Mediterranean West. Rather, it may have been due simply to changes in personnel among the craftsmen involved in the preparation of the dies, as becomes clear when one bears in mind that a gap of some time might perhaps separate the third issue from the second. At any rate, a survey of the changes in style between Vima ii and Vasudeva clearly shows the range of possible visual differences, without necessarily implying anything more than the replacement of old craftsmen with new ones. In fact, one is left to wonder how the busts of Huvishka featuring a spear could have been explained if their engraving were stylistically less naturalistic than that displayed by the series of his first and second issue, instead of the opposite: would a change from a more to a less naturalistic style still be interpreted as the result of influence coming from the Roman West?
In fact the compositional links of Type xxiii of Huvishka to the series of Kanishka, highlighted by the shafted attribute visible in both images (Fig. 16a-b),83 show the direction to follow in order to explain the background to the appearance of the spear on Huvishka’s coins. Beside the presence itself of such an attribute, which pertains to the level of the real image of the king, these links are crucially important in terms of composition, as is clearly demonstrated precisely by the way in which the staff/spear is held by the king.
The evidence provided by the copper series can be also added, since one of Huvishka’s commonest types on copper portrays the king with a spear/staff as a full figure sitting cross-legged (Fig. 16d), rather than cut at the waist to appear as a bust with spear/staff in one hand. This should be borne in mind, as it reminds us that gold and copper series were struck in the same mints and their dies produced within the same working environment. Even if the mints for precious and base metal were different (Bracey 2009: 42; 2012b: 119), it is clear that dies were engraved by die-cutters using one and the same pool of images,84 and that, therefore, the analysis of the imagery they bear cannot be tackled by separating the images used on gold coins from those employed in the copper series. In other words, if the bust with spear is explained as originating from Roman models, then the same should be valid for the king sitting cross-legged. Now, this is precisely where the theory of the Roman patterns for Kushan coins fails completely.
The spear appears in Huvishka’s typology because it had been a constitutive feature of Kushan royal iconography since at least the time of Kanishka.85 It was not a new feature that Huvishka’s engravers could take only from Roman coins, since they knew it from a direct local source—their own tradition—independently from Roman imagery. The fact that the transmission of these specific features was a local phenomenon is clearly indicated by several elements. The busts of Huvishka took the posture of the king, the bed of rocks, the tiara, the club in the right hand, the flames emerging from the shoulders directly from those of Vima ii. With Huvishka’s third issue these very same busts are accorded a different outfit—mitre, clothing, nimbus—and in their left hand they are given the spear/staff of Kanishka. Yet, the arms are depicted in exactly the same posture as in the two previous issues and in the series of Vima ii. There is thus no need to look to Roman coins to explain such changes, unless we are ready to accept—as we should if we follow Göbl’s approach in strict terms—that it is Vima Kadphises who was originally inspired by the 3rd-century Roman busts with attributes, with the all too obvious consequence of moving Vima ii to a date after
Moreover, and here we reach the point where counter-arguments must be discussed, while the transmission of a local tradition may provide a fitting background to all the features of Huvishka’s series, the theory of a direct Roman inspiration can in no way explain some specific types, such as those depicting the king sitting cross-legged or riding an elephant.
That the image of king on elephant must be strictly connected to India needs no elaboration,87 even if similar images are not known prior to Vima Kadphises, as the elephant had previously always appeared alone or in connection with divine images. The evidence regarding the king sitting cross-legged, by contrast, is richer. While the standard images of the Saka kings of north-western India depict the armoured king on horseback, some copper series of Maues (Senior 2001: nos. 15.1-2) and of Azes (Senior 2001: nos. 106.10 and 107.10-99, 108.10) do portray the king seated cross-legged (Fig. 17b-c), with a ceremonial sword clearly in evidence.88
Kujula himself has a series displaying a similar type on the obverse (Fig. 3a), as we have seen. Accordingly, Vima ii, like Huvishka after him, was using images which find explicit antecedents in the local north-western tradition. This is, of course, no real surprise, especially when we think about the specific historical circumstances: the Kushans expanded in India, in the process absorbing legacies inherited from previous locally ruling elites of Iranian origin, Sakas and Indo-Parthians, as well as Indian elements. It is only natural that features of Central Asian and Indian derivation—the cross-legged posture and the elephant—were therefore included in their royal imagery.
This is also shown by other details of the royal paraphernalia often visible beside the king, which find their counterparts in north-western glyptics (Fig. 18a), like the ceremonial weapons such as the trident with affixed axe on coins of Vima ii (Fig. 18b), to which, significantly, linga and vajra are added on some of his quarter dinars (Göbl 1984: pl. 168, Oešo Type 3) (Fig. 18c).89 Clearly they entered Kushan royal iconography from India, as, in all likelihood, did the club held by Vima ii and Huvishka and the staff with zoomorphic ending of Huvishka. None of these elements are standard features in Iranian royal imagery.90 However, this does not imply that Kushan royalty is to be understood in Indian terms.91 It merely shows the flexibility of Kushan power in its use of imagery as, indeed, can be seen at Mat. There, the Iranian rulers of the empire presented themselves to an Indian audience keeping their immediately recognizable “northern” identity (cf. Fussman 1977: 315), despite acquiring selected traits of local derivation, such as the heavy mace with makara ending connected to the notion of dandanayaka.92
Upon close scrutiny, it becomes thus clear that there are serious limitations to the theory of Roman patterns, since it is not able to explain the deeper and structural links between the series of the various kings. In fact, the moneyers of Huvishka had no need to introduce Roman features, as they could simply rely on the Kushan numismatic tradition which had developed in the meantime and entered a new stage under Vima Kadphises. Kushan imperial imagery exhibits a basic and deeper consistency that—unsurprisingly—extends from specific features of the royal outfit, such as the spear-shaped sceptre or the mace, to compositional patterns, as the busts with attributes of Huvishka were inspired by those of Vima (as already had been the case for Kanishka with the type of the king standing and sacrificing on the fire burner), not by images of Roman derivation. This is only confirmed by types that cannot have any Roman origin, such as the king on elephant or sitting cross-legged, which must be therefore explained as products of the local tradition.
3 The Role of the Previous Local Numismatic Tradition
Contrary to the theories of a deep and lasting influence from the Roman Mediterranean, several elements show the fundamental role in the adoption or creation of the basic compositional formulae employed in the royal imagery which was played by what, by the phase in which the Kushans gave birth to their imperial coinage, could be defined as the local numismatic tradition.93
Ceremonial weapons on Indian seals and Kushan coins.
Before we proceed, it is first necessary to clarify some of the terms of the discussion which have been only cursorily hinted at in the literature, among which the role of the mint personnel is crucial (Göbl 1984: 28, 59-60).94 To begin with, it is evident that the alleged Roman pattern of organization of the Kushan mints based on officinae would have required the physical presence of Roman specialists, at least under Vima ii, i.e. at the beginning of the process, since only personnel with a first-hand experience could bring to the North-West the knowledge necessary to organize the mint and handle full scale coin production accordingly.95 One is then left to wonder why such Roman specialists did not employ a clearly—or at least a more clearly—Roman-inspired typology on Vima Kadphises’ series, which is visibly much less Roman than what Huvishka’s coins will show a few decades later with several of their reverse deities: as a matter of fact, even the reverse typology of Vima ii is completely alien to Roman models.96
A possible answer to this question may, of course, be that under Vima such western specialists were merely entrusted with organizing the production and were not responsible for physically creating the images, which was left to local engravers; thereafter, new generations of local craftsmen would have followed, inheriting from the original foreign group the skills necessary for handling production. The introduction of Roman typological features at the inauguration of Huvishka’s third issue would then represent the successive stage. However, this variant of the scenario proposed by Göbl would, in practice, result in Roman specialists using non-Roman inspired images under Vima ii, and non-Roman craftsmen using Roman-inspired types at least thirty years later.97 Such a time-frame is likely to have been, in fact, considerably longer,98 not to mention the contradictory picture that emerges when obverse and reverse typology between Vima ii and Huvishka are examined together according to the approach followed by Göbl. In fact, to postulate a distinction between technical advisors who merely oversaw the mint and craftsmen who actually engraved the coin dies makes little sense in this context, as the alleged Roman iconographic features already identified by Göbl under Vima could reach the Kushan empire only if brought directly by die-cutters or through the medium provided by pattern books (Cf. Göbl 1960: 78; 1984: 28), in both cases bringing us back to the question above.
The only alternative to this unlikely and contradictory scenario would be to postulate a continuous arrival of craftsmen from the Mediterranean, at least between Vima ii and the beginning of Huvishka’s third issue. But such an ongoing flow, or periodic movement at the rate of decades, of artisans between the Mediterranean and
Similarly hard to accept is the idea that Kushan engravers could directly copy Roman coins on such a massive scale as required by the Kushan coin system,101 which is the only possible explanation left if, rejecting the idea that western craftsmen were present in loco, we nevertheless continue to argue that the Kushan coin types had direct external origins. Can we really imagine the engravers working in the Kushan royal mints under the highest commission waiting for Roman coins to haphazardly arrive in their hands in order to provide models for the Kushan series?102 What kind of organization of a complex production system such as the monetary one could be envisaged on such premises?
In fact, by exploring the local coin tradition of the Indo-Iranian borderlands—which ultimately stretched back to the Graeco-Bactrians103 —in order to find the roots of the imagery employed on Kushan coins, we come to some extremely interesting results. In this regard reverse typology is especially telling, since it was not subject to the same degree of elaboration found in royal imagery. This was acknowledged, albeit briefly and only in passing, even by Göbl himself (1984: 47, and pl. 173, Gruppe 1),104 who pointed to the presence on coins of Huvishka (Fig. 19f) of a type of Herakles already employed by Demetrius i in the 2nd century
This should come as no surprise, and we have already seen that even the Kushan type of the king sitting cross-legged has locally attested Saka antecedents. In fact, the field of investigation may be significantly widened if we shift to a broader range of comparisons. Interesting instances may be found of identical types occurring on Graeco-Bactrian, Arsacid and Saka coins, such as the well-known type of the charging mounted Dioscuri employed by Greek kings from Eukratides to Diomedes, by Mithradates I of Parthia (Sellwood 1980: 39, 12.6-7, 10) and by Azilises (Senior 2001, nos. 30-31) (Fig. 20). In 164-161
Herakles crowning himself from Graeco-Bactrian to Kushan coins.
If we leave aside idle speculation about the possibility of direct copying by Azilises of a coin type last used roughly a century earlier,105 such instances of typological correspondence clearly bear witness to another phenomenon of crucial importance which we must focus on, i.e. the diffusion of a common iconographic language in the areas of the East that had experienced a period of Greek rule. Indeed, before dealing with the ways and reasons for transmission, we should properly assess the contexts, i.e., the specific backgrounds at both the possible sending and receiving ends.106 Only in this way can we determine whether physical transmission actually took place, and what was the object of this exchange. In this connection, what ought to be no longer downplayed is that
The charging Dioscuri on Graeco-Bactrian, Arsacid and Saka coins.
Moreover, it has to be stressed that this language was common across a wider region that included also western Iran, which experienced quite similar historical circumstances. Accordingly, by “iconographic language of Greek derivation” a quite precise notion is meant here, namely a visual repertoire that only by origin was Greek, which was then appropriated—both formally and conceptually—by non-Greeks, who were able to re-elaborate and adapt it to their needs, thus substantially transforming it. This heritage was clearly open to successive foreign inputs from further away, such as the Roman Mediterranean. Yet we cannot assume that exchanges of this kind took place only, or even primarily, with this area.108 Rather, the opposite seems to be true, as the most important channels of exchange must have been those within the “wider region” connecting the Indo-Iranian borderlands and western Iran, regardless of how clearly we may see them nowadays.
That is why the same image of the mounted Dioscuri is found in 2nd-century
In fact, the engravers were not copying coins produced by a distant mint, they were just using the same image, which both mint crews had in their repertoire independently from one another—or, in other words, that they had both independently inherited from a common original source, i.e. the Seleucid coin tradition. Indeed, the charging mounted Dioscuri are known on Seleucid bronze coins struck in the previous century by Seleucus ii (Houghton and Lorber 2002, no. 760) and Seleucus iii (Houghton and Lorber 2002, nos. 937-938).111
That this legacy involved not only coinage but the artistic tradition as a whole, i.e. every visual media, is only too obvious. It must, nonetheless, be stressed, in order to provide a wider background for our analysis, since the transmission as well as the exchanges of artistic conventions, iconographies, major and minor features, invested the coin medium only as one among many elements of a much broader phenomenon. Such a concept can never be emphasized too much, especially as it seems to be not as widely comprehended as our analyses would require. It is only too easy to see how, from this viewpoint, the idea of a straightforward coin-to-coin transmission to explain major phenomena of artistic parallelism between East and West is impossible to accept. It is just too simplistic.
In the light of such considerations, an approach which properly considers the processes in their diachronic development can be very productive. A first example was provided by the image of the king sitting cross-legged, which before Vima ii is found on the coins of
If we move from the reproduction of real subjects to figurative conventions, the earlier local coin tradition may provide the most significant comparisons even for the busts with attributes used by Vima ii and Huvishka. On the coins of several Indo-Greek kings the busts of deities often appear with their specific attributes from Demetrius I onwards: Herakles, Poseidon, and Zeus are respectively depicted with club, trident and staff on the shoulder (Fig. 21a, c, e).113 A series of Antialkidas (Bopearachchi 1991: pl. 41, Antialkidas, series 14-17) shows Zeus holding the thunderbolt with his right arm in a way not too dissimilar from the type depicting Vima Kadphises holding the club (Fig. 21g).114
Busts with attributes on Indo-Greek coins.
While these types depict deities, kings are often portrayed holding spear and shield in the same battling posture (Fig. 22a) displayed by reverse types representing gods like Athena or Zeus (Fig. 22b, d).
Royal and divine busts with attributes on Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek coins.
The latter images show that the conventions governing the composition could in fact be exchanged between religious and royal imagery. Thus, though they depict deities rather than kings, the busts with attributes of Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek coinages may very likely have given birth to an iconographic tradition that survived in post-Greek periods to reach the Kushan epoch,115 and which occasionally produced the straight re-surfacing of very old designs in addition to their elaboration.
The fact that Kushan coin art had real ties with the preceding local tradition is demonstrated by the series of Soter Megas, where a bust with attribute—be it a spear or arrow—is shown according to canons of Greek royal imagery, unmistakably detectable in the Macedonian helmet worn by this figure that we have already discussed. Unless postulating a complete fracture in the iconographic tradition between Soter Megas and Vima Kadphises, the result is a reconstruction that, in its basic features, runs exactly contrary to the specific statement of Göbl that the busts of Huvishka could not find antecedents in the Greek coin tradition of the area and could be only explained as modelled on Roman types (Göbl 1999: 157). Indeed it is precisely the royal imagery that demonstrates—with the re-surfacing of types such as that of the king sitting cross-legged—that there was no such fracture. In fact, while religious imagery shows more conspicuous signs of external influences of western derivation,116 royal typology, both in terms of the composition and the iconography of the king, openly indicates that the Kushans operated a synthesis of clearly eastern traditions to create their imperial imagery. In such a picture the idea of coin-to-coin transmission originating from outside is simply not sufficient to explain the complexity of the phenomenon.
4 The Connections with Western Iran and the Influence of Arsacid Patterns of Imperial Imagery
If we now turn to the development of Kushan royal imagery within the framework of the previous local tradition and of its possible connections with nearby regions, the sequence of different phases sketched out in the first section may be better understood in its main stages.
The first coins, the so-called Heraios’ series, employ an iconography of the king that can be defined as Yuezhi. From the viewpoint of the theme of the picture and its composition, the tetradrachms’ reverse typology (Fig. 23c) owes a lot to Saka and Indo-Parthian coin imagery: a clear model is indeed provided by tetradrachms struck by Gondophares in the region of Gandhara/Taxila (Rosenfield 1967: 17; Cribb 1993: 122; Alram 1999: 38) (Fig. 23b), which bear almost exactly the same type as that employed by Heraios, save for the direction in which the image is facing.117
The king on horseback on pre- and early Kushan coins.
Especially significant in this connection is the figure of Nike flying behind the king to crown him with a wreath (or diadem). While the motif of the king on horseback was already common in regnal coin imagery from the Saka period, the flying Nike is a feature of unmistakable Parthian derivation,118 introduced to the area by the Indo-Parthians. Of course, the ultimate origins of these secondary iconographic devices are to be found in the Greek iconographic lexicon spread in the Orient by the Seleucids, but their specific role on coins accompanying the image of the king, that is to say, the establishment of their use as a distinctive convention in royal imagery, must be recognized as a Parthian innovation. Indeed, a similar practice is virtually unknown on any Seleucid, Graeco-Bactrian or Indo-Greek series.119 On Arsacid Parthian coins the presence of secondary images beside the royal portrait on the obverse became common, especially on the drachms struck in the Iranian mints, under Orodes ii (Sellwood 1980: 144-156, drachms and bronzes from series 46-48), and on the series of his two successors Phraates iv (Sellwood 1980: 162, 50.15-17) and Phraataces (Sellwood 1980: 184-190, 56.6-15, and series 57-58) such images often take the form of Nikai flying behind the king to crown him with a wreath or diadem.120 The spread of such devices is due to the meaning they were supposed to transmit, i.e. the visualization of the divine origin of royal power as embodied by the Iranian notion of xvarenah (Curtis 2012), which is why the falcon or Eros, often depicted bearing the diadem, were also popular in a similar function. Indeed, this explains at the same time the generalization of such images in comparison to Seleucid practice, and their successive transmission to the Sasanian period. Unsurprisingly, such devices are also employed in different Parthian-period iconographic media, and Nike appears in the so-called Gotarzes relief at Bisutun (Kawami 1987: 37-43, 157-159, cat. no. 2; Mathiesen 1992: 174-175, cat. no. 95), as well as on seals from Nisa (Mollo 2001: 197-199, types 38, 42-44 for Nike alone, types 45-46 for the deity in investiture scenes with the king), where the figure of Eros (Mollo 2001: 195-196, Type 34, and perhaps Types 33 and 36), which would later appear more widely on Sasanian-era artefacts, is also widely encountered.
Thus, the series attributed to Heraios clearly show how features already present in earlier local traditions of royal imagery played a primary role when a distinct Kushan royal iconography came to be created. This was the result of several factors, with older and more recent features merging, the elements of chronologically more distant foreign derivation being essentially absorbed by the Kushans through the local context, i.e. as if they had been of local origin.
This does not seem to be the case with the Roman head on the coins of Kujula (Fig. 2e), but once this type is examined against the background of the wider iconographic repertoire used by Kujula, it is evident that we are dealing here with an isolated occurrence. In fact, due to the specific circumstances of minting during his reign, Kujula’s coinage is dominated by the multiplicity of iconographic choices, and following a single coherent path of interpretation with regard to the approach to royal imagery is accordingly very difficult. Yet, when we look at the types that seem to depict the king as he really appeared, the basic trends are fundamentally in keeping with those seen in the previous phase, and the rider’s costume displayed by the figure seated on the so-called curule chair (Fig. 2f) is in every respect similar to that worn by the ruler on the series ascribed to Heraios. In fact, there is no need at all to identify the seat as a Roman-type curule chair, since, in all likelihood, the seat is a folding diphros stool similar to a real stool found in Taxila (Marshall 1951: 544, no. 54 [vol. ii] and pl. 170.s [in Vol. iii]).
That, in this instance, we are not faced with the copying of a coin type originating in Rome (contra Cribb 1998: 87) but with the reproduction of a real element of the local royal paraphernalia, is also shown by the fact that folding stools were known in a wider area stretching from Gandhara and the Kushanshahr to western Iran,121 which makes the theory of the Roman origin for Kujula’s seat extremely unlikely:122 a similar stool was found in Tillia Tepe and a further one is visible on the embroidered textiles from Noin Ula,123 whose iconography shows no western features whatsoever. Also connected to local imagery and royal protocol is the type of Kujula with the king sitting cross-legged, as shown by its Saka antecedents.
A high degree of typological variety also dominates in the series of Soter Megas. While those images that are definitely identifiable with the king continue to display a clear link with Saka and Indo-Parthian models, a conspicuous inspiration drawn from previous Greek imagery is also manifest. Here, of course, interpretation plays a crucial role, since identifying the rayed figure of Soter Megas’ general issue as a god or a king produces a completely different picture. Yet some clues are detectable. If the religious interpretation is preferred, then the rayed bust must be identified with Mithra (Mac Dowall 1978: 310; Grenet 2001: 42; Bracey 2012a: 207), who is normally marked by his nimbus of rays. Actually, besides the problems of consistency due to the already mentioned typological variety, the nimbus of rays is the only feature which creates difficulties in identifying the rayed bust with a non-religious image, i.e. with a king. Indeed, save for the nimbus, the rayed bust displays a remarkable similarity to the diademed figure on horseback on the obverse of the Gandharan series of Soter Megas, which is commonly identified as a clear depiction of the king, and they are, likewise, both quite close to the figure depicted as a bust on the obverses of the Hermaios imitations. Moreover, the way in which the rayed bust holds the spear is exactly the same as that seen in the type of Soter Megas with a bust in Macedonian helmet (Fig. 24c), also supposed to belong to the category of royal rather than religious images. We find a useful comparison here in the much later series of Farn-Sasan, who is depicted in the same posture on the obverse of some of his series (Fig. 24e). In this connection, even the bust with spear of the quarter-dinars of Kanishka might be of due relevance (Fig. 9e): the posture is identical, save for the fact that the king faces away from the spear, i.e. in the direction opposite to that of the spear-holding arm. Moreover, Kanishka’s spear exhibits the same fillet tied at the base of the spear tip visible in the type employed by Soter Megas for his general issue.124 Therefore, the only comparable occurrences on coins known so far link this specific rendering of the posture with royal rather than religious imagery.125
In fact, the copper coinage of Huvishka shows that the iconographic motif of the rayed halo, normally reserved for Mithra,126 might occasionally be employed in royal imagery to depict the kingly xvarenah, usually rendered by a plain nimbus.127 Thus, if the nimbus of rays is interpreted as a first attempt to depict the luminous royal glory of the xvarenah, the rayed bust could effectively belong to royal imagery.128 This does not, of course, solve the problem of identifying the figure. Indeed, it is unclear even whether the portrait refers to the living ruler or to a deceased forebear. What is certain is that after this occurrence the employment of the rayed halo in royal imagery on gold coins was discontinued.
It is with Vima ii Kadphises that a substantial iconographic break becomes visible, as a full renovation takes place in the framework of the creation of a unified imperial coinage. Unsurprisingly some elements are clearly taken from previous stages, but for the first time we encounter a uniformly coherent program in the employment of imagery. From the series of Vima ii Kadphises onwards a consistent history develops, which includes evolution and changes in the imagery of the king but without marked breaks. It is under Vima ii that a definite set of regalia is introduced to distinguish the image of the king and to represent his special qualities, which will thereafter continuously distinguish Kushan royal imagery. Coupled with this, the basic conventions of the coin image of the Kushan king were also established, subsequently to be transformed by his successors into a model to be followed.129 While in broad terms the attire of the king reproduces the models seen in the previous phase, new specific features appear, such as a variety of ceremonial weapons and certain motifs serving to convey the exalted status of Kushan royalty. These will largely be inherited by Vima’s successors, and even when Vasudeva inaugurated the new type of the armoured king, we see him still holding the royal trident introduced by Vima ii in the same basic image depicting the king before an altar first employed by Vima ii himself.
One crucial feature, in clear contrast with the previous imagery as displayed on the coin series between Heraios and Soter Megas, is that, from Vima ii onwards, the Kushan king is invariably depicted wearing a specific headgear (Fig. 25).130 On the coins of Vima ii, this headgear is depicted as a rounded tiara, similar to those known from western Iran, which will be employed in a few variants by his successors until its substitution with a mitre-style headgear during the third coin issue of Huvishka. From then onwards the mitre will be the norm,131 with no Kushan king reverting to the bareheaded portrait. This fits well with the practice of the king wearing a specific headgear connected to his status common to the Iranian world since Achaemenid times and fully revamped in western Iranian coin iconography since the late 1st century
Another significant break with previous Kushan imagery is that Vima ii is depicted with a prominent beard, whereas neither Heraios nor the effigies on coins of Kujula and Soter Megas wear any beard at all. Kanishka will follow his father in this regard, while Huvishka exhibits a pair of large side-whiskers on the coins of his first two issues.133 Later he opted for an image with moustaches only, subsequently imitated by his successors until full beards were re-introduced in the coin portraiture of the region by the Kushano-Sasanians.134
Indeed, it is with the second part of the reign of Huvishka, or at least that covered by his last two coin issues, that the standard established by Vima ii appears subject to a process of re-elaboration that sets a new norm for the Kushan royal imagery. As already said, there is no sharp break with the previous phase, and significant common traits can be detected when comparing the late Kushan coin images with those of Vima ii.
Such modifications took place in a time frame that corresponds to the phase of renewed Roman influence on Kushan coin practice postulated by Göbl, during which the Kushan coin tradition supposedly also imported Sasanian features. Actually, once it has been shown that the engravers working in the Kushan mints had no need to look to Rome to create the coin image of their kings, and could, in fact, find the necessary elements locally, even the idea of a Sasanian influence on Kushan royal imagery as seen on coins appears under a completely different light. Indeed, the Sasanian origin of certain iconographic features, allegedly transmitted directly to Kushan series from Sasanian coins, is as problematic as the idea of the Roman contribution. A first remark concerns the different way in which Kushan imagery was supposed to have reflected the adoption of Sasanian features in comparison with the employment of Roman patterns hypothesized by Göbl. While the Roman world would have provided experts who imported technical knowledge to the Kushan Empire, organized the mints, brought pattern-books, and perhaps engraved the dies, a different kind of influence from Sasanian Iran had to be postulated: there is no question of movement by craftsmen, or technical expertise, and indeed Göbl never hinted at such a possibility; we are supposed to observe a mere coin-to-coin transfer of a detail of the iconography of the king, the ribbed diadem, and a general correspondence in the theme of divine investiture between Sasanians and Kushans.
With regard to said theme, Göbl specifically referred to Mithra and Anahita bestowing wreaths on coins of the Sasanian Ohrmazd i and Wahram ii as a possible source of inspiration for the deities on Kushan reverses that “from Huvishka’s third issue onwards” also often hold a wreath in the right hand (Göbl 1999: 159). Yet such images are quite rare on Sasanian coins, in fact much rarer than the Sasanian “universal type” represented by the picture of the fire that dominates coin reverses throughout the whole Sasanian period. Indeed, in one clearly documented case of the influence of Sasanian coin devices on foreign coinages, the last Indo-Parthian ruler Farn-Sasan adopted precisely the Sasanian type of the royal fire for the reverses of his series.135 Thus if we accept that the Kushan moneyers could only be influenced by such rare occurrences as the deities appearing on coins of Ohrmazd i and Wahram ii, this would imply that they could not know other sources for such images, which in turn would mean that in the Iranian world investiture scenes were practically unknown before the Sasanian period. As we have seen in discussing the series ascribed to Heraios,136 this is clearly not the case. Indeed, following Göbl’s approach, one is left to wonder why the Kushan moneyers were not influenced by much more recognizably and more common Sasanian patterns, on both the obverse and the reverse.
In fact the images of the deities of the Kushan reverses do not seem to be inspired by Sasanian models at all.137 A preliminary consideration to be made is that drawing a clear line between the single deities that bestow wreaths and those that do not, as implied by Göbl’s proposal, is unwarranted when an analysis of the theme of the “divine investiture” is carried out. This said, the first occurrences of gods bestowing wreaths on Kushan coins are to be found in the series of Kanishka, where we encounter the figures of Hephaistos/Athšo, Lrooaspo and Manaobago (Göbl 1984: pls. 164-166, for the types, and pl. 4, no. 28 [Hēphaistos 1], pl. 4, no. 33 [Athšo 1], pl. 7, no. 57 [Lrooaspo 1] and pl. 7, no. 59 [Manaobago 1] for their use in the series of Kanishka). Does this mean that Kanishka must be dated to the period of Ohrmazd i and Vahram ii, i.e. around
Likewise problematic is the issue of the ribbed diadem. On the one hand, there is nothing strange in the possibility that the Kushans might have been influenced in the development of their royal imagery by a powerful neighbour of the stature of the Sasanian dynasty. Given that the Kushan Empire bordered onto west Iranian states, an exchange of this nature would be easy to imagine, and once again the series of Farn-Sasan are there to provide clear evidence supporting such a possibility. What appears odd, even in this case, is that such an exchange should have involved only such a very minor iconographic feature as the ribbing of the diadem ties. The question that remains unanswered is simply “why?”: why copy a rather secondary feature, i.e. the treatment of the diadem, leaving everything else—clothing, headgear, weapons—untouched by “Sasanian inspiration”? One is left to face a similar question even in the unlikely hypothesis that the diadem ribbing might have had some special significance,138 since Kushan royal iconography shows nothing else that may have a Sasanian derivation: why then not copy other significant features of Sasanian royal imagery, like the crown for example? Why, at the very moment in which Huvishka allegedly imported a crucial feature such as the diadem ribbing, was everything else left untouched by Sasanian influence, remaining instead quite close to the royal image created by Vima Kadphises?
Moreover, to follow Göbl in postulating this transmission as a mere coin-to-coin phenomenon (cf. also Schindel 2014: 30) results in some significant consequences. Indeed, outside coinage the ribbed diadem is known not only in Sasanian art, but also in the sculptural art of Kushan-period India from Gandhara to Mathura,139 as some statues and reliefs depict diademed figures with the diadem ties displaying this peculiar treatment (e.g., Rosenfield 1967: figs. 24 and 86, from Mathura and Ranighat, Pakistan, respectively).140 Now, if one assumes that the direction of transmission of the ribbed diadem was from Sasanian to Kushan coins, the obvious inference is that the ribbed diadem spread in the non-coin art of Kushan period India after its adoption in Kushan coinage, namely in the series of Huvishka. This would mean that all the sculptures of Gandharan and Mathuran art that display the ribbed diadem—as well as those which may be related to them by style or context—must be dated to after at least the beginning of the reign of Huvishka, around year 28 of the Kanishka era, which would translate, following Göbl, to not earlier than c.
This picture provides an alternative background to the coin-to-coin transmission of the ribbed diadem from the Sasanian to the Kushan series: it may be perfectly possible—in fact it is rather likely—that the ribbed diadem was transmitted to the Kushan Empire within broader artistic exchanges with late Parthian period Iran.
If we consider from this perspective the question of which elements concurred to the formation of Kushan royal iconography, several points begin to emerge in a different light. While no Roman or Sasanian contribution to Kushan royal imagery can be detected, the origin of the new features introduced by Vima Kadphises remains to be addressed. We have ascertained that in many respects the compositional formulae used for royal images on his coins have local antecedents, as for the busts with attributes then also employed by Huvishka. However, as eloquently shown by the comparison with earlier Kushan practice, Vima must be credited with inaugurating a visibly new phase in the rendering of the general image of the king, sometimes also including, as in the case of the king before the fire burner, the compositional patterns.
But if local models could not be at the origin of the new royal imagery employed by Vima ii, is there a possible outside source other than Rome or Sasanian Iran? The answer is positive, as we may indeed look at the Parthian world.
We have already discussed the ultimate Parthian origin of elements of the coin typology displayed by the so-called Heraios’ series. One could add that the comparison Göbl made between the investiture scenes on coins from western Iran and the depiction of deities on Kushan coin reverses appears considerably strengthened if the Sasanian coins he mentioned are substituted with Arsacid tetradrachms, which customarily bear investiture scenes from the 1st century
Indeed, it is precisely the royal imagery introduced by Vima ii, with his bearded portrait wearing a tiara, which shows more clearly that the Kushans took inspiration from Arsacid Iran in devising how to depict their king of kings. One has to bear in mind that when the Kushans created their empire the Arsacid state had already for a couple of centuries been a major international power, and the dominant political actor in the Iranian world. This resulted in the Arsacid model of royalty—and here we are expressly referring to its visual model—being established as a reference standard. The employment of the rider’s costume as aristocratic attire even in non-Iranian lands from Palmyra to Gandhara documents the phenomenon, clearly showing its nature: it was the promotion of this kind of costume by the Arsacids that triggered the adoption of the rider’s outfit as royal costume in different regions, regardless of the possible direct import of what is conventionally styled as Parthian costume. This development would hardly have been possible if the main royal models in the area had remained those of Greek derivation, like that of the Seleucids.143
Of course, this kind of phenomenon is much broader than a simple case of coin-to-coin transmission, and extends beyond the mere transfer of visual motifs. Diplomatic contacts and marriage policies are only two of the possible channels of transmission that can be imagined.144 Yet, visual documents play a crucial role in addressing such issues, especially in the light of the dramatic dearth of other types of sources.
With this background in mind, the creation of an imperial iconography by Vima Kadphises may be better contextualized. At the moment of the transformation of the Kushan ruler into the lord of a vast empire, Vima sought to establish an immediately recognizable Kushan royal iconography. To this end, he adopted features of royal imagery directly from the most prestigious model in the region, the Arsacid monarchy. Especially significant in this regard is the promotion of the tiara among the Kushan regalia. Indeed, the bust in a tiara employed by Vima at the same time contrasts with the portraits current in earlier Kushan royal imagery as shown by coinage, which were mostly either diademed only or wearing Greek helmets,145 and appears strikingly similar to Parthian models. This does not mean that the Kushan tiara of Vima is a mere replica of a Parthian tiara, and indeed it shows its own peculiarities. In fact, the tiara appears to have been not unknown in the region before this, and the lord of Khalchayan wears one, for example (Pugachenkova 1971: 48-49, and Fig. 55).
What does appear to be influenced by Arsacid imperial models is the iconographic emphasis by the Kushan dynasty on the very specific tiara-form headgear for the king, which comes to assume a central role in Kushan regnal imagery. This is especially clear precisely when coinage is considered and the fact that Vima started his series with a merely diademed portrait is taken into due account, since he could have chosen a completely different type of headgear for the successive phase, possibly reviving earlier patterns such as those employed on coins by his predecessors. All in all, leaving aside their specific decoration, the tiaras exhibited by Kushan kings between Vima ii and Huvishka are quite similar to Parthian tiaras.146
Another feature introduced by Vima which contrasts with previous Kushan imagery is the full beard visible on all his portraits, which we find subsequently inherited by Kanishka. With the eminent—and in fact unsurprising—exception of Indo-Parthian kings, no ruler in the area prior to the series of Vima appeared fully bearded, whereas beards are customary in Arsacid royal imagery from the 2nd century
From the time of Vima Kadphises, then, up at least until the end of the reign of Kanishka, Kushan royal iconography made clear use of Arsacid models of imperial portraiture, employing a variety of Arsacid motifs such as tiaras and full beards. These patterns are found even on Huvishka’s series, even if a re-elaboration is apparent, resulting in the demise of the beard, for example.
But if these features were inspired by Arsacid imagery, how can we trace their paths of transmission to the Kushanshahr? First, in dealing with the Arsacid evidence we are luckily in the position to fix some firm points of departure for the analysis. After a brief appearance in the early 1st century
Of crucial importance is that, as had happened before, even in this phase the Arsacid visual model was exported to nearby regions (Alram 1987; Sinisi 2014: 30-32), appropriated by ruling dynasties such as those of Hatra or Elymais. Several princely statues from Hatra display the Arsacid-style tiara with spined top decoration, besides other features of their dress that could be connected to Parthian models. The evidence from Elymais is even more striking, as a tiara system parallel to that visible on Arsacid coins was employed on local coin series in the 2nd century
The Indo-Parthians were of course openly dependent on Arsacid models (Alram 1987; Sinisi 2014: 31). The transmission of the royal image with the tiara from Arsacid coins to Gondopharid series in the late 1st century
The likelihood of such inspiration increases when we examine the motif of the king before the fire burner, which was unknown in royal imagery from the northwest prior to its introduction by Vima Kadphises153 and the promotion to the role of one the most common types used on Kushan coins it underwent under Kanishka. Indeed, this image was long associated with Arsacid coins (Mukherjee 1960; MacDowall 1975: 147), appearing on bronze chalkoi struck at Ecbatana by Artabanus ii in the early 1st century
Does this mean that these Arsacid coins were the source of Vima’s type? In fact, it seems unlikely that one of the most characteristic types of Kushan coinage might originate from such tiny bronze coins, which could hardly have moved from Ecbatana, let alone reached Bactria.155 The idea that an isolated bronze coin struck in Media could end up in the hands of the Kushan moneyers to give birth to the only type used by Vima ii on his copper tetradrachms, and then by Kanishka and all Kushan rulers from Vasudeva onwards on gold coins too, appears rather difficult to accept, as another occurrence of the coin-to-coin transmission we rejected above. However, a different picture emerges when the focus is widened to other kinds of visual media in the Parthian Empire, and, indeed, coin imagery ought to be conceived as part of a larger visual repertoire even in discussing evidence coming from Arsacid Parthia. In this way it can easily be found that the image with the main figure pouring offerings on a small fire burner is widely attested, documented roughly throughout the first couple of centuries
The figure before the fire burner on Arsacid coins.
Of special interest are the versions of this image depicting the sacrifice as performed by the king himself, known from reliefs at Bisutun, Hatra and Bard-e Neshandeh in Elymais (Fig. 28), which show that the formula was current in royal imagery across the whole Parthian Empire. It is to be noted that in all these instances a bearded king wearing a tiara is depicted. J. Rosenfield (1967: 25) already remarked on the proximity of the Kushan image of the king at altar on coins of Vima Kadphises to the relief on the so-called “Parthian stone” in Bisutun, but the evidence from Elymais appears here—if possible—even more significant. In addition to the tiara and beard, the king pictured at Bard-e Neshandeh is clothed in a knee-length sleeved caftan very similar to that worn by Vima,158 and the Elymaean image is exactly the same as that employed by the rare coppers of Vima with a bust with trident on the reverse, even in terms of the posture of the figure (Fig. 29a-b). Exactly like the Kushan coin type, the Elymaean relief depicts the ruler holding his sword’s hilt with the left hand, providing another link which also connects the image to the more common version used by Vima on his coppers, where the fire burner is on the right of the ruler and the king’s body accordingly turned into that direction (Fig. 29c).159
In this regard the kinship with the images from Bisutun and Hatra, as well as with those found on the bronze coins from Ecbatana, is manifest, regardless of the direction faced by the king’s head or of minor differences such as the king’s left hand holding a phiale instead of the sword’s hilt. Indeed, the variation in the direction faced by the figure is common in both royal and non-royal imagery, changing nothing of significance either with regard to formal patterns or in the meaning of the image itself. It is therefore easy to see that the image of Vima Kadphises facing left is the result of the same phenomenon of transmission of royal imagery from the Parthian to the Kushan Empire that produced the perfect correspondence between the relief of Bard-e Neshandeh and the rarer version of Vima at altar facing right. Evidently, we are not faced with a coin-to-coin transmission, with Kushan coin engravers copying foreign coins haphazardly arriving in their hands, but with something that took place on a much broader scale, involving many different visual media. That is why it had an impact on specific iconographic features, such as the regalia represented by the tiara and royal attires, as well as on the occasional compositional formula, such as that of the king at altar.
The figure before the fire burner in the Parthian oecumene.
The king before the fire burner in the Parthian Empire.
A clear instance of a possible path of transmission is provided by glyptics. Two seal imprints (Callieri 1997: 150-151, Cat S 17-18, and pl. 40), apparently recovered from Kula Dheri, Pakistan,160 show a royal figure pouring offerings on a small fire burner in the right field (Fig. 30a), exactly as on the Bard-e Neshandeh relief and in the rarer version of the type used by Vima ii on his coppers. The figure is diademed, and therefore certainly identifiable as a king, and with a voluminous round-shaped headgear on his head, which fits perfectly with a tiara. He wears trousers and a knee-length tunic (or caftan). A wreath is depicted above the fire burner. This latter detail connects the imprints to another seal kept in the British Museum (Rosenfield 1967: pl. xvi.6; Cribb 1997: 66, Fig. 17),161 where a mirror-image version, i.e. with the king facing left (Fig. 30b), is engraved: the circular wreath is visible in exactly the same place above the king’s hand pouring offerings on the burner. The fact that it is better preserved allows us to verify that the figure is fully bearded.162
Another link between the two seals is the elongated shape behind the figure, which suggests they were both carved in
The king before the fire burner from Parthia to Kushan coins.
These seal imprints represent a most informative kind of evidence, as they attest to the transmission of both compositional formulae—the treatment of the figure of the king at altar—and real features of the image of the king—tiara, full beards. In addition, they document such exchange on a medium—seals—which is the product of that technical tradition closest to that of coin engraving.163 The fundamental difference was in the markets these two products were destined for, as none of the conditions that make it difficult to imagine a coin-to-coin transmission due to the nature of the coin medium, i.e. a state production arranged according to accurate planning in order to handle large scale numbers, are of any relevance to seal production.
Of course, the possible role of glyptics in the iconographic transmission here discussed provides just a glimpse of a phenomenon that needs to be understood on a much broader scale. Firstly, there were direct channels of contact between representatives of different elites that found no means of transmission on visual media. Secondly, even when dealing with visual evidence we must not expect royal imagery—and its possible transmission—to have been confined to a single class of objects. Rather the contrary, as its features were supposed to be immediately recognizable in every instance of contact with the king’s image, regardless of the medium. Furthermore, as we have discussed for coins, they were devised in technical contexts in which the craftsmen were used to the employment and elaboration of codified patterns.
We have already seen the use of the same imagery on the so-called Heraios coins and in Khalchayan, as well as on the textiles found in Noin Ula, which means on coins, and in sculpture and embroidery. This phenomenon becomes even more evident with the establishment of an imperial model by Vima Kadphises, when the dynasty consolidated its power over a large empire stretching from Bactria to India. Thus, the same basic patterns of royal imagery are replicated across a variety of different media.
Tiaras are accordingly found in various types of depictions, with variations between the tapered and the more conical form. Besides coins they are common in sculpture: a particularly famous instance is the head with a tapered tiara found in Dalverzin Tepe (Pugachenkova 1978: 37, fig. 25) (Fig. 31a), while no fewer than three large-sized stone heads wearing conical tiaras were recovered in the area of Mathura (Rosenfield 1967: Figs. 4, 14, 15) (Fig. 31b-d),164 their dimensions fitting a monumental setting at least comparable to that of the Mat devakula.165
Kushan princely and royal statues with tiara.
Other figures wearing tiaras are encountered in reliefs from Mathura and other sites in India (Fig. 32), including a number of instances where secondary devices exhibit further connections with the royal iconography found on coins, like the moon crescent on the forehead of a tiara-wearing figure from a Gandharan relief now in the Calcutta Museum (Fig. 32c), closely recalling the analogous feature visible on coins of Huvishka.
Sadly there is no possibility of verifying in detail such correspondences in Surkh Kotal, as only parts of the heads of the royal stone statues were recovered. However, two fragmentary heads appear to wear tiaras (Schlumberger et al. 1983: 120, heads S1 and S1a, and pl. 63, nos. 193 and 194), one of them exhibiting a peculiar patterned band wrapped around its lower part (Fig. 33a-b),166 in all likelihood representing a wreath (Schlumberger et al. 1983: 120; Göbl 1984: 28). Fortunately, broadening the comparison to other sculptural images yields extremely significant results. Indeed, the figure of a royal donor on a Buddhist relief from Ranighat, Pakistan (Rosenfield 1967: Fig. 86),167 wears an almost complete diademed168 tiara with exactly the same type of patterned band sculpted around its base to render the wreath (Fig. 33c).169
Kushan royal figures with tiara from Mathura to Gandhara.
Furthermore, the figure of the Ranighat relief also provides additional evidence to show how widespread the use of similar compositional patterns was: the basic posture of the king is the same as that of the figure visible on the unfinished relief depicting an investiture scene from Surkh Kotal, only the arms posed differently (Fig. 34a-b). It is easy to see that the analogy can be comfortably extended to the sealings from Kula Dheri and the British Museum discussed above (Fig. 30a), once again confirming the use of the same basic forms throughout different kinds of production and across the whole empire, from Bactria to India.
Thus, regardless of the stylistic variety, which was due to the different artistic traditions, in terms of basic compositional forms the official production exemplified by the images of Surkh Kotal and Mat exhibits a remarkable homogeneity. The latter may be explained simply as the consequence of the common presentational formula, the resulting strongly hieratic appearance being strictly connected to the frontality of the stelae solution employed by the artists in royal service at both sites. However, this was not a casual choice, and must be considered as the result of a specific strategy of communication, which seems to have, to a large extent, also involved the other official means of imperial imagery provided by coinage. One is left with the impression that the most common types introduced on coins by Vima Kadphises were inherited by his successors on their coin series as well as, at the same time, also becoming the standard reference for monumental sculptural renderings of the royal figures in the official art connected to the dynasty (cf. Rosenfield 1967: 156; Staviski 1986: 242).170 Indeed, the sets of royal statues at Mat and Surkh Kotal are remarkably similar, as both sites included an enthroned image and a number of standing kings in their galleries of royal portraits.
Furthermore, as repeatedly noted in the literature (e.g., Rosenfield 1967: 177; Fussman 1977: 314),171 the statues found in Surkh Kotal and those from Mat show the employment of the same basic costume, in particular the trousers and the sleeved long garment that we termed a caftan, worn over the belted tunic. In addition, the image known as Statue i from Surkh Kotal is clad in the same variant of caftan with patterned lapels over the two circular clasps which is known on metal medallions representing royal figures, in their turn in every respect similar to the Kushan kings depicted on coins.172 Long, sleeved caftans173 are commonly associated with royal or princely donors on reliefs from various sites from
Thus, it is possible to discern the use of the same regalia and of similar compositional formulae across different visual media throughout the territory of the entire Kushan empire, clearly hinting at the existence of a centrally inspired iconographic programme. This does not exclude the occasional peculiarity, as shown by the apparent opposition between portraits with beards or moustaches from the northern areas of the empire and images from the Gangetic region which normally lack any facial hair,175 as most significantly exemplified by the tiara-wearing monumental stone heads from Mathura mentioned above.176 This might reflect local trends in the development of specific canons of idealized imagery (Rosenfield 1967: 173),177 as also highlighted by the comparison between Buddhist images from the two areas. Yet the similarities are much stronger (Schlumberger 1960: 147; Rosenfield 1967: 156; Rau 1973: 195; Staviski 1986: 224), as shown by the basic stance of the royal figures, hieratically standing with the sword hilt held tightly in the left hand in sculpture as well as on coins. Always clad in the same outfit, kings perform sacrifices in precisely the same way on coins, seals, and reliefs (cf. Rosenfield 1967: 25-26).178 They stand before the viewer in the same attitude in Surkh Kotal and Mathura, just as one of them sits on a lion-throne at both sites and at Gokarnesvara Tila, as well as on the striking clay medallion found in Khalchayan.179 The same rigid standing posture is exhibited on coins and reliefs, the splayed feet visible on coins of Vima Kadphises or Kanishka, on the so-called Kanishka reliquary and at Mathura, both on the sculptures found in the devakula and on the reliefs from the city district. Even minor features are often rendered similarly across the media, and the way in which the open caftan of the king folds back at its bottom is likewise identical on the statue of Kanishka at Mat and on the copper coins of Vima Kadphises (Fig. 35). Also analogous is the pattern exhibited by the drapery of the tunic of the statue of Kanishka at Mat and on those at Surkh Kotal (cf. Rosenfield 1967: 156-157), only the stylistic treatment setting the two somewhat apart. The left hand hidden in the sleeve is rendered identically on the Kanishka reliquary (Fig. 36a), on coins of Vima Kadphises and probably on a stone battlement at Surkh Kotal, as well as on the Khalchayan medallion (Fig. 36b-d), the latter three images all depicting the seated king according to the same compositional formula. Moreover, on the Khalchayan medallion the king holds a twig in his right hand exactly like Vima Kadphises in his enthroned image on coins (Figs. 36b and 36d).180
The royal caftan on the statue of Kanishka and on coins of Vima Kadphises.
Thus, Kushan royal imagery on coins shows a clear influence of imperial patterns of Arsacid derivation. The result was the Kushan adoption and re-elaboration of substantial features of Arsacid royal iconography, starting with a regular system of personal tiaras and the choice of fully bearded imperial portraits. This development was not a mere numismatic phenomenon, as it occurred in the framework of a broader process which involved the visual display of power at various levels and across different media. The involvement of specific compositional patterns, as eminently represented by the image of the king before the fire burner, provides a clear confirmation, since the chain of transmission of this image connects across the Parthian and the Kushan worlds an entire range of visual artefacts, from coins and seals to monumental sculpture.
5 The Image of the King and the Cultural Background of Kushan Royal Ideology
By this point, we can clearly see that numismatic imagery was just part of a larger programme of royal iconography based on common models, which were widely employed across the various media to visually transmit the presence and nature of the power of the Kushan kings. The significant core of this visual communication is often linked in the literature to the Central Asian nomadic roots of the dynasty, since the image projected by all such depictions is clearly non-Indian, exhibiting instead a manifest connection to Iranian Central Asia (Fussman 1977: 314-315; Verardi 1983: 255; Carter 1994: 31-32).
Needless to say, this has several implications for our understanding of Kushan ideology and the cultural landscape in which it was articulated. Here an important question arises, largely—even if not exclusively—due to crucial problems of terminology. Indeed, in referring to Kushan figures, frequent mention is made in the literature of the notion of “Indo-Scythian costume”, as a prominent element of the visual culture of what has been dubbed the “Scythian” period of Indian history.181 Rosenfield, who expressly linked the Kushan portraits to the Iranian cultural sphere in reviewing several parallels from the western Iranian world (Rosenfield 1967: 172),182 defined as “Indo-Scythian” the costume worn by the Kushan kings at Mat (Rosenfield 1967: 151), and used this label throughout his book for all the figures similarly dressed. Two decades later J. van Lohuizen-de Leeuw (1989) did the same, in an important article in which she further developed the parallels already provided by Rosenfield, highlighting for instance the links between Hatrene and Kushan royal headgear,183 as exemplified by the comparison between royal images at Hatra and a stone head found at Mathura exhibiting very similar lozenge-patterned tiaras (Fig. 37a-b).184 Thus, although van Lohuizen-de Leeuw managed to improve on the interpretations suggested by Rosenfield, she still set them within a basic Scythian background. In her view, the figures wearing trousers in the Gandharan and Mathuran reliefs are “male Scythians”, members of “nomadic tribes” whose role was “mainly that of middlemen passing on to Indian culture certain elements which they had picked up elsewhere” (van Lohuizen-de Leeuw 1989: 75). Thus, the connections the “Indo-Scythian” costume shows with Hatra were pointed out referring to “other parts of the nomadic world” or to “the Scythian world from the Black Sea and the Near East to the plains of North India” (van Lohuizen-de Leeuw 1989: 75, 77).
Lozenge-patterned tiaras in Kushan India and in the Parthian world.
In fact, the Scythian reading had already been vigorously challenged ten years earlier in an insightful article by B. Goldman, significantly entitled “Parthians at Gandhara” (Goldman 1978). Goldman (1978: 198-199)185 remarked on the vagueness of some definitions of the costume worn by figures wearing the “northern tailored suits” common in the literature, observing that “what has been called Central Asian dress at Gandhāra is by the time of the Kushan reign Parthian and had, before the emergence of the Parthian Empire, already been at home in Western Asia in general and in Iran in particular” (Goldman 1978: 202).
We have already seen how several elements of Kushan royal imagery introduced by Vima Kadphises are tightly connected to Arsacid Parthian models. The tiara motif is the clearest example here, but a Parthian derivation seems ascertainable even for features of the royal portraits such as the beard, or the so-called wart. The use of long sceptres and cloaks might also be listed among the similarities,186 and clear links to western Iranian patterns are detectable even for further features, since fur-trimmed caftans identical to those exhibited by the Kushans are found in Hatra (Homès-Fredericq 1963: 24-25) and Elymais. Needless to say, both these regions were closely dependant on Arsacid imperial models and, once again, the tiara is only the most glamorous feature to single out in order to show the diffusion of Arsacid imperial imagery: one may point out further comparisons for the lozenge patterned tiara visible in Mathura and Hatra, as a similarly decorated tiara is used on his copper coins by a certain satrap Cheirokues (Fig. 37c), probably from Sistan (cf. Alram 1986: 296-297, no 1270), as well as appearing in a wall painting at Kuh-e Khwaja worn by a character identified as a royal figure (Ghirshman 1962: fig. 56) (Fig. 37d),187 while the Hatran combination of lozenge decoration and pointy crest on top (Fig. 37b), the latter clearly derived from 2nd-century Arsacid models, was also known in Oshroene (Fig. 37e). Unsurprisingly, when royal headgear from the Parthian and the Kushan world is compared, there is no need to focus only on peculiar patterns such as the lozenge-decorated tiara, since remarkable similarities are detectable even on plain tiaras, as shown once again by specimens from Hatra and Mat (Fig. 38).188
That the whole question of how to define the groups under discussion based on their visual appearance is not merely a problem of nomenclature is clearly shown by the fact that only ten years ago M. Carter suggested a wholly Saka background for the Kushans, considered the second Indo-Scythian power in the area after the Sakas of
Despite the differences between the interpretations of van Lohuizen-de Leeuw and Carter, the implications of the Indo-Scythian reading are both clear and significant: we have either a wide “Scythian area” stretching from the Indo-Iranian borderlands to the Western outskirts of the Iranian world and including the Kushan and Parthian empires,190 or a Scythian cultural continuity in
Actually, both models are highly misleading, sharing as they do the incorrect premise that the Kushans were Scythians, that is, Sakas. The difference between the two interpretations is the result of two additional limits: the reconstruction by Carter ignores the evident links between Parthian and Kushan imagery, while that by van Lohuizen-de Leeuw relies too much on the idea of a marked nomadic, i.e. Scytho/Saka, connotation of the empire of the Arsacids.191
The latter hypothesis is premised on the assumption that the Arsacid Parthians long continued to observe a similar sort of nomadic lifestyle to that ascribed by western sources to the Parnians, the Central Asian conquerors of Parthia led by Arsaces, who were allegedly of Dahae, i.e. Saka, origin. In fact, there is simply no element to support this idea of “nomadic continuity”. In no way can the structure of the army, the occasional connection mentioned by western sources to nomadic tribal groups in the East by some Arsacid king, or the use of the horseman costume, qualify any aspect of the Arsacid imperial construction as primarily—or even only distinctly—nomadic.192 Nothing in what we know of Arsacid royal ideology, beginning with their resumption from the Achaemenid past of the title of King of Kings, can be connected to a nomadic background, and the evidence we can put together on Parthian religion is likewise clear (cf. De Jong 2008; 2013: 27-35). Aside from a handful of Saka loan-words, Parthian language has nothing Saka about it, being a north-western Middle-Iranian language rather close to the south-western Middle-Persian, and the onomastics known so far, including the royal one, is Parthian—in several instances with significant ties to the Achaemenid period (Schmitt 1998: 178)—not Saka (cf. De Jong 2013: 32). Actually, even the nomadic origins of Arsaces and the Parnians may be critically assessed and questioned accordingly,193 rather than simply taken for granted and regarded as a prominent feature of Parthian culture. All in all, it is not by mere chance or convention that we speak of a Parthian and not Parnian Empire (cf. Boyce 1994).
With regard to costume, one could recall once again Goldman’s remarks quoted above. In fact, once we compare the trousers and jacket worn by Parthians of Arsacid times with the costume consisting of trousers and tunic worn by Persians of Achaemenid period,194 such as Darius iii in the Alexander mosaic,195 we must infer either that the Achaemenids, in resembling the supposedly nomadic Arsacids, were nomads themselves,196 or—a much more tenable inference— that the category of a primary nomadic character for the Parthian empire and culture can only be definitely discarded. It is very easy to see in this perspective that the fur-trimmed caftans exhibited by Hatran and Elymaean princes, evidently modeled on Arsacid forms,197 closely correspond to the fur-edged candys worn by Persians in Achaemenid times,198 and—like the Persian candys—were in no way meant to highlight any sort of nomadic heritage on the part of those who wore them.
Therefore, it makes little sense to refer to a nomadic context where, for example, Arsacid influences on Hatra are concerned. This obviously impacts the other point of comparison at the opposite geographic end of our spectrum, namely the Kushan Empire. If the Parthians were not nomads, and their empire displayed little in the way of nomadic features, what do the similarities in iconographic repertoire between Parthians and Kushans really tell us? Here we are faced with the residually widespread idea that there existed in Kushan culture and society a prominent nomadic element, as supposedly attested by the continued use of Central Asian costume by the Kushan elite.
It will be noted here that, once again, ‘Central Asian’ is widely taken to mean ‘nomadic’, as if these were synonyms, in terms not dissimilar from those employed for the Parthians. But what features of Kushan culture can we identify as displaying a nomadic, which is to say Saka, character? It bears highlighting here at the outset that what we define respectively as ‘Kushan’ and ‘Yuezhi’ cannot be understood simply as mutual equivalents. It is true, of course, that the Kushans were a part of the Yuezhi, and the Kushan Empire stemmed from Yuezhi rule over Bactria. Indeed, we know that, either from their origins or acquiring it on their way to Bactria, the Yuezhi included a Saka component,199 which, according to the most recent philological studies, may have been the dominant element from the very outset.200 Moreover, in contrast to what appears to have been the case with the Parni in Parthia,201 it seems that the Yuezhi takeover of Bactria was a truly large-scale phenomenon.
However, from the Yuezhi conquest of Bactria around c. 140-130
Indeed, the assumption that no transformation took place in Yuezhi society and culture in two hundred years and that the Kushan Empire stuck to that heritage as the main means of defining its identity is not only hardly tenable, but appears contradicted by what we can see in the Kushan time.
As a matter of fact, there is nothing we can qualify as nomadic—Yuezhi, Saka or whatever we want to call it—in the main features we can reconstruct of Kushan ideology and culture. Rather the opposite is true, as they all look to be firmly based in the local Bactrian tradition. This is clearly the case for the adoption of Bactrian, as spoken by the indigenous Iranian population, qua primary official language, at the expense of all other local tongues (cf. Fussman 1998: 596-598):202 this process is attested by the use of Bactrian in royal inscriptions outside Bactria, such as the Dasht-e Nawur inscription, and by Bactrian-inscribed coins struck and circulating even in the non-Bactrian regions of the empire. Of the utmost significance is that, at Rabatak, Kanishka defines this language as “Aryan”, which is the only parallel known so far for the use of this appellative for Darius’ Bisutun inscription (Gnoli 2002: 84).203 There is no need to stress further how there can be no question of Saka culture or nomadic heritage here.
With regard to religion, once coins and the description of the deities mentioned in the Rabatak inscription are considered, the religious horizon of the Kushans is manifestly that of Bactrian Zoroastrianism, and as such part of a wider Zoroastrian world that extended across the whole of “sedentary” Iran.204 There are no visible features that can be linked to a Saka religion similar—for example—to that described by Herodotus for the Scythians,205 and when Kanishka defined himself as King of Kings, who “obtained the kingship from Nana”—in a way not dissimilar from how the Achaemenid King of Kings became ruler “by the favour of Ahura Mazda”—he was certainly not drawing upon his alleged nomadic heritage. He was able to do so only because of the absorption of the former Yuezhi elite into the Bactrian aristocracy, which kept alive traditions common to that wider “sedentary” Iran of which Bactria was an integral part.206
This is not to deny that nomadic elements of Yuezhi derivation survived in Kushan times: localized forms of nomadism and archaeological testimonies of nomadic groups, mostly graves, are attested in Bactria.207 But Bactria remained a highly urbanized region even in Kushan times, with an extensive number of urban centers of various dimensions (cf. Leriche 2007), including large cities such as Balkh or Termez. When we examine how this was reflected on the ideological level and its cultural background, it is clear that the building by the Kushans of huge-scale structures like the bagolangos, a real network of temples across the empire (Fussman 1998: 590; 2001: 260-261),208 displays little nomadic connotation.
Thus, no signs of nomadic features are really visible at the level of the dynasty and the elite once the imperial phase was entered, which is not at all surprising once we try to assess the role of the local Bactrian aristocracy during the long pre-Kushan period. Therefore, it can certainly be agreed that Kushan rulers and their entourage did not reject their nomadic background (Grenet 2012: 12), but this does not mean that they promoted it and in no way helps to define the character of their royal ideology: the pride they might have retained in their nomadic ancestry (Grenet 2012: 19) simply does not appear to have been among the main features defining their cultural identity. As a matter of fact, there is a certain degree of contrast between Saka and Kushan royal imagery, the former showing the king mostly on horseback, the latter presenting the king standing or enthroned.209 Even among the exceptions to standard types210 there are no Kushan rulers depicted on horseback after Soter Megas. Thus, what seems detectable is actually a moving away by the Kushans from visual patterns normally associated with nomadic contexts.
In fact, what was stressed by the Kushans, at least in the imperial phase of their history, was their Bactrian identity, not their possible distant Saka roots. The Iranian revival under the Kushans, as first highlighted by Fussman 1977,211 was therefore the product of a “sedentary” cultural milieu, which, among other things, was also well set into a larger framework of connections with other parts of the Iranian world. Consequently, we can in no way speak of a cultural continuity between the Sakas of
In light of these considerations, we can see that emphasis upon its Central Asian derivation is of little utility when addressing problems connected to the costume worn by the Kushans. True, the rider costume was indeed of ultimately Central Asian origin, and as such employed by all Iranians (cf. Curtis 1998: 66), who, after all, came from Central Asia, including Medians and Persians. In this regard it surely also had nomadic connections. Yet it was promoted to become, in its most elaborate forms, the royal costume of the new Iranian dynasties not in the framework of a nomadic revival or as a sign of awareness of the nomadic past, but simply because it had always been used as a choice merely dictated by tradition.212 The key word is therefore not “nomadic” nor “Central Asian”, but traditional. It was as a traditional costume of ancient origin213 that the rider’s outfit continued to be worn by Persian noblemen of Achaemenid times, as well as, with its possible regional variants, by noblemen of all the Iranian regions of the empire,214 who ultimately were all mounted warriors. Thus, it was as a “traditional” costume that it was employed by the Iranian dynasties which succeeded the Seleucids, who had naturally imposed Greek royal imagery as common currency in the Hellenistic period. Among these, the Arsacid dynasty was both the first to build a supra-regional power and the most long-lived, and thus came to establish a model of Iranian regnal iconography that came to be followed by many other minor dynasties from the area, be they Iranian by origin or merely exposed to Iranian influences.
By the time the Kushans gave birth to their empire, as the second supra-regional polity in the Iranian world of the time, the Yuezhi had been in contact with their mighty Arsacid neighbours for the whole of their history in Bactria. The Arsacids had already conquered territories in the East under Mithradates i in Graeco-Bactrian times; Margiana was fully integrated into the Parthian empire; and even a region such as Areia must have been, at least at times, under clear Arsacid control (cf. Rtveladze 2011: 157, with further references), as the Parthian series struck in the mint of Herat appear to show. Thus, parts of Western Bactria were in substantial direct contact with the eastern fringes of Parthian territory.215 Moreover, a large part of the domains of the Indo-Parthians ended up absorbed into Kushan territory, their ruling elite in all likelihood integrated into the hierarchy of the new empire.
Therefore, it is only natural that, in several respects, the Kushans re-proposed formulas already current in western Iran, where the Arsacids had canonized the use of the traditional rider costume in royal imagery since the 2nd century
What happened with Vima Kadphises is that this costume became subject to re-elaboration in the framework of a centrally established process of creation of an imperial imagery. This process drew on elements which also belonged to the same traditional heritage,218 but the result was the synthesis of a distinctly new image of the ruler, which was no longer that of a generic mounted warrior only recognizable thanks to the diadem. To a certain extent one could therefore say that, even with regard to royal costume, the Kushans moved away from the original “nomadic horseman” model. This is well illustrated by a double comparison, contrasting Saka royal imagery and its warlike emphasis on the king in armour as a warrior with images of kings from “sedentary” Iran—the occurrences of Arsacid origin being once again exemplary—on the one hand, and the imagery displayed by the Heraios’ series with that on the imperial coinage of Vima Kadphises, on the other one.
Now, the correspondence between the developments in Kushan Bactria and Arsacid Parthia leaves no real room for casual similarities. It speaks of imitation of consolidated models. If we have deep analogies between royal imagery from Parthia, Hatra, Elymais and Oshroene,219 it is clear where the source was, and we have evidence, such as coin series, to confirm it. It is accordingly difficult to see the same imagery used in Bactria as the result of completely independent dynamics. There are simply too many analogies. In this regard, it is worth stressing that the similarities in the king’s imagery between the Parthian world and the Kushan Empire are the result of a combination of two different levels: one pertaining to real features of the royal paraphernalia, and one connected to peculiar compositional patterns, such as the image of the king at altar, for example. Thus, in specific instances the evidence is there for a double correspondence.220
Chronology also supports this general picture, since the horizon consistently appears to be that of the 2nd century
The specific study of the numismatic evidence shows that royal imagery on Kushan coins comprised a combination of two elements: that of compositional schemes or designs, and that of specific iconographic features which distinguished visually the royal persona. These latter were, unsurprisingly, shared with depictions of the kings on different media, and included the clothing and headgear of the king, as well as royal attributes such as the ceremonial weapons or the iconographic devices that were supposed to convey the exalted nature of the royal power.
Once the documentary material is examined in detail, it becomes clear that no Roman features can be detected, whether as basic designs or as specific iconographic motifs. This is especially significant with regard to compositional schemes, as the common use of busts to portray the king is the result of the local numismatic tradition of Greek derivation, even in the specific variant of the busts with attributes that Göbl explicitly ascribed to Roman influence, as evidenced by occurrences from the Indo-Greek coinage.
With regard to the real image of the king, coins show that with the creation of a consistent program of imperial iconography under Vima Kadphises local canons were impacted by foreign influences. However, the latter were not of Roman origin, but of western Iranian, in particular Arsacid Parthian, provenance. Indeed, once the bases for the old theory of the Roman patterns for Kushan coins have been shown to be rather weak, we could now more properly speak of Arsacid patterns in Kushan royal imagery.
In fact, coins are only the main source nowadays available to scholars, yet evidence of different nature, such as sculpture or seals, shows that the phenomenon took place on a much broader scale: Arsacid influences were felt in Kushan royal imagery tout court, involving coinage only as one of the various media employed to spread royal visual communication. They provided the inspiration for the Kushans on account of the strength of the Arsacid imperial model, which, by the early 2nd century
The detection of these analogies has two significant consequences.
The first is that the role of the nomadic component of Kushan identity as conveyed by royal imagery should be re-assessed and substantially reduced. The Kushans built an imperial identity drawing on the Bactrian heritage they had absorbed, rather than on an alleged memory of their nomadic distant past. Indeed, this is one of the main scientific questions shared in very similar terms by Kushan and Parthian studies. On the one hand, it is easy to see that setting the enquiries on the relevant cultural identities in the framework of a broader approach, which focuses on the connections, the links and the possible exchanges between the different regions of the Iranian world of the time, allows overcoming the largely artificial division between Iran and Central Asia. At the same time, this wider perspective cannot be based on the idea of the Iranian world of the period between the 3rd century
The second basic point is that the exchanges long supposed to have primarily taken place between Kushan
It is against this background that the evolution of Kushan royal imagery must be set, with the result which we can see on coins of the meeting of the local numismatic tradition with imperial models of western Iranian derivation. These developments were the result of deep and varied paths of exchange, regardless of the degree to which they appear visible nowadays. They connected western Iran and the Indo-Iranian borderlands in a much tighter way than is generally appreciated, and certainly they invested a variety of different levels, involving issues in no way impacted by the contacts between India and the Roman Mediterranean. The latter took place along commercial routes, also involving artistic trends and ideas, but never produced the transmission of features of imperial iconography. This was instead shared with a much closer region, western Iran, with which Kushanshahr had crucial cultural features in common, from concepts of royal ideology to the deeper religious framework in which they were set.
This could occur in a context that must also have seen the mobility of craftsmen, as seemingly pointed to by some features common to artistic developments in the Parthian empire and in
* I would like to thank Michael Alram for reading an earlier draft of this article. Thanks are due to the four reviewers for
Sizes are given for each pictured coin where known, but images are not in scale.
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