Hellenistic Minor Kingdoms


Elymais is the name given to one of the so-called “Hellenistic” minor dynasties of Iran which flourished during the Seleucid and Arsacid periods (ca. 188 BCE- 222 CE). The name Elymais is the Greek rendering of the ancient name of the region, Elam, known since the Sumerian and Akkadian times. The word Elymais is in fact a diminutive of Elam and essentially means “Elam Minor”, indicating the fact that the historical kingdom of Elymais included only parts of the ancient province of Elam. During the Achaemenid period, the province was known as huvaja, possibly a rendering of the local name of the native people (alt. Huz/Khuz), which survives in modern Iran as the name of the province of Khuzistan.

Elymaeans are reported to have helped Molon in his rebellion against Antiochus III, while Antiochus III himself was killed by the Elymaeans when trying to raid the temple of Bēl in Susa (187 BCE). Two different interpretations of the rise of Kamnaskires, the first independent king of Elymais, can be given. On one hand, coins of another ruler, called Okkonapses (previously read as Hyknopses by Le Rider), have been dated to 160’s BCE, leading us to believe that Kamnaskires I was active after this date. However, it has been also suggested that Kamnaskires might have been the Elymaean leader who assisted Molon in his rebellion and that he ascended the throne of Elymais after the Battle of Apamea in 188 BCE.

Numismatic evidence show that the coins of Kamnaskires display influences from the coinage of Demetrius II and Alexander Balas, suggesting that his gaining of the power belongs to a date after these two Seleucid rulers. Consequently, a date between 147 and 145 BCE seems to be the most sensible one for the beginning of the rule of Kamnaskire I, the founder of the Kamnaskirid Dynasty of Elymais. Elymaeans at the time probably controlled the eastern and southeastern regions of the province of Khuzistan, having their capital in Seleucia on the Hedyphon (near Behbahan). They don’t, however, appear to have controlled Susa, and historical accounts show a clear understanding that Elymais, as a rugged and mountainous region, was different and separate from Susa and the Susiana Plain.

Probably due to their support of Demetrius II, the Elymaid territory was invaded by Mithridates I in 140-139 BCE, but a few decades later, the Elymaeans regained most of their territory and established a mint in Seleucia on the Hedyphon. These silver tetradrachms and drachms are issued under the authority of Kamnaskires II and are dated to around 82 BCE. This might have been to commemorate a successful attempt at gaining autonomy from the Parthians, particularly the powerful king Mithridates II, at around the same date. Kamnaskires II was followed by another Kamnaskires (III) who also minted silver tetradrachms and drachms until 39 BCE. The style of these coins all follow the basic type of the Seleucid coinage, with some coins of Kamnaskires III also including a portrait of the Queen Anzaze. While some of these coins are minted in Susa, we have simultaneous issued of the coins of Okkonapses, Tigraios, and Darius in Susa, local Parthian governors of the city who were most likely not related to the Kamnaskirid.

The evidence for the presence of an Elymaid envoy sent to the Roman general Pompey seem to suggest an effort by the Elymaeans to get Roman support against the Arsacid Phraates III who also minted bronze coins in Susa. From this point on, two more Kamnaskirid kings, Kamnaskires IV and V ruled the kingdom until the middle of the first century BCE. The rest of the kings of the Kamnaskirid dynasty are known purely through their coinage which eventually become quite crude and illegible, hindering our ability to enumerate the later kings.

It is around the beginning of the Common Era that a cadet branch of the Arsacid dynasty, starting with Orodes I, started minting coins in style of the Kamnaskirids in Elymais. This seems to be the starting point of the rule of the second line of Elymaid rulers, the so called “Arsacid” line. While the Kamnaskirid coins used Greek for their inscriptions, the Arsacid dynasty eventually changed that practice. Initially following the Hellenistic tradition, Greek was used on the coins, while later issues slowly incorporated Aramaic. This is, however, not absolute and Greek makes frequent appearances, leading some to suggest that the use of Greek was more common in the mint of Susa, which preserved some of its Hellenistic legacy, while Aramaic was used in other mints such as Seleucia. Stylistically too, the coins of the Arsacid line started to be influenced by the coins of the imperial Arsacids, although it preserved clear local, Elymaid elements such as the anchor.

Not much is known about the events following the ascent of the Arsacid cadet branch to the throne of Elymais. Orodes I was followed by Orodes II and a Phraates, the son of Orodes II. Orodes III succeeded Phraates and he was in turn followed by a king called Kamnaskires Orodes. The rest of the kings of the dynasty until the end of the Arsacid period are often unknown or bear hypothetical names such as Orodes IV. The latter is portrayed with his wife, Queen Ulfan.

One of these late rulers might have been a certain Osroes whose coins have on their obverse a portrait close to that of the Arsacid Osroes/Chosroes I. This might suggest that the Arsacid great-king was indeed the same as the Elymaid king. The inscription of Tang-e Sarvak also mentions another king called Orodes who is hypothesized to have been the son of a local priest of the god Bēl. Yet another relief shows a governor of Susa named Khwasak who ruled the region under the suzerainty of Artabanus IV. Finally, the accounts of the rise of Ardashir I, the founder of the Sasanian dynasty, mention another Orodes, the “king of Khuzistan” who was instructed by Artabanus IV to check the advances of Ardashir I. The operation was unsuccessful, forcing Artabanus IV himself to get involved. His defeat then determined the control of Khuzistan, and eventually all of Iran, by the rising fortunes of the Persid king who went on to found the Sasanian dynasty.


Characene, otherwise known as Mesene, was a small “Hellenistic” kingdom on the lower reaches of the Tigris River and at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It existed between the second century BCE and the rise of the Sasanians in the third century CE. The name Mesene, mentioned by the Islamic geographers like Ibn Qutayba as Dasht Mesau, is probably a reference to the geographical name of the place, Meshan, which is the plain located to the very south of the Tigris. In Arabic and Aramaic, the name Karkh Mešān is used, denoting the continuation of the Greek term charax (“fortress”). The region is also named in Chinese historical sources, such as Shiji, and was visited by Gan Ying in 97 CE. The Chinese name, Tiaozhi, might have originally meant the kingdom of the Seleucids and it might also have something to do with the word Dasht Meshan (“the Plain of Mesene”).

The founder of the kingdom is traditionally deemed to have been a certain Hyspaosines, called “a son of Sagdodonacos, king of Arabs” by Pliny the Elder. He might have originally been a satrap of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, although on the coins of him available after 127 BCE, he is called a king. This is probably the date when the kingdom became independent, and centered on the port city of Spasinou Charax (“Hyspaosines’ Fort”). Hyspaosines, as the king of Characene, is also mentioned in the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries after his attempts to conquer southern Mesopotamia and Babylonia. An inscription from the island of Tylos (modern day Bahran) also identifies him as the ruler of that island, along with his queen, Thalassia.

The last coins of Hyspaosines were struck in 121 BCE, which are sometimes over-struck with a type of Mithradates II, showing already the overwhelming Parthian control of the region. Affter this date, we do not find a direct successor for him. The next set of coins, dating from 110-104 BCE, is struck by Apodakos, who might have been a son of Hyspaosines. At this point, probably the overwhelming power of Parthia had made Characene a dependency of that power, as Parthian and generally Iranian names seem to have increased on the coinage of the kingdom. These coins are mostly silver or bronze, and they bear Greek, and later Aramaic, inscriptions. Among the most prolific authorities for issuing Characene coins was Attambelos II (18 BCE- 8 BC) who is known from his silver tetradrachms. Abinergaos (ca 10-22 CE) is known from his silver coins as well, and he might have been also mentioned by Flavius Josephus as Abbinerigos. His Arabic sounding name (*Abi-Nerigh…?) might indicate a continuation of local power, although some of his successors such as Pacorus (ca. 75 CE) or Meherdates (ca. 142 CE) have clear connections to the Parthian imperial dynasty. Mehradates, in fact, indentifies himself as son of king Phoba (Pacorus?) on his coins, and seems to have been involved in a dynastic struggle with the Parthian Emperor Vologases III.

In 116 CE, another Attambelos (III?) is identified as the prince of Mesene and submits himself, temporarily, to the Roman Emperor Trajan who had conquered the region and reportedly watched ships departing Characene for India. Around 150, we have indications of the presence of a king called Ma’ga, son of Attambelos, whose bronze coinage is also available to us bearing Aramaic inscriptions and no dates. The direct successors of later authorities are not known, although another Abinergaos might have been in charge at the time that the kingdom was conquered by Ardashir I (222-241 CE), the founder of the Sasanian dynasty. Along with other “Hellenistic” kingdoms of the Parthian period (i.e. Elymais, Persis, and Adiabene), the Characene kingdom was absorbed into the Sasanian imperial system. The title of the King of Characene (Middle Persian Mešān šāh), however, survived during the reign of the first few Sasanian kings, where a certain Shapur, son of Shapur I (241-272) is called “the Great King of Mesene”. Sasanian king Narse (293-303) also mentions one of his enemies as Adurfarraboy, the Lord of Mešān, and prophet Māni gives the name of Mihršāh, a supposed brother of Shapur I, as the lord of Mešān/Characene.

Most of our knowledge of the kingdom of Characene and its political make up, as well as the order of its rulers, come from their coinage. These coins, mostly silver and bronze tetradrachms, were minted in Spasinou Charax and carry inscriptions in Greek and later, Aramaic. The dating of the coinage in the Seleucid Era has made it relatively simple to order different rulers and identify points of conflict and interregnum. Among the largest hoard finds of Characene coins are those found, in an archaeological context, in 1878 and in Tello, and number to over 700.

Further Reading


Alram, Michael. Nomina Propria Iranica in Nummis, Materialgrundlagen zu den iranischen personennamen auf Antiken Münze. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie, 1986.

Assar, G. R. F. “History and Coinage of Elymais During 150/149-122/121 BC”, Nâme-ye Irân-e Bâstân, Vol.4, No. 2 (Autumn and Winter 2004-2005): 27-91.

Bell, Benjamin R. “A New Model for Elymaean Royal Chronology.” the Celator 16 (May 2002): 34-60.

Dabrowa, Edward. “Zeugnisse zur Geschichte der Parthischen Elymais und Susiane.” In Das Partherreich und Seine Zeugnisse, edited by Josef Wiesehöfer. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998.

Dobbins, Ed. “Hoard Evidence Aids Attribution and Chronology of Arsacid Bronze Drachms of Elymais.” the Celator 6 (1992): 42ff.

Hansman, John F. “Coins and Mints of Ancient Elymais.” Iran 28 (1990): 5-10.

———. “Elymais.” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 15 December 1998, http://www.iranica.com.

Harmatta, Janos. “Parthia and Elymais In the 2nd Century BC.” Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae XXIX (1981)

Henning, W. B. “Monuments and Inscriptions of Tang-e Sarvak.” Asia Major (1952): 151-178.

Invernizzi, Antonio. “Elymaeans, Seleucids, and the Hung-E Azhdar Relief.” Mesopotamia XXXIII (1998)

Le Rider, Georges. Suse Sous les Seleucides et les Parthes. Les Trouvailles Monetaires et L’Histoire de la Ville,. Paris: Libraire Orientaliste P. Geuthner, 1967.

Potts, D. T. The Archaeology of Elam: Formation and Transformation of an Ancient Iranian State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Sellwood, David. “Minor States in Southern Persia.” In Cambridge History of Iran, edited by E. Yarshater, 299-321. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

van’t Haaff, P. A. Catalogue of Elymaean Coinage: Ca. 147 B.C.-A.D. 228. Lancaster, PA: Classical Numismatic Group, 2007.


Alram, Michael. Nomina Propria Iranica in Nummis, Materialgrundlagen zu den iranischen personennamen auf Antiken Münze. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie, 1986.

Dobbins, Ed. “The Countermarked Tetradrachms of Attambelos,” American Journal of Numismatics, 7-8, New York (1995/6).

Hansman, John. “Characene and Charax,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1991.

Sellwood, David. “Numismatics: Minor States in Southern Iran,” in E. Yarshater (ed.) Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 3 (1), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Schuol, Monika. Die Charakene. Ein mesopotamisches Königreich in hellenistisch-parthischer Zeit, Stuttgart 2000.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s