King Arsames I of Sophene – Ancient Armenia

King Arsames I of Sophene (Ծոփք) was an Armenian vassal king during the Seleucids. He was descended from the Orontid dynasty who had ruled Armenia as satraps both under the Persians, and later under Alexander the Great, and then his Hellenistic successors.

As the Seleucids grew weaker, His father Samos (275-255 BC) had proclaimed himself king of the first semi-independent Armenian kingdom. Arsames (255 – 225 BC) is credited as being the first in history to mint his own money.

He founded Arshamashat and proclaimed it his capital. Being a state influenced by Hellenistic culture, his coins naturally had Greek legend, but also motifs influenced by Greek mythology.

The reverse of this coin in particular, is the subject of my post. It is the only coin ever minted by an Armenian state that features the caps of the divine twins DIOSCURI.

There are many examples of divine twins in myths and folklore around the world, but the Dioscuri were so prevalent that they appear in Greek mythology, the Homeric tales, and later were adopted by Rome.

There are accounts that Celtic tribes living close to the Atlantic Ocean worshipped the Dioscuri more than other gods. Around the same period as the reign of Arsames, silver coins of the Roman republic frequently featured many versions of Dioscuri on their reverses.

The name in Greek means “the youth of Dius -or Zeus”. Dieys is a root word describing the chief god of creation, from which is derived the Latin word Deus, the Greek Zeus, the modern Greek Theos and the word “deity”.

The myth behind the Dioscuri starts aZeus, as was common in his amorous escapades, disguises himself as a swan to seduce and make love to Leda, who happens to be the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta. The same night Leda also makes love to her husband.

She conceives two immortal children from Zeus, and two mortal children from King Tyndareus. They all hatch from eggs. Out of one egg hatch the mythical twins Castor and Pollux. Castor being the mortal son of Tyndareus, Pollux being the immortal son of Zeus.

From the second egg emerge Clytemnistra, the mortal daughter of Tyndareus, and Helen (of Troy), the immortal daughter of Zeus. Together, the boy twins are called the Dioscuri, and develop a very close bond.

Their symbols became their domed caps, as depicted on coins, also believed by some accounts to represent the halves of the eggshell they hatched out of. The twins were considered the protectors of the home, hospitality, friendship, and sporting activities.

They were the patrons of athletes. Castor was held to be a skilled horse-tamer while Pollux possessed great boxing skills. Both were thought to protect warriors in battle and sailors at sea. Poseidon had rewarded their brotherly love by giving them power over wind and waves, that they might assist the shipwrecked.

When Castor was killed due to a family feud, Zeus gave Pollux the choice between spending all his time on Olympus as an immortal god or giving half of his immortality to his mortal brother, so that they could alternate realms together.

Pollux loved his brother so much that he elected to share his immortality. The twins would spend alternate days in the underworld and on Olympus. They became the constellation Gemini, which is visible in the heavens only half the year, while during the remaining half she disappears in the “underworld”.

Myths involving divine twins representing valor and victory and usually associated with horses can be found in many ancient cultures, one very familiar one being the Armenian tale of Sanasar and Bagdasar. Another pair of divine twins in Armenian mythology are Yervant and Yervaz, born apparently of the union between a bull and a woman.

by Joseph Sarkissian

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