Coins of Roman Egypt
Greek Dates


NFA FALL 1991 Mail Bid Sale


When Octavian took possession of Egypt in 30 B.C., he found an established currency system with traditions going back nearly three hundred years. The principal denomination was a silver tetradrachm of some 13-14 grams, bearing the regnal date of the current Ptolemy. Until the middle of the first century B.C. this coin had been struck from fine silver; however during the last twenty years of Ptolemaic rule it was debased to a silver content of only 25%. The tetradrachm was supplemented by a fractional currency in bronze, which had formerly included some coins of very large module. An extreme monotony of types prevailed, with a royal portrait the dominant obverse type and reverses usually occupied by eagles. The most remarkable feature of the Ptolemaic currency system was its deliberate isolation from the rest of the Mediterranean economy: foreign currency was not permitted to enter Egypt, and local currency was not permitted to leave. This closed system provided several advantages. Currency exchange at the borders yielded profits from both entering and departing travelers. Efficient recovery of specie from circulation, through currency exchange and through the poll tax, often enabled government to meet its expenses with older coinage, rather than through new issues of currency as was the common practice in antiquity.

These tight controls made it possible to regulate the monetary supply with an eye to ensuring price stability, a benefit not enjoyed by populations outside Egypt.

The coinage of Roman Alexandria is in many respects a continuation of the Ptolemaic system, coordinated with the coinage of Rome. The degree and nature of this coordination were only dimly perceived by the numismatic giants who published the standard works on the Alexandrian series in the earlier part of the twentieth century. The closed nature of the Egyptian currency system prohibited such obvious sorts of correlation as heavy minting to contribute to the imperial war chest. Yet current researchers are discovering that Egypt often bore the brunt of imperial profligacy.

Initially Augustus adopted the copper denominations of Cleopatra VII, in fact restriking her flans. Later he introduced smaller copper denominations in an attempt to reform the relation of bronze to silver. In A.D. 20 Tiberius revived the production of tetradrachms, which had lapsed for half a century. Like their Ptolemaic antecedents, his tetradrachms bore regnal dates, based on the Alexandrian calendar, whose year commenced in 29 August (or 30 August following leap years).

The dating of Alexandrian coins' which persisted to the end of the series' has proved a great boon to modern scholars investigating the chronologies of some of the more obscure imperial figures. Tiberius established another important principle in fixing the silver content of his tetradrachms as equivalent to that of the Roman denarius. The resulting alloy is usually described as billon.

Nero's debasement of the Roman denarius after the great fire of A.D. 64 was mirrored in the Alexandrian coinage: His last four years witnessed an intense outpouring of tetradrachms, actually a recoining of the existing currency supply (including some high-quality Ptolemaic tetradrachms still in circulation) to the new denarius standard, viz. 2.19 grams of silver per tetradrachm. In this process a considerable quantity of silver was recovered and exported to Rome, where it enlarged the flood of denarii minted to finance the emperor's building program.

The next reform of the Roman coinage was that of Domitian in late A.D. 82. Precious metal coinage was restored to its pre-Neronian weight and fineness, apparently a fruit of the emperor's attachment to traditional values. No such restoration has been documented for his Egyptian coinage. Indeed, the upgrading of Domitian's Roman coinage may somehow be connected with extremely low production of Alexandrian billon during his reign. Domitian did, however, set in place a full range of five aes denominations, each corresponding to a denomination of the Roman coinage.

Each of these Alexandrian bronze denominations had been minted by one or more emperors before him, but Domitian was the first to produce the full range. This systematization of the Alexandrian currency would seem to reflect the emperor's compulsive personality and his interest in monetary matters. His system was adequate to serve for approximately a century, with various adjustments in focus and balance.

The reign of Trajan inaugurated a new phase for the Alexandrian coinage, a phase in which bronze played an enhanced role. This was especially true for the large drachm denomination, the equivalent of the Roman sestertius, which also flourished under the Antonine emperors. The minting of tetradrachms was modest throughout Trajan's reign, reflecting financial straits that led the emperor, in A.D. 107, to reduce the Roman denarius to the standard of Vespasian and initiate a massive recoining of the existing currency. It was in this same year that Alexandria inaugurated its tremendous series of bronze drachms with their richly pictorial types. Their dazzling variety tends to mask the fact that levels of production were actually quite low. We may, in fact, be dealing with frequent special issues supplementing the limited substantive issues of billon. The occasions for these special issues cannot be recognized from their types. At Rome A.D. 107 witnessed no less than six special issues, focusing on the celebration of Trajan's decennalia and his triumph for the Second Dacian War. Thereafter, however, the production of special issues fluctuated at Rome, with some years having none, whereas at Alexandria the number of drachm reverses remained consistently high. Christiansen has suggested that the emphasis on bronze coinage was made possible by improved exploitation of Egypt's copper mines under Trajan. At any rate it is now clear from hoard evidence that the bronze currency, like the billon, was used primarily by city dwellers and was not minted to provide a medium of exchange for the countryside, as Milne hypothesized.

The patterns established by Trajan continued under Hadrian, but with more abundant production and a proliferation of tetradrachm reverses rivalling the repertory of the drachms. This again seems consistent with the emperor's policies for Rome, for Hadrian's coinage presents the most varied and interesting typology of the entire Roman imperial series.

Under Marcus Aurelius output at Alexandria began to decline, and in A.D. 176/7 the tetradrachm suffered its first debasement since Nero, its weight reduced to c. 11.90 grams and its silver content to only 0.92 grams. The new, inferior alloy is termed potin. As in the time of Nero, the debasement of the tetradrachm parallels a debasement of the denarius at Rome, but there was no immediate recoining in Egypt. That process was left for Commodus, who again debased the denarius at Rome but at Alexandria merely increased the minting of tetradrachms so as to recover the excess silver from the existing stock of coins. Bronze, meanwhile, fell into neglect and indeed ceased to for a regular pa t of the currency system after this reign.

The surplus silver accumulated at Alexandria through Commodus' recoining probably provided the bullion for the rare Alexandrian denarii minted by Pescennius Niger and Septimius Severus, which were intended for circulation outside Egypt as they prosecuted their civil war. The production of tetradrachms, on the other hand, was very feeble under Severus, leading to the great rarity-of Alexandrian coins from his reign. Numismatists have recorded a number of obverse dies that were used over more than one regnal year, as well as reverse dies used for several different members of the imperial family, in evidence of the exceedingly low level of mint activity. This parsimony was one aspect of Severus' war finances, which also involved heightened production from other eastern mints and yet another debasement of the denarius in A.D. 194/5. Coin production at Alexandria continued exiguous under Severus' son and successor Caracalla.

The Alexandria mint revived under Elagabalus, but for the remainder of the third century its only regular product would be tetradrachms. The module and silver content of the tetradrachm were repeatedly reduced until it became indistinguishable from a copper coin. For its part, the original bronze coinage clearly emerged as commemorative in character: Isolated issues of drachms were struck for the decennalia of Severus Alexander; for the celebrations of Rome's millennium in years 5 and 6 of Philip I; in year 12 of Gallienus; and in the brief joint reign of Aurelian and Vabalathus. The distinctive Alexandrian series came to an end in A.D. 296/7 in the course of Diocletian's currency reforms. Thereafter Alexandria functioned as one of the regular imperial mints, producing the standard late Roman denominations.

The reverse types of the Alexandrian coinage fall into two broad categories—imperial propaganda, expressed through the visual language familiar to us from the regular Roman coinage, and local types. The imperial propaganda rarely provides the sort of commentary on current events that makes the Roman coinage so topical and fascinating. The earliest imperial propaganda at Alexandria, as at Rome, stressed the dynastic legitimacy of the Julio-Claudian emperors, soon expanding to flatter wives who were not similarly honored in the capital. Dynastic themes never lost their appeal and reappeared whenever an emperor had sons or a designated successor whom he wished to advertise. However the commonest approach to imperial propaganda entailed the use of personifications of the imperial virtues, given Greek names but usually employing the same iconography as at Rome. In the first two centuries of the principate these personifications often reflected the type selection at the capital, though their impact was diluted by the far greater scope given to types of local interest. But from the reign of Maximinus I onward the selection of personifications appears to have ossified, with the same small repertory repeated almost automatically, and parallels with the Rome coinage are more likely the be the result of chance than of policy. In the 280s true parallels began to appear again, and under the reign of Diocletian and his colleagues the typology moved toward a reintegration with the propaganda themes of the coinage empire-wide. The culmination of this development was the abolition of the Romano-Egyptian coinage as an unique currency. After A.D. 297 the Alexandria mint operated as one of many provincial mints producing an essentially uniform imperial coinage.

It is the characteristic Alexandrian types, with their exotic flavor, that lend real charm to the Romano-Egyptian coinage. Counted among such types are Greco-Egyptian deities and cult symbols, centering on the myth cycle of Sarapis; depictions of the Nile, his consort Euthenia, and their cult symbols or related paraphernalia (such as the Nilometer which measured the annual innundation); the personification of Alexandria; representations of local architecture, especially the great lighthouse of Alexandria; a few ancient Egyptian deities; and native animals. These multifarious types were not employed to appeal alternately to the Greek or Egyptian elements of the population, as Milne so quaintly theorized. Rather they are an expression of local piety and patriotism, much like like their counterparts on Greek imperial coinage elsewhere.

During the Antonine period the fascinating repertory of Alexandrian types was enriched by several special bronze series of great interest to collectors. One drachm series, issued principally in the reign of Antoninus Pius, depicts the Labors of Heracles. The great Zodiac series was minted in the eighth year of Antoninus Pius (A.D. 145/6), probably to commemorate the commencement of the Sothaic Cycle in A.D. 139. This rare event, which occurred only every 1461 years, was marked by the by coincidence of Egypt's two traditional calendars, the Vague or civil calendar and the Sothaic or fixed calendar. The coin series itself however is based upon Greek astrology. Its drachms bear types symbolizing the sun, the moon, and the seven planets known to the ancients, passing through the signs of the Zodiac. Two rare varieties depict the entire Zodiac, or two Zodiacs with their signs in conjunction, clearly alluding to the coincidence of the two Egyptian calendars.

The offering below includes an impressive selection from the Zodiacal series with several specimens in outstanding state for their types.

The last special series, the Nome Coinage, names individual nomes or administrative districts on the reverses of its bronze coins. Early students of the Romano-Egyptian coinage interpreted these coins as actual issues of the nomes. But eventually the identity of style and fabric persuaded observers that these coins were struck at Alexandria, and this perception has recently been supported by the discovery of shared dies. The traditional separation of the Nome Coinage is nevertheless retained even in many scholarly works, as it is here for the convenience of collectors.

Nome Coins appeared for the first time in the eleventh year of Domitian, and thereafter were produced only in specific years, with major, extensive issues in year 11 of Hadrian and in year 8 of Antoninus Pius. Hadrian's year 11 emission stands out not only for its scope-some fifty nomes or towns are named—but also for adapting the special issue concept to small bronze denominations.

The typology of the Nome Coinage at first glance appears rather colorless. Yet behind these formulaic types lies the rich mythology of ancient Egypt. Repelled by the half-animal monstrosities of the Egyptian pantheon, the Romans generally depicted the patron deities of the nomes in anthropomorphic form, with any theromorphic elements converted into animal companions, typically held in the hand. For the smallest denomination (the dichalkon) this symbolic animal, or alternatively another attribute held by the god, becomes the type. The present offering of Nome Coinage is one of the most extensive on the market in recent years.


In addition to the introductions in BMC and Milne, the above essay draws heavily on Erik Christiansen, The Roman Coins of Alexandria: Quantitative Studies (Aarhus, 1988), 2 vols. The author was unfortunately unable to consult Marcus Weder, "Romische Munzen und Munzstatten des 3. Jahrhunderts VI," SM 131 (1983), p. 67ff., treating Aurelian's reform at Alexandria.




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