Coins of Roman Egypt
Greek Dates


A fairly extensive range of animals, birds and reptiles appeared as reverse coin types, along with a few mythological hybrids. In general, most of these were confined to the bronze coins and few persisted past the reign of Caracalla. Many are of particular interest because of their identifications with religions of the period, while others are associated with "nomes" or other geographical areas of Egypt. With only two or three exceptions, all are native to Egypt or are compounded life forms with contemporary religious significance.

Plate XXXVIII portrays a group of mythological beasts. The first illustration is of a capricorn from a diobol of Augustus. This was borrowed from the regular Roman coinage and had no special significance for Egypt. The type had a zodiacal implication for Augustus himself. It did not long survive his reign.

The next two types are of griffins, which seem to have had a greater religious significance at Alexandria than has generally been supposed. Introduced first by Nero, they are commonly encountered on the bronze coinage thereafter, persisting till the final bronze issued under Claudius II. It is quite interesting to note that bronze drachmas of Hadrian went so far as to depict a griffin temple. The first of our illustrations show a seated griffin, as it occurs on an extremely rare diobol of Commodus (as Caesar). This is followed by a seated griffin as depicted by an unpublished half-drachma of Marcus Aurelius. In spite of the rarity of these two coins, the type itself is quite common.

The plate is completed by three representations of sphinxes. An unpublished half-drachma of Pius' third year depicts a type that is rare for the coinage, although commonly encountered in ancient Egyptian sculpture. A drachma of Hadrian shows a seated sphinx in the form most commonly found as a coin type. The final illustration also from a drachma of Hadrian, portrays an unusual compound sphinx engaged in trampling a serpent under foot. The sphinx does not occur as a coin reverse till the reign of Domitian, and does not seem to have survived the reign of Pius.

We find on Plate XXXIX a random group of animals. The Apis bull, as shown on the diobol of Hadrian, had a deep religious significance in Egypt. Originally conceived as an embodiment of an aspect of the god Ptah, the sacred animal had evolved into an object of veneration of a baser sort, with a broad appeal to the more ignorant elements of the population. Apis had a particular importance at Alexandria, and was identified with the Sarapis cult. The sacred bull is found on bronze coins of various denominations, from Nero to Septimius Severus.

The second diobol of Hadrian depicts a butting bull. As was the case with the capricorn, this motif has no Egyptian connections, and was borrowed from the Roman coinage. It is found on early coins of Augustus, and continues to appear sporadically on medium bronzes till the time of Hadrian.

In the center section of the plate, we find an elephant and a hippopotamus. The first is from an obol of Trajan, while the second is from a tetradrachm of Hadrian. Both are common types. The "hippo" was well known along most of the Nile valley, and the elephant was occasionally seen (in Roman times) on parts of the upper Nile. The hippopotamus was one of the few zoological types to appear on tetradrachms. The elephant disappears from the coins during the reign of Pius, but the hippo persisted till midway in the reign of Severus Alexander.

The next illustration is of a lion, as it occurs on an obol of Pius of unpublished date. This was one of the more popular animal types, and is found on diobols, as well as on smaller denominations. The motif is found first under Trajan, and disappears under Commodus. During the Roman period, lions still roamed the deserts of upper Egypt.

The final types of Plate XXXIX are of a panther and a stag, both from obols of Hadrian. These types occur only on obols and dichalka, are not found after the reign of Pius, and seemed to have had little or no local significance.

Birds, actual and legendary, are found on Plate XL. The first four illustrations depict varying ways of representing the eagle. Originally adopted from the Ptolemaic coinage, this bird gradually acquired closer and closer Roman ties, until it was identified with the legionary totem. It occurs persistently from the first issues of Augustus till the final year of Diocletian, and was the only zoological type to become standard for the tetradrachms. The first coin illustrated, a tetradrachm of Aemilian shows an eagle standing with wings open. This is one of the commonest representations, although the specific coin of Aemilian is very rare. The following type, from a tetradrachm of Gordian III, portrays an eagle flying, holding a wreath in its talons. The next two types identify the eagle in its legendary function. The first, a tetradrachm of Aurelian, shows a vexilla on either side, while the second, an unpublished type of Julia Domina (under Septimius Severus), represents the eagle as enshrined upon an altar, between standards.

The tetradrachm of Antoninus Pius, which follows, portrays the legendary Phoenix. The Greek legend "AIWN" clearly identifies this type as commemorating the end of a Sothic cycle. Found only on tetradrachms of Pius, the Phoenix is nevertheless fairly common.

The final two bird types are shown by an obol of Hadrian and a dichalkon of Domitian. The first of these depicts a hawk. Not only was this bird quite common in the Nile Valley, but it also had a special religious significance because of its identification with Horus. The hawk is a common type on the smaller bronzes, from Nero through the reign of Pius. The other reverse shows an ibis, sacred to the god Thoth. A bird common to Egypt, the ibis, is found on dichalka from midway in the reign of Augustus till midway in the reign of Hadrian.

A final group of zoological types, including reptiles and sea animals, will be found on Plate XLI. The first five portray the two sacred serpents, the agathodaemon and the uraeus. Both serpents are found in Egyptian religion from earliest times, and the uraeus was always closely associated with the divine kingship of the pharoah. During the Roman period, the agathodaemon was identified with Sarapis, while the uraeus was sacred to Isis. Two coins of Nero depict conventional representations of the agathodaemon, at the top of the plate. The tetradrachm is quite common, while the diobol is very rare. Below these will be found the two serpents facing each other, as shown on a drachma of Hadrian. The serpent types are completed by an interesting motif from a diobol of Domitian which depicts the agathodaemon riding upon the back of a galloping horse. On the bottom row will be found a dichalkon reverse of Claudius, which depicts a crocodile. Sacred to Harpokrates, the crocodile occurs as a coin type from Augustus to Pius, but only on the dichalka.

The next illustration of Plate XLI is of a dolphin, twined about a trident, as found on an obol of Pius. This type, as well as one depicting a dolphin twined about an anchor occur as rather scarce motifs on obols from Domitian to Pius. It is believed that the early Christians made secret analogies between these types and Christian symbols, and thus used such coins for identification and recognition. The last picture is that of a dichalkon reverse of Hadrian, showing the Uraeus upright.



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