Coins of Roman Egypt
Greek Dates




By J.G. Milne

The coins issued at Alexandria under Roman rule for use in Egypt have been rather undeservedly neglected by English students. It is true that they have not the artistic charm of Greek coins of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.; but there is a considerable store of interesting material for the purposes of mythology and religion to be found in the types, and the value of the series from the historical and economical point of view is very high. The apparent commonness of the Alexandrian coins may have depreciated them in the estimation of collectors ; but, although hoards comprising thousands of specimens are found in Egypt, the number of distinct varieties is large—probably about ten thousand— and any hoard examined will probably reveal some new type.

The notes which follow have been written partly with the view of showing the range of interests covered by the series. The coins which furnish the headings are in my own collections ; the first five appear to be unpublished, while the other two are selected as illustrating the eccentricities which may turn up and relieve the monotony of ploughing through one of the enormous hoards of the third century. The other coins reproduced in the plates, with the two exceptions noted where they occur, are also mine.


An undated tetradrachm of Vespasian (Pl. XXXV, Fig. 1).
Head of Vespasian r., laureate.
Rev :—Winged Nike advancing l., wearing long chiton, holding in r. hand wreath, in l. palm.
24 mm. 11.64 gr.

The most noticeable peculiarity of this coin, regarded as an Alexandrian tetradrachm, is the absence of any date upon it, in which respect it is almost unique. The series of tetradrachms struck at Alexandria under the Roman emperors began in A.D. 20 and ended in 296, and the issues were consistently dated by the Egyptian regnal years of the emperors, furnishing the longest dated series of coins in Greek or Roman history ; in the whole of this period there are only one or two instances where the date is omitted. The explanation of the anomaly in the present case suggests an interesting possibility. The reverse type is one of those ordinarily used by the Alexandrian mint in the first three years of Vespasian ; but the obverse is not : the regular legend on the Alexandrian tetradrachms of this emperor is, in year 1, ΑΥΤΤΙΤΦΛΑΥΙΟΥΕΣΠΑΣΙΑΝΚΑΙΣ, and in year 2 and later, ΑΥΤΟΚΚΑΙΣΣΕΒΑΟΥΕΣΠΑΣΙΑΝΟΥ. The formula which appears on this coin is that normally employed at Antioch ; and it further seems that the portrait of Vespasian in this case is rather of the Antiochene the of the Alexandrian type*. This leads to the conclusion that the coin was struck with an obverse die brought from Antioch in conjunction with a reverse die of Alexandria ; as the Alexandrian tetradrachms of Vespasian are regularly dated on the obverse, and those of Antioch on the reverse, the absence of a date is thus explained.

Why a die of the mint of Antioch should have been used in Egypt is not obvious. The coin comes from a hoard obtained, and probably found, at Tell el-Maskhûteh (Heroonpolis, the Egyptian Pithom) on the high road from Egypt to Syria ; and it is rather tempting to suppose that it may have been struck locally with dies borrowed from two different directions. There is no sufficient reason for thinking that there was any regular mintage in Egypt outside Alexandria, though there may have been temporary establishments set up in the provinces on occasions of special stress*; but it is possible that unauthorised or semi-official issues may have been made at garrison towns, such as Heroonpolis, if the paymaster of the troops found himself running short of current coin. The tetradrachm does not appear to be a counterfeit in the ordinary sense of the term, as it is of good weight and seemingly of the same fineness as contemporary official pieces.

Another explanation may be put forward—that the obverse die was engraved at the Alexandrian mint by an artist brought from Antioch, who in a moment of forgetfulness cut the image and superscription according to the patter which he had been accustomed to follow. It is quite likely that mint officials would be moved from one town to another ; there is a noteworthy instance of the importation of foreign practice into the Alexandrian mint in the reign of Severus Alexander. In years 4, 5, and 7 of this emperor there occurs, concurrently with tetradrachms of the ordinary Alexandrian style and fabric, a group of issues which are in several respects quite distinct*. The coins of the latter class are struck on flans which are rather thinner and more spread than is usual at Alexandria, and the whole effect is one of more neatness and finish ; instead of the rough edges characteristic of the somewhat lumpy tetradrachms of this period, most examples of this special group have a smooth and rounded edge, occasionally almost suggesting a collar. Further, they have a portrait of the emperor which is artistically superior to the ordinary one, and shows some clear differences in treatment—for instance, in the hair, which resembles the work of the Roman mint ; the lettering of the inscriptions is also Western in style. These traces of Roman influence are emphasized by what is in some ways the greatest peculiarity of the series—the die-positions. The regular practice of the Alexandrian mint was to strike coins with the die-position ↑↑*; but in this special group the dies are placed indifferently ↑↑ or ↑↓. Such a variation in the die-position was quite usual at Rome ; but it was a complete novelty at Alexandria, where the die-position ↑↑ had come down from Ptolemaic times, and the imperial mint "perpetuated the tradition with a persistency that was almost Chinese."* It seems very probable, therefore, that workmen were imported from Rome to Egypt in the reign of Severus Alexander to introduce new methods at the mint ; but, as has often happened in affairs of currency, change was unpopular, and the old order prevailed.

There may similarly have been an importation from Antioch in the time of Vespasian ; and this theory is supported by the fact that there is a bronze Alexandrian coin in the British Museum (no. 263 in the Catalogue), which has the same Antiochene form of legend on the obverse as our tetradrachm, though the portrait is more of the Alexandrian style. The reverse of this coin is dated in year 3, which may serve to date the tetradrachm also.


Bronze dichalkon of Marcus Aurelius (Pl. XXXV, Fig. 6).
Obv.:—Head of M. Aurelius r., laureate.
Rev :—Scorpion ; in field, L Β.
13 mm. 1.63 gr

This little coin furnishes the only representation of the scorpion as an independent type in the Alexandrian series*. There is a group of bronze coins of the eighth year of Antoninus Pius which bear on their reverses busts of the Sun, Moon, and five planets in conjunction with the signs of the Zodiac ; and in this group the scorpion duly occurs in the type of Mars in Scorpio. The coin under consideration, however, belongs to a distinct class, and has no astronomical significance. The Alexandrian bronze issues, which run in a fairly regular series through the first two centuries of Roman dominion, appear to fall into five denominations, the normal sizes of which are respectively about 14, 19, 24, 29, and 34 mm. diameter*. On the smallest denomination, which began to be freely struck in the time of Vespasian and disappeared less than a century later, our coin being one of the latest examples, zoological types are most usually employed for the reverses ; they also occur on the next size, especially under Hadrian ; but on the three larger denominations, as also on the billon tetradrachms, they are hardly ever found, except for the eagle, which probably owed its popularity to its connexion with the Roman army, the hippopotamus, which seems to have been regarded as a symbol of the Nile and so of Egypt, and such specially sacred creatures as the serpent and the bull. The reason governing the choice of these zoological types for the smallest coins was probably an artistic one ; a figure of an animal could be treated conveniently and clearly in the limited field, where the detail required to emphasize the points of more elaborate types would have been hopelessly confused. So not only groups of figures, but representations of buildings and the like, were usually reserved to appear on the larger coins.


An 'Adventus' type of Septimius Severus (Pl. XXXV, Fig. 7).
Head of Severus r., laureate.
Rev.:—Severus standing r., Laureate, wearing toga, holding in l. hand sceptre resting on his shoulder, with r. hand outstretched to Alexandria standing l. wearing elephant skin cap and short chiton ; she holds vexillum in l. hand and in r. offers two ears of corn to the emperor ; in field (l.) L (centre) Η.
23 mm. 12.46 gr.  

The reverse type of this tetradrachm may be interpreted as referring to a visit of the emperor to Alexandria. It is a repetition with slight variations of a group which occurs on coins of the 15th year of Hadrian, which also show the emperor receiving an offering of corn as a welcome from the personification of the city (Pl. XXXV, Fig. 8) ; and one of the two visits of Hadrian to Egypt is known from the Epitome of Dio Cassius (lxxv. 13) and from the Historia Augusta (Sev. 17) ; but the date of his journey has had to be inferred from the sequence of events, and has usually been taken as 202 A.D. This coin seems to fix his presence at Alexandria in the eighth year of his reign ; and an even closer date may perhaps be obtained by comparison of other evidence. An Oxyrhynchus papyrus (1405) contains a rescript of an emperor whose name is lost, but whom on internal grounds the editors conclude to have been Severus ; this rescript was published at Alexandria in Pharmouthi of the eighth year (March—April 200 A.D.), and it may be presumed that the emperor was then in the city. There is another rescript of Severus dated in the same month and year in a Berlin papyrus (B.G.U. 437), however it deals with the same general question—the cession of their property by persons nominated to office and desirous of escaping the burden—as the first-mentioned rescript, it is quite likely that both formed part of the emperor's activities during his stay at Alexandria and illustrates the statement of the Historia Augusta that Severus, while in Egypt, made many alterations in the laws. The establishment of Senates in Alexandria and the nome-capitals of Egypt was one of the innovations connected with this visit*.

The end of the inscription on the obverse is not clear, but probably reads as restored above ; the full titles of Severus in his eighth year were 'Αραβικος 'Αδιαβηνικος Παρθικος μεγιστος, and these appear to occur in the abbreviated form ΑΡΑΑΔΙΠΑΡΜΕΓ on the only other Alexandrian coin—a bronze one—of this year of the emperor which has been published (Dattari, 4009). A possible alternative reading is ΑΡΑΔΠΑΡΜΕΓ, which is found on a coin of year 7 at Berlin (Friedländer, Zeits. f. Numism., Vol. IX, p. 4). Alexandrian coins of the later years of Severus are very rare, and those that are known are for the most part in poor condition; so there is little material for restoring the legends by comparison. the restriction of the output of the mint in these years and in the succeeding reign of Caracalla is rather remarkable ; it has been suggested that this was due to the enmity of the emperors toward the Alexandrians*, but this suggestion does not seem to be quite a satisfactory explanation. Severus probably regarded Egypt unfavourably at the beginning of his reign, since the country had supported his rival Pescennius Niger in the struggle for empire ; but nearly all his Alexandrian coins which exist are tetradrachms belonging to his earlier years, and the issues practically ceased in the year of his visit to Egypt, when his interest in its antiquities mentioned by the chroniclers of the journey might have been expected to restore it to favour. It is more likely that he enquired into the economic position of the country during his visit and found that the supply of coin was more that sufficient for the needs ; there had been very large issues a few years previously under Commodus*. Severus, as far as can be judged, was a man of considerable business ability, who would hardly have directed an unnecessary interference with the currency of Egypt out of spite against its inhabitants ; the circumstances of the mintage under Caracalla will be mentioned in the following note.

The figure of Hermes on this coin is almost purely Greek in treatment, and in this respect the type is rather exceptional. As a rule, the representations of deities on the Alexandrian coins show the mixture of Greek and Egyptian ideas which characterized the official religion of Egypt under the Ptolemies and the earlier Roman emperors ; the Hermes usually appears in the compound form of Hermanubis, crowned with the modius and carrying the palm-branch which belonged to the Egyptian side of the conception, and, in full-length figures, accompanied by the jackal of Anubis. In the present type the only Egyptian attribute is the lotus-petal on the god's head ; the design is almost repeated from a bronze coin of Marcus Aurelius (Dattari, 3470); and there are a few other instances where Hermes is similarly represented in Greek style on coins of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, which show him standing holding a purse and caduceus, of Gallienus and Claudius II, where he has the caduceus only, and of Commodus, on which he is running as the messenger of Olympus. It should be remarked that there is an adjunct in the type on this coin which does not appear to be present in that struck under M. Aurelius : this is the object on which the right hand of Hermes rests, and which is probably the tortoise-shell from which, according to Greek legend, he constructed the first lyre. There is a rather noticeable tendency on the part of the Alexandrian die-engravers in the reign of Caracalla to introduce small variations into types which had been used previously ; another instance which may be cited is that of a coin with the reverse-type of Tyche standing, where the ordinary scheme has been followed except that a serpent is coiled round the rudder which the goddess holds (pl. XXXV, Fig 10)*.

The tendency in question is probably to be connected with the fact that the output of the Alexandrian mint at this time was, as noted above, comparatively small. It may be stated as a general rule that when the mint was busy, only a few alternative types were used, and the dies were roughly executed ; if the officials had not to strike many coins, they seem to have turned their attention to devising new types or varying old ones. Furthermore, the issues of Caracalla were almost entirely bronze coins of large size, which may be regarded as medallic in character. The regular coinage of bronze for purposes of currency at Alexandria virtually ended in the reign of Marcus Aurelius ; after this time examples are rare and sporadic, except for the special outbursts in years 20, 21, and 22 of Caracalla, 10 of Severus Alexander, 5 and 6 of Philip, and 12 of Gallienus. The issues under the three latter emperors were certainly commemorative in intention, and those of Caracalla were probably similar. The execution of the dies for these bronze coins of Caracalla shows a high level of merit for the period, and the designs are artistically equal to any others in the Alexandrian series.


A new reverse-type of Severus Alexander (Pl. XXXVI, Fig. 1).
Bust of Alexander r., laureate, wearing cuirass.
Rev.:—Julia Mamaea standing r., wearing stephane, long chiton, and peplos, holding in r. hand sceptre, and on l. model of gateway with two arches and three towers ; to r., L Η.
23 mm. 11.50 gr.  

The reverse-type of this tetradrachm is of unusual interest, since no exact parallel to it is to be found on any other coin struck by the Alexandrian mint. Representations of buildings—temples, triumphal arches, and so forth—are common enough ; but they normally stand alone, or, if any figure is associated with the building, it is that of the deity to whom it was dedicated. The nearest approach to the type under consideration, where the empress is holding the model of a gateway presumably erected in her name, is on a bronze coin of Hadrian (Pl. XXXVI, Fig. 2), which shows the emperor standing before Sarapis in a temple-portico and placing his hand on a small shrine inscribed ΑΔΡΙΑΝΟΝ : this is explained as referring to the dedication by Hadrian of a building, which bore his name, connected with the temple of Sarapis at Alexandria.

The probable origin of the representation of Mamaea holding a model of a gateway may be traced to Asia Minor, where the type of a Goddess holding a model of a temple first occurs at Smyrna in the reign of Domitian ; in the course of the two next centuries it was frequently repeated at Smyrna and elsewhere. The goddess represented was not always the same ; at Smyrna it was either Roma (Pl. XXXVI, Fig. 4) or the legendary Amazon Smyrna (Pl. XXXVI, Fig. 5), from whom the city was supposed to have derived its name. The type has been exhaustively discussed by B. Pick*, who regards it as distinctively Asiatic.

The substitution on the Alexandrian coins of the empress for the goddess of the Asiatic type is noteworthy. It may be compared with earlier Alexandrian issues on which empresses are represented with the attributes of goddesses—for instance, Messalina and Sabina as Demeter, Sabina and the elder Faustina as Eusebia. Another type where Mamaea takes the place of a goddess occurs on a bronze coin two years later in date than this tetradrachm, which, not having been correctly published, may be described in full.

Bust of Alexander r., laureate, wearing paludamentum and cuirass, showing back.
Rev.:—Julia Mamaea seated l., wearing stephane, chiton, and peplos, holding on r. hand figure of Nike r., and in l. sceptre ; to l. palm, to r. L Ι (Pl. XXXVI, Fig. 3)*.

Here the empress is shown in the guise of Athene or Roma ; unless it is to be supposed that this is a variant on the common type of the emperor holding a figure of Nike, in which event this is an instance, unparalleled on Roman coins, of an empress taking the place of an emperor in his military capacity. Such a substitution, however, would not be out of accord with the actual position of Mamaea in the administration of her son's empire.

There is no clue to the identification of the gateway represented by the model. It was presumably at Alexandria ; the artists of the mint there do not seem to have gone outside their own city for subjects, as all the buildings which figure on their coins and can be recognised were certainly in Alexandria, and no types in the series betray any knowledge of edifices elsewhere in Egypt. But there is no existing record of any gateway with which this coin could be connected.


An altered tetradrachm of Aurelian (Pl. XXXVI, Fig. 6).
Bust, apparently female, r., draped wearing stephane.
Bust of Vaballathus r., diademed, wearing paludamentum and cuirass ; in field L Δ.
22 mm. 8.37 gr.  

This tetradrachm belongs to a fairly common group of issues, which were made in the first and second years of Aurelian in the joint names of that emperor and Vaballathus. Its special interest lies in the fact that the bust of Aurelian on the obverse has been tooled, evidently with the object of converting it into the likeness of a woman ; and there can be little doubt that the intention of the person who did this was to represent Zenobia (Pl. XXXVI, Fig. 8) will show the extent of the tooling and the degree of its success.

There is no reason for doubting that this tooling is ancient. The coin came to me in a hoard of over 12,000, which had not been cleaned since their discovery. It may be assumed that the alteration of the portrait was the work of some enthusiastic supporter of the Palmyrene cause in Egypt, who wished to produce a piece which should bear the likenesses only of the rulers whom he favoured, in place of one which perpetuated the compromise between the Roman and Palmyrene parties.

When Aurelian became emperor in 270 A.D., he had to deal with the problem of the principality of Palmyra, which for some years, first under Odaenathus and then under his widow Zenobia governing in the name of her son Vaballathus was recognized in Egypt before the accession of Aurelian ; but in the first year of Aurelian there are found joint coins of Aurelian and Vaballathus struck at Alexandria, as well as those of Aurelian alone ; in the second year there are beside the joint coins, coins of Aurelian alone, of Vaballathus alone, and of Zenobia alone. If these were all issued by the same mint—and there is no reason to suppose otherwise—the probably sequence would appear to be that the first coins were in the name of Aurelian alone ; then at some point in his first year, he permitted the association of Vaballathus as his colleague, and the joint issue began and continued into the second year ; Vaballathus then declared himself independent, and occupied Egypt, the coinage being in his name alone or that of his mother ; but before the end of the second Alexandrian year of Aurelian, the Roman troops had recovered Egypt and the tetradrachms once more bore the image and superscription of the Roman emperor.

This agrees generally with the chronology of the reign of Aurelian as stated by Léon Homo*: he dates the accession of Aurelian in March 270, the definite assertion of independence by Vaballathus sometime after 23rd February 271, and the Roman re-conquest of Egypt about the end of the summer in the same year. The last event would appear to have taken place before 29th August 271, the end of the second Alexandrian year of Aurelian, as there are coins in his name alone of that year ; and, if it could be assumed that the issues of the Alexandrian mint went on steadily throughout the year, a closer date for the various changes could be obtained from the comparative numbers of the different types of coins which are found. This however is rather a large assumption ; but some statistics may be given for what they are worth.

In two hoards covering this period, each containing some thousands of coins, the numbers were

Year 1.
Aurelian alone
Aurelian and Vaballathus
Year 2.
Aurelian and Vaballathus
Vaballathus alone
Aurelian alone

These figures suggest that the period of joint recognition in each year was a good deal longer than that of Aurelian alone in either year or that of Vaballathus alone in the second. But it is quite likely that the mint, especially when Egypt was in such a disturbed state as in these years, worked spasmodically, and it would not be safe to press the argument from these statistics.


A blundered copy of a tetradrachm of Carinus (Pl. XXXVI, Fig. 9).
Bust of Carinus r., laureate, wearing cuirass.
Rev.:—ΑΕΤΟC (on l.). Eagle standing l., looking back, wreath in beak ; to r., L Γ.
18 mm. 8.24 gr.  

It may be assumed that this coin is not an official production of the Alexandrian mint ; the execution of the dies falls considerably below that of the regular issues of the period, one of which is illustrated for comparison (Pl. XXXVI, Fig. 10) ; and the obverse legend is blundered by the transposition of the second and third letters, the proper formula being ΑΚΜΑΚΑΡΙΝΟCCΕΒ. The most curious point however is in the legend of the reverse. There were two varieties of the eagle type in use in the third year of Carinus ; in both the attitude of the eagle was the same, but, while one simply gave the date with the formula ΕΤΟΥC (on l.) Γ (to r.) (Pl. XXXVI, Fig 11), the other had (to r.) the date in the symbol L Γ and a legend (on l.) ΛΕΓΒΤΡΑΙ, marking the eagle as the standard of the legion II Traiana which then garrisoned Egypt (Pl. XXXVI, Fig. 10). the engraver of the die of this coin, presumably an illiterate person, seems to have had before him examples of both varieties, and, being unable to understand the legends, combined them into a word which he thought
he recognized as descriptive of the type ; thus out of {
} he got ΑΕΤΟC.

Such blundered copies of Alexandrian tetradrachms are rare; this specimen was the only obviously unofficial piece in a hoard of over 12,500 coins, and there are very few to be found in any collections. This fact is the more noteworthy, because, before the Roman conquest of Egypt, the Ptolemaic coins had been extensively counterfeited ; plated specimens of the silver tetradrachms, and rude imitations of the bronze pieces, sometimes in lead, are of frequent occurrence. Further, almost immediately after the issue of tetradrachms ceased at Alexandria, forgeries of the Roman coinage which became the currency of Egypt appear in large numbers*; and when a special Egyptian mintage was resumed in the Byzantine period under Justinian, barbarous copies are almost as common as official coins. The probable explanation of the absence of forgeries of the Roman tetradrachms is that the purchasing power of those tetradrachms was so depreciated that it was not worth while to forge them. A coin is not usually copied unless it stands in good repute ; and the reputation of the Alexandrian tetradrachm, more particularly in the third century A.D., was of the worst. The first issues of this denomination, in 20 A.D., were seriously debased ; they had a maximum weight of about 13 grammes, and contained about 25 per cent of silver; but the coinage deteriorated steadily, both in size and finess, until the latest issues, in the reign of Diocletian, have a usual weight of between seven and eight grammes and contain mere traces of silver. Occasionally there may be found, mixed up in hoards of tetradrachms of the time of Diocletian, specimens of the small Ptolemaic bronze coins of the first century B.C., which are in size and metal value about equal to the tetradrachms, and very possibly circulated with them as equivalent. As these bronze coins were issued originally to represent ten copper drachms, that is 1/192 of a silver tetradrachm*, this fact shows the extent of the depreciation of the tetradrachm in the course of three centuries.



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