Coins of Roman Egypt
Greek Dates





The classification of the Alexandrian coins of Augustus has one element of uncertainty which is unusual in the series struck for Egypt under the Roman emperors, in that the earlier issues are not dated. But it is perhaps possible to arrive at a closer approximation than has yet been published as regards the sequence of these issues, and at the same time to investigate the policy of Augustus as shown in his treatment of the Egyptian currency.

A few coins which have sometimes been ascribed to Augustus will be excluded from consideration*. They are all of small size, and do not bear either the portrait of the emperor or his name : such are D. 19 (crescent : star : 9 mm.), D. 20 (lotus-flower : star : 10 mm.), D. 50 (ibis : Crocodile : 15 mm.). The reason for their exclusion is that there is no certainty that they are of the time of Augustus or even that they are official issues : in the case of D. 50, the only one which is at all common, the specimens vary considerably in fabric, and some are struck from unadjusted dies, while others appear to be cast, both of which facts point to the pieces in question being unofficial : it is true that they are dated LΚΑ, but dates occur similarly on pieces which are certainly unofficial, such as the leaden tokens of the third century A.D.* The same considerations apply to several of the small coins without names which have been attributed to later emperors, and notably to one or two of those which have been given by Dattari to the reign of Caligula, such as D. 112 (heron : bull) : so that it seems safer to follow the British Museum Catalogue in placing them apart, and to say that, while some of them may have been struck about the time of Augustus, others of the same types are most probably much later and unofficial, and they cannot be used to establish any conclusions as to the currency of his reign*.

First group. It has been generally recognized that the first issue of Augustus in Egypt consisted of bronze of two denominations, but with the same types, only differentiated by a letter in the field of the reverse. The obverse bears the legend ΘΕΟΥ ΥΙΟΥ across the field, with a bare head to right : the reverse has ΚΑΙΣΑΡΟΣ ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑΤΟΡΟΣ, with an eagle standing left on a thunderbolt, in front of it being a cornucopiae, behind the letter Π on the larger coins and Μ on the smaller. The larger coins are about 26 mm. in diameter, with an average weight of 17.2 gm. (10 specimens weighed) : the smaller about 21 mm., with an average weight of 8.3 gm. (7 specimens). These are obviously in continuation of the bronze issues of Cleopatra VII, which have the same reverse type, symbol, and letters, and are about the same average weight and size : the 38 specimens of the Π coin of Cleopatra catalogued with weights by Svoronos average 17.8 gm., the 28 specimens of the Μ coin 8.5 gm. A similar adoption of previous types in the first issues of Augustus is to be found at other important commercial centres in the East, e.g. Ephesos and Smyrna—and this accords with his general policy of carrying on local administrative traditions wherever possible until he was sure of this standing.

Second group. These two types were presumably struck before the title of Augustus was formally conferred on the emperor in 27 B.C. : after this come several coins, still with the bare head, but bearing the legends (as before, across the field) CΕΒΑCΤΟC on the obverse and ΚΑΙCΑΡ on the reverse. The reverse types are oenochoe [D. 9], temple of Mars Ultor [D. 14], triumphal arch [D. 13]—all three of about 26 mm. diameter—and pontifical instruments [D. 10]—of 21 mm. : with these may be grouped coins with the head of Livia and the legend ΛΙΟΥΙΑ CΕΒΑCΤΟΥ on the obverse, the reverse types of which are cornucopiae [D. 57] (26 mm.) and eagle [D. 56] (21 mm.). All these, like the first group, are of the thick fabrick characteristic of the Ptolemaic bronze, and the marks of value Π and Μ are continued on the coins of Livia, though not on those of Augustus. Some smaller coins, of about 15 mm., evidently belong to the same group, as they are of similar fabric and have the square form of the letter C which is usual on most of the larger pieces : the legends of obverse and reverse are those of the coins of Augustus, though his portrait does not appear, the types being in one case (obverse) circular altar and (reverse) cornucopiae [D. 45], in another (obverse) prow and (reverse) wreath enclosing legend [D. 48]. These pieces have also on the obverse the letter Κ, which must be a mark of value, like Π and Μ on the larger coins*: as they represent a new denomination, there was more reason for indicating what this was. A still lower denomination may be found in three smaller coins of about 12 mm. : one with bare head on obverse and star on reverse [D. 12], which the bare head seems to mark as belonging to this group, the others with star and prow respectively as obverse types and the legend CΕΒΑCΤΟC in two lines on the reverse [D. 18 and 21], which the form of the letter C connects with this group. The average weights are, for the 26 mm. size, 13.2 gm. (20 specimens) ; for the 21 mm., 6.4 gm. (10 specimens) ; for the 15 mm., 3.5 gm. (14 specimens) ; and for the 12 mm., .9 gm. (5 specimens). The date of this group, which may have begun to be issued any time after 27 B.C., comes down to 17 at least, as the types of the temple of Mars Ultor and the triumphal arch are obviously copied from those of silver cistophori struck at Ephesus which are dated in the year 18/17 (Plate xxxi) : a comparison of the coins leaves no room for doubting that the Alexandrian engraver had before him the Ephesian pieces and reproduced their types in a clumsy and unintelligent manner*; and they may well have been a year or two later.

Third group. The introduction of a laureate, in place of a bare, head as the obverse type of the larger coins of Augustus marks the commencement of a new series : the coins are still undated*, and the legends are normally ΚΑΙΣΑΡ on the reverse type the head of Gaius Caesar with his name, the title ΣΕΒΑΣΤΟΣ naturally goes to the obverse. With these may be grouped some coins of Livia, which have her head, but no legend, on the obverse. These pieces are of thinner fabric than those of the two preceding groups, though the diameters are about the same : the types which can be definitely referred to this group are, in the largest size (25 mm.), the head of Gaius [D. 1] and, on coins of Livia, the bust of Euthenia [D. 58] both rather rare and the third size (15 mm.), ibis [D. 7], crown of Isis [D. 8], and crescent and star [D. 11], all three of fairly frequent occurrence ; some further types which are known only from single examples [D. 5, 6 ; F. 546, 547, 548] may also belong here, but their rarity and the fact that they are mostly of rather abnormal design suggest that they were experimental issues. The average weights show a marked fall as compared with the second group : they are, for 6 specimens of the larger size, 8.3 gm., for 23 of the smaller, 2.5 gm. The commencing date for this series is not likely to have been before 10 B.C., as the introduction of the laureate head on the imperial coinage most probably took place in that year, and the Alexandrian mint throughout its history constantly borrowed its designs from other mints. The head of Gaius would not be placed on the coinage before 8 B.C.

Fourth group. The first certain instance of dating is on coins of year 8, i.e. 3/2 B.C. : these are all of the smaller sizes, and do not bear the head of the Emperor. The commonest is one of 15 mm. diameter, with the legend ΚΑΙCΑΡΟC and a circular altar, on which is the date LΚΗ, on the obverse and on the reverse CΕΒΑ|CΤΟΥ in a wreath [D. 47] : there are single examples of two little pieces of about 10 mm., both of which have the date in a wreath on the reverse, and on the obverse one a crescent [F. 558], the other a star [Berlin], which may have been issued in this year, but cannot be definitely assigned to Augustus in view of the absence of a legend. The fact that on the coins first mentioned the legends are in the genitive, which is rather unusual in the reign of Augustus, suggests that a common coin, which has very similar types and the same peculiarity of legends, belongs to the same group" on this, which measures about 21 mm., there is an altar flanked by laurel branches, with ΣΕΒΑΣΤΟΥ in the exergue, on the obverse, and on the reverse ΚΑΙΣΑ|ΡΟΣ in a wreath [D. 16] : the same consideration applied to two smaller pieces of 15 mm., one with ΚΑΙΣΑΡΟΣ and a capricorn and star as obverse type, CΕΒΑCΤΟΥ and cornucopiae as reverse [D. 17], the other with a crocodile as obverse, CΕΒΑCΤΟΥ and staff as reverse [Paris (Mi. 34]. These coins of year 28 are probably earlier than a series which is undated, but has the legend ΠΑΤΗΡ ΠΑΤΡΙΔΟΣ with the laureate head of Augustus on the obverse : as the title of Pater Patriae was only conferred on him on Feb. 5 of his 28th Alexandrian year, and it would take some weeks, in the winter, for the news to reach Alexandria, this series, even if struck at once in honour of the event, would only come out late in the year. It includes coins of the two larger sizes (25 and 20 mm.) : the reverse legend is ΣΕΒΑΣΤΟΣ, and the types are, in the first size, capricorn with star [D. 53] and six ears of corn [D. 51]*, in the second the ears of corn again [D. 54] : of the first size there is also a coin of Livia, which obviously belongs to the same series, with ΛΙΟΥΙΑ ΣΕΒΑΣΤΟΥ and her head on the obverse, ΠΑΤΡΟΣ ΠΑΤΡΙΔΟΣ and double cornucopiae on the reverse [D. 72]. All these are fairly common, and of the same fabric as the third group : the weights are very irregular, varying in the first size from 13.1 to 6.8 gm., in the second from 6.5 to 4.1, and in the third from 4.3 to 1.6 : the averages are resprctively 10.7 gm. (24 specimens), 5.6 (14 specimens), and 3.1 (10 specimens).

Fifth Group. The large undated issue, if not made in the latter part of year 28, may have been in year 29 : in year 30 (1 B.C./1 A.D.) dated coins reappear, but at first rather spasmodically : the types vary considerably, and specimens are rare, till year 39. Those of year 30 are, in the two largest sizes, obv. laureate head, rev. bust of Nilus [D. 32 (24 mm.), 33 (19 mm.)], in the smallest size, obv. laureate head, rev. oak wreath enclosing date [D. 36], and obv. star, rev. ΣΕΒΑΣΤΟΥ round date [Oxford]. In year 35 the only issue seems to have been of the smallest size, with obv. crescent, rev. similar to the last-mentioned of year 30 [D. 49]. The larger sizes recurred in year 38, all with laureate head on obverse : the reverses are, in the first size, ΣΕΒΑΣΤΟΥ, bull butting r., in ex. LΛΗ [D. 35], and capricorn r., in ex. ΣΕΒΑΣΤΟΥ, to l. LΛΗ [D. 34] : the latter type is also found in the second size [Paris (Mi. 16)] : in the smallest size there is a coin of the same types as that of year 35 [Berlin]. The evidence as to weights in this group is too scanty to make any conclusions of value : so far as it goes, it agrees generally with the averages of the fourth group.

Sixth group. In year 39 a more regular series began, and continued till the last complete year of the reign of Augustus : there are coins with his laureate head, or the head of Livia, in the three larger sizes, with several reverses, one being shared by the Emperor and Empress : the types are, for Augustus, bust of Euthenia r., with ΕΥΘΗ ΝΙΑ across field, and date in exergue, and Nike flying l., with date in field ; for Livia, modius flanked by torches, with date in exergue, and Athene standing l. holding Nike and resting on shield, with date in field ; for both, oak wreath enclosing date*. The occurrence of these varieties, most of which are fairly common, may be shown best in tabular form.

Year 39
Year 40
Year 41
Year 42
Size 1 (24 mm.)
D. 22
D. 24
D. 25
D. 28
D. 30
D. 37
D. 40
D. 42
D. 69
F. 575
D. 61
D. 63
D. 66
BM. 31
D. 67
Size 2 (19 mm.) Augustus Euthenia
D. 23
D. 27
D. 31
D. 38
D. 41
D. 44
  Livia modius
D. 71
D. 65
BM. 32
D. 68
Size 3 (14 mm.) Augustus wreath
D. 39
BM. 15
Hunter 16

The average weights of the three sizes are 9.0 gm. for 46 specimens of the first, 4.2 gm. for 11 of the second, and 1.9 gm. for 14 of the third : the flans are much thinner than those of the earlier groups, though the diameters of the various sizes are not much reduced.

The values attached to the different denominations in the various groups remain to be determined : and for this purpose the weights are only a rough guide, as the coinage was purely a token one : but, taken in conjunction with the sizes, they offer some clue. The first and last groups provide most material for consideration, and can accordingly be taken as a beginning.

The first issue of Augustus, as already noted, was a continuation of the latest Ptolemaic bronze coinage, of two denominations, marked respectively Π and Μ, which, as demonstrated by Regling*, represented 80 and 40 copper drachmas. These, for purposes of reckoning on the silver standard, would serve as obols and half-obols, as the rate of conversion from copper to silver was normally about 480:1 at this time.

The latest series is clearly one of three denominations, and by size and weight is linked to the bronze issues of Tiberius and Claudius, which represented the diobol, obol, and dichalkon of the silver standard*. The superficial sizes of the two larger denominations are not seriously reduced from those of the first issue, but the weights are much lower.

It appears therefore that during the reign of Augustus a change was made in the basis of the bronze coinage : and the point at which it was made, and the purport of the change, may be ascertained more readily by setting out the average weights for the various groups as detailed above : the fifth group is omitted as offering no definite evidence.

Size 1
Size 2
Size 3
Size 4
1st group
2nd group
3rd group
4th group
5th group

The second group is on the same basis as the first, as the marks of value are continued on some of the coins, notably on the new denomination of 20 drachmas : but there is a considerable reduction in the average weights. In the third group there is a further fall in weight. In the fourth, however, there is some recovery, though the weights are still below those of the second. The sixth again shows a drop, and also the average weight of size 3, instead of being rather more than half that of size 2, is less than half. It may be suggested that the explaination of these facts is that in the second group the old values of 89 dr. = 1 obol and 40 dr. = 1/2 obol cointinued, with a 20 dr. = dichalkon and a small piece, possibly of 5 dr. = 1/2 chalkus*, and the first and third of these denominations were still issued in the third group : but the weights had gradually gone down to about half of what they had been at the beginning of the reign, and in the fourth group, which is one of the more extensive issues, the values of sizes 1, 2 and 3 were doubled, making them represent the diobol, obol, and half-obol, with some increase of weight, though not proportionate to the increase in value : in the sixth group the diobol and obol continued, the weights again falling, but the lowest denomination was the dichalkon instead of the half-obol, as in later reigns. There was probably no use in Roman times for anything smaller than the dichalkon*.

Further, it is to be noted that in the reign of Augustus the Ptolemaic system of accounting in "copper drachmas" dissappears almost entirely from the statements in papyri and ostraca, and the normal method of reckoning is on the silver standard : isolated instances of the old formula occur down to the beginning of the second century, but in all probability they are only archaistic survivals such as are found in many other connections in documents of the Roman period from Egypt*. This fact, taken in conjunction with the disappearance of the marks of value on the bronze coinage and the presumed revision of the valuation, points to the conclusion that Augustus directed a reorganization of the bronze currency on a silver basis, which took effect somewhere between 8 and 2 B.C. : his intention was doubtless to bring the Egyptian monetary system into a fixed relation with that of the Empire generally, and to stabilize the exchange, although he did not touch what was the key of the latter problem— the depreciated silver tetradrachm of the Ptolemies — and so the real difficulty remained unsolved.



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