NGC Ancients: Gold Coinage of Ptolemaic Egypt

Posted on 5/19/2014

This month, NGC Ancients looks at the gold coinage of ancient Egypt.

The coinage of ancient Egypt reveals a strong preference for gold. Interestingly, gold seems to have been more plentiful in Egypt than most anywhere else in the Mediterranean and the Near East (except, perhaps, Macedon), while silver was comparatively scarce and usually had to be imported. The source of this gold was to the south in the Kingdom of Kush, a sub-Saharan empire of the Nile Valley.

The first gold coins of Egypt were struck by two of the last Pharaohs. One of these issues, which was modeled after the familiar types of Athens, is known by a single piece in the British Museum. A larger and more familiar gold coinage was struck under Nectanebo II (360-343 BC), the last of the native pharaohs.

When the Macedonian King Alexander III entered Egypt late in 332 BC, he established a mint which may have been located at Memphis. The Greek king’s stay in Egypt was brief, but a great quantity of coins bearing his name was later struck by his regent and his successors in Egypt after his departure. This gold stater, bearing Alexander’s standard types, the head of Athena on the obverse and Nike on the reverse, was struck after his death at the mint of Memphis or Alexandria. After Alexander died at Babylon in 323 B.C., his vast empire was partitioned by his successors - among them was Ptolemy I, who ruled Egypt, initially using the title of satrap, and later, king. In the early period after Alexander's death, Ptolemy continued to issue gold staters of Alexander's type that bore the deceased king’s name.

The first important break in tradition occurred sometime between 304 and 295 BC, when Ptolemy I issued gold staters with his own portrait and with inscriptions that described him as king. The reverse of these staters show the deified Alexander III riding in a chariot drawn by four elephants, an important image since Ptolemy’s legitimacy was directly tied to Alexander. From this point onward Ptolemaic gold coinage assumed a dynastic flavor and was issued by a long succession of kings from the royal family.

The most remarkable aspects of Ptolemaic gold coinage are the variety of the issues, the quantities in which they were struck, and the heavy weight of their most common denomination, the octodrachm (an eight-drachm coin). This octodrachm, thought to have been struck sometime in the mid-third century, is an exceptional example of one of the rarer Egyptian gold coins. The obverse is graced by a portrait of Queen Berenice II, wife of King Ptolemy III, while the reverse shows a cornucopia and fillet. In addition, other large denominations were struck, notably the tetradrachm (four drachms), the pentadrachm (five drachms).

Most Ptolemaic gold coins show the portraits of members of the royal family, both living and deceased. Though in some cases the identities of these portraits are still a matter of debate, it would seem the list includes the Kings Ptolemy I, II, III, IV and V, and the Queens Arsinoe II & III, Berenice I (& II?) and Cleopatra I. This gold octodrachm depicts Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II on the obverse, and their ancestors Ptolemy I and Berenice I on the reverse.

The final coinage requiring special mention was issued in the name of the late King Ptolemy III (246-222 B.C.). Like all deceased Ptolemaic royal subjects, he is portrayed as a god. In this case, however, he is identified with more than one deity, for he wears the radiate crown of the sun-god Helios, the aegis of Zeus, and rests on his shoulder the trident of the sea-god Poseidon. With this ornate portrait, Ptolemy III is identified with the most powerful gods who ruled the heavens, the sky, the land and the sea.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of CNG

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