NGC Ancients: Silver Coinage of Ptolemaic Egypt

Posted on 12/10/2019

Silver coins of ancient Egypt remain popular.

Coinage of the Greek kings of Egypt has long fascinated collectors, some of whom have devoted a lifetime of study to this field. In May of 2014, we posted a newsletter article briefly outlining the gold coinage of ancient Egypt. We’re now following up with articles describing the silver and the copper issues of this empire.

Above is a type known to all collectors of ancient coins—a silver tetradrachm (four drachms) with the Heracles/Zeus designs introduced by the Macedonian King Alexander III "the Great" (336-323 B.C.). One of Alexander's successors, Ptolemy I (as Satrap, 323-305/4 B.C.), issued this coin within the first few years after Alexander's death.

In theory, Alexander’s empire was to be inherited by a son (yet unborn) and a half-brother. However, neither were yet suitable rulers. So, the empire was instead ruled by a group of battle-tested men, often called the Diadochi ("successors"), who had served Alexander. Initially, all of them (including Ptolemy I) issued coins using the name and types of the deified Alexander III.

After a few years, some of these men showed greater independence by issuing coins with their own, original designs and even assuming the title of king. The silver tetradrachm of Ptolemy I, above, is a transitional piece, for it bears a new design of Ptolemy I, but was struck c.316-310 B.C., well before he assumed the title king in 305/4 B.C.—hence Alexander III’s name is used rather than his own.

Above is a silver drachm of the same design, showing the head of Alexander III wearing an elephant scalp headdress opposite the striding figure of the goddess Athena. This one was produced a touch later, c.310-305 B.C.

The next silver coinage of Ptolemy I was struck once he had assumed the title of king (305/4-282 B.C.), which occurred nearly two decades after Alexander III died of fever in Babylon. Above is a tetradrachm showing Ptolemy’s distinctive portrait, crowned with a royal diadem. The reverse shows his royal badge, the eagle of Zeus perched upon a thunderbolt, which here is flanked by the king’s name and title.

In late 285 or early 284 B.C., Ptolemy I was succeeded as king of Egypt by his son, Ptolemy II (285/4-246 B.C.). In passing authority to his son, he founded a hereditary dynasty that would endure nearly three centuries Shown above is a tetradrachm struck for Ptolemy II at the mint of Tyre in Phoenicia, which is indicated by the club and civic monogram in the left field on the reverse. Greek letters in the right field reveal that it was struck in the 32nd regnal year of Ptolemy II, equating 254/3 B.C.

Another silver coin of Ptolemy II is shown above. It is a large-denomination coin, a decadrachm (ten drachms), on which Ptolemy II honors his wife Arsinoe II. It is a memorial coinage, for she died well into his reign, in about 270 B.C., and this piece was struck afterward.

Shown above is a pentekaidekadrachm (15 drachms), the largest and heaviest silver coin ever struck by the Ptolemies—and one of the largest in all Greek history. It was issued by the next Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy III (246-222 B.C.), who in about 245 B.C. honored his new wife, Berenice II, with this ceremonial coinage. The reverse shows two cornucopias bound by a royal diadem and flanked by the caps of the Dioscuri.

The next king, Ptolemy IV (222-205/4 B.C.), issued the two unusual and attractive silver coins above. First is a tetradrachm which, instead of displaying the usual dynastic portrait, shows the jugate heads of the gods Serapis and Isis opposite the royal badge of the Ptolemies with double-cornucopias resting upon the eagle's right shoulder. Beneath that is a rare decadrachm bearing the head of the king’s deceased mother, Berenice II.

Ptolemy V (205/4-180 B.C.) issued the most interesting tetradrachm, above, with his own youthful portrait rather than the canonical—if perpetually evolving—portrait of the dynasty founder, Ptolemy I. It was struck early in his reign.

The tetradrachm above, with its high-relief bust of Ptolemy I, was struck either by Ptolemy V or by his successor, Ptolemy VI (180-145 B.C.). Except for its distinctive style and fabric, it is essentially identical to the first issues of Ptolemy I as king.

An uncommon denomination in Ptolemaic Egypt was the silver didrachm (two drachms). The example shown above, issued by Ptolemy VI in year 106 of an uncertain era (perhaps equating 157/6 B.C.), replicates the usual types of the tetradrachm.

The two tetradrachms above were issued by Ptolemy VIII (170-116 B.C.). The first is of the usual dynastic type, though with a greatly degraded portrait and eagle—a characteristic of later Ptolemaic tetradrachms. The second is exceedingly rare and unusual, for it bears a radiate portrait of Ptolemy VIII himself, and its eagle clutches a royal scepter under its left wing.

Another uncommon Ptolemaic silver coin is the didrachm above, which researchers assign generically to the period c.145 to 88 B.C. (Ptolemy VIII through Ptolemy X). It shows on its obverse the head of the god Dionysus with a thyrsus over his shoulder, and on its reverse the badge of the Ptolemies and a royal inscription. In the field is a Macedonian helmet.

We’ll end this brief survey with a tetradrachm of the last Ptolemaic ruler, the famous Queen Cleopatra VII (51-30 B.C.), who retained the traditional designs for her tetradrachms. It is interesting that during her reign, for the first time in the long history of the kingdom, the purity of the silver used to strike tetradrachms dropped dramatically. This piece was struck in her year 12, equating 41/40 B.C., a decade before she succumbed to the Romans and took her own life.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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