NGC Ancients: Bronze Coinage of Ptolemaic Egypt, Part 1

Posted on 1/21/2020

Choice and rare 'Bronzes' of ancient Egypt are eagerly sought by collectors.

Egypt under the Greek 'Ptolemaic' kings and queens produced a substantial coinage. In all metals, there are numerous designs, mint-designations and varieties that make the series both challenging and fascinating.

In two previous columns, we offered overviews of the gold and silver coinage of this Greek kingdom, and in the next two columns, we’ll examine the 'bronzes' of the Ptolemies. This first installment will take us from Ptolemy I through Ptolemy IV, covering about the first 120 years of the kingdom. The second (next month) will cover the approximately 175 years that remain.

We’ll start with an 11 mm bronze of the founder of the dynasty, Ptolemy I, who ruled from 323-305/4 B.C. as satrap and from 305/4-282 B.C. as king. It was struck at the chief mint of Alexandria sometime from c.311 to 306 B.C., shortly before he declared himself king.

Not surprisingly, it features the portrait of his deified predecessor, Alexander III 'the Great' (336-323 B.C.). It is paired with an eagle on a thunderbolt, a design which served as the 'dynastic badge' of the Ptolemies. It’s worth noting that the reverse bears the name of Alexander rather than Ptolemy.

Although stylistically different than the previous coin, this 17 mm bronze issued c.306-294 B.C. at the Alexandria mint, most likely was issued after Ptolemy I had assumed the title of king. It has the same principal types of the previous coin, yet the reverse now names Ptolemy rather than Alexander.

This 20 mm bronze of Ptolemy I, struck at Alexandria after c.294 B.C., features a portrait of Alexander III wearing an elephant scalp. The reverse features the badge of Ptolemy.

This lovely 16 mm bronze of Ptolemy I was struck at Paphos on the island of Cyprus. Showing the bust of the goddess Aphrodite and the Ptolemaic eagle-badge, it was struck after c.294 B.C.

Issued at the same time and at the same Cypriot mint as the previous coin, this 22 mm bronze features an entirely different vision of Aphrodite, who’s crowned with an ornamented polos.

We now move on to Ptolemy II (285/4-246 B.C.), the son and successor of Ptolemy I. This 23 mm bronze of Ptolemy II, struck at Alexandria sometime after about 265 B.C., looks much like the types introduced by his father some three decades before, as it features a portrait of Alexander III in an elephant scalp and the badge of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Also struck for Ptolemy II is the 40 mm bronze, above, which belongs to a very large series the king initiated in about 265 B.C. or soon afterward. It bears what would become the iconic obverse design for Ptolemaic bronzes — the head of the syncretic god Zeus-Ammon, adorned with a diadem and ram’s horn. In this case, he also has at the top of the diadem a design element that is believed to be a stylized crown of Ammon.

The reverse features two Ptolemaic eagles standing on thunderbolts, side by side. Though in some later cases two eagles indicate the joint-rule of two monarchs, at this time, Ptolemy II was the only reigning king, so we must presume they represent both the king and Zeus-Ammon.

Interestingly, this coin also bears another ‘trademark’ feature of most Ptolemaic bronzes struck from this point onward: a central cavity on both the obverse and reverse. Often, there are also strong traces of incised lines radiating outward from the center in a circular fashion. Both are diagnostic of their production rather than circulation damage.

It has been suggested that these new production features are tied to a monetary reform of the 260s B.C. in which earlier Ptolemaic bronzes were demonetized. This may have been linked to larger economic reforms that modified the Egyptian tax system.

This 31 mm bronze of Ptolemy II from c.265 B.C. or later bears the laureate head of Zeus and the badge of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Unlike the Ptolemaic bronzes we’ve seen thus far, it was not issued in Egypt, but at Ake-Ptolemais in Phoenicia, a prosperous region that in the Hellenistic era was hotly contested between the Ptolemies and their neighbor-kings, the Seleucids.

The two bronzes above, which range from 26 mm to 27 mm in diameter, also were not struck in Egypt. Indeed, they are believed to have been struck in about 264/3 B.C. in Sicily on behalf of Ptolemy II. Like the coin from Ake-Ptolemais, they bear the laureate head of Zeus and the Ptolemaic badge.

We continue our survey of Ptolemy II’s bronzes with this 21 mm coin struck in Cyrene, a region of North Africa to the west of Egypt. It was struck c.270-261 B.C. by that region’s ruler, Magas. It features the head of Ptolemy I and the thunderbolt of Zeus, above which the name of King Magas appears in the form of a monogram.

Ptolemy II also struck the above piece, a 10 mm bronze depicting his sister-wife Queen Arsinoe II (died 270/68 B.C.). With a standing eagle on its reverse, it is attributed to the mint of Byzantium, where the continents of Asia and Europe meet.

We now transition to the issues of King Ptolemy III (246-222 B.C.), the son of Ptolemy II and grandson of Ptolemy I. Above are two large and heavy coins of 33 mm to 35 mm from the Alexandria mint with the familiar Zeus-Ammon/Ptolemaic badge designs.

The 30 mm bronze of Ptolemy III, above, has the same types as the previous two coins. However, it was struck at the Phoenician mint of Tyre, as indicated by the club before the eagle.

Another common type of Ptolemy III is illustrated by the two specimens above, which offer a variation of the normal reverse with the eagles looking back toward a cornucopia set at their shoulders. They are from the Alexandria mint and are large pieces ranging from 37 mm to 39 mm in diameter.

An unusual reverse type for the Zeus-Ammon bronzes of Ptolemy III appears on the 16 mm coin, above. It was struck at Paphos on the island of Cyprus and shows a statue of the goddess Aphrodite.

We’ll round out our survey of the bronzes of Ptolemy III with those bearing portraits of living — or once-living — rulers rather than Zeus-Ammon. Shown above is a 12 mm coin that resurrects a type used by his father and grandfather, which pairs the head of Alexander III wearing an elephant scalp with the Ptolemaic badge.

The dynasty founder Ptolemy I is honored on the 22 mm and 26 mm bronzes shown above. The founder’s portrait is paired with the head of Libya, as these coins were struck in neighboring Cyrene, where she was recognized as the personification of the region.

Similarly interesting are the 19 mm and 20 mm bronzes above, which bear the distinctive portrait of Ptolemy III and the Ptolemaic badge. These issues are attributed to the mint of Corinth in Central Greece, where the Ptolemies had military interests.

A decidedly different portrait, also thought to represent Ptolemy III, occurs on this rare 16 mm bronze from the Ionian city of Lebedus, which at this time had been renamed Ptolemais. The reverse depicts the standing figure of Athena.

Our last bronzes of Ptolemy III bear portraits of his wife Berenice II, the daughter of Magas who ruled neighboring Cyrene. She died in 221 B.C., not long after her husband. The first of our three examples, the rare 16 mm bronze above, is attributed to the mint of Lebedus (Ptolemais).

Another portrait of Berenice II appears on this 25 mm bronze struck by her husband at a mint in Northern Syria. Its reverse shows a filleted cornucopia and bears an eagle countermark.

The Berenice II portrait bronze above, also issued by Ptolemy III at a mint in northern Syria, has a different reverse type, the iconic Ptolemaic badge.

We’ll end the first part of our Ptolemaic bronze survey with two issues of Ptolemy IV (222-205/4 B.C.), the son of Ptolemy III and Berenice II. The first, a coin struck at the Alexandria mint, has the familiar Zeus-Ammon/Ptolemaic badge designs and is a large piece, being more than 40 mm in diameter and tipping the scale at more than 68 grams.

From the same issue is this 33 mm bronze of Ptolemy IV. Though (as noted earlier) the central cavities were part of the manufacturing process of most Ptolemaic bronzes struck after c.265/0 B.C., the ones on this example are especially pronounced.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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