NGC Ancients: Bronze Coinage of Ptolemaic Egypt, Part 2

Posted on 2/11/2020

Egyptian “bronzes” are a specialty of many collectors of ancient coins.

In this column we continue our survey of the major bronze coinages produced in Egypt during its centuries under Greek Ptolemaic rule. In the previous column we explored the issues from about the first 120 years of the kingdom, from Ptolemy I (323-282 B.C.) through Ptolemy IV (222-205/4 B.C.).

We now pick up with the reign of Ptolemy V (205/4-180 B.C.) and continue our survey over about the next 175 years of Greek rule before Egypt fell to the Romans during the reign of its last monarch, Queen Cleopatra VII (51-30 B.C.).

A cautionary note before we proceed: Many of the identifications of later Ptolemaic bronzes are not secure. Scholars continue to work with scant evidence to identify the correct monarchs and mints for these remarkably interesting coins.

The bronzes of Ptolemy V are quite varied in their designs. Above is one of a familiar composition, with the head of Zeus-Ammon and the Ptolemaic royal badge, an eagle standing on a thunderbolt. This piece, however, is unusual, for the eagle has a scepter and a lotus flower appears in the field. It is believed to have been struck on the island of Cyprus.

A variety of heads replaced the familiar one of Zeus-Ammon on Ptolemy V’s bronzes. A few are shown here, all of which retain on their reverses the Ptolemaic eagle-badge. The first, depicting an uncertain helmeted, male head – perhaps Ares – is shown above.

Above is one depicting an old and weary Heracles, wearing a lion’s scalp.

This one shows the deified king Alexander III ‘the Great’ wearing an elephant’s scalp.

Above are two portraying the goddess Isis.

Variety was not limited to the obverse types. On the coins that follow, believed to have been struck under Ptolemy V, goddesses replace the Ptolemaic eagle.

This bronze, attributed to the mint of Salamis in Greece, shows on its reverse the cultus statue of the goddess Aphrodite.

The four coins above portray on their obverse the founder of the dynasty, Ptolemy I, and on their reverse the goddess Isis. This issue is attributed to a mint in neighboring Cyrene. While all of these have the diagnostic depressions in the center of their flans, they are especially pronounced on the last piece.

Above is an attractive 36mm bronze with the Zeus-Ammon head and two eagles standing on a thunderbolt. It was struck during the reign of Ptolemy V or that of his eldest son, and successor, Ptolemy VI (180-145 B.C.).

The bronze above has the same designs as the previous coin, though this one is smaller (20mm) and is attributed to Ptolemy VI.

In the tradition of his father, Ptolemy VI issued bronzes of several different designs. Above are three with the portrait of Isis and the dynastic eagle-badge. The first two show the eagle with raised wings and the last one shows the eagle with closed wings and a cornucopia at its shoulder.

An especially vigorous portrait of bearded Heracles wearing a lion scalp appears on the 23mm bronze of Ptolemy VI shown above.

Alexander III ‘the Great,’ wearing an elephant scalp, appears on the Ptolemy VI bronze above.

Researchers describe the two bronzes above, with the head of Zeus-Ammon and two eagles on a thunderbolt, as issues produced for Ptolemy VI (alone) or during his co-regency with his brother, Ptolemy VIII, from 170 to 163 B.C.

Above are two bronzes with Zeus-Ammon and two eagles on a thunderbolt, which are quite similar to the previous two bronzes. However, some researchers attribute these solely to King Ptolemy VIII (170-116 B.C.). The second example retains part of its original purple and green encrustation, which many collectors find appealing.

The three bronzes of Ptolemy VIII shown above are from branch mints. The first, with its lengthy reverse inscription, was struck in neighboring Cyrene. The second two were struck on the island of Cyprus and on their reverses bear dates of issue: on the first the LKZ (year 27) equates 144/3 B.C.; on the second the LΛΔ (year 34) equates 137/6 B.C.

We’ll round out the bronzes attributed to Ptolemy VIII with the two issues above, which bear portraits of interest. The first depicts an elderly Heracles, the second a royal woman, perhaps the king’s paternal grandmother, Arsinoe III.

The small, crude bronze shown above is attributed to a mint in Cyrene during the first reign of Ptolemy IX (116-107 B.C.), the son of Ptolemy VIII.

Even more crudely made are the three small bronzes above, all struck in Cyrene and attributed to the period spanning the reigns of Ptolemy IX and his brother Ptolemy X (107-c.88 B.C.).

Of unusually good workmanship and quality for the late period is the 20mm bronze above, which is attributed to the broad period spanning the reigns of Ptolemy IX (116-107 B.C.) through that of his son, Ptolemy XII (80-51 B.C.).

Among the most desirable bronzes of Egypt are those of the last Ptolemaic monarch, Queen Cleopatra VII (51-30 B.C.), daughter of Ptolemy XII. She’s renowned for her intellect and her desire to preserve her kingdom from the ambitions of Rome. In the process, she had to contend with many powerful Romans, including Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Octavian (later known as Augustus).

Both coins feature the distinctive portrait of Cleopatra VII and the Ptolemaic eagle-badge. First is an 80 Drachmae (Diobol) with the value mark Π; second is a 40 Drachmae (Obol) with the value mark M.

Shown above is an unusual bronze of Cleopatra VII which portrays the queen holding an infant, thought to be Ptolemy XV (‘Caesarion’). This child was reputed by some ancient authorities to have been sired by Julius Caesar – a prospect rejected by a good many others.

The coin, a 27mm bronze, is believed to have been struck at Paphos on the island of Cyprus in 47 B.C., upon the birth of the child. He survived until the fateful year of 30 B.C. when, as a 17-year-old, he was executed by the victorious Octavian.

We’ll end this survey with two bronzes issued by the Romans after Octavian’s defeat of Cleopatra VII. Both show on their obverse Livia, the wife of Octavian (Augustus). The first is an 80 Drachmae struck c.19-2 B.C.; the second is a diobol of A.D. 10-12, depicting on its reverse the goddess Euthenia (‘prosperity’).

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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