NGC Ancients: Coins of Roman Egypt

Posted on 7/14/2020

Roman provincials struck at the mint of Alexandria.

Perhaps the most challenging area of ancient numismatics is Roman provincials – coins struck for local use by authorities in the provinces of the Roman Empire. There is such tremendous variety in issuers, denominations and types that it’s impossible to build a ‘complete collection.’

In this column we’ll explore the coinage of Roman Egypt, which from 30 B.C. to A.D. 298 was struck at the mint of Alexandria.

We’ll start with the bronze above, a bronze 80-drachma of the Roman warlord Octavian, who wrested Egypt from its last Greek ruler, Queen Cleopatra VII (50-31 B.C.). Struck c.30-28 B.C., it belongs to the first issue of coinage from Roman Egypt. Octavian’s well-sculpted portrait is paired with an eagle on a thunderbolt, a design borrowed from earlier Greek coinages of Egypt.

Octavian, who in 27 B.C. assumed the name Augustus and became Rome’s first emperor, continued to strike coinage in Egypt. However, he produced only base metal issues, including the one above, an 80-drachma depicting his wife Livia and a cornucopia bound with a fillet.

There must have been an abundance of billon (low-grade silver) tetradrachms still in circulation from when the Greeks had ruled Egypt, for no such coin was issued during the first half century of Roman rule. Shown above is a billon tetradrachm from Rome’s inaugural issue of A.D. 20/21 under the emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37). It portrays Tiberius and the deified Augustus.

At about 31% silver, these tetradrachms of Tiberius were the high-water mark for the intrinsic value for Roman-Egyptian tetradrachms. The purity of these coins declined steadily over the next 275 years, with the final issues containing less than 2% silver.

The bronze obol above depicts the emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54) and a bundle of six grain ears. It was issued during the second year of his reign (A.D. 41/42).

In the 1st Century A.D. production of billon tetradrachms of Egypt peaked under the emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68). From A.D. 64 to 68, Nero seems to have issued more than 600 million pieces as he withdrew older tetradrachms from circulation and replaced them with new coins of lower-purity and lower weight. Among this mass-mintage is the above piece, issued in the 13th year (A.D. 66/67) of his troubled reign. It shows on its reverse a galley under sail.

Most coins of Roman Egypt can be dated to a one-year period based on the ‘regnal year’ incorporated into the design. The year on the Egyptian calendar began August 29th and ended August 28th of the year following – hence the overlap in the dates used by catalogers. Typically, the date appears on the reverse, but on this Nero tetradrachm it’s on the obverse.

This bronze diobol was issued by the last of the “Twelve Caesars”, Domitian (A.D. 81-96), during the tenth year of his reign (A.D. 90/91). In addition to the fine style of engraving, it bears an interesting reverse type of a snake upon a bounding horse. The horse represented the change of seasons and the Agathodaimon serpent the regeneration of crops.

Roman-Egyptian coins from the reign of the emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) often are of fine style. This billon tetradrachm from his 13th year (A.D. 128/29) is especially beautiful. Sharing the issue with him is his wife, the empress Sabina, who appears on the reverse.

Of equal artistic value is this bronze drachm of the 14th year (A.D. 129/30) of Hadrian’s reign. It shows on its reverse the god Zeus (Jupiter) reclining on an eagle with spread wings.

Starting in the reign of Domitian, the Romans began to issue special coins honoring the 48 nomes (administrative districts) of Egypt. Above is a bronze obol issued during Hadrian’s eleventh year (A.D. 126/27) in honor of the Arsinoites nome. It features on its reverse the head of an Egyptian pharaoh.

Perhaps the most impressive issues of Roman Egypt were those of the emperor Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161), including this billon tetradrachm of his 23rd year (A.D. 159/60). Its reverse shows the confronted busts of Serapis and Isis, gods worshipped not only in Egypt, but empire-wide, with temples dedicated to them in Rome.

Among Antoninus Pius’ most desired issues are bronze drachms from his “zodiac series”. This one, issued in his eighth year (A.D. 144/45), celebrates Saturn in Aquarius with the bust of Kronos over a swimming youth holding an overturned amphora.

Equally admired is a series of drachms illustrating the ‘labors of Hercules’. One example, shown above, is from his sixth year (A.D. 142/43) of Antoninus Pius. It celebrates the hero’s defeat of the Cretan Bull. In this delightful composition, Heracles (Hercules) restrains the Cretan Bull.

Of refined style, this bronze drachm of the empress Faustina Junior was issued during the fourth year (A.D. 150/51) of her father, Antoninus Pius. The reverse shows a griffin, as Nemesis, seated with one of its paws on a wheel.

The emperor Commodus (A.D. 177-192) issued this billon tetradrachm in A.D. 188/89. The date is recorded as ‘year 29’ since Commodus earlier had been Caesar under his father, the emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180). Consequently, he envisioned his regnal years as a continuation of his father’s.

The reverse type of this piece is among the most popular in the series as it shows a galley sailing toward the Pharos, the famous lighthouse of Alexandria which ranked among the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

The annual grain crop was of vital importance to Egypt – indeed, its fortunes rested almost exclusively on this factor. So it’s no surprise that the topic figures prominently into many designs chosen for Roman-Egyptian coinage. The tetradrachm above (and the earlier piece of Nero) alludes to the shipment of Egyptian grain to Rome, and the bronzes of Claudius and Domitian (both illustrated earlier) also reflect the importance of the grain harvest.

Above is a billon tetradrachm issued by the emperor Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211) in the ninth year of his reign (A.D. 200/01). It celebrates the dynasty he’d founded by having on the obverse his own portrait and on the reverse the figures of his wife, Julia Domna, and his two sons Caracalla and Geta. Julia Domna crowns the younger son, Geta, while a figure of Victory (only partially visible on this specimen) crowns the older brother, Caracalla.

The emperor Severus Alexander (A.D. 222-235) issued this tetradrachm during his tenth year on the throne (A.D. 230/31). He came to the throne on March 13, 222, so his “year one” coinage was issued only in a brief window; later in 222 his “year two” coinage commenced, hence the apparent disconnect with his regnal year and the calendar year.

The reverse of this coin bears a fine portrait of the god Serapis wearing an ornamented calathus (a basket in which grain could be stored, and which generally was symbolic of agricultural abundance) – yet another reference to the all-important grain yield.

By the mid-2nd Century A.D., the weight and purity of the Roman-Egypt tetradrachm had been reduced significantly, such that many had a silver coating applied to create the appearance of a higher-purity coin. The tetradrachm above, struck in A.D. 252/53, the third regnal year of Trebonianus Gallus (A.D. 251-253), bears ample silvering on its surface. Its reverse is of a ‘standard’ type: Victory advancing.

Of similarly low-grade silver, but without a trace of surface silver remaining, this billon tetradrachm of Gallienus (A.D. 253-268) features another of the ‘standard’ reverse types of the era: a standing eagle with a wreath in its beak. It was struck in A.D. 267/68, his 15th and final regnal year.

The empress Salonina, wife of Gallienus, is portrayed on the obverse of this billon tetradrachm showing the goddess Tyche reclining on a couch. It was struck a year earlier than the previous piece, being from Gallienus’ 14th regnal year (A.D. 266/67).

The above three billon tetradrachms speak to an unsettled era in the history of Roman Egypt, when Roman interests were usurped by the rulers of Palmyra, a desert oasis in Syria. The first one depicts both the Palmyrene ruler Vabalathus (267-272) and the Roman emperor Aurelian (A.D. 270-275). Struck in A.D. 271/72, it bears two dates – year two of Aurelian and year five of Vabalathus.

The next two coins are independent issues of Vabalathus and his mother Zenobia, both struck at the Alexandria mint after Palmyra had broken with Rome in open defiance. However, their streak of independence did not last long, as Aurelian soon toppled their regime.

Shown above is a typical Roman Egypt tetradrachm of the later 3rd Century with the most common of all reverse types: the standing eagle holding a wreath in its beak. However, this piece of the emperor Tacitus (A.D. 275-276) is well struck, well preserved and has an exceptional portrait, thus making it a desirable specimen.

The brevity of Tacitus’ reign meant that all of his coins from Egypt are dated “year one”. It’s also worth noting that Tacitus was the last emperor to issue provincial coins at a mint other than Alexandria – and in his case only at Perge in Pamphylia. Other than the coins struck at the Alexandria mint during the next 22 years, Tacitus’ reign marks the end of the once-prolific Roman provincial coinages.

Among the more peculiar issues of the late period is this billon tetradrachm issued in honor of the emperor Carus (A.D. 282-283) after his death and deification. It does not bear a regnal year because the subject of the portrait no longer reigned. However, it would have been issued in A.D. 283 by his younger son, Numerian, who at that time ruled in the East.

With the reign of Diocletian (A.D. 284-305) we approach the end of the ‘provincial’ coinage of Egypt. Two billon tetradrachms of Diocletian are shown above.

The first is from his 12th and final regnal year (A.D. 295/96), with the bust of the supreme god Zeus on its reverse. Next is an enigmatic piece with the goddess Isis and no regnal year, yet clearly a product of the Alexandria mint. The comparatively fine style, ample planchets and lack of date make these ‘Isis’ pieces most unusual.

We’ll end with the last ‘provincial’ style coins of the Alexandria mint – those struck in the name of Domitius Domitianus (c.A.D. 296-297/8), who rebelled unsuccessfully against Diocletian. He issued coins in a variety of denominations which are not fully understood, but surely includes the billon tetradrachm, and perhaps also the didrachm and octodrachm.

With the overthrow of Domitius Domitianus in A.D. 297 or 298, Diocletian ceased issuing ‘provincial’ coinage in Alexandria -- the last mint to have struck anything other than imperial coinages. The legacy of the Alexandria mint, however, did not end there, for it remained one of the most prolific centers for the issuance of Late Roman coinage.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, LLC.

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