NGC Ancients: Nero’s Egyptian Tetradrachms

Posted on 11/9/2021

The Alexandrian coinage of emperor Nero is plentiful and full of interesting designs.

In the previous column we covered the coinage reforms of the emperor Nero, who ruled Rome from A.D. 54 to 68. These reforms reduced the purity of the empire’s money due to economic pressure from natural disasters and conflicts.

With the extra profits Nero accrued from this effort, he was able to help fund the rebuilding of Rome, much of which had been destroyed in a great fire in A.D. 64. This coinage debasement was taken to an extreme in the eastern provinces.

In Egypt, the silver content of the billon tetradrachm was lowered from 23% to about 15%. In doing this, untold millions of the older, higher purity tetradrachms were reclaimed and reminted at the new debased levels. This required that a monumental number of new tetradrachms be minted. Because of the large number of tetradrachms made by Nero, these coins are readily available to modern collectors.

The Nero tetradrachm above, from Nero’s 13th regnal year (A.D. 66/7), pairs the bust of the emperor with that of the goddess Roma. Roma was the personification of the city of Rome and its people. It’s interesting to note how widely the worship of this goddess extended throughout the empire.

One of the prolific collectors of Roman Egyptian coins was dealer Giovanni Dattari (1853-1923), who assembled a collection of more than 25,000 ancient coins while living in Egypt – many of which were billon tetradrachms. He had access to most hoards found in Egypt during his residency, and in his opinion at least one-third of every billon tetradrachm in these hoards had been struck under Nero.

With so many of Nero’s tetradrachms being produced, there was a large variety of reverse designs. The subject matters included members of the ruling family, gods and goddesses, and even ships! Presented below is a visual catalog of almost every reverse design used by Nero for his tetradrachms of Egypt.

The tetradrachm above, from regnal year 6 (A.D. 59/60), portrays Nero on both sides, with the emperor enthroned and wearing a radiate crown on the reverse. This coin was minted before Nero reduced the purity of the metal in Egypt starting in A.D. 64.

Some of Nero’s coins celebrated his imperial lineage. This coin from Nero’s regnal year 13 (A.D. 66/7) features Augustus, Nero’s great-great-grandfather and the first emperor of Rome, who ruled from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. Only about 50 years had passed since Augustus had died and Nero was trying to strengthen his claim by tying himself to the great ruler.

Coins of this year were of lower-purity silver.

The emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37), the successor of Augustus and Rome’s second emperor, to whom Nero was related to by adoption, is portrayed above opposite Nero.

The coin above, from year 3 (A.D. 56/7) of Nero’s rule, depicts Agrippina Jr., the young emperor's mother. Agrippina had a large influence over her son early in his reign, but gradually fell out of favor as he matured. He eventually executed her to end her meddling.

This reverse type portrays Nero’s first wife Claudia Octavia. She was the daughter of the former emperor Claudius, who was Nero’s adoptive father. Nero eventually divorced Claudia Octavia, had her exiled, and then killed her.

Nero’s second wife, Poppaea, is portrayed on the reverse of the tetradrachm above. Originally married to Otho (who later would briefly reign as emperor in A.D. 69), Poppaea divorced him and married Nero. She may have been instrumental in having Claudia Octavia killed to secure her place as empress. Poppaea died during her second pregnancy, though it is unknown if this was due to natural causes or — as it often is reported — because Nero kicked her.

The personification of the city of Alexandria is shown on the reverse of the tetradrachm above. She wears an elephant scalp, very similar to ones worn by Alexander the Great on some early Ptolemaic coinage.

The god Apollo, shown above, was the son of Zeus and an important member of the heavenly rulers. He was the god of the sun, archery, prophecy and music, and was worshipped across the empire for his many different qualities.

Many gods and goddesses had epithets attached to their name. An epithet is an adjective or descriptive phrase attached to a deity's name to highlight some special aspect of their divinity. The two tetradrachms below feature epithets tied to Apollo.

The epithet of Apollo-Aktios derives from the city of Actium on the west coast of Greece. The city’s original settlers had a sanctuary to Apollo, and when Octavian (later, Augustus) won his crucial victory against Marc Antony and Cleopatra there in 31 B.C., he celebrated Apollo as his divine helper. Octavian enlarged the temple and caused celebrations to be held there.

Apollo gained the epithet Pythios from the city of Delphi, which originally was called Pytho. The god plays a major role in the foundation of the oracle of Delphi. He was said to have killed a python who lived in the cave where the oracle would eventually stand. He took the cave for his own and began delivering prophecies to mortals. The cult of the oracle grew from this story.

Zeus was the king of the Greek gods. He was in the original Greek triad of important deities and his worship continued until Christianity struck down the pagan gods during the late Roman empire. He is often depicted with thunderbolts and eagles. Here he bears his epithet Olympios — a reference of his being the chief of the Olympian gods.

Another portrayal of Zeus is on the tetradrachm above, on which the god bears the epithet Nemeios. This epithet (‘the Nemeian’) derives from his sanctuary at the city of Argos in Greece, in whose honor important athletic games traditionally were held every two years.

The goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus and queen of the gods, can be seen on the coin above. She was the patron of married women and was widely worshipped. Her epithet on this coin, Argeia, derives from the city of Argos.

An important god in Egypt, Nilus is portrayed here. The annual flooding of the Nile was critical in allowing Egypt to grow crops and supply food throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. Nilus was portrayed on many Egyptian coins, often with animals common to the Nile, such as crocodiles and hippopotami.

This tetradrachm from year 13 (A.D. 66/7) of Nero’s reign has the bust of Poseidon-Isthmios, resting a trident on his shoulder. The epithet Isthmios comes from earlier veneration of the god by the Corinthians. Poseidon was the god of the sea, storms, earthquakes and horses.

Serapis (portrayed above) was an Egyptian-Greek syncretic deity who originally was ruler of the underworld, but who eventually grew to encompass being the sun god as well. He was among the most important of the gods worshipped in Egypt and is often depicted with the three-headed dog, Cerberus.

This reverse hosts an agathodaemon serpent — a personal companionship spirit that was supposed to lead an individual toward good fortune.

The goddess Demeter is shown above holding grain ears and a torch. She was the goddess of fertility, agriculture and marriage. Greek mythology claimed the summer and winter arrived due to — respectively — her happiness and sadness during times when her daughter Persephone would spend time with her or with Hades, god of the underworld.

In Roman religion the genius was a divine nature or spirit that personified the positive qualities of its subjects. The Romans believed it was present in every person and thing. The Genius of the Roman people is portrayed on the tetradrachm of Nero above, holding a cornucopia and scepter.

Dikaiosyne was the personified spirit of righteousness and justice. She is often depicted holding scales, as on the tetradrachm above from Nero’s third regnal year (A.D. 56/7).

Above is the goddess Eirene, whose name in Greek meant peace. She is shown on the tetradrachm above holding a caduceus and helmet.

Homonoia was a minor goddess of unity and harmony. Perhaps these are feelings Nero hoped to cultivate across his empire to help keep peace and control.

Above is another coin featuring the state-goddess Roma. This time she’s seated, holding a diminutive figure of Victory and a parazonium, a long dagger she normally cradles in her left hand.

Eagles were a symbol of states and government all across the ancient Greek world. Early Ptolemaic coinage often showed an eagle on its reverse, for it was a badge of the ruling Greek dynasty. Here it presumably is a reference to the supreme god Jupiter (Zeus).

Egypt was known as the “breadbasket of the ancient world” and supplied much of the grain used in the city of Rome and elsewhere in the empire. This coin pays homage to this with bound grain ears on the reverse.

Trade was important in Egypt. Both the Nile River and Mediterranean Sea were used to ship grain and other goods to their destinations. The reverse of the billon tetradrachm above shows dolphins beneath a galley that would have been used to deliver Egypt’s annual bounty.

All photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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