Coins and Alexandrian numismatics

Olivier Picard - April 2006



Obol with the head of Alexander

Note the elephant’s trunk on the top of the head

PhotoThomas Faucher - © CEAlex -
All rights reserved

Good uses for excavated coins

The excavations of the CEAlex have unearthed 12854 pieces of “money”. After restoration some 3000 have been identified. The date of their issue gives a very precise indication of the date at which the context in which they were found (stratigraphic layer) was formed, even if it is necessary to bear in mind the time lapse between the moment the coin was manufactured (issued) and when it was lost, or occasionally deliberately buried with other coins. (In this latter case, we talk of hoards and the excavations have uncovered important hoards.) A catalogue is being prepared and it will be the biggest ensemble of moneys from an Egyptian site yet to be studied.

LThe coins discovered are those that did not merit being looked for long after they were lost. There is only one gold coin, and the odd piece in silver. The majority of bronze coins are of low value. They had been much circulated, badly corroded and are difficult to identify. The beauty of certain examples presented here should not lead to unwarranted illusions!
Nevertheless, an ensemble of coins found in a building can give a date to the period of the building’s activity and precisely indicate certain characteristics of it. Those that were gathered in the oldest layers of the Cricket Ground excavation demonstrate that the CEAlex had unearthed housing of the first settlers who had come to live in the new city at the very moment when King Ptolemy I was swiftly assembling the biggest war fleet of the era and a formidable army recruited from wherever he could. Numerous Greeks from the south-west of Asia Minor settled in this district. Elsewhere, the large number of coins minted by the Persian king Khusro II that were collected in a ruined quarter give some indications as to the occupation of the town by this conqueror between 617 and 628 AD.

Big series of coins provide the numismatist (as specialists in coins are called) with the basic material necessary for him to reflect upon the organisation of monetary systems (the majority of pieces bear no mark of value) and the policies followed by States in issuing coinage. The types provide an unequalled documentation of the image that the State wishes to project and of its religious ideas. And, of course, it is no less important to be informed of the usage of the coin, its circulation and its diffusion throughout the society.

The great eras of money

As the capital of Egypt, more or less from its foundation in 331 BC until the arrival of the Arabs in 642 AD, Alexandria minted money for all of Egypt throughout this period. However, the coinage varied according to the masters of the country. One can distinguish four major categories.

  • Ptolemaic coinage which extended that created by Alexander the Great from the seizure of the Nile valley by Ptolemy I until the celebrated Cleopatra in 30 BC. The dynasty pursued a very original monetary policy by prohibiting the entry of foreign coinage into the country. The 950 pieces discovered in the excavations confirm that this authoritarian closure of the money market was strictly respected.
  • The coinage of the Roman Empire (30BC – 249 AD). Augustus became the master of Egypt after the suicide of Cleopatra and followed the same closed-door policy. Thus, there had to be a special currency minted by the Prefect of Egypt on the orders of Rome. The special conditions of the country, the curiosity in its religious traditions and the desire to reconcile the population gave birth to a very varied coinage (257 coins identified), which has provided us with, for example, the best images of the Pharos.
  • The money of the Late Roman Empire (294 BC – circa 525 BC) reverted to that of the common coinage of the Empire after a revolt led the Emperor Diocletian to abandon the closed policy and to open in Alexandria a mint similar to any other. This period has given us the greatest number of pieces: 1535! But it is also the poorest coinage of all the excavations. From now on, as today, the money served for all and every daily expenditure and it also lost its value very quickly.
  • Byzantine coinage (circa 525 – end of the 7th century). The beginnings of Byzantine coinage are traditionally dated to the accession of Anastasius, but it is under the reign of his successor, Justin, and especially the great Justinian that Egypt once again had its own, bronze, money. The basic unit, the noummion, was minted in multiples of 12 that bore the letters IB (=12 in Greek) and, as it happened, as 6 and 3 noummion. 516 examples have been recognised. It appears that the mint did not stop with the Arab conquest but lasted until the first Abbassid coins at the beginning of the 7th century.

To these large categories must be added :
Roughly 60 pieces of Macedonian kings and Greek cities from before the first Ptolemaic issue and the very rare specimens that slipped by the ban on foreign coin imports.
One hundred-odd Islamic coins that date from the periods when the site of ancient Alexandria was no more than an area of sparsely populated gardens.

Money circulates

Ancient coins, except for Byzantine pieces, practically never bear any sign of their value. Therefore, if one wishes to understand how the coins were used and to recognise the pieces mentioned in the texts (in particular in the papyruses that have been found in large numbers in Egypt), one must rediscover the value. This is the principal objective of the present work. For silver and gold coins, the value depends on their weight. None the less, the public did not weigh the coins that they were using. The design that the coin bore (the type) was enough to tell them. The weight of bronze pieces is very irregular and there is no relation between this weight and the market value of the piece (one can talk of fiduciary money). Thus it is a real enigma that one must solve using the scarce data: the lightest piece introduced by the Greeks on their arrival in Alexandria was called a chalkos and was worth 1/48 of a drachma. We have some idea of the exchange rate between the currency of Cleopatra and the small bronze pieces of the Roman era.
A good monetary system had to be simple to be usable by all. The numismatist will have found the answer once the very simplicity of the organisation appears to him in all its logic. This work is well advanced for the coinage of the 3rd century BC. The monetary authorities played very subtly with slight variations in type while combining this with a greater or lesser diameter to indicate whether the piece was worth more or less than another.

Table of denominations current between 261 and 246 BC
Denomination Relation to the chalkos Obverse Type Reverse Type Weight (in grammes) Diameter (in mm)
Octobol 64 Head of Zeus Ammon Eagle with head turned 80-100 48
Drachma 48 Head of Zeus Ammon Two eagles 65-75 45-50
Tetrobol 32 Head of Zeus Ammon Eagle with folded wings 45-50 36
Diobol 16 Laureate head of Zeus Eagle with spread wings 17-23 30
Obole 8 Head of Alexander Eagle with spread wings 10-12 20-24
½ Obole 4 Head of Zeus Ammon Eagle with spread wings 2,5-5,5 16-17




Coin with two eagles
End of 2nd or beginning of 1st century BC


Photo Thomas Faucher © CEAlex
All rights reserved

A divinity, human and greedy

Greek coins traditionally evoked their city of issue with a representation of the principal divinity. At the end of the 4th century BC, when Ptolemy I undertook the transformation of Egypt into a state that would be his property, placing himself as sovereign over the Egyptians, whether the massed peasantry or the refined elites of the high clergy, as well as over his Macedonian soldiers and a mixture of other peoples, he had need of a currency to pay his expenses (the army’s wages) and to receive as revenue in the form of taxes, not always paid in kind but sometimes as cash. But what image could he choose to represent this new kingdom? After some time placed under the protection of Alexander the Great, Ptolemy decided to put his own portrait on silver coins and the image of his protector god, Zeus accompanied by his favourite animal, the eagle, on the bronze. Despite the name Zeus Ammon and the ram’s horns on his head, it was definitely a Greek god that represented the ruler.

The Roman emperors followed this route and combined their portrait on the obverse with images taken from Egyptian religious life on the reverse. From now on the currency would bear a very great variety of types. More than an accurate reflection of the country, it was rather the manner in which the Roman aristocracy saw Egypt that was thus expressed.
Ptolemy I and his successors put the stress on the continuity of the dynasty: Zeus Ammon and the eagle remained on coins until the reign of Cleopatra. But the money itself was subject to the ups and downs of the financial world, itself very dependent upon the military situation. There were a series of reforms, and that of 261 BC effectively extended the use of the bronze money throughout the whole of the Nile valley, and this was most probably caused by the introduction of a new tax. By fixing the date of reforms, understanding their mechanism and following the consequences we can open up new paths to understanding Egyptian society. And to do this we must analyse in the greatest detail the slightest changes in weight, type and composition of the metal.



Head of Cleopatra - Piece worth 40 units
The last Ptolemaic monetary reform
Photo Thomas Faucher - © CEAlex – all rights reserved
It has long been thought that the Ptolemies accorded an unreasonably great importance to bronze money in comparison with the other kingdoms of the time, and that this policy had a devastating effect in setting off an inflation that was ruinous for the Egyptian peasant. The present research does not confirm this idea. On the contrary, the huge number of coins forged by all sorts of processes demonstrate that the Alexandrians knew how to turn the greed of the central authority to their own profit.

For more information:

A conference was held by the CEAlex that brought together 25 specialists from different countries to look at the original features of coinage in Egypt during antiquity. The papers presented have been published under the title L’exception égyptienne ? Production et échanges monétaires en Egypte hellénistique et romaine, edited by Fr. Duyrat and O. Picard. Études alexandrines 10. IFAO Cairo 2005.
The catalogue of coins from the excavations (under the working title of Les Monnaies des fouilles du Centre d’études Alexandrines : Les monnayages de bronze en Egypte de la conquête d’Alexandre à l’installation des Arabes) will endeavour to explain the production of bronze money from the Alexandrian workshops throughout all of this period. It will bring together contributions from Cécile Bresc (Islamic coins), M.-Chr. Marcellesi (coins of the Greek cities – coinage of the Late Roman Empire), O. Picard (Ptolemaic coinage, with Th. Faucher who has recently presented a thesis on minting techniques – Roman Empire – Byzantine currency). The volume should appear in the coming months.

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