Most ancient coin specialists would agree that many of the world’s
most fascinating coins were struck in Roman Egypt.
The coinage seamlessly blends Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures
like no other objects of antiquity, and the series is so diverse that
no collector can hope to form a “complete” collection.
Except for the most common issues of the third century A.D. —
which survive in quantity — the series has become increasingly
difficult to collect due to a surge in interest. It has revealed how
scarce these coins truly are, and most collectors seem content to hold
on to the Roman Egyptian coins they have been fortunate enough to acquire.
The series began when the Roman warlord Octavian (better known as
Rome’s first emperor, Augustus) emerged victorious at the Battle of
Actium in 31 B.C. One of his opponents was Cleopatra VII (51 to 30
B.C.), the Greek queen of Egypt, whose empire thus came under Roman control.
Since Egypt was fertile and was strategically located, the
emperors kept it under especially close control, denying the Roman
Senate any important role in its governance. The Romans allowed
government business to be conducted in Greek, which had become the
lingua franca of Egypt after three centuries of Greek rule. This, of
course, meant the inscriptions on the coins were in Greek.
Initially, Augustus struck Roman coinage in Egypt in accordance
with Cleopatra’s issues. However, sometime before 2 B.C. he introduced
new bronze denominations. His successor, Tiberius (A.D. 14 to 37),
found it necessary to reintroduce tetradrachms of low-grade silver
(“billon”), as none had been struck since Cleopatra’s defeat some 50
At about 31 percent silver, Tiberius’ tetradrachms were not
impressive, yet they contained about 4 grams of silver, and thus were
the intrinsic high point of a series that would endure for 275 years.
Within 50 years the amount of silver had been nearly halved, and it
would steadily decrease over time. Many later tetradrachms in the
series contain less than 2 percent silver.
The output of tetradrachms in Roman Egypt may have peaked under
Nero (A.D. 54 to 68), who from A.D. 64 to 68 is thought to have issued
more than 600 million pieces. Nero had a motive: He withdrew
tetradrachms from circulation and replaced them with newly struck
coins of lower purity and lower weight. In doing so, he may have
netted a profit of more than 3,500 tons of silver.
By the reign of Vespasian (A.D. 69 to 79) the basic monetary
system of Roman Egypt was firmly in place and a whole range of
denominations were being struck in quantity: billon tetradrachms and
bronze drachms, hemidrachms, diobols, obols and dichalcoi. Especially
important among the base-metal issues was the drachm, a broad, heavy
coin that today is coveted by collectors.
The series covers nearly three centuries and was the
longest-lasting provincial coin series. It is virtually complete in
terms of issuers from the foundation of the empire through the late
third century A.D.
Except for Caligula (A.D. 37 to 41) and Didius Julianus (A.D.
193), Roman Egyptian coins were struck for every emperor who was
confirmed by the senate in Rome, making it possible to acquire a good
Roman portrait gallery without straying outside the series.
One excellent feature of Roman Egyptian coins is that most of them
are dated according to the regnal year of the ruling emperor, allowing
them to be dated to a maximum period of one year. The dates are
reckoned according to the calendar year at Alexandria, which usually
began on Aug. 29. Thus, “years” at the start or end of an emperor’s
reign tend to be partial years. Sometimes they can be quite short,
especially since it often took weeks (or months) for news of a change
in regime to reach the mint at Alexandria in Egypt.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this coinage, however, is
the bewildering array of reverse types. Thousands of individual issues
and hundreds of unusual types were struck, including chariot scenes,
architectural types, and the most bizarre and complicated fusions of
ancient gods that one could imagine.
Top honors in this regard go to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (A.D.
138 to 161), who issued so many spectacular reverse types that his
coinage eclipses all others. He is particularly famous for his types
devoted to the zodiac and the labors of Hercules, both of which are
The mint at Alexandria also struck coins honoring 48 nomes, the
geographic units into which the province of Egypt was divided for
administrative purposes. The first nome coins were struck by the
Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81 to 96) in 91 to 92, but the heyday was from
107 to 145, during which three major issues were produced.
Historically important coinages were also struck in Egypt for the
local rebel Domitius Domitianus, and for Vabalathus and Zenobia,
rulers of the Syrian city of Palmyra who extended their authority as
far south as Egypt.
The earliest issues of Vabalathus were struck jointly with the
reigning Roman Emperor Aurelian (A.D. 270 to 275); since the portrait
of Vabalathus is on the obverse, and that of Aurelian is relegated to
the reverse, it was clear who was in charge. The rebel soon declared
his independence from Rome, and his next Egyptian coinage was issued
solely in his name and in that of his mother, Zenobia. These
independent issues are rare and enjoy great demand from collectors.
Since the revolt of Domitius Domitianus was based in Egypt, his
takeover of the local mint was to be expected. Despite having his
hands full with political, economic and military concerns, the rebel
was inclined to change the coinage system in Egypt. His new
denominations are not reliably understood, but they may have been the
octodrachm, tetradrachm and didrachm.
With the rebel’s overthrow in 297 or 298, the senior reigning
emperor, Diocletian (A.D. 284 to 305), ended “provincial” coinage in
Egypt. The local issues of Egypt were replaced by imperial coinage of
the type then being struck throughout the empire, thus bringing to an
end one of the most remarkable series of coins of the ancient world. ■