Crocodiles must have been just as exotic and fearsome to the people
of the ancient world as they are to us today. To the Romans, the crocodile was most familiar as the emblem of
Egypt, and its appearances on Roman coins were in reference to that province.
The first time a crocodile appeared on a Roman coin was in about 37
B.C. by an official who had authority over the Greek island of Crete
and the North African region of Cyrenaica. He issued copper pieces
signed CRAS or KPAΣ, leading most scholars to identify him as M. Licinius Crassus, the eldest son of the
wealthy triumvir Crassus, who in 53 B.C. infamously had led about
20,000 Roman soldiers to their death in a poorly executed campaign
against the Parthians.
Some crocodile coins puzzle
The historical context of the Crassus coinage is uncertain. However,
it is widely believed that the crocodile symbolizes renewed Egyptian
authority over Cyrenaica, a privilege that unlawfully was ceded to the
Egyptian Queen Cleopatra VII (57 to 31 B.C.) by her new
husband, the Roman triumvir Marc Antony.
Fortunately, the explanations for crocodiles on other ancient coins
are not quite as veiled in uncertainty.
If the bronzes of Crassus had been issued to mark Romans ceding
territory to Egypt, the next issues depicting crocodiles served the
opposite function, for they brazenly celebrate Rome’s acquisition of
Egypt in 30 B.C. from its last ruler, Cleopatra VII.
Roman silver denarii struck in 28 B.C. in Italy and in the Eastern
Mediterranean (perhaps at Pergamum) show on their obverse the head of
the triumvir Octavian and on their reverse a crocodile and the
inscription AEGYPTO CAPTA (“captured Egypt”). They were issued soon
after Octavian had defeated the forces of Cleopatra VII and had
consolidated his authority in the Roman world.
These denarii of 28 B.C. were followed a year later with a small
issue of gold aurei with the same reverse type and the abbreviated
inscription AEGYPT CAPTA. They can be dated to 27 B.C. because the
obverse inscription notes that Octavian had assumed his seventh consulship. By
this time he had also begun to use the name Augustus (“revered one”),
marking the start of his long tenure as Rome’s first emperor.
This remarkable type of Octavian/Augustus was recycled about 135
years later by the Emperor Trajan (A.D. 98 to 117), who sponsored a
fascinating program by which he “restored” antique coin designs. His
rare aureus perhaps was struck in A.D. 107.
Coins represent Roman rule
More than a century later a gold aureus of the Emperor Caracalla (A.D. 198 to 217) in A.D. 215, may have
what is the last appearance of a crocodile on a Roman coin. It shows
the Egyptian goddess Isis greeting Caracalla, who places his right
foot on a crocodile. This image symbolizes Rome’s dominion over Egypt.
A similar scene had appeared previously on coins of Hadrian (A.D. 117
to 138), though on his issues Isis is not present.
Caracalla’s aureus marks his stay in the Egyptian city of Alexandria over the winter of 215 to 216, during
which he was so offended by the insolence of the locals that he
organized the mass-murder of thousands of young men and enforced
Returning to the Age of Augustus, we find other coins with
crocodiles. Perhaps the most famous of these are bronzes struck at Nemausus in Gaul. This Roman colony was founded in
45 or 44 B.C. and soon was populated by veterans who must have
participated in the conquest of Egypt, for the colony adopted as its
emblem a crocodile chained to a palm branch beneath a wreath with
flowing ties. The modern city of Nimes, France, built over the site of
ancient Nemausus, still uses that design as its civic arms.
Nemausus’ chained crocodile is paired with an obverse showing the
heads of Augustus and his general Marcus Agrippa back-to-back. These
coins were struck in four phases that scholars believe covered most of
Augustus’ reign, from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14.
During the reigns of Augustus and his successor Tiberius (A.D. 14 to 37), silver denarii
portraying a crocodile were issued by Juba II, a client king of the Romans. In 25 B.C.
Augustus appointed Juba king of Mauretania, a massive region in
western North Africa that he ruled until his death in A.D. 23 or 24.
Denarii of Juba II featured many reverse designs. One of these,
attributed to sometime after circa A.D. 11, shows a crocodile. Its
inscription honors Juba’s wife, Cleopatra Selene, which explains the
type, for she was the daughter of Cleopatra VII.
Often on Egyptian coins
As might be expected, crocodiles appear most often on coins produced
in Egypt. Though the Romans struck untold millions of Egyptian coins
with crocodiles, very few use this creature as the principal design.
Indeed, those instances are limited to a minor denomination, the
These dichalkoi were issued by at least eight emperors from about 3
B.C. to A.D. 158, with the Emperor Hadrian supplementing the general
issues with special dichalkoi honoring the administrative districts
(nomes) in Egypt. All of these coins, however, are so rare that they
must have been struck in small quantities.
The most common appearance of the crocodile on Egyptian coins was as
a companion of Nilus, the god of the great river Nile, the main
source of Egypt’s prosperity. Though crocodiles are not always present
in coin designs portraying Nilus, they appear on many issues. The
crocodile also accompanies Nilus on gold, silver and base metal coins
struck in Rome by Hadrian to honor Egypt.
Beyond the usual types, crocodiles also appear on some unusual coins
of Roman Egypt. In some cases they are held aloft by the gods Cronus
and Zeus-Ammon; other times parts of crocodile bodies are used in
fanciful compositions of gods. For example, the god Harpocrates
sometimes is shown with his lower body in crocodile form and the head
of a crocodile issued as a pectoral design on a crowned Egyptian
sphinx adorned also with a uraeus snake tail and a griffin upon its back.
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