World Coins

Crocodiles on Roman coins familiar as the emblem of Egypt

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 KPAS, 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 martial law.

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 copper dichalkon.

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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