Shekels of Tyre among the most popular of ancient coins: Ancients Today

Popular ancient coin type has biblical connection
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 05/21/16
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Among the most popular types of ancient coins are shekels of Tyre, the main silver coinage of a powerful maritime city in ancient Phoenicia. Though desired for many reasons, shekels of Tyre are especially famous as the most likely candidate for the “30 pieces of silver” paid to Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus Christ.

Their strong biblical connection keeps interest in these coins extremely high, regardless of how collectors’ tastes otherwise may change with the passage of time. The half shekels of Tyre are also consistently in high demand, as they are believed to have been the standard coin by which annual payments were made to the Temple in Jerusalem.

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In about the mid-fifth century B.C. Tyre began to produce an independent silver coinage that persisted until the city was sacked in 332 B.C. by the Macedonian King Alexander III “the Great” (336 to 323 B.C.). Alexander rebuilt Tyre, and thereafter silver coins were struck there under the aegis of Macedonian, Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings who controlled the region from the late fourth through the late second centuries B.C.

Last Greek king at Tyre

Demetrius II, who twice ruled the Seleucid Kingdom, was the last Greek king to strike silver coins at Tyre (though Seleucid rulers issued silver coins as late as 106 or 105 B.C. at two of Tyre’s close neighbors, Sidon to the north and Ake-Ptolemais to the south). Interestingly, the second reign of Demetrius II, from 129 to 125 B.C., ended with his execution at Tyre in 125 — the year by which Tyre certainly had introduced its famous shekels.

Before his execution, Demetrius had issued large quantities of tetradrachms and didrachms at Tyre. At about 14 grams, his tetradrachms weighed the same as the shekels that Tyre would strike upon achieving independence from the Seleucids.

For the next 191 years Tyre produced its well-regarded shekels and half shekels (and negligible quantities of silver quarter and eighth shekels). Though it is believed that this series ended in A.D. 65 to 66, it is always possible that examples dated after that one day may be reported. 

Nowhere is it recorded why Tyre stopped producing its silver coinage. However, we may speculate that it was due to a combination of the outbreak of the First Jewish War in A.D. 66 (which pitted Zionist leaders against their Roman overlords) and the economic effects of a greatly improved silver coinage that the Romans were issuing in nearby Syria.

The special character of Tyre and its people is shown by the fact that the Tyrians were allowed to produce an ‘independent’ silver coinage for more than a century under the Romans, with whom they had a beneficial treaty. Since these silver coins were issued up through the reign of the Emperor Nero (A.D. 54 to 68), we must assume there was something essential about this coinage to the region that encouraged the Romans to allow its production.

Tyre shekels prized for purity

Tyre shekels were struck in high purity silver, which made them ideal for functions both practical and sacred. Minor details aside, its design remained constant for nearly two centuries: the obverse showed the head of the god Melkart (equivalent to Heracles and Hercules) and the reverse showed an eagle with a palm branch over its shoulder, perched on the prow of a galley.

The design was modeled after the last tetradrachm/shekels struck at Tyre by the Seleucid King Demetrius II. That king’s portrait was replaced with an image of Melkart, and a few minor modifications were made to the eagle reverse.

The inscription on the reverse boasts of Tyre as being “holy” and “inviolable.” The fields around the eagle are decorated with an upright club (symbolic of Tyre) and at least one monogram, which presumably represented a civic official. Between the eagle’s legs are an alef or a bet, the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet, which had an uncertain administrative function.

Also on the reverse is a date rendered in a formula of Greek letters that specified how many years had passed since Tyre had achieved its independence in 125 B.C. Thus, the Tyre shekels, half shekels, quarter shekels and eighth shekels can be dated precisely to a one-year period.

Most dates are represented

More than half of the possible years for half shekels are documented, whereas almost every date is known for shekels. At present just nine (or fewer) of the 191 probable dates for shekels are unknown, and it seems likely that over time those few gaps will be filled by newly recorded examples.

Indeed, one such shekel dated year 191 (equating A.D. 65 to 66 — possibly the last year of issue for Tyre shekels) was only just confirmed in February 2016, a coin submitted to the grading service I am affiliated with, Numismatic Guaranty Corp. Ancients. 

Edward Cohen, an authority on Tyre shekels, confirmed that although year 191 already was known for the half shekel, it had not been reliably documented for a shekel until the emergence of this coin.

Certain mysteries about shekels of Tyre are under study by Cohen and other specialists. One of them is a slight dip in the purity of silver content that lasted three decades or more during the second half of the 1st Century B.C. Another is the addition of the apparent Greek letters Kappa, Rho and Alpha (KPA) in the field behind the eagle starting in year 108 (19 to 18 B.C.).

Beginning in Tyre year 113 (14 to 13 B.C.) the KPA monogram was shortened to KP, and it remained so for the duration of the shekel and half-shekel series. 

The letters KP often are thought to represent the first two letters of the Greek word KPATO∑ (“kratos”), meaning “state.” Some also believe they indicate that the minting of the shekels and half-shekels shifted from Tyre to Jerusalem. However, the latter idea has not been widely accepted.

After Nero ended the series in A.D. 65 to 66, the Tyre Mint issued no silver coins again until the early years of the Emperor Trajan (A.D. 98 to 117) and the inaugural year of Hadrian (A.D. 117). 

By this time, however, Tyrian coins were not branded as “independent” issues, but merely provincial coinages struck on behalf of the emperors. Thereafter a long hiatus passed before the last silver coins (albeit debased) were struck at Tyre by a series of emperors who reigned during the period A.D. 209 to 218. 

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