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
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
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
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
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.