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.

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