Coinage of the Ptolemaic Kingdom

The Ptolemaic Kingdom was a Hellenistic kingdom based in ancient Egypt. The Kingdom’s ruling began with Ptolemy I Soter after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and ended with the death of Cleopatra and the Roman conquest in 30 BC.

Hieroglyphic of Ptolemaic Royalty

Coinage of the Ptolemaic Kingdom was in use during the last dynasty of Egypt and, briefly, during Roman rule of Egypt. Ptolemaic coinage was struck in Phoenician weight, also known as Ptolemaic weight (about 14,20 grams). This standard, which was not used elsewhere in the Hellenistic world, was smaller than the most common Attic weight. Consequently, Ptolemaic coins are smaller than other Hellenistic coinage. In terms of art, the coins, which were made of silver, followed the example set by contemporary Greek currencies, with dynastic figures being typically portrayed. The Ptolemaic coin making process often resulted in a central depression, similar to what can be found on Seleucid coinage.

The Ptolemaic Kingdom was the first dynasty to introduce coinage to Egypt. The first Ptolemaic mint was in Memphis and was later moved to Alexandria. The Ptolemaic Kingdom flourished largely due to their success in monetizing the Egyptian society. Before the Ptolemaic period, metals such as copper, and grain, were used as mediums of exchange. Ptolemaic rule brought, in addition to the coinage, banks and tax farming to the country.

For most of its history, the kingdom vigorously enforced a policy of a single currency, confiscating foreign coins and forcing its territories to adopt Ptolemaic coinage. Parallels between Athens and the Ptolemaic Kingdom can be drawn as Athens attempted to introduce a sole currency in its empire. In the rare cases when these territories were allowed their own currency, such as the Jewish community in Palestine, they still had to observe the Ptolemaic weight. These policies and increasing difficulty to obtain silver, caused monetary isolation of the Ptolemaic coinage.

Ptolemaic territories in 200 BC

During the reign of Ptolemy I Soter, the founder of the kingdom, diverse local currencies were allowed to exist. They may even have been encouraged. The exact date of elimination of non-Ptolemaic coinage varies by region. In Egypt and Syria, Ptolemy I discontinued local coinage, which had Alexander the Great’s image struck in them, after feeling secure in power. Such coinage with Alexander on them were very common in the successor states of the Macedonian Empire. Cypriot coinage was eliminated when the local monarchies ceased to exist. In Cyrene it took even longer to eliminate municipal coinage. In Crete the local currency was never suppressed. Uniformity of the currency was sought flexibly, yet opportunistically.

Ptolemy V Epiphanes’ bronze coin.
Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his sister-wife Arsinoe II

Artistically, Ptolemaic coinage closely followed contemporary Greek currencies. A commonplace symbol of the Ptolemaic dynasty was an eagle standing on a thunderbolt, first adopted by Ptolemy I Soter. The more peculiar Ptolemaic coinage included so-called “dynastic issues”. This rare coin featured Ptolemy II Philadelphus who married his sister Arsinoe II; Egyptian rulers had traditionally married their sisters to signify a connection to sacred union between the deities Osiris and Isis. A medal-like coin with one side portraying Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II, and the other side portraying Ptolemy I and Berenice I was struck after the death of Arsinoe II.

Cyprus had many important mints, and the island struck large amounts of Ptolemaic coinage from 200 BC to 80 BC. Cyprus was also richer in silver than Egypt. Most of the coinage from second century BC are easily identifiable and datable because they include abbreviations for mints and dates for both gold and silver coinage. Mints from this period include Salamis (abbr. ΣA), Kition (abbr. KI) and Paphos (abbr. Π, and later as ΠA).

After the demise of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, and annexation into the growing Roman Empire, silver coinage struck by the Ptolemies still continued to circulate. The Ptolemaic silver coinage mostly disappeared by the time of Emperor Nero. It is assumed that by that time, in the first half of the first century, the Ptolemaic silver coinage was probably recycled into a new currency, Roman tetradrachms, struck at mints managed by the Romans. Roman Egypt remained monetarily as a closed system, like it had been under Ptolemaic dynasty. Roman denarii and aurei did not circulate in provincial Egypt.

Ancient Roman Coinage

Ancient Roman coins were some of the earliest coins in history. Bronze, copper, gold and silver coins made up Roman coinage.

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Because these coins were made of valuable materials like gold and silver, they had intrinsic value.

Around 300 B.C., the Roman Republican government introduced coinage (about three centuries after Greece, an embarrassingly late time) to its Republic. Because coin systems had already been established, Romans knew all about how to use their currency. Rome was a well-established republic at the time.

The coinage included some oddities. This included bronze bars called “stuck bronze” that weighed around 50 oz. with a high iron content.

Bronze bar, 450 B.C.

Bronze bar, 450 B.C. Courtesy of LmK, CC 3.0

Following Greece’s example, Rome created its own circular coins illustrating myths and scenes with gods and goddesses. Greek coins greatly influenced these designs.

When Julius Caesar took over, he issued coins with his profile. These were significant as they were the first coins to feature a living person. They served to spread Caesar’s image through Rome and beyond. Caesar also released coins showing Venus or Aeneas in the attempt to associate himself with divinity. Other emperors went even farther, however; in 192 Commodus ordered coins featuring himself dressed in a lion skin in an imitation of Hercules, proclaiming himself to be an incarnation of the famous hero.

Caesar profile coins continued even after Caesar’s assassination, along with featured gods and goddesses.

Romans put a lot of moral value on the images in their coins. The philosopher Epictetus wrote as a joke: “Whose image does this sestertius carry? Trajan’s? Give it to me. Nero’s? Throw it away, it is unacceptable, it is rotten.” Romans would not really throw away their coins, but the images still certainly meant a lot to them.

There is more to learn in the world of ancient Roman coins, but these are the basics.