In essence, there was no money as we know it in pharaonic Egypt. For most of its history, the Egyptian economic structure was essentially homogeneous, with little private enterprise and a population that, for the most part, had marginal economic status. Given these circumstances, there was little pressure for the development of a system of coinage before the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.
This picture changed somewhat in the Late period with the advent of foreign mercenaries in the armies of the pharaoh. With soldiers drawn from Greece, Syria, Israel, Persia, and other areas of the ancient Near East came the institution of coined money and the expectation of payment in that medium. By the sixth century BCE, Phoenician shekels, Persian (Achaemenid) darics, and Greek drachms (drachmas) were circulating among the mercenaries. It is highly doubtful, however, that these coins were considered of any intrinsic value by native Egyptians, other than the artisans who worked in gold and silver. To the metalworkers, such coins were desirable as a source of bullion—an interpretation attested by a number of coin hoards that predate the conquest of Alexander the Great. These hoards contain a mixture of lumps of silver and silver coins from cities throughout the Greek world. The coins do not seem to have been specially selected, nor do the hoarders seem to have had a preference for coins of a particular type. Thus, beyond their value as metal, coins appear to have played next to no role in the Egyptian economy of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE.
A statement by Diodorus Siculus, the first-century BCE historian, that King Hakoris (392–380 BCE) of the twenty-ninth dynasty offered to pay Athenian and Spartan mercenaries in coin refers to what may have been the earliest use of coined money in Egypt. Even if true, the statement sheds no light on what coins Hakoris intended to use as payment. Later in the fourth century BCE, in the reign of Tachos (362–361 BCE), coins based on the “Athenian” gold unit and struck on the Persian standard with Egyptian motifs were introduced. Although they are undoubtedly Egyptian, their dates remain a matter of controversy. One type of gold coin shows a horse on the obverse and the hieroglyphs nfr (“good”) and nb (“gold”) on the reverse. A number of modern studies say that these coins are extremely rare and that their circulation was quite limited; however, there are approximately twenty-eight known specimens of this unit—by the standards of ancient coinage not profoundly rare. Additionally, there are some small silver coins that have an image of the god Bes. Finally, a series of poorly executed tetradrachms that bear the Demotic legend “Artaxerxes Pharaoh” is believed to have been struck by the Persian king Artaxerxes III shortly after his conquest of Egypt in 342 BCE, a practice followed by the thirty-first dynasty satraps Sabakes and Mazakes. Dies of Athenian tetradrachms found in the Nile Delta have also been attributed to the reign of Artaxerxes. The presence of Egyptian motifs and writing on these coins of the fourth century BCE raises questions about their intended purpose and has led one scholar to assert that this money was intended to be used in Egypt by Egyptians. Yet there is little other evidence for Egyptian coinage or local mints dating to this period that can help to substantiate such a claim. It may be safest to say that coinage does not appear to have had any meaningful presence in the Egyptian economy before the conquest by Alexander the Great.
The coin types instituted by Alexander and his successors, the Ptolemies, were purely Greek in style and inscription. Like Greek coins, they were struck in gold and silver and were based on the denominations of the Greek drachm, a coin whose average weight was a little more than four grams. Gold and silver coins like octodrachms, didrachms, and hemidrachms are known from a number of Ptolemaic reigns. The Ptolemaic penchant for very large denominations in their precious metal coinage was not unique in the Hellenistic world, but the broad and unprecedented range of multiples of the tetradrachm was. The standard silver coin of the Ptolemaic period, however, was the tetradrachm, an imitation of the Athenian tetradrachm, a coin which had virtually become the international currency of the Mediterranean world in the fourth century BCE.
There were inherent problems encountered by the new rulers in the introduction of coin currency into Egypt. The silver standard used in the Greek world was based on a 10:1 ratio of silver to gold. Although gold had always been readily available from the south of Egypt and Nubia, and copper was also plentiful in Egypt, silver had always come from abroad. Consequently, the value of silver in pharaonic Egypt had always been very high, its ratio to gold at the time of Alexander's conquest being approximately 2:1. To produce a viable silver coinage, the Ptolemies had to import all of the silver needed for minting coins and were thus completely subject to the fluctuations of the silver market abroad.
One attempt to remedy this situation, at least partially, was to create a “closed” coinage system within Egypt, something that the Ptolemies seem to have done over the course of their rule, perhaps by accident. The first step in this direction was the straightforward reduction of the weight of the Egyptian tetradrachm by Ptolemy I, as early as 310 BCE. He applied reduced weights to gold coins as well by the time of his assumption of the royal title in 305. By the end of the reign of Ptolemy II, the average weight of the Egyptian tetradrachm was approximately 14.2 grams—nearly 3 grams lighter than the standard Athenian issue. In the reign of the same king, if not earlier, it seems to have become policy to allow only the Ptolemaic coinage to circulate in Egypt. All foreign currency was to be confiscated and handed over to the royal mints to be melted down and reissued. Given the lighter weights of the Ptolemaic silver coins, the reduction in their manufacture as silver shortages became more frequent, and the debasement of Egyptian silver coinage (for the most part, later in the Ptolemaic period) ultimately resulted in coins that had little appeal to merchants outside Egypt.
A second problem encountered in establishing a coined currency was that values in pharaonic Egypt had traditionally been based on weights in copper. For Ptolemaic coinage ever to gain acceptance beyond Alexandria, there would have to be a substantial coinage in copper or bronze, the metals to which native traders were accustomed. The introduction in the reign of Ptolemy II of bronze coins in multiple weight groups, the minting of which continued throughout the Ptolemaic period, may well have been an attempt to address this situation. Three of these weight groups feature very large coins, and it is perhaps no accident that the weight of the coins of the largest group corresponds almost exactly to the ancient Egyptian copper standard weight, the deben, at approximately 96 grams. Such large bronze coins were only sporadically known elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. The ratio of bronze to silver in Egypt fluctuated between 500:1 and 400:1, usually nearer the higher figure. It has been stated that at the time of the conquest of Egypt by Augustus in 30 BCE, the official ratio was 480:1. Thus, in the Ptolemaic period there appears to have been a move in the direction of a dual currency in Egypt: a silver-based currency used for foreign trade, and a copper standard for internal trade. Certain factors, however—the low frequency of counterfeit or cast coins, evidence from documents that most native people continued to trade in kind, and the low incidence of Ptolemaic coins found in Egypt outside of Alexandria—underscore the reality that coin currency of the Ptolemies was not a highly successful economic institution among native Egyptians.
The principal sources for the currency of the early Ptolemies were the mints in Alexandria in Egypt and those in Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia. Some coins came from Cyprus, but it was not until the loss of Phoenicia and Coele-Syria shortly after the death of Ptolemy IV that Cyprus became a principal supplier of Ptolemaic coinage, a role that its mints played from 200 to 80 BCE.
Gold and silver coins of the Ptolemaic period typically show a profile bust on the obverse (front). Modeled on a very popular coin type, minted by Greek rulers in the Near East—the so-called Hellenistic ruler portrait-coin—such coins bear an image of the ruler under whom they were minted or of a distinguished ancestor, as well as motifs that connect him with important family members, heroes, and even gods. Such coins were often used to publicize claims to legitimacy, political prowess, or military success. After the initial coinage of Alexander, which shows him wearing an elephant-skin headdress, the particularly distinctive feature of Ptolemaic period coinage is the repeated use of the bust of Ptolemy I on the obverse throughout the period. There were, of course, variations: Ptolemy II, for example, minted coins with the jugate (paired) busts of his parents, Ptolemy I and Berenike I; he struck another series with the jugate busts of himself and his sister-wife Arsinoe II. Some tetradrachms and octodrachms have jugate busts on both obverse and reverse. He commemorated the death of Arsinoe with the issue of gold and silver coins that have her veiled head on the obverse. Ptolemy III authorized a silver and gold coinage struck in honor of his wife Berenike. Ptolemy IV minted coins honoring his father, showing him with the radiate crown of Helios, the aegis of Zeus, or the trident of Poseidon on the obverse. The legendary Cleopatra VII struck several series of silver coins, apparently at the mint in Askalon, with her portrait on the obverse. On the reverse (back), Ptolemaic coins have an extremely limited number of motifs. Most (more than 95 percent) show a single cornucopia (on gold coins) or a single eagle or pair of eagles astride a thunderbolt (on silver and bronze coins). Scholars have attempted to use the portrait coins to identify portraits of Ptolemaic rulers known from other media, such as cameos, seals, and sculpture. Some have seen in the bust of an obese ruler an image of Ptolemy VIII, who had the nickname Physkon (“pot-belly”) assigned to him by ancient writers, but this interpretation remains controversial. The coins of Cleopatra, however, attest clearly to her legendary nose.
Our knowledge of Ptolemaic bronze coinage is more problematic. Very little is securely known about the dates and means of its manufacture. The motifs and legends used on bronze coins from any given reign appear largely to follow those of the contemporary gold and silver coinage. The most frequently used image for the obverse is the head of Ptolemy I with a large beard and the horns of a ram, both attributes of the god Zeus-Ammon. The most common icon found on the reverse is an eagle astride a thunderbolt. Interesting variations are encountered: one example from a series of bronze coins dating to the reign of Cleopatra VII depicts her as Aphrodite, holding her son Caesarion in the guise of Eros or Cupid. She also struck a great many bronze eighty- and forty-drachm portrait pieces at Alexandria.
Following the conquest of Egypt by the Roman emperor Augustus (r. 27 BCE–14 CE), his special treatment of the country had a profound and lasting impact on Egyptian coinage until the reign of Diocletian. There was no minting of silver until the reign of Tiberius, who first followed the debased system of coinage in use in the reign of Cleopatra, beginning with coins that are 46 percent fine. By the reign of Nero, such coins are only 17 percent fine. Tiberius also took steps to continue the closed coinage system of later Ptolemaic policy to ensure that Egypt would remain economically isolated from the rest of the empire. The coins struck in Egypt by the Roman rulers were of markedly inferior quality. There seems to have been virtually no movement of coins into or out of the country during this period. It was not until the end of the third century CE and the currency reforms of Diocletian (intended to standardize the currency of the Roman Empire) that debased Roman coins seem to have been present in Egypt. They have been found, however, in far fewer numbers than Alexandrian coins. Between the reigns of Augustus and Diocletian, the mint output at Alexandria fluctuated dramatically, the highest periods of production corresponding to the months immediately preceding tax collection.
The motifs on the obverse of coins from Roman Egypt were borrowed from purely pharaonic sources as well as from Ptolemaic and Roman coinage: imperial portraits and busts of deified emperors, as well as those of empresses. By the second century CE, images of Greek and hybrid Greco-Egyptian gods appear commonly alongside those of traditional Egyptian gods like Ptah and Khnum. From as early as the reign of Augustus, the reverses show a variety of stock types as well as a growing interest in specifically Egyptian motifs like sphinxes, hippopotami, crocodiles, ibises, and the lighthouse at Pharos, none of which are found on Ptolemaic coins. A series of coins called “nome coins” was produced at Alexandria, with personifications of the nome gods and their attributes as common motifs. Although seemingly connected with the nomes, there is no evidence that these were distributed in the nome capitals. Despite the fact that the special coinage re-created by the Romans was highly imaginative and prolific in its choice and range of motifs, it was no more successful than that of the Ptolemies. Contemporary documents attest to the far more common practice of trading in kind (wine, oil, and beer) outside of Alexandria before the economic reforms of Diocletian. The native Egyptians seemed to have eschewed using coins for anything other than the payment of taxes.
- Christiansen, E. The Roman Coins of Alexandria: Quantitative Studies: Nero, Trajan, Septimius Severus. Copenhagen, 1988. A comprehensive survey of coins originating from the mint at Alexandria during the reigns of three Roman emperors.
- Daumas, F. “Le problème de la monnaie dans l'Ègypte antique avant Alexandre.” Mélanges de l'école française de Rome: Antiquité 89 (1977), 426–442. An important study of the sporadic attempts at coinage in Egypt before Alexander the Great.
- Haatvedt, R. A. Coins from Karanis: The University of Michigan Excavations 1924–1935. Ann Arbor, 1964. A useful overview of Ptolemaic and Roman coins found at a single site in Egypt.
- Kromann, A. and O. Mørkholm. Sylloge nummorum Graecorum: The Royal Collection of Coins and Medals, Danish National Museum. Vol. 8: The Ptolemies. Copenhagen, 1977.
- Svrounos, I. N. Ta nomismati tou kratous Ptolemaion. Athens, 1904–1908. This work remains the most comprehensive study of Ptolemaic coinage to date, still useful though outdated.
Paul F. O'Rourke