The Ptolemaic kingdom, derived from the original territories conquered by Alexander the Great, had a brief existence and was one of the four regions that emerged after Alexander's demise. The main Diadochi, the four successors, engaged in conflicts to claim control over these territories. Spanning over 275 years from 305 to 30 BC, the kingdom witnessed the rule of at least 18 kings, with the majority bearing names such as Ptolemy or Kleopatra. Ptolemy I Soter, Alexander's trusted general, founded the dynasty by conquering Egypt in the Wars of the Diadochi.
The kingdom was geographically divided into the upper kingdom, located below the Seleucid empire and adjacent to the holy land, and the lower kingdom, comprising modern-day Egypt with Alexandria as its capital. Ptolemaic coinage, while artistically resembling other Greek coins, stood out with its distinctive features. Tetradrachm designs were limited, predominantly featuring the portrait of Ptolemy I Soter. The coins adhered to the Phoenician standard of 14.2 grams, differing from the Attic standard, leading to their limited usage and contributing to economic challenges. The region's monetary isolation hindered the circulation of outside coins, and even after Rome took control around 30 BC, Ptolemaic currency persisted until Roman emperor Nero modified the Tetradrachm in 54 AD.
Ptolemy I Soter, also known as "Soter" or the Savior, governed Egypt from 305 to 285 BC. A loyal general and advisor to Alexander, Ptolemy played a crucial role in securing Alexander's body after his death and relocating it to Memphis, Egypt. Despite the longevity of battles and disputes during his reign, Ptolemy lived an unusually long life, passing away at the age of 84 or 85 in 282 BC. His son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, succeeded him, ruling the kingdom prominently for the next four decades. Ptolemy I used three major designs for his Tetradrachms, with the eagle/thunderbolt design persisting until the last Ptolemy.
The "Zeus Enthroned" Tetradrachm featured a striking obverse portraying Alexander the Great in an elephant headdress or lion skin headdress. The elephant variety included the rare horn of Ammon, symbolizing the Egyptian god Amon-Ra, positioned to the right of the portrait's ear. The reverse legend displayed Alexander's name (AΛEΞANΔΡOY) and depicted an enthroned Zeus, reminiscent of Tetradrachms struck by Alexander himself. Zeus' hand sometimes rested on a scepter. A unique monogram, HΔI, appeared under the throne of Zeus in this variety, while other variations featured PY or OP marks. These Tetradrachms were minted at the Memphis or Cyprus mints.
Zeus Enthroned *Rare
On the obverse of the Athena Tetradrachm, Alexander's head is depicted wearing an elephant headdress adorned with the horn of Ammon, with an aegis placed beside the neck. The reverse legend bears the inscription "Athena" (AΛEXANΔ) or "Alexander" (AΛEΞANΔΡOU, AΛEΞANΔΡEION, or AΛEΞANΔΡOY). The depiction of Athena on the reverse can either be Athena Promachos or Athena Alkidemos, determined by the mint of issuance. For instance, coins minted in Pella feature the representation of Alkidemos.
Athena Promachos, a colossal bronze statue sculpted by Phidias, is portrayed on the coin walking to the right, brandishing a spear, and holding a shield in her left arm. An eagle standing on a thunderbolt is depicted to the right. Monograms such as KO, ΦH, EK, and ΔoΦ may appear on these coins. Athena Alkidemos, the patron goddess of Pella, Macedonia, is depicted either standing or walking to the right on the coin, holding a thunderbolt, spear, and shield. Monograms and control marks on these coins include AΓ, EY, an eagle standing on a thunderbolt, HP, ΔI, MΠd, ΓH, and YΓA.
The Eagle on Thunderbolt Tetradrachm stands out as the sole variety featuring Ptolemy's portrait. Ptolemy is depicted facing right, typically adorned with a diadem, though occasionally wearing a fillet, and he may also sport an aegis at his neck. On the reverse, an eagle is portrayed standing on a thunderbolt. The legend reads "king Ptolemy" (BAΣIΛEΩΣ ΠTOΛEMAIOY or ΠTOΛEMAIOY BAΣIΛEΩΣ). Unique scene monograms, such as KΛ and helmet, AΔ, P and AP/MT, and AΔ, can be found on the reverse. While some were minted at the minor Daphnae mint, the majority were struck in Alexandria.
This variety holds significance not only for Ptolemy I Soter but for the entire reign of the Ptolemaic kings. The combination of the eagle and Soter's portrait persisted until the Roman occupation of Alexandria. This particular design became a favorite among the kings for various reasons—it possesses both elegance and beauty while posthumously honoring the founder and creator of the Ptolemaic kingdom. The enduring popularity of the only variety featuring Ptolemy's portrait is evident, as it continued to be minted even after his time.
Eagle on Thunderbolt
Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the second ruler of the Ptolemaic kingdom and the successor to Ptolemy I Soter, continued the trend of issuing Tetradrachm coinage based on the eagle/thunderbolt variety. In this instance, Philadelphus introduced a single variety for silver Tetradrachms, along with a contemporaneous issuance of a gold Tetradrachm. Philadelphus, whose name translates to "friend of brethren," married his sister Arsinoe II—a practice deemed acceptable in ancient Egypt to preserve royal bloodlines. The obverse of the coin features the paired portraits of Philadelphus and Arsinoe II, while Berenike I, the wife of the preceding Ptolemy, is featured on the reverse.
The gold Tetradrachm, valued at half a Mnaieion, is a unique Ptolemaic denomination, with only two types issued. This denomination, equivalent to one Tetradrachm, was exclusively minted by Philadelphus, and later during the time of Ptolemy VI to Ptolemy VIII. Sometimes referred to as Pentekontadrachms, these coins weigh between 13 and 14 grams, with a diameter of approximately 20 mm. This commemorative issue likely depicts the conjoined busts of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II on the obverse, and Ptolemy I and Berenike I on the reverse. The obverse legend reads AΔEΛΦΩN, while the reverse reads ΘEΩN. Notably, there are no discernible marks indicating the year or mint. Numismatic scholars estimate a rough timeline for the coin, suggesting a striking date around 272 BC, lasting until approximately 261 BC, with the possibility of extending beyond 265 BC. Although likely minted in Alexandria, there is a speculative notion, yet unproven, that the gold used could have originated from Tyre, Phoenicia. The proximity of the Pentadrachm minting in Tyre during the same period raises the possibility of the gold Tetradrachms being produced in the same facility.
Ptolemy II; Struck in Gold
The Eagle on Thunderbolt Tetradrachms, crafted from silver, feature the diademed head of Ptolemy I on the obverse. On the reverse, an eagle is depicted standing left, wings spread, on a thunderbolt to the left, with the reverse legend reading ΠTOΛEMAIOY ΣΩTHΡOΣ. Remarkably, this type was struck by an impressive nine mints, including Sidon, Alexandria, Kition, Tyre, Ptolemais, Akko/Ake Ptolemais, Joppa, and Gaza.
The multitude of mints is accompanied by various monograms and control marks. Commonly observed marks include ΠT, MAΓ, EY, ΣT, KI, ΡHA, ΩΔ, ATΡ, a club, A, and AE.
Intriguingly, some mint artists left their initials on the coins they produced the dies for. Typically, these initials were placed inside or just below the obverse portrait's ear. A notable example features the Greek letter A slightly to the right of the ear. However, ongoing research may reveal that these markings signify a workshop facility rather than an individual designer's initials. Other instances may include a Δ, O, or distinctive control marks. Unfortunately, the identities of these remarkable ancient artists remain unknown, adding an element of mystery to their creations.
Initial “O” Initial “Δ”
Ptolemy XII Auletes, also known as Neos Dionysos, held the throne as the half-brother of the previous ruler, Ptolemy XI Alexander II, who had a brief 19-day reign in 80 BC. Neos Dionysos had two distinct reigns, first from 80 to 58 BC and later from 55 to 51 BC. Around the 11th year of his rule, Neos Dionysos fled Egypt due to Roman conflicts, with the Romans seizing Cyprus and other Ptolemaic territories. In his absence, his daughter Berenike ascended the throne, facing a tumultuous series of marriages and eventual murder. Neos Dionysos returned to co-rule with his daughter Cleopatra VII in the final months of his life.
It's noteworthy that Tetradrachms were minted throughout both periods of Neos Dionysos' reign, categorized as 1st reign (80-58 BC) and 2nd reign (55-51 BC), even during his absence. All Tetradrachms were struck at Alexandria or Paphos, with no major varieties.
Analyzing the regnal dates of Ptolemy XII Tetradrachms, the Ptolemaic author J.N. Svoronos documented 15 varieties during Neos Dionysos' reign, categorized into A for the first reign and B for the second reign. Tetradrachms from this period exhibit markings containing the letter L, which, intriguingly, did not exist in the Greek alphabet. The inclusion of L is explained by its modern form, sloping slightly left, similar to our current letter L. This early form is found in monograms dating back to 218 BC and is associated with regnal year dating—a system measuring a ruler's reign duration. The presence of L may indicate the start of a date, aiding in distinguishing coins struck in category A or B.
This information is not speculative but has been identified by scholars over decades, and coins showing similar "L" patterns have been methodically grouped into their respective sections. It's crucial not to confuse regnal dates with monograms in this context.
Dating: LΔ mark to the left=Regnal Year 4 (78-77 BC)
The regnal year system follows the Greek alphabet, substituting Greek characters for numbers. In the given example, LΔ would translate to L4. This is because the Greek alphabet proceeds in the order of A, B, Γ, Δ, with the fourth character being Δ, corresponding to the numerical value of 4.
For more complex dates with multiple characters, the numbered characters must be combined. Taking the example of a coin with the date LKZ, where Kappa is the tenth character in the alphabet and Zeta is the sixth character. Referring to the regnal year chart, Kappa becomes 20 and Zeta becomes 7. Adding these values together gives a total of 27. Therefore, the date on the coin numbered LKZ corresponds to the regnal year 27.
Dating: LKZ mark to the left=Regnal Year 27 (55-54 BC)
Now equipped with the knowledge of regnal dates, classifying categories A and B becomes straightforward. Year 4 corresponds to category I, while the example of year 27 falls into category II. Other coins may display different markings representing dates in various languages such as Phoenician. If uncertain, coins should be classified under monograms. Ptolemaic coinage commonly features regnal dates, although the early coinage discussed previously may not align with this theme.
Understanding regnal dates is crucial, as they are not exclusive to Ptolemaic Tetradrachms. Dates can appear in different languages, representing various years, marking the reign of an emperor or king, or signifying the existence of a civilization or a first ruler.
Moving on to Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, arguably the most famous Cleopatra, she ruled Egypt with her brother from 51 to 30 BC. During her reign, two confirmed varieties of Tetradrachms were issued. While other varieties may be listed under her rule, most likely, they were minted by Ptolemy IV. One notable Tetradrachm features the portrait of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, struck around 36 BC. The reason for striking these coins remains a mystery, but their historical significance is undeniable. Cleopatra, known for her romances with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, featuring the latter on an Egyptian coin may have delayed Egypt from Roman destruction. These coins were minted in Syria, possibly Antioch, and circulated widely in the south Mediterranean.
There are two confirmed types of these coins:
- Type A depicts Cleopatra's diademed and draped bust with a pearl-embroidered dress on the obverse, with Marc Antony's bare head on the reverse.
- Type B shares the same legends as Type A, with Cleopatra wearing a pearl necklace on the obverse and Marc Antony's bare head, accompanied by a horse's head in the left bottom corner, on the reverse.
The horse head control mark suggests a possible connection to a mint in the East. This eastern connection aligns with Marc Antony's passage through Armenian territory in 34 BC, or even Parthia, as period Parthian bronze Tetradrachms feature a similar horse design.
In the case of the Eagle on Thunderbolt Tetradrachms struck by Cleopatra, there is a notable level of detail and precision in the examples, all of which were minted in Alexandria. The obverse portrait of Ptolemy in these coins exhibits a more feminine quality compared to the portraits of previous kings. This could suggest an attempt by Cleopatra to align herself with the legacy of the great Soter from earlier years. The reverse features the legend "King Ptolemy" (ΠTOΛEMAIOY BAΣIΛEΩΣ).
What distinguishes this type as belonging to Cleopatra is the presence of regnal dates. However, even with regnal identification, there remains uncertainty about whether this issue was struck by Cleopatra or by another Ptolemy. The regnal years are marked in the same manner as discussed earlier, using an L. Unique to this issue, there is a set of monograms that corresponds to each regnal year. For example, LΓ (year 3) dated to 50 BC is associated with the monograms ΛΓ or PA. These monograms provide additional information and contribute to the identification of the specific regnal year.
Eagle on Thunderbolt
Article by Colby Abele