CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: The Ptolemies: Part I
Mike Markowitz <https://coinweek.com/author/mike-markowitz/>
September 27, 2018
Coinage of the Ptolemies, Part I
*CoinWeek <https://www.coinweek.com/> Ancient Coin Series on Ancient Counterfeiters* by *Mike
Of all the successors of *Alexander the Great*, the family of *Ptolemy, son of Lagos*, was the most
successful, ruling Egypt for nearly three centuries (305 – 30 BCE).
Oddly enough, the story begins with a *hijacking*.
When Alexander died in Babylon on 10 June 323 BCE, his corpse, embalmed by a team of Egyptian
morticians, was placed in an elaborate mule cart for travel back to Macedon in northern Greece for
burial with his ancestors.
Ptolemy (born 367, died 283 BCE), one of Alexander's boyhood companions and trusted bodyguards,
seized the body and diverted it to Memphis, capital of Egypt, where he had been appointed /satrap/
(governor). Moved to a splendid tomb in the newly founded city of Alexandria, Alexander's body
became a trophy and symbol of legitimacy for Ptolemy's dynasty.
For centuries, this extensive and complex coinage has been a challenge for scholars and a delight
Since every ruler of the dynasty was named "Ptolemy," they are identified by (modern) Roman numerals
and (ancient) nicknames or "epithets" such as Ptolemy III Euergetes ("benefactor.")
Even the epithets were sometimes repeated, so we get "Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II" (born c. 182 BCE,
died 116) also known as Ptolemy VIII Physcon ("Fatty").
The queens and princesses of this prolific dynasty share just three names – there are at least seven
numbered *Cleopatras*, four *Berenikes* and four *Arsinoës*. This is the first article of a
three-part series that will examine the coins of the Ptolemies.
Ptolemy I Soter
Fig 1 Alexander –Athena tet Figure 1: Alexander –Athena tetradrachm
The earliest coins of Ptolemy I followed the pattern of Alexander's coinage, using the immense hoard
of bullion captured from the defeated Persian empire. At an uncertain date (c. 316 – 312), Ptolemy
issued a new type of silver tetradrachm bearing a portrait of the deified Alexander wearing an
elephant head-dress (symbolizing his conquest of India).
On the reverse, the goddess Athena, wearing an elaborately pleated chiton, advances holding spear
The inscription Alexandreion Ptolemaiou can be interpreted either as "Alexander Coin of Ptolemy" or
"Alexandria coin of Ptolemy."
Apparently, the other Successors didn't approve of Ptolemy putting his own name on the coinage, and
on the example shown it was deliberately erased from the reverse die.
Figure 2 Elephant Stater Figure 2: Elephant Stater
About 305 BCE, Ptolemy took the title of king (/basileus/ in Greek) and boldly placed his own
portrait on his coins.
On the reverse of his gold staters (a coin about 7.2 grams that represented a month's pay for a foot
soldier), a male figure holding a thunderbolt (some sources say the god Zeus, others say the deified
Alexander) rides a chariot drawn by four elephants. An example of this rare type realized *$40,000*
in a 2016 auction.
Figure 3: Portrait Pentadrachm Figure 3: Portrait Pentadrachm
With the fertility of the soil renewed each year by Nile floods, Egypt grew rich on export of grain
that fed much of the Greek world. Gold mines in Nubia and the Eastern Desert fed a steady stream of
wealth into Ptolemy's capital. Some of this wealth took the form of high-denomination gold coins,
convenient for trade in costly luxuries, or for paying the salaries of the elite. The spectacular
gold pentadrachm, or trichryson of almost 18 grams bears Ptolemy's heavy-jawed image, and an eagle
grasping a thunderbolt in its talons – a design that would be endlessly repeated on the coinage of
the dynasty for over two centuries.
Figure 4: Ptolemey AR Tetradrachm Figure 4: Ptolemey AR Tetradrachm
A craftsman known only as the "Delta Master" cut some of the most artistic dies of Ptolemy's
coinage. He signed his work with a tiny Greek letter (Δ) hidden in a curl of hair behind the ear on
the portrait. An example of this type realized *$550* in a 2001 auction.
Ptolemy had three official wives and numerous liaisons, fathering at least 11 children. In 289 BCE
he appointed his son, *Ptolemy II* as co-ruler. He died in 283 or 282, aged 84, the only one of
Alexander's Successors to die peacefully in his own bed.
Ptolemy II Philadelphus
Ptolemy II, unlike his father, was not a military leader, nor a charismatic king. A keen
administrator, Ptolemy II enriched himself by commercial ventures and heavier taxes, albeit much of
his revenue went to support his soldiers, courtiers, poets, priests and foreign allies.
Figure 5: Ptolemy II Philadephus Figure 5: Ptolemy II Philadephus
Ptolemy II was born in 308 BCE on the Aegean island of Cos, where his parents were engaged in the
complex struggle against the other Successors of Alexander.
He is known by the epithet *Philadelphus* ("sibling-loving") because he married his full sister,
*Arsinoë II* (ar-SIN-oh-ee) aged 43, in 273.
Philadelphus continued the issue of his father's high-quality silver coinage, with the same design,
at a variety of mints in Phoenicia, Palestine, and Cyprus, as well as Alexandria.
According to legend, for his vast Alexandria library, Philadelphus commissioned the first Greek
translation of the Hebrew Bible.
His most memorable achievement was the construction of Alexandria's great lighthouse, the Pharos,
one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Standing over 100 meters (330 feet) tall, the granite
and limestone tower took twelve years to build, at a cost of 800 talents. Although repeatedly
damaged by earthquakes, parts of it stood until 1480 and it appears on a number of Roman coins
struck at Alexandria under the empire.
Figure 6: Ptolemy II Philadelphos, In the name of Arsinoë II. DecadrachmFigure 6: Ptolemy II
Philadelphos, In the name of Arsinoë II. Decadrachm
Figure 7: Ptolemy II Philadelphos, In the name of Arsinoë II. OctodrachmFigure 7: Ptolemy II
Philadelphos, In the name of Arsinoë II. Octodrachm
After the death of Arsinoë II, she was declared a goddess and commemorated on large (over 35 grams)
silver decadrachms and gold octodrachms. The veiled head is an artistic convention for depicting
deceased subjects. The gold octodrachm of Arsinoë II is *#74* on Harlan Berk's list of the *100
Greatest Ancient Coins*.
Figure 8: Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Bronze Drachm. Figure 8: Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Bronze Drachm.
Figure 9: Ptolemy II Philadelphos. Mnaeion, gold Octodrachm.Figure 9: Ptolemy II Philadelphos.
Mnaeion, Gold Octodrachm.
Ptolemy II celebrated his ancestors on the obverse of a magnificent gold octodrachm where the joined
portraits of Ptolemy I and Berenike I bear the simple inscription Theon ("Gods").
The exaggerated eyes of these portraits emphasize their divinity. On the reverse, the joined
portraits of Ptolemy II and his sister-wife are inscribed Adelphon ("siblings").
This gold "dynastic" octodrachm of Ptolemy II is *#84* on Berk's list of the *100 Greatest Ancient
Coins*, and it continued to be issued under Ptolemy III. Most surviving examples are in nearly
uncirculated condition and sell at auction for *$8,500 – $12,500*.
With control over the rich copper mines of Cyprus, Philadelphus issued an extensive bronze coinage
in a wide range of denominations.
Ptolemaic bronzes typically have a small central pit or dimple on each side, a feature that has been
debated by numismatists for centuries. The current consensus is that the blanks were cast in molds,
and then chucked on a lathe to smooth and round the edges. The dimples were pressed into the metal
by the pins of the lathe.
The obverse bears the horned and bearded head of Zeus-Ammon, a god who fuses attributes of Greek and
Egyptian divinities. The reverse bears a pair of eagles, which would become a standard mark of the
denomination for many of the largest Ptolemaic bronzes.
Ptolemy III Euergetes
Figure 10: Ptolemy III Euergetes. AV Oktadrachm Figure 10: Ptolemy III Euergetes. AV Oktadrachm
*Ptolemy III* is known by the epithet Euergetes ("Benefactor"). Under his rule (246 – 222) Egypt
grew powerful and prosperous. He adopted the cornucopia ("horn of plenty") as his personal emblem,
and it appears on many of his coins.
For the Library of Alexandria, Euergetes borrowed the official edition of the plays of Sophocles,
Aeschylus, and Euripides, and to retain the originals he forfeited to Athens an enormous 15-talent
deposit (he sent back copies.) He appointed the brilliant mathematician Eratosthenes of Cyrene
(276-194 BCE) director of the Library, and tutor to his son, the future *Ptolemy IV*.
Ptolemy III's chubby face did not appear on his coinage during his lifetime but was used by his son,
Ptolemy IV on a commemorative octodrachm. The deified father wears the spiked crown of the sun god,
and holds a trident, symbolizing command of the sea thanks to his powerful navy.
Figure 11: Berenike II, wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes. AR PentakaidekadrachmFigure 11: Berenike II,
wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes. AR Pentakaidekadrachm
He married his cousin, Berenike II of Cyrene in 244. A formidable woman, she ruled Egypt skillfully
while Euergetes was away on a campaign against the Seleucid empire.
One of the largest silver coins of antiquity was issued in honor of yet another Berenike, Ptolemy's
sister, who married the Seleucid ruler Antiochus II and was murdered in a palace coup; the silver
pentakaidecadrachm weighing just over 52 grams (valued at 15 drachmai sometimes described as a
dodecadrachm or 20-drachma piece, because of uncertainty over the weight standard).
This coin is *#58* on Berk's list of the *100 Greatest Ancient Coins*. Until recently these were
considered very rare, commanding prices up to $200,000, but recent finds (some evidently from sea
salvage) have dropped the price as low as $14,000. Of about 50 examples known, many have cracks from
striking, perhaps because the blanks were insufficiently heat-treated.
Figure 12: Ptolemaic Kings of Egypt. Ptolemy III Euergetes. 246-222 BC. Æ DrachmFigure 12: Ptolemaic
Kings of Egypt. Ptolemy III Euergetes. 246-222 BC. Æ Drachm
Bronze coinage in a range of denominations became increasingly important in the Egyptian economy
during this reign. With a high tin content, these high-quality bronzes often survive in beautiful
condition. A piece of about 68 grams was probably valued equivalently to a silver drachma (although
there was a 2.5% service charge for converting bulky bronze coin into the scarcer and more
convenient silver.) A high-grade example of this type brought *$450* in a recent auction.
Collecting the Ptolemies
Many beginning collectors are surprised to learn that there is virtually no Egyptian coinage before
the time of the Ptolemies. The traditional temple-based economy of ancient Egypt functioned smoothly
on a barter and commodity basis, and imported Greek silver sufficed for centuries for foreign trade.
The Ptolemies introduced a "modern" monetized economy, right down to the village level and hoards of
Ptolemaic coins have been found across the Mediterranean world.
Examples in all price ranges appear frequently on the market.
For over a century the standard reference was the monumental four-volume catalog of Ioannis Svoronos
(Athens, 1904-1908) in Greek. German and English translations exist, and the text and superb plates
are online, thanks to the American dealer Edward J. Waddell.
Furthermore, in 2018, the American Numismatic Society published the first two volumes of a
magnificent multi-year project, /Coins of the Ptolemaic Empire/, by eminent American numismatist,
Catharine C. Lorber, who has spent decades studying this material.
Berk, Harlan J. /100 Greatest Ancient Coins/. Atlanta (2008)
Faucher, Thomas and Catharine Lorber. "Bronze Coinage of Ptolemaic Egypt in the Second Century BC."
/American Journal of Numismatics 22/ (2011)
Fletcher, Joann. /The Story of Egypt: The Civilization that Shaped the World/. New York (2016)
Hazzard, Richard A. /Ptolemaic Coins: An Introduction for Collectors/. Toronto (1995)
Lorber, Catharine C. "Dating the Portrait Coinage of Ptolemy I." /American Journal of Numismatics
Lorber, Catharine C. /Coins of the Ptolemaic Empire: Part I, Ptolemy I through Ptolemy IV/ (2 vols.)
New York (2018)
Pollard, Justin, and Howard Reid. /The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind/.
New York (2006)
Manning, Joseph G. /"The Ptolemaic Economy" in The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman
World/. Cambridge (2013)
Newell, Edward. /Royal Greek Portrait Coins/. New York (1937)
Svoronos, Ioannis. /Ta nomísmata /tou/krátous tōn Ptolemaíōn/. (4 volumes, in Greek, "Coinage of the
Ptolemaic Rulers") Athens (1904-08)
Wolf, Daniel. "A Metrological Survey of Ptolemaic Bronze Coinage." /American Journal of Numismatics
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