The lead tokens of Roman Egypt: Thoughts on function
Based upon the work of J. G. Milne, lead tokens in Roman Egypt are thought to be an unofficial coinage. Milne came to this conclusion because, when he analysed the Roman coins from Oxyrhynchus’ rubbish dumps, he noticed that there were fewer bronze coins present for the period AD 180 – 260 (Milne 1908; Milne 1922). He thought that the lead tokens replaced the lower denomination bronze. The Oxyrhynchite tokens depicting Athena are not, however, standardised as would be expected for even a pseudo-coinage. It is also apparent that lead tokens were in use in Roman Egypt before the period AD 180 – 260, as evidenced by an example bearing the image and name of Messalina, and a series of tokens found at Abydos dating to the first century BC. Despite his awareness of these examples, Milne still took a broad-brush approach to his interpretation that tokens were low denomination coins. It is therefore worth exploring other possibilities for the ways in which tokens could have functioned in the province.
Milne’s theory regarding the use of tokens as a low denominational coinage is not totally unfounded, as there are a small quantity of tokens that indicate a denomination. These include those with the legend ‘OBOΛOI B’ (‘two obols’, see figure 2) from Tebtunis and the Serapeum at Saqqara, as well as a specimen in the Ashmolean collection with the legend ‘ΔIOB’ (‘diob[ol]’, see figure 1. It is also possible that the I is instead a Φ that has become worn. If this is the case, then the inscription cannot refer to a diobol). These are, however, in the minority in comparison to hundreds of other specimens that do not bear a denominational mark, which suggests that this was not an extensive issue of tokens. The thin flans of the examples from Tebtunis also suggest that they were impractical for everyday use, and so may not have been intended for quotidian circulation.
Figure 1: Token possibly naming the denomination diobol. Obverse: Wreath, within which ΔIOB(?); solid line border. Reverse: Egyptian style altar(?); solid line border. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 26mm. Weight: 7.12g. Die axis: 12. Ashmolean Museum, Milne 5441. Image: Ashmolean Museum.
The paucity of tokens bearing a denomination, alongside the impracticality of the Tebtunis issues, suggests that another possibility is worth exploring. It is feasible that these tokens were intended to represent the given amount, without actually holding this worth or circulating as a coin. A lead token series from Rome refers to 1000 sestertii, but it seems unlikely it would have been worth that amount (TURS 1460). A modern parallel is the ‘Hell money’ used today in Asia, which while having the appearance of a banknote, exhibit denominations running into the millions. It is offered to the ancestors and not accepted as legal tender (Scott 2007, 26-28). Although these examples have a much higher denominations than on those found on the tokens from Roman Egypt, they demonstrate that a denomination does not necessarily indicate an all-purpose coin. This point is particularly pertinent as a token of the ‘OBOΛOI B’ type was found at the Serapeum of Saqqara at Memphis. When this token, and others bearing the ethnic ‘MEMΦΙC’ (Memphis), were studied by Longperier in the nineteenth century he posited that they could be religious coins used exclusively at Memphis (Longperier 1861, 411). He states that Pausanias references the use of a ‘local coin’ as a votive offering at Memphis (Pausanias Description of Greece 7.22, 3-4; Longperier 1861, 412). Pausanius implies that the coins were copper, which does obviously not fit the description of the lead tokens. The nome coinage of Roman Egypt displays imagery relevant to each of the nome districts and could perhaps fit this description, however, this was struck at Alexandria and so was ‘local’ to a questionable extent. The fact that ‘local coins’ were important for votive offering at Memphis does, however, leave open the possibility that the lead tokens fulfilled this need. A ‘coin’ created specifically as a votive offering can feasibly be encompassed within the term ‘token’.
Figure 2: : Token from Tebtunis. Obverse: Apis bull facing right, with solar disc between horns, to left Isis(?) standing right wearing solar disc and to right janiform figure(?) standing left and holding uraeus serpent. Crescent and garland above in field; border of dots. Reverse: Nilus sitting left, holding cornucopia in left hand and reeds in right, Alexandria-Euthenia standing before him holding ear of corn aloft in right hand; border of dots; OBOΛOI B. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 30mm. Die axis: 12. Image: Milne 1900, pl XXVI, fig 1.
Others have posited that some of the lead tokens were tax receipts (Rostovtzeff and Prou 1900, 151-152; Mitchiner 1984). Some tokens bear the legend ΕΠ ΑΓΑΘW, which has been translated to mean ‘interest payable upon wealth’ (Mitchiner 1984, 113). However, tax receipts are known from papyrological evidence in Roman Egypt, so it seems unlikely they would take the form of tokens as well. There are also many instances in the ancient world where the phrase means ‘good fortune’, such as this inscription on a marble column drum from Lepcis Magna. The phrase is also found on rings in the Roman period (Le Blant 1896, 90; Ogden 1990, 109). Given that tokens in the ancient world are likely to have been used for euergetic distributions, this phrase would not be out of place on such tokens.
A group of tokens that are unprovenanced within Egypt can also offer an alternative function. They depict Athena on one side (unconnected to the Athena tokens from Oxyrhynchus) and have the legend ΑΓΟ (‘AGO…’, see figure 3) on the other face. It is likely that the legend refers to the agoranomoi, who oversaw markets in the Greek world. Tokens with similar legends – ΑΓ (AG…), ΑΓΟΡ (AGOR…) and ΑΓΟΡΟΝΟΜΩΝ (AGORANOMON) - have also been discovered in the Athenian agora. A possibility for their use that they were issued as proof of payment to sacrificial banquets organised by the agoranomoi (Bubelis 2013, 125). This is also plausible for Roman Egypt, as a papyrus from Karanis dating to the early third century AD also provides a link between religious banquets and their organisation by the agoranomoi (P.Mich. 8511).
Figure 3: Token possibly referring to the agoranomoi. Obverse: Athena standing left, wearing Corinthian helmet, left hand resting on shield at feet to right, outstretched left hand holding Nike with wreath and palm; solid line border. Reverse: AΓO; solid line border. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 24mm. Weight: 9.98g. Die axis: 12. Köln, Institut für Altertumskunde accession no. AL_3560. Image: Köln, Institut für Altertumskunde.
The instances highlighted above are only a minority of the tokens found in Roman Egypt, however, they provide alternative suggestions for utilisation other than a low denomination coinage, and emphasise how tokens could have a variety of functions within the province.
This blog is written by Denise Wilding. The content of this blog is adapted from: Wilding, D. 2020. Tokens and Communities in the Roman Provinces: An Exploration of Egypt, Gaul and Britain. Unpublished PhD thesis, The University of Warwick.
With thanks to the Humanities Research Fund, University of Warwick for their support.
Blant, E. Le. 1986. 750 Inscriptions de pierres gravées inédites ou peu connues. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.
Bubelis, W. 2013. “The Agorastikon of Hellenistic Athens: Not a Market-Tax.” Zeitschrift für papyrologie und epigraphik 185: 122–26.
Longperier, A. 1861. “Monnaies du Sérapéum de Memphis. Trouvaille de Myt-Rahinch.” Revue Numismatique VI: 1–24.
Milne, J. G. 1908. “The Leaden Token Coinage of Egypt under the Romans.” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society 8: 287–310.
Milne, J. G. 1922. “The Coins from Oxyrhynchus.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 8: 158–63.
Mitchiner, M. 1984. “Imperial Portrait Tesserae from the City of Rome and Imperial Tax Tokens from the Province of Egypt.” The Numismatic Chronicle 144: 95–114.
Ogden, J. M. 1990. “Gold Jewellery in Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt.” Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Durham. http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/1457/.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, trans. W. H. S. Jones. 1918. London: Heinemann.
Rostovtzeff, M., and M. Prou. 1900. Catalogue Des Plombs de l’antiquité, Du Moyen Age et Des Temps Modernes Conservés Au Département Des Médailles et Antiques de La Bibliothèque Nationale. Paris: Rollin et Feuardent.
Scott, J. L. 2007. For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offerings. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.