All 4 entries tagged Egypt
December 01, 2019
Gold Aureus from 27BC (RIC 12, P.86, no. 544) The obverse depicts head of Augustus with ‘CAESAR.DIVI.F.COS.VII’ inscribed. On the reverse is a crocodile facing right, representing Egypt. The reverse legend reads ‘AEGVPT CAPTA.’ Image produced courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.
After a tense period of civil war, Octavian’s decisive victory at the Battle of Actium in 31BC left Marc Antony with insufficient military support to win the war, and a year later Egypt was conquered and absorbed into the Roman Empire. Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, leaving Octavian as the unrivalled, sole ruler of the Roman world, a victory he was keen to advertise. The above pictured coin is a gold aureus celebrating the acquisition of Egypt. It is typical of victory coinage, with the obverse depicting a portrait bust of the ruler (who was the victor), in this case Octavian, and the reverse depicting an image symbolic of the conquered nation, in this case a crocodile. The gold aureus is similar to a near identical issue of silver denarii struck in the previous year. Both coins hailed Octavian as son of the divine Julius Caesar, establishing his legitimacy on a political and religious level.
That Octavian chose the image of a crocodile to place on the reverse of his coins is of particular interest. First and foremost, it presents Octavian as the victor over a foreign enemy. Crocodiles were popular in Roman art as images representing foreign and exotic ideals, and their use here was no doubt intended to draw attention to the war in its international context, and thus overshadow the morally dubious truth of it being, in truth, a civil war. Octavian was now the sole ruler of Rome, having violently deposed of his co-consul. It was therefore crucial for him to deter any criticism and suggestions of tyranny. The crocodile was a particularly suitable image because of its associations with danger, and thus it had the added benefit of presenting Marc Antony as a threat to Rome. This helped to authorise Octavian’s war against his fellow Roman, and once-ally, and aligns with much of Octavian’s earlier propagandist campaign against him. The crocodile therefore helps to reinforce the idea that Octavian should be hailed, not as the violent murderer of his co-consul, but as the saviour of the Roman Empire.
Coin of Crassus showing a crocodile. Image produced courtesy of the Classical Numismatic Group.
This is not the first time a crocodile had been used in Roman coinage. Already in 37BC, the crocodile had appeared on the coinage of a figure largely identified as M. Licinius Crassus, son of the triumvir Crassus. It is believed that this coin celebrated Roman territory ceded to Cleopatra VII of Egypt by Marc Antony. It is interesting therefore, that this same symbol of Egypt should be used by Augustus only ten years later to celebrate the exact opposite: the conquering of Egyptian territory by Rome. On the coin of Crassus, it is likely that the crocodile was chosen because of its associations with the Nile, which itself was associated with the agricultural wealth of Egypt. We can therefore infer that this earlier use of the image of the crocodile was intended to celebrate Egypt in a gesture of diplomacy. Octavian, aware of this, may well have deliberately used this same image, already known for its associations with agricultural wealth, in order to boast of his achievement at having acquired such an important nation into the Roman Empire. Rome relied heavily on Egypt for its imports of grain, and hence Octavian’s victory was of crucial importance. It is likely the coin instilled pride in its Roman viewers, for belonging to such a large, powerful empire.
As we have seen therefore, the coin presents Octavian as a successful military leader, who not only saved, but also contributed to the Roman Empire. It also served to justify his recent war against Marc Antony by presenting it as a foreign conquest. We can see that the imagery was carefully chosen in order to secure and validate Octavian’s position as sole ruler of Rome.
This month's entry was written by Richa Snell. Richa is a final year classical civilization student with an interest in material culture and iconography, which she is hoping to pursue further by studying for a master’s degree next year. She is currently writing her undergraduate dissertation on imperial uses of Egyptian imagery.
R.A. Gurval (1995) Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of Civil War (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).
C.E. Barrett (2017) ‘Egypt in Roman Visual and Material Culture’ in Oxford Handbooks Online in Classics Studies, ed. G. Williams (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press).
M.Swetnam-Burland (2015) Egypt in Italy: Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
D. Vagi, Crocodiles on Roman coins familiar as the emblem of Egypt – https://www.coinworld.com/news/precious-metals/crocodiles-on-roman-coins-familiar-as-the-emblem-of-egyptian-province.html (15 Feb 2015). Accessed 31 Oct 2019.
June 01, 2017
Bone gaming piece showing and naming Augustus.
(From Rostovtzeff's 1904 publication of the find).
A variety of objects are given the Latin label “tesserae” by modern scholars: mosaic pieces, lead monetiform objects, spintriae, and small circular objects made out of bone or ivory, like the piece pictured above. On one side is a carved portrait of Augustus, while the other side gives his name in Greek (Σεβαστός) and the number one in both Latin and Greek numerals (I in Latin, A in Greek; the Greeks represented numerals through letters). Scholars originally thought that these bone objects, found all over the Roman world, served as tickets to the theatre, amphitheater or circus. But then this “tessera” and fourteen others were found in a child’s tomb in Kerch (Russia) in 1903, and our understanding of these objects changed completely.
Fifteen bone “tesserae” were found in the tomb placed in a wooden and bronze box, neatly stacked in twos. Each piece had an image engraved on one side and on the other a word accompanied by a number in both Latin and Greek. The numbers range from 1 to 15. The designs of the pieces are as follows, according to the publication of Rostovtzeff 1905 (the counters are now in the Hermitage):
- Head of Augustus / CΕΒΑCΤΟC (Augustus), I and A.
- Head of Zeus / ΖΕΥC (Zeus), II and B.
- An "athletic head" (probably Hermes) / [ΕΡΜ]ΗC (Hermes? The legend is partly obliterated), III and Γ.
- Entrance to an Egyptian building / ΕΛΕΥΣΕΙΝ(ΙΟΝ) (Eleuseinion), IIII and Δ
- Head of Herakles / ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ (Herakles), V and E
- The word ΗΡΑΙ(Α) (Heraia) in a wreath / YII and the letter vau
- Bust of a praetextatus (a young man wearing a toga) / ΛΟΥΚΙΟΥ (a referenece to a Lucius), VII and Z.
- Head of Kronos / ΧΡΟΝΟC (Kronos), VIII and H.
- The Greek letter Θ / ΠΑΦΟΥ in a wreath (shown below).
- Young female head with a hairstyle of the Augustan age / ΑΦΡΟΔΙΤ(Η) (Aphrodite), Χ and I
- Head of Pollux wearing an athletic headband / ΔΙΟCΚΟΡΟC (Dioscurus), XI and IA.
- Head of Castor wearing an athletic band / ΚΑCΤΩΡ (Castor), XII and IB.
- Head of Aphrodite / ΑΦΡΟΔΙΤ(Η) (Aphrodite), XIII and ΙΓ.
- Bust of Isis / ΙCIC (Isis). The inscription is damaged, but III and ΙΔ are visible.
- Head of Hera / [ΗΡ]Α (Hera, although the inscription is damaged), [X]V and IE.
Gaming piece no. 9, reproduced from
Numerous other pieces similar to this have been found throughout the Roman world (e.g. Pompeii, Asia Minor, Athens, Syria, Crete, Vindonissa north of the Alps), but a complete set like this is rare, if not unique. Comparison with other pieces reveal that the numbers do not correlate with any particular image; so while Zeus is paired with number two here, on another set he may be number ten or fifteen, for example. Other pieces have the portraits and names of other emperors and empresses, though none later than Nero; some specimens represent Julius Caesar and one piece carries a portrait of a Ptolemy. This, in addition to the find spots (particularly in Pompeii, and in the abovementioned tomb) suggests a production date ranging from the second half of the first century BC to first century AD, although they may, of course, have been used later than this.
"Token", Early 1st century, Ivory. 2.9 cm
(1 1/8 in.) Gift of Marshall and Ruth
Goldberg. J. Paul Getty Museum, CC-BY.
This complete set has led scholars to conclude that these are gaming pieces. Many of the surviving specimens carry Egyptian, or more specifically, Alexandrian designs. Our number four, for example, likely represents a sanctuary in Eleusis, which was a suburb in Alexandria. Other suburbs in the city, for example Nikopolis, are also shown and named. On the right is an image of one of these pieces: an obelisk stands next to an Egyptian-style building; the other side names Nikopolis and provides the Latin and Greek number four: IIII and Δ. Egyptian deities feature alongside the busts of gods, rulers and other well-known personalities (e.g. athletes, poets, philosophers, characters from comedies). The current theory, then, is that this was an Alexandrian game that then became popular across the Empire in the first century AD. We have no idea how the game was actually played, although it might have been a mixture of a local Egyptian game and the Greek game of petteia (πεττεία).
We might pause to think what it meant that one could play a game in Pompeii, for example, or in modern day Russia, that represented and played with the Alexandrian landscape, its suburbs, buildings and gods. Could the experience be similar to a modern monopoly board, where British streets and locations are experienced and named by people all over the world? I think we should also consider that people thus might also ‘play’ with the emperor’s portrait; how then did this affect people’s experience of the emperor and his family? But finally, since these bone and ivory objects are gaming counters, we should probably stop calling them “tesserae”!
This Coin of the Month entry was written by Clare Rowan as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project.
Alföldi-Rosenbaum, E. (1976). Alexandriaca. Studies on Roman Game Counters III. Chiron 6: 205-239.
Alföldi-Rosenbaum, E. (1980). Ruler portraits on Roman game counters from Alexandria (Studies on Roman game counters III). Eikones. Studien zum griechischen und römischen Bildnis. ed. R. A. Stucky and I. Jucker. Bern, Francke Verlag Bern: 29-39.
Rostovtsew, M. (1905). Interprétation des tessères en os avec figures, chiffres et légendes. Revue Archéologique 5: 110-124.
April 01, 2016
|Denarius of Augustus from 28 BC.|
The first recorded time a crocodile appeared on a Roman coin was 37/36 BC, under the authority of M Licinius Crassus, an official who had authority over the Greek island Crete and the African region of Cyrenaica. Scholars have attempted to claim that this was the son of the triumvir Crassus who in 53 BC famously conducted the Parthian disaster. The historical content of the Crassus coinage is dubious and complicated but it would be fair to assume and accept scholarly debate that his crocodile represented renewed Egyptian authority over Cyrenaica, an honour that was ceded to the Ptolemaic ruler Cleopatra VII by the cunning Marc Antony.
However, when Augustus utilised the crocodile on his coinage it was as a focal point of celebration towards Rome’s acquisition of Egypt and revered his military triumph. The crocodile interestingly could serve as a sign of continued power and dynastical tenure or the polar opposite of capitulation. With the caption of ‘Aegypto capta’; ‘captured Egypt’ we are able to understand the multi-faceted potential of a crocodilian representation and how the crocodile signified power dependant on the way it was utilised .
To understand the sole purpose of the crocodile on the denarius of 28 BC would be enormously difficult. Commonly in Egyptian practice, crocodiles were to supposed to allude to, and be associated with, their relationship to the river god Nilus, from whom Egypt’s affluence and prosperity was supposedly derived. The crocodile was the epitome of Egyptian power and was typically indigenous to the Nile so it often acted like a glorified mascot. Augustus had left his use of the crocodile imagery purposefully open to interpretation so that it could represent the formidable animal in which the Romans were so curious about, and were so proud to have enslaved, because it embodied the fate of Egypt. Or did it signify and celebrate the prosperity of Egypt through the crocodile’s relation to Nilus?
The best insight into the truth is the coinage of the colony of Nemausus (Nîmes) struck under Augustus: here a crocodile is depicted chained to a palm tree and is undeniably the sign of Egypt subdued to the power of Rome and presumably is a continuation of attitude from the denarius of 28 BC. The obverse of the denarius of 28 BC, a bareheaded and heroically unadorned bust of Augustus, has a protuberant brow alongside a wry smile which is meant to reaffirm the legitimacy of his autocratic reign by reasserting his military success, ultimately bringing us back to the subject of power. The crocodilian imagery on these coins was a boast of power, eastern luxury, but more importantly, it was who wielded and subjugated the crocodile that decided who the ancient beast would transfer its power to.
This month's coin was written by Alfred Wrigley. Alfie is a second year ancient history and classical archealogy student who is hoping to specialise in and write his dissertation on Julio Claudian coinage.
Coin image reproducted courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.
September 10, 2015
The use of alternative or community currencies and payment systems is often commented upon in the modern day, whether it is the Bristol pound, Bitcoin, or Ithaca hours. Alternative currencies are also springing up in Greece in the face of its monetary crisis, and may form a way of allowing the domestic economy to continue in the face of austerity. Such currencies also probably existed in the Roman world, used when there was a shortage of official governmental currency or small change. Egypt, for example, has furnished thousands of lead tokens, often bearing the names of different cities (e.g. Memphis). These objects have similarities with the official currency of Egypt that was struck in Alexandria (carrying regnal years as dates, for example), and appear to have been used as local currency once the imperial mint ceased large-scale production in c. AD 220.
Lead token of Egypt showing a male figure being crowned by Victory
and the Nile riding a hippopotamus, holding reeds and a cornucopia.
Dated to 'Year 3' of an uncertain era. (Dattari 6462, 19.5mm)
Particular tokens are found only in very small areas, often within a city and its hinterland, similar to the way that the Bristol pound, for example, is used only in Bristol. It appears then that these objects were used like the community currencies of the present day, facilitating local transactions and economies within a small area. Their use as money is further suggested by the recent publication of a shipwreck found off the Carmel Coast in Israel. The wreck dates from the 3rd century AD, and contained a hoard of 162 coins (including 68 denarii) including a significant quantity of provincial bronze coins (74 in total), and billon coins from Alexandria. Three Egyptian 'tesserae' or tokens were also in the hoard. The interpretation of the hoard is that it is the purse of a sailor, merchant or ship owner who carried a variety of currencies to save on exchange fees in different ports. The tokens, similar to that shown above (but with different designs) are interpreted as tokens for habour services. But, given that the find contexts of similar objects throughout Egypt show them alongside or in similar contexts to official currency, they should be seen as local currency, hoarded by the owner of the purse along with his other local coinage.
These objects shed light on the economic history of Egypt, as well as the self-representation of different groups within the province, similar to the way that the designs of provincial coinage reflect the identities and culture of local cities. That alternative or community currencies existed alongside the denarius system in the Roman Empire reveals how a universal currency used throughout Europe was historically supplemented by other payment systems.
Meshorer, Y. (2010). Coin Hoard from a Third-Century CE Shipwreck off the Carmel Coast, Atiqot 63: 111-135.
Milne, J. G. (1908). The leaden token-coinage of Egypt under the Romans. Numismatic Chronicle 8: 287-310.