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September 10, 2015

The bitcoin of antiquity? Community Currencies in Roman Egypt

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.

token_of_egypt
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.


Lead token from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, with Nike and Athena attacking a serpent (Dattari 6539, 18mm)
194410079822obvwidth350.jpg 194410079822revwidth350.jpg


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.


Select Bibliography:

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.


Images from Classical Numismatic Group Inc., Electronic Auction 353, lot 369 (www.cngcoins.com), and the American Numismatic Society, 1944.100.79822.


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