Bronze Coins and the New Economy

While some silver pieces were used in transactions under the Persian rulers of Egypt (343-332 BCE), Egypt did not have coins until Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BCE. When Ptolemy II Philadelphos came to power in 282 BCE, he hugely expanded the process of monetization started by Alexander the Great and his father. While Ptolemy I Soter was a soldier interested in politics, Ptolemy II Philadelphos was interested in bureaucracy and commerce of all kinds. Ptolemy II introduced banks, coinage, fiscal institutions, and taxes throughout Egypt. While it is probable that most everyday transactions were still done in kind rather than cash, and that most people bartered instead of using coins, after Ptolemy II vastly expanded the economy, almost every Egyptian would have handled bronze coins. The introduction of a poll tax (known as the salt tax) in 266/5 BCE that was payable in bronze meant that all Egyptians had to have at least one bronze coin per year to pay their taxes. Bronze coins had been used in Macedonia, but in Egypt they were an entirely new form of money. Minted on an unprecedented scale beginning in the 260s BCE, bronze coins were no longer simply smaller denominations of silver coinage as was the Macedonian tradition. To exchange bronze coins for silver required an extra fee. The bronze coins of Ptolemaic Egypt have been somewhat of a mystery for scholars, who still cannot figure out exactly how much one coin was worth in relationship to the other Greek coins of the time. These bronze coins are some of the most worn Ptolemaic coins because they are the ones used most frequently in transactions. Figures 1 and 2 are some of the unique Ptolemaic bronze coins that became so instrumental in the Ptolemaic economy.



Fig. 1 Ptolemy II AE 48mm Drachm. Struck 266-265 BC. Diademed head of Zeus-Ammon right / BASILEWS PTOLEMAIOU, eagle standing left on thunderbolt, head turned to the right

Fig. 1 shows one of the bronze coins struck in the year of the introduction of Ptolemy II’s poll tax. This shows the standard iconography of the Ptolemaic bronze coin: the head of Zeus on the obverse and the eagle on the reverse with something in its claws. This eagle has a thunderbolt held in its talons to further represent Zeus and his power. The king or queen is rarely depicted on Ptolemaic bronze coins. This coin is very Greek in its imagery, although it could also be read differently from an Egyptian perspective, as discussed in another section of the exhibit. As one can see from looking at the picture of this coin, there is a small depression in the middle on both sides of the coin. There are many theories as to the cause of this cavity because there are no surviving notes on the minting technology from this time period. In his collector’s guide for Ptolemaic coins, RA Hazzard presents one of the more persuasive theories of how this hole was produced. He suggests that, since these holes only appear on the larger bronze coins, they result from a different process of making blanks than was used for the smaller bronze coins. The blanks for the smaller bronze coins were cast end-to-end in a long chain. Hazzard’s theory suggests that in order to make more large coins, they cast them in a tree-like formation with one coin on top of the other.




Fig. 2 Ptolemy II 18 mm Struck ca. 260 BCE Diademed head of Zeus-Ammon right / eagle standing left on thunderbolt, head turned to the left

 The bronze coin in Fig. 2 is an example of one of the smaller issues of bronze coin from the same time period as the one above. It uses the same imagery, but the head of the eagle is facing left instead of right. There were several different sizes of bronze coins issued in the same series. One of the reasons bronze coins were used so widely in Egypt is that there is no native silver mined in Egypt. Because of a low supply of silver the Ptolemies ended up debasing the silver coins. In 53 BCE under the reign of Ptolemy XII Auletes, the silver talents were reduced to 33% silver compared to the 100% silver during the time of Ptolemy I. Bronze coinage went through no such fluctuations and was tied to Egypt because it was unique and had no equivalent currency in other countries. Most hoards of Ptolemaic bronze coins are found inside Egypt because no other economies would accept them as currency. The Ptolemies thus created a currency that could only be used within Egypt and tied the workers paid in these coins to Egypt. Instead of minting gold and silver coins that could circulate in other countries, the bronze coins kept wealth in Egypt and under Ptolemaic control. They could also make money by charging fees to exchange bronze coins with coins that had value outside Egypt. Minting bronze coins was incredibly important to the Ptolemaic economy because they did not have to import silver to mint coins and they could control the use of money within and outside Egypt.

 Next: The Role of the Queen