This virtual exhibition is a guided tour through the world of coins from the Ptolemaic period in Egypt (306-30 BCE). The aim of this project is to educate viewers about and engage people with the multicultural society of Ptolemaic Egypt through the beautiful and unique coins of their empire. The exhibit will guide the viewer from the foundation of the new economy under Ptolemy I Soter (306-282 BCE) and Ptolemy II Philadelphos (282-246 BCE) to the coin portraits of Cleopatra VII (51-30 BCE), the final Ptolemaic queen. This guide will focus on four main categories of exploration and will conclude with two examples of exciting Ptolemaic numismatic research going on in archaeology today.
Exploring coins, the ways in which they tell not only the story of empires won and lost, power, wealth and even public relations in ancient cultures should be as exciting and interesting as that sounds. Yet given that the greatest coin collections are housed in basement vaults, lined up like battalions of soldiers, it’s a wonder anyone can truly appreciate their artistry. I can, and I hope this virtual exhibit will help you too. I got interested in coins as a study abroad student in Rome. In the basement vaults of the Palazzo Massimo National Museum in Rome and the Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum in Syracuse, I discovered that interest even while walking up and down row after row of thousands of coins, displayed chronologically in glass displays.
Some of the reasons for this type of display are obvious. Because coins are valuable they are frequently displayed in basement vaults, which provide better security than the open galleries. The enormous size of many museum coin collections also means that paying coins individual attention is difficult. When displayed together in huge cases the coins become anonymous and get disconnected from the stories they can tell.
Because there is very little information on individual coins when they are presented in groups, it is challenging for the museum-goer to fully appreciate the ancient coins and their histories. This virtual exhibit will give particular Ptolemaic coins a chance to step forward from the ranks and tell their fascinating tales about the multicultural Greco-Egyptian Ptolemaic state. Instead of presenting an overwhelming array of coins at once, I have designed an exhibit that presents fewer coins in depth to provide a narrative of Ptolemaic society. This exhibit is organized topically. Instead of curating an exhibit that shows all of the Ptolemaic coins in chronological order, I have chosen to curate one that will engage the visitor with a few coins of particular cultural significance.
To begin we will briefly introduce who the Ptolemies are and how they came to rule Egypt. When the Macedonian Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BCE and became king he followed the same protocols as the Egyptian pharaohs did when assuming the throne. He travelled to Heliopolis and Memphis to make offerings to the Egyptian sun god and the Apis bull, the royal god of Egypt. For a man like Alexander the Great, who thought himself the son of the supreme Greek god Zeus, the Egyptian system of pharaonic god-kings must have had great appeal. When he died in 323 BCE Alexander’s huge empire was divided into satrapies or regions. Alexander’s advisor Ptolemy was allotted Egypt, undoubtedly the best share because of the Nile Valley’s fertility and its location, naturally isolated and protected from outside attacks. Ptolemy acted as a governor of Egypt until 306 BCE when his army declared him king. Ptolemy I styled himself as an Egyptian pharaoh and the heir of Alexander. He founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which, while the rulers were Greek, modeled itself on the native Egyptian pharaonic dynasties.
In pharaonic dynasties brothers and sisters married to preserve royal bloodlines and the pharaohs themselves were worshipped as the god Horus incarnate. When he ascended to the throne Ptolemy II Philadelphos married a non-relative, Arsinoe I, but later cast her aside to marry his full-blooded sister, Arsinoe II. After that decision, which was contrary to Greek traditions but fully complied with Egyptian traditions, the subsequent Ptolemaic kings frequently married their sisters whose names were either Berenice, Arsinoe, or Cleopatra.
The Ptolemaic Dynasty, while its capital was the Greek city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea, borrowed heavily from the Egyptian pharaonic symbols of power. Ptolemies were depicted as the pharaohs with traditional Egyptian crowns and symbols of the Egyptian deities with whom they are associated. Pharaohs were associated with Horus in life and Osiris after their death. Their queens were associated with elements of both Isis and Hathor. The only visual representations of the kings and queens that were not Egyptianizing were their coin portraits. In coin portraits Ptolemies are depicted in Greek style with curly hair like Alexander the Great and Macedonian crowns or diadems. In several sections of this exhibit coins will be examined for possible Egyptian influences in addition to their usual associations with the Greek aspects of Ptolemaic Egypt.
This exhibit will explore the many ways in which coins speak. Coins tell the story of a new economy begun by Ptolemy I Soter and hugely expanded by Ptolemy II Philadelphos. Coins reveal new roles for the queen of Ptolemaic Egypt that differs from Macedonian predecessors or Hellenistic contemporaries. Ptolemaic coins also speak to the native Egyptians who would have handled them, and we can use knowledge of Egyptian pharaonic symbols to suggest how indigenous Egyptians may have interpreted them. Coins hold one answer to the question of what the famous Cleopatra VII looked like. Experimental archaeologists today are captivated by the mysteries of coins and work to recreate the ancient minting process. Ptolemaic coins whisper their stories to us down the centuries and this exhibit will attempt to share a few of their most captivating tales.