After the death of Alexander the Great in June 323 BC, his generals fought for power and eventually divided up his empire. A general named Ptolemy acquired Egypt, however, the other generals carried on fighting over who should possess each piece of land including Egypt and its surrounding territories. Ptolemy initially ruled Egypt as satrap (the governor) but later crowned himself the king and went on to establish the city of Ptolemais and introduce the Serapis cult.
While some coins were minted and circulating in Egypt at the time, Ptolemy was responsible for the mass production of coinage in the area. When Ptolemy was the provincial governor, he authorized coins that looked very similar to Alexander the Great’s coinage. His initial silver coin featured a portrait of Alexander on the obverse, with a seated Zeus on the reverse.
It wasn’t long before Ptolemy issued Tetradrachms, also depicting Alexander on the reverse. The reverse design had changed though, displaying Athena as a warrior, rather than a seated Zeus. When he later became the King of Egypt, he released gold, silver and bronze coins, some of which had his portrait on the obverse and either an eagle or Zeus on the reverse. These coin designs were repeatedly used throughout the history of Ptolemaic coinage.
History of Ptolemaic Coins
Before Ptolemy was appointed satrap of Egypt, all Ancient Greek Coins depicted religious and mythological symbols, as well as city emblems. When Ptolemy used Alexander the Great’s profile on his initial coin, he started a new trend of coinage. The Ptolemaic Kingdom also used the Phoenician weight instead of the previously used Attic weight, meaning Ptolemaic Coins were struck in a different standard.
Otherwise known as the Ptolemaic weight, the Phoenician weight is approximately 14.20 grams, whereas the Attic weight is around 17.26 grams. This means that the coins struck in Phoenician weight are smaller than the common Attic weight coins. That being said, the largest Ptolemaic bronze coins were minted up to 100 grams.
Memphis, Egypt was the first home of the Ptolemaic Mint, which was later moved to the Egyptian city of Alexandria. While Ptolemy I tried his best to monetize the Egyptian society, it was his son, Ptolemy II who succeeded in developing the country financially. Ptolemy II helped the Ptolemaic kingdom to flourish with his coins, which displayed the image of his father, Ptolemy I.
Tetradrachms and other coins issued by future rulers also featured Ptolemy I, with a few exceptions where some rulers chose their own portraits for their coins. For example, Ptolemy XII’s daughter, Cleopatra VII (the Egyptian queen Cleopatra who is famous for being the lover of Julius Caesar and wife of Mark Antony) became joint ruler of Egypt with her brother Ptolemy XIII and issued Tetradrachms that portrayed Ptolemy I. She also released bronze coins with her image on the reverse and an eagle on the obverse.
The Elimination of Non-Ptolemaic Coins
Although Ptolemy I allowed other currencies to exist during his reign, the Ptolemaic kingdom eventually confiscated foreign coins and forced its coinage on other regions. There were some cities under Ptolemaic domination that were able to keep their local currency, such as the Jewish community in Palestine; however, they were made to convert their coins to Phoenician weight.
As time went by, foreign coinage was completely eliminated and only Ptolemaic coinage was being used in the cities under Ptolemaic domination. The exact date is unknown because elimination of non-Ptolemaic coins varies by city. We do know that Ptolemy I also discontinued local coinage with Alexander the Great’s portrait featured on them when he had secured his power as King of Egypt.
During the time that the Ptolemaic kingdom enforced the use of the Ptolemaic weight and eliminated non-Ptolemaic coinage, it became increasingly difficult to obtain silver. This, along with considerable inflation, caused monetary isolation of Ptolemaic coinage. To overcome this problem, the Ptolemaic kingdom replaced silver coinage with bronze coins.
While Ptolemy I was the self-directed ruler of Egypt from 323 to 282 BC, the Ptolemaic family reign lasted until Cleopatra VII’s death and the Roman conquest in 30 BC. The Ptolemaic kingdom’s currency remained in circulation until the rule of Emperor Nero who used the silver from the coins to make Roman Tetradrachms.
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