Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.10.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.10.08

Catharine C. Lorber, Coins of the Ptolemaic Empire. Part I. Ptolemy I through Ptolemy IV (2 vols.). Volume 1. Precious Metal. Volume 2. Bronze. Numismatic studies.   New York:  The American Numismatic Society, 2018.  Pp. xiii, 625, 76 plates; xiii, 205, 46 plates.  ISBN 9780897223560.  $325.00.  

Reviewed by François de Callataÿ, Royal Library of Belgium, Université libre de Bruxelles and Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (Paris) (

Ptolemaic Coins Online

This monumental book, in two volumes and the first of a series of two, could be described in short as an updated catalogue of all coin varieties struck by the Ptolemaic kings in Egypt and their dominions abroad. As such, it replaces the old and long-lasting reference : the monograph published in 1904-1908 by Yannis Svoronos.1 The very long delay between the two, more than a century, does not reflect a lack of interest in the field (which has been continuously investigated) but the great difficulty such a Herculean task represents if pursued by a single person.

A leading authority in Ptolemaic coinages for more than two decades now, Catharine (Cathy) Lorber was arguably the best-placed person to produce such a work, which turns out to be more ambitious than a simple updating of the Svoronos catalogue since it provides a strong narrative going much further than numismatics. Ptolemaic numismatics has been substantially updated in the last decades, most notably by Cathy Lorber herself and French colleagues based at the Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines created by Jean-Yves Empereur. Jean-Yves Empereur, former general secretary of the French School at Athens, naturally asked Olivier Picard, at the time director of the French School at Athens, to identify and study the coins recovered in their archaeological context. In turn, Olivier Picard created a working group which has proved to be extremely productive. Thomas Faucher, Julien Olivier and soon Héloïse Aumaître have devoted their PhD to Ptolemaic coinages.2 While Julien Olivier and Héloïse Aumaître are mostly concerned to produce die-studies and to look at coin hoards, Thomas Faucher and Olivier Picard have completely reshaped our knowledge about bronze coinage by looking at their archaeological contexts in Alexandria and elsewhere.3 Cathy Lorber has been constantly associated with these developments in which she also took an important part.

Coins of the Ptolemaic Empire (CPE) adopts the same format and internal arrangement as the Seleucid Coins. A Comprehensive Catalogue (New York; Lancaster, 2002-2008, 2 parts, each in 2 vol.), the acclaimed standard reference for Seleucid coinages, co-authored by Cathy Lorber along with Arthur Houghton and Oliver Hoover.4 That both enterprises are published by the American Numismatic Society (ANS) derives from the fact that, due to the legacy of the Edward T. Newell collection, the ANS possesses the best collection worldwide for royal Hellenistic coinages.

In comparison with preceding catalogues, these two enterprises aim to provide a higher level of care in attributing series. Consequently, every group of coins with no secure place of minting has been ascribed to an uncertain mint, duly numbered (up to 42). Hence names such as “Uncertain Mint 13, in Coele Syria” (p. 305). These names, which may cause trouble at first sight, should not create an inflation of mints (see I, p. XIII). As with the Seleucid Coins, here every entry is followed by references to past literature and – more crucially – to hoards and archaeological contexts. With the growing amount of recent evidence, this greatly reduces geographical uncertainty, especially for bronzes.

A difference from Seleucid Coins is the division between precious metals (gold and silver) and bronze. This is due to the lack of shared control marks (except for some part of the minting under Ptolemy I Soter, see II, p. 13-14) and thus our inability to determine if all coins were produced in the same mints whatever the metal.

A great improvement on Seleucid Coins is the much longer introductory chapter provided for each reign (see p. 1-59 for Ptolemy I, p. 61-129 for Ptolemy II, p. 131-1832 for Ptolemy III, etc. to compare with p. 1-9 for Seleucus I). These chapters go well beyond numismatics and offer views on finance, economy, art history and cults, as well as the mechanics of production inside the mints (see p. 36: “cryptic controls”). These dense introductions should be considered the best synthetic views available to the reader who wishes to be quickly informed. Lorber’s views, based on a unique familiarity with all the evidence, have been carefully weighed and command respect, as when she writes: “It is doubtful that monetization was a fundamental goal of the first Ptolemy. His monetary policies were intended primarily to cover his expenses and, eventually, also to supply the money changers who exchanged currencies for foreign merchants” (p. 37). Debates are fairly presented before the author presents her own point of view as in the case of the alleged portrait of Alexander the Great on some small bronzes found in Saqqara.5 Her characteristic intellectual fairness means that she is prompt to recognize her own mistakes, as when she writes: “C. C. Lorber (2000) added further hoard evidence supporting this reattribution (but her view that these large coins represent drachms struck to a higher weight standard must be rejected)” (II, p. 51).

CPE lists a grand total of 1,525 varieties (972 varieties for gold and silver coins and 560 for bronzes), to be compared with less than 1,200 for Svoronos. For bronzes, Cathy Lorber endorses the new distribution in ten series proposed by Faucher and Picard but prefers to keep the reign arrangement since most of these series could be fixed to one reign. This is a bit misleading as a theoretical point, since it seems to sustain the wrong assumption that monetary matters are primarily connected with court events. But this is a very minor criticism of this magnificent achievement, the high quality of whose end matter should also be noted: the two appendices (1. Ptolemaic hoards; 2. Additional provenances), and the several indices (Remarkable types, Remarkable denominations, Remarkable inscriptions, Controls [there is no personal name or thematic index]) as well as a thorough bibliography (divided between Numismatic works [p. 517-537] and General works [p. 537-578]) and a concordance to Svoronos numbers greatly facilitate most type of queries.

Finally, it should be noted that an online and free version of this book is available on the internet: Ptolemaic Coins Online (see It does not give the historical essays (which are essential reading) or each entry’s hoards and coins in archaeological contexts but it gives the rest of each entry and offers immediate access to all coins belonging to the ANS and other major coin cabinets already integrated in Nomisma. In addition, Ptolemaic Coins Online allows one to create every sort of graph in a couple of seconds. So, for example, one can quickly chart the percentage of coin varieties struck in the mint of Alexandria under Ptolemy Philadelphus displaying the goddess Isis as compared with the mint of Tyre. This is so easy that it should prompt many future studies. As it counts the number of entries only (saying nothing about the volume or the diffusion of these entries), it calls for what Panagiotis Iossif has already done for the Seleucids: detailed databases for coins (not only entries) found in hoards (SHD: Seleucid Hoards Database) or archaeological contexts (SED: Seleucid Excavations Database). For the Ptolemies, Thomas Faucher is currently working on such databases.

In short, this long-awaited reference book upholds all of its promise. Written by the leading authority in the field, Coins of Ptolemaic Empire is likely to stand for more than a generation. Cathy Lorber, its author, should be warmly congratulated for it. We are now eagerly awaiting Part II.


1.   Jean N. Svoronos, Τα νομίσματα του κράτους των Πτολεμαίων / Münzen der Ptolemäer, Athens, 1904-1908.
2.   Thomas Faucher, Frapper monnaie. La fabrication des monnaies de bronze à Alexandrie sous les Ptolémées, Alexandrie, Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines, 2013 ; Julien Olivier, Archè et chèmata en Egypte au IIe siècle avant J.-C. (204-81 av. J.-C.). Etude numismatique et d’histoire, unpubl. PhD, Orléans, Université d’Orléans, 2012 and Héloïse Aumaître, La Syrie et Phénicie lagide au IIIème siècle : étude historique et monétaire, Paris I, PhD in progress.
3.   Olivier Picard et al., Les monnaies des fouilles du Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines. Les monnayages de bronze à Alexandrie de la conquête d’Alexandre à l’Egypte moderne, Alexandrie, Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines, 2012.
4.   Arthur Houghton and Catharine Lorber, Seleucid Coins. A Comprehensive Catalogue. Part I. Seleucus I through Antiochus III, 2 vols., New York; Lancaster, The American Numismatic Society-Classical Numismatic Group, 2002 and Arthur Houghton, Catharine Lorber and Oliver Hoover, Seleucid Coins. A Comprehensive Catalogue. Part II. Seleucus IV through Antiochus XIII, 2 vols., New York; Lancaster, The American Numismatic Society-Classical Numismatic Group, 2008.
5.   Against Martin Price and Karsten Dahmen but with Georges Le Rider, she denies that it could be the Macedonian (II, p. 1-2, B2).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010