BMCR 2005.07.64

Coinage in Roman Egypt: The Hoard Evidence

, Coinage in Roman Egypt : the hoard evidence. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2004. 208 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 8772889640 $29.95.

Erik Christiansen is among the foremost specialists in the study of the coinage from Roman Egypt.1 The most distinctive focus in his previous research has been the use of quantitative methods to mine the evidence of minting activity in Alexandria for insights into broader imperial economic policies.2

The present book offers another application of this approach. In contrast to Christiansen’s previous studies based heavily on the numbers of Alexandrian coins preserved in collections, this time he restricts his focus to identifiable coin hoards. A “hoard” typically consists of at least two coins purposely buried (or unintentionally lost) together (p. 14). The hoards treated in this book date from the Roman annexation of Egypt in 30 BCE to the currency reform of Diocletian in 296 CE. The data Christiansen extracts from these hoards will become required reading for anyone interested in the coinage and economy of Roman Egypt. The book also deserves to be read by anyone grappling with economic policies applied to the Roman empire as a whole, especially those of the emperors whose coinage is given the most elaborate treatment in the book.

Chapter 1 provides an introduction to coin hoards in the Roman period (pp. 13-32). This includes a typology of hoards, discussion of reasons for their deposit, and a survey of the frustrations of their modern recovery. Christiansen then introduces the more complicated questions to be addressed in the rest of the book. These include the problems of what conclusions might be legitimately inferred from the hoards and how the hoards can be used to illuminate the Roman economy.

Chapter 2 surveys the difficulties of making inferences about coinage from papyri and summarizes some of the major hoard discoveries from Roman Egypt (pp. 33-58). One of the conclusions that emerges from this chapter is a reaffirmation of the dominant opinion that Roman Egypt maintained a closed currency system throughout the period addressed in the book. Comparison of how gold, silver, and bronze coins functioned within this system demonstrates that the standard for daily transactions in Egypt was the billon tetradrachm. Less than 1/3 of the mass of this “silver” coin was actually silver in the early Roman issues. It was further debased in stages over the course of the next few centuries. But in currency exchanges at the borders of the province the Alexandrian tetradrachm corresponded to the silver denarius used outside of Egypt. The parallel relationship between the debasement histories of the tetradrachm and the denarius is summarized in a helpful graph (p. 44). The data illustrated on this graph are pivotal to many of the book’s later arguments about the imperial economy.

Chapter 3 briefly surveys the hoards from Karanis (pp. 59-73). These include some of the few major billon hoards from Egypt that can be interpreted within the framework of corresponding archaeological evidence. Despite the limitations in this case, Christiansen cogently argues that 26 of these hoards can be traced to just two very narrow groups of individuals associated with two events in the late third century.

Chapter 4 surveys other billon hoards excavated by archaeologists, the hoards acquired by Giovanni Dattari (including over 30,000 tetradrachms), and other reported hoards (pp. 74-88). It also introduces the specific questions that take up the remaining chapters, which concentrate on the economic implications of the minting activities of various emperors revealed by the proportions of their coins in the hoards.

Chapter 5 focuses on the hoards of tetradrachms minted under Nero (pp. 89-105). In agreement with his earlier quantitative studies of major collections, Christiansen argues that these hoards attest a “hectic” activity in the Alexandrian mint in Nero’s years 10-14 (63/64-67/68 CE). This represented a successful effort to replace the Ptolemaic and Tiberian coinage with a debased standard. Christiansen’s estimate of the cumulative net profit in silver from the replaced coins adds confirmatory evidence to his earlier conclusions that Nero used this debasement to alleviate his economic woes. This adjustment in the proportion of silver content in the tetradrachms remained the standard in Egypt until the reign of Marcus Aurelius.

Chapter 6 argues that Commodus tried to resolve the financial strains introduced under Marcus Aurelius by following Nero’s technique of creating a debased standard for the billon tetradrachm in Egypt (pp. 106-15). This new standard remained consistent for much of the third century, apparently unaffected by the huge public expenditures on military campaigns under the Severans.

Chapter 7 surveys the evidence for a debasement of the tetradrachm initiated during the sole rule of Gallienus in 259/260 (pp. 116-25). Christiansen suggests that this may have contributed to the climactic loss of confidence in the currency in Egypt that followed Aurelian’s attempt to replace older tetradrachms with an even more heavily debased standard in 273/274.

Chapter 8 suggests that Probus made another attempt to replace older coinage with debased tetradrachms, which at last reduced the billon coins to little more than bronze coins covered with a silver wash (pp. 126-34). This chapter also argues that the date of the last issue of special Alexandrian tetradrachms before the currency reform of Diocletian was probably 296-297.

Chapter 9 summarizes the results of the previous chapters and draws out some concluding suggestions (pp. 135-42). One of these is that the high degree of monetization displayed in the coin hoards does not conflict with the efficient credit system that appears in the papyri.

Each chapter includes endnotes linked to the bibliography at the end. The book is copiously illustrated with photographs, numerous graphs and charts, and long catalogues of hoards that include the percentages of coins from various emperors in each hoard and other relevant data.

This book is a reliable and indispensable treatment of its topic. Despite a few brief comments about bronze coinage early in the book, it quickly becomes apparent that it is devoted almost entirely to a study of hoards of billon tetradrachms. This explains why the numerical system identifying the hoards represents only fragmentary extracts of a more complete inventory of coin hoards that Christiansen published in an earlier article.3 The limitations on attempts to derive statistically useful information from the poorly recorded bronze hoards certainly justify Christiansen’s concentration on the billon coins. Uninitiated readers still may have found it helpful if this focus and related movements in his arguments had been made a bit clearer in the very first chapter and at a few other key points in which knowledge of previous research is assumed. For example, figures 10-18 and tables I-IX could have been more clearly identified as applying only to hoards of billon coins (not simply “all hoards” as in the title of table V; see pp. 160-201).

For readers familiar with Christiansen’s earlier work, however, it will be readily apparent that his focus on the billon coins in this book represents a logical extension of his previous research on the role that debasements of these coins played in the broader Roman economy. Such readers will immediately detect that criticisms of Christiansen’s earlier groundbreaking attempts to quantify the activity of the Alexandrian mint and its broader implications have tempered his willingness in the present study to extrapolate to absolute numerical figures about imperial minting activity (e.g., pp. 22, 92-93, 97). This has not deprived the reader of illuminating inferences from statistics on the relative proportions of coins from various years in the hoards. The more restrained methodology apparent in this approach is difficult to criticize. Christiansen is surely correct in insisting that regardless of how one views absolute estimates derived from these statistics, the relative proportions themselves must be explained and can fruitfully be employed in studies of the Roman economy (pp. 22, 92-93, 137-38).

The great value of this book is its complement to quantitative research based on the relative quantities and other data extracted from coins preserved in existing coin collections. Coin collections typically are shaped by the collectors’ efforts to acquire a limited quantity of the best samples of as many types as possible (pp. 30, 51, 137-38). As Christiansen’s earlier work indicates, this does not negate the use of the many stray finds and coins of unknown provenance preserved in collections for inferences about the ancient economy. But hoards more directly represent the interests of the ancient individuals who deposited the hoards and the availability of the coins in circulation when each hoard was created, supplemented, and/or forgotten. The quantitative data from hoards thus provides a crucial methodological control on inferences about ancient minting activity that may be inferred from collections. The statistics gathered from hoards allow one to wrestle more effectively with possible relations between minting activity and military events, famines and other natural disasters, debasements of coinage, and imperial efforts to defray public expenditures (e.g., pp. 19-30, 86-97, 99-100, 106-109).

Christiansen repeatedly cautions the reader, however, that even the quantitative data from hoards has often been corrupted or rendered doubtful as a result of poor recording by archaeologists and collectors, pilfering and other ways in which coins were removed from the hoards after their modern discovery, mishandling or mixing of hoards, or other misfortunes (e.g., pp. 17-19, 35-39, 50-51, 60, 74, 81). He also consistently demonstrates that efforts to establish relationships between minting activity and specific events from known political and social history are often tenuous (e.g., pp. 24-29, 54, 93, 110-11, 122-24, 139). This does not prevent him from making cautious suggestions about such potential relationships, many of which deserve further exploration (e.g., pp. 42-43, 85-86, 97, 99-101, 106-107, 112). But despite the many insights and suggestions that appear in the individual chapters of this book, much of it is restricted to restrained commentary and cataloguing of data rather than the advancement of a fully developed overarching thesis. Consequently this book provides an excellent starting point for researchers who are dependent on precisely this kind of foundational material for their own historiographical pursuits.

Perhaps the one more general point that emerges most clearly from this book is a subdued reminder of the methodological virtue of the painstaking research necessary for the production of quantitative data. This type of study is hardly new to research on Alexandrian coinage. For example, some of Christiansen’s conclusions are explicit elaborations or corrections of the much older proposals and observations of J. G. Milne (e.g., pp. 39, 52-53, 81, 90, 129). Nevertheless, this book represents one of many recent examples of the gradual emergence in the last few decades of a more rigorously quantitative approach in archaeology, ancient demography, numismatics, and other fields allied with the study of ancient history. This development unfortunately may have a minimal impact on the design of degree programs in areas in the study of antiquity that have stubbornly resisted any more than a perfunctory bow to the value of mathematics in a liberal arts education. But Christiansen’s book and others like it will be welcomed by individuals who remind us that discussions of ancient economies and related political history should ideally be based on at least a few pieces of evidence that can be tested with some semblance of scientific rigor (cf. p. 22).

Full appreciation of this small book will be restricted to a limited range of specialists. Although the first chapter successfully invites a broad readership into its discussion, the treatment of the subject matter unavoidably becomes technical rather quickly. In spite of the need for this warning, most of Christiansen’s conclusions and arguments will still be accessible to any student of Roman history without prior study of Alexandrian coinage. As with a number of Christiansen’s other studies, this book will deservedly become the standard resource for any discussion of its topic for many years to come. It certainly should be given a wide reading among individuals interested in Roman Egypt, Roman provincial policy, and ancient economic history.


1. E.g., see Erik Christiansen, Coins of Alexandria and the Nomes: A Supplement to the British Museum Catalogue (London: Department of Coins and Medals, British Museum, 1991); Erik Christiansen and Anne Kromann, Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum: The Royal Collection of Coins and Medals, Danish National Museum: Vol. 41, Alexandria-Cyrenaica (Copenhagen: Danish National Museum, 1974).

2. Most notably Erik Christiansen, The Roman Coins of Alexandria: Quantitative Studies (2 vols.; Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1988).

3. Erik Christiansen, “The Roman Coins of Alexandria (30 B.C. to A.D. 296): An Inventory of Hoards,” Coin Hoards 7 (1985) 77-140. Access to this article is recommended for anyone seeking the most profitable use of the book.