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A new Alexander tet from Memphis


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Recently, while going through some listings, I came across this coin and decided to bite. First, some history.


Egypt, Ptolemy I as satrap
with name and types of Alexander III
Memphis, c. 323/2 BCE
AR Tetradrachm, 16.09g
bv: Head of young Herakles r. wearing lionskin headdress.
Rx: AΛEΞANΔPoY Zeus seated l. holding eagle and scepter, in l. field, head of Amun-Ra (as ram) r., wearing double-plume crown, monogram under throne
CPE-4, Price-3964

When Alexander the Great rolled into Egypt in 331 BCE, he was unopposed. The majority of the Persian army in Egypt had been defeated at the Battle of Granicus in 334 BCE, and the satrap Sabakes had died with them. The new satrap, Mazakes, wisely chose to avoid bloodshed and opened the gates to Alexander.

Alexander spent some time in Egypt and did some tourism, but the actions we're most interested in are the following.

  1. He installed a new satrap, Kleomenes of Naukratis. It's generally believed that Mazakes was reassigned to a satrapy in Mesopatamia. Note that there's some debate over whether Kleomenes was actually satrap, but what is not disputed is he held the power in Egypt.
  2. He began construction of a new city named Alexandria.

He then left for more merry adventures in Baktria and India. Meanwhile, Kleomenes proceeded to write the handbook and corruption. He stole money in a vast number of ways including export duties, price manipulation, and outright bribery. One famous example involved his son, who was supposedly eaten by a crocodile. Kleomenes ordered all the crocodiles killed, which was an issue back then since they were sacred animals. The priests collected whatever they could in order to save the animals, and Kleomenes then took all of that money and decided against killing the reptiles.

During Alexander's lifetime, he was informed of all the ills of Kleomenes, but he preferred to conquer rather than rule. However, when Hephaistion died, Alexander offered Kleomenes a deal that we assume he was smart enough to not refuse: build a grand monument to Hephaistion and Alexander would forgive any past offenses.

Unluckily for Kleomenes, Alexander died shortly after Hephaistion and Ptolemy was assigned the satrapy of Egypt (again, it's uncertain whether Ptolemy was actually satrap or another powerful position). Aware that he could not coexist with Kleomenes, Ptolemy had him executed.

Now, onto the coin.

First, it obviously has a big chip. That allowed me to afford the coin, because purists dismissed it but I gobbled it up since all the major details are still there. My story about the chip is that clearly someone (most likely Ptolemy II) climbed up the Pharos and threw it off for good luck. It then chipped on the rocks below.

For a good summary and speculation on this issue, see the Ockinga and Sheedy article listed below. In summary, recent research has challenged the earlier attributions that this was a lifetime

The first question is: where was it minted? Was it in Memphis, the capital of Egypt at time of Alexander's arrival, or Alexandria, which would become the capital? While there remains some debate, most assign it to Memphis. The current belief is that the Alexandria mint began issuing coins around 320 BCE, and this was issued before that.

More uncertain is: when was it minted? Here, there has been a gradual adjustment downward.

To better understand the logic on when it was minted, it's necessary to look at the mint mark, which consists of a crowned ram's head, a solar disc, and two upright ostrich feathers. It was this mint mark that led Lenormant in 1849 to determine that the symbol alluded to Alexander as Zeus Ammon, and the image was of Amon-Re.

Later on Svoronos studied a vast collection of coins gifted from an Alexandrian merchant to the Athens Numismatic Museum. He deduced that the thunderbolt on some of these coins matched later issues with Ptolemy's name, and therefore assigned those coins to Ptolemy I. This coin and one other he assigned to the period of Kleomenes of Naukratis.

Next came Newell, who examined the famous Demanhur hoard, which contained very few of these tets. Nevertheless, for some reason he described the mint mark of my coin as the god Khnum. He provided no reason for it, but for some time the attribution stuck. When Newell dated the hoard to 318 BCE, he then surmised that the Egyptians were the first to depict Zeus with legs crossed, and that it was copied by Sidon in 325/324 BCE. Therefore, he estimated that Alexander coin production started in Egypt in roughly 326/325 BCE. Finally, he also associated a large number of tets bearing a rose to Egypt based on how common they were in the hoard.

In 1974, Zervos performed a die study of the coinage and agreed with Newell that their strong similarities suggested a short minting period and his research also led to a slightly later beginning date for minting, at 324-322 BCE. He also proposed, based on a breakage in the dies, that the mint may have been transferred from Memphis to Alexandria in 320 BCE.

Price, who is the gold standard for studies in Alexander coinage, mostly agreed with Newell here and added little. In 1997, however, Le Rider challenged the statement that the Memphis issues were the first to cross Zeus' legs based on finding more Sidon tets in Egypt than Egyptian tets in Sidon. He therefore concluded that the Egyptians had copied Sidon and therefore the Egyptian tets were minted later, either at the very end of Kleomenes' reign or at the beginning of Ptolemy's.

Lorber, the top expert in Ptolemaic coinage, mostly agreed with Le Rider and gave a date of 323 BCE for their start. While she didn't rule out Kleomenes, she felt Ptolemy was the more likely minter.

While there's been no successful attempt to determine a uniform system of mint marks within Alexander's empire, there has been a lot of speculation about this particular one. Since Alexander the Great was associated with Amon-Re, though it's uncertain whether he ever went through the ceremonies to be pharaoh, it's thought that this mint mark's goal was to justify his position through the association.

It's interesting to note that, while Alexander's silver coinage was convenient for both Greeks and Persians, since one could identify either Zeus or Ba'al on the reverse, such associations didn't work in Egypt. This was very much a foreign currency, so the mint mark may have served as a familiar sign to Egyptians. While earlier it was believed to associate Alexander the Great with Amon-re, Lorber and Ockinga/Sheedy identify it as Philip III. In my opinion, it may not have mattered. One needed to only associate Alexander with Amon-re and the rest of the hereditary rulers should follow.

The one question I'm not sure has been answered, though, is this coinage is believed to be early but was not the first silver coinage minted in Egypt under Alexander's name. Through die studies, that's thought to be the rose mint mark. Therefore, if all of these were minted beginning around 322 BCE, then why wasn't the Ram's head minted first? The rose coinage was far more abundant as proven both through finds and dies. That question makes me think we're not done yet examining these coins.



Sheedy, K & Ockinga, B 2015, The Crowned ram's head on coins of Alexander the Great and the rule of Ptolemy as satrap of Egypt. in P Wheatley & E Baynham (eds), East and west in the world empire of Alexander: essays in honour of Brian Bosworth. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK ; New York, pp. 197-239.

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Hi @kirispupis,

Great coin and good write-up but to be clear, Lorber’s CPE makes this issue the first silver one by Ptolemy in Egypt. It is CPE-4. The rose issues go from CPE-5 to CPE-22 (excluding a few gold issues in that group).

  • “The display of Amun's head in a recognizably Egyptian form on Ptolemy's first issue of coinage announced the succession of the new king, Philip Arrhidaeus, within the Egyptian tradition. Ptolemy later proceeded to add a shrine to Philip in the temple of Amun at Karnak.”

- Broucheion 

Edited by Broucheion
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4 hours ago, Broucheion said:

Great coin and good write-up but to be clear, Lorber’s CPE makes this issue the first silver one by Ptolemy in Egypt. It is CPE-4. The rose issues go from CPE-5 to CPE-22 (excluding a few gold issues in that group).

  • “The display of Amun's head in a recognizably Egyptian form on Ptolemy's first issue of coinage announced the succession of the new king, Philip Arrhidaeus, within the Egyptian tradition. Ptolemy later proceeded to add a shrine to Philip in the temple of Amun at Karnak.” 

Interesting. I have CPE on order, so I wasn't able to reference it directly. My statement came from Ockinga/Sheedy.

According to Zervos, the evidence of wear on examples in the Demanhur hoard indicated that the four issues of coins with the rose symbol were the earliest....

It is therefore evident that the minting of an Alexander coinage in Egypt was dominated by issues with three successive symbols: the rose, the crowned ram’s head, and the thunderbolt.

At the very least, it seems the ordering is controversial. That being said, the other arguments make a lot more sense if the Amun coinage came first.

One other thing I have a difficult time accepting is that Kleomenes didn't mint any coinage. He was the most corrupt guy in the entire empire and he didn't mint any coins?

What I wonder is if Kleomenes minted the ram's head coins for use toward Hephaistion's monument. The limited dies are a sign that he quit that effort when he learned of Alexander's death. The rose issue was then minted by Ptolemy when he took over and it lasted roughly until the mint was moved to Alexandria.

Another theory, based on my limited understanding that roses were used in ancient Egypt for funeral purposes, is that the rose coinage was intended for Hephaistion's monument. The Amon coinage was then either used for some prior purpose by Kleomenes, or came after the rose coinage and were Ptolemy's first coins.

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Hi @kirispupis,

You will see in CPE that Kleomenes minted silver hemiobols and AE chalkous that look very different than Ptolemaic coinage. CPE was published three years later than the Sheedy article so CPE’s conclusions are a bit more up to date, but of course new research could confirm or counter the current thinking.

- Broucheion 

[Edit: The silver and AE are attributed to either Kleomenes or Ptolemy as Satrap.]

Edited by Broucheion
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Nice analysis @kirispupis. One interesting thing is that there is no silver in Egypt so the flans had to be imported if they were struck there or perhaps were melted down Athenian owls, sort of a lingua franca of coinage in the Near East, mainly used to pay other Greeks (mercenaries, etc. and for international trade). The Egyptian themselves still bartered in kind for their needs as they had done for thousands of years. I can't comment that knowledgably about the Amen-Ra (not Khnum clearly from my Egyptological studies) symbol, however it may be a reference to Zeus-Ammon, who famously Alexander visited his Oracle at Siwa. The temple of Amen-Ra still stands there today, though in a fairly ruined state.

Another reason is that it would not be Khnum is that the god supposedly had the Oracle of the Potter written in which it is predicted that the Greeks will be driven out of the city of the belt-wearers (Alexandria) and the country returned to its native state. So Khnum was sort of an anti-Greek symbol whereas there was syncretization with Amen-Ra and Zeus.

Edited by Ancient Coin Hunter
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