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ANCIENT ARABIAN COINAGE: The Role of Women in Nabataean Society

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This week I read a dissertation by Saudi scholar and women's rights activist Hatoon Ajwad al Fassi, entitled Women and Power in Northern Arabia: Nabataea. (Download at academia.edu here.) The author provides numerous examples from papyri, funerary inscriptions and coin evidence which demonstrate the unique role women played in the ancient caravan kingdom. She also advocates for women's rights in Saudi Arabia (a brave woman indeed), claiming that women in pre-Islamic Arabian societies enjoyed more freedom and autonomy than they do now. It's an interesting example of archaeology and ancient numismatics informing modern political discourse.

Nabataean women enjoyed a legal status which allowed them to own property (including slaves), conduct a wide variety of economic transactions without the guardianship of men, and inherit and bequeath estates. They had a great deal of autonomy and responsibility over family and clan life, including marriage, divorce, parentage, and custody. They also played significant roles as temple priestesses. No ancient society came even close to granting women the rights they enjoyed in Nabataea, except perhaps Palmyra, also a caravan culture. One reason for this social arrangement may have been the long absence of men on trade missions. Women had to keep the settlements running in good order while the men were away. Here is a selection of Nabataean coins from my collection that demonstrate the importance of women in Nabataea...


A sela, or drachm, of Obodas II, c. 30-9 BC, and a Denomination B bronze. Obodas initiated a coinage reform that included the queen's bust on every silver coin. Her name is not given in the inscription but we know her to be Hagaru. The bronze also presents the king and queen in jugate busts with double cornucopia on the reverse, a design that would become an idée fixe in Nabataean minting until the end of the kingdom...



From the time of Obodas' reform, no silver coin would be minted that did not include the bust of the queen, a unique paradigm in ancient minting. Here is Aretas IV, 9 BC - AD 40. Again, the queen's name is left out of the inscription, but we know her to be Huldu. In AD 16, Aretas would marry Shaqilat I, whose name would appear on the coinage, as it does on the reverse of this Denomination C bronze...



When Rabbel II took the throne in AD 70, he was merely a boy, and his mother served as regent. She is pictured on the drachms and bronzes of this period and named as the queen mother on the drachm. It was obviously important to the Nabataeans to establish the matrilineal legitimacy of the new king. Notice that the women on Nabataean coins are invariably veiled...



When Rabbel married his sister Gamilat in 76 AD, she appeared on the coinage as the new queen...



Two commemorative issues. When Aretas and Huldu's first child was born in AD 4/5, the event was celebrated by a coin that featured the ubiquitous double cornucopia, a palm branch, and her initials. She was Phasaelis, who would eventually be married to Herod Antipas and suffer the ignominy of a scorned bride when the Judaean king fell in love with his brother's wife Herodias. It's instructive to note that Aretas was willing to commemorate the birth of his first girl child on a coin. He did not strike any coins to commemorate the births of his other children, even the boys.

In AD 16, Aretas IV married Shaqilat I. (It is assumed that the previous queen, Huldu, died, although there is no record of the event.) The king issued a coin commemorating the wedding which shows him in full military regalia on the obverse, with the queen on the reverse, raising her hand in a gesture of peace and greeting. The queen appears in this friendly pose on several other coin types issued by Obodas II and Aretas IV...


Edited by JAZ Numismatics
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Very interesting writeup.

It was a trip to Petra that sowed the seeds for my ancient coin collection. We fell for buying fakes from the sellers there, and I quickly realized my mistake. However, I was shocked when I researched what the actual genuine coins cost. Before, I thought they would be a fortune, so eventually I started collecting them.

Here's one of my few Nabataean coins.


Nabataean Kingdom. Petra. Aretas IV, with Shaqilat
9 BCE-40 CE
Æ 17 mm, 3,24 g
Ex Tareq Hani collection


And here are a few photos from a visit to Petra a number of years ago.






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Yes the women are certainly prominent on Nabatean coins.

I wonder if some Celtic peoples also didn't give women a lot more status and power. Boudica's daughters were meant to inherit the Iceni Kingdom but the Romans prevented it.

Malichus II, 40-70
Petra/Raqmu. Bronze, 16.6mm, 2.84g. Malichus II and Queen Šagīlat II, jugate laureate and draped right. Malichus / Two cornucopias, crossed and filleted / Šagīlat (Meshorer 140).

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Here's a scarcer early type, a very Hellenistic AE19 of Aretas III (87- 62 BCE), and minted in Damascus rather than Petra:


And a more distinctively "Nabataean-looking" coin of Malichus II (40- 70 CE):



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14 hours ago, kirispupis said:

It was a trip to Petra that sowed the seeds for my ancient coin collection.

Those are beautiful images of Petra. I hope to visit someday myself. And your example of the Aretas IV bronze is quite good - full, round flan, well-centered, complete inscription. You can't do much better.

13 hours ago, John Conduitt said:

I wonder if some Celtic peoples also didn't give women a lot more status and power. Boudica's daughters were meant to inherit the Iceni Kingdom but the Romans prevented it.

Unfortunately, Celtic records are almost non existent, so we just don't know. There were occasional prominent leaders like Boudica, and certain graves of royal women have been discovered, but almost all information about Celtic social structure comes second-hand from the Greeks and Romans, who of course considered them barbarians. The Nabataeans were nice enough to leave us plenty of papyri, monumental inscriptions, and coins, although they did not write down any of their history. There was no Nabataean Homer. Like many other ancient cultures, they likely had a strong oral tradition of story-tellers that traveled from one city to another, reciting their myths and genealogies.

11 hours ago, Parthicus said:

Here's a scarcer early type, a very Hellenistic AE19 of Aretas III (87- 62 BCE), and minted in Damascus rather than Petra:

That's a really great example of a difficult type. These coins are not properly considered Nabataean, but rather Damascene city issues - a Nabataean king just happened to rule the city for a short time. The design follows the city issues of previous Seleucid kings. I'm going to compose a separate thread about the issues of Aretas III in Damascus, but for now I'll post a similar coin by the earlier ruler Antiochos VII, only because my coin of Aretas III isn't as nice as yours.



Antiochus XII Dionysos, 87/6-84/3 BC.

AE21m 8.27g; Damascus Mint.

Obv.: Diademed head of Antiochos XII right.

Rev.: Tyche standing left, holding palm and cornucopia.

Ref.: HGC 9, 1331 

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