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Two Roman Alexandrian tetradrachm hoards


By Tom Buijtendorp


Roman coin hoards from Egypt are mainly buried around 70 CE, around 170 CE and around 300 CE, linked to political developments during that period. Recently coins of two Roman tetradrachm hoards came to the market related to the first two hoard horizons. As such, they have an interesting story to tell. Both will be discussed here.


The early hoard


Fig 1 Lot of 10 tetradrachms of Nero with the typical hoard patina from the same hoard. All coins minted in 64-65 CE (year LIA = 11). Obverse NERW KLAU KAIS SEB GER, radiate bust of Nero right, wearing aegis; reverse AUTO-KRA, eagle standing left, palm over shoulder, L IA (year 11) right, sometimes with simpulum behind. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr SP 22459.


A collection of 83 tetradrachms minted in Alexandria recently was sold by Forum Ancient Coins.[i] The typical patina of the coins, fortunately not very strongly cleaned, identifies them from the same find, showing a surface corroded with very small holes (fig 1). Although it is not sure whether the coins represent the complete hoard, they do reflect the characteristic composition of such hoard buried around 70 CE.


The year 69 CE started with emperor Galba (68-69 CE), followed by the brief reigns of Otho and Vitellius. The final winner was Vespasian (69-79 CE). This struggle for power left traces in many parts of the empire, including Egypt, the home base of Vespasian. Several hoard buried during this war are known from Egypt. Vespasian at that time was the general in charge of a Roman army of 60,000 soldiers suppressing the Jewish rebellion. After emperor Otho died and Vitellius assumed power spring 69 CE, plans started for an answer. July 1st, the two legions of Alexandria declared their support for Vespasian as new emperor, shortly after followed by the army in Judea were he stayed in Caesarea. Vespasian appointed his son Titus commander of the siege of Jerusalem and himself moved to Alexandria, the harbour in control of the strategic grain supply to Rome. His troops moved into Italy and December 20th Vitellius was killed, leaving Vespasian sole emperor while he was staying in Alexandria. After the winter, spending several months in Alexandria, Vespasian sailed to Rome. Although there was no fighting in Egypt, there is a clear concentration of tetradrachm hoards in this period. Five hoards of more the 100 tetradrachms buried in 69-70 CE have been published, the next dated larger Alexandrian tetradrachm hoard being buried in 129 CE. The tetradrachm at that time was the most important coin in circulation.


The hoard horizon around 70 CE is of historical interest as it clearly indicates that the civil war somehow impacted Egyptian society. An increase in hoards may be induced by a higher number of hoard burials and/or an increased number of people dying and as a result no being able to recollect the buried money. The presence of Vespasian may have induced an increase in burials. Being in need of money, he in Egypt sold state possessions and increased taxes, as a result creating economic insecurity. And after three usurpers before him, people may not have been sure yet whether he would become the winner. An invasion of Egypt by the army of Vitellius never occurred, but at that time may have been regarded a serious option by the local population and soldiers. So there was reason for preventive hoarding. And it is quite possible that quite some Egyptian soldiers went abroad to fight and never returned alive to Egypt. Next to a direct role in the fight against Vitellius, Egyptian soldiers also may have been send to Judea to replace soldiers who left for the fight against Vitellius.


Fig 2. Tetradrachm of Vespasian with LA before his bust indicating  year 1 (1 July – end August 69 CE). Obverse AUT TIT FLAUIOU ESPASIAN KAIS, laureate head right, date LA before; reverse EIPHNH, Eirene standing left, flower in right, caduceus in left. Weight 11.819g, maximum diameter 24.5mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX22968.


Fig 3. Tetradrachm of Vespasian with LB before his bust indicating  of year 2 (end August 69 – end August 70 CE). Obverse AUTOK KAIS SEBA OUESPASIANOU, laureate head right, date LB before; reverse EIPHNH, Eirene standing left, flower in right, caduceus in left. Weight 12.626g, maximum diameter 26.2mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX22978.


The most recent coins in this hoard are three tetradrachms of Vespasian, one minted in year 1 and two minted in year 2 (fig 2-3). For establishing the burial date, it is important to understand that the Egyptian year ended at the end of August. As a result, the first year of the reign of Vespasian in the Alexandrian calendar only lasted two months from the moment he was supported by the Egyptian legions July 1st.  This means his year 2 coins may have been minted during the last part of the civil War between end August and December 21 of 69 CE. The ratio of 2:1 of year 2 versus year 1 coins in the hoard could be translated into a burial date two times two months after the New Year, somewhere in December 69. Unfortunately, the sample of just three coins does not allow such a precise dating. First of all, the number is much too small from a statistical perspective. And usually minting volumes were higher during the first months of a new emperor, meaning that year 1 coins of Vespasian could be overrepresented. A burial before December 69 CE as a result remains a serious possibility. At the same time, a later burial remains a possibility as well. The hoard coins of Vespasian seem to be worn, although corrosion makes it difficult to judge. One of the coins is heavily corroded. The other two Vespasian coins weight 11,819 (year 1) and 12,626 (year 2) grams, on average 12,223 gram. This is above the average of 11,935 gram for all 57 hoard coins. The lower hoard average is not the result of a long average circulation time as the average age is only about 5 years. This indicates the apparent high wear may reflect weak strikes of the coins. One of the year 2 coins shows an irregular/cracked flan.


Fig 4 Tetradrachm of Galba with LA before his bust indicating year 1 (9 June to end August 68 CE). Obverse LOUK LIB SOULP GALBA KAIS SEB AUT, date LA before, laureate head right; reverse KRATHSIS, Kratesis standing facing, head left, holding Nike and trophy, star left. Weight 12.713g, maximum diameter 23.7mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX22979.

Fig 5 Tetradrachm of Galba with LB before his bust indicating year 2 (end August 68 CE – 15 January 69 CE). Obverse LOUK LIB SOULP GALBA KAIS SEB AU, laureate head right, LB (year 2) below chin; reverse RWMH, helmeted and cuirassed bust of Roma right, holding spear and shield, star in front. Weight 12.137g, maximum diameter 25.8mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX22958.

Fig 6 Tetradrachm of Claudius minted in year 6 (45-46 CE). Obverse TI KLAUDI KAIS SEBA GERMANI AUTOKR, laureate head right, date LS (year 6) before; reverse MESSALINA KAIS SABAS, Messalina as Ceres standing facing, head left, two small figures in right, two stalks of grain in left. Weight 12.361g, maximum diameter 24.9mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX22974.

Galba, who 's reign lasted seven months, is represented with three coins as well, in this case two of his first Alexandrian year (June – August 68 CE) and one of his second year (September 68 – 15 January 69) (fig 4-5). Here again, the numbers are too small to compare the relative share with the share of Vespasian coins.  The average weight of 12,040 gram is above the average of the hoard. All other coins are minted for Nero except of one tetradrachm of Claudius (fig 6).


Fig 7 Early tetradrachm of Nero minted in year 5 (end August 58 – end August 59 CE). Obverse NERWN KLAU KAIS SEBA GER AUTO, laureate head right; reverse IPHNH across field, Eirene standing left, holding caduceus and helmet, date LE (year 5) right. Weight 10.625g, maximum diameter 26.1mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX32002.


Fig 8 Lot of 16 year 12 coins of Nero, the highest Alexandrian volume year for this emperor. Obverse NERW KLAU KAIS SEB GER, radiate bust of Nero right, wearing aegis; reverse AUTO-KRA, bust of Alexandria right, wearing elephant head headdress, L IB (year 12) right. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX22458.


Fig 9 Off centre obverse from the high volume Neronian minting year 12 (65-66 CE). Obverse NERW KLAU KAIS SEB GER AU, radiate bust right wearing aegis; reverse AUTOKRA, draped bust of Alexandria right wearing elephant-skin headdress, dated LIB ( year 12).  Weight 12.732g, maximum diameter 23.6mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX22950.


Fig 10 Bad flan from the high volume Neronian minting year 12 (65-66 CE). Obverse NERW KLAU KAIS SEB GER AU (or similar), radiate bust right wearing aegis; reverse AUTOKRA, draped bust of Alexandria right wearing elephant-skin headdress, dated LIB (year 12). Weight 12.327g, maximum diameter 27.1mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX22973.


The overall pattern is representative for the first half century of Roman coinage of tetradrachms in Alexandria. This coinage started in 20/21 CE for Tiberius (14 – 37 CE) but was not continued for Caligula (37 – 41 CE). And for unclear reasons the tetradrachms of Tiberius disappeared out of circulation, explaining their absence in this hoard about half a century later. In the years 2-6 of Claudius (41 – 54 CE) the coinage was restarted with a focus on coins with reference to Messalina on the reverse like the coin from the hoard (fig 6). For Nero the coinage started only in his year 3 and volumes were modest until year 6, and zero in year 7 and 8. These early coins of Nero showed the deity Eireine on the reverse and a young bust of Nero resembling the style of his predecessor Claudius (fig 7.). Eireine was Greek for peace; the equivalent of the Roman Pax.


Then, in year 9 (63-64 CE), a new coinage was started for Nero in an adjusted style and with new types. While coins of year 9 are rare and are not present among the hoard coins, volumes in year 10-14 were high and produced the bulk of the hoard coins. Generally, year 12 showed the highest volume and is also best presented in this case with 25 coins compared to 18 coins each for year 11 and 13 (fig 8). The high production volume in year 12 is reflected by minting errors like of centre strikes (fig 9) and bad flans (fig 10). With 10 coins, the number of coins of the last Neronian year 14 is lower, reflecting the shorter period involved (end August 67 – 9 June 68 CE) due to the dead of Nero. In this sample, there are only 2 coins present of year 10. Most coins are minted quite well and all coins have a 0 degree die axis, with as only exception a 315 degrees axis for a coin minted in year 13 of Nero (fig 12).


Fig 11 Tetradrachm of Nero with a nice portrait of his wife Poppaea. Obverse NERW KLAU KAIS SEB GER AU, radiate head right; reverse POPPAIA SEBASTH, draped bust of Poppaea right, date L IA right (year 11). Weight 12.597g, maximum diameter 24.2mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX22975.


Fig 12 Tetradrachm of Nero with a galley, representing his visit to Greece in 66-67 CE. Obverse NERW KLAU KAIS SEB GER, radiate bust left wearing aegis, date LIG before; reverse SEBASTOFOROS, galley sailing right, two dolphins below. Weight 12.430g, maximum diameter 24.3mm, die axis 315o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX22953.


Well known are the coins for Poppaea, the wife of Nero, minted until 65 CE in Alexandria and an important source for her appearance. She is represented in this hoard with a nice portrait (fig 11). In year 13 the coins of Alexandria commemorated both divus Augustus and divus Tiberius, present in this hoard with 14 coins. The same year, the reverse with a galley showed the sojourn of Nero in 67-68 CE in Greece (fig 12). His visit to the pan-Hellenic games in Greece was shown in the last year 14 by a row of Greek deities like Argeia, commemorating his visit of the festival of Hera at Argos. Other examples in the hoard are Apollo, Apollo Aktios, Poseidon Isthmios and Zeus. In several years, the local Egyptian deities Serapis and Alexandria wearing the African elephant headdress are present. The same is the case with the eagle, a regular type for tetradrachms from other cities as well.  


The tetradrachms were at the core of the Roman coin circulation in Egypt as hardly any other silver coin entered the province, even not the Roman silver denarius. And the didrachm, half a tetradrachm, was very rare. The first tetradrachms of Tiberius were already debased coins of about 50% silver. During the reign of Nero, the tetradrachms of Alexandria weighted 11 to 14 gram and contained an amount of silver comparable to one Roman denarius at that time. After year 3 of Vespasian the minting volumes went down. As a result, tetradrachms of Nero still played an important role in the Egyptian circulation a century after they have been minted, as a second hoard illustrates. 


The second later hoard


Fig 13 Tetradrachm of Nero of the later hoard minted in year 9. Obverse NERW KLAU KAIC CEB GER AUTO, laureate head right; reverse POPPAIA CEBACTOY, draped bust of Poppaea right, star over ENA (year 9) right. Weight 11.166g, maximum diameter 25.0mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX41023.

Fig 14 Tetradrachm of Traian of the later hoard. Obverse AVT TPAIAN API - CEB GEPM DAKIK, laureate head right, star before; reverse bust of Zeus right, wearing taenia, date LI - H in fields (year 18). Weight 13.124g, maximum diameter 26.4mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX41047.

Fig 15 Tetradrachm of Hadrian of the later hoard. Obverse AUT KAIC - TRA ADRIANOC CEB, laureate head left, slight drapery; reverse Demeter standing left, wreathed with grain, veil floating out right, stalks of grain and poppy heads in right, long torch in left, L / K - A (year 21) in fields. Weight 13.377g, maximum diameter 26.3mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX41045.

Fig 16 Tetradrachm of Antoninus Pius of the later hoard. Obverse ANTWNEINOC CEB EYCEB, laureate head right; reverse Isis - Tyche standing facing, head right, rudder in right, small figure in left, IE - L (year 15) in fields. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RX41027. 

A second Group of 26 Alexandrian tetradrachms sold by Forum Ancient Coins shares another distinct patina with partly a green corroded layer.[i] Except for again one tetradrachm of Claudius of year 3 ( 42-43 CE), also here tetradrachms of Nero are the oldest coins (fig 13). Now there are also later coins minted for Traian (98-117 CE), Hadrian (117 – 138 CE) and Antoninus Pius (138 – 161 CE) (fig 14-16). Although the small amount restricts the statistical reliability, the composition strongly suggest this hoard was buried in the time of the second Egyptian hoard horizon around 165 CE. About 1/ 4th of the coins are minted by Nero, what fits the known pattern of Egyptian tetradrachm hoards buried in this period. The lack of coins of Marcus Aurelius (161 – 180 CE) may be explained by the small sample size and a possible burial date at the beginning of the hoard horizon. The youngest dated coin was minted in year 15 of Antoninus Pius, 151-152 CE.


Assuming a burial around 165 CE, the tetradrachms of Nero were about a century old when deposited. In that respect, the average weight of 12,258 gram for the seven Neronian coins is quite high. The average weight of the 49 Neronian tetradrachms in the older hoard is even a little less (11,962 gram) although the average age of these coins is only about 5 years. This may indicate the Neronian coins of the younger hoard have been preselected for a weight comparable to the 2nd century coins. The average weight of all 26 registered coins of this group is 12,084 gram in a range of 9.098 to 13.81 gram.


There may be a relation to the Antonine plague that started in 165 CE and lasted several years with a devastating impact in Egypt as well. The pandemic is also known as the Plague of Galen because the physician Galen (c. 130-200 CE) described the effects. Papyrological information from Egypt offers a flavour of the deadly impact with a dramatic demographic contraction. However, researchers still debate the intensity. Analysis of coin hoards of this period may contribute to this research.


[i] Coins nr. RX 41023 – 41049 (no 41031 not listed).


[i] Two lots of 16 and 10 coins (SP 22459-22460) and 57 single coins numbered RX 22938 – 23003 (9 numbers in this row not used).


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