Review: Alexandrian Coins

Keith Emmett. Alexandrian Coins. Lodi, Wisconsin: Cleo’s Cabinet, 2001. 332 pp., b/w illus., 13 line drawn pls., 5 maps. Hb. ISBN 1879080052. $50.00.

There can be little doubt that Alexandrian Coins is an important work for the student of the Roman provincial coinage of Egypt, representing, as it does, the first serious attempt to list all known Alexandrian types since J. Vogt published his monumental Die alexandrinischen Münzen in 1924. Keith Emmett now provides numismatists with a new catalogue of 8340 Alexandrian and nome coins, including the lead and glass tokens, as well as the regular billon, potin, and bronze issues, based on data compiled from the major published collections and auction catalogues. Even material in the unpublished, but important, collections of the Royal Ontario Museum and the American Numismatic Society is included. The comprehensive nature of the catalogue will certainly recommend itself to those interested in Alexandrian coins. Indeed, almost as soon as the book was published, many dealers specializing in the coinage of Roman Egypt had already adopted Emmett’s numbering system. This fact alone will make the work extremely important to collectors of the series.

Nevertheless, Alexandrian Coins is not a book for beginners. The three paragraphs (p. xii) devoted to the history of Roman Egypt and the special currency of its closed economy are not really enough to provide a decent overview to any reader unfamiliar with the great complexities of the Roman administration and coinage in Egypt. Those seeking greater detail will still need to refer to the introduction in J.G. Milne’s Catalogue of Alexandrian Coins (1927) or to the discussion in E. Christiansen’s The Roman Coins of Alexandria (1988) and the ongoing volumes of Roman Provincial Coinage. However, Emmett’s remarks concerning the nome coinage (p. xv) do a good job of putting these interesting local issues into context. It is unfortunate that no space in the introduction is given over to commentary on the lead and glass tokens, whose true purpose is still somewhat uncertain.

In addition to the very brief historical and numismatic discussion, the bulk of the introduction is dedicated to presenting the reader with basic tools for interpreting the coins of Alexandria. Emmett describes the system of Egyptian regnal years in some detail and includes tables for both the Greek alphabetic numbering system and the expanded written forms of the various regnal years (pp. xii-xiii). Tables also indicate the diameters and weights of all known Alexandrian denominations including the early issues of Augustus, based on the earlier Ptolemaic model, and the unusual issues of Claudius, Aurelian and Domitius Domitianus (p. xiv). An overview of portrait types, described using a slightly expanded version of Milne’s alphanumeric abbreviation system, as well as the iconography of personifications and deities is provided to aid the reader in identifying coins more fully.

As the book was written with the collector in mind, the author felt obliged to include some sort index for gauging the rarity of the coins, but wisely avoided assigning market values to them. Emmett employs a scale of 1 (common) to 5 (extremely rare), but, as always, the real meaning of such values is vague. “A coin assigned a rarity value of 5 would likely be found in only one or two of the published major Alexandrian collections (p. xvii),” but even within the elite group of coins with a 5 rating, some are rarer than others. Let us take for example, one of this reviewer’s favourite rare Alexandrian reverse types: the Sarapis bust above giant foot issues of Hadrian (E1029) Antoninus Pius (E1653, E1803), Marcus Aurelius (E2173, E2254), Commodus (E2614) and Septimius Severus (E2715). All of these examples of the type are assigned a value of 5 as an indicator of their great scarcity, however, the ANS collection contains two specimens of Antoninus Pius (E1653) (one of which is currently on public display in the ANS exhibit of Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars), but only one of Septimius Severus (E2715), presumably E1653 is more common among the rare types than E2715. Of course, the chances of collectors finding either of these types on the market are very slim. Perhaps a more useful guide to rarity, which could benefit both collector and scholar, would have been to simply indicate the coin population for each type based on the author’s wide research.

The real meat of Alexandrian Coins appears in the 231 pages of tables describing the thousands of types compiled by the author. These tables are organized chronologically by emperor and associated family members and include the nome coinage when it was issued. The types of each emperor and relative who had coins struck in his or her name at the Alexandrian mint are treated in two tables. The first indicates by regnal year (and series in the case of Augustus and Livia) the type of portrait employed for each denomination, while the second provides a numbered list of reverse types with rarity ratings. An additional table is also included for Augustus in order to chart the years and denominations for which no obverse portraits were used. Separate tables appear at the end of the main coinage listings to describe the largely anonymous lead and glass issues.

Although this tabular cataloguing system is certainly functional and the data contained in it is important, the absence of any introductory commentary on its proper use and its eclectic organization may cause some confusion. Each obverse portrait table is printed with an abbreviation legend to aid the reader in understanding the contents. Thus, for example, according to the legend accompanying the table for Lucius Verus (p. 101), an entry for copper drachms of year 5 labelled “RlbLl” indicates that right facing bare headed (Rb) and laureate portraits (Rl), as well as left facing laureate portraits (Ll) were used for this issue and year. However, at the same time a general listing of portrait types, using Milne’s alphanumeric abbreviation system is given for the reign. It is unclear why Emmett’s new abbreviations are necessary, since Milne’s abbreviations, with which most students of Alexandrian coinage will already be familiar, convey the same information along with additional details of bust depiction. Returning to the example of Verus’ year 5 drachms, it would have been more efficient to simply mark the appropriate Milne abbreviations. As the tables currently stand, it is impossible for the reader to know whether Rl refers to Milne’s b (=head r., laureate), b2 (=head r., laureate, drapery by neck), k (=bust r., laureate, wearing cloak and cuirass) or all of them. Asterisks are also used in the portrait tables to designate “unusual” items (e.g. tetradrachms of Verus’ eighth and ninth regnal year), but there is no further explanation, either in the introduction or in the legends, as to what makes them so unusual.

The reverse type tables are far more useful. Here, every reverse type known from Emmett’s extensive study of published collections and sale catalogues is presented in descending order of denomination and then alphabetical order by type. Each type in turn can be cross-indexed with regnal years in order to determine its date of mintage and rarity value. The compilation and presentation of this information in one place is a real service to both scholars and collectors, and one for which the author should be congratulated. It is a far simpler matter to look up a particular type when the information has been collected in one place, rather than hunting through Sylloges and other catalogues of individual collections. The data is occasionally marred by errors in description, such as the direction of Nike on the diobols and obols of Augustus (E35 and E40) or the different known portrait types of Philip II (p. 173), as well as typographical mistakes, but an errata sheet available from the author corrects these problems.

The inclusion of items in the unpublished ANS and ROM collections is also an important feature of Emmett’s catalogue, although the descriptions of these pieces should be treated with some care. Descriptions of the ANS coins are based solely on those that appear in the Society’s online database (, and not on visual confirmation of the types by the author (p. viii). The failure to take a firsthand look at these coins is a little surprising, considering the Society’s traditional welcoming policy towards scholars and collectors wishing to visit the collection. Similarly, the author did not personally inspect the coins in the Royal Ontario Museum. Thus there is some possibility that these descriptions may contain inaccuracies or lack details that would have been caught through a visual review.

Readers should be warned that the tables are not always organized as one might expect, with the portrait table for a given emperor immediately followed by the table listing his reverse types. Instead, several portrait tables are often grouped together on a single page with the reverse type tables following after in chronological order. Likewise, it is unclear why the section on the lead coinage begins with an inserted “preliminary” list (pp. 219-220) of issues linked to specific emperors that fails to follow the tabular format otherwise used throughout the work. Admittedly, these are relatively minor annoyances, but they detract from the professional appearance of the work.

Although the book does not have as many photographic plates as the quantity and complexity of the material in the catalogue would warrant, the photographs that do appear are of stellar quality, both with respect to lighting and to the preservation of the coins photographed. The excellence of the images should come as little surprise, since they were provided by well-known dealers like Classical Numismatic Group, Dr. Busso Peus, and Freeman and Sear. Seven pages of photographs are devoted to particular themes, such as numismatic representations of the Pharos lighthouse (p. xxviii), depictions of Sarapis (p. 74D), and the special Zodiac and Heracles types of Antoninus Pius (pp. 74A-B), as well as a selection of other interesting reverses (pp. 74C, 118A-B). These are supplemented by thirteen plates of line drawings taken from F. Feuerdent’s Collections di Demetrio. Numismatique. Égypte ancienne. II. Domination romaine (1872) and V. Langlois’ Numismatique de Nomes d’Égypte sous l’administration romaine (1852). However, for most modern numismatists line drawings are a poor substitute for photographs. A photographic image of each emperor, taken from an Alexandrian coin, appears at the beginning of his or her respective obverse type table. The remainder of the photographs depicting some of the more impressive mythological and religious reverse types are sprinkled throughout the catalogue as insets accompanied by explanatory text.

Readers should be especially cautious about accepting many of Emmett’s interpretations of various mythological types in some of the insets. The majority of the explanations are based on the monolithic “lunar” and “myth-and-ritual” interpretive theory of Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths (1955), which has been heavily criticized by more recent classical scholars (e.g. see M. Reinhold, Past and Present (1972), p. 14 for the difficulties of Graves’ position and F. Graf, Greek Mythology (1993) pp. 35-56 for the general problems of universal mythological interpretations). Very few mainstream scholars would now support the view that the labours of Heracles (p. 74B) and Orpheus’ musical power over animals (p. 79) represent the archetype of prehistoric near eastern “sacred kings” and their ritual authority over the seasons. Likewise, Barbara Walker’s The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (1988), which the author cites for an (erroneous) etymology of the divine name “Triptolemos” (p. 49), has never been considered an authoritative source for the study of mythology. Her extreme feminist and neo-pagan reinterpretations of Greek myth are best ignored in a serious work.

The overall tabular format with fairly minimal photographic plates used by Alexandrian Coins stands firmly in the old tradition of Alexandrian catalogues as exemplified by Milne and others. Indeed, the use of a Courier font, similar to that employed by older typewriters, for the tables and a more standard Roman font for the introductory text and descriptions of photo insets, seems to be a purposeful stylistic homage to James Curtis’ The Tetradrachms of Roman Egypt (1957), in which the tables were printed as they came from the typewriter without any reformatting to make them match the typeface of the introductory text. The single coin portraits that appear at the start of each obverse type table are also reminiscent of the imperial Rogues’ Gallery at the beginning of Curtis’ work, although as mentioned above, Emmett’s images are far superior in quality.

While the desire to follow in the footsteps of earlier respected Alexandrian scholars is certainly laudable, the strict adherence to their format, which was often dictated by a lack of funding, holds Alexandrian Coins back from being the invaluable reference for the coinage of Roman Egypt that it could be. In the opinion of this reviewer, the greatest benefit to collectors and scholars of Alexandrian coins would be the development of a general type catalogue that looks to the models of more recent works on the local coinages of the Roman Empire, such as M. and K. Prieur’s The Syro-Phoenician Tetradrachms (2000) and the Roman Provincial Coinage series. These books not only provide detailed textual catalogues of types, but also go to great lengths to ensure that a photographic example of each of the types described appears in the plates. Their authors and editors realize that written descriptions are limited in what they can convey to the reader about the features of an individual coin and that thorough plates are needed to illustrate the vagaries of style and fabric. The plates and accompanying discussion in conjunction with a thorough catalogue provide complete coverage for a given series and serve as a useful tool for future researchers. Emmett has done much of the important legwork in compiling the basic list of Alexandrian types known from collections and public sales. This is half the battle won for a truly comprehensive type catalogue. It is hoped that upon this foundation others may build with a view to completing the victory.

—Oliver D. Hoover