Review: The Coinage System of Cleopatra VII and Augustus in Cyprus

Matthew Kreuzer. The Coinage System of Cleopatra VII and Augustus in Cyprus. No Publisher, 2004. Sb., 131pp., color illus. throughout. US$60.00.

The present volume represents a bold new departure in the treatment of late Ptolemaic and Roman provincial coinage on the island of Cyprus. Thanks to a remarkable display of numismatic free-thinking, the author reveals a much more complex and varied Cypriot system of coinage than has previously been suspected by most numismatic scholars, the centrepiece of which is a vast reattribution of coins normally given to other mints and rulers.

To begin, Kreuzer argues that all Ptolemaic silver bearing a certain mark must have been struck at Paphos, although it is generally agreed by most Ptolemaic specialists, following the exhaustive hoard study by I. Nicolau and O. Morkholm (Paphos, vol. 1: A Ptolemaic Coin Hoard [Nicosia, 1976]), that much of it was really produced at Alexandria. Their evidence, which is hard to ignore, shows a clear stylistic break between the issues attributed to Paphos and those of Alexandria. In addition, if all of the issues were from Paphos, there would be virtually nothing remaining at the Alexandrian mint, which seems highly implausible. Kreuzer’s Paphian attribution is not helped by the patently false assertion that Egypt lacked the firewood necessary to support metalworking, or by his peculiar use of the modern U.S. Mint as a model for the placement of mint facilities away from capitals and major commercial centers.

It is also suggested that the diademed heads found on late tetradrachms, normally considered to be a type immobilisé of the dynastic founder Ptolemy I Soter, should actually be interpreted as differentiated portraits of living Ptolemaic kings. While it is true that the style of these portraits can vary considerably from reign to reign, the general features and the consistent use of the aegis as an attribute all seem to point to the first Ptolemy as the model, rather than his later descendants. All of the known coin portraits of Ptolemaic rulers are very distinct from those of Ptolemy I and only rarely include divine attributes. Ptolemy III was the only one to appear on the coinage wearing the aegis, and this in combination with emblems of Helios, Poseidon, and Aphrodite (J.N. Svoronos, Ta Nomismata tou Kratous ton Ptolemaion [Athens, 1904], 1117). To support his position, Kreuzer makes the unconvincing argument that the late Ptolemies would not have produced silver coins without their own portraits because almost all of the contemporary Hellenistic monarchs and Roman magistrates used their own portraits.

While it is true that many kings did employ their own portraits, there was also a standing tradition of employing the fixed images of earlier rulers, particularly in periods of crisis. Thus, the portrait of Philetaerus appeared on most Attalid coinage until the introduction of the cistophoric tetradrachm, which of course employed no clear royal iconography of any kind. Likewise, the portrait of the Seleucid king Philip I Philadelphus became immobilized at the mint of Antioch after his death and continued to appear on the city’s tetradrachms until 17/16 BC (see A. Burnett et al., Roman Provincial Coinage, vol. 1 [London/Paris, 1992], 4124-4149). Tetradrachms bearing the portrait of the Seleucid king Antiochus VII even appear to have been struck by several Cappadocian monarchs, despite their using their own portraits on their drachms (see A. Houghton, C. Lorber, and O. Hoover, Seleucid Coins, part 2. Forthcoming). As for the Romans, prior to Julius Caesar no living individual had appeared on the coinage, only the effigies of illustrious ancestors. Because of the difficulties inherent in Kreuzer’s new portrait identifications, it is probably best to set them aside, lest they become the Ptolemaic equivalent of the old Alexander-as-Heracles theory. Although the latter came about as a product of early numismatic scholarship, the idea that Alexander the Great appears in the guise of Heracles on his well-known coinage was decisively overturned by Martin Price (The Coinage in the Name of Alexander the Great and Philip Arrhidaeus [Zurich/London, 1991], pp. 33-34) and others in the late twentieth century. Nevertheless, it still manages to live on as a virtual Nosferatu of popular ancient numismatics, unable to die a natural and well-deserved death and continuing to plague the living (for its most recent escape from the crypt, see M. Marotta and A. Zakelj, “Portraits and Representations of Alexander the Great,” The Celator [July 2000], pp. 6-20).

The main discussion of the Ptolemaic section revolves around a reconstruction of the bronze coinage system on Cyprus during the reign of Cleopatra VII. This includes the well-known bronze issues of the period, RPC I, 3901-3903, to which Kreuzer adds three additional bronze denominations of dubious connection to the last and most famous Ptolemaic queen.

The identification of an anepigraphic series of Zeus/Zeus Salaminios bronzes as issues of Cleopatra VII seems to be based on little beyond their association with Ptolemaic bronzes of the first-century BC in the Paphos excavations. While there is little reason to doubt a first century date, Kreuzer offers no evidence to connect the series with Cleopatra specifically or to Ptolemaic authority in general. No king or queen is named on the coins and the types borrow nothing from the standard repertoire of Ptolemaic iconography (i.e. Zeus-Ammon, eagles, cornucopiae, etc.). All things considered, these coins seem much more likely to be local civic issues than royal coins of Ptolemaic Cyprus.

The Ptolemaic origin of a bronze denomination (Svoronos 1160-1161) presented here as a fraction of the anepigraphic pieces is on much more certain footing since it bears the inscription, “of Ptolemy the King,” but the association with Cleopatra still seems quite fanciful. Kreuzer’s argument hinges entirely on a supposed resemblance between the female head (traditionally identified as Arsinoe III) on the obverse and the known portraits of Cleopatra on rare Cypriot bronze issues. The small module of the coins in question makes it difficult to argue either way from physiognomic traits. However, several features make Cleopatra VII an unlikely candidate for the woman depicted. The fabric and portrait style, which can be quite artistic, is radically different from the general crudeness of the known Cleopatra bronzes. They also lack the regular Cypriot mintmark that was standard for the island’s Ptolemaic bronzes in the later first century BC. Furthermore, the naming of Ptolemy in the reverse inscription, rather than Cleopatra, seems to tell against the author’s identification, for all of her other portrait coinages name her as the issuing authority. The total absence of any name identifying the woman makes one wonder whether she is not simply the representation of a goddess (Aphrodite?) rather than a queen. This view is also held by Catherine Lorber (personal correspondence, September 2005). Supporting this position is the fact that Ptolemaic queens were generally named either in the usual reverse legend or in a special obverse inscription when their images appeared on the coinage.

Likewise, the small bronze thunderbolt/eagle issue (Svoronos 1246), usually given to Ptolemy V, is here made an issue of Cleopatra on no real evidence other than the find of one example, “near a late Roman coin,” in the Paphos excavations and several others in connection with the Arsinoe III (Aphrodite?) type, which, as we have seen, is probably not a Cypriot issue of Cleopatra.

The largely baseless claims that underlie the reattribution of these fairly common bronze coins may tend to make readers suspicious that they have been made not so much as a result of questionable scholarship but as part of a marketing ploy. This feeling is perhaps strengthened by the large numbers of Svoronos 1160-1161 attributed to Cleopatra that are available for purchase on the author’s website. It probably does not need pointing out that the historical interest of a coin associated with Cleopatra VII makes it much more valuable on the market than one of the comparatively obscure Arsinoe III. Still, one must not hastily rush to judgment. Although the treatment of Ptolemaic Cyprus and the new identifications of certain coins as issues of Cleopatra VII are problematic to say the least, this disturbance of longstanding Hellenistic coin attributions is relatively minor in comparison with the riot of reattribution that follows in the discussion of Cyprus under the Romans. As many of these coins are already valued by collectors in their own right, and reattribution to Cyprus is not likely to enhance that value, it may be that the new attributions to Cleopatra are actually the work of a true believer.

An unusual denarius series of Marc Antony with the letter P secreted in the hair at the back of the triumvir’s neck (M. Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage [Cambridge, 1974], 542), and normally attributed to a mobile military mint, is associated by Kreuzer with the Cypriot mint of Paphos, on the grounds that the P served as a Paphian mintmark rather than the signature of a die engraver. This suggestion has very little to support it. While the author may be justified in disparaging the artistic quality of this series, poor workmanship does not preclude the desire of an artist to sign his work. Most problematic, however, is the fact that the letter is hidden within the obverse design, a common feature of engraver’s signatures (for example, see the signatures of the famous Syracusan engravers Euklidas and Euainetos), something almost unheard of for mintmarks. The whole purpose of mintmarks was to make the name of the issuing mint visible, either to advertise the status of the city responsible for the coinage, or in imperial situations, to control the currency in case of mint irregularities. Hiding a mintmark in the type would have been counterproductive.

Building further on this foundation of sand, the author invokes a supposed similarity of portrait style between several other mobile military mint issues of Antony (RRC 536 and 539) and this “Paphian” denarius as a means of reattributing them all to Cyprus. However, the stylistic argument is baseless. The chiseled portrait of Antony on RRC 542 is noticeably different from his fleshy and somewhat bulbous-nosed appearance on RRC 536 or his thinner aquiline-nosed visage on RRC 539. The claim that some of the latter “seem to have a P behind the ear” is unsubstantiated by the illustration on p. 65 and by the plates in RRC. Apparently as a bonus, the author throws in Antony’s Sol/augur denarius (RRC 533/2), also normally linked to a military mint, as another potential Cypriot issue, without providing any reason for the reattribution. The only vaguely plausible reattribution to Cyprus here is that of the “fleet coinage” of Antony’s lieutenant L. Bibulus, although not for the supposed stylistic associations that Kreuzer proffers. The Bibulan “fleet coinage” is regularly found in the east, including Cyprus, and therefore is likely to have been struck somewhere in the region, although Syria, the location preferred by RPC, may be a better candidate than Cyprus.

Similar bizarre associations and arguments characterize the discussion of Cypriot coinage under the emperor Augustus, many of which are based on dubious claims of stylistic relationship with a group of CA bronzes (possibly orichalcum), normally attributed to Syria but here given to Cyprus. This is done on the basis of coin finds at Curium and Paphos, but Kreuzer fails to mention the finds from Syria and the very close stylistic affinity between the CA series and Augustus’s SC and archieratic bronzes of Antioch, all of which point to a probable Antiochene origin (See RPC I, pp. 602-603, and K. Butcher, Coinage in Roman Syria [London, 2004], p. 321).

Readers will be amazed to learn that the famous AEGYPTO CAPTA gold and silver (C. H. V. Sutherland, The Roman Imperial Coinage I [London, 1984], 545-546) all actually originated at Cypriot Paphos. This again is based on an imperceptible (to this reviewer) stylistic association with the CA bronzes and the claim that the Capricorn symbol appearing below Octavian’s neck was a mintmark that could only have been used in an imperial province like Cyprus. It should be obvious that there is nothing exclusively Cypriot, let alone Paphian, about the use of Capricorn. This astrological creature was Octavian’s birth sign and a ubiquitous emblem on imperial and provincial coinage during his reign. However, the most serious problem with this reattribution is the fact that the titulature used for the AEGYPTO CAPTA series shows that it predates the settlement of 27 BC, by which Octavian became Augustus and the provinces were divided between the Emperor and the Senate. It also must predate the CA coinage, which regularly names Augustus.

A marginally better case is made for associating a group of denarii and a quinarius with the supposed CA bronzes of Cyprus, only because all of them do actually date to 27 BC or later. Still, the reattribution is heavily based on implausible associations. For example, the Victory quinarius (RIC 474) is determined to be Cypriot based on the belief that the typological model for the goddess alighting on a ship’s prow is that of tetradrachms struck by Demetrius Poliorcetes to commemorate his victory over the Ptolemaic fleet off Cyprus in 306 BC. Of course, this ignores all of the uses of Nike/Victory on a prow in a variety of non-Cypriot contexts, all of which tend to sap the specificity of Kreuzer’s interpretation. Examples include but are not limited to bronzes of Phoenician Tripolis (RPC 4512) and Sidon (RPC 4600-4601), the Bosporan king Asander (D. MacDonald, An Introduction to the History and Coinage of the Kingdom of the Bosporus [Lancaster, 2005], 195-216), and Roman Republican asses of L. Piso Frugi (RRC 340/4). We hope that the author would not imply that these coins should also be reattributed to Cyprus. The temple of Olympian Zeus and corona rostrata denarii normally associated with the quinarius and linked to each other by shared dies are made Cypriot issues based simply on the existence of a temple of Olympian Zeus in the Doric style at Salamis, which may or may not be identical to the temple of Zeus Salaminios. However, in the absence of any clear reference to Salamis on the coins, Sutherland’s preference for a Peloponnesian mint making reference to Olympia still seems most probable. An issue of Augustus’s Capricorn denarii (RIC 541) is also given to Cyprus because of its supposedly “somewhat similar style” to the other denarii discussed above.

In addition, Kreuzer reattributes the highly artistic young bull denarii of Augustus (RIC 475) to Cyprus based on stylistic grounds, the history of the use of bulls on the Archaic and Classical coinages of Paphos, and flan cracks, a feature that was also pointed out for the supposed Cypriot denarii of Antony. While there is nothing obviously Paphian or even Cypriot about the cracks, and the stylistic association is elusive as usual, the appeal to older taurine iconography is at least reasonable, although the form of the animal on the early coins is hardly identical. A similar iconographic argument can be made for the mint of Samos, often identified as the most likely candidate for these denarii, since Samian coinage of the Classical and Hellenistic periods also regularly featured the forepart of a bull. In truth, neither attribution seems especially solid.

The final section is devoted to Cypriot coinage under the Julio-Claudian dynasty and later, at last bringing the parade of incoherent reattributions to its final stunning conclusion. Although there are some indisputably genuine issues of Cyprus here depicting Zeus Salaminios and the temple of Paphian Aphrodite, the author makes the sweeping claim that cast bevelled flans were indicative of Cypriot manufacture and that therefore the problematic “Commagenean” dupondii and asses of Tiberius as well as a host of Antiochene SC bronzes should be reattributed to Cyprus. This is a rather remarkable view to take when we consider that very few of the coins that can be reliably attributed to Cyprus in this period actually seem to have bevelled edges. The reattribution of provincial SC issues spirals well out of control when Kreuzer even connects imperial sestertii to the island, apparently based on nothing more than the wreathed SC type and the fact that brass was sometimes struck, probably at Rome, for use on Cyprus.

It is difficult to know what to say about the many full-color coin illustrations that fill the book. Although the images that have been reproduced from the websites of major dealers are generally good, though often a little grainy as the result of enlargement, many of the others are quite poor, bordering at times on the appalling. The latter are often very dark and have been treated so barbarously in Photoshop that round-edged coins look like serrati, thanks to the extreme pixellation left at the edges of the coins when the background was removed from the images. Perhaps worst of all is the image of the silver fineness table taken from p. 52 of R. Hazzard, Ptolemaic Coins: An Introduction for Collectors (Toronto, 1995), which is not even a proper scan of Hazzard’s original table, but merely an out-of-focus photograph.

The extensive use of fallacious argument and the low standard of presentation are very disappointing, but these are, unfortunately, common problems that frequently afflict privately produced numismatic publications. However, while the quality of the present volume is not entirely surprising, its assumption of the status of a legitimate reference work among some coin dealers is nothing short of shocking. As we have seen, The Coinage System of Cleopatra VII and Augustus in Cyprus is no proper reference for coin identification. Still, it may have a purpose in standing as a stark warning to readers, authors, and dealers. Regardless of the true original intent, which the present reviewer cannot know, books like this can only serve to harm the already much besieged numismatic community, in that they simultaneously deceive the ignorant while providing a powder magazine’s worth of ammunition for those who would argue that the publication of unprovenanced coins inflates their value and therefore encourages illegal excavation in the source countries. Thankfully, the small print run and the absence of a large distributor make it unlikely that The Coinage System of Cleopatra VII and Augustus in Cyprus will be widely read by either the friends or enemies of ancient numismatics. Still, we hope that it will soon disappear from the reference lines of sale catalogues and assume its more proper role as an obscure curiosity of numismatic wishful thinking.

—Oliver D. Hoover