Review: Coinage of Arabia Felix

Stuart Munro-Hay, Coinage of Arabia Felix. The Pre-Islamic Coinage of the Yemen. Nomismata 5. Milano: Edizioni ennerre, 2003. Hb., 221 pp., 61 b/w pls. ISBN 88-87235-28-7. 80,00 Euro.

According to a popular proverb, often attributed to an anonymous Arabic source, “A book is like a garden carried around in one’s pocket.” If this is a true statement, then Stuart Munro-Hay’s long-announced Coinage of Arabia Felix. The Pre-Islamic Coinage of the Yemen should be expected to represent the work of an ambitious gardener making the attempt to transform a jungle of obscurity and confusion into an organized and rational formal garden.

In the first part of the introduction, “The Study of South Arabian Coinage” (pp. 17-24), Munro-Hay introduces us to previous stewards of his numismatic garden and their various attempts to sort out the thorny issues of interpretation that have bedeviled the study of South Arabian coinage, from the pioneering days of De Longpérier and Schlumberger in the nineteenth century down to the present. This sketch of the last 150 years of South Arabian numismatic studies is followed by an extremely succinct historical outline (pp. 25-28) of the four major kingdoms of Saba’, Qataban, Himyar, and Hadhramawt, teased from the evidence of the few surviving Greek and Latin sources and South Arabian inscriptions. A new king list for the rulers of Saba’, Qataban, Himyar and Hadhramawt also appears on pp. 220-221. The haziness of the literary and documentary record, as well as the divergence of scholarly opinion regarding chronology, already reveals the potential of the coinage to help sharpen the historical picture, while simultaneously underlining the difficulties of placing it in its appropriate context. With regard to the instances where dates are taken from K.A. Kitchen’s remarkable Documentation for Ancient Arabia (Liverpool, 2000), it should be stressed, however, that these are very approximate and cannot be taken as secured. Also, the addition of a map to this section would have been highly desirable.

The coins themselves are introduced in two main sections. In the first, “The Coinage and Its Characteristics” (pp. 29-40), the author primarily focuses on the epigraphy of the coinage, including the interpretation of ‘mint’ names and monograms, as well as the divine and royal symbols that often appear on the coins. It is plausibly suggested that place names like RYDN (Raydan), HRB (Harib) and SQR (Shaqir) that appear on some issues were primarily intended to identify issuing states and not necessarily mints.

While dealing with the many monograms that appear on the coins — arguably one of the most important aspects of the whole coinage — Munro-Hay provides the reader with a useful but rather general overview in which only a few of the monograms are actually interpreted. In discussing the tricky question of the ‘cursive legend,’ which appears on imitations of both Athenian ‘Old’ and ‘New Style’ coinage, Munro-Hay at first questions neither the reading SHR HLL, nor G.F. Hill’s proposal that the change from ‘Old’ to ‘New’ Style imitations took place under one ruler (BMC Arabia, p. liii), thus arriving at the rather untenable solution of attributing these Sabaean issues to a Qatabanian ruler, whose dates (at least according to Kitchen) are too early to have issued ‘New Style’ imitations. It is only in a later section (pp. 46-47) that he takes the discussion further, introducing what may possibly be clues for understanding this enigma: an ‘archaizing’ use of the ‘mukarrib’ symbol (as in an inscription of king Dhamar‘alay Watar Yuhan‘im). Also, the composition of the Sanaa Hoard (1879), which favors a close link between all the various ‘New Style’ imitations (1.11, 1.13-1.16), marks them as very separate issues from the ‘Old Style’ imitations, and seems to require a new reading of the inscription. However, it should be noted here that neither of the two ‘Old Style’ coins of type 1.7i mentioned in footnote 210 actually bear the ‘curved sign.’ Additionally, the ‘mysterious’ BM coin of type 1.8iii is almost certainly a fraction of type 1.7.

Perhaps the most important part of this section is the commentary on symbols, such as the ‘staff and D,’ the ‘curved sign,’ and the ‘oblong sign,’ representing royal titles and the quasi-national deities of the South Arabian kingdoms. The proper understanding of these obscure emblems permits the linkage of several issues and the placement of series in their appropriate geopolitical contexts. Unfortunately, the author does not touch upon the HL monogram so prominently displayed on Qatabanian coins. The discussion is supplemented by a valuable chart on pp. 89-108 that lists all inscriptions and symbols known from the coins in the main catalogue.

The real meat for numismatists and ancient historians comes in the second section, “History and Development of the Coinage” (pp. 41-58). Here, through the use of new hoard and typological evidence, as well as new insight into inscriptions and symbolism, Munro-Hay embarks upon the work of pruning away the overgrowth of old interpretations, while preparing the ground for more fertile enquiry into the chronological and historical problems of South Arabian coinage. Nevertheless, a mere 18 pages of text on such a vast and complex subject cannot be expected to answer all questions and solve all problems. As in the catalogue (see below), here too, the author is torn between a desire to group and discuss the coins according to the issuing state or according to typological criteria.

At the beginning of this section, Munro-Hay makes the intriguing suggestion that the ‘Old Style’ Athenian imitations (1.1i-iv) of the fourth-third centuries BC, traditionally considered Sabaean in origin, are actually from Qataban. To this end he cites the coins of the recent al-Surayrah hoard, which included imitations bearing the Qatabanian HL monogram and sometimes the name of the Qatabanian king Yad‘ab Dhubyan as well as coins lacking both this monogram and name (pp. 42-43). While the new HL and royal issues must certainly be from Qataban, the transference of the type 1.1 coins lacking monograms from Saba’ to Qataban should perhaps be taken with some caution since it rests heavily on an argument ex silentio: The coins cannot be from Saba’ because they display no Sabaean symbolism. Of course, at the same time these issues also lack any obvious Qatabanian symbolism. More importantly, Munro-Hay here seems to overlook the continuous use of one and the same peculiar weight standard for all coins throughout types 1.1 to 1.16 as well as the similarity in fabric between all the (typologically identical) ‘Old Style’ imitations struck to this standard. Taken as a whole, these various series, through their intermittent or regular use of the ‘staff and D’ and ‘curved’ symbols, betray clear signs of a Sabaean origin. It is regrettable that a single Sabaean standard unit in the Berlin cabinet, tentatively (but wrongly) attributed to Hadhramawt because of the assumed legend SQR, is repeatedly mentioned (on pp. 62 and 114), but not illustrated (for a rather blurred image of this coin, see J.N. Svoronos, Les monnaies d’Athènes [Munich, 1926], pl. 111, 50).

We should also be a little cautious about the idea that Qatabanian coins imitating Athenian issues of the fifth century BC (1.0a.2) should have chronological precedence over those based on fourth century models. After all, they are linked by their HL monograms to imitations based on fourth century prototypes (1.0a.4-1.0aii). Fifth and fourth century Athenian coins appear to have been used side by side as models for the imitative Philisto-Arabian and Samarian coinages of the fourth century.

In discussing the imitations of Athenian ‘New Style’ tetradrachms (1.13i-1.16iv), including both longhaired head and the succeeding ‘Augustan’ head obverse types, Munro-Hay challenges the traditional view that they were struck by the kings of Himyar. Instead, he convincingly argues that these coins are more likely to have been struck in neighboring Saba’ because of their use of the so-called ‘curved sign,’ a symbol representing the Sabaean deity Almaqah, and the absence of explicitly Himyarite symbols. In light of this reattribution, the author also raises the possibility that the ‘New Style’ imitations with ‘cursive’ script (1.11i-ii), usually attributed to the Qatabanian mukarrib Shahir Hilal, may also have been struck in Saba’, perhaps under Dhamar‘alay Watar Yuhan‘im.

It is suggested that the model for the longhaired laureate head used as an obverse type for the imitation Athenian New Style silver coinage (Types 1.13i-iv-1.14ii, 1.14.iv) may be derived from the archaizing head of Apollo employed on the denarii of the Roman Republican moneyers L. and C. Calpurnius Piso Frugi (p. 44). While this is not impossible, the argument that the denarii of L. Calpurnius Piso somehow counterbalanced a supposed reduction in Athenian New Style tetradrachm production in 100-86 BC, and were therefore placed in a special position to influence South Arabian typology (p. 45), cannot be taken seriously in light of the revised chronology for New Style coinage (see now H. Mattingly, “The Beginning of Athenian New Style Silver Coinage,” NC 150 (1990), pp. 67-72 for the beginning of the New Style in 164/3 BC, not 186 or 168 as given by Munro-Hay on p. 45) and the fact that the Roman denarius was never a particularly common denomination in the Near East, even in the Imperial period. If the inspiration for the longhaired head type did indeed originate outside of South Arabia, a more likely source may be the coinage of the Nabataean Arabs, northern cousins and trading partners of the South Arabian peoples. Beginning with Aretas IV (9 BC-AD 40) and continuing into the reign of Rabbel II (AD 70-106), Nabataean coinage regularly carried ruler portraits depicting the king with long hair and wearing a laurel wreath (for examples, see Y. Meshorer, Nabataean Coins (Jerusalem, 1975). Such a parallel would also be commensurate with Munro-Hay’s desire to downdate the series to the first century BC/AD.

Munro-Hay follows C. Robin (“Yashhur’il Yuhar‘ish, fils d’Abyasa‘, mukarrib du Hadramawt,” Raydan 6 [1994]) in attributing the ‘bucranium’ (more likely an antelope or ibex head) series (2.1-2.18a-civ) to Saba’, again based on the presence of the ‘curved sign,’ and in dating them to the first or second century AD. Again, however, no attempt is made to interpret the monograms on this series. His identification of the longhaired head coinages bearing the names ‘MDN BYN and ‘MDN YHQBD as issues of the same ‘Amdan, king of Saba’ and Dhu-Raydan, but using different epithets to emphasize his authority over Saba’ and Himyar, respectively, is also heavily indebted to Robin (see “ ‘Amdan Bayyin Yuhaqbid, roi de Saba’ et de Du-Raydan,” in Études Sud-Arabes, Receuil offert à Jacques Ryckmans [Louvain, 1991]). New and important, however, are some of the attempts to link other rulers named on the royal coinage with kings known from lapidary inscriptions. For example, the author struggles with the identity of the ruler DMR‘LY DBYN who struck coins naming the Qatabanian royal castle of Harib (HRB) (3.15i, 3.18), but is not a known king of Qataban. However, he ultimately arrives at the conclusion that the later second century king of Himyar, Dhamar‘alay Yuhabir, is the most probable (pp. 55-56). Unlike other known rulers named Dhamar‘alay, Yuhabir’s Himyarite origin is well established. He also seems an excellent candidate because he ruled during the collapse of Qatabanian power, which might have given him the opportunity to claim authority in Harib. Likewise, the KRB’L YHN‘M named on some royal coins (3.16i) marked RYDN (Raydan) is understood as Karib’il Watar Yuhan‘im I, a first century AD king of Saba’ and Dhu-Raydan. If this is correct, then it may be that he should be considered the originator of the RYDN royal coinage.

With the exception of a brief overview of the historical problems relating to the fall of Qataban and the rise of Hadhramawt (pp. 49-50), there is little detailed discussion of the extensive series of Hadhrami bronze coins in the introduction. This noticeable absence is alleviated by an addenda section (pp. 59-64), largely distilling the discussion of these coins from recent articles by ‘U. Aydarus and A.V. Sedov.

Munro-Hay’s proposed chronology for all the South Arabian coin series is laid out in tabular form on pp. 82-88, allowing the user to see at a glance what are proposed to be contemporary issues. This chart and the following type catalogue (pp. 111-198) require a few words with respect to the peculiar system of classification. Where one would expect the coins to be arranged by issuing authority, Munro-Hay instead classes them according to their typology (with the strange exception of Hadhramawt). Thus, some 90 types are detailed in five classes (Imitation Athenian, ‘Bucranium,’ Royal, Hadhramawt bronze, and Miscellaneous), which are further subdivided into subtypes, variants and denominations. As most readers will be unfamiliar with the complex subject, a more traditional arrangement might have been more helpful, bearing in mind that despite the interwoven character of some of the series, South Arabian coinage is not beyond such an accepted approach. We are left with the impression that the typological classification system, already adopted by Munro-Hay in previous works at a time when these classes may have roughly corresponded with some of the issuing authorities, is still maintained despite the modifications dictated by the appearance, in 1994, of the al-Surayrah Hoard (i.e. containing a sizeable and hitherto unknown Qatabanian coinage struck to the Attic standard). Leaving aside the overly cumbersome nature of the catalogue numbering system (Who likes to refer to a coin as ‘Type 3.4ciib’?), the system has little flexibility for accommodating new types (a point already revealed by the insertion of the early Qatabanian series as Type 1.0) and is not always practical. For example, the denominations of ‘Old Style’ imitations with identical monograms are assigned very different type numbers such as 1.4i8 and 1.4ii1 (a unit and its corresponding half) or 1.4i5 and 1.4iii2 (a unit and its corresponding quarter). Even with the chosen classification system, it might have been a little more helpful if the Imitation Athenian class had been broken up into several classes in order to clearly mark the division between ‘Old Style’ (1.0.2-1.9a) and ‘New Style’ (1.11i-1.12iv, 1.13i-1.16a) imitations, as well as the cornucopia gold (1.12ai-1.12av — some further discussion of the place of these remarkable series in relation to the imitation Athenian issues would have been worthwhile). The descriptions given under the type headings are somewhat cursory, but the additional remarks under each type often contain useful references to other known specimens not illustrated in the plates. An additional inconvenience comes with the fact that the plate coins can only be traced back to the chart and type catalogue with difficulty. One is forced to read through the list of photographs and drawings (pp. 71-81) and then work backwards to match images with catalogue entries.

A number of coins described in the main section of the type catalogue and illustrated on the plates are not South Arabian and thus do not fall within the scope of this book. App. 5, fig. 50, and App. 10, fig. 2, although unusual Athenian imitations, are unlikely to be South Arabian. Fig. 25 is a drachm of uncertain North Arabian origin, and the same has to be said of figs. 383 and 384 (the relevant article on these last coins by F. Bron and A. Lemaire, “Pseudo-Athéniennes avec légende araméenne LBLT et monnaie BLT en Arabie du sud,” Transeuphratène 10 (1995), pp. 45-56, is omitted from Munro-Hay’s otherwise excellent bibliography which covers all publications up to 1999). Fig. 423 is in fact a Seleucid imitation from Commagene (see O. Hoover, “Notes on Some Imitation Drachms of Demetrius I Soter from Commagene,” AJN 10 (1998), pp. 71-94) and has nothing to do with South Arabia. The Alexander imitations illustrated by figs. 367-369 (described as type 1.10.4, where Munro-Hay follows the somewhat outdated chronology proposed by Robin in 1974, obviously unaware of Callot, “Les monnaies dites ‘arabes’ dans le nord du Golfe arabo-persique à la fin du IIIe siècle avant notre ère,” Failaka [1990], pp. 221-240, who convincingly argued for closer dates of all these issues within the third century BC), and their later imitations (App. 2, fig. 94-317 743, and App. 6, fig. 67) were actually struck in North East Arabia.

In addition to the main series of South Arabian coinage, a final miscellaneous class is included in the catalogue in order to cover anomalous coins (5.1, 5.4a-5.4d) that are not easily inserted into the other classes, issues that properly belong to the Islamic period (5.2), and demonstrable forgeries (3.2ai-3.2bi and 3.4i). However, a close look at several of these miscellaneous coins, suggests that they are not in fact South Arabian issues at all. Hill already thought that the ‘Himyarite’ letters described by Casanova in 1893 on three copper fulus of the Umayyad Caliphate with Standing Caliph type (5.2 with figs. 253-255) might have been misread Kufic Arabic inscriptions. Although Munro-Hay’s commentary tends to agree with Hill, it is clear that he is torn on the subject and keeps the possibility of South Arabian readings open. A greater familiarity with modern studies of the coinage of the early Umayyad period would have erased any doubts about the correctness of Hill’s position. Fig. 254, carrying letters read as South Arabian SN‘ and a monogram resolved as South Arabian B and F, is a known issue of Harran in the province of al-Jazira (SICA 1.687). The letters are actually the Greek numeral IS (16), probably representing the coin’s qirat weight while the monogram is also Greek (see S. Album, “Islamic conquerors adopted local Byzantine coinage,” The Celator [April 1988]). The monogram read as South Arabian WTR and its accompanying ‘triangle flanked by circles’ symbol on fig. 255 are in fact, perfectly good Kufic Arabic inscriptions naming the issuing mint as Ma‘arrat Misrin in Jund Qinnasrin (cf. SICA 1.674-678).

The 61 photographic plates that accompany the text are generally of very high quality and will certainly serve as a treasury of images for the future study of South Arabian coinage. These plates also include beautiful illustrations, often enlarged, of coins listed in eleven appendices (pp. 199-219) which follow the type catalogue, containing all known South Arabian coins in the major British and German public collections (British Museum, Ashmolean Museum, Munich Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde and Munich Staatliche Münzsammlung) as well as several important private collections, and coins from the al-Surayrah and Sanaa hoards. It is hard to overestimate the boon that Munro-Hay has provided to students of the series by collecting so much South Arabian illustrative material in one place and in such good quality. However, the arrangement of individual images on plates V to XVII is more than baffling. There seems to have been no attempt to arrange the illustrations in accordance with the order of types in the catalogue. Thus, for example, in plate IX, a miscellaneous class coin of the Islamic period (fig. 255) precedes bronze issues of Hadhramawt (figs. 256-257 and 259-260) and a forgery of the royal series (fig. 258), followed by ‘bucranium’ coins (figs. 264-284). It is also somewhat peculiar that the images of coins from various national and private collections are relegated to plate appendices, rather than integrated with the rest of the material. This arrangement is unnecessary and confusing for those who want to visualize the development of individual series in accordance with numismatic methodology. Despite its many illustrations, the book is certainly not a corpus, and one may therefore question the utility of illustrating so many coins of common single types as is the case with the al-Surayrah hemidrachms, many ‘New Style’ imitations, ‘bucranium’ coins and issues of Amdan Bayyin. It is also unclear to the present reviewers why so many reverse images (primarily ‘bucranium’ and royal types) have been rotated in the plates (obviously not intended to visually indicate die axes, and thus not serving any purpose). One also wonders why, in the case of Appendix 2, precious 11 plates are devoted to huge enlargements of very common and altogether badly preserved coins. Finally, the scale of enlargements and (occasionally) reduced images is not indicated.

As we have seen, a number of problems plague the jungle of information that is Coinage of Arabia Felix. In most cases, these could have been removed with just a little more effort invested into methodology and structure, thereby increasing the work’s value as a handbook. Still, there can be little question that it represents a landmark in the study of South Arabian coinages and, for those sufficiently diligent, will provide a material basis for further work on the money and history of the ancient Yemen.

—Oliver D. Hoover and Martin Huth