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The School of Alexandria? Rethinking the Closed Currency System Outside Egypt

Noah Kaye

The question of an ancient state's ability to exclude foreign currency from its territory, let alone its markets, is no small matter. Just how far we are willing to go in crediting an ancient state with these powers reveals our fundamental assumptions about the nature of its sovereignty. This paper urges a more precise deployment of the concept of closure by examining two special monetary zones of the eastern Mediterranean in the mid-second century B.C.E.: the Attalid kingdom of Pergamon and the Seleukid province of Koile-Syria and Phoenicia. Both zones have been seen as sealed off from the outside, on the model of Ptolemaic Egypt. In the most hermetic vision of closure, no foreign currency entered the zone, even on the "international" Athenian (attico-alexandrin) standard; and the local (epichoric) coinages, minted on idiosyncratic standards and overvalued relative to their content in bullion, simply stayed put. Alternatively, one imagines that foreign currency was allowed to enter, but then became effectively worthless – if it was not contraband, it was also not money. With a fresh look at the evidence from each zone, this paper will reveal the inadequacy of the old notion of closure. In its place, a ramified system and a more flexible concept of closure suggest themselves.

Until very recently, one has described the monetary system of the Attalid kingdom after the cistophoric reform as a Ptolemaic-style closed currency system (Mørkholm 1982; Marcellesi 2000; Le Rider and De Callataÿ 2006). Yet the numismatic record of Attalid Asia Minor scarcely resembles Ptolemaic Egypt's. To make the paradigm work, non-cistophoric coins are labeled "export coinages," while mixed hoards are said to come from a "frontier zone." Moreover, the relationship of the bronze coinage of the kingdom to the cistophoric system is ignored. With scholarship just now beginning to move toward new interpretations of the cistophori (Marcellesi 2012; Meadows 2013), the time is ripe to incorporate the data that contradicted the old model into a more dynamic account of money as a tool of state formation in the Attalid kingdom. In particular, this section will highlight the scale of the Attic-weight coinage, address the question of its circulation, and bring to bear the results of a recent study of Pergamene bronze (Chameroy 2012).

In the southern Levant, the Seleukid conquest of Ptolemaic territories (c. 200) did not usher in a major monetary reform. The Attic-weight silver coinage of the conquerors did not replace the epichoric coinage of the Ptolemies. In fact, Ptolemaic silver persisted in circulation, new Ptolemaic silver continued to enter the region for decades, and eventually, the Seleukid kings themselves began minting coins on the Ptolemaic standard, bearing Ptolemaic iconography. While new finds have been brought into the discussion, no one has challenged the view of Georges Le Rider, who describes the province of Koile-Syria as a closed monetary system, shut off from the rest of the Seleukid kingdom. (Le Rider 1995; Houghton and Lorber 2000-2002). In this section, the lessons of the revision of Attalid monetary history are used to make sense of features of the numismatic record of a Seleukid province that was neither fully integrated nor sealed off, namely, Attic-weight silver minted at Ako-Ptolemais (Voulgaridis 2000); the circulation of Attic-weight silver in the interior of the province; mixed hoards such Sea of Galilee (?) (CH 8.458); and the persistence of pre-conquest Ptolemaic bronze in circulation as late as c. 120 (CH 10.319).

In sum, the goal of this critique of the concept of a tightly controlled, closed currency system for Attalid Asia Minor and the Seleukid province of Koile Syria and Phoenicia is to focus our attention on the salient contexts for the exclusion of certain coinages. These were not likely to have been customs checks at the political borders of the kingdom or province, but rather the agora and the emporion of the city, where fiscal authorities demanded payment in specific currencies.

Session/Panel Title

Economic Integration and Disintegration: New Approaches to Standards and Denominations in Ancient Greek Coinage

Session/Paper Number


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