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Trade and Economic Integration in Fourth Century CE Egypt: The Evidence from Coins and Ceramics

Irene Soto

Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NYU

This paper analyses the hoard evidence from fourth century CE Egypt in order to asses the degree of economic integration between the province and other territories within and beyond the Roman Empire. This analysis also aims to highlight the role of the city of Alexandria in long-distance exchange. Alexandria not only housed the only official mint in Egypt, but it also acted as one of the major redistributive centers for goods being traded within Egypt and between the Roman Empire, India and the East, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore the context of the city of Alexandria in Egypt is a strong case study for the analysis of the role of coins in ancient trade.

            Graeco-Roman Egyptian monetary history is traditionally framed by two major events: the first is the official introduction of currency into Egypt by Ptolemy I, son of Lagos in 323 BCE. The second is the currency reform instituted by Diocletian throughout the Empire in 296 CE, which likely began in Egypt in 297/298 CE. Diocletian’s reform ended the Egyptian closed currency system, under which it had functioned for the previous 600 years, and unified the Empire monetarily under one set of coinages. Previous to this monetary reform, the only official coinage allowed to circulate were coins struck in the mint at Alexandria, the sole official mint of the Egyptian province. Therefore the fourth century CE is the first time in Egypt’s monetary history in which coins minted outside of the province circulated freely and legally.

            The numismatic evidence will also be paired with imported ceramics, in order to further nuance the connections between territories that are highlighted by the mints represented in the hoard evidence from Egypt. Therefore the mints represented in hoards found in Egypt speak not only of the communication and commercial transactions with other regions, but of the activity of the mint of Alexandria in relation to other mints. Preliminary analyses have shown, for example, a significant percentage of bronze coins from Antioch present alongside Alexandrian coinage (roughly 25% of identified mints). The proximity of the two cities is undoubtedly a factor but one must wonder the commercial avenues through which these small-value bronze currencies travel such lengths, and alongside which products are the coins traveling. This type of integrative analysis is particularly illuminating for the development of trade networks in the ancient world. The archaeological and numismatic evidence of Egypt, always paired with papyrological evidence when available, has the potential to show the complexity and strength of Egyptian trading economy during the fourth century CE.

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Coins and Trade

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