The Coins and the Cult

By: T. V. Buttrey

Originally Published in 1992

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For centuries the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Cyrene attracted the atten­dance of the faithful, whose dedica­tions included coined money. The numismatic evidence is virtually con­tinuous from the late 6th century B.. to the middle of the 4th century A.. and is scattered throughout the site. Thus we might expect the finds to provide a good survey of the small change in use in Cyrene for almost a millennium (see box). But contrary to all expectations, the finds from the Sanctuary included over a hundred silver coins and even four of gold, quite abnormal for an excavation that produced no hoards.

A second feature is the large number of bronze coins relative to silver among the later Cyrenaican issues, including relatively low value pieces of the sort customary in ex­cavations but not necessarily to be expected at a sanctuary site. As we shall see, these results illustrate in­tensity of worship rather than general monetary circulation, and the par­ticular denominations present may be of the kind especially appropriate to religious dedication: the prudent worshiper balances expense against benefits anticipated.

In addition to reflecting the nature of worship at the Sanctuary, the coins also reflect the politics and econo­mics of the day. For example, both the largely Archaic and Classical coins of silver and the Ptolemaic coins of bronze were nearly all struck at Cyrene (see Table 1). The other two major Cyrenaican mints, Barce and Euesperides, and the numerous Greek mints abroad, notably the Ptolemaic mint at Alexandria, con­tribute almost nothing, which is consonant with other Cyrenaican excavations. While it may not be surprising that the bronze coins were minted locally in Greek times, we might expect that silver and gold coins from foreign mints would be in use. But the Archaic and early Classical silver coins include not a single piece struck outside of Cyren­aica, suggesting that at this period the precious metal circulation, too, was largely self-contained.

The 834 coins discovered in the excavation of the Demeter and Perse­phone Sanctuary have provided a mass of new information, but only to a small extent does that information illuminate the financing of the cult. Let us consider what we are learning about Cyrenaican coins, what we are learning from them about their poli­tical setting, and what more we can say about the Sanctuary because of their discovery.

Silver Coins of the 6th and 5th Centuries 13.C.

The silver coins found at the Sanctuary raise an archaeological question. They by no means repre­sent a cross-section of Cyrenaican coinage for they are almost all early, are predominantly issues not com­mon in numismatic collections today, and include some new varieties. This relatively uncommon assemblage of Archaic and early Classical silver coins of the 6th and early 5th cen­turies forms the bulk (81 percent) of the silver finds (Figs. 1,3), while the common issues of silver civic tetra-drachms and didrachms of the later 5th and 4th centuries are completely unrepresented.

This peculiarity cannot be ex­plained by casual and random loss, even though the individual pierces were found scattered in the earth Many of the early coins are of them largest denomination, least agreeably lost, i.e., tetradrachms, whose preps. ence would be easily explicable in hoard but not in random debris Certain varieties of tetradrachm are duplicated, while others are wanting. At the same time the middle de­nominations of drachm and hemi­drachm appear to be overrepre-sented. And altogether there are so many of them. Such quantities of lost silver coins are never found scattered through excavation debris.

The explanation must be that they derive from an unrecovered deposit (or possibly more than one), broken up owing to earthquake or land-slip. In the archaeological context of a sanctuary, such a deposit would constitute a votive dedication rather than a private hoard. The irregular donations of the faithful would also explain the curious composition of the group, richest in the middle denominations and extending over several decades, yet uneven in its representation of the whole period.

The most obvious feature of the silver finds is the frequency of the middle denominations—almost two-thirds are drachms (Fig. 4) and hernidrachms. They are relatively common today in public and private collections but in the context of our finds these two denominations do seem to have been particularly abun­dant. Presumably they were the most appropriate denominations to attract divine favor. The still smaller silver denominations are scarcer in the finds, but this may be owing to the difficulty of spotting them in the soil during excavation.

It is not possible to say with any precision when the deposit was closed, and of course this sort of deposit might well have continued open and been added to from time to time. The distribution of issues sug­gest that it ran roughly to the middle of the 5th century B.C. After that time there is a rapid falling off of silver finds, indicating the closing of the deposit. Four gold coins dating to the 4th century were discovered (Fig. 2), but their relatively late date suggests that they were not asso­ciated with the silver treasure, al­though they too must have been dedications to the Sanctuary.

Coins of the Ptolemaic Period

The coinage of small change in bronze came relatively late to Cyre­naica, as to all Greek cities. It is only toward the end of the 4th century B.C. that it begins, and only then would we expect to find any coins at all in a conventional excavation. Almost all of the finds at the Sanc­tuary from this point on are of bronze. About three-quarters of the types known to have been struck between the late 4th and the early 1st century B.C. are represented to some extent. The types of coins often reflect local themes; for example, an issue of the Revolt of 313-312 B.C., bearing the figuration of the Tomb of Battus, recalls the foundation of the autonomous city (see “The Sanctu­ary’s History and Architecture,” this issue). Or, they reflect the nature of the area, such as the small jerboa/ crab coin which suggests Cyrene involvement with the land and the sea.

The archaeological remains of the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. from the Sanctuary illustrate the conundrum inherent in the numismatic material, in that while there was major expan­sion of the Sanctuary at this time, there was a falling off in the value of of votive coins. The expansion had to be financed somehow, and offerings must frequently have taken the form of money. But there are virtually no finds of silver or gold coins to document such offerings, and in evaluating the evidence of the bronze coinage, we have to allow that the finds may not be reliable indicators of financial activity.

On the other hand, the finds do indicate the tenor of the times. For example, on the re-establishment of Cyrenaica as an Egyptian province under Ptolemy II (ca. 258 B.C.), a new type of bronze coin was intro­duced. This type depicted busts of Ptolemy Soter and the goddess Libya, symbolically binding Cyre­naica to the Egyptian kingdom (Fig. 5). The type was struck repeatedly for the next century and a half.

Coins of the Late Ptolemaic Period

From this point forward the tradi­tional picture of the Cyrenaican coinage needs revision and consider­able enlargement. The scholarship of this century has largely denied coin­age to late Ptolemaic Cyrenaica, admitting a few pieces of Euergetes II, but none at all of his two suc­cessors, Softer H and Apion. Yet it is at this point that the Cyrene Sanctuary finds become particularly abundant (see Table 2). There had been a surge of coinage under Ptolemy III Euer­getes, from the middle of the 3rd century B.C., and a much greater one in the last half of the 2nd century under Euergetes II, the younger brother of Ptolemy VI, who ruled as king of an independent Cyrenaica before ascending the Egyptian throne. His coins carry the Ptolemaic eagle in assertion of his own regal authority. About two-thirds of the Demeter Sanctuary bronzes are the small size pieces which can now be attributed to the last three Ptolemaic reigns in Cyrenaica, those of Euer­getes II, Softer II, and Apion.

This predominance of late Ptole­maic coins coincides with the evi­dence of reports from other excava­tions and casual Cyrenaican finds. Particular interest lies in enlarging our understanding of late Ptolemaic monetary policy. In addition to the issues illustrated by the excavations, a range of ostentatious bronze de­nominations were produced by Euer­getes II (Fig. 6) and these can now be attributed to Cyrenaica. The largest of these coins have not surfaced thus far in any reported excavation, but this is not surprising, since casual coin finds are always weak in the more visible and/or more valuable de­nominations. But several important finds of Ammon/eagle coins in addi­tion to ours confirm the attribution.

These issues reintroduced the Ptole­maic eagle reverse coin, which had not been struck in Cyrenaica for almost a century. We can surmise that the traditional Ptolemaic coin type both legitimized Euergetes’ reign and reflected his independence from the administration in Alexan­dria, whose officials had previously been authorizing the Soter/Libya issues for Cyrenaica.

On the death of Euergetes II the kingdom was inherited by Soter II. That he had coins struck in Cyrenaica is proved conclusively by the abun­dance of very small change, the kind of coin unlikely to travel far, signed with his name or monogram (Fig. 7). Soters unquiet career included the loss of Cyrenaica to Ptolemy Apion at some unknown time late in the 2nd century B.C. Scholars have doubted that any coinage could be attributed to Apion. But there are late issues of Soter/Libya, Ammon/eagle, and Ammon/Isiac headdress which bear no eponym or monogram and are therefore not likely to have been struck under Energetes or Soter. They also are of the smallest de­nomination, and wretchedly made, so that they can hardly fall anywhere else. The three types carry on from Soter, and like his must have been issued in relatively large quantities.

Apion died in 96 B.C., leaving his kingdom to the Roman people. Ap­parently Apion’s will actually re­ferred to the royal estates and did not involve the cities and their territories. What little we know of the Romans’ response for the first twenty years bears this out: apparently they simply collected the royal rents. For a long time there was no Roman coinage for what was to become the province of Cyrenaica (with Crete), nor any autonomous coinages of the cities. The latest unsigned small bronzes might be civic strikes, following the death of Apion. But the cities had their own traditions to draw on and there was no need to continue a Ptolemaic typology. As far as we can see they did not strike coins, and the Greek coinage of Cyrenaica, of glor­ious tradition, ended in the lament­able small bronzes of Apion.

If Greek gold and silver coin arrived in trade from outside Cyre­naica, we have virtually no trace of it. Bronze coins too seem never to have entered in any quantity. There is a single piece from Judaea matched by another reported elsewhere at Cyrene and a third found at Ptolemais. The Demeter Sanctuary produced one Achaean League hernidrachm; another was found at Ptolemais, and there is an unpublished hoard of them in the Shahat (modern Cyrene) museum. But the totals of such materials are very small, and what is particularly noteworthy of Cyrenai­can finds is the virtual absence of Ptolemaic coinage from Egypt until the very end—coins of Cleopatra VII and subsequently Augustus.

The pattern of the finds from Cyrene’s port, Apollonia, is similar: only one piece of Ptolemy II, then coins of Cleopatra and Augustus. The difficulties of communication between Cyrenaica and Egypt, whether by land or by sea, seem always to have restricted the interchange of money.

Coinage from the west was even scarcer. The huge Carthaginian and Siculo-Punic bronze coinages which are found all over the western Medi­terranean and even in Dalmatia are virtually unknown in Cyrenaica. Nothing appeared in the Demeter Sanctuary or the Apollonia excava­tions. All this confirms the commer­cial isolation of Cyrenaica from both Egypt and Tripolitania recently demonstrated by Fulford.

The Roman Coins

The Ptolemaic coinage is pre­sumed to have ceased with the death of Apion. At some subsequent point in the 1st century B.C., production began of a local Roman provincial coinage specifically for Cyrenaica (Fig. 8). We have no useful informa­tion about the officials who signed it, which creates problems of relative and absolute chronology. Only the issues of Cleopatra and Antony (he had given her control of the province) can be dated with any accuracy before the latest issues in the name of Augustus and Tiberius.

The denominations of this provin­cial coinage are explicable when keyed to Roman usage, and the occasional halved pieces reflect Roman adjustment. But in practice most small change must have con­tinued to be Ptolemaic, now perhaps revalued to accommodate it to Ro­man coinage. Evidence of the con­tinuity of use is the scarcity of the provincial coins, which cannot have provided a sufficient monetary stock to substitute for the earlier bronze. The small proportion of the provin­cial coins in the Demeter Sanctuary finds is typical and cannot be taken as having a special significance for the activity of the shrine.

Finds of Roman imperial coins in. the Demeter Sanctuary are not numer­ous, but they run from Claudius in the 1st century to the middle of the 4th century A.D. There can be no doubt that Cyrenaica had already entered the Roman monetary orbit already in the 1st century B.C. A century after the provincial bronzes ceased, local coinage again appeared, with silver and bronze coins bearing the heads of the Roman emperors Trajan (Fig. 9), Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius, together with the local type, the head of Zeus Ammon. Some of these even bore Greek legends.

For a long time these issues were thought to have been struck in Cappa­docia, along with similar issues whose types referred to other provinces of the Empire. Excavations have now shown that these issues were used only in Cyrenaica, and a closer examination of style, fabric, and circulation patterns now make it certain that the mint was at Cyrene, where striking occurred from dies cut at Rome, or perhaps the coins were produced at Rome itself, for export to Cyrenaica. The motive for this coinage remains a mystery, since regular Roman imperial coinage was, and continued to be, in regular use in Cyrenaica. These pieces were in fact of Roman denomination: silver denarii and quinarii, with bronzes of several denominations. There is no knowing their purpose; since the first issue predates the Jewish revolt of A.D. 115 they can have nothing to do with it or the subsequent Hadrianic rebuilding. (One could guess that the relatively large issues of low de­nominations were intended to re­place the surviving small module Ptolemaic bronze, for there is no doubt that Roman coin continued to be pieced out with the Ptolemaic, examples of which have been found in the Demeter Sanctuary in contexts as late as the 3rd century A.D.)

These issues bear on our appre­hension of activity in the Sanctuary, since the limited number of Roman imperial coins alone might suggest that worship was less lively than in the Greek past. But when the Greek legend coins of 2nd century A.D. Cyrenaica are added to the Roman, the profile of the imperial coinage is greatly altered. For the first century there are only 2 coins, for the second, 25—by far the busiest period until the second and third quarters of the 4th century. Perhaps the coins should be associated with the embellishments provided in the Sanctuary, e.g., numerous dedications of statues. In contrast there are no small size finds at all for about a century between the 170s and the 270s A.D.

Whatever damage the earthquake of A.D. 262 may have done, the coins suggest that the Sanctuary had been quiescent for decades. However, the small total of imperial coins could in part be owing to their large size: everything up to the 270s A.D. is in bronze, and the usual Roman bronze denominations are much larger in size than the late Hellenistic Greek ones, hence less apt to be lost. For that reason one would suppose that the four large 3rd century sesterces (Fig. 10) were likely to have been deposits in the Sanctuary rather than casual losses. By contrast the excava­tion produced proportionately quite a lot of coins from the last years of the 3rd to the middle of the 4th centuries, coins much smaller in module and easier to lose.

The imperial coin finds end abruptly with Constantius II and Julian (A.D. 360-363). Something happened to the life of the Sanctuary, and the archaeological evidence sug­gests that it was the earthquake of A.D 365. In contrast the coin finds of Apollonia continue regularly through the next three centuries, coming down to Heraclius and the fall of the city in A.D. 642. The Demeter Sanc­tuary finds show clearly that worship had ceased there, and that even casual visits had ceased, for other­wise we would expect a scattering of odd losses. Instead there is nothing at all until two pieces of Heraclius and a single Islamic stray from 250 years later.

Our evaluation of the evidence of the bronze coins from the Sanctuary can only be provisional, for the comparative material is so slight. Only one other group of excavated coins from Cyrenaica of any size has yet been published, the finds from Apollonia. These were excavated from locations all over the city, whereas the Cyrene finds derive from a single locus, the Sanctuary. Yet the two groups are reasonably comparable. Both include examples from the whole sweep of Cyrenaican bronze coinage, from the 4th to the 1st centuries B.C. and on into Roman times, and in roughly the same proportions, so that it seems unlikely that all of the Sanctuary coins are dedications, rather than just losses. Presumably the sort of commerce in votive offerings known everywhere was conducted on the premises, and that would account for many of the losses in small change. At the same time, even tiny dedications of money—the widow’s mite—can be of signi­ficance in the aggregate, so perhaps we ought not to reject too quickly the possibility that even the least pre­possessing of the coins represented a heartfelt dedication to one of the kindest and most powerful god­desses.


Cite This Article

Buttrey, T. V.. "The Coins and the Cult." Expedition Magazine 34, no. 1-2 (July, 1992): -. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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