Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Lovers' Coin: Antony and Cleopatra

The Lovers' Coin: A Rare Discovery of a Mark Antony and Cleopatra Bronze Coin

Antony and Cleopatra by Lawerence Alma- Tadema; Courtesy of WikiCommons

The story of Marc Antony and Cleopatra is a love story of seduction, exotic locations, love-triangles, family, politics, war, and suicide. More importantly, their love affair was connected to the rise and fall of the Roman and Egyptian empire. It is easy to see how their love affair is intriguing tale for centuries worth of audiences from Plutarch's portrayal to Elizabeth Taylor's role to HBO's Rome Series. While there are countless of images produce of their romantic and tragic life; there something extraordinary in contemporary pieces that show both couples.

A recent archaeological discover in Tel Bethsaida (Northern coast of the Sea of Galilee) yielded a coin with the images of these notorious lovers. 

The Cleopatra and Antony side of the coin. Hanan Shafir. Courtesy of the Bethsaida Excavations Project


This coin found in Tel Bethsaida was actually minted in the port of Akko (known today as Acre). The coin is made of bronze, is approximately the size of a quarter (21-23 millimeters in diameter). It was minted in the last half of 35BCE and/or the first half of 34BCE. [1]


An side image of the Cleopatra side with a parallel image of the Greek letters outlined.

Cleopatra's side of the coin, it is somewhat unclear in the photo above, but one can see the Greek word: ΠΤΟΛΕΜΙδΣ .[2] This is the genitive form of the noun Ptolemais which means: "of the people of Ptolemais.[3]" Ptolemais is the name for ancient Akko, which was founded by Ptomlemy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century BCE.

"The cities of the ancient Middle East had a habit of minting coins bearing the portraits of whoever was in power," says Dr. Ariel, head of Israel Antiquities Authority Coin Department.[4] In 35 BCE, Antony's recent victory over the Parthians(Northeast Iran and Armenia), and his bestowing Armenia to Cleopatra's sons and Cyprus to her daughter may indicate why the ancient Middle East considered him powerful.[5]

Dating the coin was an interesting journey. Dr. Arav of the Bethsaida Excavations Project said the dating system was difficult to find. He continued to explain to me through our email conversations: On the Cleopatra side of the coin, there is a small I (iota) and E (epsilon). The Greek alphabet goes as follows : A=1, B=2, Γ=3, Δ=4, and so on. Thus, I and E in their numbering system are 10 and 5 respectively. Therefore, the I and E means 15.

However, what does the 15 mean? Dr. Arav explained that book research was essential in the following discovery: The people of Ptolemais valued greatly the event of Julius Caesar visiting the area to rid their waters of pirates. This event happened in 49BCE, the people of Ptolemais therefore used their dating system in reference to 49BCE. Thus, 49BCE being the starting date, 15 years later would be 35-34 BCE.

Dr. Ariel said, "Coins with the portraits of Antony and Cleopatra are extremely rare. Only six have been found anywhere in the world.[6]" However according to the ancient numismatic reference site, there have been more than six discoveries of Antony and Cleopatra coins.[7] Though, it would stand that only six of the eight coins are in good condition. This coin would make the seventh. However, it has to be asked if the ancient Middle East considered Antony and Cleopatra powerful in 35 BCE (and perhaps other years as well); why are there not more of these "lovers' coin?"

The Battle of Actium 2, September 31BC by Lorenzo A. Castro
Courtesy of Wikicommons

However, it is not difficult to hypothesize that Augustus Caesar may have had them collected and destroyed after his victory at Actium. Augustus after all did destroy Antony's portraits after his death, but for some reason allowed Cleopatra's statues to remain in Caesar's Temple to Venus Genetrix.[8] Perhaps, Augustus admired Cleopatra that as a foreigner her ambition, cunning, and wit were understandable However, his unforgiving attitude towards Antony may have had to do with his sister Octavia. Antony's affair with Cleopatra was at the expense of Augustus's sister and Antony's wife Octavia and their children. Cleopatra as a foreigner was understood to be less than a respectable being, but as a Roman male citizen Antony's actions were inexcusable.

Silver denarius of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony , 30's BCE. Courtesy of the British Museum
It is these rare coins which provide a look into Antony's and Cleopatra's policy of their portrayal, features, and idealized form. It is uncertain whether they wish to emulate a certain presence, as is suggested by the British Museum," Antony was said to remind people of the Greek hero Herakles in paintings and sculptures, with '... a very good and noble appearance; his beard was not unsightly, his forehead broad, and his nose aquiline' (Plutarch, Life of Antony, 4). However, here his portrait seems to have picked up Ptolemaic features, specifically the strong projecting chin of Ptolemy I, the founder of Cleopatra's dynasty, and the hooked noses of Cleopatra and her father Ptolemy XII.[9]"

Thus, this infamous couple continues to engage, fill, and plague our minds. Though, they are long dead and their story known by most; they continue to be the topic of much discussion, debate, and obsession.


Main Sources & Contributors:

Private Correspondence with Dr. Arav

The ancient coin of Cleopatra: There could have been pyramids in Paris

By Miriam Feinberg Vamosh | Aug. 4, 2013 |

 1. Israel Antiquities Authority Coin Department

2. The Bethsaida Excavations Project

Secondary Sources & Contributors:

British Museum:

Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon,Oxford University Press, 1996

The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus/edited by Karl Galinsky.Cambridge University Press, 2005

 Plutarch, Life of Antony, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[1] Vamosh, "The ancient coin of Cleopatra: There could have been pyramids in Paris" |
[2] My own translation and identification of text in red.
[3] Liddell & Scott, Greek- English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, 1996
[4] Vamosh
[5] Plutarch Life of Antony, Cambridge University Press, 1988. Chapter 54
[6] Vamosh
[8] The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus/edited by Karl Galinsky.Cambridge University Press, 2005
[9] British Museum:

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