Oxford Roman Economy Project University of Oxford

Coinage and the Roman Economy in the Antonine Period: the view from Egypt

By Christopher Howgego, Kevin Butcher, Matthew Ponting, and Volker Heuchert


The Antonine period and the Antonine period in Egypt in particular have become central to current studies of the Roman economy. There is the debate between Wilson and Scheidel about whether per capita Roman economic growth continued throughout the first two centuries AD or stagnated already from the Augustan period. There is also Rathbone’s study of Egyptian prices, the only useable series from anywhere in the Empire, which sees the doubling between AD 160 and 190 as the only significant change between AD 45 and AD 274/5. This picture underpins an important paper by Temin on the causes of inflation in the Roman World in general.

The Antonine Plague, the impact of which is measured most securely from Egyptian evidence, potentially assumes great importance here: identified by Rathbone and Temin as the exogenous shock that caused the structural shift in prices and by Wilson as that which ended economic growth. The Plague has loomed large over recent discussions of the economy. It is obvious that thinking has been influenced by the much better documented Black Death. Unfortunately, attempts to substantiate the impact of the Plague in documentary and epigraphic evidence have been shown to be ‘Not Proven’. (Note Greenberg’s delightfully titled ‘Plagued by doubt’.) Modern estimates range from slight to apocalyptic. Even in Egypt, with its unparalleled level of papyrological documentation, attempts to pin quantified socio-economic change on the Plague have proved hard to sustain. At least the severity of the Plague itself in Egypt does seem to command a degree of consensus:

‘No one disputes that the Antonine Plague, which was carried into Egypt in AD 166/7, caused over the next decade a dramatic aggregate population loss, probably of around 20–30 percent to judge from some attested cases . . .’ (Rathbone 2007: 700)

It is indeed plausible that Egypt was badly hit by a plague spreading from the East. Alexandria, as a major maritime city, would have been a magnet, the province was heavily urbanized and densely populated, and the Nile would have been an effective conduit. The earliest evidence adduced by Duncan-Jones for an impact on Egypt is in AD 167/8.

Whatever the assessment of the Plague, no single explanation will suffice for the major changes taking place within the empire. It is scarcely novel to point out that the reign of Marcus would be seen as transitional in any case owing to the unprecedented military pressures on all sides. Political insecurity becomes a major factor in the third century, although one might question whether the end of the Antonine Period is really the right place to locate a sea change, despite the rhetorically useful strategy of highlighting the auction of the empire in AD 193. Factors affecting the supply of precious metal suggest a turn for the worse. In particular the history of gold and silver mining indicates a marked downturn beginning in the period from the 160s to the Severans, although new awareness of the scale of silver which came on-stream in Dalmatia and Moesia Superior will certainly modify the picture. There is also a longer view, based on the declining silver content of the coinage, which sees the fiscal inadequacy of the empire developing from the time of Nero. This view now receives some support from the observation that the recycling of old denarii to make new coin also seems to begin under Nero, replacing a pattern of sourcing bullion more directly from the mines.

The Antonine period in Egypt is thus central to our understanding of important developments in the Roman economy, and the role of Alexandria as the commercial centre of the eastern Mediterranean is of interest in its own right. Surprisingly, despite intensive work on the coinage of ‘Alexandria’ in general, there has been little consideration of the coinage of Roman Egypt under the Antonines in particular. Christiansen in his quantitative studies of the coinage chose to focus on the reigns of Nero, Trajan, and Septimius Severus, although in a later book he did devote a short chapter to Commodus. Walker did not analyse the coinage of Alexandria for much of the period.

Our aim is to make a start towards filling this gap by joining up the preliminary results from Butcher and Ponting’s new programme of metallurgical analysis with work done in connection with the Roman Provincial Coinage in the Antonine Period Project based at the Ashmolean Museum. The metallurgical analyses of the base silver tetradrachms presented here are entirely new. They supersede earlier results for silver content and add a consideration of the trace elements. They substantially change the story of the trajectory of the Egyptian tetradrachm under the Antonines. The metrological and historical interpretations are underpinned by the new Roman Provincial Coinage data, which include 11,429 Antonine coins from Egypt, 4,539 of which are tetradrachms. ...

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