Ptolemaic Coinage as a Source of Propaganda

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The minting of coinage during the Hellenistic period is a representation of propaganda that kings and queens used to establish themselves as the rulers of the rising successors kingdoms. The portrait representation of the Ptolemaic dynasty on coinage is a source of propaganda which was used to legitimize and promote their rule over their kingdom. To display that Hellenistic coinage is a source of propaganda there will be a focus on the Ptolemies dynasty by observing the portraits of Ptolemy I Soter, Ptolemy III, Ptolemy V, and Cleopatra VII. There is also an importance in understanding the historical situations and events which took place during their rule as it influenced the portrait design. After the splitting of Alexander’s Empire Ptolemy I Soter utilized the standard iconography of Alexander’s coinage. During Ptolemy I’s rule coinage carried the depiction of Alexander the Great which was designed to link the legacy of Alexander with his own to present himself as a suitable replacement for Alexander. His is also the first of the Ptolemaic rulers to break from using Alexander’s image and display his own portrait.

The reign of Ptolemy III saw him portray himself as an Egyptian god by representing himself as a solar deity and connecting his position as king with the cycle of replenishment and death to show himself as an Egyptian king. Ptolemy V provided imagery on coinage based on the Fifth Syrian War which he wanted to display his success and ability to be a defender of Egypt by minting coinage of past military conquerors and commanders to link himself to their legacy. Cleopatra VII minted coinage during a time when Roman intervention in Egyptian affairs was increasing which influenced the design of her portrait on the Ptolemaic coinage. She also presented her son on the coinage to present him as the next heir to the Ptolemaic throne while stating that their rule will bring back glory to Egypt by using the double cornuocpiae. Ptolemaic rulers used coinage to present themselves as gods and strong rulers to the population of the kingdom.

Ptolemy Soter I of the Ptolemaic dynasty would use the portrait of Alexander the Great on Egyptian coinage to legitimize his rule after taking control of Egypt and later display his image on it. It is important to notice that the iconography on coinage was influenced by the unfolding events as at the time Ptolemy Soter I took control of Egypt when the empire of Alexander the Great was divided up between the former generals of Alexander and his son Alexander IV was still alive. Ptolemy would use the image of Alexander as he did not wanting to undermine the developed cult of Alexander and would need to please the diverse population that he was governing of which were Egyptians and Greeks.[1] The design on the coins was of Alexander the Great with the ram’s horn of Ammon, with an Indian elephant scalp on his head, and an aegis around his neck to represent the three continents which the empire expanded as “Amon-Ra for Africa, of Ganesa for Asia, and of Zeus for Europe” with the name Alexander inscribed on it.[2] Displaying Alexander’s association with Ammon not only creates a link with the Egyptian gods but also with his rule of Egypt as a pharaoh and with Ptolemy promoting that connected him to the legacy of Alexander. Ptolemy was practicing posthumous which is a propaganda move to link one’s rule with a former great or beloved ruler to state that you as a ruler and your rule will be as good as or even better than the previous ruler which is what Ptolemy wants to accomplish. Alexander’s portrait is a source of propaganda to legitimize Ptolemy’s rule by exploiting the king’s legend and ideological potential and coins would slowly start bearing the badge of Ptolemy which is the eagle to link their divinity into one.[3]

This is even shown by the capture of Alexander the Great’s body and burying him at Alexandria to present respect for the former king and “increase his statues by taking possession of the dead” body as a way to legitimize his rule.[4] This would not last forever as the last rightful son and heir Alexander IV to Alexander the Great would be killed in 309BCE which stopped the need of Ptolemy representing the legacy of Alexander on coins by a portrait and inscriptions but then allow him to start displaying his own divinity and portrait on coinage. His portrait would be of himself having the aegis of Zeus around his neck which is a “symbol of divinity” which is not only associated with a king but also with the title of pharaoh.[5] He also adopted representation of Zeus through the presence of the eagle and thunderbolt to display his attributes of a deity and his name was inscribed upon the coinage.[6] The importance of imagery during the time of Ptolemy Soter I was the representation of Alexander on Egyptian coinage as it became the keystone feature of Ptolemy’s propaganda agenda to display himself as the rightful heir or even a suitable replacement for Alexander.[7] [1: Athanasios Koutoupas, “Religion and Politics under the Ptolemies (300BCE-215BCE),” Atlas Serials, 39, no.2 (2012):2. ] [2: Charles Seltman, Greek Coins: A History of Metallic Currency and Coinage down to the Fall of the Hellenist Kingdoms (1965), 240. ] [3: Karsten Dahmen, The Legend of Alexander The Great on Greek and Roman Coins (2007), 48.] [4: Günther Hölbl, A History of the Ptolemaic Empire (2001), 48.] [5: Seltman, 241. ] [6: Norman Davis, Colin M. Kraay, The Hellenistic Kingdoms: Portraits Coins and History (1974), 16.] [7: Dahmen, 48. ]

The coinage of Ptolemy III Euergetes is representing himself as a solar deity from Egyptian mythology that is associated with powers of replenishment to cement his rule as an Egyptian king among the Egyptian population. The crown which Ptolemy III is depicted wearing is represented as Greek iconography where it is the rays of Helios which is usually can be associated with Greek mythology but in Egyptian mythology it has a different meaning. The rays on the crown are seen as a representation of the king’s divinity in association with the Egyptian gods Horus, Ra, and Ra-Harakhty who are linked with the regenerative powers of the sun as part of the eternal cosmic cycle of death and regeneration.[8] Ptolemy III’s use of the crown of rays to reference his divinity with Egyptian gods is a way to present his rule in association of Egyptian mythology that he is an Egyptian king and possesses the power of regeneration. This establishment as a sun god would carry over into the reign of Ptolemy V where he relied on it to present himself as a “divine pharaoh”.[9]

The crown has fourteen rays protruding from it which carries an important reference to the god Osiris who was cut into fourteen different pieces by the god Seth. The number of fourteen also corresponds to the days of waxing and waning days of the moon as the moon is a symbol of rejuvenation that is associated with Osiris where he is associated with rebirth as each king was seen as the reborn incarnation of Horus.[10] This is a part of the coinage propaganda to place himself as a part of the cosmic world of Egyptian mythology which is show in the decree called the Canopus Decree of 238BCE where he states he possesses the “power to regulate the seasons and passages of the years” to present himself as Master of Time and a guarantor of the universal order.[11]

The cornucopiae in Greek mythology was a horn from the she-goat of Amaltheia which has the power of perpetual replenishment and this idea is kept when used on Ptolemaic coinage but the idea is developed. The cornucopiae took symbolic representation of the Nile which was associated with replenishment and eternal life that can be granted by the chthonic deities but having the cornucopiae on the revere side of the coinage which depicts Ptolemy III as a sun deity it made the sun and solar deities become associated with life and replenishment that the Nile brought to the lands of Egypt.[12] The cornucopiae under the reign of Ptolemy IV would be displayed with the rays which further reflected the association with the solar gods and in turn the kings themselves.[13]

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This propaganda representation was set up to present himself and the position of the king as having the power and ability to grant the fertility to the earth and that he was the center of life within the kingdom and its success. The coinage under Ptolemy III was designed to present himself as a sun god and associated the sun deities with the cycle of fertility which helped in defining his rule and the powers of the Egyptian kings. [8: Iossif P. Panagiostis, Lorber C. Catharine, “The Rays of the Ptolemies,” Revue Numismatique, no. 168 (2012):205.] [9: Panagiostis, Catharine, 207. ] [10: Panagiostis, Catharine, 206. ] [11: Panagiostis, Catharine, 206. ] [12: Panagiostis, Catharine, 210. ] [13: Davis, Colin, 26. ]

The rule of Ptolemy V Epiphanes was warring against the Seleucid kingdom which he used iconography of past military generals on coinage to connect himself to their greatness. The Fifth Syrian War of 202-195BCE was being fought which is a conflict that influenced the design chosen for the display of Ptolemy V’s portrait by having a spear on his shoulder which symbolizes victory.

The Egyptians viewed the king as the incarnation of Horus who is the defender of Egypt and this is an aspect that Ptolemy V will want to display in his portrait to show he is the defender of Egypt against the kingdom of the Seleucids. His grandfather Ptolemy III was experienced in displaying himself in the matter of a military general as he was fighting the Third Syrian War of 246-241BCE. Ptolemy III’s portrait had him wearing the “aegis, in the matter of a Macedonian military chlamys” which was similar to a statue called the Alexander Aigiochos which was associated with the cult of Alexander the Great.[15] Ptolemy III placed himself in relationship with Alexander as a great conqueror which Ptolemy V will bear the chlamys the same way to associate with that legacy too.

Ptolemy V will strike coins with his father’s image Ptolemy IV Philopator to represent the victory at Raphia in the attempt to link is military campaign to the glorious past of his father’s victory presenting himself as a strong military commander.[16] This military portrait is Ptolemy V’s propaganda to present his military campaigns successes on equal levels of past kings in the attempt to present himself as a great military commander and defender of Egypt to the Ptolemaic kingdom. [14: Panagiostis, Catharine, 214.] [15: Panagiostis, Catharine, 211. ] [16: Panagiostis, Catharine, 215. ]

Cleopatra VII’s portrait is a source of propaganda as it is designed to display connections to Roman power to secure her rule in Egypt while presenting her son as the next heir to the Ptolemaic throne. At the time of her rule the Ptolemaic kingdom is the last of the successor kingdoms to survive while the rest have fallen to Roman conquest and Roman intervention increased in the affairs of Egypt. Before Rome entered the scene Cleopatra wanted to display herself as an equal to her former male rulers as she intended to as male sovereign. She wanted to achieve this by displaying a male persona through her portrait on coinage by presenting her wearing a diadem on her head which is usually worn and displayed by the male rulers of the Ptolemy kingdom.[17] This changed when she was removed from the throne by her brother and they ended up in a civil war where Caesar helped Cleopatra VII regain the throne and they had a child named Caesarion.

This is important because this is when Cleopatra would start changing her image on the coinage to represent her connection and allegiance with Caesar and in extent to Rome itself. Her portrait starts to bear the “stephane, the crown of a goddess, most probably Aphrodite” which is displayed in a similar position to coins Caesar minted that showed a goddess wearing the stephane crown.[19] This is important because she is linking her rule with that of Julius Caesar’s past by referencing it to his ancestor Venus-Aphrodite as a way to cement her power with that of the Roman Republic. Cleopatra also displays her son in her portrait to present him as the next ruler of Egypt which is enforced by the use of the double cornucopiae on the reverse side. The double cornucopiae has the meaning of presenting the power of the king and queen in marriage bringing wealth and fertility to the kingdom but in this case it is used to reference a glorious past which can be achieved by queen and son the new rulers of the Ptolemaic kingdom.[20] Cleopatra VII used coinage to display an image of prosperity towards the people that would grab past glory with her as the new queen and presented her loyalty towards Caesar. [17: R. A. Hazzard, Imagination of a Monarchy: Studies in Ptolemaic Propaganda (2000), 149.] [18: Günther Hölbl, 234. ] [19: Anastasiades Aristodemos, “Two Ptolemaic Queens and Cyprus: Iconography Issues,” Cahiers Du Centre d’Etudes Chypriotes, 39.1 (2009):265. ] [20: Anastasiades, 266. ]

Portraits on coinage during the Ptolemaic kingdom were propaganda which was used to promote the reign of a ruler. In understanding portraits designs on coinage there was a look at four different Ptolemaic rulers who were Ptolemy Soter I, Ptolemy III, Ptolemy V, and Cleopatra VII and how events during their rule influenced their design choice of their portraits on coinage. After the splitting of Alexander’s Empire Ptolemy I continued the use of Alexander’s imagery on coinage to legitimize his rule as satrapy of Egypt and later king of the Ptolemaic dynasty and kingdom. Ptolemy saw it necessary to keep the cult of Alexander pleased and the memory of him alive to present himself as a viable heir to Alexander until the true heirs of Alexander died and started to call himself king.

Ptolemy III used coinage to present himself as a sun god with the use of the crown of rays on his head. He wanted to link the solar deities with the cycle of death and replenishment by using the cornucopiae which in turn makes the king and solar deities associated with these powers present a more Egyptian kingship. Ptolemy V used coinage as a way to connect his military campaign to the greatness of former military conquerors to show himself as a defender of Egypt which he did by minting coinage of Ptolemy IV and copying Ptolemy III. Cleopatra VII used coins to promote a rule that was heavily linked with the Roman Republic which she did by depicting herself as Aphrodite displaying an alliance with Julius Caesar.

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