Further Observations on Sicilian Ptolemaic Bronzes and their Imitations




THE MINTING of bronze coins on Sicily by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and their imitation by Hieron II of Syracuse, was established by Wolf and Lorber[1] on the bases of find spots, style and fabric, die axis distributions, and metrology that distinguish them from contemporary Ptolemaic bronzes of other mints. The coins in question are identified with Svoronos2 catalog numbers 610, 612, 615, 619, 620, 623, and 624.  All weigh about 17 grams, with laureate Zeus obverse and an open-wing eagle on thunderbolt with a Galatian shield to the left on the reverse.  The 193 specimens of the Sicilian bronzes in Wolf and Lorber’s die study (Wolf and Lorber, Appendix 1) divide into two groups of almost equal quantity.  One group (Svoronos 610), produced on Sicily by a previously unrecognized Ptolemaic mint, is characterized by fixed vertical die axes, stereotypical style, and absence of secondary controls.  Coins of the second group (Sv 612 etc.), though in the name of Ptolemy, were attributed to Hieron II because their variable die axes rule out issue by the Ptolemaic mint, their styles differ from the Ptolemaic issue, and they share controls and linear reverse borders with Hieron's portrait/horseman coins.

           A newly observed specimen (Figure 1, 26.7-26.9mm, 14.668g, 1h, Svoronos 619) now connects the Ptolemaic and imitative series. This specimen's reverse, with N secondary control near the eagle's tail, belongs to the imitation series.  Its obverse, however, is the stereotyped Zeus portrait style of the Sicilian Ptolemaic mint issue (Sv 610, Figure 2), not one of the imitation series portraits.  This is the first observation of a Sicilian Ptolemaic mint portrait paired with an imitative series reverse, which physically links the Ptolemaic mint coinage to its imitations by Hieron II.

           That the new coin's obverse does not match any portrait identified in Wolf and Lorber's die study is not especially surprising because that die study yielded an estimate of at least 372 Ptolemaic mint obverses.  Few of the Sicilian Ptolemaic mint's coins observed share portrait dies.  The new specimen's reverse die, however, was identified in the earlier die study (P41). 

           Wolf and Lorber concluded that the purpose of the Sicilian Ptolemaic coinage was payment to Ptolemaic troops supporting Hieron's military operations ca. 265 BC.  A putative rationale for Hieron's imitative coinage was that it filled a need for similar coins after the Ptolemaic troops were withdrawn and the Ptolemaic mint closed, that the imitative series was produced after the Ptolemaic mint ceased operations, and paid a rump of Ptolemaic troops still left in Sicily or mercenaries previously in Philadelphus' service.   

           The hitherto unobserved direct connection between Ptolemaic and imitative coinages can be interpreted in more than one way.  It is consistent with the ideas proposed by Wolf and Lorber to explain both coinages.  In this view the new coin shows that Hieron's imitative-Ptolemaic coins imitate the Ptolemaic mint's Sv 610 issues; its obverse die made by the Ptolemaic mint but used later by Hieron's mint.  If that is indeed the case then this new coin also suggests a different  chronology of variations within Hieron's imitative series than that suggested by Wolf and Lorber.   We now examine the implications of this interpretation of the new coin.

           The imitative series types exhibit a diverse multiplicity of secondary controls, secondary control positions, reverse border types, and portrait and eagle styles.  Wolf and Lorber observed some combinations of those features and segregation of die links that indicate the imitative coins were produced in three subgroups (Table 1) of isolated die linkages and perhaps in a chronological order.  That sequence was difficult to ascertain due to sparseness of the die linkages and an absence of die links between imitation series coins and Ptolemaic mint coins.  Wolf and Lorber inferred which subgroup likely was issued first by noting a feature shared by all the Ptolemaic mint's coins and one imitation type (termed '610A'), namely a lack of secondary controls.  A common absence of secondary controls implied that '610A' was the most closely related to the Ptolemaic mint's issue and that its subgroup was therefore issued first.


Table 1.  Wolf and Lorber's Chronology of Hieron's Imitative Ptolemaic Bronze Subgroups


Subgroup 1 - First Issue

           610A (no secondary control)

           Sv - (1 above shield)

           Sv 612, 624, 620 (1, F, or N below shield)

           Part of Sv 619 (N behind eagle’s tail)

Subgroup 2 - Second Issue

           Part of Sv 615, 619, 623 (A, N, or F behind eagle’s tail)

Subgroup 3 - Third Issue

                      Part of Sv 615, 619, 623 (A, N, or F behind eagle’s tail)

                      one dotted-border reverse die (P41, Sv 619, N control)


           Wolf and Lorber overlooked one aspect of that chronological order: it tells of an  increasing emission of imitative coinage over time, that the imitative coinage ended at the height of  its production, because the estimates of obverse dies used for each imitative subgroup they reported were:


           Subgroup 1 - minimum of 14 obverse dies

           Subgroup 2 - minimum of 19 obverse dies

           Subgroup 3 - minimum of 39 obverse dies


           If indeed the rationale for the imitative series was to issue coins resembling the  Ptolemaic coinage after it ceased production, the need for imitations would have been greatest at the time of the Ptolemaic mint’s closure and declined  thereafter.  Wolf and Lorber's proposed chronology is, however, inconsistent with a plausible declining emission of imitative coinage.

           The newly observed direct link between imitative and Sicilian Ptolemaic mint coins speaks to both the imitation series' chronological ambiguity and that inconsistency with the very purpose of the coins.  The new coin's reverse die (P41) was identified earlier, paired with portraits of the 'elaborately curly beard' style that defines Wolf and Lorber's Subgroup 3 (Figure 3).  The new coin's Ptolemaic style portrait paired with that imitative series reverse die links Subgroup 3 to the Ptolemaic mint and indicates that Subgroup 3 was the first imitative coinage.  Other die links within the imitation coinage series are consistent with reversal of the earlier proposed chronological sequence.  A revised chronology of the subgroups in this light (Table 2) reverses their previously suggested order of issue, consistent with both the new die link observation and likely temporal decline of imitative coinage.


Table 2.  Revised Chronology of Hieron's Imitative Ptolemaic Bronze Subgroups


Subgroup 3 - First Issue

           one dotted border reverse die (P41, Sv619, N control)

                      - paired with Sv 610 Ptolemaic mint portrait

                       - paired with Subgroup 3 imitative series portrait

           Part of Sv 615, 619, 623 (A, N, or F behind eagle’s tail)

Subgroup 2 - Second Issue

           Part of Sv 615, 619, 623 (A, N, or F behind eagle’s tail)

Subgroup 1 - Third Issue

           Sv 610A (no secondary control)

           Sv - (1 above shield)

           Sv 612, 624, 620 (1, F, or N below shield)

           Part of Sv 619 (N behind eagle’s tail)


           The new coin, however, admits a new interpretation altogether.  Were this coin's die axis far from vertical we could be sure it was produced by Hieron's mint because no Ptolemaic mint coins have die axes far from vertical.  But this coin has a die axis (1h) within the range of coins produced by the Sicilian Ptolemaic mint.  We cannot infer from a unique die paring with this die axis whether its source was a mint producing coins with variable die axes or fixed, in other words whether it was made by the Ptolemaic mint or Hieron's imitation mint.  The new coin presents an irresolvable ambiguity:  we cannot tell if the Ptolemaic mint obverse die was later used at Hieron's mint or, vice versa, if this reverse die from Hieron's mint was also used by the Ptolemaic mint.  Before this coin was observed, all coins sruck from this reverse were unambiguously imitation series coins. But now we must acknowledge other possibilities, the ultimate chronological ambiguity - one that is circular.  This single coin could well indicate that the Ptolemaic and imitative coinages at least partly overlapped, excluding any chronology that logically satisfies all the die-link relationships that are now evident.  It could upend Wolf and Lorber's plausible explanation  of relationships between the Sicilian Ptolemaic coinage and that of Hieron's imitative mint and require we approach them anew.




           A newly observed die pairing explicitly ties Hieron's imitative Ptolemaic bronze coinage to that of a Sicilian Ptolemaic mint.  This new coin may suggest an improved chronology of the imitative variants that better fits the rationale for their existence or it may lead to a complete re-thinking of the putative relationships between the two coinages that were proposed by Wolf and Lorber.  Recent recognition of a Sicilian Ptolemaic bronze issue and its imitations by Hieron II should inspire further analysis of their places among Sicilian coinage of the 3rd C. BC.  The coin presented here takes us a step closer to clarifying the relationship between the Sicilian Ptolemaic coinage and its imitation by Hieron II.





Thanks to Catharine Lorber for helpful suggestions on this article.

Thanks to Rob Freeman for observations and comments on coins.

Thanks to Richard Ashton for comments and editorial guidance.



FIGURE 1 – New Coin with Sicilian Ptolemaic Mint Portrait / Imitation Style Reverse – Sv 619 – Same reverse die (P41) as Figure 3.

                    26.7-26.9mm, 14.668g, 1h



FIGURE 2 – Sicilian Ptolemaic Mint Portrait / Sicilian Ptolemaic Mint Reverse – Sv 610

                    26.0-26.7mm, 17.638g, 12h


FIGURE 3 – Hieron Mint Imitation Ptolemaic Bronze / Imitation Style Portrait and Reverse Sv 619 – Same reverse die (P41) as Figure 1.

                    26.9-28.4mm, 14.736g, 2h

[1] D. Wolf and C. Lorber, ‘The ‘Galatian Shield without 2’ series of Ptolemaic bronze coins’, NC 2011, pp. 7-53.

2 JJ.J. N. Svoronos, 'Ta Nomismata tou Kratous ton Ptolemaion/Münzen der Ptolemäer',  1904-1908, 4 vols (Athens: P.N. Sakellariou).