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Knowing the Roman imperial mints: XII- Alexandria.

August 31, 2018

Alexandria, the great Egyptian metropolis, continues being, today as yesterday, one of the most populous and commercially trafficked ports in the entire Mediterranean. Although there are very few preserved remains of its once monumental buildings, we can contemplate a multitude of minor pieces such as statues and inscriptions: sufficiently well preserved to give us an idea of the high level of splendor achieved by the city founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC taking advantage of a magnificent natural harbor located in the western third of the Nile delta.

 

Like so many other cities of capital importance in the history of the Mediterranean, Alexandria based its legendary prosperity on the practice of commerce. In fact, it was the main port of departure for the grain harvested in the very fertile Egypt. The accumulated wealth was used both in the construction of large buildings - it is the paradigmatic case of the famous Pharos (lighthouse), one of the eight wonders of antiquity - and in the creation of institutions dedicated to the cultivation of science and literature. Thus, during the Ptolemaic era, the Alexandrian Library and Museum were founded: by far the main center for the cultivation of human knowledge throughout the Western Hemisphere.

 

Photo 1.- Ruins of a little roman odeon in Alexandria.

 

The historical development of Alexandria during the Roman imperial period would not be easy despite its undeniable prosperity. The immense strategic importance of Egypt, considered the granary of the Mediterranean, persuaded the Roman leaders of the convenience of keeping the province as isolated as possible from the rest of the Empire, in order to keep it less affected by the ups and downs of the imperial policy. This implied, for example, a different monetary system or the prohibition to the members of the Senate to travel to the country of the Nile. Such isolation could not be to the liking of the Egyptians, causing bitter frictions with the imperial authorities to which these ones used to respond with exemplary hardness. It was like this first in 215, reigning Caracalla, then in 253, later in 273 and once again in 297, that the Roman legions advanced on Alexandria, causing serious damage to people and buildings.

 

During the Late Empire and the early Byzantine period the city continued manteining its status and wealth within the Roman world, sending to Constantinople the immense shipments of wheat that were once sent to Rome. In any case the problems were not lacking, especially those related to the disturbances caused by the religious disputes between the imperial authority, determined to impose the Nicene trinitarianism as the only permitted modality of Christianity, and the stubborn Alexandrians, determined not to abjure to the monophysite faith that they practiced.

 

In the year 641 Alexandria is conquered for the first time by the Arabs. Although the city reacted by expelling the invader, it was again conquered fourteen months later. Constantinople counterattacked in 645 sending by sea an army that although manages to recover the city, fails in the reconquest of Egypt. Enclosed within the walls of the city, blocked its port, exhausted all hope of receiving help from the exhausted Constantinople, the Byzantine garrison capitulates to the Arabs in 646. This time the Muslim invader would not settle for occupying the city but made sure to destroy it so that it could never again serve as a bridgehead to a hypothetical Byzantine army. The destruction was so great that the face of Alexandria changed forever, ending by this way the classic period of its history to make way for medieval Alexandria, of purely Arab-Islamic character.

 

The first coins struck in Alexandria date from the time of its foundation. For three hundred years the city mint will issue numerious series on behalf of the different monarchs of the Ptolemaic dynasty following the Greek trimetallic system with the usual denominations of its metrological system: drachm, tetradrachm, obol, etc. The coinage continued in Roman times, conserving the Greek metrological system although with silver denominations increasingly poor in silver content to the point that late tetradrachms barely included precious metal in its composition. Finally Diocletian ends this anomalous situation, incorporating Egypt into the imperial monetary system. As is natural, the veteran mint of Alexandria was the chosen one to struck the new imperial coinage of the diocese of Egypt.