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date: 08 August 2020

Money and Prices in the Papyri, Ptolemaic Period

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines developments in money and prices in Egypt during the Ptolemaic period based on numismatic and papyrological evidence. It first considers the introduction, spread, and circulation of coinage in Egypt and how money and coins were used for transactions throughout the country. It then discusses the administration of coinage in Ptolemaic Egypt, from the reduction of the weight of the gold and silver coinage under Ptolemy I to the monetary reforms of Ptolemy V. It also explores the use of cash and kind as a mode of payment for rents and wages; the possibility of commuting cash into kind (and vice versa) as a condition for Ptolemaic taxation principles to work in practice; and three different categories of wheat prices in the papyri. It ends by drawing some economic conclusions from prices in the papyri.

Keywords: money, prices, Egypt, Ptolemaic period, coinage, coins, cash, grain, taxation, papyri

Introduction: Money and Coins

It was long taken for granted that monetization in Ptolemaic Egypt was rather moderate. Thus Dominic Rathbone suggested that “under the Ptolemies it appears that monetization barely percolated through to the native population” (1989, 165). And two influential Italian papyrologists observed that in loan transactions, reckoning in kind was still prevalent in the Ptolemaic period, whereas in Roman times the majority of loans were made in cash (Foraboschi and Gara 1982). Over the past thirty years, intense work on Greek papyri, Ptolemaic coinage, and papyri in the native script of demotic has radically changed this picture. Although the first one hundred years of Roman rule once again changed the nature of the rural economy in Egypt (Monson 2012a), there is little evidence to suggest that the use of money was limited to the Hellenized parts of the population.

When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, at that time a Persian satrapy, it had no regular coinage. The pre-Ptolemaic economy of Egypt was based on wheat and bullion, which were used for tax and rental payments, social obligations, and in exchange. Wheat was not just a natural product to be bartered for consumption, but a veritable kind of money, as it was transacted and accounted for in standardized units and had a fixed value in relation to other goods. Precious metal bullion, less heavily used for fiscal purposes, appears in Egyptian hoards as so-called Hacksilber (smashed pieces of silver bars, silver objects, and foreign coins) and in marriage agreements from the ninth century BCE onward (the earliest example is the Hieratic P. Ehevertr. 1 from 879 BC; Lüddeckens 1960). In these contracts, sums of precious metal weight units are listed as matrimonial gifts in the event of divorce. Syro-Palestinian shekels had been used by Persian military occupants in Elephantine, and Greek coinage was used by Greek settlers in Memphis and Naucratis, a Greek colony in the northwest of the delta. Local Egyptian elites had used Greek and Persian coins for trade, exchange, and a limited range of taxes (such as sales and burial taxes, attested from the Saïte period onward). The Aramaic customs account of 475 BCE shows that the Persians collected customs duties in silver and gold as well as in kind on ships and cargos entering and departing from Egypt (TAD III C3.7; Porten and Yardeni 1993). Persian satraps, moreover, and some of the last Egyptian pharaohs in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, had minted imitations of Athenian tetradrachms, probably in order to pay foreign mercenaries. Egypt before the Macedonian conquest thus had several types of so-called limited purpose money in the form of grain, coins, Hacksilber, or bullion before the Ptolemies introduced a royal coinage for widespread use among the entire population. The circulation of this coinage created an unprecedented degree of fiscal and economic cohesion and helped to establish a new type of state focused on the capital of Alexandria (von Reden, 2007, 31–117; Manning 2010, 130–38).

The introduction of coinage happened gradually. After Alexander left Egypt, Greco-Macedonian soldiers stationed in the Egyptian capital of Memphis and in the border towns along the coast brought larger quantities of Greek coins into the northern parts of Egypt. Coin use increased when Ptolemy took over the satrapy in 323 BCE, and by the time he was proclaimed king in 306 BCE, there was a recognizably Ptolemaic coinage with a full range of denominations. Coinage did not replace other forms of money, and rental and tax payments related to grain land especially continued to be paid in wheat or wheat equivalents (see “ Cash and Kind”). Over time, however, a wide range of transactions within the royal economy functioned through coinage, affecting the grain-based economy even when payments continued to be made in kind. Thus tenancy contracts with fixed rental payments became more frequent than sharecropping arrangements, in which tenants paid the landlord a proportional part of the harvest (Bingen 2007, 229–39). In addition, interest payments on grain loans, to which a lump sum of 50 percent (the hemiolion) used to be added upon repayment, became more flexibly assessed and related to the duration of the loan.

One of the most serious problems with the introduction of coinage was the lack of silver resources in Egypt. Any silver used for minting coinage had to come into the country by circulation and exchange (Le Rider 1986). From about 315 BCE onward the Ptolemies minted a lighter silver coinage, and by the early third century BCE they had introduced a closed currency system in which all foreign coinage used in Egypt had to be exchanged for lightweight Egyptian coins, earning the state not only a fee, but also about 20 percent silver per coin. More heavy use of gold, and above all bronze, coins was another way of making up for the lack of natural endowment. Yet another was using coinage just as a unit of account and standard of value for transactions made in kind. Payments in kind and in coinage could easily be commuted, as there continued to be standard exchange rates, in some cases fixed by state authority, for the conversion of various types of grain into cash and vice versa. Money use could also be increased through lending and borrowing, purposeful delays of payment, and cashless transfers of money through accounts. Cash-saving accounting practices are frequently attested in the accounts of the royal administration and their banks, which became important instruments in the tax- and royal-rent-collecting process. Accounting and cashless payment were also practiced on large estates, where accounts were used not just to record income and outgoings, but also to transfer money from one account to the other. Accounting practices of this kind appear so frequently in the papyri that they must be regarded as a structural element of the Ptolemaic economy rather than just the choice of a few local administrators or estate managers.

The spread of coinage throughout Egypt was uneven at first. Coinage dominated areas under immediate Greek control, such as the delta, the Fayum, and the Oxyrhynchite, Herakleopolite, and Hermopolite nomes in Middle Egypt, as well as some garrison towns in Upper Egypt. But as the power of the Ptolemies began to reach further into the south, royal banks, monetary taxation, and monetary payments gradually affected less Hellenized areas. By the third quarter of the third century BCE, Greek and demotic ostraca (pot shards used for writing receipts) testify that monetary taxation and rental payments were equally as common in Upper as they were in Lower Egypt (Muhs 2005). Whether payments recorded were actually paid in cash or just written down in this form is difficult to determine. But if we take cash, cashless payments, and commutation between cash and kind as aspects of the introduction of coinage, monetization based on coinage affected most payment cycles in Egypt.

Alexandria, the Mediterranean capital of the Ptolemaic empire, was a special case in the history of monetization. Harboring the Ptolemaic navy and being a hub of Mediterranean trade, it was a metropolis both looking out into the Greek-speaking Mediterranean and into the chora of Egypt (Thompson and Buraselis 2013). Alexandria and the port of Pelusium at the border to Syria-Palestine were among the largest commercial centers in the Mediterranean, turning over trade in vast sums. (P. Cair. Zen. 59012 [259 BCE] gives an example of the value of a single shipload.) At the same time, parts of the delta and especially the Fayum served as the immediate hinterland to the city of Alexandria, creating a market for food and labor supplied by the countryside and turning money back into it (Manning 2005). Without the dynamic development of trade and consumption in the Mediterranean capital and port, the monetization of the villages in the Nile valley would never have developed in the same way.

Evidence for monetary development in Egypt is both numismatic and papyrological. Some literary and epigraphic texts are important for particular questions. Papyri and coins, however, speak a very different language and often point to very different aspects of the monetary economy. Papyri come from the chora and relate in large part to a literate, Greek-speaking population concentrating in Middle Egypt, especially the Fayum and adjacent areas. A particularly valuable Greek source for the third century BCE is the Zenon archive, which contains the papers of Zenon and his predecessor, Panakestor, who were managers of a large estate endowed on Apollodoros, the finance minister (dioiketes) for all Egypt under Ptolemy II. The archive provides detailed insights into many aspects of economic life in the Fayum, Memphis, and other places where the employees and agents of the estate were active between 260 and 243 BCE. Some newly edited, highly valuable collections of demotic papyri containing land surveys, accounts, and contracts from Edfu and the Fayum have increased our knowledge of agricultural life, property rights, taxes, and money use among less Hellenized parts of the Egyptian population (P. Hauswaldt Manning = Manning 1997; P. Agri. dem. = Monson 2012b). Several editions of bilingual papyri (Greek demotic) from Upper and Lower Egypt are also increasingly used to address questions of monetary history. Coin finds are more widely spread and recovered in excavations and hoards throughout Egypt (Faucher 2011, with maps). But coins and papyri are not simply complementary sources. Coins help us understand patterns of circulation, mint policy, and to some extent, volumes of coinage. But they tell us almost nothing about their users and the role of cash transactions vis-à-vis other forms of exchange. Coins, moreover, are deposits, dumped, hidden in times of danger, or reserved for later spending. A temporary decline of hoards or stray finds may equally reflect peaceful and stable times, rather than a decline of coinage in circulation (Meadows 2014). Thanks to fruitful cooperation between numismatists and papyrologists, both have become aware of the potential and limitations of their respective evidence.

Silver, Gold, and Bronze Coinage

The opening of a Ptolemaic mint in Memphis is dated to 326–325 BCE, that is, several years into the Macedonian rule (Mørkholm 1991). Until then Macedonian coinage and coins from Alexander’s other imperial mints were used in the Egyptian satrapy. To judge from the contents of a large hoard deposited in 318 BCE and found at Demanhur about forty miles southeast of Alexandria, coin use in Egypt was still dominated by the Alexander coinage produced in Amphipolis (Macedonia) and elsewhere (Price 1991, 41–42). Of the total silver tetradrachms known from this hoard, only a little more than 4 percent were minted in Egypt (Duyrat 2005).

The circulation of coins in Egypt was at first very limited. Reliable details of the infamous administration under Cleomenes of Naucratis between 331 and 323 are unavailable, but one of his major financial projects must have been the building of Alexandria (Le Rider 1997). The pseudo-Aristotlian Oikonomika suggest that under Cleomenes the nome administrators (nomarchai) were liable for the tax volume in cash, which they procured from the sale of grain for export ([Aristot.], Oec. 2.2.33). The same text implies that Cleomenes also extracted money from priests and wealthy residents engaged in commerce. It appears from these remarks that cash was used by people engaged in an interregional economy who belonged to the top of the local hierarchy. There is no indication that taxes were collected in cash from the Egyptian population itself, or that the peasantry was drawn into commercial transactions to generate this cash.

Unfortunately, we know little about the administration of taxes and money under the first Ptolemy, a period for which papyrological documentation is still scarce. Numismatic evidence can compensate to a certain extent. The most remarkable step taken by Ptolemy was a significant reduction in the weight of the silver and gold coinages. As Egypt had no silver mines, and temple treasuries do not seem to have been plundered (as is known from Persepolis under Alexander; de Callataӱ 1989, 2012), monetary metal had to be acquired from elsewhere. The reduction in weight of the tetradrachm, which must have been a measure to acquire silver from trade, probably happened at first without much notice given to the users. But once Ptolemy I was proclaimed king, he reduced the weight of the stater (standard coin = 1 tetradrachm) to about 80 percent of the current Attic tetradrachm, without changing their equivalence.

For some time, private hoarders must have collected the older, heavier, and more valuable silver coins circulating in Egypt. But soon a law was introduced requiring that all old and foreign coins be exchanged in Alexandria before being used in Egypt. Coin hoards tell us that from the early third century BCE onward foreign coins no longer circulated in Egypt (Le Rider 1986). The practice and scale of currency exchange in Alexandria can be glimpsed from a famous papyrus dealing with a similar situation that occurred a little later in the case of gold coins:

Demetrios to Apollonios greeting…. I have received 57,000 (?pieces, ?drachms) in gold which I minted and returned. We might have received many times as much, but as I wrote to you before, the foreigners who come here by sea, and the merchants and agents from the provinces and others bring both their good local coins and the trichrusa (gold coins worth 60 silver drachms) to be made into new coins in accordance with the royal ordinance (prostagma) which orders us to receive and remint them.

(P. Cair. Zen. 59021 [258 BCE])

The official prohibition of foreign coins was unusual in the Greek world, where precious metal coins circulated freely across borders as long as people accepted them. Partly because of the vital need for precious metal in Egypt, but also because of an efficient administrative infrastructure that made possible its enforcement, a closed currency system could be established, and in fact it lasted for six hundred years, until it was finally abolished in 296 CE under the emperor Diocletian.

The Ptolemaic precious metal coinage was supplemented by small change minted in bronze. One silver tetradrachm could buy in the chora about two artabas (equal to ca. 80 liters) of grain, sufficient to feed a small family for two months. For smaller daily transactions, bronze pieces were introduced, probably worth 1 chalkous (1/48 of a drachm), 4 chalkoi, 1 obol (1/6 of a drachm), and 2 obols (Wolf 2013; Picard 1998 suggests different dominations for the extant coins).

A seminal change happened under Ptolemy II. During one comprehensive monetary reform in 261–260 BCE, bronze coins were noticeably enlarged and the number of denominations expanded. Again, we do not know for certain the value of individual coins, but it is largely agreed that there were six denominations up to 1 drachm. The largest bronze pieces were 4.2 cm in diameter and had a target weight of 69 grams (Wolf 2013, 81; see also Faucher and Picard 2012). No bronze coins of this size and weight had been minted in the Greek world before this, nor had bronze coins ever been so important in any monetary system. No longer were they used just as small change; they were a currency that could be used in most payments, just like silver. Only some recipients, mostly the state, made it a requirement to pay certain rents and taxes in silver (pros argurion); otherwise an agio of usually 2 obols per tetradrachm (ca. 10 percent) was added.

This was the beginning of a new coin era in Egypt. Ptolemy III added further denominations and improved the appearance of the coinage. By the 230s BCE bronze coinage had virtually replaced silver as a means of payment in ordinary business throughout Egypt.

Monetary Crisis and Transformation

Down to the reign of Ptolemy IV, the Alexandrian monarchy was strong. This meant that the state could simply decree the equivalence of bronze and silver drachms, despite the fact that their metallic value differed substantially. From the reign of Ptolemy IV, however, state authority and monetary stability appear to have deteriorated. In a set of contracts preserved from Tholtis in the Oxyrhynchite nome and dated to 218 to 214 BCE, legal penalty charges (epitimia) for unpaid rents suddenly jump from the standard rate of 4 drachms per artaba of wheat to 10 drachms. There are also references to increased market prices for grain and wine (Maresch 1996, 184–85; von Reden 2007, 70–78). Yet scholars agree that the sudden leap in prices was not caused by inflation. Rather, the change in the level of penalty charges seems to have been the result of a changing relationship between silver and bronze coinage.

There was a deliberate withdrawal of silver coinage under Ptolemy III (Lorber 2013). Hoards containing silver coins became more scarce and smaller in size. Early coins minted under Ptolemy I and II completely disappeared in Egypt, while they continued to circulate in the external possessions of the Ptolemaic Empire. Ptolemy III markedly improved the bronze currency, minting it more precisely to target weights and producing it from an improved alloy. This may have been aimed at increasing the attractiveness of this coinage, but it did not prevent a monetary crisis in the reign of his successor. Under Ptolemy IV a bronze drachm seems to have been worth no more than half of a silver drachm. Any payment that was assessed in silver coinage (pros argurion) required double the amount if paid in bronze. Commodity prices for wheat and wine (routinely paid in bronze) exactly doubled, according to papyri that record them (Maresch 1996, 181 for wheat, 187 for wine). Yet it is not entirely clear whether the change in the relationship between silver and bronze was a government initiative—that is, an official retariffing of the face value of bronze coinage—or a reaction of the people to the deteriorating faith in the fiduciary equivalence between silver and bronze (Reekmans 1951 and Maresch 1996 for the former; Lorber 2013, 145 for discussion). A papyrus in the Berlin collection (UPZ I 149, 32; 208–206 BCE) contains an account suggesting that 16 bronze drachms were given in payment for 1 silver tetradrachm at the end of the reign of Ptolemy IV.

Ptolemy V responded with a comprehensive monetary reform. All previous bronze coins were demonetized, apart from one denomination that was countermarked with a new value mark. The reformed coins were based on a new metrology, a new and larger range of denominations, and a new iconography. Some scholars argue that the Ptolemaic coin system was no longer based on silver but rather on bronze as the standard monetary value, but the matter is controversial (Picard 1998). Whatever the purpose of the reform, it can now be dated firmly to 197 BCE (Faucher and Lorber 2010, 35–37; despite doubts by Clarysse and Fischer-Bovet 2012, who, however, do not consider the numismatic evidence).

The new coinage accompanied an even more fundamental change. Prices, wages, and penalty charges recorded in papyri from the beginning of the second century BCE suddenly increase by a factor of sixty, suggesting that the monetary unit of “bronze drachm” referred to a new scheme of value. Although the papyri do not give us any certainty, it is most likely that the value of a bronze drachm dropped to 1/60 of the former bronze drachm and represented the real relation of value between bronze and silver, which customarily stood at 60:1. Hence, in practice, if the monetary tax for one arura of land was formerly 1 drachm in silver (plus agio when paid in bronze), it was now 60 drachms plus agio.

As part of the change in the monetary system, fractional values were no longer based on the obol system (1/6 of the drachm), but were multiplied in the decimal system. This made sense, as 1/6 of a silver drachm (formerly 1 obol) was now equivalent to 10 drachms in bronze, 1.5 obols silver to 15 drachms in bronze, and so forth. The physical coins that numismatists relate to the new system ranged in weight between 4 and 40 grams and seem to have represented eight to ten denominations. They were pieces worth either between 5 and 100 drachms, or according to an alternative interpretation, between 2.5 and 40 drachms (for both possibilities, Faucher and Lorber 2010, 54–56). It might be helpful to consider that in the papyri from this period, daily wages tended to range from 10 to 40 drachms, which would support the former model, but occasionally require the denomination of 2.5 drachms, which would support the latter (Maresch 1996, 192–94).

The new system was introduced in the Thebaid, not before the Ptolemies resumed control over it in 186 BCE. Papyri of the subsequent decades show several further changes in price levels, but the underlying monetary changes seem to have followed the same pattern. The face values of coins were doubled or tripled, while the number of drachms counted to the silver stater was increased or reduced. At some point in the middle of the second century BCE, up to 20 drachms were counted toward one stater (formerly 4 drachms; see above), while the face value of bronze coins was tripled. This led to enormous value for the silver stater, listed in papyri of this period as 2,000–2,400 drachms in bronze (Maresch 1996, 195–98).

Regular annual minting of silver tetradrachms was resumed in 155–154 BCE. However, this did not reverse the now-established relationship between bronze and silver. The bookkeeping document of a royal bank, dating to the 140s–130s BCE, demonstrates that people made payments in silver or gold coins, but these payments were converted by the banker into bronze units, while the conversion rate applied fluctuated even in the course of the same day (P. Herakl. Bank 1–6 = Maresch 2012). In the second quarter of the first century BCE under Ptolemy XII, the fineness of silver coins (which despite their scarcity had always been minted in pure silver) was reduced by 10 percent, probably without users noticing it. Cleopatra VII, however, debased the fineness to less than 50 percent silver, or a mere 5.75 grams per tetradrachm (Hazzard 1995, 51–56). While silver coins became noticeably lighter under Cleopatra, the number of bronze denominations was reduced to just two fractions, one carrying the value mark of 80 and the other 40 (drachms).

Explanations for the instability of the monetary system are controversial and uncertain. Real price inflation (as suggested by Cadell and LeRider 1997) cannot have been a major factor (Cavagna 2010; von Reden 2007, 75-8). There is reason to believe that silver did become scarce in Egypt (see above and Lorber 2013). Yet the spectacular and periodic jumps in prices from the late third and early second centuries BCE onward do not seem to reflect price changes due simply to a gradual decline in the quantity of silver in circulation (Bagnall 1999). There must have been—as suggested in the previous section—a change in the monetary system that was also marked by changes in the physical appearance of the coinage. The main problem to solve is the question of whether monetary reforms were prompted by the state to increase their money supply, or the state responded to the collapse of a fiduciary monetary system that could no longer be maintained. Royal bankers, who were the links between the monetary economy in the chora and the treasury in Alexandria, may have played a part in the quest for reforms. But the papyri are silent about their role in the monetary crises.

Cash and Kind

The papyri leave no doubt that kind, especially grain, continued to be used formally and informally as a means of payment, not just among the native population (Bingen 2007, 215–28), but also among the Greeks. Rents and wages for agricultural labor on grain land were principally paid in grain, while all other payments could be commuted into kind if the transactional partners so agreed. Some documents make clear that in markets payments could be made in grain. So, for example, in P. Hib. I 110 recto (col. ii [270 BCE]), the charges for freightage and necessities for a journey are paid in grain instead of money. In a letter from the Zenon archive, one of Zenon’s agents writes that contrary to expectation, he was unable to buy fodder for the animals because nobody in the villages accepted grain instead of cash (PSI IV 356 [253–252 BCE]). Similarly, an official in the Oxyrhynchite nome had to instruct his subordinate to sell sifted wheat so that certain dues could be paid in cash, once again contrary to his expectation (P. Hib. I 47 [256–255 BCE]). While the examples mention problems with paying in kind, they make sense against a background in which such payment was fairly normal.

It can be expected that all over the ancient world many people, particularly in the countryside, had little cash at their disposal, supplying their needs through home production and social forms of exchange and barter. But historians of Greco-Roman Egypt emphasize more strongly than others that kind, and particularly wheat, worked as a veritable form of money. In a still influential study published in 1910, Friedrich Preisigke argued that cash and wheat coexisted as full currencies under the Ptolemies; that is, both filled all monetary functions and operated in a comparable institutional and legal framework. Any payment could in principle be converted into the other medium; there were similar contractual forms for debt and credit agreements; and state granaries and banks were comparable institutions concerned with the storage, dispensation, and lending of state revenue, be it in cash or grain. Preisigke (1910) regarded the economy in grain not as a residue of the pre-Ptolemaic economy, but as part of the new monetary economy that the Ptolemies introduced into Egypt. Jean Bingen, by contrast, suggested that the coexistence of payments in kind and cash was rather a sign of the clash between Egyptian tradition and innovation that the Greeks brought into the country. There was, according to Bingen, an extreme opposition between the “natural economy” of the Egyptian peasantry and the Ptolemaic economy conceived and practiced in terms of coined money at the level of taxation, estate management, and market exchange (Bingen, 2007, 215–28; see also 229–40 and 104–13). Egyptian peasants and their landlords had over centuries worked within a system of sharecropping in which the rent was assessed as part of the yield. Tools, seeds, and additional workers for the harvest were provided by the landlord, who also paid all taxes to the state. The Ptolemaic monetary economy and the Greek commercial mentality posed considerable threats to the social system and were causes of social and political instability. More recently scholars have emphasized that the introduction of coinage was an important step toward state building under the Ptolemies (Manning 2010, 127–38). The Ptolemies had a strong interest in the mobilization of royal coinage, while its spread was an indicator of the success of state power. Cash and kind in the economy of Egypt were neither analogous nor violently opposed, but rather indicators of variable degrees to which the state could interfere with the economy. Coinage was not just an instrument, but also symbolic, of state power.

Although literary figures are open to question, it is interesting to note that the cash income of the Ptolemies was thought to be far greater than their revenue in kind. The traditional figure for the annual internal revenue of Ptolemy II is 14,800 talents and 1.5 million artabas of wheat (Jer. Comm ad Dan. 11.5). The grain revenue of 1.5 million artabas is equivalent to 1,000 to 1,875 talents, if sold at the Alexandrian price of 4 to 5 drachms per artaba, while for the monetary income even larger figures circulated in antiquity (App. Praef. 10). The composition of the gross domestic product of the Ptolemies may have looked very different, but the visible economy of the Ptolemies was perceived as being dominated by the money of the king. While it is impossible to come anywhere close to an accurate figure for the relationship between payments in cash and in kind, we can gain some structural understanding of their relationship by looking at their use in various payment institutions, such as taxation, rents, and wages.


The very first papyrologists observed that apart from taxes on grain land and grain harvests, as well as some oil-producing plants, all taxes under the Ptolemies were cash taxes (Wilcken 1899, I:199f.). Vineyards (with some qualifications) and orchards formed a different category of land, as did land sown with arakos and other fodder crops, all of which were subject to monetary taxation; so were livestock, any industries, transport by river and by donkey, and services such as the use of baths. There was in addition an annual salt tax (later changed into a capitation tax) payable by all inhabitants of Egypt (Clarysse and Thompson 2006). Although it was a small sum per person, it drew every household into the monetary economy of the king, both symbolically and economically.

In practice there were exceptions to the relationship between taxes in cash and in kind. A wide range of agricultural products had a standard relationship of value to other products. Wheat was a general measure of value to which the value of all other agricultural products was related. P. Lond. VII 1994 (ca. 251–250 BCE) is an example of all income and outgoings of different agricultural products being listed in wheat equivalent, and other examples are extant. The convertibility of the value of different media of exchange and payment facilitated commutation and maintained great flexibility in the system of cash payments and payments in kind. We therefore find monetary taxes in practice being paid in kind, just as we find grain taxes commuted into cash.

In addition, there was ample scope for informal arrangements that have left few traces in the papyri. Ptolemaic taxation was based on a system of intermediaries—tax farmers, managers of gift estates, temple personnel, and tenants who sublet their fields—who were responsible not only for full payment of the tax to the bank or treasury, but also for the form in which it reached them. We know, for example, that the owners/managers of large estates were responsible for the collection of the taxes on their gift estates (e.g., P. Cair. Zen. II 59176 [255 BCE], II 59206 [after 254 BCE]). In the case of smaller cleruchic holdings (land endowed on the members of the army), the tax responsibility could be negotiated between the cleruch (landholder) and the tenant by contract. We also know that even personal taxes could be devolved on tenants (P. Petr. III 112 [221–220 BCE]; P. Lond. VII 1996 ca. 250 BCE]). Tax payments became part of the reciprocal arrangements between landlord and tenant, balanced in the accounting process at the end of a rental period. The possibility of commuting cash into kind (especially grain) and vice versa must be regarded as a vital condition for Ptolemaic taxation principles to have worked in practice.


Rents (phoroi, ekphoria) on all categories of grain land (royal land, temple land, gift estates, and cleruchic land) were assessed, and usually paid, in kind. As a corollary, under the first two Ptolemies soldiers were paid off with a piece of land in addition to regular monetary stipends and irregular monetary rewards after campaigns. Both were in great contrast to the case of classical Athens, where rents and military pay were in cash. They were also in contrast to Roman Italy, where the locatio-conductio contract formally required that rents be paid in cash.

Marketing opportunities seem to have made little difference to whether rents were assessed in cash or in kind. The gift estate of Apollonios, the dioiketes, was heavily involved in the marketing of grain and other agricultural produce, but still most rents on grain land were collected in kind. It has been argued, moreover, that even in the Roman period the mode of rent payment was not normally a matter for negotiation between landlord and tenant, but a structural factor determined by the politics of the state (Rowlandson 2001). Throughout the period of Greco-Roman domination there was no visible attempt to transform rents on grain land into cash payments. In the third century CE rents on grain land were still assessed in wheat (Rathbone 1991, 183).

Three main factors seem to have influenced the politics of rent collection in kind. First, Alexandria, like any other capital in the ancient world, had an exceptionally great demand for grain: wheat, barley, and olyra (a local form of wheat). The supply of urban centers with grain was a major concern of ancient governments. It was exceptional, rather than the rule, that an enormous capital like the city of Alexandria could be supplied by its own extended hinterland. Second, wheat could profitably be traded for cash. The grain trade of the royal administration, about which we are deplorably ill-informed, as well as foreign trade, were crucial for obtaining foreign currency in silver (P. Cair. Zen. 59021, see “Silver, Gold and Bronze Coinage”). Third, beyond the Fayum and its surrounding districts, there was probably a poor market for grain, except when a royal army passed through. Given the importance of agriculture and grain as wages in kind for agricultural work, there was less opportunity for local traders to market grain than in other parts of the ancient world.


Wages in Ptolemaic Egypt were paid either in a combination of cash and kind, most frequently grain, or just in cash. Officials in the Ptolemaic administration and the army had a high demand for wine, the purchase of which they often set off against cash salaries. On Apollonios’s estate, moreover, an annual clothing allowance (himatismos) was paid in cash to permanent employees. Cash salaries or wages were called misthoi, or more typically opsonia. It is possible that the term opsonion continued to carry overtones of being derived from opson (ready food) and thus maintained some meaning of being a subsistence payment. The level of opsonia and misthoi varied according to the nature and quality of the work and the speed of its completion. There does not seem to have been much variation due to market factors. Until the monetary transformation at the end of the third century BCE, remuneration for comparable types of work was standard. Typical wages for construction work, woodcutting, clearing fields, or tending animals ranged between 4 chalkoi and 2 obols per day (Maresch 1996, 191f.).

Typical remuneration for nonpermanent workers on Apollonios’s estate in the Fayum was a combination of opsonion and sitometria, that is, a cash salary and an additional ration of bread. Seasonal agricultural work in the fields was an exception, since it was fully paid in kind, as can be judged from so-called katerga loans, which in some tenancy contracts the landlord paid to the tenant (von Reden 2007, 206–10). Beyond cereal agriculture, however, the nature of Ptolemaic labor organization channeled cash into the wage sector and drew large numbers of ordinary Greek and Egyptian workers into cash use. Work projects, such as construction and dike work involving large numbers of workers, stone cutting, and the shifting of large volumes of earth, were farmed out to middlemen (ergolaboi), whose contracts provided that they were prepaid in cash in order to buy rations and pay wages to their subemployees (von Reden 2012). Corvée labor, to which every male inhabitant of Egypt was requisitioned unless he bought himself off, was paid with a small daily sum of cash in addition to bread handouts.

Monetization in Ptolemaic Egypt was thus socially far-reaching and at the same time closely linked to the traditional economy of Egypt. On the one hand, particular forms of landholding and social organization, combined with the interests of the kings, helped to maintain cereal agriculture as an economic activity that in the chora generated vast incomes in grain. On the other, any industries, and services connected with agriculture such as transport by donkey and ship, were cash activities, and there was the poll tax, payable by virtually all households. Therefore, a simple division between urban and rural, Greek and native, or traditional and commercial cannot capture the complex social, political, and economic realities of Egypt. Prices and their relation to markets were very specific to the economy of Ptolemaic Egypt.

Prices in Greek Papyri of the Ptolemaic Period

Only records of wheat prices have survived in sufficient quantities to allow any economic analysis over time. Price information for other crops is quite rare; oil prices were subject to special regulations and price setting specified in the Papyrus Revenue Laws of 259 BCE (Austin 2006, 297, esp. 40–41), and wine prices are complicated by the fact that both the quality of and measures for wine varied, much more than for grain and oil. (For a full list of commodity prices of the Ptolemiac period, see Maresch 1996, 181–216.) Daily wages can be calculated in a fair number of circumstances, but once again, the variable conditions of employment and additional payments in kind add unknown factors to the figures we have. Land and silver prices are the only other data likely to render useful price information for economic historians, but their interpretation is fraught with a host of unresolved problems and must await further research (Maresch 1996, 70–88, 98–109).

The corpus of wheat prices from Ptolemaic Egypt comprises some one hundred figures. Most belong to the period from ca. 275 to ca. 80 BCE, that is, from the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphos to the violent death of Ptolemaios XI Alexander II. Important periods of economic change during the first years of Ptolemaic rule and under the reign of Cleopatra VII are thus not represented in this set. Not all information, moreover, is equally useful for economic analysis, and several references cluster around the same occasion. What is more, despite the relative wealth of information, we have to bear in mind some fundamental problems.

The first is whether our material is representative for Egypt as a whole. The evidence comes mostly from the areas of dense Greek occupation in the Fayum and the adjacent areas of the Oxyrhynchite, Hermopolite, and Herakleopolite nomes. Although monetary taxation in Upper and Middle Egypt strongly suggest that markets, money, and coinage were not absent there, urbanization and population density varied considerably between Upper and Lower Egypt (Monson 2012a, 33–73). Moreover, the southern regions of the Nile valley during most of the third century BCE continued to be dominated by an old land tenure regime in which the distribution mechanisms of surplus grain were different from the practices we know through Greek papyri from the Fayum (Manning 2003, 65–129). Even within the areas of Greek occupation, the most detailed evidence for money use tends to concentrate on the activities of a few groups of people (Greek landowners and their agents, local administrative offices, and the military), rendering a partial picture of a more complex reality.

Second, given the nature of the evidence and its uneven distribution over time and place, we have to ask what prices and their variations might mean. Prices were subject to season, individual negotiation, the condition of the grain at the moment of its sale, and the location of the transaction. Market prices were higher than so-called farm gate rates, whereby the recipient carried the costs for the transport and the risk of storage and transport. Rarely, moreover, can we tell whether higher or lower prices represent short- or long-term change, as prices appear isolated from any economic context. Accidents of the survival of the evidence, or some monetary change that is yet unknown, add further uncertainties to the analysis of change. So-called penalty prices, the rates of which were fixed by the government as contractual compensation for unfulfilled payments in kind (see “Cash and Kind”), are likely to reflect prices that were regarded as normal or typical. Yet their variation over time might not reflect changes in market prices, but rather changing policies of the state or individual contractors.

Third, and probably most important, we do not know in what ways currency reforms and coin supply affected economic behavior. Did monetary uncertainty affect people’s trust in markets? What were its consequences for monetary taxation in practice? Was there a changing relationship between payments in money and in kind, both at the level of tax collection and in the market? How did monetary change affect the markets in Alexandria and foreign traders, who as we noted above were driving forces for the development of markets in the chora? Some scholars assumed a rush back into a barter economy from the time of monetary crisis (Samuel 1984), but that impression does not seem to be borne out by more recent research, which suggests an increase rather than a decline in monetization in the second century BCE (Maresch 1996, 2012).

In 1930 the German historian Fritz Heichelheim published a short but complex analysis of what he thought were long-term economic cycles of price development in the Mediterranean. Putting together all commodity prices, land prices, and interest rates in Rome, Delos, Egypt, and Uruk from the third to the first centuries BCE, he argued that there was considerable economic connection between the western and eastern Mediterranean as well as the Near East, attested by the contemporaneous fluctuation of prices and the development of local currencies. Like Michael Rostovtzeff, he argued that by the Hellenistic period the Greek-speaking world was linked through international price-setting markets of goods and services. The demand of the international Greek elite for specialized goods and the demands of the Hellenistic courts for luxuries had stimulated market exchange across the Mediterranean. The efforts of the Hellenistic kings, moreover, to intensify production and export in their spheres of influence had strengthened economic development and led to a tendency for international prices to fall (cf. Rostovtzeff 1935–1936, 235–40). But more specifically than Rostovtzeff, Heichelheim (1930) identified fluctuations in the economic growth trend. He observed economic recession at the end of the second century BCE, which he explained by a combination of political, social, and economic factors leading to an increase in rents, interest rates, and prices throughout the Mediterranean.

Heichelheim’s analysis was flawed not least by methodological problems in the interpretation of the raw data (for discussion see Rathbone 2014). He also did not yet have a clear understanding of the currency changes that affected price levels from the last quarter of the third century BCE onward (see “Silver, Gold and Bronze Coinage”). Much of his information, moreover, was interpolations derived from information not about a commodity itself, but about value relationships to other commodities (e.g., between wheat and barley). Finally, he did not consider other factors that might have influenced the papyrological price data. Short- to mid-term factors, such as crop disease, climatic variation, the annual variation of the Nile inundation, or a series of bad harvests, might equally have affected prices in our records as much as changes in patterns of production and consumption, market development, and changing political situations in the Mediterranean. What is more, although Heichelheim discussed the different types of prices he used from Egypt, he aggregated them in order to enlarge his data set.

Categories of Price Data

Wheat prices in the papyri can be divided into three categories: (1) prices recorded in accounts and letters related to sale and purchase of wheat (“market prices”); (2) conversion rates by which cash was commuted into wheat and wheat into cash, recorded in contracts or accounts; and (3) penalty prices (epitimia) recorded in tenancy contracts, stipulating unfulfilled rent payments in kind.

Market Prices

The category of sales prices at first seems to be the most relevant for the question of real price variation and price development in Egypt. But in the entire one-hundred-item data sample, they form just one-quarter of the total, or twenty-three prices. We have one price securely dated to the time of the sale (P. Mich. Zen. 28 [March 256 BCE]). The harvest in Egypt started in late March/early April, so the price in this document, recorded as “2 dr 5 ob,” is likely to have been a higher than average price. In Egypt, however, seasonal variation in cereal prices seems to have been relatively slight. If similar rules applied to wheat as to olyra, for which we are fortunate to have a whole year’s price series (UPZ I 91, 93, 96 [159–158 BCE]), the degree of seasonal variation is much less than in other parts of the Mediterranean (Reger 1994, 307).

Two sales prices relate to Alexandria (P. Hib. I 110, 11 [270 BCE] = 4 drachms 5 obols); P. Cair. Zen. III 59320 [349 BCE] = 5 drachms 2 obols) and show, rather unsurprisingly, significantly higher wheat prices in the capital than in the chora, where a normal price seems to have been 2 drachms per artaba. We have one price from Thebes in Upper Egypt (2 drachms 4 obols; noted as 1,560 drachms), suggesting that there was no significant difference between prices in the Fayum and the south of Egypt (P. Botti Test. Dem 4 r). Some discrepancy might be reflected in lower penalty prices attested in Thebes for the years 109 and 108 BCE, but the fact is that even lower penalty prices are attested in the Arsinoite, Herakleopolite, and Hermopolite nomes in this period (see von Reden 2010, 204–5, table 7). There is thus no positive evidence for regional price variation between Upper und Lower Egypt.

We have two documents representing grain purchases by a local tax office (P. Grenf. I 22 [118 BCE]; P. Tebt I 112 [112 BCE]). Both belong to the dossier of Menches, a village clerk in Kerkeosiris in the Arsinoite nome in the last quarter of the second century BCE. It may be significant that the prices of 2 drachms per artaba and 1 drachm 4 obols, respectively, relate to a time when official penalty prices were also low. So the two prices might reflect low prices typical for this period, rather than special price negotiation of an official.

How can we distinguish between market prices and prices negotiated between individuals on the farm? In a very few cases it is clear that grain was purchased in the market, as in the examples from Alexandria. But in the majority of cases it is impossible to tell. Does the fact that an individual is named as payee point to the fact that the grain changed hands interpersonally? This would be quite an untenable assumption. Do prices listed in accounts of the Zenon archive mean that they were negotiated on the estate? This would be an equally untenable assumption. Furthermore, to take lower than usual prices as farm-gate prices would be a circular argument. We must conclude that there is simply no way of identifying different sales conditions within the set of prices we have.

Conversion Rates

A fair number of prices are conversion rates of wheat into cash, or cash into wheat (15 percent, or fourteen total). Conversion rates between cash and kind were used in a great number of circumstances. As mentioned previously, employees on large agrarian estates, members of the local administration, could commute their cash wages into wheat or wine payments or commute their sitometria to buy food for themselves or, as is sometimes indicated, for subemployees in their own business. Landlords who provided monetary katerga loans to their tenants for financing additional agrarian labor commuted them contractually into payments in kind when adding them to a rent in kind at the end of the rental period. Moreover, certain tenancy contracts (termed prodomatic by modern scholars) foresaw a full or partial prepayment (prodoma) of the rent as a loan in cash, which was set off against the rent at the end of the agrarian year. Once again, a rate of conversion by which the loan in cash was to be offset against the rent in kind was agreed between landlord and tenant by contract. A similar construction was the sale of a commodity against advance payment of money repayable (with interest) in the form of the commodity purchased. Legal scholars have termed this transaction a “sale with deferred delivery.” Although presale was one reason for entering such contracts, they could also be used as monetary loans to be repaid in kind. The price of the commodity purchased was the loan to be repaid plus interest. In both agreements the value relationship between cash and grain in principle was negotiated between the two partners. Yet they mostly adopted the official conversion rate the state had set for royal contracts (P. Col. Zen. I 54).

A typical conversion rate of the mid-third century BCE is 1 drachm 3 obols or slightly above (von Reden 2010, 200–203, table 6). Moreover, if the model of currency change suggested above is correct, the rate remained remarkably similar over a period of 150 years. No distinction, furthermore, seems to have been made between whether a landlord set a conversion rate or an employee commuted his wage into a grain handout. It should be noted, however, that conversion rates negotiated between individuals tended to be slightly lower than the official rate for contracts with the state.

Penalty Prices

Penalty prices have to be considered separately from both conversion rates and market prices. Penalty prices form the largest category of attested grain prices from the Ptolemaic period (60 percent, or fifty-four in total). If a debtor in a loan, tenancy, or sales contract with deferred delivery defaulted on the payment of a rent in kind, the landlord or creditor could execute the contract. The landlord or creditor had the right to either increase the debt in kind by a certain amount or ask for cash. In the case of the latter, contracts specified that the conversion rate should either be the future price of grain in the market of the place of fulfilment or the future highest market price. A third option was to claim the price of grain set by the government in contracts with the state. This price seems to have been fixed at twice the amount of the official conversion rate of wheat into cash (see previous section). It is important to realize, however, that the official penalty price was not the only form of penalty payment that could be stipulated by contract, but was adopted in those contracts only where the parties had agreed to proceed “according to the rules of the king” or “as in contracts with king” (praxis kata to diagramma or hos pros basilica; von Reden 2007, 153). Penalty prices were subject to change over time, but they may not in all instances reflect changes in the official penalty price.

During most of the third century BCE epitima remained stable at 4 drachms per artaba, representing double the official conversion rate of 2 drachms per artaba of wheat (P. Col. Zen. 54). Around 220 BCE, however, the official penalty price increased by 25 percent to 5 drachms, representing an official conversion rate of grain into cash of 2 drachms 5 obols. Soon afterward penalty prices climbed further, to 10 drachms per artaba of grain. However, the doubling of the penalty price is unlikely to reflect a real price rise; rather it probably reflects the nominal increase in prices due to the currency changes suggested in section “Monetary Crisis and Transformation”. If this model is correct, epitima remained stable for the next 150 years, fluctuating only slightly and temporarily.

Money and Prices: Some Economic Conclusions

Only a few economic conclusions can be drawn from price information in the papyri. There are simply too few comparable data to create a reasonable model of price fluctuation and long-term price development in Hellenistic Egypt. We also have to bear in mind that our model of currency change is only tentative and might change when more evidence becomes available. There are still many open questions about the nature of the currency changes during the second century BCE, and by no means all prices in that century can be explained by the model suggested above. Still, both real prices of wheat and conversion rates remained roughly stable over a period of over two hundred years. General price stability is confirmed by the level of wages, which to judge from the limited material available, remained equally stable over the centuries. In 257 BCE, for example, an ergates (worker) earned 1 obol a day, buying two choinikes of wheat at 2 drachms 2 obols per artaba (e.g., PSI IV 332). In 182 BCE an ergates earned 20 drachms daily, again buying two choinikes of wheat, at 160 drachms per artaba (e.g., P. Tebt. III 2, 886). In a papyrus dated to either 94 or 64 BCE an ergates earned 120 drachms as a daily wage, buying 2½ choinikes of wheat at 2,000 drachms (P. Tebt. I 252 descr.). One might assume that official rates for penalty payments and commutation helped to maintain an idea of normal prices and thus stabilized negotiated prices and wages in the long term. Market prices, in other words, were not fixed by the government, but government policy kept them stable at customary rates.

One might note further that prices increased by about 25 percent in the 220s BCE, reflected first by the increase in the penalty prices in the contracts from Tholtis in Oxyrhynchos. The mid-third-century level of 4 drachms per artaba was never adopted again in any extant contract. The most significant change observable in the price series from Ptolemaic Egypt is a greater volatility of prices in the second and first centuries BCE. This might be just a reflection of the troubled currency or of our not fully understanding it. But it is also possible that the greater variation in wheat prices was the result of increased monetization and market exchange, which predictably led to a greater volatility of prices because they were increasingly affected by supply and demand rather than customary price. The problems of the currency that appear in the papyri from the late 230s BCE onward may point in a similar direction. Excessive royal spending, leading to the withdrawal of the silver coinage from the chora, is one explanation for the crisis. Another might be an increasing demand for coinage in the face of increasing monetization in all parts of Egypt. The two explanations are not mutually exclusive, and in combination with the declining success of Ptolemaic trade in the Mediterranean and the internal disruption within Egypt, explain the monetary problems that the government tried to address with successive currency reforms.

Under free market conditions, long-term price stability is an indication of increasing economic performance, since any change in supply and demand develops in pace. If between the third and first centuries BCE Egypt experienced both population growth and an increase in production, as is strongly suggested by the growth of Alexandria, Greek immigration, and agricultural development exemplified by the Fayum, there was a growth both in production and consumption. Demand, moreover, was increasingly supplied by monetary transactions, as the increase in monetization suggests. Yet it is questionable whether the laws of market development fully apply to Ptolemaic Egypt. As illustrated in this chapter, there was an intimate link between money and grain that fostered their commutation and a stable relationship in their value. Monetary wages combined with grain handouts further stabilized the triangular relationship among wages, prices, and the value of grain. The Ptolemaic government did not fix prices for grain, as it did in the case of some monopolies, such as oil and beer. But official conversion rates and the state’s commitment to these rates maintained stable grain prices throughout Egypt for almost 250 years.


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