Egyptian Drachm: A Variation of a Magnificent Ancient Sculpture Type

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Curtisimo, Nov 22, 2020.

  1. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish) Supporter

    I have had this coin since late last year when I received it from the magnificent collection of @Theodosius . However, I have only recently been able to sit down long enough to compile some of my notes on it. The reverse type (reclining Nilus) is used fairly frequently on Alexandrian AE drachms and BI tetradrachms and for good reason. It is a fascinating type with connections to a trendsetting masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture.

    Egypt, Alexandria
    Antoninus Pius
    AE Drachm, Alexandria mint, struck RY 13 (AD 149/50)
    Dia.: 34.2 mm
    Wt.: 23.9 g
    Obv.: ΑVΤΚΤΑΙΛΑΔΡΑΝΤωΝΙΝΟCEBEVC; Laureate head right
    Rev.: TPIKA (date) IϚ (16); Nilus reclining left holding reed and cornucopia from which emerges a pekheis; crocodile below; L in left field
    Ref.: Emmett 1621.13
    Ex Theodosius Collection

    Fig. 1: A Quick Note on Reading the Reverse Inscription

    The Original Reclining Nilus
    In his chapter discussing the Marbles of Alexandria, Pliny the Elder mentions that the largest block of black Egyptian basalt (“basanites”) known in antiquity was sculpted into a massive statuary group depicting the personified Nile River with 16 children (or pekheis) representing the cubits of the optimum annual flood [1]. This statue was most likely made during the Hellenistic period in the 3rd to 2nd century BC in connection with the Ptolemiac court but unfortunately nothing is known about its artist or circumstances of manufacture [2][3]. It was later taken from its original context in Egypt, probably by the Emperor Nero, and transported to the city of Rome where it ended up residing in the Forum of Peace [3]. Even though nothing remains of the original Hellenistic prototype, we can get a sense of the grandeur of the sculpture by looking at the more that 20 surviving examples of sculptures that were inspired by it.

    The Vatican Nilus and Later Copies
    The statue widely considered to be the best surviving representation of the Reclining Nilus type is known as the Vatican Nilus. It was re-discovered in Rome in AD 1513 and currently resides in the Vatican Museum. It is thought to be a copy of the original Hellenistic prototype and was commissioned by Trajan or Hadrian to be placed in the sanctuary to the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis in the Campus Martius.

    Fig. 2: I took this photo the last time I visited the Vatican Museum. This sculpture is the centerpiece of the Braccio Nuovo or “New Wing” of the museum which was built in the early 1800s to recreate the authentic feel of a Roman basilica. The Vatican Nilus is situated in an apse which would have been similar to the way it was probably displayed in the sanctuary of Isis and Serapis. It is one of the most impressive ancient sculptures that I have ever seen.

    Particularly worthy of note are the 16 small “children” that crawl in and around the reclining Nilus. In coin references these figures are often called genii but a more precise name for them would be pekheis (πήχεις) which is a word meaning “cubit-tall.” A cubit is measured as roughly the distance between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger so a child is a natural model for a personification on this scale. Every year the Egyptians would measure the flood level of the Nile to help predict the success of the crops that year. 16 cubits was the optimum measurement. @zumbly has an article on this that is one of my all-time favorite posts on this site so I will simply post a link instead of trying to re-explain here.

    The Nilometer
    (seriously read this post if you haven't done so already!)

    While the Vatican Nilus is the best and probably the most accurate representation of the original prototype there are other interesting examples that are relevant to the representation shown on the coins. One such sculpture is in the Archaeological Museum of Naples. The original sculpture was dedicated by merchants from Alexandria that were living in Naples in the 2nd century. In this example the cornucopia is held in the right hand instead of the left and there is only one pekheis. The head is of a different style than the Vatican example but this can be explained by the fact that the sculpture was rediscovered without a head in the 12th century and a new one wasn’t fashioned until the 17th century [4][5].

    Fig. 3: The Naples example shows only one pekheis and the cornucopia is held in front of Nilus in his right hand. My example shows Nilus in a similar pose.

    Statues and Coins
    There are enough similarities between the ancient sculptures and the coins that I think drawing a direct parallel is warranted. Much like other famous sculptures in antiquity the monumental Hellenistic Nilus statue seems to have had a huge influence on later artists working on the same subject. As illustrated by the two examples above the sculpture type developed some variation. My guess is that the reverses are using one or multiple of these variants as their inspiration. Some direct references;
    • The reverse details for reclining Nilus listed in Emmett include a crocodile (my example), a hippopotamus and a sphinx. All are present in the Reclining Nilus sculpture type.
    • A pekheis is shown coming out of the cornucopia on both the coins and the Vatican Nilus.
    • On coins the cornucopia is sometimes held in the left arm of Nilus like in the Vatican example and sometimes in the right arm like the Naples example.
    • The inclusion of IϚ on the reverse of the coins has long been understood as a reference to the 16 cubit measurement of the Nilometer. However, I wonder if it is not also an artistic shorthand to signify the 16 pekheis of the statue. What I mean by this is that the die engraver may have drawn one pekheis (such the cornucopia kiddo) then placed a IϚ in the reverse legend or elsewhere on the coin to signify that there were actually 16 of the little creatures. For instance, on @zumbly ‘s example in the above linked thread the IϚ is written above the pekheis and not in the legend signifying that they are meant to be read together. Emmett also lists a reverse type 1623 with “16 genii.” I could not find an example of this on wildwinds or elsewhere online so this type must be fairly rare. It would be interesting to see if the IϚ were still present on an example with the pekheis engraved individually.
    Fig. 4: Comparison of the Coins and Nilus Statue

    Some take-aways from this comparison are. (1) Nilus is a bad father for letting his kids play with a crocodile unsupervised (2) The kid in the cornucopia looks mighty pissed off (probably about the whole crocodile thing...).

    [1] Nat. 36.11





    [6] Emmet, Keith, Alexandrian Coins, Clio’s Cabinet; Lodi, Wisconsin 2001
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2020
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  3. furryfrog02

    furryfrog02 Well-Known Member

    I love it!
    I recently saw a Hadrian drachma on vcoins. Not the same reverse as yours. Not nearly as nice and a bit out of my price range...but I had to take a few moments to look at it before I said "no".
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  4. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    Wow, what a lovely coin. Great pictures too, really neat that the statue survives (albeit heavily restored)
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  5. ominus1

    ominus1 Well-Known Member

    ..neat coin Curtis...i don't have one with with that type reverse yet..tho not from lack of bidding on'em....i think they rock! :)
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  6. Theodosius

    Theodosius Fine Style Seeker Supporter

    Great write up!

    So much interesting history with these coins.

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  7. Terence Cheesman

    Terence Cheesman Supporter! Supporter

    I found one very similar to yours last January at NYINC I cannot believe that that was about 10 months ago (It feels so much longer). I saw this guy and after about a day of it singing to me I had to buy it, Hadrian Ae Drachm 131-132 AD Obv. Bust right laureate draped and cuirassed. Rv. Nilus riclinging left. Below crocodile. RPC 5791.68 This coin listed. Datarri 1794 This coin illustrated Datarri Savio 1794 This coin illustrated 25.83 grms 33 mm Photo by W. Hansen alexhadd4.jpg
  8. Ryro

    Ryro They call me the 13th Caesar Supporter

    Firstly, thanks for sharing
    B, I really need to look at getting me some Alexandrians... post Alexander that is:(:troll: don't have anything:shy:
    But lastly, coingrats on a beautiful coin with a wonderful provenance :)
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  9. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish) Supporter

    Thanks FFII. These are indeed really neat coins that feel great in-hand.

    Thanks hotwheelsearl. The statues are truly impressive and it is a happy circumstance that they survived. If these are just copies it makes you wonder how impressive the original was!

    Thanks ominus1. I am sure you will snag one eventually. Can't wait to see it when you do!

    Thank you John. This was honestly one of the funnest times I have had researching and writing about a coin in a long time. Of course I love the provenance too :D:D:D

    That is as stunning a coin as I've come to expect from your collection. :wideyed::wideyed: Thank you for sharing.
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  10. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish) Supporter

    Thank you, my friend.

    ...which reminds me,

    Please post your;
    • Coins from Alexandria from any period!
    • Coins with crocs!
    • Egyptian Drachms!
    • Antoninus Pius coins!
    • River gods or statues on coins!
    • Anything you want!
  11. Ryro

    Ryro They call me the 13th Caesar Supporter

    Ptolemy III Euergetes
    AE Obol. Alexandria Mint 246-222 BCE. Obverse: Deified head of Alexander the Great right, wearing elephant skin. Reverse: Eagle standing left on thunderbolt, head right, cornucopia over shoulder; E between legs. References: Svoronos 976; SNG Copenhagen 232. Size: 24mm, 10.36g. Numismatic Notes: Good VF grade and done in choice style!


    Living dead emperor...

    Antoninus Pius
    Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD). AR Denarius (18 mm, 3.39 g), Roma (Rome), 153-154 AD.
    Obv. ANTONINVS AVG PIVS P P TR P XVII, laureate head right.
    Rev. COS IIII, Vesta standing holding simpulum and Palladium.
    RIC III, 229b.
    Nicely toned
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2020
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  12. Sulla80

    Sulla80 one coin at a time Supporter

    Great post and drachm, @Curtisimo, and the sculpture with 16 cubits of river water babies is quite amazing. Although I just posted this recently - it goes well with this thread. This coin with a reed and cornucopia in the opposite hands of Nilus [I would say "like the one of @Terence Cheesman", but any comparison to that unbelievably detailed drachm seems inappropriate :)]
    M Aurelius 9283.jpg
    Egypt, Alexandria, Marcus Aurelius, 161-180, Drachm circa 165-166 (year 6), Æ
    Size: 32.4mm, 20.90g
    Obv: Μ ΑVΡΗΛΙΟϹ ΑΝΤƱΝΙΝΟϹ ϹƐ, Bare-headed, draped and cuirassed bust right
    Rev: Nilus, with crocodile beside him, reclining left, holding reed and cornucopia;in left field, LϚ (date, RY = 6)
    Ref: RPC 2837.2 (this coin). Dattari-Savio Pl. 187, 9283 (this coin).
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2020
  13. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Emmett lists at least two different varieties of the reverse showing a seated or reclining Nilus with head left and a crocodile below, depicted on tetradrachms of Hadrian. One is No. 876 (Nilus reclining left, crocodile) and the other is No. 879 (Nilus seated left on rock, Crocodile). Unfortunately, his drawn illustrations of many different reverses include only "Nilus reclining" (Plate 7, No. 111), with no illustration of Nilus seated, for any emperor.. As acsearch indicates, dealers tend to be rather haphazard in assigning coins to one or the other category, seated or reclining.

    My coin, which I posted quite recently, is from Hadrian Year 22, which Emmett doesn't list at all for type No. 876, but says is "common" for No. 879. And Nilus does look more seated than reclining to me on my coin, suggesting No. 879.22, although that determination depends a bit on how you hold it. And I see no rock whatsoever:

    Hadrian reclining Nilus COMBINED.jpg

    The catalog for the Staffieri Collection (Triton XXI) includes a coin that looks like it has the same reverse as mine
    Hadrian-Nilus Yr 22 (Emmett 879.22) from Triton XXI Staffieri Collection.jpg
    The catalog describes Nilus as "seated," and classifies it as No. 879.22, but doesn't mention the mysterious rock, and asserts despite this classification, and despite Emmett's calling 879.22 "common" -- although I've found hardly any examples -- that it's a "Rare regnal year for this type."

    Does anyone have an example of a Nilus seated reverse that does have a visible rock? Or an example of Nilus clearly reclning on a coin of any year in year, from Hadrian or another emperor, so I can see the difference?

    To me, Nilus looks more like he's reclining on @Curtisimo's coin, and more like he's seated on @Terence Cheesman's coin. But, again, the difference could just be a product of how far those coins are turned.
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2020
  14. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish) Supporter

    Excellent coin @Sulla80 ! I am super jealous of all the plate coins you have been posting lately. I would love to add a Dattari plate coins someday.

    Thanks for the great post @DonnaML . I agree that your example looks like a seated Nilus without the rocks. I have not seen a seated example without the rocks. Terrence Cheeseman's example definitely shows the rocks and even the Triton example shows what may be the hint of a rock formation above and below the crocodile (perhaps I am just seeing things). Your example does not appear to have even a hint of the rocks... interesting.

    I also agree with you about the plates in Emmett leaving much to be desired. I was also unable to find some of the reverse types listed in Emmett (such as 1623 with 16 genii). There could be an entire companion book of plates showing the reverse types listed in there.

    For anyone interested here is the plate that Donna references. This is the only illustration listed for the Nilus types.

    As to the rarity rankings in Emmett I am starting to think that they are not much use at all. My coin type and year was given a rarity rank of 1 for very rare but it does not seem to be. Can't really hold that against Emmett though you run into that with any standard ancient reference. Overall it is still a helpful book.
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  15. Ancient Aussie

    Ancient Aussie Supporter! Supporter

    Great coin Curtis, with a fascinating background. It reminds me of mine always tough to get two good sides on a Drachme but if you only get one the reverse is the way to go. 1000-30-106.jpg Egypt, Alexandria. Antoninus Pius. AD 138-161. Æ Drachm 34.7 mm. 23.80 gm. Dated RY 12 (AD 148/9). Obv: Laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust right. Rev: Isis Pharia standing right, holding sistrum and billowing sail with “S.” (or serpent) on sail; Pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria to right, L ΔωΔ KAT OV (date) around. Köln 1605; Dattari (Savio) 2677-8; K&G 35.436. Emmett 1592.
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  16. Cucumbor

    Cucumbor Dombes collector Supporter

    Another excellent article by our own Great(ish) @Curtisimo !
    Very interesting reading. I'm now considering measuring everything at home using the nilometer standard :)

    @Terence Cheesman's drachm is the best I've ever seen of the type

    How dare I post mine, now ?
    Well, my excuse is it doesn't feature a crocodile, but a hippo instead, which is believed to be the most dangerous animal in Africa !
    At least it has the "IϚ" on it, being RY 16 :D

    Hadrian, Drachm - Alexandria mint, ca. AD 131-132
    AVT KAI TRAI ADRIA CEB, Draped and laureate bust of Hadrian right
    Nilus leaning left. Behind an hippopotamus. L IϚ in field (regnal year 16)
    23.87 gr
    Ref : Sear #1259, RCV #3763 var, Emmett #1017/16 (R1)

    Now, if you need a crocodile, here's one I haven't shown in a (short) while :

    Augustus & Agrippa, AE Dupondius - Nemausus mint, after AD 10
    4th type
    IMP DIVI F PP, Laureate heads of Augustus looking right and Agrippa looking left, back to back
    COL NEM, Crocodile chained to palm tree
    13,52 gr
    Ref : RCV #1731, Cohen #8

  17. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    Great coin, thought-provoking and informative writeup, and super cool photograph of that Nilus sculpture from the Vatican Museum!

    I have a Year 13 example as well, not as nice as yours.

    Antoninus Pius - Drachm Nilus Yr 13 ex Grover 2027.jpg ANTONINUS PIUS
    AE Drachm. 21.39g, 33.7mm. EGYPT, Alexandria, RY 13 (AD 149/150). Emmett 1621.13; Dattari 2772; RPC Online Temp 13673. O: ΑVΤ Κ Τ ΑΙΛ ΑΔΡ ΑΝΤⲰΝΙΝΟϹ ϹƐΒ ƐVϹ, Laureate bust wearing paludamentum, right. R: Nilus reclining left, holding reed and cornucopia from which emerges a genius who crowns Nilus with a wreath; L TPICKA to left, Iς (for 16 cubits), crocodile below.
    Ex Robert L. Grover Collection, previously held by the Art Institute of Chicago (1982.1977)

    Incidentally, Curtis, your coin is listed as #11 in the RPC Online database for this entry.

    Here's a seated "on the rocks" example, not listed for this date in Emmett; RPC Online has 2 examples, and references 2 others from the Dattari collection, including this one:

    Antoninus Pius - Drachm ex Grover Dattari Nilus 2016.jpg
    AE Drachm. 25.29g, 35mm. EGYPT, Alexandria, RY 4 (AD 140/1). Emmett 1617 (unlisted for this date); Dattari-Savio pl. 139, 8615 (this coin); RPC Online temp #15523 (this coin referenced). O: ΑVΤ Κ Τ ΑΙΛ ΑΔΡ ΑΝΤωΝΙΝΟС ƐΥС СƐΒ, Laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right. R: Nilus seated left, on rocks upon which crocodile climbs, holding reed and cornucopiae; L Δ in upper field.
    Ex Robert L. Grover Collection, previously held by the Art Institute of Chicago (1981.444); ex Giovanni Dattari Collection

    Interesting take! The little buggers being symbolic representations of the cubit measure, I think the main takeaways of a person viewing the sculpture would be "Nilus" and "16 cubits." Likewise, I imagine the main message on the coins was the all-important 16-cubit measurement rather than the literal 16 pekheis around the sculpture, though I don't see any reason why it can't also be a reference to the sculpture itself.

    I don't know if Emmett surveyed public collections as well as sale records, but RPC Online here has a fair number of your type listed and pictured, including the Staffieri example. Regarding "seated" vs "reclining", from what I can see, only on the "seated" examples can you always see Nilus's left leg distinctly bent at the knee under the folds of his robe.

    1 in Emmett is actually the most common rating, with 5 being rarest.
    Last edited: Nov 23, 2020
  18. Spaniard

    Spaniard Well-Known Member

    @Curtismo......Lovely coin!...These big chunks are very addictive especially in hand.
    Thanks also for the legend breakdown, most helpful..

    Antoninus Pius, 138 - 161 AD, AE Drachm, Egypt, Alexandria Mint, 34mm, 29.55 grams
    Obverse: Laureate head of Antoninus right.
    Reverse: L DEKATOV, Zeus holding patera and scetpre reclining left on open wings of eagle.
    Emmett1699 // Dattari2933 // Koln1560 // Milne1905
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  19. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Well-Known Member

    Curtis, That's a fascinating coin & wonderful article explaining the complex symbolism of the coin & impressive marble sculptures :D! The Vatican Nilus is one of the great sculptures of antiquity & is loaded with humor too :happy:. Standing in front of the Vatican Nilus must have been a humbling experience :rolleyes:...
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  20. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish) Supporter

    Wow AA I didn't know you had a Pharos example! I should have known thought with you architecture focus. Wonderful coin, my friend!

    Than you for the kind words Q and thank you for the great additions to the thread. What a wonderfully styled Augustus and Agrippa. I very much enjoyed your write up on the background for these. (For anyone who missed it I highly recommend reading it)

    Your Hadrian drachm is a fantastic coin as well. I'll have to get an example of the seated Nilus for one of the Nerva-Antonines eventually.
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  21. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    My first impression of the Vatican Nilus is that it is too busy and would be better without the 'children'. Your explanation linking them to the 16 cubits explains that issue. Thanks. Mine are just the ordinary types.
    pa0230bb0323.jpg pa0260bb1288.jpg pa0270bb1342.jpg
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