Featured The Great Lighthouse of Alexandria

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by David Atherton, Feb 4, 2021.

  1. David Atherton

    David Atherton Flavian Fanatic

    Ever since I began collecting Roman coins I have always wanted an Alexandrian hemidrachm depicting the Pharos. It is at once both a 'grail' and personal 'white whale' of mine. Last week my dream came true!

    The hemidrachms struck under Domitian with their wonderful numismatic depictions of the Pharos are extremely rare. This superb example from regnal year 12 is the third known and finest specimen of the even rarer left facing portrait variant.

    RPC2677a.jpg Domitian
    Æ Hemidrachm, 12.15g
    Alexandria mint, 92-93 AD
    Obv: ΑΥΤ ΚΑΙϹ ΘƐΟ(Υ) ΥΙΟϹ ΔΟΜΙΤ ϹƐΒ ΓƐΡΜ; Head of Domitian, laureate, l.
    Rev: LΙΒ; Pharos
    RPC 2677. Emmett 273.12 (R3).
    Ex CNG eAuction 484, 27 January 2021, lot 559.

    The great lighthouse of Alexandria (or Pharos) was first depicted on the city's coinage during Domitian's reign. The structure was built on Pharos Island circa 300-283 BC under the Ptolemaic dynasty and was roughly 375 years old when these coins were struck. It was one of the most famous buildings in the ancient world and would later be considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World by early Medieval chroniclers. Standing at an estimated 300-450 ft. high it inspired awe and admiration from many Roman era writers including Strabo, Pliny, Josephus, and Lucian. Strabo records the Pharos was built of white stone and Pliny relates it cost nearly 800 talents to construct and that its light could sometimes be mistaken for a distant star on the horizon by mariners approaching the city. Josephus says the tower's shining light could be seen 34 miles away, a day's sale from Alexandria. Lucian took detailed measurements and described a building of three storeys - the bottom being square, the middle octagonal and the top circular with a total height of 436 feet (!). It was crowned by a 30 ft. statue of Zeus Soter or Poseidon which can clearly be seen on the coins. Sculptures of Tritons blowing conch shells adorned the octagonal section were used to represent each of the eight winds and can clearly be seen on the coins as well. In 1117 AD Al-Andalusi travelled to Alexandria and wrote 'the entrance to the Lighthouse is very high. It is accessed by a long 600 ft. ramp. This is based on a series of arches [...]'. This high doorway is also accurately depicted on the coins. Early in the second century Achilles Tatius of Alexandria poetically described the Pharos in his novel The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon as 'the most remarkable and extraordinary structure upon which it rested; it was like a mountain, almost reaching the clouds, in the middle of the sea. Below the building flowed the waters; it seemed to be as it were suspended above their surface, while at the top of this mountain rose a second sun to be a guide for ships'. The great Pharos was rendered inoperable and slowly destroyed by a series of earthquakes between 796 and 1323 AD. The coins, however, remain as a powerful testament to this most remarkable structure's enduring legacy.

    Ambition sighed: she found it vain to trust
    The faithless column and the crumbling bust;
    Huge moles, whose shadow stretched from shore to shore,
    Their ruins perished, and their place no more!
    Convinced, she now contracts her vast design,
    And all her triumphs shrink into a coin. -

    Alexander Pope, To Mr. Addison, Occasioned by his Dialogues on Medals II. 19-26

    The coins also help in aiding historians to reimagine what this extraordinary lighthouse may have looked like.



    Needless to say I'm overjoyed to have finally acquired one of my dream coins! It even prompted a midwinter trip to my state's most famous lighthouse - Marblehead on Lake Erie.


    Marblehead is only 50 ft. in height. I can only imagine what the ancients thought of the Pharos's possible staggering 450 ft.!

    Feel free to post any 'dream coins' you wish to share.
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2021
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  3. eparch

    eparch Well-Known Member

    Congratulations - a lovely coin still on my wants list
    David Atherton likes this.
  4. Silverlock

    Silverlock Well-Known Member

    Beautiful coin. Pharos is a favorite of mine as well. My first and only auction win was the drachm. Didn’t know any other representations of the lighthouse existed. The depiction is quite different from the drachm, and different than the recent archeological evidence suggests. I wonder if the hemi- portrays an earlier version of the iconic lighthouse.
    Volodya and David Atherton like this.
  5. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

    Nice coin and a cool depiction of the Pharos!

    Nowadays the fortress of Qeit Bey is its replacement, made from the stones of the former lighthouse.
    Herodotus and David Atherton like this.
  6. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    Congrats, David! That's an absolutely smashing specimen.
    And imagine what they thought of this 600 ft tall Isis! :D

    Hadrian - Drachm ex Grover Isis Pharos 1977b.jpg
    AE Drachm. 19.63g, 32mm. EGYPT, Alexandria, RY 18 (AD 133/4). Emmett 1002.18; Dattari 1768 var.; RPC 5896. O: Bare head left. R: Isis Pharia holding billowing sail with both hands, sailing right toward the Lighthouse of Pharos, which is surmounted by two Tritons, each blowing a buccinum (sea shell trumpet), lantern surmounted by statue; L IH above center.
    Ex Robert L. Grover Collection of Roman-Egyptian Coinage, previously held by the Art Institute of Chicago (1980.947)
    Volodya, Limes, nicholasz219 and 17 others like this.
  7. Mammothtooth

    Mammothtooth Stand up Philosopher, Vodka Taster

    A lovely coin
    David Atherton likes this.
  8. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    Very nice, @David Atherton ! Huge congratulations!

    I wonder how much wood / fuel had to be burned each nite to be able to SEE the fire at great distances?
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2021
    David Atherton, +VGO.DVCKS and Bayern like this.
  9. Agricantus

    Agricantus Allium aflatunense

    My dream coin: Artabanos I Tet. It took me a while to find one to fit the budget, with clear earring, nereid, etc

  10. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

    Here's a pic...

  11. svessien

    svessien Senior Member

    Congratulations, David!

    Wow, you’re hauling in those great white whales.... This one made me jealous too :D

    I hope to be able to share a white whale within this year. Now I have to do with a holy grail, and the lighthouse of Khanya, Greece. Not that far from Alexandria, but younger and smaller.

    The original Venetian lighthouse was built around the late 16th century to protect the harbour. A chain could be connected from the base of the lighthouse to the fortress of Firkas in oder to close the harbour.

    During the Turkish occupation the lighthouse fell into disrepair and was eventually rebuilt between 1824 and 1832 in the form of a minaret. The modern lighthouse is often referred to as ' Egyptian' because it was built during a time where Crete was occupied by Egyptian troops who were supporting the weakening Ottoman Empire against the rebelious Cretans.
  12. Ancient Aussie

    Ancient Aussie Supporter! Supporter

    Great pick up David a true envy for most collections, congrats.
    David Atherton likes this.
  13. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    What a wonderful coin, @David Atherton. It's fun to imagine how amazing that lighthouse must have been to see, and would be even now if it still stood. As it might, if not for those earthquakes. I do wonder how a structure that tall was constructed more than 2000 years ago.
  14. OutsiderSubtype

    OutsiderSubtype Well-Known Member

    I don't have the Pharos, just an Isis Pharia like @zumbly

  15. Keith Twitchell

    Keith Twitchell Active Member

    Congratulations on a great acquisition! I had considered bidding on that same coin, but luckily for both of us I found a Cycladic coin that was an even higher priority. Enjoy!
    David Atherton likes this.
  16. jfreakofkorn

    jfreakofkorn Well-Known Member

    Congrats on the snag . . . Great feeling to be a caretaker of such a piece , imo

    Also , how did you acquire or mange to find such a piece of history ?
    David Atherton likes this.
  17. David Atherton

    David Atherton Flavian Fanatic

    I would love to see it! Admittedly, over the past few weeks I've become quite a Pharos nerd.
    +VGO.DVCKS likes this.
  18. David Atherton

    David Atherton Flavian Fanatic

    I think you may enjoy this excellent lecture on the Pharos.

  19. David Atherton

    David Atherton Flavian Fanatic

    It wasn't easy, as anyone who has fought brisk bidding in a CNG auction can attest!
    +VGO.DVCKS likes this.
  20. David Atherton

    David Atherton Flavian Fanatic

    Wood being a scarce commodity in Egypt, it's possible some form of fuel oil was used. Either way, the massive ramp up to the tower's doorway may have been used to transport massive quantities of fuel for the furnace atop the structure.
    +VGO.DVCKS likes this.
  21. David Atherton

    David Atherton Flavian Fanatic

    Well played sir!
    +VGO.DVCKS likes this.
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