The Roman Empire
Ptolemy of Mauretania

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Coin Details

Origin/Country: ANCIENT - GREEK EMPIRES (6th CENT BC - 5th CENT AD) KINGDOM OF MAURETANIA Ptolemy, c.AD 21-40
Design Description: Ptolemy Denarius (Probably Unique)
Item Description: AR Denarius KINGDOM OF MAURETANIA rv club in wreath yr.20 (AD 40)
Full Grade: NGC AU Strike: 4/5 Surface: 4/5
Owner: Kohaku

Set Details

Custom Sets: The Roman Empire
Competitive Sets: This coin is not competing in any sets.
Research: NGC Coin Price Guide

Owner Comments:

It’s probably unwise to upstage your boss, especially if he is a sadistic, megalomaniacal dictator. As a case example, consider Ptolemy, once ruler of Mauretania, one of many ancient kingdoms subservient to Rome’s Emperor, who at the time happened to be Caligula.

Ptolemy’s father was Juba II, the Numidian dynast famously captured by Julius Caesar. While growing up in Rome, Juba developed a strong friendship with Caesar’s heir Octavian, later known as Augustus. The latter restored Juba as Mauretania’s client ruler, and arranged his marriage to Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Marc Antony and Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt. Sometime before 5 BC, the royal couple gave birth to Ptolemy, who was sent to Rome for schooling. Ptolemy grew up in the remarkable court of his aunt Antonia Minor, alongside young Roman aristocrats as well as princes and princesses from the surrounding lands.

Besides an eclectic mix of Mediterranean ancestry, Ptolemy inherited Mauretania’s throne. Like his father before him, Ptolemy distinguished himself as Rome’s military ally, earning the title Rex, socius et amicus populi Romani or King, ally, and friend of the Roman people. Under Ptolemy’s rule, Mauretania prospered, and its high-end goods (particularly textiles and woods) were highly coveted. Like his father, Ptolemy exhibited a passion for the arts, learning, and literature. He maintained strong ties to his Hellenistic roots, promoting his country — and himself — while traveling extensively abroad, placing his own statues in high-profile locales such as Athens’ famed Acropolis.

Ptolemy also struck coins, including this silver denarius. The obverse depicts his diademed bust with the epithet REX, the same title originally borne by Rome’s ancient kings. Compared to his father’s coinage, Ptolemy’s tend to be cruder in design and lighter in mass, yet combining a similar blend of interesting cultural elements. The reverse of this particular coin features a club within a wreath. Dating back to Ptolemy’s forebears, this motif was associated with the Phoenician deity Melqart, whose identity assimilated into the divine Greek hero Heracles (Hercules, to the Romans). Characteristic of Ptolemy’s coins, this particular specimen is rare. Indeed, it is likely unique and among the last ever struck by Ptolemy — or any other Numidian king for that matter.

Early in the same year that this coin was struck (40 AD), Ptolemy was summoned to Rome by his distant cousin, Emperor Caligula, and subsequently imprisoned and executed. In the aftermath, Mauretania staged a bloody revolt that lasted several years. Rome finally regained control during the reign of Caligula’s successor (Claudius), who absorbed Mauretania into the Empire as two separate provinces.

According to ancient historian Suetonius, Caligula’s disaffection stemmed from Ptolemy’s attire. Specifically, the Emperor took umbrage that Ptolemy dared to strut around Rome in a purple colored robe. Such a robe was wildly rare and expensive. At the time, its production required the painstaking extraction of purple dye from many thousands of murex sea snails. Presumably, Ptolemy was well aware of his robe’s bling factor. The Numidian kings of old were famous for their extremely high-quality purple robes, and forbade anyone else from wearing that color, particularly in their royal presence.

Regarding the ancient Romans, they had many customs relating attire, social status, and public venue. Augustus, keen on spurring a religious revival, reinforced such regulations. After Augustus’ death, observance of the official garment guidelines apparently declined. His successor, Tiberius (who was Ptolemy’s first cousin) noticed that many Roman aristocrats had fallen off the carpentum, daring to sport purple clothing even in public. According to ancient historian Cassius Dio, Tiberius set an example by wearing a dark woolen cloak at a public festival. After that, no one dared to publically don purple, since they risked effectively declaring themselves above the Emperor.

Even so, Suetonius alleges that Ptolemy dared to wear purple, and paid the ultimate price for his pomposity. Doubt exists among modern scholars regarding Suetonius’ account since it reflects a known, notoriously negative bias. Another ancient source, namely historian Cassius Dio, states that Ptolemy was executed because he was rich, not necessarily contradicting Suetonius’ tale. If not a purple robe, Ptolemy probably wore a purple or golden paludamentum, a cape fastened at the shoulders, commonly worn by military commanders. Reportedly, Ptolemy was gifted such military regalia by Tiberius as a reward for helping Rome suppress rebellious Berber tribes. Thus, Ptolemy’s attire was a walking advertisement of his military accomplishments. By comparison, Emperor Caligula failed to achieve any substantial military victories for himself. In any case, Ptolemy’s presence projected vast wealth, military prowess and political prestige, all of which Caligula understandably might have viewed as a legitimate imperial threat and/or insult.

Alternate, noteworthy hypotheses have been proposed for Caligula’s action against Ptolemy. For example, the Emperor may have suspected Ptolemy in a conspiracy against his life. Another view cites Caligula’s increasing obsession with Egyptian customs and culture, and jealousy over Ptolemy’s marriage to chief priestess of the Emperor’s most cherished deity, Isis. Yet another theory is especially hair-raising. Caligula was highly sensitive about his premature baldness; he was known to order men whose long hair offended him to be shaved. Ptolemy, though twice the Emperor’s age, sported a luxurious head of hair. Drawing again from the account of Seutonius, Rome’s crowds responded to Ptolemy’s appearance by hailing the Mauretanian king as the ‘true Caesar.’ Interestingly, the Latin noun caesariei denotes long or luxuriant hair, and its owner can be referred to with the adjective caesariatus. The opportunity for punning was obvious, and, given the circumstances of an anonymous, emboldened mob, arguably irresistible. In such a scenario, one can imagine Ptolemy’s seemingly patronizing attempt to dissuade the Emperor from punishing the unruly crowd. No doubt, the Emperor would have been most displeased.

Additional Reading: D Woods, “Caligula, Ptolemy of Mauretania, and the danger of long hair,” 2005.

Coin Details: KINGS of MAURETANIA, Ptolemy, AD 24-40, AR Denarius (14.5mm, 2.04 g, 12h), Dated RY 20 (AD 40), NGC Grade: AU, Strike: 4/5, Surface: 4/5, Obverse: Diademed head right, REX [PTOLEMAEVS], Reverse: Upright club, RA XX (date) across field, all within wreath, References: Unpublished, but cf. Mazard 430–5 for this type with earlier dates; Apparently unique type with this date.

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