One Hundred Ninety Years of Tyrian Shekels

by Yakov Meshorer
Studies in Honor of Leo Mildenburg
Numismatics, Art History, Archaeology
Wetteren, 1984, pp.171-180.

The Tyrian shekels held a prominant position among the best known coins of the ancient world. From 126/5 A.D. 70 they circulated extensively in the Middle East, mainly in the regions of Phoenicia, Galilee, Judea, Syria and Transjordan.

Both because of the decline of the Seleucid Empire and the rise of Tyrian economic and commercial power, the mint of Tyre stoppped striking Seleucid coins (the latest being issues of Demetrius II)[BMCSeleucids Kings 76.], and began to strike autonomous silver shekels as a continuation of the Seleucid tetradrachms. The weights of the autonomous coinage did not change from that of the preceeding Seleucid coinage; even its design did not differ much. The obverse of the new issue depicts the head of Heracles-Melkart instead of the Seleucid king, and the reverse shows an eagle standing on the prow of a ship with a palm branch over its shoulder, similar to that which appeared on the earlier Seleucid issues.

The inscription of this new coin type, however, differentiates it completely from the Seleucid coinages of Tyre. Instead of the king's name, the inscription now reads XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX . The right field of the reverse carries a monogram, the left field a date, beginning LA, or year one of the era of Tyre, equivalent to 126/5 B.CC. Below the date the mintmark of Tyre, a club, is shown, and between the legs of the eagle, either the Phoenician letter XX (') or XX (B). [These two letters may represent two pparts of each year; namely XX the first half and XX the second half of eacch year. For further details of the type see BMCPhoenicia cxxxiv-cxxxv and 233.] Denominations of shekels, half-shekels, and, in extremely rare cases, quarter shekels, were struck.

The fineness of the Tyrian shekels is very high, generally 92% silver or better for the entire series, including the last issues. The weight remained constant throughout the long period of production of these shekels, despite the various monetary changes which occured in other currencies, and the introduction of debased coins from other mints into the market.

Contemporaneous Silver Coins

Other silver currencies circulated in the same time that the Tyrian shekels were being used, but never in substantial quantity. The Tyrian issues evidently dominated the financial markets of the area. Such other silver coins which circulated contemporaneously included later Seleucid issues of various cities, including the mints of Phoenicia, [BMCSeleucid Kings 77-103, those of Demetrius II, Alexander II Zabinas, Antiochus X, Antiochus XI, Demetrius III and Tigranes II of Armenia.], and autonomous shekels of Sidon, [BMCPhoenicia 158-161.], Ascalon, [BMCPalestine 107-108.], and didrachms of Nabataea. [Y. Meshorer, "Nabataean Coins," QEDEM 3 (1975): coins of Aretas III (no. 5), Obodas II (nos. 9-11), Malichus I (nos. 1-2), Obodas III (nos. 10-13,25, 28-30, sup. 2-3. 32. 34. 48), Syllaeus (nos. 40-41, sup. 4 smaller denominations), Aretas IV (nos. 46-54, supp. 6, 65, 85-86, 94-96, 98-111), and Malichus II (nos. 123-148).]

Although they controlled the area from 63 B.C. onwards, the Romans were not quick to introduce their own coinage in the East, and local finds of Roman coins from the time of Pompey and Julius Caesar are extremely rare. It was not until 20/19 B.C., during the reign of Augustus, that the mint of Antioch began to strike Roman provincial issues. [W. Wruck, Die syrische Provinzialpragung von Augustus bis Trajan (Stuttgart 1931) 178. BMCGalatia etc. 166.] This date, which marks the beginning of Roman monetary domination of the eastern provinces, has been generally assumed to reflect a fiscal as well as political turning point in the area. Despite this change, however, vast quantities of Tyrian shekels continued to be struck, seemingly anachronistically, from 18 B.C. until A.D. 65, [BMCPhoenicia 255, nos. 255-259; 257, no. 269], although judging from the few known examples, Tyre's production of bronze coins during the same period was very low.

One may conclude from various historical sources [Pliny, HN 5.17.76. See also A. H. M. Jones, The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces (Oxford 1971) 237-239; 249-250; 253; 259; 270; and 287.] that Tyre entered a period of political decline towards the end of the first century B.C. until the reign of Septimius Severus. [Roman provincial silver tetradrachms were struck at Tyre during the reign of Trajan and later when it became a Romman colony during the expansion in the East under the Severans.] Yet here too, there is an apparent discrepancy between the historical references to Tyre as a city in decline and the evidently enormous quantity of Tyrian shekels which continued to be produced between the reigns of Augustus and Nero.

The Reign of Herod the Great

In 40 B.C. Rome apppointed Herod the Great king of Judea. In 37 B.C. Herod conquered Jerusalem and became sole ruler of the province. Schurer has summarized Herod's life as follows: "His reign may be divided into three periods. The first, extending from about 37 to 25 B.C., sees the consolidation of his authority. He has still to contend with many hostile powers but emerges victorious from all battles. The second period, 25-13 B.C., is the era of his prosperity. His friendship with Rome is at its zenith. Agrippa visits Herod in Jerusalem. Herod is repeatedly received by the Emperor. It is also the period of his great buildngs, of works of peace in general. The third period, 13-4 B.C., sees his domestic miseries, which now take precedence over everything else." [E. Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesu (175 B.C. - A.D. 135), a new English version revised and edited by G. Vermes and F. Millar (Edinburgh 1973) 296.]

As described by Josephus, [Josephus,Antiquities XVI, 1-404.], the detailed history of Herod and his relations with the Romans is very impressive. There is no doubt that he was one of the most outstanding personalities of his time, and a powerful political figure, viewed even against the background of the growing Roman Empire. [Several historians have devoted monographs to Herod, the two most recentof which are: A. Schalit, Konig Herodes (Berlin, 1969) and M. Grant, Herod the Great (New York, 1971).] Archaeologists who are familiar with the rich Herodian finds from Jerusalem, Samaria, Hebron and many other locations cannot but be both astonished and disappointed at the lack of numismatic material of the period. It is unlikely that such a colorful and powerful personality with economic and political ambitions would not have taken advantage of the opportunity to strike a prestigious coinage; yet Herod is known to have issued only bronze coins of small denomination. [Y. Meshorer, Jewish Coins of the Second Temple Period (Tel Aviv 1967) nos. 37-55.] The absence of Herodian silver or gold coinage has intrigued many numismatists in the past; to fill this gap, some have even suggested that he minted certain Roman aurei and denarii of cruder style or oriental appearance. [Zonaras: Annal. l.v.c. 16.].

The absence of silver coins struck by Herod is remarkable for two main reasons. Firstly, Jerusalem's economic power under Herod was enormous. Josephus' accounts of Herod's activities in Judea and elsewhere tell of the expenditure of huge sums of money for buildings and other grandiose projects, and demonstrate Herod's strength of personality, his wealth, and his special interest in economic affairs. [Josephus, Ant. XV, 292-298; 318; 326-341; 364; 380-425.] Secondly, as has been noted above, other cities in the area subject to Rome were striking their own autonomous silver coinage. [Sidon: BMCPhoenicia 159; Ascalon: BMCPalestine 107-108; and several Cappadocian kings: BMCGalatia etc. 42-44.].

In this regard, the issuance of silver coinage by the Nabataean kings is particularly noteworthy. [Meshorer (supra above): coins struck from Obodas II, 62 B.C. until Rabbel II, A.D. 106.]. From 63 B.C. onwards, the political status of Judea under Roman rule was not inferior to that of the Nabataeans who had been vassals to the Romans since the submission of their ruler Scaurus; [Josephus, Ant. XIV, 80-81.], to the contrary, the evidence indicates that during the time of Herod (40-4 B.C.), Jerusalem's status was superior to that of Nabataea. Yet the Nabataeans struck substantial aounts of silver coins from 63 B.C. onwards, mainly under Obodas III (30-9 B.C.) and Aretas IV (9 B.C. -A.D.40), while so far none has been attributed to Herod.

If Herod were to have issued ajor coinage in silver, however, which history suggests but archaeology and numismatics have not yet revealed, what would its nature have been? The only impressive silver currency of that time and region was the Tyrian shekels which the coins seem to indicate were struck at Tyre itself. It is clear, however, that these coins, and the assumptions about their attribution, need careful reexamination, taking into account both the relevant numismatic material and the historical facts.

The Style of the Tyrian Shekels

Two characteristics stand out in regard to the various shekels. The first of these is the change in their style. The earlier shekels are of good style and are struck with dies smaller than the flans, thus permitting the entire design and inscription to be included on the coins. The die cutters of these early issues did a highly artistic and professional job. The later shekels, struck during the second half of their period of issue, are not so well styled, and were struck on smaller flans; on most, the inscription or design is never complete and parts are entirely off the flan. Some shekels of the second group are quite crude, and are sometimes considered to be barbaric in style. Such "barbaric" issues are quite numerous. If the reading of their dates is correct (the letters are sometimes so poorly cut that the date is virtually indecipherable), all are from the first century A.D.

Despite their crudeness of style and their small size, however, the later shekels are of very high quality in terms of both fineness of silver and their weight. Their striking authorities were not particularly interested in producing good looking coins, but great care was taken to maintain their accurate value.

Related to the issue of stylistic change is the fact that the two groups differ in their tehnique of manufacture. The earlier shekels are concave; the later ones are not. The point is fundamental to the question of the attribution of the second group.

The KP Monogram

The two Greek letters KP which appear on both series have never been explained before. They remain enigmatic, but some ideas about their meaning may now be proposed, particularly as they appear on the first issues (struck in 18 B.C.) in monogram form, XX, where the letter A is also visible. It is possible that word KAPTEPOXX, meaning strong, potent, fixed, all referring to the value of the coin, may be implied by this monogram; it may also mean KAPTOXX (or KPATOXX), referring to the power of the regime.

According to the use of the KP monogram, the Tyrian shekels and fractions can be divided into two different groups. The first consists of coins struck in the years 126-19 B.C. that do not have the letters KP. The second group comprises issues struck from 18 B.C.-66 A.D. that bear the letters KP, or these letters in monogram form.

Collateral Issues of Other Cities

In view of the crucial nature of the year 18 B.C. in the striking history of the Tyrian shekels, a review of the production of other mints in the area is in order.

Antioch had become the center of Roman influence and the base of both the Roman governor and commander of Roman forces in the area in the first century of Rome's conquest of the East. In 19 B.C., under the Emperor Augustus, Antioch began to produce provincial silver coins. [Wruck (supra above)]. From this point, the city's mint struck increasing numbers of tetradrachms, introducing and expanding the use of Roman currency in the area.

Sidon struck fewer silver issues than Tyre, [BMCPhoenicia 158-161.], but it is noteworthy that most of this city's production of shekels and half-shekels was limited to the years 107-31 B.C.; only a very few half-shekels were struck later.

Aradus, whose impressive output of silver tetradrachms began in 137/6 B.C., continued to strike autonomous issues consistently until 46/5 B.C. [BMCPhoenicia 23-25].

Caesarea in Cappadocia started striking Roman Imperial silver coins under Tiberius. [BMCGalatia etc. 46].

Ascalon struck autonomous silver issues from the end of the second century B.C. until 30 B.C. [BMCPalestine 108].

A general pattern emerges from the above: major cities which had issued silver coins both during and immediately after the Seleucid period stopped striking autonomous silver issues no later than the reign of Augustus. From the reign of Augustus onwards some of these mints produced Roman provincial silver coins which eventually replaced the earlier issues. [Sidon minted very few autonomous coins during the Roman occupation. BMCPhoenicia 160-161, nos. 113-117]. The only exception to this pattern is the striking of Tyrian shekels, which seems to imply that the historical changes did not have an impact on the city. But how could Tyre retain its status as a hellenistic polis during the first hundred years of Roman rule?

An even more astonishing fact is that from A.D. 54 onward, the mints of either Antioch, Tyre, or both, struck huge quantities of provincial tetradrachms of debased silver. The tetradrachms of Nero were made of a poor siver alloy, one of the results of the rampant economic inflation under this emperor which continued under Vespasian and Titus. [C. H. V. Sutherland, Coinage in Roman Imperial Policy (London 1950) 201]. Generally speaking, coins of high-grade silver tend to disappear from the market immediately after the introduction of inferior silver issues. In the case of the Roman East, the production of debased coins affected other coinages (such as that of the Nabataeans), causing their debasement as well. [Meshorer (supra above) 73]. Nevertheless, this general market law had no effect on the nature of the Tyrian shekels. Against all economic logic, they continued to be struck during Nero's reign, from A.D. 54 to 65, yet their silver content remained as high as before (the silver content of the shekels of the Jewish revolt against Rome, struck from A.D. 66-70, was similarly unaffected).

A revision of view regarding both the attribution and the reasons for the issuance of the late Tyrian shekels of A.D. 54-65/6 (years 180-191 of the Tryian era) now seems to be needed, particularly given their linkage to the Jewish shekels of the same weight and fineness which replaced them in A.D. 66, and their relationship to the Tyrian issues struck before A.D. 54.

The Religious Factor

In addition to purely economic factors, the Temple in Jerusalem and its religious rules and restrictions had their own impact on the financial markets of the time. During the hellenistic period, Jewish law, the Mishna, began to crystallize. From the second century B.C. onwards many religious laws were put into practice. One of the most important of these was the requirement that from the age of {twenty} onwards, every male had to pay the Temple an annual tribute of half a shekel. In the Mishna, a special tractate, "Sheqalim," deals with this mandatory tribute. The money was collected to cover the expenses of Temple rituals and maintenance. As a result of this law, which applied to one-third of the entire Jewish population of the ancient world, Temple income was enormous, amounting to a constant income of perhaps half a million shekels annually. [M. Broshi, "The Principal Resources of Herod's Economy and the Economic Role of the Temple," forthcoming]. The Mishna is very clear about the nature of this tribute, stipulating that it had to be made with pure silver: significantly, the example given is "Mane Zori - Tyrian currency. [Mishnah, Bechorot, 8.7. Herod's income from taxation was very impressive. Josephus (Ant. XVII.318-320) gives details of the income of his three sons, who together collected 900 talents, and since Herod had many more territories, he must have had a yearly income of 1000-1200 talents, making a total of 1,500,000 to 1,800,000 shekels from taxation alone. This estimate is a modest one as we have Josephus' account of the income of his grandson Agrippa I, which reached 3,000,000 shekels (Ant. XIX.352). The law remained in effect until the destruction of the Temple by Titus in A.D. 70.

The Mishna's demand for Tyrian shekels made all other currencies unacceptable. [Talmud Yerushalmi, Sheq. 2.4; Mishnah, Sheq. 2.4]. It also made necessary the continued issuances of shekels of the Tyrian type by the Temple, or whomever was in charge of its finances, even after their discontinuation by the city mint of Tyre.

The Jewish Sources

It is possible to find an indicationin the Jewish sources about production in Jerusalem of Tyrian shekels from Tosephta Kethuboth 13.20: "Silver mentioned in the Pentateuch is always a Tyrian silver: What is a Tyrian silver? It is Jerusalemite." The testimony is clear that Tyrian shekels were struck in Jerusalem.

The expression "coined silver," found in the literary sources, [Josephus, Ant. XVII.322.], is also relevant to our discussion of Herodian silver coinage. The phrase may refer to coinage struck in imitation of another issue, rather than to an autonomous series, and may in fact hint at an irregular issuance of Tyrian shekels in Jerusalem, the term "coined" being comparable to the Hebrew teba' of Mishna Sheqalim 2.4. The Teba'in (plural of teba') are noted as being the final type of currency accepted by the Temple before it was destroyed. The specific passages suggests that the term teba' represents the last stage of the Tyrian shekels, those which we now propose to have been struck by the Temple authorities in Jerusalem. The etymology of the Hebrew word indicates an original meaning of either coined or struck, quite similar to Jsephus' "coined."


Very few Tyrian shekels dated to the first hundred years of their issuance have been found in Judaea, Samaria and Galilee. Instead, most early Tyrian shekels have come from the area of Lebanon. Almost all Tyrian shekels datable to the time of Herod and later, however, have been discovered in the Judaea-Samaria-Galilee area. [L. Kadman, INB 1 (1962) 9-11.]. Finds of the second group, either of single coins or of hoards, have occured in controlled excavations and in non-archaeological contexts, and include the Ussfiya, Mt. Scopus, [E.L. Sukenik, "A Find of Tyrian Shekels at the Hebrew University Campus," Sefer Dinaburg (Jerusalem 1949) 102-103 (in Hebrew).], Dominus Flevit [A. Spijkerman, "Tresor de sicles juifs trouve au Mont des Oliviers a Jerusalem," SM 42 (1961) 25-32.] hoards, as well as others.


From the reign of Augustus onwards, Roman provincial currency increasingly replaced royal hellenistic and autonomous issues then circulating in the eastern provinces of the Empire. The production of autonomous shekels was discontinued at Tyre, but was picked up and continued at Jerusalem in order to meet the requirements for pure silver currency stipulated by Jewish religious law. The Tyrian shekels struck in Jerusalem can be identified by the monogram KP, by the small shape and size of their flans, and by their often crude style, although they maintain the same weight and fineness as the earlier series.

The production of Tyrian silver ended with the issues of A.D. 65/6 - a date which has no known significance in the history of Tyre, but which coincides exactly with the outbreak of the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66. With the establishment of full control over Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities changed the coin type entirely to one linked to their own specific iconography and political needs, and began the issuance of a new, exclusively Jewish, silver coinage.

After this article went to press, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem was given a coin, accquired in Beth Lehem, which has some connection to the "Jerusalemite" Tyrian shekels. The coin is a didrachm of Antiochus VII struck at Tyre; it is quite similar to the Tyrian shekel and is actually its prototype: the eagle is the same, the head of the Seleucid king was replaced by the head of Heracles; the inscription is essentially the main innovation.

This didrachm has a rectangular countermark on its obverse depicting the letters PlH to represent the date: year 118 of the Tyrian era = 9 B.C. We believe that the Temple authorities approved the use of this Seleucid didrachm as if it were a Tyrian shekel by affixing this countermark. There is no doubt that issuing money as well as controlling the financial market by approving or rejecting certain coins as official Temple currency was to the Temple's advantage and constituted a major factor in its economic prosperity - a fact which raised no little criticism from the populace. The criticism of the "bankers" of the Temple during the life of Jesu is a reflection of this situation.