National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Irene Soto Marín

Affiliation: Harvard University

Irene Soto Marín is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics at Harvard University. Her research Interests include: Roman and Late Antique Egypt; ancient economies with a focus on trade, taxation, and production; numismatics; papyrology; archaeology.


Although mostly recognized as the “breadbasket” of Rome among historians of the Graeco-Roman world, the economy of Roman Egypt was diverse and robust and included more products than just grain. Egypt housed numerous established industries which were central for the running of the empire, such as papyrus, rope, and textiles, and as the southernmost point of the Empire, it connected Rome to sub-Saharan Africa. Its Red Sea coast facilitated trade with the Arabian Peninsula and India, acting as a redistributor of luxury items and much sought-after spices, and its deserts contained large quarries of sand and limestone as well as more precious building materials such as porphyri and granite. For all its resources, it is surprising how often Egypt gets overlooked as a major economic center for the Roman Empire in major scholarship on the ancient economy. Therefore, this lecture aims to bring Egypt at the front and center of the Roman economy by investigating the global impact of its various industries and economies.

Originally introduced by Diocletian as part of his numerous monetary reforms, the solidus quickly became a symbol of stability of the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires. In fact, studies of the solidus, used in tandem with papyrological evidence from Egypt, have formed a central part of important scholarship regarding the nature of the Late Antique economy at large. But how early did this “Golden Age” begin? And how similar, or different, is the role of gold in Egypt compared to other provinces in the Late Roman Empire? In this lecture, we will investigate the archaeological and textual record to examine the supply, minting and usage of gold in the Egyptian province during various periods within the fourth century CE, and explore its broader historiographical implications for the field of Late Antiquity.

Although proper Egyptian coinage had been instituted centuries before the conquest of Octavian, the Roman period ushered in a new era of production for the Alexandrian mint. While maintaining the closed currency system instituted by Ptolemy I, the designs and iconography of the coinage depicted unique imagery of Graeco- and Romano-Egyptian religious syncretism idiosyncratic to Egypt. From a more economic point of view, the coinage was also continually affected by debasement, much like the coinage in the rest of the Roman Empire. Economic and political crises in the province led Diocletian to abolish Egypt’s closed currency system and end the provincial civic production of Alexandrian tetradrachms. This lecture presents an overview of the coinage minted during the almost 700-year Roman occupation of Egypt and will touch upon issues of debasement, inflation, metal supply and connectivity.

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