The aim of this paper is to present recent papyrological and numismatic evidence that elucidates the role of gold coinage and precious metal supply during the first half of the fourth century CE in Egypt. In this instance, we can observe how an absence of solidi mentioned in the papyri is also paired with an absence of gold coinage found in the archaeological record, which stands in sharp contrast with the situation after 352, where numerous texts mention solidi and the coin itself appears in high numbers in hoards and as single finds.
Before 350 CE, there are only five instances in which solidi are mentioned in the papyri, and all of them are references to prices, not actual transactions. There are even mentions of fractions of solidi being used, which “represent no numismatic reality of the period” (Bagnall and Bransbourg, forthcoming). After 350, however, the mention and usage of gold coinage is much more abundant in the papyri.
The numismatic evidence seems to complement the situation explained in the papyri. A recently compiled database of gold coinage from published hoards and single finds in Egypt has revealed there is no evidence for a single solidus dating to the first four decades of the fourth century CE. In contrast, solidi minted after 337, mostly found in hoards with a deposition date after the 350s, are found much more commonly in the archaeological record (Soto Marín, PhD Thesis).
There is further papyrological evidence from Egypt that potentially points to a shortage gold bullion for state needs during the first quarter of the fourth century. P. Columbia VII 138, 139, and 140, dated to 307/308 CE, are receipts for gold and silver bullion from Karanis, which form part of the archive of Aurelius Isidoros. In 1977, Bagnall edited and analyzed these texts, concluding that these exactions did not represent a tax, but rather an imposition on landowners, who were required to provide gold and silver bullion for purchase by the government at a determined price. The quantity of bullion was calculated based on the amount of taxes paid in wheat by the landowners, quantified in artabas, and was then purchased by the state, with the amounts of gold and silver apparently equal in value.
While both the numismatic and papyrological evidence seem to point to a lack of precious metal supply by the state, further papyrological evidence is needed in order to fully understand the role of gold during this period and its implications. We know silver is almost completely absent, so does the added absence of gold coinage mean that the role of bronze coinage is enhanced in the economy, explaining the vast presence of coin molds in the province? How, then, was state expenditure dealt with in Egypt? The situation presented by the papyrological and numismatic evidence during this period raises these and other historical questions, which hopefully can open important research avenues for the future.