Station: [14] Nabataean Coinage

In the early day, the Nabataeans engaged in barter trade or used existing coins issued by the Ptolemies and the Phoenicians.

In 82 BC, King Aretas the Third of Nabataea came to the throne in Petra. Four-drachm coins called tetradrachms were minted in his honour. They show his portrait on the obverse, an eagle on the reverse, and have a Greek legend.

Nabataea first issued its own independent coinage in the second half of the first century B.C. The design was based on Hellenistic coins, with a bust of the king on the obverse and an eagle or cornucopia on the reverse. The inscription giving names and regnal years was now in Aramaic rather than Greek script.

After the Romans had tried, and failed, to take over trade on the Incense Road, the Nabataean kingdom entered a period of economic prosperity. Under King Obodas the Third, the weight and silver content of the drachma were reduced to match both the Attic drachm and the Roman denarius. That established a connection with two major trading partners.

The iconography also changed. The queen of the Nabataeans now appeared as well as the king. The number of coins minted increased dramatically during this phase.

At the beginning of the first century AD, economic problems arose. The silver content of the coins was gradually reduced. At times, the minting of silver coins was even suspended, or silver-plated bronze coins were issued instead.

From inscriptions on monumental tombs, we have an indication of the value of the Nabataean currency. Abuse of a Nabataean monumental tomb was punishable by a fine of 1,000 Aretas sela (or drachms). For a worker who earned a denarius a day, that was equivalent to 4,000 days' wages and hence more than 10 years' work!