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Katherine "Kass" Evans

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The Alabarch / The Alabarchy

by Katherine "Kass" Evans,
See also: Katherine G. Evans "Alexander the Alabarch: Roman and Jew." In Society of Biblical Literature,
1995 Seminar Papers, pp. 576-594. Edited by Eugene H. Lovering, Jr. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995.

DEFINITION of ALABARCH: The alabarch was the head of the alabarchy, which was a Roman magistracy in Egypt responsible for the assaying of gold (Latin: obrussa) probably including the ores extracted from the gold mines of Egypt and Nubia. The Alabarch reported to the Prefect in Alexandria who had overall responsibility for management of gold production in Egypt.

Source: Emperor Justinian, Edict XI. (not available in English translation; see more below)

Roman gold assayer stamps
Stamps of Roman assayers on a gold bar (in British Museum) - photograph by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin. See larger image and licensing at

Historical Sources for the Alabarch

The "alabarch" or the "alabarchy" are mentioned in eleven ancient sources: five are literary references in Josephus's Jewish Antiquities, one is from a list of names on a Greek papyrus, three are from Greek inscriptions, and two are from Latin legal texts.

About half of all ancient sources on alabarchs have never been translated into English.

Only one ancient source descibes the historical function of the alabarchy.

Based on the text of Emperor Justinian's Edict XI, the responsibility of the alabarch was obrussa, or the asssaying of gold. An assayer tested and certified the purity of gold by marking it with an official stamp. The same text suggests that the authority of the alabarch *may* have been broader than an official assayer of gold and may have encompassed responsibilties related to weights or coinage. It may even have had something to do with the overland transport of gold from the mines since the Theodosian Code, IV.13.9 appears to proscribe the alabarchy(?) from receiving any further exemptions on the impost (tax) on transportation of animals.

  • After Octavian (Augustus) defeated Cleopatra, Egypt became the single largest source of gold for the Roman Empire until the later exploitation of gold deposits in Spain and Dacia.

  • During the Roman period, the gold mines in Egypt were very active and additional roads and waterways were created to transport the mined gold. 1

  • Augustus decided that Egypt would have its own distinct coinage separate from Rome. The coins were created by the mint in Alexandria. The Alexandrian mint does not appear to have minted gold coins -- at least not to any great extent. 2

  • There is considerable evidence in the papyri that gold flakes or nuggets were used in Egypt for both trade and paying taxes. Such gold would have needed to be weighed and assayed.3

Theories on the Meaning of the Term "Alabarch"

Other theories for the "alabarch" have been proposed over the past hundred years, but NONE of the theories have assembled ALL of the historical references to alabarchs until now (see below).

Assessing the merits of different theories:

  • Old theory 1: The alabarch was a leader of the Jewish community in Alexandria.
    Analysis: The religion is known of four alabarchs. Two were Jewish, Alexander (Josephus, Ant, 18.259), Demetrius (Josephus, Ant, 20.147), one was a pagan who offered a prayer to Poseidon, Mausōlos (I.G.R.R. III, 608), and the fourth was Christian, Anastasios (IG XII Suppl. 673) Obviously, the pagan and the Christian alabarchs were not going to be leaders of the Jewish community, so it is unlikely the "alabarch" was a Jewish title.

  • Old theory 2: The alabarch was a type of tax collector.
    Analysis: The papyri have provided extensive information on tax (or customs) collecting in Roman Egypt including the rank and title of every type of tax collector from the village sitologoi on up. Sufficient papyri exist to track tax collecting over several centuries.4

    In NO papyrological source is the alabarchy or alabarch ever connected with tax collecting.

    The basis for associating the role of alabarch with the collecting of taxes is a difficult translation of the Theodosian Code, IV.13.9. Although this Code mentions the alabarchy in a section on "Imposts and Confiscations," the exact meaning is unclear.

    "We eliminate the usurpation of all presumption concerning the impost of the alabarchy (vectigal alabarchiae) established for Egypt and Augustamnica (a division of Egypt), and We concede that no exemption be impudently claimed for the transportation of animals,... "
    Are these two unrelated laws that were placed together here only because they both apply only to Egypt?

    In the first clause, someone was trying to 'usurp the impost of the alabarchy.' Justinian's Edict XI, makes it clear that the alabarchy did receive some sort of personal profit/lucro as part of the magisterial function (perhaps a fee or percentage for gold assayed?). Was there also an imperial tax collected when assaying gold? It's possible, but more research will need to be done.

    This is followed by the clause stopping the 'impudent claim of exemption of the transportation of animals'-- presumably an exemption from taxes.

    Who was impudently claiming an exemption for the transportation of animals? the alabarchy? Claiming an exemption from a tax is not the same as being a tax collector. What does claiming an 'exemption for transportation of animals' have to do with a 'presumption of the impost of the alabarchy'?

    Regardless of how the two clauses of the Theodosian Code, IV.13.9 are connected, there is insufficient evidence in them to support a determination that an alabarch was any type of tax collector.

  • Current theory: The alabarchy was a Roman magistracy repsponible for the assaying of gold in Egypt.
    Analysis: Emperor Justinian's Edict XI is the only source that provides direct evidence for the historical role of the alabarchy. The Edict discusses how the alabarchy was a magistracy responsible for obrussa, the assaying of gold in Egypt. In the Roman Empire, gold producing areas had magistrates responsible for testing the purity of gold and then certifying that purity using an assayer's stamp. The Edict also discusses weights and coinage (ponderatores et monetarii), but more work will need to be done to determine if these also fell into the scope of the alabarchy.

    The challenge with using the Edict for understanding the alabarchy is that its date of 559 A.D. is quite late. Since the times of the earliest known alabarchies of the first century, Rome had split into Western and Eastern Empires and had become Christian. Things may have changed.

    On the other hand, in the Edict, Justinian repeatedly uses the Latin tum (at that time) and indicates in the preface and Section I that he is describing how things were in the past, why it was done, why the alabarchy only existed in Egypt -- and why he was now changing the old ways.

    Given the continuing importance of gold mining in Egypt for all of the centuries the Roman Empire, it seems likely that the general role of the alabarchy that appears in Edict XI (eg. gold assayer) remained constant. It is possible, though, that the exact duties and privileges of the alabarch changed over time.

ALL Ancient Sources on the Alabarch/Alabarchy
Collected for the First Time

Source Ancient Text English Translation
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.159-160 5 ...ἔνθα Ἀλεξάνδρου δεῖται τοῦ ἀλαβάρχου μυριάδας εἴκοσι δάνειον αὐτῷ δοῦναι. 18.159-160. He (Agrippa) pretended at the time that he would obey these orders, but when night fell, he cut the mooring cables and proceeded on his voyage to Alexandria. There he begged Alexander the alabarch to grant him a loan of 200,000 drachmas.
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18. 259 5 Φίλων ὁ προεστὼς τῶν Ἰουδαίων τῆς πρεσβείας, ἀνὴρ τὰ πάντα ἔνδοξος Ἀλεξάνδρου τε τοῦ ἀλαβάρχου ἀδελφὸς ὢν καὶ φιλοσοφίας οὐκ ἄπειρος, 18.259-260. Philo, who stood at the head of the delegation of the Jews, a man held in the highest honour, brother of Alexander the alabarch and no novice in philosophy,
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 19.276 (5) ... . λύει δὲ καὶ Ἀλέξανδρον τὸν ἀλαβάρχην φίλον ἀρχαῖον αὐτῷ γεγονότα καὶ Ἀντωνίαν αὐτοῦ ἐπιτροπεύσαντα τὴν μητέρα ὀργῇ τῇ Γαΐου δεδεμένον 19.276-277. He [Emperor Claudius] further liberated Alexander the alabarch, an old friend of his, who had acted as guardian for his mother Antonia and had been imprisoned by Gaius in a fit of anger.
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 20.100 (5) ... Ἦλθε δὲ Φάδῳ διάδοχος Τιβέριος Ἀλέξανδρος Ἀλεξάνδρου παῖς τοῦ καὶ ἀλαβαρχήσαντος ἐν Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ γένει τε καὶ πλούτῳ πρωτεύσαντος τῶν ἐκεῖ καθ᾽ αὑτόν. διήνεγκε καὶ τῇ πρὸς τὸν θεὸν εὐσεβείᾳ τοῦ παιδὸς Ἀλεξάνδρου: τοῖς γὰρ πατρίοις οὐκ ἐνέμεινεν οὗτος ἔθεσιν. 20.100 The successor of Fadus was Tiberius Alexander, the son of that Alexander who had been alabarch in Alexandria and who surpassed all his fellow citizens both in ancestry and in wealth.
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 20.7.147 5 [147] τῷ αὐτῷ δὲ καιρῷ καὶ Μαριάμμη παραιτησαμένη τὸν Ἀρχέλαον συνῴκησε Δημητρίῳ τῶν ἐν Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ Ἰουδαίων πρωτεύοντι γένει τε καὶ πλούτῳ: τότε δὴ καὶ τὴν ἀλαβαρχίαν αὐτὸς εἶχεν. ... and as the same time, Mariamne put away Archelaus, and was married to Demetrius, the principal man among the Alexandrian Jews both for his family and his wealth; and indeed he was then their alabarch.
PSI 7.776 (6), 2nd or 3rd century AD, Arsinoe, Egypt [papyrus] Verso
[τ]ῷ [ν ?] πραθεισῶν ἀρχῶν Διος ἀρχ Κασανη ἀλαβάρχ
Σημαης γυμ επομ
Kasanes of the alabarchy
I.G.R.R. III, 608, (7) undated, or Xanthos, city in ancient Lycia, the site of present-day Kınık, Antalya Province, Turkey (same as TAM II 256) [inscription] 1 [Π]οσε̣[ι]- δῶνι εὐχὴ Μαυσώ- 5 λου Ἀλα- βάρχου. To Poseidon, prayer of Mausōlos alabarch
IG XII Suppl. 673 (8), undated, (same as Helas Greece 5) Euboia — Chalkis — Christian (Euboia is the second-largest Greek island in area and population, after Crete.) [inscription] [μνήματα] δύ̣ο δ[ι]- [α]φέροντα Ἀνασ- τασίου τοῦ εὐλα- βεστάτου ἀν<α>γν<ώ>- 5 στου καὶ ἀλαβάρ- χου καὶ τῆς τού- του γαμετῆς Πε- τρωνίας τῆς κοσ- μιωτάτης. ☩ Anastasios ... of the .... and of the alabarch ... [the inscription ends with a Christian cross]
TAM III,1 489 (9), undated, Pisid. — Termessos [inscription] 1  Αὐρ(ηλία) Εὐτεκνία ἡ καὶ Αρμαστα κατέστησεν τὴν σωματοθήκην ἑαυτῆ καὶ τ̣[ῶ ἀνδρὶ] αὐτῆς Αὐρ(ηλίω) Δομετίω Νεικέρωτος καὶ Μάρ(κω) Αὐρ(ηλίω) Ἀλαβάρχη Θόαντος καὶ τ[ῆ γυ(ναικὶ) αὐτοῦ] Αὐρ(ηλία) Ἰσγελασίη μόνοις· ἑτέρω δὲ οὐδενὶ α<ἰξ>ὸν εἶναι ἀνῦξαι ἢ ἐπιθάψαι τινά̣, ἐπεὶ ὁ πειράσας τι τούτων ἐκκτείσει τῶ ἱαιρωτάτω ταμίω (δην.) μύρια καὶ ἀγχθή- 5 σαιται τυμβωρυχίας needs translation
Justinian, Codex, IV.61.9 = Theodosian, Code, IV.13.9, (10) July 6, 381 IV.61. De Vectigalibus et Commissis
[9] Idem AAA. Palladio comiti sacrarum largitionum. Usurpationem totius licentiate submovemus circa vectigal alabarchiae per Aegyptum atque Augustamnicam constitutum, nihilque super transductione animalium, quae sine praebitone solita minime permittenda est, temeritate per licentiam vindicari concedimus.
IV.61. Imposts and Confiscations
[9] The same Augusti to Palladius, Count of the Imperial Finances. {Emperors Gratian, Valentinian, and Theodosius} We eliminate the usurpation of all presumption concerning the impost of the alabarchy (vectigal alabarchiae) established for Egypt and Augustamnica (a division of Egypt), and We concede that no exemption be impudently claimed for the transportation of animals, which is not to be permitted without the customary payment.
Justinian, Edict XI. Sections 2 and 3 (11), 559 AD EDICT XI

2. Si quid enim tale ausi fuerint, et bona eorum publicamus et corporis poenis eos subicimus, quippe qui ne post nostrum quidem mandatum de familiari ipsis improbitate destiterint. Sed etiam prorsus necesse habebunt aurum inferre, tum praefecto apud Alexandrinos augustali et qui quoque tempore eum magistratum gerunt in consuetis emissionibus, tum alabarchae et qui nunc est et qui quoque tempore futurus est, et sacrorum nostrorum thesaurorum praeposito, nullo prorsus pro obrussa accepto lucro.

3. III. Ita autem eum iussimus hanc rem curare eosque, qui post eum magistratum suscepturi sunt, et cohortes iis parentes, ut sciant, si pro obrussa aut a sacrarum nostrarum alabarchiarum praefectis aut a sacrarum nostrarum largitionum praeposito quicquam ipsos exegisse manifestum fiat, de suis se id pensuros esse, tam ex deputatis ipsis et cohortibus annonis, quam ex facultatibus suis, non solum donec in magistratu fuerint,

[Below is a very rough paraphrase of the Latin which has never been translated into English]

Edict XI. How no one can supply the weights and coinage for Egypt by which the requirement for assaying of gold ...

2. ... But it was wholly necessary to have an overseer of gold, at that time it was the prefect of Alexandria and who also at the time was given a magistracy as was customary, at that time it was the alabarchy, but who now and in the future time will be our dedicated treasury, so that no one assaying gold (literally: testing gold by fire) will receive profit or gain.

3. Thus, moreover, the justness of this law will be applied with careful diligence, which our magistracy is undertaking, in case that the assaying of gold is a sacred duty of our alabarchy of the prefect, or a sacred duty of himself to bestow freely....


(1) Ogden, Jack, Jewellery of the Ancient World (New York: Rizzoli, 1983), pp. 11-12.

(2) Bowman, Alan K., Egypt After the Pharaohs: 332 BC-AD 642 from Alexander to the Arab Conquest, (California University Press, 1989), p. 92.

(3) Bagnall, Roger Egypt in Late Antiquity, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 156

(4) Bagnall, Roger Egypt in Late Antiquity, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 133-134, 157-159.

(5) Josephus Greek Text: Flavius Josephus, Antiquitates Judaicae, edited by B. Niese, Perseus Digital Library,

English Translation: Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews , edited by William Whiston, Perseus Digital Library,

(6) PSI VII.776 Papiri Greci e Latini, Volume Settimo, 731-870, (Firenze: Pubblicazioni della Societa Italiana per la Ricerca dei Papiri Greci e Latini in Egitto, 1925), vol. 7, p. 66-67.

(7) I.G.R.R. III, 608 Inscriptiones Grecae ad Res Romanas Pertinentes, Tomus Tertius, (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1906), vol. 3, p. 223.

(8) IG XII Suppl. 673 from Web site: Searchable Greek Inscriptions: a Scholarly Tool in Progress, The Packard Humaniteis Institute,

(9) TAM III,1 489 from Web site: Searchable Greek Inscriptions: a Scholarly Tool in Progress, The Packard Humaniteis Institute,

(10) Justinian, Codex, IV.61.9 = Theodosian, Code, IV.13.9 The Codex of Justinian: a New Annotated Translation, with Parallel Latin and Greek Text, 4 volumes , (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2015), volume 2, p. 1050-1051.

(11) Edict XI Iustiniani XIII Edicta quae vocantur, on Web site: "The Roman Law Library" by Y. Lassard & A. Koptev,

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