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An alabarch was a magistrate that existed only in Egypt during the Roman period (1st c. BC to 6th c. AD) and was responsible for the assaying of gold from Egypt's Imperial gold mines. There are eleven ancient sources that mention an alabarch or the alabarchy as a magistracy, but only one source has described the historical function of an alabarch and that is Emperor Justinian's, Edict XI [1]

To paraphrase the Latin text of Justinian Edict XI: [ 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, … so that no one testing gold by fire (assaying) will receive profit or gain. … 3. the assaying of gold is a sacred duty of our alabarchy of the prefect.][2]

There have been other suggested definitions for an alabarch, mostly derived from early 20th century secondary literature. These include theories that an alabarch was a Jewish religious leader like an ethnarch or may have been a tax collector, or even an Arab tax collector (arabarch). These early theories do not survive scrutiny once all eleven ancient sources on the alabarchy are considered together.[3] However, these older theories have been widely perpetuated through secondary sources which has led to some confusion.


The following alabarchs are known by name:[4]

The "alabarch" as a person's title or the "alabarchy" as a Roman magistracy are mentioned in eleven ancient sources: five are literary references from 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.

Only half of the eleven sources have been translated into English, and, the most common English translation for the Theodosian Code, IV.13.9 has invented a new definition for alabarchy (some sort or animal taxer) without any explanation or justification.

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 Greek and Latin papyri have provided extensive information on tax 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.[5] 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,... " Theodosian Code, IV.13.9.

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?). There is no evidence of an imperial tax being collected when assaying gold, but it's possible there may have been. This is followed by the clause stopping the 'impudent claim of exemption of the transportation of animals'-- presumably an exemption from taxes. It doesn't specify who was impudently claiming an exemption for the transportation of animals. 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, especially when one considers the lack of evidence in any other source, especially the papyri.

Current theory: The alabarchy was a Roman magistracy responsible 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 it is not clear 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 including the role of different magistrates. 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.

Gold assaying in Egypt

Based on the text of Emperor Justinian's Edict XI, the responsibility of the alabarch was obrussa (Latin) testing gold by fire, or, the assaying of gold. An assayer tested and certified the purity of gold by marking it with an official stamp. This may seem like a minor role, until one puts the importance of Egypt's gold mines into its historical context.

  • Until Octavian (Augustus) defeated Cleopatra and gained control of Egypt's gold mines, Rome did not have its own source for new gold. Egypt became the first and largest source of gold for the Roman Empire until the later exploitation of gold deposits in Spain and Dacia.
  • For the first time, gold was integrated into the Roman economy. "The quantity of gold in circulation was on a scale not previously seen, even after Alexander the Great captured the Persian treasure."[6] Not only was there increased gold coinage, but bars of gold were used to support a standing army and government spread out over a vast region. It was much easier to transport small bars of gold than wagonloads of silver and bronze coins.
  • During the Roman period, the gold mines in Egypt were very active and additional roads and waterways were created to transport the mined gold.[7]
  • 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.[8]

When one considers how the acquisition of Egypt's mines impacted the Roman economy in the first century, it seems more clear why it was so critical to establish a magistracy to weigh and test purity of Rome's only source of new gold. This role probably diminished much later when other sources of gold were found.

Function and etymology[edit]

"Alabarch" is a Latinization of a Greek title, Ἀλαβάρχης, often described as a corruption of Arabarch (Ἀραβάρχης), meaning "Arab leader".[9]

Professor Samuel Krauss in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia suggests that the alabarch was the leader of the Jews in Alexandria, and would have been called "ethnarch" by gentiles including Strabo.

The title of an official who stood at the head of the Jewish population of Alexandria during the Grecian period. [...] Strabo (quoted by Josephus, "Ant." xiv. 7, § 2), who was in Egypt about 24 B.C., calls the governor of the Jews "ethnarch" (ἐθνάρχης), and remarks that he ruled over the Jews as over an autonomous community (Ως ἄν πōλιτείας ἄρχων αὐτōτελōῦς). If the term as used by Strabo is correct, then the Alabarch must have been known among the heathen as ethnarch; so that one would surmise that the term ἀλαβάρχης was used only by the Jews. Strabo's ethnarch is usually identified with the Alabarch, without further question; but Franz is of the opinion ("C. I. G." iii. 291a) that the Alabarch was only a subordinate functionary of the ethnarch. Grätz ("Monatsschrift," xxx. 206) considers the alabarchs to be descendants of the priest Onias, who emigrated to Egypt; and he includes the generals Hilkias and Ananias among the alabarchs, though authority for this is lacking.

He considers the "Arab" etymology unlikely for a term applying to a leader of only the Jewish community and proposes the alternative "alaba" referring to ink from tax records:

The trend of modern opinion is to connect it with the Greek term for ink, ἄλαβα (alaba), taking ink in the sense of writing (scriptura), which, in those days, was a token for tax (vectigal). Such a derivation would imply that the Alabarch was a farmer of taxes, certainly from the time of the Ptolemies; and, judging by inscriptions which give a similar title to an office of the Thebaid in Egypt, he must also have collected the toll on animals passing through the country.

Krauss also mentions an older etymology using ἄλς (hals = sea).[10]

Professor Emil Schürer, however, holds in the 1912 Dictionary of the Bible:

The view that the alabarch was the head of the Jewish community is certainly wrong. He is in all probability identical with the ἀραβάρχης, whose office was that of chief superintendent of customs on the Arabian frontier, i.e. on the east side of the Nile. A 'vectigal Arabarchiæ per Ægyptum atque Augustamnicam constitutum' is mentioned in the Codex Justin. IV. lxi. 9; an inscription found at Koptos contains a tariff fixing 'how much is to be raised by those who farm the ἀποστόλιον [?] at Koptos under the arabarchy'; see the text of this inscription in Bulletin de corresp. hellénique, xx. [1896] 174–176; on the office of the alabarch in general, see the Literature in Schürer, GJV iii. 88 f., and add Wilcken, Greichische Ostraka, i. [1899] 347–351). Perhaps it is the office of the alabarch that is in view when Josephus says that the Romans 'continued (to the Jews of Alexandria) the position of trust given them by the kings, namely, the watching of the river' (c. Apion. ii. 5 fin.: 'maximam vero eis fidem olim a regibus datam conservaverunt, id est fluminis custodiam totiusque custodiæ' [the last word is certainly corrupt]). The 'watching of the river' refers to watching it in the interests of levying customs. In any cae the alabarch was not an official of the Jewish community, but a man who held a prominent place in civil life.—Tiberius Alexander, a son of the alabarch Alexander, even reached the highest grades of a Roman military career, although at the expense of renouncing his ancestral religion.[11]

Examples of usage[edit]

Philo's brother Alexander was alabarch (customs official) in the 30's A.D., and another Jew, Demetrius (otherwise unknown) held the same post late in Claudius' principate; neither case excites comment from Josephus as unusual. in Smallwood, E. Mary (1976). The Jews Under Roman Rule Leiden. p. 227.

Alexander the Alabarch was inspector-in-chief of customs (alabarch) and not a banker, even if he did occasionally lend sums of money, for instance to his eternally indebted friend, Agrippa I King of Judea. in Modrzejewski, Joseph M (1995) The Jews of Egypt: From Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian Jewish Publication Society. p. 135.


  1. ^ "Edict XI Iustiniani XIII Edicta quae vocantur, on Web site: "The Roman Law Library" by Y. Lassard & A. Koptev,". Roman Law Library. Retrieved 1 September 2018..
  2. ^ Evans, Kass. "The Alabarch/Alabarchy".
  3. ^
  4. ^ "The Alabarch and Alabarchy: Definition and Historical Sources". Retrieved 2018-09-01.
  5. ^ Bagnall, Roger (1993). Egypt in Late Antiquity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 133–134, 157–159.
  6. ^ Green, Timothy (2007). The Ages of Gold: Mines, Markets, Merchants and Goldsmiths from Egypt to Troy, Rome to Byzantium, and Venice to the Space Age. GFMS Limited. p. 187.
  7. ^ Ogden, Jack (1983). Jewellery of the Ancient World. New York: Rizzoli. pp. . 11–12.
  8. ^ Bagnall, Roger (1993). Egypt in Late Antiquity. Princeton University Press. p. 156.
  9. ^ The Century Dictionary (1911), p. 126.
  10. ^ Samuel Krauss, "Alabarch"; Jewish Encyclopedia; New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1906.
  11. ^ Emil Schürer, "Diaspora"; Dictionary of the Bible ... Extra Volume: Containing Articles, Indexes, and Maps, ed. James Hastings; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons; 1912 edition; p. 106.