On a recent hike with her friends in eastern Galilee in Israel, Laurie Rimon noticed something shiny in the grass. With her eagle eyes, she had spotted what turned out to be a rare 1,900-year-old Roman gold coin minted by an emperor.
The Roman gold coin was studied by Danny Syon, a senior numismatist at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
The reverse of the coin is decorated with a legionary eagle flanked by two military standards—symbols of the Roman army—and bears the name of Roman emperor Trajan, who reigned from 98 to 117 C.E. A portrait of a man is depicted on the obverse—but it’s not Trajan. As the inscription, “Divus Augustus,” tells us, the portrait is that of the deified Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire (r. 27 B.C.E.–14 C.E.).
In an email to Bible History Daily, Nathan T. Elkins, Assistant Professor of Art History at Baylor University, explained the significance of the Roman gold coin found in Galilee:
“This Trajanic coin celebrating the deified Augustus is part of a much larger series of coins struck under Trajan that celebrated Roman Republican values and ideals and, in addition, well-remembered emperors of Rome’s past, such as Augustus, Claudius and Vespasian. These are called the ‘restoration coins.’ These coins suggested that Trajan, the Optimus Princeps (“the best ruler”), was the inheritor of Roman Republican qualities and depicted him as the successor of Rome’s great and noble emperors. The occasion for the striking of the coins may have been the 10th anniversary of the first Dacian triumph.”
The Galilee is one of the most evocative locales in the New Testament—the area where Jesus was raised and where many of the Apostles came from. Our free eBook The Galilee Jesus Knew focuses on several aspects of Galilee: how Jewish the area was in Jesus’ time, the ports and the fishing industry that were so central to the region, and several sites where Jesus likely stayed and preached.
Although a press release issued by the IAA suggests that the Roman gold coin found in Galilee is only the second of its kind known in the world, we actually know of several, according to Elkins:
“A look at numismatist Holger Komnick’s authoritative work on the Restoration Coinage counts five: one in the British Museum, one in Berlin, one in Paris, one in Naples and one in Rome. This count makes the one in the Galilee the sixth specimen, at least. Nonetheless, Komnick’s study of these coins showed they were all produced by a single obverse and reverse die pair, suggesting their production in antiquity was very limited. This new coin from Galilee is also struck from the unique die pair. Recent scholarship dates these coins no earlier than 112/113 C.E. and not later than about 113/114 C.E.”1“The coin [found in Galilee] may reflect the presence of the Roman army in the region some 2,000 years ago—possibly in the context of activity against Bar-Kokhba supporters in the Galilee—but it is very difficult to determine that on the basis of a single coin,” said Donald T. Ariel, head curator of the coin department at the IAA, in the IAA press release.
“Historical sources describing the period note that some Roman soldiers were paid a high salary of three gold coins, the equivalent of 75 silver coins, each payday,” Ariel added. “Because of their high monetary value, soldiers were unable to purchase goods in the market with gold coins, as the merchants could not provide change for them.”
The first Roman emperor from the provinces, Trajan is best remembered for his expansions in the East, his conquest of Dacia (in modern Romania), his war against the Parthians and his public works in Rome, including the Markets of Trajan, the Forum of Trajan and the Column of Trajan.
1. See Holger Komnick, Die Restitutionsmünzen der frühen Kaiserzeit (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2001), pp. 175–178, 247 (type 57). For more information, Nathan Elkins recommends the following works: Bernhard Woytek, Die Reichsprägung des Kaiser Traianus (98–117), Moneta Imperii Romani 14 (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2010), pp. 168–169 (type MIR 855), 525–526; Andrew B. Gallia, Remembering the Roman Republic: Culture, Politics, and History under the Principate (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012), pp. 217–247.
Related reading in Bible History Daily:
Roman Emperor Nerva’s Reform of the Jewish Tax by Nathan T. Elkins