Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The coins shown are minted in the name of Vabalathus of Palmyra, who ruled under the authority of the Roman Emperor Aurelian. The first is a tetradrachm intended for Egypt, while the second is an antoninianus, or double denarius coin. Both feature Vabalathus and Aurelian. Vabalathus would end up rebelling against Aurelian, and would be defeated and Palmyra sacked. Vabalathus and his mother Zenobia were taken to Rome, and paraded through the city as captives according to the old tradition. Afterward, they were most likely freed and allowed to live out their lives as private citizens, as Aurelian was known to be one of the more merciful emperors in Roman history.

It appears that IS has captured Palmyra, one of the most extensive and well preserved ancient ruins on the planet. If they remain true to form, they will likely sell off whatever they can and destroy the rest. And the more the world protests against such atrocities, the more likely they are to do it. I'm not sure what the answer is, and there's probably nothing that can be done to stop them from destroying the the ancient city. Very sad. This post is just my way of calling attention to what is likely to be a horrible crime against our ancient heritage.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Most of us have heard the story of how Jesus Christ was betrayed by Judas in return for 30 pieces of silver. But did you know that because of the circumstances of the time, we can determine with reasonable certainty the actual type of coin he was paid with? The money was paid by the Jewish elders from the temple treasury, which would accept only the silver coinage of Tyre as pure enough to be acceptable. So it is generally accepted that the coins received by Judas were Tyrian silver coins.

According to the New Testament, Jesus expelled the money changers from the Temple. The reason for them being there in the first place was to exchange Tyrian silver coinage for whatever coins a visitor to the Temple might have had. This is an example of the silver coinage of Tyre. It was minted circa 95/94 BC, and most likely would have still been in circulation during the time of Christ. This coin would have circulated as a shekel. It is in especially nice condition The obverse of this type depicts the laureate head of the Phoenician God Melqarth, who was the God of the city of Tyre. It is quite interesting to note that the depiction of a pagan deity did not seem to be a problem for the Jews in accepting these pieces, despite the ban on the use of graven images.

But of course, what I find most interesting about this type is its association with Judas Iscariot. One looks at such a piece and wonders whether it might have actually been one of the 30 pieces of silver he received. Of course, no one can prove that any individual piece like this was, but on the other hand, it would be difficult to disprove as well.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Here is what is among my favorite pieces of all, and the one that wins the title of 'Most likely to have to be pried out of my cold dead hands'. It is a gold aureus of the infamous Emperor Nero. who ruled from 54-68 AD. 

Nero actually showed great promise in his early years as emperor, under the capable tutelage of Seneca and Burrus. However, by 62 AD, Nero had completely asserted his independence, and his behavior became increasingly erratic. He fancied himself a great artist, poet, theatrical performer, and chariot racer, the latter two of which were considered well beneath the station of an Emperor. This is likely how the legend of Nero fiddling while Rome burned got its start. 

And speaking of the great fire that destroyed much of central Rome in 64 BC, he took the opportunity to build a magnificent extension of the Imperial palace, which was known as the Domus Aurea, or Golden House on some of the ruins. However, Rome would soon grew tired of his follies, and revolts broke out in several parts of the Empire, with serious uprisings in Spain and Gaul, and the proclamation of Galba as Emperor. Trouble also arose in the East, with the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt in 68 AD. As a result, Nero fled Rome and eventually committed suicide in the early summer of 68 AD.   

A gold aureus of Nero is quite the prize, but this particular one is very special indeed. That is why I thought I simply must have it on my blog.  On August 24, 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Amid the chaos that ensued with the initial eruption, one rather wealthy Roman thought to grab his valuables and try to escape the destruction. As the smoke and choking ash of the eruption turned day into night, he took refuge in a villa, where he thought he was safe. Once inside, he sat down at a table and started to count his money. But as the volcanic gases seeped in and the villa became buried in ash, he was soon overcome by the lack of breathable air...

Fast forward to Easter Sunday, 1895, at Boscoreale, an Italian village located about a mile and a half north of Pompeii. A worker in an old building that was being used as a stable paused with another worker for a drink of water. As they sat, one of them spilled his cup. To their surprise, the water didn't puddle up, but seeped quickly through the stones making up the floor in that part of the building. They pulled up a few stones, revealing the entrance to a darkened chamber. One of the men squeezed through the hole, and amidst a large assortment of silver plates and other accessories turned black from tarnish. There also lay a skeleton clutching a handful of gold coins of the Roman Empire, with a large pile of the same next to him.

 "What do you see?" asked the man above him. The worker crawled out of the hole choking and replied "There's nothing there but poison gas!", as they covered up the hole. The sneaky worker who discovered the treasure then told the owner of the property, who agreed to reward him handsomely if he would reveal to him the location of the treasure, cutting his co-worker out entirely. After rounding up the valuables and rewarding the worker, the owner subsequently transported the find to Naples, where he sold it to an antiquities dealer for a fraction of its value. The dealer then shipped it to an associate in Paris, thus evading the Italian authorities. 

Some of the gold coins, which amounted to over 300 pieces, would be sold to individuals, but the bulk of the hoard was sold to the Rothchild family of France. They would eventually donate it to the French National Museum in Paris, the Bibilotheque Nationale, where it remains to this day. 

This is one of the coins that was sold individually. It exhibits the characteristic reddish toning, especially at the peripheries on the obverse side, that identifies it as having come from the hoard. It is quite rare, and dripping with historical significance. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to acquire it. And the moral of the story? You really can't take it with you! I hope you've enjoyed this trip back in time, and the story of this most special coin.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Here are two coins that represent one of my favorite stories from the Roman Empire. One is a silver coated bronze Antoninianus of the Emperor Carinus, and the other a bronze Follis of the Emperor Diocletian. Carinus ruled from 283-285 AD. After defeating the Germanic Quadi tribes, Carinus retired to Rome to live a life of debauchery and excess. He had nine wives, and that's not counting his original wife, who he badly neglected. At the same time, his brother, Numerian, ruled over the Eastern part of the Empire. After the death of their father, the Emperor Carus, the armies of the East demanded to return to Europe, and Numerian was forced to comply. While the Eastern armies were camped at Chalcedon, Numerian was found dead. 

Diocletian, who commanded Numerian's bodyguards, claimed he had been slain. Why he would do that is baffling, as it was as much as admitting that either he himself had killed him or that his bodyguards had done their jobs miserably. In any event, Diocletian was proclaimed emperor by his troops, and on hearing of this, Carinus marched East with his troops to confront the usurper. Carinus actually won the battle, but when one of his officers discovered that Carinus had seduced his wife, the officer murdered Carinus, and as there was no one else left to declare their alliegance to, the Western armies also swore to follow Diocletian. Thus, Diocletian became master of all the Roman world. 

This was actually one of the few times where a murderous love triangle has actually been beneficial to a government, as the Empire was nearing total collapse, and Diocletian instituted a number of much needed reforms. The most important of these recognized that the Empire was far too large for one man to govern effectively, and put into place a tetrarchical system, in which four men were responsible to rule, two in the East and two in the West. These reforms preserved the Western Empire for nearly another 200 years. The Eastern Empire amazingly lasted for nearly another 1,200 years, until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. 

All because Carinus couldn't keep it in his pants. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Today is March 15, which on the calendar of the ancient Romans was known as the Ides of March. The Ides were the midpoint of the month, and the Ides of each month was sacred to Jupiter, the supreme deity in the Roman Pantheon. Of course, the Ides of March was made forever notorious by the assassination of Julius Caesar on that date in 44 BC. This event marked a turning point in Roman history, being one of the events that marked the transition of Rome from a Republic to an Empire.

This famous coin was minted at a military mint moving with the forces of Brutus and Cassius, circa 43/2 BC. under the moneyer L. Plaetorius Cestianus. The obverse shows the unadorned bust of Brutus facing right, bearded, with the legends L.PLAET.CEST.BRVT.IMP. (L. Plaetorius Cesatianus Brutus Imperator). The portrait is noted for its realism. The reverse features a pileus, or liberty cap, between two daggers, with the legend EID.MAR. The pileus was a type of brimless felt cap that was associates with the manumission of slaves, who wore it upon their liberation. The two daggers always differed in design from one another, so as to illustrate the variety of persons and points of view within the Republican cause. Few coins of ancient times or of any other period have ever captured a historical event with such stark, brutal realism or with such an economy of words and imagery. Needless to say, this is one of the most sought after coins of the ancient world, with good examples routinely selling for six figures. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

February 14 is celebrated in the modern world as Valentines Day, which is loosely based on the story of St. Valentine, who according to legend was imprisoned and later murdered during the time of Claudius II Gothicus for performing weddings despite an Imperial decree banning them. But as with many holidays, it has a precursor on the ancient Roman calendar. February 13-15 was the time during which the Lupercalia was celebrated. The festival was in part in honor of Lupa, the she-wolf that suckled the twins Romulus and Remus, who would go on to found Rome. This is depicted on many coins of Rome, including this piece, which is a silver denarius of Sextus Pompeius Fostulus, issued circa 137 BC. 

The Lupercalia began with the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog. Then, two young patrician Luperci were brought to the altar and anointed with blood that was obtained by wiping the knife with wool soaked in milk, after which they were expected to smile and laugh. The Luperci were were members of a very ancient, possibly the most ancient order of priests in Rome. A sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs from the skins of the sacrificed goats, dressed themselves in what remained of their skins, in imitation of Lupercus, and ran around the walls of the old Palatine city, striking those who gathered near them. Girls and young women would line up along their route in order to be struck with the thongs. This was believed to ensure an easy delivery for those who were pregnant and ensure fertility for those who wished to conceive, as portrayed in the painting shown below.

The Lupercalia was eventually replaced by the feast day of St. Valentine under Pope Gelasius in 496 AD. St. Valentine's Day would not be associated with romantic love until the time of Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th Century AD. The tradition of exchanging tokens of love would not occur until the 18th Century.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Happy New Year 2014! The month of January was named after the Roman Janus. He was a distinctly Roman God, having no Greek equivalent, and was revered as the God of transitions and new beginnings. So it is quite appropriate for the first month of the year to bear his name, as the New Year often represents transitions for many of us. The head of Janus is depicted on this bronze As of the Roman Republic, and was minted circa 179-169 BC. the 'I' above his head was the mark of value. 

Janus also presided over the beginning and ending of wars. The doors of his temple in Rome were only closed when Rome was at peace. This was a special enough occasion to have called for it to be marked on Roman coins, like this bronze As of the infamous Emperor Nero. It features The Temple of Janus with its doors closed, and the legends PACE.PR.VBIQ.PARTA.IANVM.CLVSIT.SC. , which translates to 'The peace of the people of Rome being everywhere on land and at sea, the doors of the Ianvm he closed'. The SC means 'Senatus Consulto', meaning that the coin was issued with the consent of the Senate. This appeared on most bronze coins of Rome well into the 3rd Century AD. 

I hope you enjoyed this latest trip into the past through the coinage of ancient civilizations! There will be more to come soon. Once again, I wish all of you a very happy and prosperous 2014!