2,000-year old Roman gold coin depicting Nero discovered at Mount Zion, Jerusalem


While being considered as one of the holiest cities for three major Abrahamic religions, the ancient city of Jerusalem is also known for its mercurial political history. To that end, since the pre-Roman times, Jerusalem had been besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, changed hands (between ruling factions) 44 times and had been destroyed and rebuilt twice! However this time around, beyond the chaotic political ambit, archaeologists have come across an artifact that alludes to the economic and cultural legacy of the city. We are talking about a rare gold coin (aureus) that bears the image of the Roman Emperor Nero. Discovered by researchers at UNC Charlotte, the gold object was found during excavations on Mount Zion, the western hill outside the Old City walls.

Shimon Gibson, one of the archaeologists in the charge of the project, and an adjunct professor of religious studies at UNC Charlotte, said –

The coin is exceptional, because this is the first time that a coin of this kind has turned up in Jerusalem in a scientific dig. Coins of this type are usually only found in private collections, where we don’t have clear evidence as to place of origin.

As one can comprehend from the ‘head’ facade, the coin portrays the bare-headed Nero as the Caesar, accompanied by the lettering on the edge that reads ‘NERO CAESAR AVG IMP’. The reverse side depicts an oak wreath encasing the letters ‘EX S C’, while being enclosed by the engraving ‘PONTIF MAX TR P III.’ These inscriptions aided the researchers to find the original date of the coin, and it pertains to circa 56-57 AD.

In other words, the coins predates the infamous sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans (in 70 AD) by a barely a decade. Now it should be noted that the Roman influence on Judea’s economy and architecture was pretty pronounced during this epoch, as is evident from even the tiles used in the Jewish Second Temple’s courtyard. And in this case, the archaeologists located the coin outside a Jewish villa dated from the 1st century. To that end, the researchers have hypothesized that the Roman gold coin was probably a part of a collection stored by members of the wealthy Jewish priestly class; and most of them resided in opulent villas around the area. Gibson explained –

The coin probably came from one of the rich 2,000-year old Jewish dwellings which the UNC Charlotte team have been uncovering at the site. These belonged to the priestly and aristocratic quarter located in the Upper City of Jerusalem. Finds include the well-preserved rooms of a very large mansion, a Jewish ritual pool (mikveh) and a bathroom, both with their ceilings intact.

Lastly, once again reverting to the political scope, the gold coin pretty much demonstrates the presence of Roman occupation (and administration) of the area, a status that was reinforced by the culmination of the First Jewish–Roman War (circa 66–73 AD). However historical records do not mention any visit made by Nero to the distant parts of Levant. As for the excavation scope, the project is expected to be resumed next year, thus hinting at the possibility of even more fascinating discoveries in the near-future.


Source: UNC Charlotte / Images Credit: Shimon Gibson

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