Archaeologists digging in Jerusalem found a rare gold coin bearing a portrait of a young Roman Emperor Nero issued some 2,000 years ago.
The coin has been dated to 56 CE, about 23 years after Christians believe Jesus was crucified, and 14 years before the destruction of the Jewish Temple. It was minted just two years after Nero, the last emperor in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, acceded to the throne in 54 CE.
The coin, showing Nero bare-headed, was discovered by archaeologists from the University of North Carolina digging atop Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the university said this week.
The coin was found in rubble outside the ruins of Jewish homes dating to the first century, which the researchers say may have belonged to wealthy members of the priestly caste (Cohanim).
Dr. Shimon Gibson, the architect who led the study, called the coin “exceptional,” adding that “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.”
He added: “The coin probably came from one of the rich 2,000-year old Jewish dwellings which the 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.”
One side of the gold piece bears a likeness of Nero facing to the right, with the inscription “NERO CAESAR AVC IMP” meaning “Nero, Caesar, Ab Urbe Condita [a counting system dating to the beginning of the Roman Empire], Emperor.”
On the other side is a relief of an oak tree and the inscription “EX S C” and the dedication “MAX TR P III,” which enabled archaeologists to date the coin to the year 56 CE.
“The image of Nero is significant in that it shows the presence of the Roman occupation and provides a clear, late date for the occupation of the residences,” the university said. “There is no historical evidence that Nero ever visited Jerusalem.”
James Tabor, UNC Charlotte professor of religious studies, noted that the coin dates “to the same year of St. Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem, which resulted in his arrest (on the charge of taking Gentiles into the Temple) and incarceration in Caesarea.”
Nero was viewed by the Romans as compulsive and corrupt, according to Roman senator and historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, who lived at around the same time.
The emperor executed his mother Agrippina the Younger, his first wife Claudia Octavia and, according to some historians, his second wife Poppaea Sabina.
A great builder, he is believed to have set fire to Rome in order to make room for the construction of the Domus Aurea, a large villa on the Palatine Hill. Sources from the period say the city burned for five days.
A rumor associated with the identification of Nero as the arsonist says he was playing the lyre and singing an ode lamenting the sack of Troy while watching Rome smoldering.