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Nero Returns

The featured coin today is a tetradrachm of Nero from Antioch. It is dated by both the regnal Year of Nero (RY 8) and by a Caesarean Era (110) that that begins in 49 BC.

Image: Detail of an anachronistic illustration by Niccolò da Bologna from a 13th Century manuscript of Lucan's De Bello Civile showing Julius Caesar, the victor over Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus. Public domain image via wikimedia.

April 16, 47 BC, Julius Caesar arrived in Antioch on Orontes, by accident or intent he arrived the day after the anniversary of the founding of the city (the 23rd of the local calendar month, Artemisios). Caesar stayed 9 days, and he bestowed the gift of “Freedom” on the city. He also supported ambitious building projects in Antioch including a basilica, the Parthenon, a theater, an amphitheater, public baths and an aqueduct. Afterward in Antioch coins were dated from a Caesarean era that was backdated to 49 BC. 49 BC was the year that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and in August defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus. Lucanus was the brother of Seneca and a well known writer during the time of Nero.

"Marcus Annaeus Lucanus of Corduba made his first appearance as a poet with a "Eulogy of Nero" at the emperor's Quinquennial Contests,​ and then gave a public reading of his poem on the "Civil War" waged between Pompey and Caesar."
-Suetonius, Life of Lucan

The Caesarean Era still referenced on coins during the time of Nero - the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors.

Seleucis and Pieria, Antioch, Nero, AD 54-68, AR Tetradrachm (26mm, 14.74g, 12h), dated RY 8 and year 110 of the Caesarian Era (AD 61/2) Obv: NEΡΩNOΣ KAIΣAΡO[Σ ΣEBAΣTOΥ],Laureate bust right, wearing aegis Rev: Eagle standing left on thunderbolt, with wings spread; palm frond to left Ref: McAlee 258; Prieur 82; RPC 4182

K.E.T. Butcher, in his Ph.D. Thesis (1991), notes :

Coins dated years six to ten: the 'eagle' tetradrachms
In the sixth year of Nero's reign a completely new tetradrachm coinage was introduced. It bore as its reverse type an eagle with wings spread, standing on either a club or a thunderbolt, with a palm branch in the field.

There are two groups - those with young portraits and those with heavier portraits with hair arranged in "steps". This coin (above) has a young portrait.


Nero's Reign

I won't retread the many stories of Nero, matricide, murdering two wives, fiddling while Rome burned, and taking part in horse races and music competitions, and at the end with Galba declared emperor, condemned by the senate, Nero committing suicide in June of 68 BC...For a modern overview see: Smithsonian, A New, Nicer Nero. Nero Returns Perhaps not as well known are the accounts of Nero's reappearances after death. The belief in Nero's return is described by Suetonius:

"Yet there were some who for a long time decorated his tomb with spring and summer flowers, and now produced his statues on the rostra in the fringed toga, and now his edicts, as if he were still alive and would shortly return and deal destruction to his enemies."
-Suetonius, Life of Nero, 57

Whether the pretenders inspired the belief in Nero's return or fueled the belief, they seem to have had some real impact on the politics of their time.


1st Reappearance: Tacitus writes of a Nero appearing shortly after his reported suicide, during the reign of Vitellius.

"The pretender in this case was a slave from Pontus, or, according to some accounts, a freedman from Italy, a skillful harp-player and singer, accomplishments, which, added to a resemblance in the face, gave a very deceptive plausibility to his pretensions."
-Tacitus, The History, 2.8

This pretender was getting attention and beginning to build some momentum, until "an accident put an end to it". 2nd Reappearance: Cassius Dio writes of a False Nero in the time of Titus

"In his reign also the False Nero appeared, who was an Asiatic named Terentius Maximus. He resembled Nero both in appearance and in voice (for he too sang to the accompaniment of the lyre). He gained a few followers in Asia, and in his advance to the Euphrates attached a far greater number, and finally sought refuge with Artabanus, the Parthian leader, who, because of his anger against Titus, both received him and set about making preparations to restore him to Rome."
-Cassius Dio, Roman History, 19.3b

3rd Reappearance: Suetonius writes of another Nero 20 years later during the reign of Domitian (88/89 - with support from the Arsakid court and Parthian King Pakoros).

"...twenty years afterwards, at which time I was a young man, some person of obscure birth gave himself out for Nero, that name secured for him so favourable a reception from the Parthians, that he was very zealously supported, and it was with much difficulty that they were prevailed upon to give him up."
-Suetonius, Nero, 57

Needless to say - this didn't endear the Parthians to Rome. The story had lasting power, St. Augustine of Hippo (b. Nov. 13, 354 AD – d. Aug. 28, 430 AD) wrote of the idea persisting, hundreds of years later:

"...Nero, whose deeds already seemed to be as the deeds of Antichrist. And hence some suppose that he shall rise again and be Antichrist. Others, again, suppose that he is not even dead, but that he was concealed that he might be supposed to have been killed, and that he now lives in concealment in the vigor of that same age which he had reached when he was believed to have perished, and will live until he is revealed in his own time and restored to his kingdom."
-St. Augustine, City of God, Book 20 Chapter 19

Returning to the coin

The palm branch on this coin is described by Michel and Karin Prieur (Phoenician Tetradrachms) as a symbol of sanctity, often in the hands of gods, perhaps originating from a rite of aspersion (sprinkling of holy water). The palm-branch first appears as a stand-alone element in the field on the tetradrachms of Nero.


A palm frond illustrated here in the hands of Tyche on a tetradrachm of Antioch from the time of Augustus.

Seleucis and Pieria, Antioch, Augustus, 27 BC-AD 14, AR tetradrachm, dated year 30 of the Actian Era - dating from the Battle of Actium between Marc Antony and Augustus - and Cos. XIII (2/1 BC)

Obv: ΚΑΙΣΑΡΟΣ ΣΕΒΑΣΤΟY, laureate head right

Rev: [ETOVΣ] Λ (Actian era date) NIKHΣ, Tyche seated right on rocky outcropping, holding palm frond; below, half-length figure of river-god Orontes swimming right; in right field, monogram (=ΥΠΑTOY) and IΓ (consular iteration) above monogram (=ANTIOXIEΩN?)

Ref: RPC I 4156, McAlee 185; Prieur 55


References (in addition to those directly linked in context)

  • Michel and Karin Prieur, The syro-Phoenician Tetradrachms and their fractions, from 57 BC to AD 253, 2000, Classical Numismatic Group.

  • Coinage in Roman Syria: 64 BC - AD 253. Kevin Edward Templar Butcher, submitted for Ph.D., University of London, 1991, University College London, Institute of Archaeology.

  • Wikipedia




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