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Tiberius' Cucumbers


Wandering again from Sulla, and the Roman republic, I stumbled on a debate amongst botanists about Tiberius' favorite food. The ancient coins for today feature the emperor Tiberius. Both were issued in Roman provinces. The first coin was issued during his reign in the Iberian peninsula (today: Spain). Tiberius was the second emperor, followed by Caligula, then Claudius. The second coin was issued under the fifth Julio-Claudian emperor, Nero, in Alexandria, Egypt.

SPAIN, Calagurris, C. Celer and C. Rectus duoviri, AE As, 14-37 AD

Obv: TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS, laureate head of Tiberius right

Rev: C CELERE M C I RECTO, bull right; to right, II / VIR


This second coin comes with a puzzling question: "Why would Nero issue coins with a reverse of Tiberius?", theories include:

  • The legend refers to Tiberius Claudius, adoptive father of Nero and his immediate predecessor

  • Nero associates himself with Tiberius and Augustus as a reinforcement of his divine right to power

  • Nero issues coins with Augustus and Tiberius to reinforce the continuation of philhellenic policy of these first emperors

Roman Provincial Coins (RPC) notes that this may have been a response to demonetization of the coins of Tiberius and the purpose to maintain his portrait in circulation.

Roman Provincial, Egypt, Alexandria, Nero, AD 54-68, BI Tetradrachm, dated RY 13 (AD 66/67)

Obv: NEPΩ KΛAV KAIΣ ΣEB ΓEP AV, radiate bust of Nero left, wearing aegis; L IΓ (date) before

Rev: TIBEPIOΣ KAIΣAP, laureate head of Tiberius right

Ref: Köln 187-9; Dattari (Savio) 185; RPC v.1 5295


This span from Egypt to Spain is a reminder of the scale of Roman rule in the Mediterranean. From here my notes take a detour with a comment from Pliny. He describes the development of farming practices to satisfy the demands of the emperor. The cucumber is often described as a favorite vegetable of Tiberius and the reason that greenhouses were invented. A mobile geenhouse, with some form of mica for glass, was an innovative solution to supply the emperor with his favorite food year-round.


"XXIII. Belonging to the class of Cartilaginous vegetables: the cucumber. plants and growing on the surface of the ground is the cucumber, a delicacy for which the emperor Tiberius had a remarkable partiality; in fact there was never a day on which he was not supplied with it, as his kitchen-gardeners had cucumber beds mounted on wheels which they moved out into the sun and then on wintry days withdrew under the cover of frames glazed with transparent stone."
-Pliny, Natural History, Book XIX, 23 (Latin)​

There is scholarly debate on the true plant behind the latin vengetable "cucumis". In an article entitled "What the Roman emperor Tiberius grew in his greenhouses" Paris & Janik attempt to set the record straight:


"We believe the almost universal association of cucumber with the cucumis of Pliny and Columella, the sikyos hemeros of Dioscorides, and the qishu’im of Hebrew scripture and commentary results from mistranslations, misattributions, and wrong assumptions."
Paris & Janik, Cucurbitaceae 2008, Preceedings of the IXth EUCARPIA meeting on genetics and breeding of Cucurbitaceae (Pitrat M, ed), INRA, Avignon (France), May 21-24th, 2008

BNF Latin 6823 14th Century, Manfredus de Monte Imperiali, Liber de herbis et plantis


Paris & Janik offer compelling evidence. Perhaps it is time to recognize the C. melo (melon) or L. siceraria (bottle gourd) as the favorite food of emperor Tiberius. C. melo comes in many shapes and sizes as illustrated in this picture from the an article in the Journal of Experimental Biology on genetics and morphology:

References



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