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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 from ancient mosaics and descriptions by Pliny, Dioscorides, and Columella, with the hairy exterior and variety of shapes being key attributes that are not a good to fit with cucumbers vs. melons. 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 Botany on genetics and morphology:

Addendum - 4/27/2024

Given the inspirations for these notes are ancient coins, perhaps it would be appropriate to end with this coin from Tiberius. This type often referred to as the "tribute penny" from the Bible where Jesus tells the Pharisees and Herodians in the Gospel of Matthew (22:15-22) to

“Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him [Jesus]in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.”

This coin most commonly associated with this quote (although there are other candidates - see more on this at Forvm Ancient Coins).

Tiberius, 14-37, AR denarius (18mm, 3.61g), group 4, Lugdunum

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

Rev: PONTIF MAXIM, Livia (as Pax) seated right on a chair with ornate legs, holding long scepter in her right hand and olive branch in her left, her feet set on footstool

Ref: BMC 48. Cohen 16. Giard 150. RIC 30

Notes: this coin was given as a gift by Howard to Loretta, Christmas 1972


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