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Late Roman Gold Coin Found in Israel

Gold coins of Roman Emperor Theodosius II, who ruled between CE 402 and 450, are not necessarily rare, but when one of these coins is found in what is today Israel, that is another story.

On July 3 Fox News and other news agencies reported the find of a gold solidus in the Galilee region by a group of Israeli students. Further details of the context in which the coin was found were not available at the time this article was being written.

According to Israel Antiquities Authority numismatist Dr. Gabriela Bijovsky, “The gold coin is a solidus minted by the emperor Theodosius II in Constantinople around 420-423 CE. Similar coins are known from the Eastern Byzantine empire, but this is the first of its type discovered in Israel.”

Shown is an example of a Theodosius II solidus. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Shown is an example of a Theodosius II solidus. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

In her description of the coin, Bijovsky said, “One side depicts the image of the emperor and the other shows the image of the goddess Victory holding the staff of the cross.”

Images of the coin indicate it is a Sear 21155 solidus, described in David Sear’s RomanCoins and Their Values as: “Victory standing left holding [a] long jeweled cross, [with] mintmark CON OB in exergue.” The book indicates the coin was struck between CE 420 and 422.

According to Sear’s description of the coin, “The consular bust on [the] obverse records Theodosius ninth or tenth consulship. This is the first appearance of the reverse type that was to become standard on the eastern coinage down to the reign of Anastasius I. It has been suggested that its introduction was connected with campaigns against the Persians and the erection of a large jeweled cross on the reputed site of the crucifixion [of Jesus Christ].”

Dr. Yair Amitzur, IAA is the chief archaeologist of the Sanhedrin Trail. According to Amitzur, “The emperor Theodosius II abolished the post of the ‘Nasi,’ the head of the Sanhedrin Council, and decreed that the Jews’ financial contributions to the Sanhedrin be transferred to the Imperial Treasury.”

Amitzur continued, “The Sanhedrin trail initiated by the IAA tells the story of the Jewish leadership in Galilee at the time of the Mishna and the Talmud in the Roman and Byzantine periods. It is symbolic that the gold coin discovered adjacent to the Sanhedrin trail reflects the period of dramatic events when the Sanhedrin ceased to function in Galilee, and the center of Jewish life transferred from Galilee to Babylon.”

The Mishna of which Amitzur spoke is the first major written collection of Jewish oral traditions and the first major work of rabbinic literature. In the early third century the Mishna was redacted by Judah the Prince during a time when, according to the Talmud, there was concern the oral traditions of the Pharisees from the period of the Second Temple (536 BCE-CE70) might be forgotten. The Mishna consists of six orders or Sedarim, each segmented into between 7 and 12 tractates, these being further subdivided into chapters and paragraphs.

While it is difficult to determine the exact value a gold solidus might represent in Galilee circa CE 422 it is known that at the time of Constantine I “the Great” (CE 306-337) the solidus was struck at a rate of 172 to the Roman pound of pure gold. A pound of Roman gold was about 326.6 grams. This comes out to about 4.5 grams of gold per solidus. The purity of the solidus remained constant theoretically into the Byzantine period following the fall of the Western Empire in CE 476. During the period of the Byzantine Empire, the solidus would be known as the nomismata.

Theodosius II was only about nine months old when he was made co-emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire with his father Arcadius. In 408 at age seven he became sole emperor with the death of his father. Despite his long reign, the real power behind the throne was Pulcheria, Theodosius’s sister. Pulcheria took command of the Eastern Empire at age 15. This was the period when Attila the Hun and the Persian Sasanids challenged the empire. Attila was bought off with large amounts of gold. The Theodosian Walls were built around Constantinople and the Codex Theodosiansus written during the reign of this emperor

According to Sear, “Gold solidi were produced in prodigious quantities, doubtless in connection with the buying off of the barbarian tribes…”