Tiberius, Tribute Penny

One ancient coin leads all the others in demand by Christians who otherwise do not collect coins. Several Bible passages mention coins but none are more certainly identified than the Tribute Penny of Matthew 22:19 and Mark 12:15. Both accounts name the coin shown to Jesus as a denarius (usually translated into English as 'penny'). How is it that this one type of denarius is so widely recognized as the one that played a part in this story?

The reverses of Roman coins were regularly used as media of propaganda. Coin types were changed frequently and tended to reflect the current news of the day. Emperors who were in power for only a short time usually issued several varieties. Pertinax, who reigned for three months in 193 AD, struck ten major types of denarii (not counting minor varieties) . In his 41 year reign, Caesar Augustus released over a hundred types. Tiberius was Emperor for 23 years and is represented by two denarii. After 15 AD all Tiberius denarii were the same type: PONTIF MAXIM surrounding a seated female figure. Huge numbers of these coins were produced; many thousands of them still exist today. There has never been a more fortunate numismatic circumstance. This coin in the highest demand is among the most common of all Roman silver coins.

To tell the truth, there is no real evidence that Jesus saw this coin. Denarii in circulation that day (over fifteen years into the reign of Tiberius) would have included quite a mix of Republican types and vast numbers of the common types of Caesar Augustus. Further, it seems unlikely that the men who took part in this story would have cared to make a distinction between the Romans who had borne the name Caesar. When asked: 'Whose image and inscription is on the coin', the answer was simply 'Caesar' not 'Tiberius Caesar' or 'Julius Caesar'. The purpose of the coin in this case could have satisfied by any Republican denarius with a head and Latin inscription. That coin collectors have settled on this one coin as THE Tribute Penny is more of a convention than a historical fact. It is, however, quite likely that this type was among the most common denarii in circulation in the early 30's AD and it does show the Emperor who reigned at the time of the ministry of Jesus Christ.

Tiberius - Silver Denarius - 14-37 AD - 3.0g
Livia as Pax seated; Ornate legs on chair

Nevertheless, denarii of Tiberius are very popular items mostly due to the Biblical connection. For a coin so popular, there are still a few matters that are hard to resolve. First there is the question of exactly what is shown on the reverse. The seated female is usually identified as Livia, mother of Tiberius and wife of Augustus dressed as Pax. In all honesty, I have never understood the reasoning behind that identification. The legend lists the title Pontifex Maximus which was held by Emperors until the coming of Christianity in the 4th century. The obverse legend names Tiberius as Augustus and son of the Divine Augustus. As only the second Roman Emperor, Tiberius would have been most concerned with establishing his proper right to succeed Augustus as Emperor.

Tribute Pennies come in a wide variety of styles and show a few minor varieties recognized by collectors. These include the decoration of the chair legs, presence of a footstool and whether Pax holds a rod or an inverted spear. Considering the long period of time these coins were issued, these are very minor points. Some of the coins are of fine style; others border on the barbaric. We previously featured a very barbarous Tribute Penny from India. Whether all of the 'regular' issues were produced at the main mint (then at Lugdunum) or if there were branch mints is not clear to me. The coins are readily available in all conditions and bring a strong price in spite of their being common. I recall once seeing a bag of nearly a thousand in the possession of a dealer. Remember our lesson from last week: Price is a factor of popularity and demand, not rarity.

Tiberius - Fourree Denarius - 14-37 AD - 3.0g
Livia as Pax seated; Plain legs on chair

Like all other early denarii, many Tribute Pennies are plated (fourree). The example shown here is good style (certainly better that the solid coin above) and good weight. The silver layer was very thick and withstood quite a bit of wear before the core was exposed. The silver layer is tightly bonded to the core with a thick intermediate band of the eutectic 'silver solder' which appears dark in this photo. While this could have been produced by the heat and force of striking, it is most likely an example of the use of a powdered layer added between the outer foil and the copper core. This process certainly produced the highest quality plated coins. Persons interested in more information on this subject should read the American Numismatic Society Numismatic Notes and Monographs #33: William Campbell, Greek and Roman Plated Coins, ANS 1933.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith