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Money Talks through Ancient Coins

Usually I have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to attend a conference. But recently, one was held near my office here in Antalya, Turkey, at the Ramada Plaza Hotel. Sponsored by the local Research Institute on Mediterranean Civilizations, it was titled the “First International Congress on Anatolian Monetary History and Numismatics.”

The First International Congress on Anatolian Monetary History and Numismatics.

Numismatics is a unique scholarly discipline that spans archaeology, ancient history and epigraphy. It seems the axiom “money talks” is true. Much information can come from an ancient coin: the name of a king or emperor as well as his regnal titles, the names of governors or elite citizens and a city’s symbols, local gods and goddess and foundation myths. Coins are also one of the primary means of dating archaeological remains. Sealed in a stratum, they can provide conclusive evidence for the date of that level.

I was eager to learn about new discoveries and developments in the field. One of the speakers was the French authority Michel Amandry, whose work on Roman imperial coinage I had consulted during my doctoral research. In Biblical studies the field of numismatics helps to illustrate the influence of Roman imperialism. Even Jesus discussed coinage on one occasion with the Pharisees and Herodians. He asked whose image and inscription (Greek: epigraphē) was on the denarius, and they replied that it was Caesar’s (Mark 12:16).

Roman Coins with Prof Kevin Butcher – Render unto Caesar

But which Caesar was it? Numismatics has provided us with an answer. One of the congress’s speakers was Kevin Butcher, an authority on Roman Syria, who has discussed the “Jesus coin” in above video. He explains why the image on the coin could only be that of Augustus, contrary to some popular opinions. His research has shown that denarii of Tiberius, the emperor who lived during the time of Jesus, never circulated in Judea.

A denarius from the reign of Augustus. Eretz Museum, Tel Aviv.

Something that struck me during the congress was the presentation of unprovenanced coinage sold at auctions. Various galleries and images connected to coin dealers were cited. I asked two of the numismatists at the congress about this. Readers of BHD know, some archaeological publications refuse to cite or publish unprovenanced material.* Both scholars told me that to ignore such coins would be to severely limit our understanding of ancient mints and coinage types. And they also believed that ignoring illegally excavated coins would not stem the flood of unprovenanced coinage entering the market.

In Turkey it is illegal for anyone except registered collectors to possess ancient coins. These collectors must maintain a detailed inventory that is reviewed regularly by a local museum. Because of Turkey’s numerous ancient sites, old Greek and Roman coins are frequently found, and many are collected clandestinely or sold on the antiquities market, from where they are shipped overseas. Turkish museums try to purchase ancient coins, particularly hoards, when they are found. Since most local museums display coins from the area, they usually have funds to purchase these coins. But the prices paid on the illegal market are often higher, especially when the coins are made of precious metals.

A final bonus at the congress was to see my friend, Inci Turkoğlu, give an outstanding presentation on the coins of Chalcedon, an ancient city located on the Asian side of the Bosporus in Istanbul. Numismatics is one portion of her doctoral dissertation being written on Constantinople’s sister city and the site of the Fourth Ecumenical Church Council in 451 CE. I walked away from the congress with a fresh appreciation for this specialized discipline and grateful for the contribution of these numismatists who helped me better understand the ancient world.

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Of Pirates and Virgins: Greek and Turkish Scholars Colloquiating

The invitation to attend the Second Greek-Turkish Symposium on Epigraphy in May was one I couldn’t turn down. It had been extended by Mustafa Adak, the chairperson of the epigraphy and ancient history department of Antalya’s Akdeniz (“Mediterranean”) University. Not only was I interested to hear the presentation of some of the thirty papers, I was also curious to see how these scholars from similar, yet politically rivaling, cultures would get along. Recent news stories highlighted the controversy over who had invented baklava—the Turks or the Greeks. And what should that thick, hot drink with grounds in the bottom of the cup be called—Greek or Turkish coffee? However, the three-day colloquium turned out to be a model of peaceful relations as the scholars set aside their nationalistic differences for the sake of epigraphy.

Angelos Chaniotis

The symposium was held at the university’s conference hotel, set amidst the idyllic Lycian coast beneath Mount Olympos. In the first century B.C.E. the pirate Zenicetes overran the nearby ancient cities of Olympos and Phaselis and established his base there. When the Roman general Servilius Isauricus cornered the pirates in their stronghold in 77 B.C.E., Zenicetes and his followers committed collective suicide, much like the Sicarii did over a century later at Masada. So the natural and historical setting was ideal for scholarly endeavors. Another plus for me was that most of the presentations were in English.

The Roman Harbor at Phaselis on the Lycian Coast

The Roman Harbor at Phaselis on the Lycian CoastA speaker whom I particularly wanted to hear was the Greek epigrapher Angelos Chaniotis. Chaniotis had authored a recent article in Biblical Archaeology Review on the Jews and Godfearers in Aphrodisias. In his presentation, Chaniotis discussed a 2nd-3rd century C.E. funerary inscription of a young Aphrodisian woman named Melition Tatis. My ears perked up when he mentioned that she was called a parthenos in the inscription. The proper translation of this Greek word is still debated in several Biblical texts. Is the meaning in Isaiah 7:14 “virgin” (niv) or “young woman” (nrsv)? However, all translations of Matthew 1:23, which quotes the verse from Isaiah and speaks of Mary, read “virgin.” So I was intrigued whether this newly found inscription might help us understand better how parthenos was used in antiquity.

In Chaniotis’s handout, the word was translated “virgin.” But he suggested verbally that it was better understood as a class of young women. Chaniotis shared with me later that such a use was not just localized to Aphrodisias. And I learned that parthenos and its derivatives could even be a female name, probably indicating the person’s youthful appearance rather than her status of virginity or being unmarried. Chaniotis’s research has revealed that parthenos has three closely related yet distinct meanings: virgin, unmarried, and young/unmarriageable. While it may not always be possible to distinguish among them, an awareness of this difference can help us better understand Biblical texts. For example, the niv and nrsv both use “unmarried” in Acts 21:9 to designate Philip’s daughters, a better translation of parthenos than “virgin.” Listening to Chaniotis, I was reminded again of the importance of context in translating and interpreting Greek words.

This intercultural scholarly gathering was a great success. All agreed that a third Greek-Turkish epigraphy symposium should occur. However, a date could not be set because Greece’s economic situation may preclude its scholars from hosting one in the near future. So hopefully a sponsor will be found. Nevertheless, I look forward to colloquiate again with these epigraphers and to drink some more Turkish (or is it Greek) coffee?

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Who Governed the Roman Province of Lycia-Pamphylia?

One thing I enjoy about living in Turkey is the serendipitous discoveries waiting to be found. Last year as my wife and I were returning from the grocery store, I looked into a garden and saw an ancient stone standing there. The top had later been hollowed out as a basin. As I walked through the gate, my heart was racing in anticipation: Would there be an inscription on its face? Sure enough there was! In well-cut Greek letters five lines stood out (the remainder of the inscription was buried beneath the tiled walkway). Two words jumped out in my initial examination: anthupaton Pamphylias, that is, “the governor of Pamphylia.”

Here I am with my wife Dindy (center) and Dr. Nuray Gökalp (right), proudly posing with the early-third-century C.E. Greek inscription that mentions Julius Tarius Titianus, governor of Pamphylia.

Anthupatos is the Greek word for the proconsul who governed a Roman senatorial province. Acts 13:7 describes how Paul and Barnabas met Sergius Paulus, the anthupatos of Cyprus.

Pamphylia means “land of all tribes” and originally designated the southern region of Asia Minor along the Mediterranean Sea. Later it became the name of a Roman province. Jews from Pamphylia were among those in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). Paul and Barnabas, after leaving Cyprus, made landfall at Perga, a major city of Pamphylia (Acts 13:13). At the end of the apostles’ first missionary journey they departed from another Pamphylian city, Attalia—modern Antalya—where I live (Acts 14:25). Like many civic degrees the demos and boulē (“the citizens and the council”) were the dedicators of this inscription, in this case for an eminent governor of the province, Julius Tarius Titianus.

To learn more about this inscription, I contacted the epigraphy department of the local Akdeniz (“Mediterranean”) University. There I was put in contact with Dr. Nuray Gökalp, an epigrapher presently preparing the corpus of inscriptions for Attalia. I emailed her pictures of the stone, and she quickly acknowledged that the inscription was unknown to her. Two days later we arranged a meeting. She brought a colleague, and it was exciting for me to see their excitement as they saw the inscription for the first time. Dr. Gökalp suggested at the time that the next line, now buried below ground level, undoubtedly said “and Lycia.” This region, west of Pamphylia, had been a double province with Pamphylia for over a century. After cleaning and wetting the stone, the epigraphers made a squeeze, a process that uses special paper to produce an impression of the surface’s texture. As we said our goodbyes, Dr. Gökalp promised to share the results of her investigation with me.

Who Governed the Roman Province of Lycia-Pamphlyia?
The squeeze that was made of the inscription.

Those results have just been published by Dr. Gökalp in a short essay in the journal Gephyra. The inscription is now firmly dated to the early third century C.E. The governor’s name was first found in the 19th century on an inscription dating to 202–205 C.E. in a bathhouse at Takina.

The noted archaeologist William Ramsay was one of the first scholars to publish this inscription. Until now, however, it was unknown whether Takina was in the province of Lycia-Pamphylia or in Asia. Most scholars thought the latter. The new inscription now definitely proves that Takina was in Lycia-Pamphlyia and that Tarius Titianus was the governor of this province and not of Asia. Another inscription mentioning Tarius Titianus, dating after 210 C.E., was recently found in Hippos, a Galilean city that was part of the Decapolis.* It turns out that he later served as the governor of Syria–Palestina. It is amazing to me that five lines of text with only 11 Greek words can tell us such a story. And to think that there are many more such stones still awaiting discovery. So my eyes are always on the lookout, waiting to find another one.

* For Hippos, see Arthur Segal and Michael Eisenberg, “The Spade Hits Sussita,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2006, and Michael Eisenberg, Archaeological Views, “What’s Luck Got to Do With It?” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2010.