Prutah of Valerius Gratus depicting three lilies (16 CE)



16 CE



Caesarea Maritima

Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien/Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Name of Ruler: 

Tiberius (prefect Valerius Gratus)

Obverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Wreath around inscription

Inscription: IOVΛIA

Reverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Three lilies stemming from in between two curly leaves

Inscription: L Γ

Diameter (mm): 
Weight (g): 

(See Ya'akov Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins, pl. 73, no. 321)

This prutah, minted at Caesarea Maritima by Valerius Gratus, the Roman prefect of Judea in 16 CE, depicts on the obverse a wreath surrounding an inscription and on the reverse three lilies. The prutah (in Hebrew פרוטה) was a Jewish bronze coin of low value minted by both the prefects of the Roman province of Judea, and also by the Jews during the First Revolt. They are sometimes also referred to as “Masada coins.” The inscriptions on this prutah are in Greek. The inscription on the reverse, “L Γ,” records the year in which the coin was minted, the third year of the reign of Tiberius. The inscription on the obverse, “IOVΛIA,” “Julia,” probably refers to Livia Drusilla, the mother of Tiberius and the wife of Augustus, who came to be known as Julia Augusta in 14 CE. She was depicted on provincial coinage during Augustus’s reign, and coins minted under Tiberius seemingly arguably allude to her. Most significantly Tiberus minted coins with the legend “SALVS AUGUSTA” and a portrait of a woman in 22-23 CE which likely commemorates her return to health after a serious illness (see Vagi, Coinage and History, p. 115-116). Her name appears on many coins of this type minted by prefects of Judea, and Josephus tells us that she had a particular interest in the areas of Syria, Judea, and Egypt, with Salome (the daughter of Herod Antipater and Herodias) bequeathing her a plantation of palm trees in Phasaelis, north of Jericho, when she died in 10 CE (Josephus, Jewish Wars II.9; see Mason, Flavius Josephus, p. 136).

Returning to the context of this prutah, a very brief consideration of the Roman province of Judea will first be useful. In 6 CE, Herod Archelaus, the ethnarch of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea was exiled by the emperor Augustus (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVII.13.2). Augustus decided to rule Judea not as an autonomous province, because it was a relatively small territory, but as part of the province of Syria, ruled by a Roman authority (see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVII.13). Valerius Gratus succeeded as the fourth prefect of Judea and ruled the province from 15 until 26 CE. Josephus records that this prefect more than once removed the high priest and appointed another one of his choosing. Valerius Gratus presided over Judea for eleven years before he returned to Rome and was succeeded by Pontius Pilate (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVIII.2).

According to Ya‘akov Meshorer the coins minted by Gratus mirror his interest in the Temple (Meshorer, Ancient Jewish Coinage: Volume 2, p. 176), and the imagery on this prutah is suggestive of this. The three lilies were closely associated with the Jerusalem Temple (Meshorer, Ancient Jewish Coinage: Volume 1, p. 62). According to biblical tradition, lilies topped the two columns which decorated the façade of Solomon’s Temple, and the molten Sea (a large basin for the ritual washing of the priests) had a rim like a lily blossom (1 Kings 7:22, 26; 2 Chronicles 4:5). More importantly perhaps, lilies were used to decorate the menorah (Exodus 25:33; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities III.6.7). The depiction of the lily on Jewish coins had a long tradition. Lilies were depicted on Yehud’s silver coins minted during the Persian dominion of Judea between 375 and 333 BCE, and John Hyrcanus I, as well as his son and successor, king Alexander Jannaeus, also minted coins depicting the lily during the Hasmonean period. Both the latter rulers were also high priest, and therefore, the lily was a symbol which emphasized their association with the Temple (although, see  Jacobson, “The Lily and the Rose,” who argues that some of the coins minted under Hasmonean rulers in the late second and first centuries BCE were actually roses, not lilies). Moreover, the lily was a symbol also used in the wider Greco-Roman world. The lily was a symbol of the Greek goddess Hera, for instance, and also became associated with the Roman goddess Juno. Thus, it is possible that Gratus chose this symbol to emphasize common elements between Jewish subjects and Roman rulers (Meshorer, Ancient Jewish Coinage: Volume 2, p. 177). The choice of a symbol which had significant meaning for Jews, particularly through a connection to the Jerusalem Temple, may have helped to forward a sympathetic attitude on the part of the Roman prefect to the Jewish population. However, the reference in the inscription to the name Julia, the mother of the ruling emperor and first empress of Rome (Augusta), in combination with the record of the year of rule of the emperor Tiberius (even though the name of the emperor is not mentioned on this coin), seem to clearly reflect a message of Roman hegemony. The inhabitants of the province of Judea were reminded that while the Roman authority recognised an important symbol of their culture, and was willing to make a nominal attempt to acknowledge it (also by refraining from representing the portrait of the Roman ruler on such coinage) they were still firmly under the empire’s control.

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Prutah of Valerius Gratus depicting three lilies (16 CE)
Author(s) of this publication: Samuele Rocca
Publishing date: Tue, 08/21/2018 - 15:59
Visited: Wed, 04/24/2024 - 21:55

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