Coin from Mytilene

CCCRH recently acquired a brass coin minted at Mytilene on the island of Lesbos during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (14–37 CE). It has the head of Tiberius on the obverse with a Greek inscription meaning “Tiberius, divine Augustus.” On the reverse, there is the bust of Tiberius’ mother, Livia—also known as Julia—with a Greek inscription meaning “Julia, divine Augusta.” On both sides, there are the letters MYTI for “Mytilene.”

The coin provides evidence of the tendency in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire to declare that the emperor was divine, well before the more conservative authorities in Rome would embrace such an affirmation. The Roman Senate had posthumously deified Augustus (the stepfather of Tiberius) at the request of Tiberius. However, Tiberius had refused to nominate Livia for similar honours. Her divine status on the reverse of this coin indicates the city of Mytilene had issued it without the consent of Tiberius.  Livia would eventually be deified by her grandson, Claudius.

The identification of the city is another interesting aspect of this coin. When minted around 35 CE, the coin preserved the older form of the city’s name: Mytilene (Μυτιλήνη). A later variant Mitylene (Μιτυλήνη), with the first two vowels reversed—also attested in Josephus, Antiquities, 15.350 & 16:20—is found in Acts 20:14 when describing a visit to the city by St Paul in 57 CE. Josephus was writing late in the first century. The Acts of the Apostles seems to have been partly inspired by the success of Josephus’ project and—for this reason—is dated no earlier than Josephus and perhaps somewhat later. The use of the later form of the city’s name in Acts 20 suggests that the author of the “we” material in Acts (16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–28:16) might not actually have been a companion of Paul during his travels. 

Although this coin is very worn, it demonstrates the importance of primary source material in historical studies.

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