The Year A.D. 69

31 05 2008

In the first century, each year holds it own interest and special fascination, but 69 CE is of special interest because it is often designated as the year of the four emperors.  A recent book on the topic is by Gwyn Morgan, 69 A.D.:  The Year of the Four Emperors (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2006).  Morgan writes a running commentary on the gaining (and in three cases losing) the purple as represented by Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian.  He utilizes five sources Tacitus, Suetonius (Roman), Plutarch, Dio Cassius (Greek), and Josephus (Judean).  He especially focuses on Tacitus’ accounts (Josephus is cited the least). 

I am always interested in how a scholar utilizes numismatics in reconstructions and interprets the past.  Morgan downplays almost all numismatic evidence.  As he notes, ‘The most eye-catching artifacts to have come down to us, . . . the coins struck by the emperors, remain our least helpful guides to specific events despite all the work devoted to them by numismatists” (p. 3).  While coins may not on every occasion give reference to specific events, they do give an overall sense of the propaganda that emperors attempted to distribute to the general public.  Morgan is very dismissive of the propaganda element saying, “. . . the minting authority was conveying some kind of general message, and apparently the consumer was supposed to swallow this message without demur, but that is about all we can say” (p.3).  He is selling short what we can say and reasonably know about the messages imperial coinage conveyed. 

Morgan, whose interest is focused on the literary documentation, illustrates his lack of numismatic insight when he does on the rare occasion make mention of numismatic references.  For example, he writes, “The question is for whom the message on the denarii was meant.  Silver coinage was hardly seen by the common people. Mostly it ended up in the hands of the soldiery and the of the upper classes” (p. 97).  This assertion seems easily refuted.  When troops did have silver, they did spend it, and it did make its way into circulation among the non-elites.  Also here is just one easily found example of where non-elites possess denarii.  In the Gospel of Matthew 20:1-15 is the parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard.”  In this well known parable, day laborers, probably dispossessed landless peasants, are hired to work in a vineyard.  This group would be on one of the lowest levels of non-elites; without land, they are nobodies and very vulnerable.  Yet each laborer in the parable at the end of day will possess a denarius. 

Even though Morgan has little use for numismatics, his book is a fine survey of the events of this crucial year in the first century.  It is worth the read for orienting a reader to the dynamics within the context of the Empire.  If one especially likes British linguistic eccentricities, which I do, this book is also interesting since Morgan frequently throws in Britishism, such as “lickspittle.”  Try to find a way this week to work this word into your conversation.

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