Of Shipwrecks and Coins

2 06 2009

The narrative of Paul’s shipwreck (Acts 27:1-28:16) is one of the outstanding stories in the New Testament. As is quite fitting, studies on this passage often turn to literary works in the ancient world for details related to sea travel and shipwrecks. Evidently these narratives were quite popular. And of course, there are the archaeological remains of shipwrecks; first-century shipwrecks dot the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. I certainly would not have wanted to insure a ship in the first century.

One might also at least give a brief nod to a little considered source for shipwrecks in the ancient world and that is the iconography found on ancient Roman coins. Actually ship motifs were a popular reverse type found on many Roman imperial coins. Yet reverses related to shipwrecks are, of course, difficult to find. Actually the ability to correlate reverses on Roman coins with specific events is extremely difficult; unfortunately we have little knowledge what provoked most of the images on coin reverses.  However, one coin minted under Marcus Aurelius (121-180 C.E.) probably does reference a shipwreck, one that the emperor was luck to have survived. The coin below illustrates this event.

aurelius155 This coin is a dupondius.  The obverse is the laureate head right of Marcus Aurelius.  The inscription reads M ANTONINVS AVG GERM SARM TRP XXXI.  The reverse depicts a galley with four rowers sailing right.  The god Neptune is before them (in the coin Neptune has been decapitated because of the hole).  The inscription reads FELICITATI AVG P P.    The inscription would translate as something like “to the good luck of the Augustus, Father of the Country.”

The record of this shipwreck come from Historia Augustus (a late fourth-century document), “Life of Marcus,” chapter XXVII:  “After settling affairs in the East he came to Athens and had himself initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries . . . . Afterwards, when returning to Italy by ship, he encountered a violent storm on the way.  Then, upon reaching Italy by way of Brundisium, he donned the toga, and bade his troops do likewise . . . . When he reached Rome he triumphed . . . Presently he appointed Commodus his colleague in the tribunician power, bestowed largess upon the people, and celebrated marvelous games . . . ”

The event of the shipwreck must have happened around the fall of 176 C.E. when the Emperor was returning from the east.  These coins were probably minted around the end of 176 and may have been presented as good-luck presents on 1 January 177.  The holed nature of this coin may indicate that it was used as a good luck charm, maybe by someone who was a frequent traveler via the Mediterranean Sea.  Perhaps it was holed by a servant or soldier who was on board this galley and survived.

This coin is a tangible example of the precarious nature of sea travel, even for those at the top  of the hierarchy of power.  The Emperor credited his salvation from a near disaster by the hands of the gods Neptune and Felicitas.  Paul in his own shipwreck owed his salvation to an intervention and revelation from God:   “For this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all those who sail with you'” (Acts 27:23-24).

One last interesting reference to gods in relationship to Paul’s shipwreck is that the ship that eventually conveyed Paul to Italy was “a ship of Alexandria with the Twin Brothers as figure-head” (Acts 28:11b).  The Twin Brothers are Castor and Pollux and are often called the Dioscuri.  These two gods were  a frequent motif on Roman coins.  The denarius below from the Roman Republic (46 B.C.E.) illustrates an example of the Dioscuri.





2 responses

11 06 2009
Tyler Tankersley

Really enjoyed this post.

Do you think Luke could have written the account of Paul’s shipwreck and the miraculous survival story in response to “rival” stories of shipwreck in his culture?

I start at Central in January. Look forward to getting to know you, Dr. May.

12 06 2009
David May


Thanks for the feedback. I am looking forward to your time at Central.

The author of Acts may not be directly responding to the other stories of shipwrecks, but he is certainly drawing on these very popular and well-known stories. These stories had great attraction for people in the ancient world, especially those individuals having some contact with the sea. Travel, adventure and danger were the elements that could draw a reader into the narrative. Of course, these stories were so popular because shipwrecks were a common occurence. Several good background studies have been done on this area, such as, B. M. Rapske, “Acts, Travel, and Shipwreck,” in The Book of Acts in Its Greco-Roman Setting (1994).

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