Coin evidence concerning the Caesarean and Actian Eras


By Tom Buijtendorp


Reference to minting years highly contributes to the historical value of ancient coins. As such, coins can be used as an independent source for archaeological and historical research. This, however, requires an understanding of the dating system. The starting date of the famous Caesarean and Actian era is still subject of debate. In this article, a solution is proposed to offer a coherent and consistent year dating for the coins of Roman Antioch.  


The dating systems


There are several sources for confusion when interpreting ancient year counts. Different dating systems existed in ancient times and have been used next to each other, generating confusion and misunderstanding. The basic points of reference are either the years of the reign of an emperor or local authority (‘regnal years’) or a special local event like an important victory or a town gaining independence (‘local Era’). And there are differences in the length of the first year. People today count their own age with full years only, starting at the event of their birth. For somebody born 31 January 1980, for example, the first year runs form 31 January 1980 to 30 January 1981. This start with a first full year is however not the rule in ancient year dating on coins, what may generate a lot of confusion. And the moment of the first day of a certain year-count may differ as well.


There are still such differences today. While modern western calendars start at the 1st of January, the Hebrew religious calendar, for example, starts in spring. Actually, the western names of the months for a part still refer to a time when the Roman calendar started the 1st of March, explaining why September – December are the Latin names for 7th – 10th month (counted from March 1st onwards). This moment of start can be deeply rooted in history. The names of the months used in the Jewish and Arab calendar for example, still remind of the names used in Mesopotamia about four millennia ago, like Adar for the last month of the year and Nisan for the first month in spring. A start in spring could be related to the ‘natural’ start of the year. Other old calendar system linked to political driven events like the harvest time around August/September as logical start for the taxation year.


The short regnal years 


Fig 1. Tetradrachm of Galba, who reigned seven months, minted in Antioch. Below the eagle the date ETOYC B (year 2). Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH 11413.


A major source of confusion is the sometimes short first regnal year. A clear example is the coinage of Emperor Galba (68-69 CE) minted in Alexandria and Antioch. Even the modern indication 68-69 CE suggests a reign of 2 years. However, Galba became emperor briefly after Nero committed suicide June 9, 68 CE and seven months later Galba already was murdered January 15th next year. Both in Antioch and Alexandria, coins of Galba have been minted for the regnal years 1 and 2 (fig. 1). This implies the counting of the second year started somewhere between 9 June and 15 January. For the coins minted in Alexandria, it is assumed 29 August was the starting date of the Alexandrian New Year, and 30 August every 4 years. It means the reign of Galba in the first Alexandrian year lasted only from June 9 to August 29, close to 3 months, while year 2 lasted from August 29 to January 15, about 4.5 months. It took some time the news of the death of Nero reached Alexandria. However, it was normal to mint relatively more coins after the start of a new reign. This may explain why the ratio between year 1 and 2 is about 1:1 for 19 Alexandrian tetradrachms sold by Forum Ancient Coins. The starting date for the coins of Galba minted in Antioch is still debated. As both the years 1 and 2 appear frequently in the market, a starting date comparable to the Alexandrian area is likely. This is quite well possible in the region. While religious calendars tend to start in spring, the influential Macedonian court preferred the late summer/autumn as the start, a system used as well in the region.


A second clear example of the short regnal years from the region is countermarks on SC-coins from Antioch of Augustus and Tiberius, attributed to Caligula (37-41 CE). Here again, the modern system suggests a 5-year reign. However, his reign started in March 37 and ended 3 years plus 10 months later on 21 January 41 CE when Caligula was murdered. Still, the countermarks show regnal years up to year (FA) 5 (Sigma) in a rectangular incuse. This again implies a shorter first regnal year.


The Caesarean era


The understanding of the regnal years can throw new light on the Caesarean era, a specific dating system for coins of the city of Antioch, a major minting center in the region. This Era referred to the moment when Antioch was made an autonomous city by Julius Caesar after he defeated Pompey during the battle of Pharsalus in the summer of 48 BCE. Possible dates for the battle are 6/7 or 29 June, or 9 August. Some authors reject a late date in August because Pompey wanted to starve the army of Caesar, what in the harvest month August would not be very logical. Interestingly, a date of the battle in June would solve some inconsistencies in the linkage between dating systems used on coins of Antioch.


Fig. 2. Lead bronze coin of Antioch, minted after the defeat of Pompey but still referring to the Pompeian year 19 on the reverse. Obverse countermarked. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RP19737.


Fig 3. Rare coin of Antioch minted in 36/35 BCE. On the reverse in the field the Caesarean year 14 (ID). Reverse text referring to Antioch, the metropolis with autonomy: ANTIOCEWN METROPOLEWS AUTONOMOU Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. GB59689.


Like some regnal years, the first Caesarean year must have been a short one to create the fit with the coin data. This fit suggests the new year 2 of the Caesarean era starting at the end of summer in or around August. In this case, a start early August would offer a good start as will be shown. First of all, it could explain a brake in the local dating. There was a continuous year-count from the arrival of Pompey in 64/63 BCE (when Antioch became the capital of the new Roman province Syria) towards 19 BCE in the time of Augustus. The Pompeian years end with year 19 when Pompey was defeated (fig 2). The year count then jumps to year 2 of the Caesarean Era. From there it is continued up to 19 BC, and continued again later in the reign of Augustus. Caesarean year 1 missing would support the suggestion this was a very brief first year. In addition, the count probably did not start right after the battle. After the defeat of Pompey, Antioch continued for some time to strike coins with the Pompeian year 19 (fig 2). Combined with a brief first Caesarean year, this can very well explain why Caesarean year 1 coins have not been minted as part of what appears to be a continuous minting of coins at Antioch. In the new series, Antioch presented itself as “autonomous” city and referred to the Caesarean year (fig 3.).


The next clue is offered by a rare tetradrachm of Augustus minted in Antioch and dated in the Caesarean year 63. Based on the assumed moment of the Caesarean year change, year 63 would cover the period between early August 14 CE and early August 15 CE. This would mean the coin was minted in the last weeks of the life of Emperor Augustus, in August 14 CE. He died August 14th and it will have taken some time before the news reached the mint in Antioch. In addition, the minting of coins of Augustus may have continued a few weeks more until it was sure who the next emperor was: Tiberius was officially consecrated 17 September. This reduces the period for the start of the Caesarean New Year to 9 June - 17 September.


Fig 4. Bronze coin of Tiberius minted in Antioch. On the reverse within a wreath the regnal year 3 and Actian year 47 (ZM). Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RP06833.


The coin of Augustus with the Caesarean year 63 also mentions the year 44 of the Actian era. This was another important dating system based on the victory of Augustus at Actium 2 September 31 BCE. Here again, the start of this era is subject of debate. An important clue is offered by a tetradrachm minted for Augustus in Antioch in the Caesarean year 29. The text on the obverse refers to the ETOVΣ - ΘK – NIKHΣ, the 29th (ΘK) year of ‘the victory’ (NIKHΣ), a reference to the victory at Actium. In the field, a monogram refers to the 12th (IB) consulship. This consulship started 1 January 2 BC. This means the Actian year 29 spans the years 3/2 BC. Counting back, the first Actian year overlapped the period 31/30 BC. As the battle of Actian is dated 3 September 31 BC, the (probably shorter) first Actian year should overlap this day. This means Actian year 2 started before 3 September 30 BC. And the start must have been just a few days or weeks earlier to be consistent with the dating of the last coin of Augustus mentioned above. This coin was dated by the Caesarean year 63 and minted in the brief period August-mid September. The coin also refers to Actian year 44. As said, the Actian years must have ended before 3 September. The coin shows Actian year 44 was still used in the last weeks of Augustus in August – mid-September 14 CE. This makes a change to the Actian year (in this case year 44 to 45) in August very likely. This also would explain why the earliest coins from Antioch of Tiberius, who succeed Augustus, show his regnal year 1 combined with the next Actian year 45. Consistent with this first dating, the next coin of Tiberius from his regnal year 3 shows the Actian year 47 (fig 4).


To summarize, a consistent pattern emerges when assuming a start of the Actian New Year in the second half of August, and the start of the Caesarean era in the first half of August. With the battle of Pharsalus dated August 9, this last assumption would be impossible. Dating the battle in June, however, would make this an option, solving the inconsistencies.


Dated coins of Nero and the brief additional reigns of Galba and Otho, fit into this reconstruction. The first coins of Galba minted in Antioch, like the last coins of Nero, referred to the Caesarean year 116. When as stated the first Caesarean year ended early August 48 BC, the 116th Caesarean year would start early August 67 CE and end early August 68 CE. This would fit the first coins of Galba who took over after Nero died 9 June 68 CE. There would remain about two months of Caesarean year 116 what can explain that Galba started his coinage with year 116, the Caesarean year before used by Nero. It is unfortunate that Galba soon switched to regnal year 1 because his brief reign could have dated the switch to the Caesarean year 117. This year was used on coins of Antioch by Otho who took over after Galba died January 16, 69 CE. After a reign of just three months, Otho was defeated himself on 16 April 69 CE.  This means the period 15 January – 16 April was part of the Caesarean year 117. The switch from year 116 to 117 can be dated between 9 June 67 CE and 15 January 68 CE. A switch around the beginning of August would very well fit with the brief mintage of year 116 coins by Galba.


To summarize, the proposed New Year starts in August, both Caesarean (early August) and Actian (late August), generate a consistent explanation for the several year-systems used on coins of Antioch. It also would fit nicely the end August year change in Egypt. However, some questions remain.




The Actian Era starting end August would contradict the opinion of W. Wruck in his standard work on Syrian provincial coinage (Die Syrische Provinzialprägung von Augustus bis Traian, 1931 p. 13). He claims the Actian year started 1 October, following the beginning of the Macedonian year, based on Dios as the first month of the Macedonian calendar. However, this would shift the start of the second Actian year to 1 October 30 BC (consistent with Action year 29 spanning the years 3-2 BC). As a result, year 1 would even in the case of a full first calendar year, start almost a month after the battle of Actium. An earlier start as proposed therefore is much more likely.


Fig 5. A tetradrachm of Nero minted in Antioch with the reverse referring to the Caesarean  year (ETOYS) 112 (BIP) and regal year 10 (I). This coin is an unknown variety, with only pellets on the reverse but not below the bust. According to some researchers the pellets indicate a part of the year. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RP10739.


Fig 6. A tetradrachm of Nero minted in Antioch with the reverse referring to the Caesarean year (ETOYS) 111 (AIP) and regnal year 9 (Q). Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RP40739.


Fig 7. A tetradrachm of Nero minted in Antioch with the reverse referring to the Caesarean year (ETOYS) 111 (AIP) and regnal year 10 (I). Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RP55188.


Secondly, the proposed system suggests an early start of the regnal years of Nero, not related to known dates. Some of the coins of Nero from Antioch combine Caesarean years and regnal years. It started with a tetradrachm combining Caesarean year 105 and regnal year 3. At first glance, the Caesarean year seems to equal the regnal year plus 102, suggesting both year-counts overlap 100%. This seems the case for the series of Caesarian year 107-112 and regnal years 5-10. The final tetradrachm of this series is dated Caesarean year 112 and regnal year 10 (fig 5). There must have been a small difference, however. The Caesarean year 111 is according to the pattern (Caesarean year minus regnal year = 111 – 9 = 102) accompanied by regnal year 9 (fig 6). However, later in the Caesarean year 111, a rarer issue was minted with regnal year 10 instead of regnal year 9, minted in a small number given the small number of different dies used (fig 7). This means the regnal year of Nero switched to the next year a little earlier than the Caesarean year-count and as a result started somewhat earlier. When the Caesarean year started early August, the regnal year of Nero would have started a little before.


Then the question is what the turning date for the regnal years of Nero was, apparently somewhere in the summer. Nero became emperor in October 54 CE and was born in December, not in the summer. Calendars normally started in spring or late summer/autumn. Late summer/autumn offers little room, assuming the year change was earlier than the assumed Caesarean New Year of early August. So spring becomes a serious option. Interestingly, Nero in 65 CE tried to rename the month of April after himself as Neroneus what may indicate some kind of personal connection. Spring would imply that Caesarean and regnal years only overlapped about fifty/fifty. In that case, more couples of regnal years for one Caesarean year would be expected, like the single example of regnal years 9-10 for the Caesarean year 111. It could imply that the tetradrachms were produced mainly in the first part of the year. The Caesarean year 111 (62-63 CE) would have been an exception as a year of extra production.


Clearly, uncertainties remain. Hopefully, further study brings additional explanations. The study of ancient coins can be of help. And at the same time, such research will help to better understand the chronological meaning of such dated coins.