John Dickson

Australian writer, speaker, and academic. Public advocate for the Christian Faith

Is History Real?

For the last decade or so I have worn a silver denarius around my neck. This Roman coin was roughly equivalent to a “day’s wages” in the first-century—and a bit more today. Mine has the image of Emperor Tiberius on the front (the obverse) and his mother Livia on the back (the reverse). That tells us it was struck sometime between AD 14-37 (in the mint of Lyon, it turns out), because the dates of Tiberius’ reign are precise and certain. I wear this little piece of Roman history partly for sentimental reasons. It’s the coin Jesus of Nazareth held up—I mean the denomination not the very coin—when he was cornered over whether Jews in Judaea and Galilee should pay taxes to Rome. “Who’s image and inscription is this?,” he asked as he held up a denarius. “Caesar’s”, they answered. “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he famously replied, “and to God what is God’s!” It is a very clever reply, with all sorts of fascinating implications about the separation of church and state. And my ancient pendant has led to some fun conversations over the years, usually after someone asks, “What’s that around your neck, a Saint Christopher or something?”

                                                                                                 Denarius of Tiberus (AD 14-37)

                                                                                                 Denarius of Tiberus (AD 14-37)

I also wear this artefact for more intellectual reasons. It is a powerful reminder to me that the ancient past is as real and solid—or was as real and solid—as this lump of metal around my neck. I often take it in my fingers and let my imagination run wild: Perhaps a worker was handed this after a brutal twelve-hour shift in the ash mines of Naples. Maybe a Senator tossed it to his musicians after a particularly pleasing performance of the ‘Song of Sicilus’ (a hit in the day, whose key line was “Enjoy life while you’ve got it”). What groceries did my coin buy? How many goblets of wine were drunk at its expense, in how many different cities? What sordid dealings did it pay for? Was it ever stolen? And who was the poor mug that eventually lost it in the dirt, to be recovered almost twenty centuries later? 

Our speculations could abound, of course. But my point is more substantial: the work, lives, loves, music, food, scandals, and accidents of the first century were once just as real as the coin around my neck, and just as tangible as anything we smell, taste, touch, hear, and see today. 

My coin is a kind of bridge back in time. Its inscriptions reveal how the Romans viewed their emperors: divi Augusti filius, son of the god Augustus (Tiberius’ adoptive father). The portraiture is semi-realistic: each emperor looks completely different, and they are mostly pretty ugly (Google: ‘Emperor Nero denarius’). It probably seems sweet that Tiberius put his mum on the back of his coins, idealized as the goddess Pax (‘Peace’). But it’s complicated. He might have owed her, since rumours abounded that she had got rid of a couple of potential rivals. More concretely, her presence on such a widely used coinage underlines what ancient written sources all affirm: this woman was a serious player in the politics of Rome, from the time she divorced her first husband to marry Augustus in 39 BC through to her death in AD 29. All of this stuff we can say we ‘know’ beyond doubting. 

History is real. It isn’t Middle Earth or “a galaxy far, far away.” It is part of the story of this same planet earth we inhabit today. And all of us are biologically linked to people who lived in the same period (and perhaps even place) that we’re exploring in this book. Each of us has a great, great grandmother (x ~40) who lived, worked, hoped, ached, and laughed at the very time (late 20s AD) when Livia died, Tiberius ruled, Pontius Pilate harassed the residents of Judea, Jesus taught crowds in Galilee, and the prolific Roman author Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was starting primary school. 

History is not just real; it is knowable. Not fully knowable, of course. Probably less than 1% of ancient remains remain today. But 1% is enough to provide precious insight into the real lives of first-century men and women.

Try this thought-experiment  ... (more to come)