World Coins

Mel Wacks coin collection being offered in NYC sale

Collector, author and expert Mel Wacks is selling his collection of ancient coins. The coins are being offered as part of the New York Sale consortium’s auction XLVIII of ancient coins Jan. 14, during the New York International Numismatic Convention.

Many of these coins reflect aspects of the stories of Jewish people throughout the ages. One such highlight offers an object lesson in how scholarship — even on coins that are 2,000 years old — is ever-changing.

A bronze sestertius of Nerva, issued circa A.D. 97 in Rome, references the Jewish head tax, which was a half shekel (equivalent to two Roman denarii).

The coin shows Roman emperor Nerva on the obverse. A legend on the reverse, FISCI IVDAICI [CALVMNIA SVBL]ATA, refers to the Jewish tax “Fisci Ivdaici,” and the embarrassment (CALVMNIA) surrounding its application.

The Jewish head tax

According to the Roman historian Suetonius: “More than any other, the Fiscus Iudaicus was administered very severely; and to it were brought, or reported, those who either had lived the life of a Jew unprofessed, or concealing their origin, had not paid the tax imposed upon the people. I remember that it was of interest to me during my youth when a ninety-year-old man was brought before the procurator and a very crowded court to see whether he was circumcised.”

A long-held interpretation that Nerva lifted that “embarrassment” by repealing the tax has been challenged in recent years, according to the auction firm.

Marius Heemstra, in a Spink publication in 2010, challenges the thought that the coin’s inscription means the Jewish tax, introduced by Vespasian after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, was repealed by Nerva, in whole or in part.

Heemstra also disagrees with the theory that the CALVMNIA was “the circumcision test” described by Suetonius.

Heemstra’s research suggests that the coin reflects, not that the tax was repealed, but, rather, the way it was applied, and that the legend should be translated: “The removal of the wrongful accusation (CALVMNIA) of the Fiscus Judaicus (the imperial tax collection agency).”

The CALVMNIA, Heemstra explains, was the false charge against Romans, including officials, who were wrongfully accused of secretly being Jewish. Conviction of such a “crime” could subject a person to having their wealth confiscated, and any number of reasons, real or imagined, could be claimed to instigate such a conviction.

Nerva’s changes to the laws helped transform the definition of Jew from an ethnic one into a religious one, which both the Romans and Jews adopted.

“Regardless, this coin represents Nerva’s order not to abolish the tax itself but [removal] of the insulting method of collecting the Jewish tax,” according to the firm.  For the full story behind this tax and recent scholarship, visit the lot description at

The coin is described in the catalog as being Very Fine with a flan crack, and has an estimate of $4,000 and up. 

Connect with Coin World:  

Sign up for our free eNewsletter
Access our Dealer Directory  
Like us on Facebook  
Follow us on Twitter

Community Comments