NGC Ancients: The Coinage of Bar Kokhba

Posted by Josh Illingworth, NGC Ancients on 12/13/2011

This month, NGC Ancients examines the Bar Kokhba revolt (A.D. 132-135) and the resulting coinage.

The Bar Kokhba revolt (A.D. 132-135) was the last in a series of conflicts between Rome and its province of Judaea in the first and second centuries A.D. After the conclusion of the Jewish War (A.D. 66-70) in A.D. 70, relations only became more strained, with periodic eruptions of violence during the next sixty years. The final tipping point proved to be a visit to the province by the emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) in the summer of A.D. 130.

When Hadrian visited the ruins of the Second Temple at Jerusalem (destroyed in A.D. 70, during the Jewish War) in A.D. 130, he decided to rebuild the structure. Unfortunately, it was to be rebuilt as a temple of Jupiter, which offended the Jews. Additionally, he ordered that Jerusalem itself should be rebuilt and renamed Aelia Capitolina, which incorporated his family name. Finally, Hadrian banned the ritual practice of male circumcision, an act that he considered “body mutilation,” in accordance with his Hellenistic world view. All of these factors pushed Judaea towards the brink of revolt.

Out of this rapidly deteriorating situation rose a figure named Simon Bar Kokhba, a warrior who was recognized by some Jews as the messiah. He became the de facto military leader of the revolt that broke out in A.D. 132 – this movement persisted until A.D. 135, when the Jews were again defeated (this time, the Romans hoped, for good), an event that some scholars equate with the beginning of the Jewish diaspora. Bar Kokhba was presumably slaughtered along with his remaining followers in a bloodbath with few historical equals: it can be inferred that close to one million Jews died in the revolt, along with thousands of Roman soldiers.

The coins of Bar Kokhba are among the most interesting Jewish coins produced in ancient times. This series represents a combination of artistic interest and historical significance. All of these coins are eagerly sought by collectors as both ancient coins and important relics of Jewish history.

Issues were struck in silver and bronze, and all coins were overstruck on contemporary circulating coinage, most often Roman Provincial issues and Roman Imperial silver denarii. A large billon (debased silver) coin, called a “sela,” was overstruck on Roman Provincial tetradrachms. The smaller precious metal coin, called a “zuz,” was most often overstruck on Roman Imperial denarii, thus accounting for their greater purity of silver. Bronze coins were struck on many different host types, so the four different denominations were distinguished by their designs.

This coin, a particularly fine example of a sela, is undated, and thus attributed to the third year (A.D. 134/5) of the revolt. It features on the obverse the façade of the Temple of Jerusalem (the Ark of the Covenant can be seen, inside) and on the reverse, the lulav and etrog, along with an inscription. The lulav, a bound bundle of twigs and foliage, and the etrog (a citrus fruit), were both ceremonial items.

The reverse legend of this sela, inscribed in Paleo-Hebrew, translates to “For the Freedom of Jerusalem.” It is extremely interesting because it follows the Roman practice of using inscriptions as propaganda. This was just one of several inscriptions that Bar Kokhba employed on his coinage to rally support for the revolt. The dated issues (years one and two) have inscriptions to the effect of “Year one of the redemption of Israel” and “Year two of the freedom of Israel,” and so on.

The other silver issue of Bar Kokhba was the zuz, sometimes referred to as a denarius (usually the host coin for these pieces). There were two different obverse types: a grape cluster and an olive wreath. Patriotic inscriptions are found either surrounding the grapes or inside the wreath. Reverse types featured a palm branch, a one-handled jug, a pair of trumpets, or one of two types of lyres (stringed instruments).

This coin happens to be an exceptional example; it is dated to the second year of the revolt (A.D. 133/4) by its inscription, which reads, “Year two of the freedom of Israel.” The coin features the olive wreath/one-handled jug design, and is so well struck that no traces of its undertype remain.

For purposes of comparison, this zuz has a prominent undertype. The coin was struck with the grape cluster/trumpets during year three of the revolt, but if one examines it closely, traces of the host coin’s design elements are clearly visible. Beneath the grape cluster, a camel can be seen, and some of the original Latin inscription remains. Likewise, on the reverse the trumpets are struck over faint traces of a portrait and another Latin inscription. The host coin was a denarius of the Emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117) but was used by Bar Kokhba for the rebellion two decades or more after it was issued.

Bronze coins were issued in four denominations: one large, two medium types, and one small unit. The largest (c. 29-33mm), struck for only the first two years of the revolt, features on the obverse a wreath, and on the reverse a two-handled jug, with patriotic inscriptions on both sides. This coin is quite rare and examples such as this piece, struck during year one (A.D. 132/3) of the revolt, command strong prices at auction.

Medium bronzes feature two obverse/reverse types: the first (c. 19-23mm) displays a palm branch within a wreath on the obverse and a lyre on the reverse, and the second (c. 23-27 mm) has a grape leaf on the obverse and a palm tree on the reverse. The issue with the lyre reverse is by far the scarcer of the two, and is illustrated here. This particular example dates to year one of the revolt.

Small bronzes (c. 17-19mm) are distinguished by thick, compact planchets and a type that shows on the obverse a palm tree and on the reverse a hanging cluster of grapes. These were struck during all three years of the revolt. This coin, struck in the first year of the revolt, is an excellent example of perhaps the most readily obtainable of all Bar Kokhba coins.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.