NGC Ancients: Judaean Coinage

Posted on 1/19/2011

This month, Dave Vagi discusses Judaean coinage.

Ancient numismatics is rife with areas of specialization, and that of the Jewish homeland, Judaea, is no exception. Fortunately, this field offers much for collectors to learn and with even more left to discover, there is unlikely to be a dull moment in a lifetime of collecting.

Since the field is so broad, a distillation is necessary for a treatment this brief. Indeed, we will bypass the earliest numismatic history of Judaea, which includes issues struck when the region was under Persian and Macedonian rule. Among these coinages are the avidly collected Yehud, Samaria and Philistia coinages and civic issues of Gaza, Ascalon and Ashdod.

Furthermore, we won't cover many peripheral issues that are usually collected in connection with the history of Judaea, including silver shekels of Tyre (the coinage by which Temple Taxes were paid in Jerusalem) and silver denarii of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37), which are popularly considered the "Tribute Penny" of the Bible.

Instead, we'll start with the coinage of the Hasmonean and Herodian rulers, which together comprise the most substantial part of ancient Jewish coinage, and we’ll continue through to provincial coins struck well into the third century A.D.

1. Hyrcanus I, 135-104 B.C. After the Seleucid King Antiochus IV "Epiphanes" (175-164 B.C.) took Jerusalem by force late in 169 B.C., the rule of Judaea became of greater interest to the Seleucids, who by 140 B.C. they had dedicated it to the Hasmonean family, who served as high priests in the Temple in Jerusalem for about a century. Though powerful, the Hasmoneans were subject to the will of the Seleucids, a point underscored by the fact that the Jews were limited to issuing only base metal coins. The first Hasmonean to issue coins appears to have been Hyrcanus I (called Yehohanan in Hebrew), an ambitious ruler who inherited from his father Simon the titles of ethnarch and high priest. One of his coins, a lepton which shows a palm branch and a lily, is illustrated here.

2. Alexander Jannaeus, 103-76 B.C. Another ambitious ruler of Judaea was Alexander Jannaeus, who in his desire to rule a territory as great as that of King David engaged in significant warfare. To his credit, he did succeed, and he expanded the territory under Jewish rule to its greatest extent. His personal interest in warfare and his desire to "Hellenize" his court, however, brought him into conflict with the Pharisees, who preferred that their high priest pay attention to his priestly duties and strictly obey the laws of the Torah. After being the object of insult on these grounds, Jannaeus is said to have killed 6,000 Jews, which launched a costly and brutal civil war. Alexander struck an astonishing quantity of coins, most of which were leptons that today are considered the most likely candidate for the "Widow's Mite" mentioned in Mark 12: 41-44. An example is shown here.

3. Mattathias Antigonus, 40-37 B.C. The brief reign of Mattathias Antigonus illustrates the high stakes of politics in the later first century B.C., as the Roman Republic collapsed under the weight of civil war. Because Rome had so great an influence throughout the Mediterranean, "local" rulers often would be forced to choose sides between Rome and its enemies. In the case of Mattathias, his ambition to become king and high priest of Judaea led him to seek an alliance with the Parthians, who were then at war with the Romans. He gained Parthian support, by which he eliminated some key rivals and caused one, Herod, to flee to Rome. Soon two men – Mattathias and Herod – claimed authority in the Jewish state, each backed by a different foreign "superpower." In the end, Rome triumphed over Parthia and after a five-month siege of Jerusalem the Romans took Mattathias prisoner to Antioch where he was beheaded. Shown here is an 8-prutot coin of this unfortunate ruler.

4. Herod I “the Great,” 40-4 B.C. The war that allowed Herod to defeat his rival Mattathias Antigonus, and to assume power in the Jewish state as an instrument of Rome, also provided him with an exalted place in history. His appointment was unusual since his family was only recently converted to Judaism, and thus not priestly, and his reign brought an end to the ruling authority of the premier priestly dynasty. Herod’s authority was essentially civil (being granted the title of "king" by the Romans), and he appointed high priests that had no ties to the Hasmoneans, the priestly family with whom he had severe conflicts. Herod focused strongly on building programs, with his most impressive achievements being the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem and the construction of the city of Sebaste and the port city of Caesarea Maritima. Shown here is a prutah of Herod.

5. Agrippa II, A.D. 55-95/100 The son of the Jewish King Agrippa I (A.D. 37-44), Agrippa II was not made king immediately upon his father’s death due to his youth. However, beginning in A.D. 48/9 the Romans entrusted him with increasingly greater territories. His loyalty to Rome is revealed by the fact that he still was allowed to rule after the First Jewish War (A.D. 66-70), which occurred in the midst of his 50-year reign. Shown here is a 28-mm bronze minted by Agrippa II in A.D. 86/7 at Caesarea Paneas. While the reverse names Agrippa II, the obverse is devoted to Titus, the general who sacked Jerusalem in 70 and more than a decade later became emperor of Rome. The dating of Agrippa II's coins, which employ two different eras, is still a matter of debate. Current theory suggests this coin was issued as a posthumous commemorative for Titus during the reign of his younger brother, Domitian (A.D. 81-96).

6. Prefects and Procurators of Judaea, A.D. 6-66 From late in the reign of Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14) until the outbreak of the Jewish War in A.D. 66, Judaea was largely governed by prefects or procurators, Roman officials who reported to the Roman legate in Syria. In all, 15 men held the post, though only seven are known to have issued coins, all of which were small, base metal pieces known by the name prutah. Inscriptions on these prutot name members of the Julio-Claudian family and record the date of their issuance according to the regnal year of the reigning emperor. Thus, their attribution to individual prefects and procurators is made from historical inference. The best known of these men was Pontius Pilate, who served as procurator of Judaea from A.D. 26 to 36, and who presided over the crucifixion of Jesus. One of his prutot, dated to the 17th year of Tiberius (A.D. 30/1), is shown here.

7. Jewish War, A.D. 66-70 The first of two full-scale wars waged by the Romans in Judaea, the Jewish War began in May of A.D. 66 with attacks by Jewish militants on Roman garrisons. It soon escalated into a terrifying war that resulted in a great many deaths, the sacking of Jerusalem, and the destruction of its Temple. The Jews struck silver and base metal coins to support their war effort, each of which bear a symbolic design and inscription. The coins also have dates which allow their attribution to one of the five years of the war. Shown here is a silver shekel dated to the third year (A.D. 68/9); its paleo-Hebrew inscriptions describe the coin as a “shekel of Israel” and proclaim “Jerusalem the holy”. Base metal coins of the war have different inscriptions, including “the freedom of Zion” and “to the redemption of Zion”.

8. Judaea Capta coins One of the most significant 'victory' coinages issued by the Romans trumpets their victory in the Jewish War (A.D. 66-70). Imperial coins in gold, silver and base metal were struck in very large quantities by the emperors Vespasian (A.D. 69-79) and Titus (A.D. 79-81), both of whom had commanded the Roman armies in Judaea. A variety of types were struck, most of which celebrate the victory using familiar symbols that would have been understood even by those unable to read the inscriptions, which typically are IVDAEA or IVDAEA CAPTA. The war is also referenced on provincial coins, notably a series that appears to have been struck in Caesarea Maritima. Illustrated here is a sestertius of Vespasian from A.D. 71 that shows the emperor's portrait and on its reverse a bound Jewish captive and a mourning Jewess flanking a palm tree, the Roman symbol for Judaea.

9. Bar Kokhba War, A.D. 132-135 The coinage of the Bar Kokhba War was even more substantial than that of the Jewish War. It was made by overstriking coins withdrawn from circulation, which usually were of Roman manufacture. The series consists of silver and base metal issues, each attributable to one of the three years of the war. Designs and inscriptions betray the sincerity of the struggle, which makes these coins all the more popular with collectors. The first-year issues proclaim “the redemption of Israel”; they are followed by coins of the second year which call for “the freedom of Israel” and by those of the undated third year inscribed “for the freedom of Jerusalem.” Shown here is a zuz of the last year of the war (A.D. 134/5) which retains part of the inscription of its host coin a silver denarius of the emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96).

10. Aelia Capitolina Provincial Coinage The Romans struck coins at no less than 37 cities in the region of ancient Judaea, comprising a field colloquially known as "city coins." Jerusalem was already millennia old by the time its ruins were "founded" as a Roman colony under the name Aelia Capitolina. This seems to have occurred in A.D. 130, just before the Bar Kokhba War (A.D. 132-135), under the Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), whose image appears on coins of struck at Aelia. Among his coins are those showing a canonical "foundation" scene in which a veiled man – either the emperor or a priest – guides a yoke of oxen in a symbolic ritual. Roman emperors struck a variety of types in base metal at Aelia for more than a century, until A.D. 251. Shown here is a 22-mm bronze of Aelia with the confronted busts of the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (A.D. 161-169) and the bust of the god Serapis.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group

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