The Hasmonean Dynasty
129 - 40 BCE
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The Hasmoneans, relatives of the legendary Judah Maccabee, ruled Judaea for quite some time. But the Romans were just over the horizon. John Hyrcanus I had taken the opportunity provided by Antiochos VII's disastrous war against the Parthians to contact the Romans and seek recognition and protection, two things which the Romans were happy to give.

But it was just a matter of time before the Romans would turn an acquisitive eye southward from Syria ...


The Seleukid Kingdom had been severely weakened by its disastrous campaign against Parthia. John Hyrcanus I, Judaean High Priest and nephew of the legendary Judah Maccabee, took advantage of this to continue to expand the Jewish nation.

John Hyrcanus I, 134 - 104 BCE
This bronze prutah is one of many minted after the Jewish nation became essentially independent from the Seleukids. The legend refers to "Yehohanan (John Hyrcanus I) the High Priest and the Council of the Jews" in archaic Hebrew. The reverse features a double cornucipia with a pomegranate between them.

Under him, the Jewish nation conquered the Samaritans and the Edomites, forcing the Edomites to convert to Judaism or leave. This is thought to be the first example of forced conversion in Jewish history. This was later to contribute to the downfall of the Hasmonean dynasty, as the Edomites who chose to convert happened to include a family by the name of Herod (you may have heard of them), but for now, the Jewish nation under the Hasmoneans was on a roll.

Alexander Jannaeus, 103-76 BCE
This type of coin, commonly called a "widow's mite", was the smallest denomination coin in the region. It is named for the New Testament story in which Jesus praised the poor widow as being more virtuous for giving two tiny coins in her poverty than were the wealthy who gave much more from their surplus.

It features an anchor on the obverse, with the Greek legend BASILEWS ALEXANDROU (King Alexander). On the reverse, it features a wagon wheel; between the spokes, it says "King Alexander" in archaic Hebrew. On this example, the name of Alexander on the obverse is off the flan, and the Hebrew letters on the reverse are nearly worn away. (H. 469)

The Hasmonean Dynasty lasted until either 40 or 37 BCE, depending upon whom you ask. Under Alexander Jannaeus, the Jewish nation grew to about the size it had been in the legendary time of Kings David and Solomon.

But the Hasmonean reign was far from smooth. A religious group, the Pharisees, grew up to challenge the traditional power of the High Priests. They supported a separation of religion from government, dividing the roles of King and High Priest. Jannaeus publicly expressed his contempt for the Pharisees, leading to a riot and civil war that continued until Jannaeus died.

When Jannaeus died, power went to his wife, Salome. On her death, a struggle for succession broke out between Jannaeus's two sons, John Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II.

Pompey in Judaea, 58 - 54 BCE
Two Roman denarii were minted to commemorate Pompey's intervention in Judaea. Both feature a kneeling supplicant next to a camel.

The first (H. 740) represents the surrender of King Aretas III (a supporter of John Hyrcanus II) to Pompey's general Marcus Scaurus. The obverse features Aretas facing right, kneeling next to a camel, offering the olive branch of peace. Its legend reads: M SCAVR AED CVR / EX SC / REX ARETAS The reverse features the Roman god Jupiter driving a four-horse chariot, and bears the legend PHYPSAE AED CVR / CAPTIVM / CHYPSAE COS PREIVE.

The second (H. 741) is more enigmatic. It also features a kneeling supplicant, identified as "Bacchius the Jew". But history doesn't record who "Bacchius" is. The two main contenders are Aristobulus II himself and Dionysius, the ruler of Tripoli at the time. Its obverse features the Roman goddess Cybelle and the legend A. PLAVTIVS AED. CVR. S.C. The reverse features a kneeling supplicant offering an olive branch and the legend "BACCHIVS IVDAEVS".

In 63 BCE, the famous Roman general Pompey was in the area, so they went to him to settle their dispute. (Did I mention that the Romans had taken over Syria, and the Seleukids were now no more?)

John Hyrcanus II, 63-40 BCE
By the time of John Hyrcanus II, the quality of the coins had dropped even lower. Most (like this one) were barely legible, usually off-center and with devices that looked hastily drawn.

Pompey eventually favored Hyrcanus, and set him up as a puppet ruler, weakening and shrinking Judaea in the process. But the real power now lay with Antipater, an Edomite who had encouraged and advised Hyrcanus in his struggle against his younger brother, and who had (incidentally) courted favor with Rome. Antipater knew that he and his sons could not aspire to the hereditary Jewish high priesthood, so he threw his support to propping up the indecisive and malleable Hyrcanus, satisfied that he and his sons were the real power in Judaea.

Antipater proved remarkably adept at riding out the changing tides of the political situation in Rome. First, he was a loyal and dedicated supporter of the Roman general Pompey; then, after Pompey was defeated by Julius Caesar, Antipater became Caesar's best friend and greatest fan, treating Caesar's general Marc Antony quite well when he was in town. After Caesar's assassination, power in the Roman east passed briefly to Cassius, an anti-Caesar conspirator. Well, guess who was the most helpful fellow ("I never liked that Caesar fellow anyway") for miles around, being the first to ante up large sums of "tribute" required by Cassius? That's right. Our boy, Antipater, and his second son, Herod.

Antipater then managed to get himself poisoned by one of his Jewish enemies, but his son Herod carried on the tradition of loyalty to whomever happened to be in town. Cassius promised Herod the rule of Judaea in exchange for military support, which he gladly provided. Then when Cassius wound up dead and Marc Antony became the new ruler of the Roman east, Herod managed through bribery and flattery, and through reminding Antony of his father's "loyal service" under Caesar ("We never liked those Republican fellows anyway") to be picked by Antony as ruler of Judaea. By my count, this means that, as a tag team, Antipater and Herod managed to successfully switch sides three times -- quite an accomplishment, to my way of thinking.


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