The Romans In Charge
37 BCE - 66 CE
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Herod I wasn't of the right family to be "High Priest", but the Romans made him King. The people of Judaea never grew comfortable with the change of leadership, and the reign of the Herodians (managed by Roman "procurators") was plagued by nearly constant unrest.

For a brief time, Herod Agrippa (a grandson of Herod I) seemed to have the political will and skills to possibly regain some measure of autonomy for the Jewish nation, but he died unexpectedly, and the potential was not realized.

Through most of the century, rebellion seethed just beneath the surface ...


Herod I, "The Great", was not a popular ruler. Without direct Roman support, he wouldn't have lasted long, and he knew it. He did make significant improvements to the Temple, but his other building projects were very much in the Roman style, and his allegiance to Rome was clear.

He constructed a nearly impregnable retreat at Masada*, where he could hold out indefinitely until the Romans could rescue him if the hatred of his subjects ever flared up into civil war. But Herod lived to a ripe old age, ruling until his death in 4 BCE**.

WHOSE COIN IS IT, ANYWAY?

After the death of Herod the Great, Judaean coinage gets confusing because there were two different authorities entitled to mint coins. First were the Roman governors. Known first as Prefects, then later as Procurators, they were officials of the Roman government. They minted coins in the name of the Emperor, not their own names.

Then there were the Jewish rulers, approved by Rome but not members of the Roman government. They were in charge of local affairs only. Based on the size of territory under their control and the amount of authority allowed them by Rome, they might bear the title of King, Ethnarch, or Tetrarch.

To make matters worse, the Romans were constantly tinkering with the local Jewish government. They would divide Judaea into different sized pieces, administered by various sons and grandsons of Herod "The Great", many of whom also went by the name of Herod. Thus, several Herods might be simultaneously ruling different pieces of Judaea, and incidentally minting coinage.

For instance, at the time of the sedition trial of Jesus, three different authorities minted coins in Judaea. Two are well known to Christians -- Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator under whom the trial was held, and Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, the "Tetrarch" of northwest Judaea, including the Galilee, Jesus's home territory. The third, Herod Philip (brother of Herod Antipas) was the Tetrarch of northeastern Judaea. Fortunately for our sanity, only Herod Antipas was using the name "Herod" (HPWD in Greek) on coins at the time. His brother used Philip (FILI P).

 

Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch,
4 BCE - 6 CE
This perutah features a bunch of grapes and the name "HRWDOY" (Of Herod) in Greek on the obverse, and a tall helment with crest and cheek straps, along with the title "EXNAPXOY" (Ethnarch) in Greek, on the reverse. (Hendin 505)

Upon Herod's death, Emperor Augustus divided the Judaean kingdom among his three sons. The largest piece was given to his eldest son, Herod Archelaus. Augustus gave him the title "Ethnarch", rather than King. Augustus told him that he would have to earn the title of King. But Archelaus was hated even worse than his father. Both the Jews and Samaritans petitioned Rome to have him removed.

Marcus Ambibulus, Prefect, 9-12 CE
This bronze perutah features a stalk of barley with KAICAROC (Greek for Caesar) on the obverse, and a date palm on the reverse. The date consists of the Greek letters LLF, which identifies this as being from year 39 of Augustus's reign, or 9 CE. Ambibulus was the second prefect under Augustus, and ruled with relatively little controversy.

On this example, the KAICA is relatively clear to the left of the barley stalk but the rest is worn mostly away. The reverse is off-center and the top of the palm tree is lost, but the date is visible. The L is under the left-hand cluster of dates, and the LF can be seen to the right of the trunk, with the L directly under the date cluster. (Hendin 636)

In 6 CE, Archelaus was banished and his territories were formally annexed by Rome to its Syrian province. Augustus appointed a Roman Governor (originally called "Prefect", then later, "Procurator") appointed to rule the region, though he answered to the Governor of Syria.

Herod Antipas, Tetrarch,
4 BCE to 40 CE
This coin is a double-perutah. The obverse features a palm branch and the legend HRWDOU TETRARCOU (Herod, Tetrarch), and the date LLG (year 33, or 29 CE). The reverse features a wreath; inside is TIBEPIAC (Tiberias), the city in which it was minted, named for the then-current emperor Tiberius. (Hendin 513)

Another of Herod I's sons, Herod Antipas, did somewhat better with the territories willed to him. He, however, is the most reviled of all the Herodians among Christians; it was he who ordered John the Baptist beheaded to please his stepdaughter, Salome, and it was he to whom Pontius Pilate sent Jesus, since Jesus was a Galilean, and Antipas's territories included the Galilee.

Pontius Pilate, Procurator
This perutah features three stalks of barley (two drooping) with the Greek legend IOULIA KAICAROC on the obverse, and a simpulum (ladle) with the Greek legend TIBERIOU KAICAROC ("Of Tiberius, Caesar") on the reverse.

The simpulum was an affront to Jews, since it was used by Roman priests in sacrificing to pagan gods. It might have been ignorance or a deliberate insult. The three stalks of barley on the obverse seem inoffensive enough. But they are bound, and two are drooping. Some speculate that this is a reference to the Jews "wilting" in Roman captivity. Compare it to the three "perky" unbound stalks of barley on the coin of Herod Agrippa I below. (Hendin 648)

Probably the most infamous of the Roman governors was Pontius Pilate. Christians know him as the Governor who convicted Jesus of sedition. He also showed either insensitivity to or complete ignorance of the Jewish religious attitudes and customs. He imported busts of the Emperor, a direct affront to the Jewish proscription against graven images. Also, on his coins, he used pagan cult symbols abhorrent to the Jews of that day. He was finally recalled to Rome.

Herod Agrippa, King, 37-44 CE
This bronze perutah features a fringed canopy on the obverse and three stalks of wheat on the reverse. Note the absence of portraits, or anything that could be considered a "graven image" under Jewish law. It was minted in Jerusalem. Agrippa's coins minted outside Jerusalem, however, usually featured the face of either the Roman emperor or of Agrippa himself. (Hendin 553)

Things were a bit better under Herod Agrippa, a grandson of Herod I. In him were combined the blood lines of the Hasmoneans (whose memory was still revered) and the Herodians. He was also well liked in Rome, by both the emperor Caligula and his successor, Claudius. As boys, Agrippa and Caligula had been playmates. Agrippa had run afoul of the emperor Tiberius, who threw him into prison; but he was released and made King of Judaea when Tiberius died and Caligula came to power. For seven years, Judaea had a Jewish king again, though he still answered to Rome.

Initially, Agrippa appeared completely loyal to Rome, in the Herodian tradition, but gradually he showed more nationalistic sentiments. He began a massive building project, constructing fortifications that, if completed, would have made it exceedingly difficult for Rome to put down a rebellion.

He was always careful to maintain the appearance of being a good Roman lackey, though, and both Caligula and Claudius added territory to the Judaean province under Agrippa's control. But when he died suddenly in Caesarea, the Romans abolished the role of Judaean king again, and left the province exclusively in the hands of Roman procurators.

Antonius Felix,
Procurator, 52-59 CE
Porcius Festus
Procurator, 59-62 CE
Though married to a Jewish woman, Antonius Felix was not well liked by his subjects. The historian Tacitus wrote, "He exercised the prerogative of a king in the spirit of a slave, with superlative cruelty and licentiousness." His bronze perutah features two crossed shields and two spears on the obverse, and a date palm on the reverse. It honors Emperor Claudius's two sons, Nero Claudius Caesar and Drusus. (Hendin 652)

Porcius Festus was a procurator of little note. His reign warrants a mere footnote in the histories -- just another of those nasty Roman procurators. This coin was minted in year 5 of Nero's reign, 58 CE. The obverse features a palm branch and the Greek legend KAICAPO (Caesar), and the reverse has NEPWNOC (Nero) in a wreath. (Hendin 653)

The procurators usually didn't know or care about the Jewish customs, traditions, and religious laws. Under them, resentment against Roman rule grew. Hard-core Jewish rebels, known as Zealots, began committing violence against Romans and Jews who were considered too "friendly" with the Romans. Eventually, something would have to give ...


* The irony of Masada was that Herod's stronghold, intended to be used (if necessary) against the Jewish population, would later be used by the anti-Roman Jewish "Zealots"; so well was it laid out that it would take the Romans four years to dislodge them.

** An interesting side bar is that, since the Christian New Testament places the birth of Jesus in the reign of Herod I, it is clear that the monk who calculated the "year 1" based on the birth of Jesus committed an error. Current best estimates place the birth of Jesus somewhere between 7 BCE and 4 BCE.


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