The Seleukid "Alliance"
130-129 BCE
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At the end of the Chanukah story, everyone rejoices because Antiochos and his troops have been thrown out of Jerusalem, and presumably, "they all lived happily ever after". So what's this little coin, minted in Jerusalem by Jews 35 years later, with the legend in Greek that reads "Of King Antiochos, Benefactor"?? And what's this I hear about Jewish troops fighting alongside Syrians, not against them??

While Simon, brother of Judah Maccabee, ruled Judaea as High Priest, their Seleukid overlords were engaged in almost constant internal struggles, which gave the Jewish nation an opportunity to expand and grow stronger. When the Seleukids' attention finally turned outward again, they were more interested in Parthia than Jerusalem.

Antiochos VII of Syria, 138-129 BCE
This silver tetradrachm is roughly the size of a U.S. half dollar. The front features the portrait of Antiochos VII, and the reverse features Athena.

The Sekeukid king Antiochos VII decided to eliminate the Parthian problem once and for all. But first, he wanted to consolidate his position as overlord of the remaining Seleukid lands, including Judaea. He laid siege to Jerusalem, but entered into negotiations with John Hyrcanus I, who had succeeded his father as the Jewish High Priest. Antiochos promised not to invade Jerusalem nor suppress the Jewish religion if John Hyrcanus I would recognize him as Judaea's rightful overlord, pay him "tribute" (taxes), and send troops to help him fight the Parthians. Antiochos also threw in the right for Hyrcanus to mint small-denomination coinage for Judaea. Hyrcanus agreed.

Minted under the joint authority of Antiochos VII and John Hyrcanus I, 130 BCE
This bronze lepton was the earliest "Jewish" coin. It has a lily (the symbol of Jerusalem) on the front, and an anchor on the reverse. It was minted with permission from Antiochos VII, and the reverse legend reads (in Greek): BASILEOS ANTIOXOU / EUERGETOU (pronounced approximately, Basileos Anteeochou Euergetou), translating to "Of King Antiochos, Benefactor".

On this example, the lily on the obverse is off-center, and the bottom is lost; but the legends on the reverse are clearer than most. To the left of the anchor running bottom to top, you can see the bottom of "...[ASILEOS]" and "[A]NTIOXOU". The "[EUE]RGET..." of the last word appear to the right of the anchor. (... indicates letters absent; [brackets] enclose letters that are present, but hard to read) (H 451)

So, friends at last, off they marched to attack the Parthians, who happened to be ruled by a clever fellow named Phraates II.

Phraates II, 138-127 BCE
This silver drachm (pronounced "dram") was minted by the Parthians under Phraates II, and features his portrait.

Phraates had an ace in the hole, in the form of Antiochos VII's older brother, Demetrios II. Demetrios had been Seleukid king before Antiochos, but had been captured by the Parthians some ten years before. However, they had not killed him. In fact, they treated him rather well, and Demetrios was now married to Phraates's sister. After Phraates ascended the throne, Demetrios found himself in the odd position of being both the captive and the brother in law of the king of Parthia.

When Antiochos entered Parthia at the head of this huge Seleukid army (that also happened to include some Judaean soldiers), he looked unbeatable. Phraates did not engage him, but basically just let Antiochos and his army run around the countryside for a while, pretty much unopposed. But then he played his "ace": He released Demetrios.

Demetrios II of Syria,
145-140 BCE and 129-125 BC
This silver drachm ("dram") is roughly the size of a U.S. dime. The front features the portrait of Demetrios II, and the back features Zeus. It is from his second reign.

Suddenly having two kings, the Seleukid armies were thrown into chaos. Phraates took this opportunity to attack and wipe out the Seleukids. Antiochos VII was killed, so Demetrios was able to re-ascend the Seleukid throne unopposed.

You might think it was bad to be on the losing side of this war, but just the opposite proved true for the Judaeans ...


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