Early Roman Numismatic Commentary on Judea

By David Hendin for CoinWeek …..

Books and articles have been written about the Roman numismatic commentary on the Flavian victory over the Jews at Jerusalem in 70 CE and Masada in 73 CE.

The earlier relationship between Judea, its neighbors, and Rome is memorialized by two Roman Republican denarii. I wrote about them in an article in “Judaea and Rome: The Early Numismatic Commentary, First Century BCE”, in FIDES Contributions to Numismatics in Honor of Richard B. Witschonke, which I have adapted for readers of CoinWeek. Not incidentally, Rick Witschonke was a dear friend and colleague of mine at the American Numismatic Society (ANS) and one of his generations’ leading students of Roman Republican coins. The two coins I wrote about tell of Roman conquest in Nabataea and ancient Israel more than a century before the Jewish War.

One reason I enjoy studying ancient coins is that they are an actual early form of what today we call mass media. “The Romans had not wireless, but they did possess a means of propaganda which they used with extraordinary skill… coinage. Coins passed through the hands of the highest and lowest … and upon these coins were placed words and symbols that could be understood by the simplest,” M.P. Charlesworth wrote in 1937.

Pompey the Great besieged Jerusalem in 63 BCE. He thus intervened in the civil war between the Hasmonean brothers Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. The brothers’ war began when their mother, Queen Salome Alexandra (76–67 BCE), died. She had been widowed by both Judah Aristobulus I (ruled 104-103 BCE) and Alexander Jannaeus (ruled 103–76 BCE). According to Josephus (War 1.126), Aristobulus supported the Sadducees and had ousted his Pharisee-oriented brother from both the throne and the high priesthood in Jerusalem. Hyrcanus II’s advisor was Antipater the Idumaean, father of Herod I, and he was supported by the Nabataean king Aretas III.

Denarius commemorating the defeat of Aretas III by Roman General M. Scarus. M. Aemilius Scarus and Pub. Plautius Hypsaeus. 58 BCE. AR Denarius (18mm, 3.96 gm, 6h). King Aretas of Nabataea kneeling beside camel; M SCAVR/AED CVR in two lines above, [E]X S C across field; REX ARETAS in exergue / Jupiter in quadriga; scorpion to left, P. HVPSAE/AED CVR in two lines above, [CAPTV] to right, C HYPSAE CO[S]/PREIVE in two lines in exergue. Crawford 422/1b; Sydenham 913; Aemilia 8.. (Photo courtesy Classical Numismatic Group CNGcoins.com)
This was a time when Pompey was consolidating power in the Province of Syria. He sent his officer M. Amelius Scarus from Damascus to Jerusalem, where he met with both of the Hasmonean brothers. Josephus tells us that a bribe by Aristobulus settled the matter: “three hundred talents offered by Aristobulus outweighed considerations of justice.” Scarus also sent Aretas III and his army back to Nabataea and on the way, Aristobulus II’s troops soundly defeated them (War 1.128).

Pompey later personally met the two brothers in Damascus in 63 BCE and told them he would resolve their conflict when he arrived in Jerusalem. Aristobulus II was not satisfied and departed with his army to his fortress at Alexandrium on the northern boundary of Judea (also known as Sartaba) (War 1.134). This behavior enraged Pompey, who chased Aristobulus until he surrendered. Pompey then sent his General Aulus Gabinius to take Jerusalem, where Aristobulus’ followers refused to surrender. Pompey then had Aristobulus arrested and prepared to besiege the capital (War 1.137 – 143).

In Jerusalem, some of Hyrcanus II’s supporters opened a gate for the Romans, thus allowing them to gain a foothold and, after three months of siege and battle, to capture the area surrounding the Temple (War 1.142). The dramatic conclusion, as reported by Josephus, was Pompey’s entrance into the Temple:

“Of all the calamities of that time none so deeply affected the nation as the exposure to alien eyes of the Holy Place, hitherto screened from view.

Pompey indeed, along with his staff, penetrated to the sanctuary, entry to which was permitted to none but the high priest, and beheld what it contained: the candelabrum and lamps, the table, the vessels for libation and censers, all of solid gold, an accumulation of spices, and the store of sacred money amounting to two thousand talents. However, he touched neither these nor any other of the sacred treasures and, the very day after the capture of the Temple, gave orders to the custodians to cleanse it and to resume the customary sacrifices. He reinstated Hyrcanus as high priest in return for his enthusiastic support shown during the siege, particularly in detaching from Aristobulus large numbers of the rural population who were anxious to join his standards. By these methods, in which goodwill played a larger part than terrorism, he, like the able general he was, conciliated the people” (Ant. 14.4).

Pompey’s military adventures in the east led to the issue of two very similar Republican denarii. First is the coin struck in 58 BCE. by M. Amelius Scarus and P. Plautius Hypsaeus (Photo 1), which commemorated Scarus’s defeat of Aretas III. The coin’s reverse depicts a camel with a bearded male kneeling alongside it while holding a palm branch. The figure is identified by legend as REX ARETAS (this coin is one of the earliest examples of a Roman moneyer memorializing an event from his personal history on a coin).

Denarius of BACCHIVS IVDAEVS struck by A. Plautius. A. Plautius. 55 BCE. AR Denarius (4.08 g). Rome mint. Turreted head of Cybele right, wearing cruciform earring, hair in knot, locks falling down neck; AED • CVR • S • C downwards to left, A • PLAVTIVS downwards to right / Bacchius kneeling right beside his camel, holding reins in left hand and extending olive branch upward in right; IVDAEVS upwards to right, BACCHIVS in exergue. Crawford 431/1; Sydenham 932; Kestner 3479-80; BMCRR Rome 3916-9; Plautia 13. (Photo courtesy Classical Numismatic Group CNGcoins.com)

The second coin, struck in 54 BCE by A. Plautius (Photo 2), has a reverse motif that is nearly identical to the camel and kneeling male, but on this coin, the legend is BACCHIVS IVDAEVS. The camel on both coins is so remarkable that H. J. St. Hart suggests (1952) that “these issues were opportunities seized to introduce the weird and wonderful eastern beast, the camel, to a delighted and curious public.”

“Bacchius the Jew” has been an enigma in numismatics. The most popular explanation has been that the figure on the coin represents Aristobulus II, an ally of Aretas III, and commemorates Aristobulus’ unsuccessful insurrection against both his brother Hyrcanus II and Pompey.

But there is a general similarity between the two kneeling males – they wear the same beard, the same hair, the same robes, and kneel in the same pose. These similarities suggest just “how incidental in the official eyes at this period was the detail of the eastern campaigns as far as the Jews and the Nabataean Arabs were concerned,” according to St. Hart. Each figure was little more than a generic representation of an eastern potentate.

The legend BACCHIVS IVDAEVS, however, is far from generic. Unfortunately, we have no records, or even legends, of Bacchius the Jew. Who was this “mystery man of the Roman official commentary of Judaea?” asks St. Hart, who suggests “he was certainly some military leader of at least considerable local importance…”

On the other hand, St. Hart observes that while both coin types were intended to enhance Roman military prestige, “There is no thought here that Judea is a major military liability as it afterward became. The Jewish question is obviously over. This numismatic reference to it may be half-playful.”

Unlike the later Vitellius and Flavian series of coins, the Republican denarii do not commemorate Rome conquering Judea. Instead, Pompey’s adventures in Judea marked Rome’s earliest incursion and victory there. In this way, the denarii commemorated the beginning of a change of the axis of power in ancient Judea. The Jews continued to retain their own rulers, but they began to tilt away from the Greeks of Egypt and Syria and toward Rome.

I have suggested that BACCHIVS IVDAEVS is tauntingly mischievous Roman satire, or outright prejudice, aimed at the Jews. Roman historians report that many Greeks and Romans considered the ancient Jewish religion to be a cult of Dionysus, the popular god of grapes and wine-making, feasting, drunken behavior, and ecstasy.

Josephus does not talk about this but tells us that Herod I donated a golden vine to the Temple (Ant. 15. 394). This vine was probably used to hang golden grapes and vine leaves that were donated to the Temple (Talmud Middot 3.8). The vine was said to be part of the booty taken to Rome by Titus.

Among the important prayers in Judaism, both ancient and modern, are those which call upon the monotheistic God to bless “the fruit of the vine.” Grapes were also one of the seven species listed in Deuteronomy 8:8 as special products of the ancient Land of Israel.

Judaism, however, was and is monotheistic, and there has never been a relationship between Judaism and Dionysus.

In spite of the reality, ancient Roman histories are rife with associations between Dionysus and the Jews. Plutarch wrote that Sukkot (Tabernacles) was a Bacchanalia, “…they sit under tabernacles made of vines and ivy, and the day which immediately goes before this they call the day of Tabernacles. Within a few days after they celebrate another feast … openly dedicated to Bacchus… when they enter the temple … I know not (what they do) …but it is very probable that they perform the rites of Bacchus” (Plutarch 4.6)

At around the same time, the anti-Jewish historian Tacitus wrote that the “practices of the Jews are sinister and revolting, and have entrenched themselves by their very wickedness… their priests used to perform their chants to the flute and drums, crowned with ivy, and a golden vine was discovered in the Temple, and this has led some to imagine that the god thus worshipped was Prince Liber (Bacchus)… but the two cults are diametrically opposed. Liber founded a festive and happy cult: the Jewish belief is paradoxical and degraded” (Histories 5.5).

Based on the culture and information of the time, we conclude that BACCHIVS IVDAEVS was very likely a mischievous pun that added derision to defeat. Pompey and the Romans had neither use for nor a conception of a mysterious monotheistic religion that did not involve the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods.
Send your questions to me at dhendin@numismatics.org and I will try to answer questions of general interest in this space in the future.

© 2021 by David Hendin

Parts of some CoinWeek articles may be adapted from my previous articles or my Guide to Biblical Coins.

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David Hendin is First Vice President and an Adjunct Curator at the American Numismatic Society (ANS). Send him your questions at dhendin@numismatics.org and he will try to answer questions of general interest in this space in the future.



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