By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
The year: 70 CE.
The location: Jerusalem.
The future emperor Titus’ legions unleashed their pent-up rage on the Jewish people as fires raged and the Second Temple crumbled. Projected by the spear tips of some 60,000 soldiers, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who believed that Roman Imperium could ever end in Judaea.
A fiercely independent people, the Jews of Judaea continually chafed under Roman control. Following the takeover of Judaea in 6 CE, Jewish dissidents launched a campaign of “terrorist acts” aimed at Roman officials (Sheldon, 1). No imperial state can stand outright challenges to their authority without retaliation, so the Roman officials resorted to “sharply repressive measures” in their dealings with the local inhabitants (Sheldon, 6).
Thus, due to the buildup of “mass discontent and dissatisfaction” (Sheldon, 2), the Great Revolt flared to life between the Romans and the Jews in 63 CE when the Roman governor Gessius Florus looted the Second Temple. Despite resorting to brutal guerilla tactics as the war dragged on, the Jewish fighters were thoroughly overwhelmed. After the capture of Jerusalem, the war slowly wound down until the last rebels committed suicide within the fortress at Masada.
Concurrently, in 69 CE, Galba, the governor of Hispania (Spain), rebelled against the Roman emperor Nero, launching a short yet bloody civil war. In quick succession, the emperor committed suicide and Galba began his march to Rome. Otho, the governor of neighboring Lusitania (Portugal), then revolted, causing Galba’s assassination after only seven months on the throne. Vitellius, a genial and well-liked general, soon left his headquarters in Germania (Germany). Marching south, he claimed the throne from Otho and ruled for only a tumultuous eight months. He later surrendered to Vespasian.
Since Vespasian came to power during a civil war, he needed to quickly solidify his right to rule and in a manner which would brook no dissent. In need of cash and wanting to send a signal of strength, Vespasian turned to his most recent military victory for legitimacy.
First, he levied the punitive Fiscus Judaicus tax against all five million of his Jewish subjects (Livius). This tax increased and redirected the historic two denarii temple tax called the “Ioudaiōn telesma or didrachmon” that all Jewish adult males paid to the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem (Keddie, 58). Under the new law, all Jewish citizens, including women and children, paid the tax that was conveyed instead to the Temple of Jupiter Maximus in Rome forcing the monotheistic Jews to support a pagan institution (Keddie, 58).
With this massive influx of cash, estimated at 40 million sesterces, Vespasian began striking vast numbers of Judaea Capta coins (Livius). This series was struck “in all metals—not only gold and silver” and was “on the poor man’s brass, the money of the people, even to the little quadrans with its emblematic palm-tree” (Keddie, 42).
By the end of the Flavian dynasty, the Judaea Capta series had such high mintage numbers and became so widespread that it symbolized the era’s coinage.
More than 17 distinct types minted under Vespasian and Titus exist today (Rocca). While the imagery of the Judaea Capta series varies, the reverses commonly depict four main elements, the most recognizable of which is the Judaean captive. This figure, “usually a female, is depicted seated, with her right hand in her lap, her left elbow on her left knee and her head resting on that hand in a general attitude of dejection” (Keddie, 38), as can be seen on the gold aureus below.
While most numismatists assume that this female Jewish figure is an allegory of the province Judaea, it is possible to infer that she represents the defeated Jewish people as a whole. If true, this raises an interesting prospect. If Vespasian used the Judaea Capta imagery as a representation of the Jewish people, he further stigmatized Roman Jews. Furthermore, because the coins were so widespread, it is not inconceivable that Jews would have paid the Fiscus Judaicus with the Judaea Capta denarii. It is hard to imagine a more degrading non-violent political act than forcing a conquered people to pay what amounted to a perpetual war indemnity, with the very coins that served to denigrate them as a defeated and inferior people.
The second main image on the Judaea Capta series, a date tree with seven fronds, symbolizes the province of Judaea and its agricultural bounty that flourished despite the Levant’s vast deserts. This variety of bronze Æ minted in the recently pacified Judaea only depicts a palm tree and no captive, as shown below. The locals might have had a greater or at least different understanding of the palm tree imagery than Roman subjects thousands of miles away in, say, Britannia.
Usually, while it does not appear alone, the third main element of the Judaea Capta imagery is a group of trophies. The inclusion of a military trophy–captured weapons and armor hung from a tree or post–represents a military victory over the defeated enemy, as shown on the silver denarius of Titus below, promote the emperor’s martial success.
What is remarkable about this motif is the fact that Roman coins tended to reserve military trophies for conquered foreign foes, not recently pacified rebellious provinces. For example, Julius Caesar employed similar military propaganda when a moneyer at his traveling military mints struck denarii with a Gaulic captive pictured below a military trophy strikingly similar to that on the Judaea Capta series, as seen below.
It was not uncommon for these events to be “played down” by an emperor “because provincial unrest reflected poorly on their … claims to be the guarantors of the Roman order” (Keddie, 30). While foreign defeats and barbarian invasions all proved difficult for emperors to overcome, domestic unrest struck directly at imperial legitimacy.
After the Julio-Claudian dynasty ended with Nero’s death, an emperor’s legitimacy rested on his strength, his military successes, and his ability to maintain order and security throughout the empire. Before, imperial legitimacy sprang from a familial relationship to Julius Caesar and Augustus. Rebellious provinces should be quickly suppressed and brought back into the fold. Rising to power after a civil war and years of brutal Neronian misrule, Vespasian inherited an exhausted empire and no external military victories. As a result, he used the subjugation of Judaea to “legitimate his family’s claim to the imperial throne, and later, commemorate the Flavian record of military prowess” (Keddie, 30).
Victory, the fourth major recurring motif on the Judaea Capta series, can be seen on this Æ Sestertius of Vespasian minted in Rome. This goddess possessed a “symbolic value” that was integral to the “fate of Rome” and she appears on coinage promoting an imperial victory (Keddie, 20). This underscores the view of the Jewish people as outsiders and non-Romans by the empire’s pagan population. Even though the emperor intended to strengthen his power base by promoting his only major military victory, Vespasian portrayed himself as the restorer of peace and the Jewish people as defeated barbarians.
Judaea Capta imagery was not a Flavian innovation; they merely popularized it.
In fact, this series is reminiscent of the Victoria Augusti series a hundred years prior. Octavian (Augustus) struck two denarii, seen below, commemorating his capture of Egypt and Armenia in the civil war between himself and his fellow triumvirs, Mark Antony and Lepidus. While neither included any imagery similar to the later Judaea Capta series, they did use the actual word “Capta” in their inscriptions.
An interesting mistake on a Judaea Capta sestertius from the collection of S. Moussaieff further demonstrates the influence of this earlier Augustan. The legend on the sestertius’s reverse reads “IVDAEA AVGVST SC” (Barag, 1978, pg 18) instead of IVDAEA CAPTA.
Over 25 years of active minting, this politically motivated series helped shore up the Flavian regime by promoting imperial strength and reaching and back to Augustan triumphs. Yet the Judaea Capta coinage promoted the spread of imperial ideology at the expense of the Jewish people. However, these coins remain quite popular with collectors and actually relatively common. A low-quality AS may sell for as low as $50-75, a mid-range AR denarius may cost $150 and an interesting rare type may cost $4-5,000.
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Barag, D. (1978). “The Palestinian “Judaea Capta” Coins of Vespasian and Titus and the Era on the Coins of Agrippa II Minted under the Flavians”, The Numismatic Chronicle (1966-), 18, 14–23.
Deutsch, R. (2010). “Roman Coins Boast ‘Judaea Capta'”, Biblical Archaeology Review, 51–53.
Keddie, G. (2013). IUDAEA CAPTA, IUDAEA INVICTA: The Subversion of Flavian Ideology in Fourth Ezra [MA Thesis]. University of Texas at Austin.
Livius. (2020, April 28). Fiscus Judaicus.
Rocca, S. (n.d.). “Domitian attitude towards the Jews in the light of his numismatic output”, Israel Numismatic Journal 18, 25.
Sheldon, R. M. (1994). “Taking on Goliath: The Jews Against Rome, AD 66–73“, Small Wars & Insurgencies 5(1), 1–28.
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).