CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: Coinage of the Jewish War

Coinage of the Jewish War Graphic

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek ....
 

The other practices of the Jews are sinister and revolting, and have entrenched themselves by their very wickedness. Wretches of the most abandoned kind who had no use for the religion of their fathers took to contributing dues and free-will offerings to swell the Jewish exchequer; and other reasons for their increasing wealth may be found in their stubborn loyalty and ready benevolence towards brother Jews. But the rest of the world they confront with the hatred reserved for enemies[1].

Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56 – 120 CE), The Histories. 5:2-5

ELITE ROMANS WERE GENERALLY TOLERANT of the customs and beliefs of those they conquered (this was rarely an equal encounter, since most of the subject peoples that a Roman of the senatorial class would have met were slaves). But the Jews were a problem; they insisted on worshipping only their single invisible God, refusing to permit images of other gods in their holy city, Jerusalem.

Procurators. Pontius Pilate 26-36 CE. Æ Prutah (15mm, 2.64 g, 11h)

Procurators. Pontius Pilate 26-36 CE. Æ Prutah (15mm, 2.64 g, 11h)

At least the educated Jews knew Greek like every literate Roman. Of course they fought among themselves endlessly[2]. In exasperation, Rome terminated the rule of its Jewish client dynasty, the Herodians, in 6 CE, establishing Judaea as a province governed by an appointed praefectus (until 41 CE) or procurator (44 – 132 CE). The most famous of these was Pontius Pilate (26 – 36 CE), whose small bronze prutot, issued in the name of Emperor Tiberius, depict implements used in Roman rituals: a lituus, (a spiral wand) or a simpulum (a ladle used to pour out offerings). Gessius Florus (64 – 66), appointed by Nero and one of the worst procuratores, did much to provoke a disastrous revolt known as the Jewish War.

It was rumored that Gessius owed his job to the patronage of Nero's wife Poppaea.

The Revolt Begins

In the Autumn of 66, Florus seized 17 talents from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem, claiming it was due for back taxes. Assuming this was the “Attic” or Greek talent, that would be 969 pounds of nearly pure silver[3]. Predictably, this provoked a riot in the city, which was suppressed with predictable Roman brutality. But then, Eleazar, son of the high priest Ananias announced the termination of daily Temple sacrifices on behalf of the emperor. This had been a long-standing compromise; Jews would never sacrifice to the emperor or his gods, but as loyal citizens of the empire they were willing to perform the ritual in his name. To the Romans, this was a declaration of war. Florus fled to the coast, and the rebels besieged his troops in the Antonia fortress, the citadel of the city.

We know a lot about the events of the revolt because Josephus (Yosef ben Matityahu, 37- c. 100 CE,) a Jewish aristocrat given command of a rebel stronghold in Galilee, defected to the Romans, becoming a friend to Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus. Josephus wrote a detailed history of the war in Greek, later translated into Latin. The works of Josephus survive because they were copied and recopied in medieval monasteries. Church authorities considered his writings a source for the early history of Christianity.

Jewish War (66 - 70 AD). AR shekel (24mm, 13.34 gm, 10h)

Jewish War (66 - 70 AD). AR shekel (24mm, 13.34 gm, 10h)

One of the first acts of the rebels was to assert their independence by issuing silver coins. The “prototype” shekel of the first year of the revolt is one of the great rarities of Jewish coinage – only three are known. “The extreme rarity suggests the issue was very small, perhaps limited to a few trial strikes in the manner of a modern pattern,” wrote one cataloguer. One example is in the Israel Museum, another sold for $925,000 USD in a 2012 auction[4], and the third recently went for $600,000 against an estimate of $750,000[5].

The standard rebel coinage consists of silver shekels (about 14 grams), rare half shekels and very rare quarter shekels. The silver is extremely pure – 98 to 99%; better than the contemporary Roman denarius, which was debased to 94.5% by Nero.

Obverses depict a stemmed cup, surrounded by the inscription “Shekel of Israel” (or “Half Shekel”, or “Quarter Shekel”) written in archaic Hebrew letters that had not been used for centuries. The cup, sometimes described as a “chalice”, has a beaded rim, so it was not a practical drinking vessel (it would have dribbled). The scholarly consensus is that this is the omer cup, used for grain offerings in the Temple. The reverse shows a branch of three pomegranates, just at the point of turning from flowers into fruits. The consensus is that this represents the head of a staff carried by the high priest. The Hebrew inscription translates as “Jerusalem, the Holy”. This faintly echoes the Greek inscription on silver shekels of Tyre[6], previously the only coins accepted by the Temple as offerings: Tyrou Hieras Kai Asylou: “Of Tyre, the Holy and Inviolable”.

Jewish War. 66-70 AD. Shekel, 14.08g. , Year 5

Jewish War. 66-70 AD. Shekel, 14.08g. , Year 5

The coinage of the revolt is mostly dated, using Hebrew letters as numerals (alef=1, bet=2, gimel=3, daled=4, he=5). After Year 1, the letter shin (which looks like our "W") appears with the numeral as an abbreviation of the word shanat (“year”). Year 1 shekels are scarce; Years 2 and 3 are more common; Year 4 is very rare; and Year 5 is extremely rare, with only about 25 examples known. On Harlan Berk’s list of the 100 greatest ancient coins, the Year 5 shekel, struck between March and August of 70 CE, is number 37 (Berk, 91). An example brought $85,000 in a 2010 auction[7]. Because these coins circulated for such a brief period, they are generally in excellent condition.

To meet the needs of the population for small change, the rebels struck massive quantities of bronze prutot weighing about 2.5 grams. In normal times, a loaf of bread sold for about 10 prutot, but food prices during the siege were enormously inflated. The obverse shows a vase or jar usually described as an “amphora”, with the date spelled out in words (for example, Shanat Shtayim, “Year Two”). The obverse shows a vine leaf, with the slogan Herut Tsiyon, “Freedom of Zion”.

Emergency Coinage

The supply of silver for fractional coinage may have run short during the long siege of Jerusalem. Bronze emergency coinage was issued in denominations of half, quarter and eighth shekel. The designs are based on the plants used ritually in observing the harvest festival of Sukkot: a citron fruit (etrog) and a bundle of palm, myrtle and willow branches (lulav). By this time the prospects for the revolt were becoming increasingly grim, and the obverse slogan takes a less political, more spiritual turn: LG’LT ZYWN (“For the redemption of Zion”).

Vespasian. Æ Sestertius (26.97 g), AD 69-79. 'Judaea Capta' type

Vespasian. Æ Sestertius (26.97 g), AD 69-79. 'Judaea Capta' type

The little hilltop town of Gamla, east of the Sea of Galilee, joined the revolt and was besieged and destroyed by the Romans in 67 CE. It struck crude local bronze coinage in imitation of the Jerusalem rebels. Less than a dozen examples are known, almost all in Israeli museums, and experts disagree over the reading of the nearly illegible inscriptions. One example appeared in a 2012 auction, bringing $21,000 against an estimate of $30,000[8].

Aftermath

On August 3, 70 CE[9], the Romans breached the last defenses of Jerusalem, massacred the starving rebels and destroyed the Temple. Josephus insists that Titus had given orders to spare the building but that uncontrollable fires spread from nearby structures. Defeat of the Jewish revolt gave Rome an opportunity for massive looting and enormous profits from the sale of slaves. The spoils of Jerusalem funded construction of the Roman Colosseum.

The Romans commemorated their victory with extensive coin issues proclaiming IUDAEA CAPTA (“Judaea Captured”). The reverse of a bronze sestertius of Vespasian shows the emperor standing beside a date palm tree (a symbol of Judaea) and a seated Jewish female captive “in an attitude of mourning”. On the very popular silver denarius, the captive sits beside a “trophy of arms”, which was an elaborate display of captured weapons and armor that symbolized victory to Romans.

Modern commemorations of the Jewish-Roman War: Stamp and Old Shekel

Modern commemorations of the Jewish-Roman War: stamp and "Old" shekel cu-ni coin. 

Early in 70 CE, Titus issued a very rare commemorative gold aureus, struck at Antioch or by a military mint moving with the army in Judaea. In a 2012 auction an example sold for $800,000[10]. The coin is inscribed IUDAEA DEVICTA (“Judaea Defeated”), even though the war would drag on for another three years until the remote desert fortress of Masada was stormed by the 10th Legion.

Coins of the Jewish War have been in high demand with collectors for centuries and there are many fakes, ranging from cheap tourist trinkets to highly deceptive professional forgeries. The books by David Hendin (2005, 2010) are highly recommended for beginning (and experienced) collectors.

* * *

Notes

[1] http://www.livius.org/sources/content/tacitus/tacitus-on-the-jews/

[2] The Monty Python film Life of Brian (1979) presents an hilarious depiction of the bitter factionalism that afflicted first century Judaea.

[3] 442 kilograms, or 14,211 troy ounces, or about 31,570 silver shekels.

[4] Heritage World Coin Auctions Sale 3003, March 2012. Lot 20195.

[5] Classical Numismatics Group Triton XX, 10 January 2017. Lot 358.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyrian_shekel

[7] Gemini Auction VI, 10 January 2010. Lot 320.

[8] CNG Triton XIX, 5 January 2016. Lot 307.

[9] Ironically, it was the anniversary of the Babylonian destruction in 587 BCE of the first Temple built by Solomon. In the Jewish calendar this day, the ninth of the month of Av, is traditionally observed as a fast.

[10] Heritage Sale 3003, 8 March 2012. Lot 20531.

References

Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Atlanta (2008)

Bijovsky, Gabriela. “A Burning Testimony: Two Bronze Hoards from the Time of the First Jewish Revolt”, Israel Numismatic Research 4 (2009)

Deutsch, Robert. “Coinage Of The First Jewish Revolt Against Rome: Iconography, Minting Authority, Metallurgy” in Popovic, M (ed.), The Jewish Revolt Against Rome: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Leiden, Netherlands (2011)

Deutsch, Robert. “The Coinage of the Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome: Script, Language and Inscriptions” in Jacobson, D. and Kokkinos, N., Judaea and Rome in Coins 65 BCE – 135 CE. Spink. London (2012)

Hendin, David. Not Kosher: Forgeries of Ancient Jewish and Biblical Coins. New York (2005)

Hendin, David. Guide to Biblical Coins, 5th edition. New York, 2010

Meshorer, Ya’akov. Jewish Coins of the Second Temple Period. Tel Aviv (1967)

Rynearson, Paul (ed.). The Numismatic Legacy of the Jews: as depicted by a distinguished American collection. New York (2000)

Schama, Simon. The Story of the Jews. New York (2013)

Shanks, Hershel (ed.). Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Pretice Hall (1999)
 


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