The raging civil war that followed Nero’s death had the result that Vespasian, the last supreme commander of the Roman legions operating in Judea, was named emperor by the troops on 1 July 69 CE in Alexandria. This development necessitated his return to Rome in the spring of 70 CE, and he thus commissioned his son Titus to continue the war against the Jews (Fig. C.). In early May, Titus with four legions began to encircle and starve the city of Jerusalem, which was protected by three walls (City Map). The walls were breached at the end of August, and the Temple captured and burned. The Upper City fell in early September. What followed was a Roman power demonstration par excellence: the inhabitants were enslaved or killed and only a few, including the two Zealot leaders, were imprisoned and brought to Rome for the triumphal procession (Fig. B. Showcase 14). Even today, archaeological findings from Jerusalem recall this bloody life-and-death struggle. The city was completely destroyed, with only three towers from the palace of Herod remaining intact as fortifications for the tenth legion which was to be stationed in Jerusalem. Bricks with stamps of the Legio X Fretensis can be found even in the present (Fig. D.).
The Coins of the Insurgents
The coins from the First Jewish War are among the most qualitatively beautiful in Jewish coinage. They were minted during the five years of the war and correspond to the Jewish calendar, which goes from April (the month Nisan) to March (the month Adar). The production time of the first and fifth years was thus shortened to a few months. During the war, silver shekels were minted from the first year, and later their half and quarter pieces were produced; from the second year, bronze coins were created with the low partial values of half-, quarter-, and eighth-prutah (the latter were only issued during the fourth year). The emissions indicate a high level of organization at the place of production. Scholars disagree on who was responsible, but the coins were probably minted during the course of the war by various groups in Jerusalem: initially by the pro-Roman upper class and temple priests, followed by the Zealot leaders John of Giscala and Simon bar Giora.
The silver shekel marks the beginning of Jewish coinage during the war against Rome, and is considered a prototype. Only two exemplars of this piece exist today (No.1A).
On the shekels as well as their half and quarter pieces, the numbers 1 (aleph) to 5 (heh) are stamped above the chalice in the old Paleo-Hebrew script, which correspond to the five years of war from 66-70 CE. From the second year, the letter shin was added, an abbreviation for shn’t (year) (No.2A).
The Jews’ revolutionary impulse was already evident in the legends, which in allusion to the Hasmonean period employ Paleo-Hebrew script and emphasize the currency itself in an unusual manner: ŠQL YŚR’L (“shekel of Israel”) (No.2A). The city of Jerusalem also became the centre and symbol of the political-religious message: YRWŠLM QDŠH (“Jerusalem the holy”) (No.2A). The Zealots’ struggle for freedom found visible expression in the coin legends HRWT ZYWN (“Zion’s freedom”) (No.8B), and from the fourth year the expectation of political independence was indicated with LGYLT ZYWN (“for the salvation of Zion”) (No. 13_10A_2).
Tyrian shekels with the Greek inscription tyrou hieras kai asylou (“holy Tyre, city of asylum”), which were long known in Judea, served as a model for the legend “Jerusalem the holy” (Fig. E.). From time immemorial, each Jewish man has had to pay an annual temple tax from his twentieth year. The amount was fixed at a half-shekel. Coins minted in the city Tyre were used, which were widely accepted for their high silver content despite their depiction of the god Heracles-Melqart and an eagle.
In addition to the chalice, the images on the insurgents’ coins included motifs such as pomegranates (No.2A), amphoras (No.9B), lulav (palm fronds), and etrog (a lemon-like fruit) (No.11A). As ritual objects, these were connected with the Jewish cult or evoke associations to the fertility of the land. From the fourth year, lulav and etrog, which refer to the religious feast Sukkot, and the motif of the palm with two baskets, were stamped on bronze coins (No.10B). The latter is a depiction of the Bikkurim, the first fruits of theyear which were offered in sacrifice at the temple (Exodus 34,22).
The city of Gamla, east of Lake Gennesaret, was on the Zealot side during the revolt. In allusion to the wartime coins minted in Jerusalem, coarse silver shekels on the Jerusalem model were also issued in Gamla (No.14B). During the winter of 67 CE, Gamla was captured by the Romans and completely destroyed. The city was not rebuilt after the war, and its ruins remained forgotten until their rediscovery in the twentieth century.
D. T. Ariel, Identifying the Mints, Minters and Meanings of the First Jewish Revolt Coins, in: M. Popović (Ed.), The Jewish Revolt against Rome. Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Leiden ‒ Boston 2011
Y. Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins. From the Persian Period to Bar Kokhba, Jerusalem 2001
Y. Meshorer et al., Coins of the Holy Land. The Abraham and Marian Sofaer Collection at the American Numismatic Society and the Israel Museum, New York 2013, 2 vols.
P. Schäfer, Geschichte der Juden in der Antike. Die Juden Palästinas von Alexander dem Großen bis zur arabischen Eroberung, Tübingen 2010