After Aristobulus I, his brother Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE), the third son of Hyrcanus I, assumed power and married Alexandra Salome, the widow of Aristobulus I. Alexander Jannaeus continued the expansion of the empire already begun under Hyrcanus I. Under his rule, the territorial expansion of the Hasmonean Empire reached its peak.
As already mentioned, the Hasmoneans were not only secular rulers but they also exercised the office of high priest. Alexander Jannaeus, however was not without controversy as high priest. During his reign, the disputes with the Pharisees, a religious group that opposed the increasing Hellenization of the Jewish kingdom (Fig. B.), amplified. The situation escalated into a civil war, in which Alexander Jannaeus is said to have killed thousands of Jewish citizens. Flavius Josephus reported that Jannaeus sought revenge by crucifying 800 rebels, who were brought to Jerusalem. Before their eyes, the throats of their wives and children were cut, while Jannaeus dined with his concubines (Josephus, BJ 1.97).
The Image of the Hasmonean Rulers
Since the Hasmonean rulers could not depict themselves due to the image ban, Alexander Jannaeus chose the royal diadem enclosing a star for his coins (No.1A). With the diadem (No.9A), radiate diadem (No.10A), and the anchor (No.11A) Alexander Jannaeus showed his preference for Seleucid motifs. In particular, the rays of the radiate diadem were implemented in Alexander Jannaeus’ pictorial language in a unique two-dimensional way (No.1A) which differed markedly from the Seleucid model (No.10A). The Jewish and Greek worlds were also linguistically united in this piece, as on one side the legend is rendered in Greek and on the other side, in paleo-Hebrew.
The ease with which Alexander Jannaeus initially presented himself as a Hellenistic king, using the Greek language to give his name and title, seems to have weakened during the latter part of his reign. The ongoing dispute with the Pharisees forced him to decrease his self-representation as a ruler. He thus refrained from presenting the royal diadem in an issue from the year 78 BCE (No.3A). At this time, the conflict with the Pharisees reached a climax. According to Flavius Josephus (AJ 13.403-4), it was allegedly not until the time of Alexandra Salome (76-67 BC), who was also an astute politician otherwise, that the problems with the Pharisees were resolved.
Two coins show additional features: coin No.2A is not – as usual in coinage – made of bronze, but rather of lead. Coin No.3B is the only coin issued with a written date. The letters L-KE (“Year 25”) are placed beside the anchor. The coin was thus minted in the 25th year of the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (i.e., in the year 78 BCE). During this time, the Jewish civil war reached its climax.
Alexander Jannaeus also made recourse to motifs which his father John Hyrcanus I had already used: The double cornucopias (No.6B), which originated in the Ptolemaic pictorial tradition; the anchor and rose (No.4A), both of which are at home in the Seleucid pictorial tradition and also prominent in the coinage of Rhodes (No.12B); or the palm branch (No.5B), which continued to gain in popularity in the Jewish pictorial tradition.
The wreath enclosing a paleo-Hebrew legend is typical for Hasmonean coins (No.6A, No.7A, No.8A). It was used continuously by the Hasmonean rulers and in the case of Alexander Jannaeus stated “Yehonatan the High Priest and the Council of the Jews”. Considering the features of the three coins more closely, a development from square letter forms towards italics can be observed. A stylistic comparison between the Greek and Semitic letters on Hasmonean coins shows that two different techniques of engraving the letters were obviously used simultaneously. In contrast to the Semitic letter, the Greek letters are executed as points connected with straight lines, a technique that comes from the Seleucid coinage and highlights the Greek influence.
Y. Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins. From the Persian Period to Bar Kokhba (Jerusalem 2001).
Y. Meshorer at al., Coins of the Holy Land. The Abraham and Marian Sofaer Collection at the American Numismatic Society and the Israel Museum I-II (New York 2013).
P. Schäfer, Geschichte der Juden in der Antike. Die Juden Palästinas von Alexander dem Großen bis zur arabischen Eroberung (Tübingen 2010).