After Herod had brought his family to safety, he proceeded to Cleopatra VII († 30 BCE) in Alexandria (Fig. B.), where he was received graciously. Though the Ptolemaic queen was not eager to participate in a war against Mattathias Antigonus, she did wish to name Herod one of her generals, and supposedly even tried to seduce him. Herod however refused Cleopatra’s wishes and continued his journey to Rome. By way of Rhodes he reached the capital, where he requested the guarantee of the royal diadem of Judea. Thanks to the support of the triumvir Marcus Antonius, the Roman Senate named Herod King of Judea and Samaria. After a week, Herod returned to Palestine. There the struggle for sole reign began with Mattathias Antigonus.
After two and a half years of war, Herod was able to conquer Jerusalem in 37 BCE. Herod went to Samaria at this time to marry his fiancé, the Hasmonean Mariamne. This was doubtless a dynastic marriage: as Herod had married a Hasmonean, he could reinforce his claim to the royal title. Antigonus Mattathias, the last Hasmonean king, was brought to Antioch and there beheaded. Herod, on whom history has conferred the byname “the Great”, had thus achieved sole rule (Fig. C.).
The life of Herod is well known from antique historians. Like other rulers of his time Herod composed self-reflections, but these were not available for the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus († 100 CE), our most important source for the life of Herod. For his extensive report on the great Jewish war, Josephus relied primarily on the writings of Nicholas of Damascus, a historian of Greek origin and potentially Herod’s close advisor, whose texts have been transmitted in fragments and excerpts as well as in the works of Josephus.
The Early Coinage of Herod the Great and Roman History in Images
Like the Hasmonean rulers, Herod also minted bronze coins in order to secure the local currency of lower denominations in his area of dominion. His earliest coins appear to be those with the inscription “year 3” (LΓ) (No.1A). This dating refers to Herod’s third year as king, i.e. 37 BCE, the period after his victory over the last Hasmonean king.
The Herodean coins imitate Roman motifs while betraying Hellenistic roots, but also allowed room for innovations typical of Herod’s world. Symbols of rule played an important role: the caduceus (the winged herald’s baton) (No.3B), also visible on coins of Octavian (No.8B), and the helmet and shield (No.2B), which derive from Hellenistic coin production. The image of the caduceus between two cornucopias is to be interpreted as expressing a general increase of fortune and prosperity under Herod’s sovereignty; the helmet and shield follow a long iconographic tradition and were variously used in coinage of the Hellenistic kingdoms as symbols of rule.
Coin No.1A is unusual among the coins of Herod. The obverse probably shows a helmet mounted on a frame and flanked by palm branches as signs of victory. The composition can likely be understood as a sign of Herod’s power. In contrast, the tripod on the reverse is a religious motif that was common both in the Hellenistic (No.6B) and Roman (No.7B) worlds and relates to the god Apollo. The reference to Apollo may be interpreted as a demonstration of loyalty to Rome or even to Octavian himself.
The analysis of other coin motifs is also not secure: the image on the obverse of coin No.3B is interpreted as a poppy seed pod or pomegranate; both were symbols of fertility and are read as emblems of the city Samaria. Samaria is correspondingly suspected as the minting location. This is not uncontested, however, and Jerusalem also is a possible production site for these editions dated “year 3”. Coin No.4A shows an aphlaston (ornamentation from the stern of an antique warship). This refers generally to supremacy at sea, but can also relate to a specific naval victory. Parallels can also be found in Seleucid coinage (No.12B).
In the 30’s BCE, Marcus Antonius, who was married to Octavian’s sister, began a love affair with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, which increasingly impaired his relationship with Octavian and ultimately led to renewed civil war in Rome. Marcus Antonius lost to Octavian in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and fled to Egypt, where he took his own life.
The images on Roman coins mirror the turbulence in the Roman Empire at this time: while the triumvirs Marcus Antonius and Octavian were initially represented on coins together (No.9B), Marcus Antonius depicted himself slightly later at the side of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (No.10B). Octavian, in turn, celebrated the taking of Egypt after the victory over Antonius and Cleopatra at Actium (No.11B). The Battle of Actium was also a turning point for Herod, as he had until that point remained a close ally of Marcus Antonius.
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