Despite the fact that he had been a loyal ally of Marcus Antonius since his appointment as King of Judea in 40 BCE, after the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE Herod was able, with diplomatic aplomb, to win the favour of Octavian and again be named King of Judea. He joined the side of the victor completely and in 29 BCE, following a series of intrigues, he had his stepmother Alexandra, a confidante of Cleopatra, as well as his beloved second wife Mariamne murdered. There were thus no survivors of the Hasmonean dynasty.
In Rome, Octavian was given the honorary title Augustus (“the illustrious”) in 27 BCE. Herod’s close relationship with Augustus was subsequently fortified through numerous buildings dedicated to Augustus and through the foundation of cities. Most notably, the city of Samaria was expanded and by Herod renamed Sebaste, the Greek corresponding to “Augustus”. He developed Caesarea Maritima into a powerful harbour city with one of the largest seaports in the Roman world (Fig. C.). In Caesarea Maritima, Samaria, and Paneas, Herod had temples built dedicated to Augustus.
In each of these cities, the implementation and development of the Roman imperial cult was a manifestation of Herod’s position and of obedience to him and the Roman emperor. At the same time, the Herodian Empire was consciously embedded in the political structures and hierarchies of the new Roman world order. Herod thereby simultaneously promoted the political and economic development of the affected cities and regions.
As a Jewish sovereign and Roman client king, Herod the Great is often described as a personality who consciously moved between worlds. For the greater part of his reign, he appears to have taken a certain consideration of the religious feelings of the Jews as a Jewish ruler. This was particularly the case for situations that might have led to internal political problems. His political actions were largely externally dictated through conditions imposed by Rome. With the introduction of the imperial cult, he employed a language clearly comprehensible to the Roman ruling powers. He sought to minimize the provocation of pious sections of Jewish society by forbidding pagan cult rituals in Jerusalem and by reducing the display of offensive images.
In 22 BCE, Herod began to renew the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem from the ground up, de facto to construct it anew as the so-called “Second Temple” (Fig.D.). Herod thus met the expectations of his Jewish subjects, who often doubted his true religiosity. As a ruler and builder, Herod brought his land peace and prosperity. On the other hand, he was extremely brutal, not least toward his own family. In the Christian tradition, Herod is remembered as the murderer of the children of Bethlehem, though this event is not documented by contemporary sources aside from the bible.
The Regular Coinage of King Herod
Along with the coins dated “year 3” (37 BCE) are a series of undated issues which were minted under Herod. Most of these coins were found in the Jerusalem area, which could indicate a production site within the city, though none has been located.
Herod employed a series of images on his undated coinage which could be easily understood from both pagan and Jewish perspectives: palm branches, a grape leaf with vines, and a three-legged table (No.1B). His claim to rule was expressed in the depiction of the royal diadem (No.1A), and the helmet and anchor (No.4B). Herod had the diadem minted with or without a star in its centre (No.2B). Small bronze coins with an anchor and double cornucopia (No.3B) made reference to the traditions of Hasmonean coinage, which in turn imitate Seleucid models (No.7B).
The representation of a galley (No.5B) is connected with the foundation of the city Caesarea Maritima, whose harbour possessed significant strategic and economic significance for Herod’s Empire. The motif was common, however, and probably refers to Herod’s maritime power generally. Parallels can be found in the simultaneous coinage of Marcus Antonius (No.8B) or in city coins from Ascalon (No.9B).
Respecting the Jewish prohibition on images, Herod avoided anthropomorphic and zoomorphic representations. The depiction of an eagle is the sole exception (No.6B). This is connected with an event at the end of his reign, when Herod had a golden eagle added above the great gate of the Jerusalem Temple, but this was destroyed by a group of young men in an act of insurgence (Flavius Josephus, De bello Iudaico 1,651‒653). The image of the eagle was common in antique coinage, and it is no longer possible today to explain Herod’s intentions. It is likely that coinage from the Phoenician city of Tyre served Herod as a model.
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