Coins and Judaean History
168 BCE - 135 CE
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Ancient coins aren't just old lumps of metal; they are living pieces of human history, a direct link to the people of long ago.

For instance, I've known the Chanukka story practically forever, the story of how that nasty old King Antiochos of Syria forced the Jews to worship Zeus, but Judah Maccabee and his heroic band of freedom fighters finally drove the bad guys out and reclaimed the Temple. A cute little story from the long-dead past.

I can't describe my thrill the first time I held in my own hand a silver coin featuring the portrait of Antiochos IV, to have his face sneering out at me from a coin that circulated during his lifetime. Suddenly, this "cute little story from the long-dead past" was very much alive.

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In ancient Judaea, tiny oil lamps like this one (3 inches long) lit the homes of the common folk. Each home might have dozens of these lamps to provide light for the family who lived there. After laying buried in the middle eastern soil for 2,000 years, this lamp is again filled with olive oil, given a wick, and lit. Once again, it shares its cheerful little flame as it did twenty centuries ago.
"Herodian" Oil Lamp, 1st Century CE

The history of the Jewish people predates the use of coinage. My own collection illustrates a mere 300 years of that history, from the "Hanukkah story" (168-165 BCE) to the "Bar Kochba" rebellion (132-135 CE). But it is a dynamic and important period, and its telling makes a rich and fascinating story, of a small country and her people, struggling to preserve their religion and traditions against constant military and cultural incursion.

The coins I have used to illustrate these pages are from my own collection.


The "Big Picture"

As our story begins (in 168 BCE), Antioch is the capitol of the Seleukid kingdom, which is a still-powerful piece of the empire assembled by Alexander the Great nearly two centuries before. To the east, the Parthians have managed to grab significant chunks of the territory that Alexander had conquered, and the Seleukids want it back.

Meanwhile, the Romans are turning their attentions eastward, flexing their military muscle in Macedonia, the former home of Alexander. Allied with the Macedonians, the Seleukids under Antiochos III have recently suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Romans.

Down south, the little Jewish nation centered in Jerusalem is going through an identity crisis, but is otherwise pretty much just trying to keep from getting noticed by her powerful neighbors.

Skipping ahead to the end of the story (in 135 CE), the Seleukid kingdom is long dead, absorbed into the Roman Empire. Parthia still sneers across her borders at a powerful enemy with ambitions of eastward expansion, but the armies she now defies are Roman rather than Seleukid.

The last vestiges of the little Jewish nation have just been stamped out by the armies of Emperor Hadrian, in the only war of any significance in his reign. So thorough a job did Hadrian's armies do that it will take more than 1,800 years for the dream of reestablishing a Jewish nation centered in Jerusalem to become reality.


The Details
(Click on the following links to learn more)

The CHANUKAH STORY
168-165 BCE
The SELEUKID "ALLIANCE"
130 BCE
The HASMONEAN DYNASTY
130 - 40 BCE
The RISE OF HEROD THE GREAT
40 - 37 BCE
The ROMANS IN CHARGE
37 BCE - 66 CE
The FIRST REVOLT
66 - 74 CE
The BAR KOCHBA REBELLION
132 - 135 CE

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