The Coinage of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome

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by Robert Deutsch

January 18, 2018 – ‘The Coinage of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, 66-73 C.E’ is a corpus presenting the die-link study of the silver coins, Shekels, Half Shekels and Quarter Shekels, the FR coins found in excavations and previously unrecorded First Revolt period silver hoards.

Robert Deutsch, The Coinage of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, 66-73 C.E. Archaeological Center Publications. Tel-Aviv, 2017. $90 + shipping.

The Jewish Revolt

The study deals with the coins issued by the Jews during the First Revolt against Rome. The main literary source describing the events is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who was also one of the leaders of the revolt. The coins were minted during the first five years, from the outbreak of the war in 66 C.E., till the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The revolt continued till the capture of the last stronghold of Masada in 73 C.E., but no coins were found bearing a date later than the fifth year. This may indicate that the manufacturing place was in Jerusalem, and once the city was captured by the Romans, the minting had been terminated.

The silver coins

The coins were produced in silver and bronze. The silver coins were made of high quality metal and according to high minting standards. All silver coins are bearing the slogan: ‘Jerusalem the Holy’, and indicate their weight unit: ‘Shekel of Israel’, ‘Half of a shekel’ or ‘quarter of a shekel’. All the silver coins, with a single exception, display the same cultic iconography: a chalice on the obverse and a staff with three buds of pomegranates on the reverse.

The bronze coins

The bronze coins of the second and third years, which carry the slogan: ‘Freedom of Zion’, are abundant and negligently manufactured. The bronze coins of the fourth year, which are of different denominations, are of a slightly higher quality and bear the legend: ‘To the redemption of Zion’. The iconography on these bronze coins is connected with the Jewish cult and festivals.

Coins – a first-hand source

The coins minted by the Jewish rebels during the First Revolt are very important as they are a first-hand evidence independent of literary sources. The past research dealt mainly with the recording of the different types of coins and their variants. The only serious attempt to examine in depth the coinage of the First Jewish Revolt was made recently in a preliminary study by Goldstein and Fontanille (2006).
Consequently, the present research aimed at examining various aspects of the First Revolt coinage which have been neglected so far. The main subjects addressed in the present study are:

  • The minting technique. An experimental device for minting silver coins according to the contemporary minting technique was built for this purpose.
  • Die study. All the dies and their upper/lower die combinations – on coins known to the author – have been elucidated. In order for such a study to be as full as possible, a corpus of all known surviving silver coins of the Revolt has been compiled.
  • Hoards containing coins of the First Revolt. Published material has been collected and examined anew. To this, nine previously unpublished hoards have been added.
  • Coins of the Revolt found in archaeological excavations. All available data from archaeological reports and IAA archives have been brought together and examined according to regional distribution.

Below is the overview of the results of various investigations in the order of their appearance in the present work:

The Minting Authority

In the beginning the minting authority question has been addressed, since all the coins minted by the rebels during the revolt lack any name or institution responsible for the issue. A possible answer to the question is offered by examining the iconography and the slogans. The pattern depicted on the reverse of the silver coins, the shekels and the half-shekels, is a man-made staff, rather than a branch with three pomegranates, as generally accepted in the past. Such an artifact matches a sacred object, a staff used by the high priests in the temple, and explains its appearance on the silver coins. Therefore, the staff is likely to represent the minting authority, which is the high priesthood or the Temple as an institution.

Metallurgical analysis

The following chapter deals with the metallurgical composition of the silver coins of the revolt. The past research in the field is limited, and non-reliable. The metallurgical analysis was carried out on 32 silver coins: 23 shekels and 9 half shekels, which represent 2.6% out of the 1222 recorded coins. The results exhibit a very high content of over 98% silver, without any deviation during all the five years of the revolt, and almost no difference was found between the shekels and the half-shekels. The results prove that the political tensions inside Jerusalem, and the increasing pressure and siege by the Roman army, did not affect the high standards of the mint and the quality of the coins, although there was a decrease in the number of coins minted in the last two years of the revolt.

The Minting Experiment

The chapter deals with the experiment which was carried out in order to test the minting technique. Such an experiment was never made before for the silver coinage of the First Revolt. A device has been planned and built by Mr. Joshua Drey, of the Center for Reconstruction of Ancient Technologies, including dies and silver flans. As a result of the experiment, it was possible to answer several questions regarding the die engraving and the flan preparation phases. For instance, the silver coins of the revolt are unique in the way their edges were hammered. As it became evident, the hammering was performed before, and not after the striking, as it was previously presumed. Most important, observing and following the development of flaws on the surface of the dies during the actual minting, were of great help for the understanding of the imperfections detected on the genuine coins. The knowledge of origins of minor changes on the surface of the coins proved to be very useful for the die-link study.

The Die-Link Study

The chapter describes the results of the examination of a total of 1220 silver coins listed to date, 885 shekels and 335 half-shekels. A total of 515 different dies were recorded: 85 lower (obverse) dies, and 430 upper (reverse) dies.
Such a vast corpus of known coins of the Revolt and their detailed die identifications were never previously presented. The coins were set chronologically and are presented in die-link sequences on plates 1-35.
The importance of the chronological sequence is evident. For example: it was possible to establish the sequence of the shekels minted in the very first year of the revolt. Both the silver shekel and the half-shekel of the first year bear two variants of the same chalice, a broad one and a narrow one. The two types were sorted chronologically based on the minor differences discovered by close examination: the first group was minted by the die with the broad chalice (Obverse no. 1). In the second stage, the damaged die was repaired (Obverse no. 1′), and was used together with the previous reverse die to mint the second group of coins. Then a new die with a narrow chalice was produced (Obverse no. 2), which was used together with the previous reverse die, to mint the third group (Plate 1, coins nos. 3-10). Consequently it was possible to determine by the die-link chain, which type is earlier and which type is later. The same proved to be valid for the half-shekels of the first year.
The by-product of recording the silver coins for the die-link study and its plates, is an up-dated corpus, the list and the pictures of the coins, and their past or present locations. The first attempt to compile such a corpus, was made by Leo Kadman in 1960, almost half a century ago, in his ‘The Coins of the Jewish War of 66 -73 C.E.’.
At the end there are 35 plates presenting the die-link study of the silver coins of the First Revolt. The coins are displayed chronologically and according to their denominations. The obverse and reverse of each coin representing a unique die combination are shown. The links between the dies are indicated by numbers, as also by connecting lines. Under each coin there is the list of coins minted by the same pair of dies. The picture displayed is of the first coin in the list.

Coin Hoards

The chapter deals with the hoards concealed during the First Revolt. Data from 13 previously published hoards have been brought together and summarized in tables. The unpublished hoard found in the Jewish Quarter excavations in 1975 is first recorded here with the technical data (Fig. 10). In addition, there are nine previously unrecorded hoards, which have been dispersed among private collectors, and are published here for the first time. The new hoards, which were found between 1969 and 1974, are very important in enlarging the corpus of known coins of the Revolt and increased significantly the number of dies that could be used for the die-link study. The coins from each new hoard have been recorded according to their technical data, and are further supplied with the information on die-link sequences in each individual hoard (Plates 36-57). Die-links between the coins of a hoard may indicate for example if the coins were minted in the same workshop, or if the hoard was concealed immediately after minting. A total of 202 silver coins of the Revolt were listed from the new hoards, 173 shekels and 29 half-shekels. Five unique lower dies and numerous unique upper dies were recorded and integrated in the general die-link study.
The new hoards contained also foreign coins: Syrian silver tetradrachms and silver Tyre shekels. Two coins among the shekels of Tyre proved to be minted with previously unrecorded dates. The 22 plates (nos. 36-57), are displaying the nine unpublished hoards, and their die-link sequences.

The Coins from Archaeological Excavations

The chapter records the numismatic evidence of the first revolt, unearthed in the controlled archaeological excavations. Such a review presenting all the finds was previously never carried out. A total of 93 sites were surveyed: 79 sites in Israel and 14 sites abroad (Fig. 2). Among the 3492 coins recorded (excluding hoards), 17 are made of silver and 3475 are made of bronze. The two main sites, which yielded the majority of the coins, are Jerusalem (16 locations within the borders of the city during the revolt), with 918 specimens (Fig. 12), and Masada with 2229 specimens (Fig. 11). Herodion and Machaerus, two sites which were conquered after the destruction of Jerusalem, yielded 49 and 70 coins (Fig. 11).
The data from these areas reveal a picture of such finds being scarce. Moreover, the bulk of these coins dates to the second year of the Revolt. This indicates that at the end of the second year of the revolt (in the spring of 68 C.E.), the majority of the areas were already under Roman control.
Coins minted in the third year of the revolt are rare. The majority of the third year coins, 715, were found in the four sites: Jerusalem, Herodion, Machaerus and Masada, while all other sites yielded merely 15 specimens (Fig. 16). This further confirms the Roman control over most of the territory and the retreat of the rebels into Jerusalem and towards the three remaining fortresses.
The same observation is even more valid regarding coins minted in the fourth year. The main three sites mentioned above are the richest: Jerusalem with 111 coins (Fig. 18), Masada with 102 coins and Herodion with 19 coins (Fig. 19). In contrast, all the other sites all together yielded only four coins from the fourth year (Fig. 19). The bronze coins of the fourth year were probably minted by a different sect, under the leadership of Shimon Bar-Giora, toward the end of the revolt, with Jerusalem under siege. Therefore the dispersion and scarcity of the fourth year coins are not surprising.
The ratio is impressive and the small amount of coins minted in the third year, and almost a complete lack of coins from the fourth year, indicates that most of the country was re-conquered by the Roman army fairly soon after the beginning of the revolt. The same picture is valid regarding hoards, with the majority found in the main four mentioned sites (Figs. 20-21).
In sum, we get the following picture: the two main sites: Jerusalem, which was conquered in 70 C.E., and Masada which fall in 73 C.E., yielded the majority of the coins. The two strongholds: Herodion and Machaerus, surrendered after 70 C.E., yielded also a significant number of coins, while all the other sites are very poor in finds. Therefore, the numismatic evidence unearthed in the archaeological excavations appears to support the main outline of the events as described by Josephus.

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