Roman Coins Boast “Judaea Capta”
by Robert Deutsch

With hands bound behind his back, a Jewish captive stands with a second captive, a despondent woman sitting under the palm tree.

The late great Israeli numismatist Yaakov Meshorer wrote in 2001: “The Judaea Capta [coins] were minted in a quantity that is surprising for Roman coins in general, and for those celebrating victories over other peoples in particular, as if the victory over Judaea was the most important of them all. No other victory was commemorated by such a large number of coins.”1

Despite its minute size within the empire, suppression of the Great Jewish Revolt of 66–70 C.E. required a massive Roman military force. Three Roman legions were brought into Judea from Syria and Egypt. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was an eye-witness to the fighting, tells us that the Roman army included the fifth, tenth and 15th legions, plus 23 annexed cohorts, as well as auxiliaries furnished by local kings such as Agrippa and the Arab Malichus, and numbered more than 60,000 soldiers.2 The revolt effectively ended in 70 C.E. with the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple.a

The obverse of the coin showing Jewish captives under a palm tree.

It was not simply that the Jews had revolted, however, that accounts for the large number of Judea Capta coins. It is that the Jews had dared to mint their own coins during the revolt. Minting coins was an imperial privilege. No one could issue coins without permission. Thus, striking so-called freedom coins was no less severe a transgression by the Jews than the revolt itself. The freedom coins were produced in silver and bronze. The silver coins were of high quality metal and according to high minting standards. The silver coins bear the legend “Jerusalem the Holy” and indicate their weight unit: “shekel of Israel,” “half shekel” or “quarter shekel.”

All the silver Jewish 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.

A silver shekel from the second year of the revolt bears a Hebrew inscription, “shekel of Israel,” and a chalice.

The inscription on the reverse of the coin reads “Jerusalem the Holy” and depict three pomegranate buds. A common ancient Jewish icon, the pomegranate with its abundance of seeds adorned the priestly robes, as described in the Bible (Exodus 28:33–34). Until quite recently, the vertical stem of the three pomegranate buds on this coin was interpreted as just that -- stem. More recently (and more likely), it is seen as a manmade staff with three buds; that is, a sacred object of the priests. Thus the staff is likely to represent the minting authority, namely, the high priesthood of the Temple as an institution.

The freedom coins also always bear a year, indicating the year of the revolt.

Bronze coins of the second and third years carry the legend “Freedom of Zion.” This is the first time that the term “Zion” appears on a Jewish coin. In the fourth year the legend became “To the Redemption of Zion.”

“To the redemption of Zion” is inscribed on this bronze coin from the revolt’s fourth year. Palm trees and dates represent Jewish festivals.

The Jewish revolt coins are dated from year 1 to 5 to correspond with 66–70 C.E. Even after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., however, a group of rebels held out in the desert stronghold of Masada until 73 or 74, but no coins bear a date later than the fifth year of the revolt. The revolt coins had apparently been minted in Jerusalem, so when Jerusalem fell so did the minting of revolt coins.

The iconography on the bronze coins are emblems connected with the Jewish cult and festivals: vine leaves and amphoras, palm trees and dates, lulavs and etrogs, a palm branch and lemon-like fruit used on the festival of Sukkoth. The palm tree is of special interest because it is a symbol of Israel—and it is a symbol that the Romans adopted in their Judea Capta coins. Judea Capta coins were minted in gold, silver and bronze. Legends included IUDAEA CAPTA “Judea captured” and IUDAEA DEVICTA “Judea defeated”. The most popular images for the reverse of the Judea Capta coins were a Jewess mourning or Jewish captives.3 The Jewess mourning, sometimes with her hands tied behind her back, is usually seated under a palm tree. Occasionally a male captive with hands tied behind his back appears with the woman. On others the captive Jew is replaced by the emperor standing, holding a spear, stepping on his enemies’ helmet.

A woman representing Judea (identified by the inscription beneath her) sits dejectedly with her bound hands behind her back on this gold coin. David Sofer Collection

A victorious Roman emperor stands with one foot on the helmet of his defeated enemy. A captive woman sits under the palm tree on this bronze coin.

The obverse of the Judea Capta coins features the head of the emperor, most often Vespasian, the general who was appointed by Nero to lead the Roman army in Judea before he himself became emperor in 69 C.E. At this point his son Titus took over and completed the victory over the Jews. A minority of the Judea Capta coins features Titus on the obverse.

A very rare gold coin with Vespasian’s head on the obverse features him on the reverse standing in a triumphal chariot with four pacing horses (a quadriga), and in front of the horses, a naked captive Jew with hands bound behind his back escorted by a Roman soldier.

Naked and captive, a leader of the Jewish revolt, Simon son of Giora, leads the procession of the triumphant emperor Vespasian who stands in his four-horse chariot. Simon is escorted by a Roman soldier who guards him. Beneath the scene on this rare gold coin is an inscription: Triumph of [Vespasian] Augustus (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem).

The obverse of the coin features the head of the Roman emperor Vespasian.

We can identify this captive. It is Simon son of Giora, whom the Romans considered the leader of the revolt. The triumphal procession pictured on the coin is described by Josephus. Both Titus and Vespasian were “crowned with laurel” and “clad in the traditional purple robes.” The triumphal procession displayed most promiscuously the treasures from the Temple. At the Forum Romanum the leader of the revolt, Simon son of Giora, having been scourged, was executed. The announcement that Simon “was no more” was met with “shouts of universal applause.”4

The figure of Simon son of Giora engraved on this coin at the head of the procession is the only known image of a leader of the revolt. A close examination of the coin reveals even the features on his face.


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