ITALICS This 2,000-Year-Old Coin Commemorates a Jewish Rebellion Against Rome
Archaeologists conducting excavations in Jerusalem’s Old City have unearthed a nearly 2,000-year-old bronze coin minted during the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced in a statement earlier this month.
An unsuccessful uprising that lasted from 132 to 136 A.D., Bar Kokhba found the Jewish people rebelling against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. During the revolt, Jews began minting coins by pressing their own insignia on top of already circulating currency, including Roman denarii. Many such tokens have been discovered outside of Jerusalem, but out of the more than 22,000 coins discovered in the Old City, just four date to the time of the uprising—and only this newly discovered specimen features the word “Jerusalem,” the statement notes.
Researchers found the coin—which displays a cluster of grapes alongside the inscription “Year Two of the Freedom of Israel” on one side and a palm tree with the inscription “Jerusalem” on its reverse—in the William Davidson Archaeological Park. Other coins minted during the Jewish rebellion feature a temple facade, trumpets and a lyre, among other motifs, as well as slogans including “Redemption of Israel” and “Freedom of Israel.”
“The operating principle on all Jewish coins is they have no pagan images; and they don’t have human figures,” Donald Tzvi Ariel, head of the IAA’s coin department, tells Ruth Schuster of Haaretz. “Jewish coinage has cornucopias, pomegranates, a star, diadems, flowers, palm branches and so on.”
Though some interpret the Bar Kokhba coins’ creation as a decisive refutation of Roman authority, Ariel says the rebels’ overstriking of existing coinage was probably driven more by need and the size of available coin dies.
“It was a business decision,” he adds.
The ancient revolt—named for its leader, born Shimon Ben-Kosiba but given the messianic moniker Bar Kokhba, or “Son of the Star”—broke out after decades of tension and armed conflict between Judea and the Roman Empire. Responding specifically to Emperor Hadrian’s aggressive attempts to assimilate Jews into Roman society, the uprising protested such measures as the banning of circumcision and Jerusalem’s transformation into a Roman colony called Aelia Capitolina, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
In 132 A.D., the Jewish people rallied around Bar Kokhba. Hailed by many as a messiah who would lead Judea to glory, he took the title of nasi, or prince, and began minting coins with the inscription “Year 1 of the liberty of Jerusalem,” per Encyclopedia Britannica.
The early days of the rebellion saw Jewish forces storm Jerusalem and perhaps even take control of the city. Sources offer differing accounts of the rebels’ success, with some saying they never breached Jerusalem’s defenses and others suggesting they occupied the city for a brief period, writes Benjamin Kerstein for Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Bar Kokhba’s followers likely minted their coins during this short time of success. But as Ariel points out, the paucity of specimens found within Jerusalem appears to support the idea that the Jews failed to fully reclaim the city during the conflict.
“Jerusalem was the goal and the battle cry of the Bar Kokhba rebels, but they never did conquer the city,” the numismatist, or coin expert, tells the Jerusalem Post’s Rossella Tercatin. “The small number of coins minted by them found in the city also bear witness to that. This is the first time that one of such coins [was] found in the area in 40 years.”
In 134, the high number of Roman casualties incurred by the conflict attracted the emperor’s attention, leading Hadrian himself to visit the battlefield. Per Encyclopedia Britannica, he swiftly commanded the governor of Britain to bring in 35,000 soldiers as reinforcements; over the next two years, Rome’s forces solidified imperial control of Jerusalem, killed Bar Kokhba and scattered the remains of the Jewish army.
Following the defeat, Jews were sold into slavery and forbidden from living in Jerusalem. Judea lost its independence, and Hadrian renamed the territory Syria Palestina, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. A total of 580,000 Jewish casualties are recorded in contemporary accounts.
Ariel tells the Jerusalem Post that the coin may have ended up in the city after a Roman soldier picked it up from the battlefield as a souvenir.
“You can use coins to learn about history,” he says. “Bar Kokhba wanted to conquer Jerusalem but he did not succeed, and after this period, Jewish autonomy disappeared for 2,000 years.”
*The article was published in the Smithsonian Magazine on May 20, 2020.