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Ancient Jewish Coins: Herod the Great’s Coins

(37 - 4 BCE)

During the rule of John Hyrcanus II (63-40 BCE), an Idumaean convert to Judaism - Antipater - was appointed by Julius Caesar as the de facto administrator of Judaea. Idumaeans were descendants of Esau, living in Edom, a country bordering Judaea in what is now southwest Jordan, between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. Antipater chose his younger son, Herod, who was still only a boy, as governor of Galilee. When the last Hasmonean king, Antigonus Mattathias, was defeated and executed by order of Mark Anthony, Herod became the undisputed ruler of Judaea. When he was told that another “King of the Jews” was born, “Herod ... was exceedingly wroth, and sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years and under” (Matthew 2:16).

Herod’s coins feature innovative designs which, while not truly Jewish in character, at least do not feature any human likeness. However, it is on one of Herod the Great’s small bronze coins that a living thing is depicted for the first time since the Persian period. The eagle probably refers to the insulting golden bird that Herod placed above the Temple entrance.

Eagle on prutah of Herod the Great (Mesh2 Pl.3, 23)

Objects pictured on rare Herodian coins include a winged caduceus and pomegranate, a plumed helmet and a shield, and an aphlaston (ship’s stern) and a palm branch.

Winged caduceus and pomegranate on coin of Herod (Mesh2 Pl.1, 3)

The largest coin of Herod also features unusual designs - a tripod holding a ceremonial bowl and a helmet with long cheek pieces, topped by a star. Other coins feature a crested helmet and a shield; also a cross within a diadem (a headband worn as a crown) and a tripod.

Helmet and ceremonial bowl on bronze coin of Herod

Coin of Herod with crested helmet and shield (Mesh2 Pl.1, 2b)

Coin of Herod featuring cross within a diadem & tripod (Herbst 1125)

The most common coin (prutah) of Herod the Great is similar to Hasmonean coins - an anchor with Greek inscription “HRwD BACI” (King Herod), and a caduceus between double cornucopiae.

Anchor and caduceus between double cornucopiae on coin of Herod (Mesh2 Pl. 2, 17d)

Sources: The Handbook of Biblical Numismatics