By Scott Kirwin
About three years ago I started collecting ancient Roman coins. Ancient Rome has 1,200 year history, and the focus of my collection is on a very particular slice of that history, a 250 year period from the death of Julius Caesar to the death of the Severan emperor Alexander Severus in his mother’s arms, both murdered by his own guards. The common coin of the realm at this time was the silver denarius, a coin whose silver content ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of the empire at the time. With a massive population spread from the British Isles to Persia coins became propaganda pieces for the ruling regime, each coin carrying a message throughout the empire glorifying the accomplishments and deeds of the emperor and his family back in Rome.
In 70 AD Titus, the eldest son of emperor Vespasian, crushed a Jewish uprising, sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The event was commemorated on several coins including the denarius shown below.
The front of the coin has the bust of Vespasian surrounded by his titles IMP(erator) CAESAR VESPASIANVS AVG(gustus). The reverse of the coin shows a captive Jewess seated right, hands tied in front of her with a trophy of captured arms behind her and the word “IVDAEA” (Judaea) below. This coin, about a day’s wages for a Roman soldier of the time, graphically celebrates the conquest of the Jewish people on a piece of silver that would have been used in the day-to-day commerce of the Empire.
The ancient historian Josephus witnessed the Temple’s destruction, writing:
The darts that were thrown by the engines [of the seditious factions] came with that force, that they went over all the buildings and the Temple itself, and fell upon the priests and those that were about the sacred offices; insomuch that many persons who came thither with great zeal from the ends of the earth to offer sacrifices at this celebrated place, which was esteemed holy by all mankind, fell down before their own sacrifices themselves, and sprinkled that altar which was venerable among all men, both Greeks and barbarians, with their own blood. The dead bodies of strangers were mingled together with those of their own country, and those of profane persons with those of the priests, and the blood of all sorts of dead carcasses stood in lakes in the holy courts themselves.
Oh most wretched city, what misery so great as this didst thou suffer from the Romans, when they came to purify thee from thy internal pollutions! For thou couldst be no longer a place fit for God, nor couldst thou longer survive, after thou hadst been a sepulchre for the bodies of thine own people, and hast made the Holy House itself a burying-place in this civil war of thine. Yet mayst thou again grow better, if perchance thou wilt hereafter appease the anger of that God who is the author of thy destruction.
But I must restrain myself from these passions by the rules of History, since this is not a proper time for domestic lamentation, but for historical narrations.
Note that Josephus remains a controversial figure in history. An apparently devout Jew, he’s usually described as a collaborator with the Romans as the above quote suggests. His portrayal of the Romans is as one of G-d’s tools to punish His people rather than as a conquering force. This may have kept him from being killed but at the expense of betraying his own people and his reputation as an historian.
Israel has created several medallions referencing these Judea Capta coins. Here’s a bronze one that shows a Roman Judea Capta on the front and a free Israel on the back.
It took the Jewish people 1,878 years to recover their freedom whose loss was celebrated in a coin minted by the Romans. One of these coins is now in my collection and now I’m searching for the appropriate Israeli medallion to pair it with. The coin captures the victory of the Romans and the incredible sadness of the Jewish people in a piece of silver roughly the size of a US nickel.
But for me the coin symbolizes the incredible fortitude of the Jewish people whom I admire so much.
Vespasian and his empire are dust but Judea and its people symbolized by the mourning Jewess on its reverse still exists. And not only do they exist, they continue to thrive against all odds, surrounded by enemies who claim their land and strive to murder them at every opportunity. Far from a propaganda victory for the Romans, Vespasian’s Judea Capta coin symbolizes the enduring strength of Israel and the Jewish people.
Photo by ewg4xuva