The Coins of Herod: A Modern Analysis and Die Classification

The Coins of Herod: A Modern Analysis and Die ClassificationThe Coins of Herod: A Modern Analysis and Die Classification
(Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity Volume 79)
By Donald T. Ariel and Jean-Philippe Fontanille
(Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2012), 203 pp. + 97 pp. plates, $175 (hardcover)
Reviewed by David Hendin

It turns out that Herod the Great was great at a lot of things—but making coins was not one of them. “Herod’s numismatic legacy is disappointing to say the least,” according to a new book on the coins of Herod by Donald T. Ariel and Jean Philippe Fontanille.

“Considering Herod’s larger-than-life persona, most of his coinage is particularly unimpressive.” Herod was named king of the Jews in 40 B.C.E. by a declaration of the Roman Senate. At the time, however, Herod was without a kingdom, since Mattatayah Antigonus, the last Hasmonean ruler, was king on the ground in Judea and remained so until 37 B.C.E., when Herod captured Antigonus and his Parthian sponsors.

Herod had many of his immediate family members murdered, including his wife the Hasmonean princess Mariamne (in 30/29 B.C.E.) and his two sons by Mariamne. When Augustus heard about these latter executions, he reportedly said, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”

Among Herod’s “greats” were his amazing building projects—the enlargement of the Temple Mount and rebuilding the Second Temple, his palace complex at Herodium and the magnificent port of Caesarea Maritima.

At times the contemporaneous historian Flavius Josephus praises Herod for his help to the local Jewish population, but Josephus also complains that Herod was sucking the blood of the Jewish people in order to curry favor among non-Jews.

In The Coins of Herod, Ariel and Fontanille provide the most thorough analysis of Herod’s coinage to date. It also includes a die study based on examination of 2,504 specimens.

Herod minted only bronze coins, a clear reflection of his status as a “client king” of Rome, which retained the right to mint gold and silver coins. His bronze coins were issued sporadically and were mostly poorly designed and manufactured. However, he avoided graven images on his coins. Instead he used anchors, cornucopias, tripod tables and various plant species. Some of Herod’s designs were taken from Roman coins, such as the helmet, shield and winged caduceus. They were probably not fully understood as Roman symbols by Herod’s subjects.

Ariel and Fontanille believe that some of Herod’s coins were used as handouts called congiarium, a form of largess often made by Roman emperors. In this way, Herod might have celebrated the quadrennial games he hosted in Jerusalem and in Caesarea. Herod also proclaimed an annual festival on the day he ascended as king, another logical time for gifts.

The donativum was a gift of money by rulers to soldiers in the Roman legions. Ariel and Fontanille suggest that a donativum was likely to have been given when Herod’s troops conquered Jerusalem in 37 B.C.E. The Roman soldiers then began to plunder the city; to induce them to desist, Herod finally agreed to “distribute rewards to each of them out of his own purse,” according to Josephus.

The authors have done a monumental job of gathering available evidence and presenting it coherently. Their book is a “must have” for every numismatic and historic library. It will be the opening for all important scholarly discussions of the subject in the future.

(Full disclosure: I am acknowledged by the authors as having provided photographs and background information on the coins; some of my own research is referenced within the book.)

David Hendin is author of Guide to Biblical Coins and adjunct curator at the American Numismatic Society.

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