War Trophy of a Roman Soldier? Rare Bar Kochba Coin Found in Jerusalem

Out of over 22,000 ancient coins found in Jerusalem, only four were ‘minted’ by the Bar Kochba rebels – who evidently never made it into the city

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The fourth coin minted by the Bar Kochba to be found in Jerusalem
The fourth coin minted by the Bar Kochba to be found in JerusalemCredit: Koby Harati / City of David Arch
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A bronze coin minted by Jews associated with the Bar Kochba revolt against the Roman regime in Israel during the second century has been found in the Old City of Jerusalem.

While thousands of coins minted by the Bar Kochba rebels have been found over the decades – most ending up in the antiquities market – this is only the fourth to have been found in Jerusalem itself, within the walls of what had been the city in the Roman period.

The newly found coin is also the only Bar Kochba coin found in Jerusalem to bear the name of the city.

The other three were found over 50 years ago. This latest one came to light in the course of archaeological salvage works ahead of expanding the Davidson Visitor Center, near where two of the others had been found, Israel Antiquities Authority numismatist Donald T. Ariel tells Haaretz.

To be clear, excavations within the Old City of Jerusalem have unearthed more than 22,000 ancient coins to date. Of these, only four were minted by rebels led by Shimon Bar Kochba. In other words, the Bar Kochba coins had been widely circulating elsewhere but not in Jerusalem, the evidence indicates.

Sticking it to Rome?

“Bar Kochba coins” were not actually minted from scratch, Ariel explains to Haaretz. “As far as we know, all their coins were made by overstriking extant coins already issued by somebody else, which were circulating locally, and made their own. It saved them the expense of creating their own blanks.”

Palm tree motif and the word 'Jerusalem' on the coin minted by the Bar Kochba rebels found in JerusalemCredit: Koby Harati / City of David Arch

It is a romantic but dubious notion that the rebels were striking back at the Empire by deliberately expropriating Roman coins and overstriking them (covering over their original faces). The rebels seem to have chosen the coins based on need, which was dictated in turn by the sizes of their own dies, Ariel says.

“There is propaganda value in having one’s own coinage,” he qualifies, but doesn’t think it plausible that the rebels deliberately set out to efface Roman coins. “That doesn’t make sense,” the numismatist says. “It was a business decision.”

Indeed, it doesn’t seem that the coins’ undertypes were damaged; and what lay beneath was simply hidden. There isn’t much information on the undertypes because, Ariel says, in some of the coins – say, for the sake of argument, around 5 percent – a glimpse of the undertype can be seen (for instance, a letter here or there) that provides enough information to determine what the rebels overstruck. It seems unlikely the rebels thought that the striking of silver coins over denars would stick one to Rome.

It is true that the very large silver Bar Kochba coins could only have been struck over silver coins minted in the region by authorities subservient to the Romans, for instance in Antioch and Tyre. The smaller silver coins were struck over Roman denars that actually had been produced in Rome, but seem to have been widely circulated in Palestine, Ariel says. “There were apparently enough circulating here so the Jewish rebels could pick them up – they didn’t send a messenger abroad on a boat to get them,” he observes.

There were also two denominations of bronze Bar Kochba coins, which were overstruck on coins issued in Gaza and Ashkelon by the cities themselves.

“The Romans never authorized striking bronze coins, so the cities took the initiative,” Ariel explains. “The fact that we find so many coins from Gaza and Ashkelon as undertypes means that at least one of the Bar Kochba mints was south of Jerusalem. Those coins were circulating further south.”

The Bar Kochba rebels also apparently had a mint operating north of Jerusalem, but that’s speculation, not proven fact, Ariel stresses.

Bar Kochba coin with a cluster of grapes and the inscription “Year Two of the Freedom of Israel"Credit: Koby Harati / City of David Arch

The coin newly discovered in Jerusalem features a cluster of grapes on one side and the optimistic inscription “Year Two of the Freedom of Israel” written in ancient Hebrew script. The reverse side features a palm tree and the word “Jerusalem.”

It is the only one of the four coins found in Jerusalem to name the city. But in the world of the thousands of Bar Kochba coins, a certain proportion bear the city’s name, so that in and of itself isn’t rare. As for the grapes and palm tree, that fits right in with the aniconic and nonfigurative nature of Jewish coins in general, and Bar Kochba symbols in particular.

“The operating principle on all Jewish coins is they have no pagan images; and they don’t have human figures,” Ariel says. “Jewish coinage has cornucopias, pomegranates, a star, diadems, flowers, palm branches, and so on.”

The Bar Kochba rebels did select their own repertoire of images, chiefly – on their bronze coins – the vine, a cluster of grapes and a palm tree. Whatever special meaning these symbols had to the rebels is lost in time, though Ariel adds that the vine leaf also appeared as a motif on coins issued by the Jews of the first revolt too. Some coins also feature an inscription within a wreath.

Among the large silver coins, one type famously features a façade of a temple – presumably the Jerusalem temple – on one side, and the four species relevant to Sukkot, the holiday of tabernacles, on the other, Ariel says.

The smallest silver coins, overstriking Roman denars, had symbols evoking memories of worship in the Jerusalem temple, including a lyre, a lute, trumpets and other vessels.

Apocalypse and overconfidence

The land of Palestine, today Israel, was prime real estate in the ancient Levant. Leaving migrating peoples out of it, as the great ancient civilizations arose, the land was successively ruled by Egypt, the Israelite kingdoms, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Macedonia (i.e., Alexander the Great), the Hasmonean dynasty – and then, in 63 B.C.E., the Romans rolled over the land, conquering the kingdom of Judea. Their rule proved unpopular, and fueled much apocalyptic fervor.

It would take just over a century but in the year 66, the first of the Jewish-Roman wars ensued. The forces were uneven, to say the least, and the revolt seems to have been driven by overconfidence in the Lord helping to vanquish the powerful overlords.

The rebels associated with this first revolt also minted their own coins, Ariel says: Each marked by its year in the revolt, from aleph (minted at the end of the first year), to heh, minted three months into the fifth year.

The revolt was catastrophic for the Jews, and the peeved Romans destroyed Jerusalem in late 70. As the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus wrote in his book “The Jewish War”: “Now as soon as the army had no more people to slay, or to plunder … Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city, and temple.” Three towers and the Western Wall of the temple courtyard were spared. Otherwise, “There was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to, by the madness of those that were for innovations. A city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind,” Josephus wrote.

Yet a large population of Jews continued to live in the general vicinity. “The apocalyptic orientation of some of these remained strong,” Ariel says. According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, come the year 132, the Emperor Hadrian decided to rebuild the city of Jerusalem – but as a Roman capital named Aelia Capitolina – and to transform the sacred Temple into a house of worship for Jupiter. That did it. “This brought on a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration,” Dio wrote (translated by E. Cary).

The Romans themselves seem to have been impressed by the planning that underlay the revolt, led by Shimon Bar Kochba according to some (“son of the star,” a name with messianic implications) or Bar Koziba according to other sources (“son of the lie”).

Aware of their relative weakness, the rebels envisioned a guerrilla war against the infidel invaders. “They did not dare try conclusions with the Romans in the open field, but they occupied the advantageous positions in the country and strengthened them with mines [tunnels] and walls, in order that they might have places of refuge whenever they should be hard pressed, and might meet together unobserved under ground; and they pierced these subterranean passages from above at intervals to let in air and light,” Dio described. And as the unrest spread, enough Roman legionnaires were killed to infuriate Rome.

That rebellion did not end well, either. Hundreds of Jewish settlements were leveled. “Thus nearly the whole of Judea was made desolate, a result of which the people had had forewarning before the war. For the tomb of Solomon, which the Jews regard as an object of veneration, fell to pieces of itself and collapsed, and many wolves and hyenas rushed howling into their cities,” Dio wrote. Indeed, wolves and hyenas did live in the land then, but are now almost – but not entirely – extinct.

Ultimately, the discovery of thousands of Bar Kochba coins outside Jerusalem, but only four within the city (out of more than 22,000, we repeat), shores up the belief that the Bar Kochba rebels may have been around Jerusalem but never made it inside.

So how did the four Bar Kochba coins make it into the city? Likely they were “trophies” taken by Roman soldiers belonging to the Tenth Legion who were among the forces fighting the rebels, suggest the excavators, archaeologists Moran Hagbi and Joe Uziel of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Three of the four coins found in Jerusalem were discovered in much the same area. That, Ariel suggests, could be where the legionnaires were camped.

Finding a Bar Kochba coin in JerusalemCredit: YouTube, IAA

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