A rare coin minted in the year 69 – the fourth year of the Jewish revolt against Rome and the year in which the rebels despaired – was found last week while sifting debris that originated in the City of David. It was discovered in the sewage system running beneath ancient Jerusalem, passing beneath the main road of the ancient city some 2,000 years ago, Reut Vilf of the City of David Foundation told Haaretz.
A cache of bronze coins from the time of the Revolt was found in 2014 in a village near Jerusalem. Yet more were unearthed in a cave by Temple Mount in 2018, from the second and fourth years of that ill-fated rebellion.
LIke others minted in the year 69, the coin found now bears the words “For the Redemption of Zion” in ancient Hebrew lettering, and a depiction of a chalice. Its other side depicts the so-called “four species” and the words “Year Four.” That is taken to refer to the final year of rebellion against the Romans, when Simon Bar Giora took over the leadership. Previously the Jews had been led by John of Giscala.
The coin could have been lost and fallen into the drainage system through cracks of the stone-paved road, said Eli Shukron, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority. Or, the money could have fallen from the pocket of a Jewish rebel hiding in the drains below Jerusalem.
Hide there, they did. Yosef ben Matityahu, aka the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, commanded the rebels in the Galilee and wrote in his histories about the Jews hiding in Jerusalem: “For they were not able to lie hid either from God, or from the Romans” (“The Wars of the Jews,” Book VI, Chapter 7:3).
“The coin was found exactly in the same place that Jews had been hiding in the drainage channel under the street,” Vilf says. Solid evidence of the rebels' attempt to hide includes intact oil lamps for light and ceramic cooking pots that were found tellingly whole in the sewer itself.
“These objects couldn’t have fallen down there. They would have shattered. Since they were found whole, somebody had to put them down there deliberately,” Vilf pointed out. Excavators even found a Roman sword there.
Also, there is a telltale spot where the stone steps of the street seem to have been ripped out of place by soldiers looking underneath ("the last hideout").
In short, Jews seeking shelter from Rome’s wrath and punishment tried to live in the sewers. The coin starkly attests to the morbid state of mind among the rebels in the fourth and final year: they had lost hope.
Hiding in plain sight
The “Great Revolt” against Rome broke out in the year 66, amid spiraling religious tensions and resentment against the tax the Romans levied on subject peoples. In its earlier stages, the Jewish rebels scored some remarkable successes against the mighty subjugator – including a massacre of Roman soldiers at the famous battle of Beit Horon. The losses enraged Emperor Nero, who instructed his general, Vespasian, to crush Judea once and for all. Vespasian was aided by his son, Titus.
Most of the coins found from the Great Revolt era were minted during its second year. This was evidently a hopeful time for the Jews, even though in the year 67 Vespasian invaded the Galilee and Jews began to flee south toward Jerusalem, which was under rebel command.
Compared with the earlier years, few coins have been found from the fourth year of the Revolt. That may attest to the material stress the rebels were under – and emotional stress, as attested by the change from “Freedom of Zion” to “Redemption of Zion.”
“Freedom is an immediate thing, while redemption is a process,” said Vilf, interpreting the message of the brief text. “It could attest to their understanding that the end was nigh.” Realizing that they weren’t going to relieve Zion from the Roman oppressor, they began hoping for future redemption one day.
Another feature of the rebel coins is that while Jews have been using a squarish Hebrew script adapted from Assyrian for some 2,400 years, these coins had writing in a more archaic form – paleo-Hebrew.
“We began using the Assyrian form of Hebrew during the Second Temple days,” said Vilf. “But the rebels went out of their way to use paleo-Hebrew, presumably to display their heritage and tradition, and that they were special.”
Indeed, that fourth year of rebellion against the Romans was also the last. In 70, the Roman forces would bring their full might to bear and break the rebels, razing Jerusalem and destroying (but first looting) the Second Temple.
If it bears saying once
The Emperor Nero may have ordered the war against the annoying Jews, but he wasn’t the one who ended it. In the year 69, following serial upheavals in Rome, the general Vespasian became emperor, leaving his son Titus to roll over Jerusalem, which he did the following year.
The spoliation of the Temple is one of the disasters of Jewish history commemorated on the fast day of the 17th of Tamuz, which mourns the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by Titus’ forces. This year, that date fell on Saturday, June 30.
Judaea had not been central to the Roman Empire’s fortunes, but it evidently caused Rome such disproportionate aggravation that the emperor built not one arch of triumph but two.
One, known as the Arch of Titus, has been known ever since the flames in Palestine died down. The second was recently, and unexpectedly, discovered in quite a prominent place: the great Circus Maximus racing track, plied by the gambling-mad ancient Romans. They also issued special coinage boasting about the victory over Judea. Conquering the pesky province and sacking the Temple apparently bore boasting about a lot.