4. The Hasmonean Kings
Palestine at the Time of Alexander Jannaeus (103 - 76 BCE)
Showcase 4: Palestine at the Time of Alexander Jannaeus (103 - 76 BCE)

Aristobulus I (104-103 BCE) came to power following the death of his father, Hyrcanus I. According to the Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus († after 100 CE), his brief reign was characterized by extreme brutality. At his father’s request, Aristobulus was only to hold the position of high priest, while his mother exercised secular rule – but Aristobulus had her cast into prison, where she perished. His brother Antigonus was also killed at his instigation. Aristobulus I was the first Hasmonean to hold the title of king with that of high priest. Thus, the rule of the Hasmonean priest-kings was finally established.

Flavius Josephus also named Aristobulus I a “friend of Greeks” (philhellenos) (AJ 13.318), a political title that was used with the intention of presenting Aristobulus as an enlightened Hellenistic monarch but which did not necessarily reflect his religious preferences. In the ancient Greek literary tradition – even that of Jewish provenance – Hasmonean rulers were better known by their Greek names than their Jewish ones, e.g. Iōánnēs [Ἰωάννης] instead of Yoḥanan. That the names of the rulers were deliberately used in both the Greek and the Jewish traditions, as evidenced for example by coinage, shows a clear awareness of the political role they performed in bridging the different cultural traditions of the Greek and Jewish worlds (Fig. A.). The deliberate use of language and writing as such, both paleo-Hebrew and Greek, became increasingly important.

The Hasmonean coins were mainly provided with Paleo-Hebrew, but sometimes also with Greek or Aramaic inscriptions. The different languages and scripts were used as a means of self-expression and to make specific statements concerning ethnicity, religion, or hierarchical position within the Jewish community. While the royal coins usually carried Greek or Paleo-Hebrew legends, those that were issued by the king in his capacity as high priest were labeled exclusively in Paleo-Hebrew.