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When Being a Friend of Rome (philorhomaios) Makes you a King (or a Queen)

In the winter of 88 BCE, the proconsul C. Cassius found himself in a little bit of a bind. Earlier that year, Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus, had invaded the Roman province of Asia (modern Turkey) and killed more than 80,000 Italians residing there (Figs. 1–3).

Figure 1. Roman Asia Minor.
Figure 2. Bust of Mithridates VI Eupator Dionysius, king of Pontus and Armenia Minor in northern Anatolia (c. 120–63 BCE). First century CE. Louvre, Paris.
Figure 3. Silver tetradrachm of Pontus, 120–63 BCE. ANS 1972.184.14.

The Pontic king had then swiftly invaded the rest of the Province of Asia, while important cities like the Phrygian Laodicea willingly handed over Roman generals to Mithridates (Fig. 4, Appian, Mithridatic Wars 4.20).

Figure 4. A colonnaded street in the Phrygian city of Laodicea ad Lycum.

C. Cassius and his troops, barricaded in the neighboring city of Apamea, were about to face a difficult winter, since the enemy armies had cut off their supply lines. Then—right when it was needed most—an exceedingly rich man from the Lydian town of Nysa, Chaeremon son of Pythodorus, asked for a private audience from Cassius. Their meeting had game-changing effects for Cassius and his men, as the proconsul himself later wrote in a letter to the magistrates of Nysa. Chaeremon offered to send 60,000 modii of wheat flour to the Roman camp for free. In order to understand the enormity of Chaeremon’s gift, it is important to note that 60,000 modii of wheat corresponded to 633,800 pounds of wheat, which was enough to feed 5,300 men for two months. Thanks to Chaeremon, C. Cassius’ army had enough to survive through the winter. However, this was not enough to stem Mithridates’ triumphal advance into the province early in the following year.

The Pontic king did not take Chaeremon’s initiative lightly, as made evident by the letter he wrote to one of his lieutenants, the satrap Leonippus, where he offered 40 talents of silver to “anyone who apprehends Chaeremon or Pythodorus or Pythion living” or 20 talents to anyone bringing in the head of any of these.” A talent was the equivalent of ca. 100 pounds of silver, which implies that Mithridates was willing to pay a bounty in the enormous amount of 4,000 pounds of silver for Chaeremon’s family.

The wealthy Nysan was thus compelled to flee in order to save his and his sons’ lives. His sons, Pythodorus and Pythion, were sent to Rhodes along with Cassius, and Chaeremon himself took refuge in the temple of Artemis at Ephesus. However, Chaeremon seems to have survived the ordeal. An eponymous magistrate by the name of “Chae()” appears on a Nysan cistophoric didrachm at an uncertain date between 90/89 and 68/67 BCE (Fig. 5). Though incomplete, this name suggests not only Chaeremon’s return to his city, but also the fact that he had retained his social rank and possibly his wealth, as he was serving as a moneyer for the city.

Figure 5. Lydia, Nysa. Silver Drachm, 90–67 BCE. Obv. Bunch of grapes on field of oak leaves. XAI. Rev. Club and lion skin surrounded by wreath. Paris, SNG Delepierre 2796. 17 mm. 2.42 g.

Much more certain is the presence in Nysa of the younger son of Chaeremon, Pythion. As suggested by P. Thonemann (esp. pp. 206–08) and W. Metcalf, he should be identified with the ΠΥΘΙΩΝ /ΧΑΙΡΕ, who signed a Nysan cistophorus dated to the sixteenth year of the Nysan Era, i.e., around 74/73 BCE (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Silver cistophorus, Nysa, 68–67 BCE. ANS 2015.20.1344.

Chaeremon’s older son, Pythodorus, relocated in Tralles, where he retained his father’s fortune, which was valued by Strabo (14.1.42) at 2,000 talents. The Roman orator’s Cicero (In Favor of Flaccus 52) unsurprisingly considers Pythodorus one of the richest men in Tralles.

He married Antonia, only known from an inscription from Smyrna, where she is defined as a benefactress of the city. Some scholars have suggested she was the daughter of the triumvir Mark Antony and his second wife Antonia Hybrida Minor, but without any substantial proof. Antonia’s Roman nomen, and the citizenship possessed and exploited by her descendants, must have derived from a citizenship grant by Antonius, who bestowed Roman citizenship to several of his supporters in Asia after the end of the Parthian War. The loyalty of this family to the Romans was thus key to its success, as it will become even clearer for the following generations (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. The descendants of Chaeremon of Nysa and Zeno of Laodicea. Thonemann 2011, p. 207.

One of Pythodorus’ sons, Chaeremon, owner of an estate named Siderous in the vicinity of Tralles, was instrumental in getting much-needed help for Tralles after the devastating earthquake of 26 BCE. Through a personal embassy to Augustus, he secured funds for the reconstruction of the city that from that moment on added “Caesarea” to the city’s name in order to commemorate the generosity of the Emperor (Fig. 8).

Figure 8. Bronze Coin of Augustus, Tralles, 27 BCE–CE 14. ANS 2008.24.6.

Another of Pythodorus’ offspring, his daughter Pythodoris, married the Laodicean Polemon, son of Zeno. Polemo and his father, the orator Zeno, had risen to Roman favor in the summer of 40 BCE, when they defended Laodicea, their city, from the Parthian army, led by the renegade Roman general Labienus (Fig. 9, Strabo 14.2.24).

Figure 9. Uncertain mint in Syria or southeastern Asia Minor. Quintus Labienus, early 40 BCE. Silver Denarius. Obv. Q • LABIENVS PARTHICVS • IMP. Bare head of Q. Labienus r. Rev. Parthian horse standing right on ground line, wearing saddle with quiver attached and bridle. RRC 524/2; Hersh 15 (dies F/13). BNF REP-5739. 18 mm. 3.77 g.

Whether their attempt was successful or not, Mark Antony, on the eve of the reconquest of the province at the hands of the Romans in 39 BCE, established Polemo as tetrarch in Lycaonia and Rough Cilicia. In 37 or 36 BCE Polemo became king of Pontus (Appian, Civil Wars 5.75), a position he retained until his death in 8 BCE (Fig. 10).

Figure 10. Silver drachm of Polemon I of Pontus, Pontus, 36–8 BCE. ANS 1944.100.41481.

The marriage of Pythodoris and Polemo was intended to unite two of the leading pro-Roman families of the province of Asia: the descendants of Chaeremon of Nysa and the Zenonids of Laodicea. The joint destinies of these two families of philorhomaioi, “friends of Rome,” led to the birth of a number of client kings who would rule the Roman East under the Julio-Claudian emperors. The political success of their union is demonstrated by the fact that two of their three children would come to rule kingdoms in their own right. Pythodoris herself, after Polemo’s death, married king Archelaus of Cappadocia (Fig. 11).

Figure 11. Silver drachm of Archelaus of Cappadocia, Cappadocia, 36–17 BCE. ANS 1944.100.62416.

After Archelaus’ death in CE 17 she returned to Pontus, where she ruled until her death in CE 38. Her coinage adopted the Augustean Capricorn on the reverse, giving visual evidence to the clientele relationship between Roman Empire and Pontus (Fig. 12).

Figure 12. Silver drachm of Pythodoris of Pontus, Pontus, 8 BCE–CE 23. ANS 1944.100.41482.

Pythodoris’ eldest son, Zeno, later known as Artaxias III (CE 18–34), was made king of Armenia by Germanicus (Tacitus, Annals 2.56). His coronation is represented on silver coins from Caesarea in Cappadocia bearing the portrait of Germanicus on the obverse, and on the reverse Germanicus crowning Artaxias. These coins might have been issued at the same time of  coronation of Zeno Artaxias or as late as the reign of the Emperor Claudius (CE 41–54) (Fig. 13).

Figure 13. Cappadocia, Caesarea. Silver didrachm, CE 43–48. Obv. GERMANICVS · CAESAR – TI · AVG · F · COS · II. Head of Germanicus r.  Rev.  GERMANICVS / ARTAXIAS. Germanicus standing l. and holding scepter crowns the Armenian king Artaxias. RPC 3629. Künker 153, 14 March 2009, 8623. 21 mm. 7.47 g.

Independently of their precise date of production, it is evident that the central theme is the clientele relationship between Zeno Artaxias and Roman power, further highlighted by local monetary production, where the emperors Tiberius and Livia (Julia) are invoked as “Imperial Gods” (Fig. 14).

Figure 14. Armenia, Artaxata, RY 4 (21/22 CE). King Artaxias III (CE 18–34). AE tetrachalkon. Obv. ΘΕΟΙC CΕΒΑCΤΟΙC ΚΑΙCΑΡΙ ΚΑΙ ΙΟΥΛIΑ. Armenian tiara with five peaks l., star on r., Δ below. Rev. BAC APTAΞIOY TOY ЄB B ΠΟΛЄ KAI ΠYΘOΔωΡΙ. Horse prancing l. beaded border. Leu Numismatik 14, 12 December 2020, 533. 22 mm. 12.95 g.

Polemo and Pythodoris’ daughter, Antonia Tryphaena, married Kotys VIII of Thrace, and bore him three sons who also became kings in turn: C. Iulius Polemo II of Pontus, Rhoemetalces II of Thrace, and Kotys IX of Lesser Armenia. Although she was never queen of Pontus, she is styled as queen on some of the issues struck by her son Polemo II (Fig. 15).

Figure 15. Pontus, Amisus? Polemo II, with AntoniaTryphaena (ca. CE 38–64). Silver drachm, dated RY 14 (AD 51/2). Obv. [BACIΛEΩC] ΠOΛEMΩ-NOC, diademed head right. Rev. Diademed and draped bust of Tryphaina right; ETOYC IΔ (date) around. RPC I 3825. CNG Triton XVII, 7 January 2014, 245. 17 mm. 3.47 g.

Once again, the dependence of these client kings’ power from Rome is made evident by the fact that the imperial portrait takes the obverse, while the jugate portraits of the king and queen (Rhoemetalces II and Pythodoris II) are placed on the reverse (Fig. 16).

Figure 16. Bronze dupondius of Rhoemetalces I, Thrace, 11 BCE–CE 12. ANS 2015.20.2647.

The third child of Polemo I and Pythodoris, M. Antonius Polemo, never became king and stayed in Laodicea, where he was presumably responsible for the production of a bronze issue in the name of Antonius Polemo philopatris around 5 BCE (Fig. 17). 

Figure 17. Phrygia, Laodicea ad Lycum. M. Antonius Polemon Philopatris, ca. 5 BCE. Obv. ΓAIOΣ KAIΣAP. Bare head of Caius to right. Rev. ΛΑΟΔΙΚΕΩΝ. Eagle standing front, wings spread and head to left, between monograms of ΠΟΛΕ and ΦΙΛΟΠΑΤ. RPC I 2900. Leu Numismatik 7, 24 October 2020, 1463. 16 mm. 2.55 g.

The historian Strabo (12.3.29) tells us that “as a private citizen, [he] was assisting his mother [Pythodoris] in the administration of her realm.” However, royal power passed on to one of his sons, M. Antonius Polemo, who became dynast of Cilicia at time of the emperor Gaius (Caligula) (Fig. 18).

Figure 18. Cilicia, Olba. M. Antonius Polemo, high priest. Bronze, dated year 10 (AD 27/28).Obv. Bare head of Marcus Antonius Polemo right. Rev. Winged thunderbolt; Є I (date) below. Staffieri, Olba 30. RPC I 3736. CNG E-Auction 460, 29 January 2020, 411. 23.5 mm. 13.30 g.

The success of these two families, who ascended from the rank of local notables to client kings (and queens) under the Julio-Claudians, shows how advantageous the friendship to Rome was for provincial elites. Their support to Roman provincial power during the momentous years of the Mithridatic Wars first and of the Parthian campaign later made them the ideal candidates to the new dynasties put by the Romans on the thrones of strategically important kingdoms in the outskirts of the Empire. At the same time, it reveals the inclusivity of the provincial organization of the Roman East in the first century of the Roman Empire, when well-off provincial families could aspire and obtain dynastic power simply on the basis of their good services to Rome.

The First ITALIA on Coinage

Figure 1. ANS 1944.100.866.

The coin in Fig. 1 represents the first attestation of the name Italia on coinage. It was issued in 90 BC, in Corfinium/Italica, the capital of the Italic rebels who took arms against Rome between 91 and 87 BC and almost destroyed it in what Roman historians recall as one of the bloodiest ever fought on Italian soil (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Corfinium/Italica.

In 91 BC, Marcus Livius Drusus, a tribunus plebis who supported the conferral of Roman citizenship to the Italic people, was murdered. This was allegedly the casus belli, the occasional cause of the Social War, the conflict that would devastate the Italian peninsula for the following four years.

While the name Italia (and its Oscan correspondent Viteliu) only appears on coins in the course of the Social War, the existence of an“Italic community” was already known in the second century BC to the Greek historian Polybius. He is the first known author to make distinction between Ἰταλιώτης (Italiotes), which in classical Greek indicated only those Greeks inhabiting the colonies of Southern Italy (1.6), as opposed to the Ἰταλικοί (Italikoi), the ensemble of the indigenous populations living in this region. Italikoi, the Italic people are thus represented by the entirety of the populations inhabiting the peninsula.

The Italic people, i.e., the people living in the Italian peninsula who did not enjoy Roman citizenship, had fought in the Roman army as auxilia (auxiliary troops) in the course of all the wars that Rome had waged in the previous two centuries, giving a significant contribution to the final triumph over Hannibal in the course of the Second Punic War and then in the wars of conquest fought in the East, that had led to the creation of the first provinces of the Roman Empire (Fig. 3). Italic people were thus socii of the Roman people, their allies par excellence. According to Cicero, Publius Vettius Scato, the general of the Marsians, one of the foremost Italic tribes, defined himself as “one who is by inclination a friend, by necessity an enemy.”

Figure 3. The growth of Roman power in Italy around 100 BC. William R. Shepherd. Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, the University of Texas at Austin. Public Domain.

Amplifying Scato’s words, the Roman historian P. Wiseman argues that “the Social War was a war between friends and relatives, and there have must been many women and children who (like the Sabine women) had husbands, fathers, and grandfathers fighting on opposite sides” (p. 64).

The narrative adopted by the Romans—and by several historians in our times—is that the Italic people took arms against the Romans because they wanted to have Roman citizenship, to be fully integrated in Roman society, a society of which they were de facto already members. In the words of the Roman historian Justin (38.4.11–13), “in our very own time Italy rose up in the Marsic War, not requiring freedom (libertas), but a participation in the rule (imperium) and in the citizenship (civitas)”. The desire to obtain full Roman citizenship certainly played an important role in the rebellion, as further confirmed by the emanation in 90 BC of the Lex Iulia de Civitate Latinis et Sociis Danda, which conferred Roman citizenship to all the socii who had not rebelled yet. The law was quite likely aimed at preventing the rebellion of Etruscans and Umbrians, who were the most powerful people amongst socii, who had mostly stayed neutral at the beginning of the war. In 89 BC was passed the lex Plautia Papiria de Civitate Sociis Danda, which granted Roman citizenship to the allies which had rebelled, and represented a further attempt to stem the rebellion.

Figure 4. The “morroni” from Corfinium, remains of a circular mausoleum in the ancient capital of the ephemeral Italic state.

However, the rebellion, though downsized, lasted two more years, thus showing Roman citizenship could not have the only motivation for the Social War.  The rebellious allies not only planned a formal separation from Rome, but also the re-organization of the Italian peninsula—Italia in Latin—as its own independent federation, with its own capital at Corfinium, that was renamed Italica (Fig. 4). In M. Pobjoy’s words, “both the scale of the conflict and the establishment of Italia give the strong impression of a serious attempt at complete separation from Roman authority, and offer good grounds for disbelieving the predominant ancient version of the aims of the rebels” (p. 192).  If, with F. Carlà-Unhink, we are to believe that the creation of a common Italic identity “was a ‘top-down’ process, initiated and consequently brought forward by the Romans” (p. 293), certainly in the course of the Social War this common identity seems to have established itself and the Italic community (at least part of it) shows a clear will to get rid of the creator of that identity, which is Rome itself.

The denomination and the types of the coin presented in Fig. 1 show the aforementioned tension between the necessity of complying to what A. Burnett defines as “Rome’s virtual monopoly of the currency of the whole Italian peninsula” (p. 125) and the longing for an Italic, distinctly non-Roman, identity. First of all, this coin—as most of the coins issued by the socii—is a denarius. Since its introduction in 211 BC, this denomination supplanted any other silver denomination in the Italian peninsula, so the socii found themselves in the awkward position of issuing anti-Roman denarii, i.e., battling against Rome while recognizing that the Roman monetary system was the only one in existence in the peninsula. This is further confirmed by the fact that the denarii of the socii and the ones issued by Rome circulated together for decades after the end of the hostilities.  

Figure 5. ANS 1992.1.2.

The types adopted in the coin represented in Fig. 1 are also reminiscent of previous Roman emissions. On the obverse of this coin, Italy is personified and represented with her head crowned in laurel, in a way that recalls Roma’s portrait on a denarius issued by Mn. Aemilius Lepidus in 114/113 BC (RRC 291/1) (Fig. 5). Moreover, the legend ITALIA is in Latin, the only language common to all the rebels. However, Oscan language will become prevalent in the later years of the rebellion, after the defection of the non-Oscan speaking Umbrian and Etruscans from the rebellion in 90 BC (Figs. 6–7).

Figure 6. ANS 1967.153.19.
Figure 7. ANS 1944.100.873.

The representation on the reverse of the coin in Fig. 1 also presents motives of great interest. As A. Campana rightly points out (p. 75), the scene depicted is one of coniuratio, or oath-taking. The figure at the center of scene is a Fetial priest, a sacerdos fetialis, who is presiding to the consecration of the alliance between the Italian people. The Fetials were a college of Roman priests who acted as the guardians of the public faith. It was their duty, when any dispute arose with a foreign state, to demand satisfaction, to determine the circumstances under which hostilities might be commenced and to perform the various religious rites related the solemn declaration of war (Livy 36.3.18). In this case, the ritual referred to on the reverse of this coin is the sacrificial one, during which the head of the Fetials, the pater patratus, cursed the enemies and anybody who would have seceded from the coniuratio and evoked for them a death similar to the one of the sacrificed pig (caesa porca, Livy 1.24) Once again, the rebels were partaking in a ritual they shared with their Roman enemies. Moreover, the likely model for the scene depicted on the reverse is, represented by a gold stater with the oath-scene, issued in the course of the Second Punic War (RRC 29/1) (Fig. 8).

Figure 8. ANS 1944.100.51.

In the case of the Roman stater, the scene is inspired by the treaty between Roman and Latins, respectively represented by Aeneas and Latinus. The same scene of oath-taking is presented on the obverse of two other denarii issued by the rebel leader C. Papius Mutilus after 90 BC (Figs. 9–10).

Figure 9. ANS 1944.100.876.

While quite certainly inspired by the Roman “oath stater”, the scene depicted on the reverse of Fig. 1 represents a reversal of its model. While the oath-taking stater celebrated the peace between Romans and Latins, one of the Italic people, the denarius issued in 90 BC focuses on the end of that peace and on the commencement of a rightful war between Romans and Italic people. The rightfulness of this war is signaled by the presence of the pater patratus, who could only approve of bellum iustum, a justified war.

Figure 10. ANS 1967.153.18.

While expertly navigating the Roman monetary system from the metrological and iconographical point of view, the socii showed that they shared their religious tradition with the Romans.  While rebelling from Rome, they showed themselves tightly bound to it. Actually, their common identity as Italics could only be maintained while fighting against Rome, the power that in first place made them a nation. In A. Burnett’s words (p. 167):  

. . . the Italians were trying to create some sort of common identity for themselves. This identity, it seems, grew out of a category ‘of Italians’ created by the Romans, a categorization to which the Italians were objecting in terms of its political and institutional implications, but which nevertheless capable of being adopted by them. Italia as a concept was being fought over as hotly as the land itself.

The coin analyzed today is thus a perfect example of the tension between the longing for a common identity independent of Rome and the acknowledgement that the very same common identity was deeply merged in Roman-ness.

If It’s Baroque, Someone Should Fix It!

by Elizabeth Hahn Benge, previous ANS Librarian

Truer words could not be said by someone with a passion for ancient history, especially when the baroque takes over the ancient. Such is the case with a Roman Bust of Antinous in the collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, in Rome. After the original ancient Roman face was broken at some unknown time, the bust received a “new” baroque-style face that was added by the mid-18th century. To many viewers, it is apparent that the face does not match the style of the rest of the bust and is a restoration added later. But then what happened to the original face?

The answer can be found in a new exhibition titled A Portrait of Antinous, in Two Parts, at the Art Institute of Chicago that opened on April 2, 2016. Loans from the American Numismatic Society help introduce Antinous—the Greek youth and companion of Roman emperor Hadrian, who mysteriously drowned in the Nile River in A.D. 130—and his enduring interest throughout history. The ANS loans include four bronze coins of Antinous (1967.152.356; 1944.100.62226; 1944.100.58522; 1944.100.58531) and a 1711 book from the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Library. The coins demonstrate the same iconographic features that were likely inspired by sculptures of the same type of Antinous: broad shoulders, bare chest, and lush, curly hair.

ANS 1944.100.62226
ANS 1944.100.62226

The show brings together years of research that took place to determine whether or not the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fragment of a Portrait Head of Antinous was the original face of the Bust of Antinous (inv. no. 8620) that belongs to the Palazzo Altemps museum, a suggestion first put forth by W. Raymond Johnson, Egyptologist at the University of Chicago. Since the “new” face that the Palazzo Altemps bust received is part of the sculpture’s history, it could not be removed, and added to the challenges of understanding if, and how, the Art Institute’s fragment might have fit. But—Spoiler Alert!—it did!

Left: Fragment of a Portrait Head of Antinous, mid-2nd century A.D. Roman. Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Hutchinson. Right: Bust of Antinous, mid-2nd century A.D. Roman, with 18th-century restorations. Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, 8620. Archivio Fotografico SS-Col, num. 589475. Photo by Stefano Castellani.
Left: Fragment of a Portrait Head of Antinous, mid-2nd century A.D. Roman. Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Hutchinson.
Right: Bust of Antinous, mid-2nd century A.D. Roman, with 18th-century restorations. Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, 8620. Archivio Fotografico SS-Col, num. 589475. Photo by Stefano Castellani.

This conclusion, and the years of research that led to it, are the focus of the exhibition. Modern 3D printing technology was used to create a mold from which a plaster replica was made in order for the team to effectively demonstrate that the two parts were in fact originally part of one ancient bust. The show is centered around these two parts: the fragment of a portrait head from the Art Institute and the bust from the Palazzo Altemps, which are displayed together along with the full-scale plaster cast reconstruction that gives the impression of its original appearance in antiquity.

The exhibition further tells how the fragment ended up in Chicago, an ocean away from its original location. A video documenting the research and creation of the plaster cast accompanies the show, while a timeline of events spans nearly 40 feet of wall in the gallery. I’ve had fun working on this project, and it is a fascinating story with a lot of content, which can be difficult to convey through photographs alone, and is one of many reasons I hope readers will be able to visit the show in person!

A Portrait of Antinous, in Two Parts will be on display through August 28, 2016, at The Art Institute of Chicago.

The exhibition website can be found here.

And the video that is also part of the exhibition can be found here.


War Of Queitus

There was a significant “Third Revolt” of the Jews during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98–117 AD). This war took place between the Jewish War (First Revolt: 66–70 AD) and the Bar Kokhba War (Second Revolt: 132–135 AD).

It was called “the war of Quietus” and took place between the years 115 and 117 AD. It was fought in Cyrenaica, Cyprus, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, but apparently not in Judaea.

More accurately, the “war of Quietus” was a series of revolts. These revolts were likely the direct results of both the aftermath of the reign of Domitian (who was especially hard on Christians and Jews) as well as attacks under Trajan’s rule on both Christian and Jewish leaders.

We do not know a great deal about the “war of Quietus,” and one reason is that there is not any known numismatic material that references this war. By comparison, the numismatic evidence from the First Revolt consists of both the coins of the Jews of the period, as well as the JUDAEA CAPTA coins of the Flavians, which reflect a great deal on their view of Rome’s victory.

Bar Kokhba’s coins are likewise very important to our knowledge of the so-called Second Revolt. Indeed, the first name of Bar Kokhba, “Simon” was known ONLY from his coins until 40 years ago—1960 to be exact—when the Bar Kokhba letters, discovered in caves near the Dead Sea, were discovered and translated.

Bar Kokhba bronze coin with the name of Simon. (Image © by David Hendin)
Bar Kokhba bronze coin with the name of Simon. (Image © by David Hendin)

After Domitian’s harsh rule, his successor, Nerva, was less abusive to his subjects.

There is no doubt that at this time in history there was quite a lot of animosity against the Jews. If you don’t believe it, read the very anti-Jewish first-century historian Tacitus, who in small part stated: “The other practices of the Jews are sinister and revolting, and have entrenched themselves by their very wickedness.”

Early in the second century, under Trajan’s rule, the head of the Judaeo-Christian Church, Simeon, son of Cleophas, was executed by the Roman governor of Judaea.

Furthermore, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, a leading gentile Christian, was sent to Rome and executed about the year 110. Grant describes him as “the first significant Christian churchman.” (At this point in the history of Christianity there were both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Originally Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism, thus the earliest Christians needed first to be Jews. Later, as Paul spread the gospel throughout the world, he preached that non-Jews could convert directly to Christianity without becoming Jewish first.)

The reasons for these executions are not clear, but they are probably part of a religious persecution by Rome that also underscored the Jewish unrest.

In 110, Trajan moved against Parthia, thus ending a 50-year peace that Nero had established. The Parthians had been weakened by the new and powerful Kushan kingdom in eastern Iran. A few years later, Trajan also annexed Armenia, and moved his armies into upper Mesopotamia and Adiabene. Adiabene is a country of special interest, since its ruling dynasty (led by Queen Helena) had voluntary converted to Judaism in the first century. (Helena’s tomb stands today in East Jerusalem, it is known as the “Tomb of the Kings.)

During these various military operations, a large number of Jewish communities came under Trajan’s control.

The first uprising came in Cyrenaica, where a Jewish king named Lukuas (also called Andrew) violently attacked the local Greek governments and Roman provincial authorities—all of whom had been weakened in favor of Trajan’s Parthian campaigns.   Cassius Dio painted a grim picture of Jewish atrocities, culminating with the Jews forcing the Romans and Greeks to fight with wild animals, or as gladiators in the arena. This sounds almost as if the Jews were exacting revenge for similar fates suffered by so many Jewish captives in Rome some 45 years earlier after the First Revolt.

The outbreak had meanwhile spread to Cyprus, and Eusebius, the “father of church history” reports its capital Salamis was laid waste by them. There is no information about how the Cyprus revolt was ended, but we know of the consequence, Cassius Dio reports that from that time forward Jews were not allowed to appear on the island, under penalty of death. Violent fighting also followed in Egypt and the synagogue of Alexandria, said to be a marvel of Egyptian architecture, was destroyed. To quell these Jewish outbreaks, Trajan’s first move was to call in a general named Martius Turbo. By repeated onslaughts against the Jews he overcame the rebellions in Cyprus, Egypt, and Cyrenaica.

To oppose the Jews closer to his own army, in the district of the Euphrates, Trajan turned to his favorite general, Lucius Quietus, a Moorish prince, known for his unpleasant disposition.

Emil Shurer writes in The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ that “with barbarous cruelty Quietus executed his commission and laid waste to the mostly Jewish towns of Nisibis and Edessa. Thousands of Jews were put to death. Thus was order restored, and Quietus, in recognition of his services, was appointed governor of Palestine.”

Even though accounts of the “war of Quietus” are skimpy, some sources say that as many as half a million casualties occurred amongst the foes.

Apparently as a reward for his good work, in about 117 AD Trajan sent Quietus to Judaea as governor of Palestine with unlimited power. This seems to indicate that there was also a certain level of Jewish rebellion in Palestine. However, the main Jewish insurrections at this time were clearly outside of Judaea. On the other hand, it is quite probable that the Jewish restiveness in Judaea at the time was the precursor to the Bar Kokhba War which erupted only 14 years later in 131/132 AD.

Possibly partly because of the Jewish uprisings, Trajan was finally unsuccessful in his Parthian campaign and he eventually had to give up on his grandiose plan to turn Parthia into a Roman province. At this time Trajan became very sick. He was taken to Antioch, and died a few months later in Cilicia. His wife, Plotina, told the army that before his death Trajan had named Hadrian as his adopted son and successor.

When Hadrian became emperor, he removed Quietus from this post, probably because the Moorish General had favored Trajan’s expansionism, which was not Hadrian’s style. Quietus was executed in Rome the following year, accused of participating in a conspiracy against the emperor.

I discussed the “war of Quietus” with Rabbi Benjamin Yablok, a numismatist and Talmudic scholar. He pointed out that the “war of Quietus” had at least one interesting, long-lasting effect on Jewish tradition. Based on writings in the Talmud, Rabbi Yablok explains, when Jewish women were married they would wear golden tiaras or crowns to the ceremony. But, “in commemoration of the misfortunes caused by Lucius Quietus, the Rabbinical sages decreed that brides should no longer wear crowns.” Jewish women have not worn golden marriage crowns since that time.

There is no numismatic evidence of the Jewish War of Quietus, 115-117 AD. However, this eastern issue semis of Trajan gives him the title PARTHICO “The Parthian” which refers to his early success against the Parthians during this period. The Jewish Talmud refers to this denomination as a “mismis.” (Image courtesy cngcoins.com)
There is no numismatic evidence of the Jewish War of Quietus, 115–117 AD. However, this eastern issue semis of Trajan gives him the title PARTHICO “The Parthian” which refers to his early success against the Parthians during this period. The Jewish Talmud refers to this denomination as a “mismis.” (Image courtesy cngcoins.com)

by David Hendin, ANS Adjunct Curator