Judaea was one of the most troubled regions of the Roman Empire,
and was the site of two great wars in which Jews tried to oust their
The first conflict, known as the Jewish War or the First Revolt,
was fought from A.D. 66 to 70; the second conflict, known as the Bar
Kokhba War, raged from A.D. 132 to 135.
Though both wars were costly and humiliating to the Romans, they
were far more harmful to Judaea and its people. The coinage of the Bar
Kokhba War is extraordinary in many ways and continues to captivate
collectors with its variety of denominations and types.
Curiously enough, the war occurred during the most stable and
prosperous era in Roman history, the Pax Romana, highlighted by the
reign of the Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117 to 138), who otherwise behaved
rather beneficently toward his subjects in the provinces.
Few can deny that Hadrian judged poorly when he “refounded”
Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, a Roman colony bearing his own family
name, and when he announced his intention to erect a temple for
Jupiter on the site of the holy Jewish Temple that had been leveled by
the armies of Titus during the First Revolt. The Temple ground was
held sacred, and the emperor’s plans to honor the chief god of the
Romans helped to spark a Jewish revolt.
Military aspects of the revolt were led by Simon Bar Kosiba (Bar
Kokhba), who is named “Simon, Prince of Israel” on some revolt coins.
The spiritual leader was Rabbi Akiba, who is not named on coins. The
role of another important man, named “Eleazar the Priest” on some
coins, is not certainly known.
The first attacks by rebels in the fall of A.D. 132 caught the
Romans off guard, forcing the Roman governor Tinius Rufus to evacuate
Jerusalem and to take with him the 10th Legion. Thus began what the
rebels described on their coins as “Year One of the Redemption of Israel.”
Soldiers from around the empire converged on Judaea during a
three-year period to fight the rebels, with thousands of Roman troops
dying as a result. However, perhaps a million Jews perished, and the
Holy Land suffered great destruction, with more than 1,000 villages
and outposts said to have been destroyed.
The rebels issued no gold coins, but produced an abundance of
silver and base metal coins by withdrawing Roman coins from
circulation and overstriking them with dies of their own creation. The
surfaces of the Roman coins were hammered or filed to remove as much
of the original design as possible, yet elements of the host coin’s
designs usually survived these processes.
Researchers have determined that the host coins were not heated
when they were overstruck, and that hinged dies were used, as the die
axes are always vertical, usually aligned at 12 o’clock, but sometimes
at 6 o’clock. Also, it is clear that some kind of collar was used in
the minting of the silver coins, a technique previously not observed
for the striking of ancient coins.
We are fortunate that the rebels’ coins bear inscriptions that
range from the informative to the patriotic. Though the language is
Hebrew, the letters are Palaeo-Hebrew, a script which had been out of
general use for more than 500 years, perhaps chosen because of its
Some of the informative inscriptions record the year of issue.
Those of the first year are inscribed “Year One of the Redemption of
Israel” and those of the second have the legend “Year Two of the
Freedom of Israel.” Most issues do not bear dates, and thus are
assigned to the third and final year of the war.
Though the quantity of first-year issues was modest, volume
increased significantly in the second-year, and the undated issues of
year three were produced in large enough quantities that they are
readily available to collectors today.
Additionally, “irregular” or “barbarous” coins are known. They
presumably were struck at branch mints or under stressful conditions
in army camps or besieged cities, as die links are known between the
irregular and the regular issues.
Bar Kokhba coinage includes six distinct coin types, two in silver
and four in bronze. The large “silver” denomination, called a sela,
was overstruck on tetradrachms issued by the Romans in Eastern
provinces. Strictly speaking, the sela is a billon coin since its host
coins were struck in debased silver.
The designs of the sela did not change during its three years of
issuance. Its obverse showed the Temple of Jerusalem containing the
Ark of the Covenant, and its reverse shows ceremonial object(s): a
lulav (a bound bundle of twigs and foliage), usually flanked by an
etrog (a citrus fruit).
The small silver denomination, called a zuz, was overstruck on
Roman denarii and provincial drachms of good silver. (A double-weight
zuz is known by only one example, and must have been experimental.)
The zuz was produced with a pair of dies bearing combinations of
two obverse and four reverse designs. The obverse bore a cluster of
grapes or a wreath enclosing an inscription. The reverse features
either a palm branch; a one-handled jug (usually flanked by a small
palm branch); a pair of trumpets; or a lyre, a string musical
instrument in the form of a chelys (stout, rounded body) or a cithara
(tall, rectangular body).
The bronze coinage included one large denomination, two medium
denominations and one small denomination, each with distinct designs.
The large bronze was struck only in the first two years and is the
rarest and most desired by collectors. It has on its obverse a
patriotic inscription in a wreath, and on its reverse an amphora
surrounded by a patriotic inscription that names the year of issue.
One of the medium bronzes has on its obverse a palm branch in a
wreath and on its reverse a lyre. The other medium bronze — which is
far more common than the other medium bronze — has on its obverse a
vine leaf and on its reverse a palm tree. The small bronze coin shows
on its obverse a grape cluster and on its reverse a palm tree.
Bar Kokhba coins are well documented in a die study by the late
Leo Mildenberg, The Coinage of the Bar Kokhba War. This meticulous
work illustrates an impression of every known die and records every
die link that was known to Mildenberg at the time of publication in
1984. David Hendin’s Guide to Biblical Coins, now in its fifth
edition, offers an accessible review of the Bar Kokhba coinage, and
the book remains in print. ■