Coins of the Jewish-Roman Wars: Judaea Capta

Judaea Capta: the Siege of Jerusalem by David Roberts

Judaea Capta

Part 1: Judaea Capta

The summer of 70 AD scorched as the sun beat down over Judaea, baking its desert sands. For the Roman legions surrounding Jerusalem’s city walls, the bright light reflecting off their armour was blinding. But for the people of Jerusalem, these were the darkest of days.

On August 30th, the siege that started in April came to a dramatic head. The Romans broke through the city, plundering at will, and setting its resplendent Second Temple alight. Josephus tells us the Romans slaughtered more than 1 million inhabitants. In reality, the number was surely much lower. Yet the extent of the bloodshed cannot be understated.

Slavery awaited Jerusalem’s able-bodied survivors; the sword its militant or frail. A handful of Jewish rebels held out at Herodium, Machaerus and Massada. By 73 CE, however, the Romans broke through their lines, bringing the First Roman-Jewish War to an end.

Even before the last drop of Jewish blood stained the sands of Judaea, the Romans were gloating over their victory.

Rome’s triumph

In 71 CE, Titus celebrated a triumph through the streets of ancient Rome, parading the treasures looted from Jerusalem’s Temple and executing their leader, Simon Bar Giora, in the Roman Forum.

Arch of Titus showing the sacked treasures of the Second Temple

Spoils from the Temple funded a new construction project: an enormous amphitheatre built on the site of Nero’s Golden Palace. Completed in 80 AD, it was called the Flavian Amphitheater. Today we call it the Colosseum.

Yet the most widely circulated celebration of the Romans’ victory over the Jews was a series of coins. Coins which we now call the ‘Judaea Capta’ series.

The Judaea Capta coin type

Several variations of the ‘Judaea Capta’ (Judaea Captured) coin type entered into circulation in the war’s aftermath. In fact, the Flavian emperors continued to strike them for 25 years after Jerusalem’s sack in 70 CE.

The coin pictured below is a sestertius minted in 71 CE. Its reverse shows one of the most recognisable scenes of the Judaea Capta series.

Judaea Capta sestertius minted under Vespasian

This coin shows a mourning woman (possibly representing Jerusalem) sitting beneath a palm tree (often taken to symbolize the victorious Roman Empire).

Jewish observers might have also recognised the prophecy of Isaiah (3:8, 25-26) manifesting itself through the female figure:

“For Jerusalem is ruined, and Judah is fallen … Thy men shall fall by the sword and thy mighty in the war. And her gates shall lament and mourn, and she being desolate shall sit upon the ground.”

Behind the male figure on the left is a Roman victory trophy, made up of the armour of the vanquished.

But who is the male figure, and what does he represent?

Is he the embodiment of Judaea, with his hands bound behind his back, or is he the gloating figure of the emperor, standing proud, his chest puffed out?

The trend among emperors to shave their beards, at least until the reign of Hadrian, suggests the former. However, as with all symbolism, these things are always open to interpretation.

What do you think?