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Revolt of the Maccabees

By Lucas Harsh


Hasmoneans refers to the Jewish dynasty that obtained a degree of independence for Judea beginning in the second century B.C.  The Hasmonean revolt is also referred to as the Revolt of the Maccabees when Judas the Maccabee defeated the army of Seleucid king Antiochus IV.  They dynasty ruled for just over a century until the ascendancy of Herod the Great and ever increasing Roman dominion over Judah.  During the Hasmonean dynasty, the first true Jewish coins appear and are a treasured collecting area for both the serious numismatists well as those interested in biblical history.

Persian Empire:

The Persians conquered Babylon around 539 B.C., and allowed expelled Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II in 589 B.C.  This period is referred to as the Second Temple period, and lasted until the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D..  Judah was under Persian control as the satrapy of Yehud in the Achaemenid Empire until the conquest of Alexander the Great.

Greek Domination:

After Alexander’s untimely death, his empire was divided between his generals with Ptolemy I ruling Egypt and Judah, and Seleucus ruling the Syrian empire to the north of Judah.   Strategically located along the trade routes between Arabia and Egypt in the South, and the Mediterranean ports of the Phoenicians  and Syrian trade centers in the north, Judah was a valuable piece of real estate, and the rulers in the area coveted the revenues that could be derived from the trade moving through the area.  The Seleucids took control of Israel from the Ptolemies, and the land changed hands a number of times.  During this period, Hellenistic ideas spread throughout the Levant challenging the traditions of the Jews.  There were tensions between traditional and Hellenized Jews, as well as between Jews and Hellenized outsiders.  In 201, Antiochus II invaded Palestine, and wrestled control of the territory from Ptolemy V, just five years old at the time he took the throne.

Revolt of the Maccabees:

The Seleucids controlled Judah and surrounding territories at the time of the Hasmonean revolt.  Antiochus IV, Epiphanes unsuccessfully tried to invade Ptolemaic Egypt, but was repelled.  He then turned to increase his control over Judea, and in 167 B.C., invaded Jerusalem and massacred many Jews.   One way of exerting his control was imposing Hellenistic practices and suppressing Jewish cultural and religious practices.  He profaned the Temple in Jerusalem, outlawed observance of the Sabbath, and prohibited the practice of circumcision.  His actions were abhorrent to traditional Jews and posed a direct threat to their traditional religious worship.

Antiochus sent soldiers into the land of Judea to enforce his prohibition against traditional Jewish practices and spread Hellenism in the face of Jewish opposition.  This sparked an outright revolt against his policies and rule.  Among modern scholars, there is some debate if the conflict was primarily between traditional and Hellenized Jews, or between Jews and outsiders, but whatever the case, the revolt centered around opposition to Hellenistic encroachment on traditional Jewish practices and the Seleucid Empire under Antiochus.

Mattathias, a priest living near Modin, sparked the revolt against Antiochus when he killed a Jew who was going to sacrifice to pagan gods at the direction of Seleucid soldiers.  In I Maccabees, the scene is described as follows: “there came a certain Jew in the sight of all to sacrifice to the idols upon the altar in the city of Modin, according to the king's commandment. And Mattathias saw and was grieved, and his reins trembled, and his wrath was kindled according to the judgment of the law, and running upon him he slew him upon the altar: Moreover the man whom king Antiochus had sent, who compelled them to sacrifice, he slew at the same time, and pulled down the altar.”   I Maccabees 2:23-25.  Thus began the Revolt of the Maccabees.

Leaving all they had behind, Mattathias and his sons escaped into the wilderness, and from there, waged a guerrilla war against the Seleucids.  The revolt was extended, but ultimately, the Maccabees began to succeed against the Seleucids.  Around 164 B.C., Judah Maccabee, the son of Mattathias and military leader of the revolt, took Jerusalem and purified the Temple.  The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple following this victory.

Antiochus IV died in 164 B.C., and the Seleucids continued to try and subjugate the Jews but internal struggles in the empire left an opening for Jewish independence.  Judah was killed in the Battle of Elasa in 160 B.C., but his brothers, Simon and Jonathan, continued the struggle.  Jonathan, the first Hasmonean High Priest, was killed by Diodotus Tryphon, a Seleucid general, captured Jonathan and held him hostage when he was invited to a conference.  Upon Jonathan’s death, Simon assumed leadership of the revolt around 142 B.C..  By resolution, the people declared the leadership of the Hasmoneans, and Simon ruled as both High Priest, and prince of Israel.  1 Maccabees 14:41.   Simon eventually gained a degree of independence from the Seleucids and the freedom for Jews to worship freely.  He was assassinated in 135 B.C., and his son, John Hyrcanus I became High Priest.   Under John Hyrcanus I, Judaism saw expansion with the annexation of Trans-Jordan Samaria, Galilee, and Edom.  Idumeans in Edom were forced to convert to Judaism.

Hasmonean Dynasty:

The Hasmoneans ruled Judea from circa 153 B.C. until 37 B.C., at which time Herod the Great wrestled control of the country with the help of Rome.  The rulers under the Hasmonean dynasty are generally ordered as follows:

Jonathan Maccabaeus 153-142 B.C.
Simon Maccabaeus 142-134 B.C.
John Hyrcanus I  134-104 B.C.
Aristobulus I 104-103 B.C.
Alexander Jannaeus 103-76 B.C.
Alexander Salome, Queen as Regent for John Hyrcanus II 76-67 B.C.
John Hyrcanus II 76-66 B.C.
Aristobulus II 66-63 B.C.
John Hyrcanus II 63-40 B.C.
Antigonus 40-37 B.C.

End of the Dynasty:

Although Judea gained independence under the Hasmoneans, their rule was far from unified.  The division between traditional and Hellenized Jews continued to fester.  Upon the death of Alexander Jannaeus, Queen Salome Alexandra, ruled the land of Israel.  Her oldest son, Hyrcanus II, was named High Priest, but a civil war erupted upon the death of Alexandra between Hyrcanus II and his brother, Aristobulus II.  Hyrcanus II was generally seen as weak and pliable, where Aristobulus II was aggressive and politically savvy. Aristobulus II gained control, but that was not the end of Hyrcanus II, who was advised by Antipater the Idumean to seek the assistance of the Nabataeans under king Aretas. 

This civil war among the Jews was to cause the end of the independence they had so dearly fought for.  Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, a Roman general under Pompey the Great, took possession of the kingdom of the Seleucids and became involved in Judea’s civil war when each of the brothers attempted to get his intervention on their respective sides.  Pompey himself arrived in 63 B.C., and decided to bring Judea under Roman rule.  He, like Antipater, viewed Hyrcanus as a more pliable ruler than Aristobulus, and laid siege to Jerusalem.  Upon entering the city, Pompey entered the Temple itself, and Judea became a protectorate of Rome.

Between 57 and 55 B.C., the Romans split the Hasmonean kingdom into the provinces of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.  Antipater and Hyrcanus supported Caesar during his conflict, and secured their positions of power.  Antigonus,, the son of Aristobulus, disfigured Hyrcanus II making him unsuitable for the position of High Priest, and obtained the double title of King an High Priest.  Antigonus’ rule was to be short lived however, as Herod the Great secured the title “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 B.C., and with the help of Roman military support, secured his position in 37 B.C. ending the Hasmonean rule.


1 Maccabees

2 Maccabees

The Wars of the Jews, Flavius Josephus

Guide to Biblical Coins, fifth edition, David Hendin

A Treasury of Jewish Coins, Ya'akov Meshorer

A Numismatic Journey Through the Bible, Richard Plant


Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History, Joseph Telushkin

Judaism and Hellenism in antiquity: conflict or confluence?, Lee I. Levine

Atlas of the Jewish World, Nicholas DeLange