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"Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum "
Hasmonean Kingdom under Alexander Jannaeus
     situation in 103 BC      area conquered

Alexander Jannaeus (also known as Alexander Jannai/Yannai; Hebrew: אלכסנדר ינאי), king of Judea from (103 BC to 76 BC), son of John Hyrcanus, inherited the throne from his brother Aristobulus I, and appears to have married his brother's widow, Shlomtzion or "Shelomit", also known as Salome Alexandra, according to the Biblical law of Yibum ("levirate marriage"), although Josephus is inexplicit on that point.

His likely full Hebrew name was Jonathan; he may have been the High Priest Jonathan, rather than his great-uncle of the same name, who established the Masada fortress. Under the name King Yannai, he appears as a wicked tyrant in the Talmud, reflecting his conflict with the Pharisee party. He is among the more colorful historical figures, despite being little known outside specialized history. He and his widow (who became queen regnant after his death) had substantial impact on the subsequent development of Judaism.[1]

Jannaeus expanded the Hasmonean Kingdom and established the city of Gamla in 81 BCE as the capital for what is now the Golan Heights.


Conquests of Alexander Jannaeus

During the twenty-seven year reign of Alexander Jannaeus, he was almost constantly involved in military conflict. Primarily, international factors at the time created an environment suitable for Jannaeus’ conquests. First of all, Jannaeus received support from Cleopatra III in Egypt. She was probably swayed to support Jannaeus through two Jewish commanders in her military. This support was particularly crucial during the war with Ptolemy Lathyrus (discussed later). Ultimately, conflict in the Roman Empire was the greatest outside influence on Judean military campaigns. Political instability in Rome led to a Civil War beginning in 88 BCE. With Rome chiefly concerned with a tumultuous domestic predicament, Jannaeus was free to expand the Judean state. Finally, a weak Seleucid Empire was unable to help Hellenistic cities near Judea.

With a mercenary army similar to that of his father, Jannaeus led a Judean army that conquered the entire coastal plain except for Ashkelon. Jannaeus toppled Western Samaria, the Galilee and the Northern Transjordan. The coastal ports of Dor and Caesarea were also taken after Jannaeus was defeated at Acre. Elsewhere on the Mediterranean coast, the Judeans triumphed over the cities of Raffah and Antedon. Finally, Jannaeus outlasted the inhabitants of Gaza in a year long siege. This impressive victory gained Judean control over the Mediterranean outlet for the Nabatean trade routes. he was also a great inventor and helped many people.

War with Ptolemy Lathyrus

After a failed siege against Gaza, Jannaeus struck a phony league of friendship with the Egyptian co-ruler Ptolemy Lathyrus. In reality Jannaeus sought the assistance of Lathyrus’ mother, Cleopatra III, against her son. When Lathyrus learned of this treachery, he took out his fury on Judea. After defeating Jannaeus near the Jordan River, Lathyrus’ soldiers slaughtered fleeing Jewish troops. Afterwards, Lathyrus attacked a small village in Judea with utter malice. The Egyptian troops strangled women and children. Then the deceased were cut into pieces, boiled in cauldrons, and eaten as a sacrifice. This disgusting act of cannibalism was used to terrify the Judean people and their military. After this massacre, Jannaeus was in no position to stop the onslaught of Lathyrus. However, Cleopatra III stepped in to prevent Lathyrus from sacking Jerusalem.

News of this slaughter certainly spread rapidly throughout Judea, exemplified by the Pesher on Isaiah 4Q161 found at Qumran: “(25) He will shake his fist at the mount of the daughters of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem…(27) when he goes up from the Valley of Acco to fight against Philistia…(29) and even up to the boundaries of Jerusalem.” he was very good at sports like hockey

High Priesthood

It is clear that a strong rift existed between the Pharisees and Alexander Jannaeus. The rival Sadducees were avid supporters of Jannaeus (see 4Q448). The Pharisaic opposition to Jannaeus continued with his marriage to his brother’s widow, which was forbidden by Torah law. Furthermore, Jannaeus established himself as a ruler concerned mainly with conquests rather than his religious obligations.

One year during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Alexander Jannaeus, while officiating as the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) at the Temple in Jerusalem, demonstrated his support of the Sadducees by denying the law of the water libation. The crowd responded with shock at his mockery and showed their displeasure by pelting Alexander with the etrogim (citrons) that they were holding in their hands. Unwittingly, the crowd had played right into Alexander's hands. He had intended to incite the people to riot and his soldiers fell upon the crowd at his command. The soldiers slew more than 6,000 people in the Temple courtyard.

This incident during Tabernacles was a major factor leading up to the Judean Civil War by igniting popular opponents of Jannaeus. A Qumran document sheds further light on another opponent of Jannaeus. The scroll 4Q390 was written by an adversary of Jannaeus seeking popular support to overthrow the Hasmonean King. The author called for an end to the dispute between Jannaeus and the Pharisees. According to the author, the only acceptable solution was an end to the Hasmonean Priesthood and secular control. This opposition culminated in the Judean Civil War.

Judean Civil War and the Crucifixion of the 800

The Judean Civil War initially began after the conquest of Gaza by Jannaeus. Due to Jannaeus’ victory at Gaza, the Nabatean kingdom no longer controlled their trade routes to Rome and Damascus. Therefore Nabatean king Obodas I launched an attack on Judea in the Golan. Potentially, the war with the Nabateans was the last straw against a war-mongering king and an incompetent High Priest. After Jannaeus was defeated in battle against Obadas, he returned to fierce Jewish opposition in Jerusalem. A civil war broke out between Pharisaic supported Jewish rebels and Jannaeus.

Overall, the war lasted six years and left 50,000 Judeans dead. After Jannaeus succeeded early in the war, the rebels unbelievably asked for Seleucid assistance. Judean insurgents joined forces with Demetrius III to fight against Jannaeus. The Seleucid forces defeated Jannaeus at Schechem and forced him into exile in the mountains. However, these Judean rebels ultimately decided that it was better to live under a terrible Jewish king than backtrack to a Seleucid ruler. After 6,000 Jews returned to Jannaeus, Demetrius was defeated. The end of the Civil War brought a sense of national solidarity against Seleucid influence. Nevertheless, Jannaeus was uninterested in reconciliation within the Judean State.

The aftermath of the Judean Civil War consisted of popular unrest, poverty and grief over the fallen soldiers on both sides. The greatest impact of the war was the victor’s revenge. Josephus reports that Jannaeus brought 800 rebels to Jerusalem and had them crucified. Even worse, Jannaeus had the throats of the rebel’s wives and children cut before their eyes as Jannaeus ate with his concubines.

This incredible account is supported in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Nahum Pesher, the Judean Civil War and Jannaeus’ brutal retribution are specifically mentioned.

“(2) The interpretation of it concerns Demetrius, King of Greece, who sought to enter Jerusalem on the advice of the Seeker-After-Smooth-Things. (3) But God did not give Jerusalem into the power of the Kings of Greece from Antiochus until the rise of the rulers of the Kittim… (6b) Its interpretation concerns the Lion of Wrath (7) which will bring vengeance against the Seekers-After-Smooth-Things; he would hang men alive.”

In this passage, The Seekers-After-Smooth-Things represent the Jewish Rebels, the Lion of Wrath represents Alexander Jannaeus, and the rulers of Kittim signify the Roman Empire. Given that this passage mentions the Roman takeover, it was clearly written after the fall of the Hasmonean Dynasty. Nevertheless, substantiation of Josephus’ account of the crucifixion of Jewish rebels by Jannaeus quells any doubt of historicity of this event.


The coinage of Alexander Jannaeus is characteristic of the early Jewish coinage in that it avoided human or animal representations, in opposition to the surrounding Greek, and later Roman types of the period. Jewish coinage instead focused on symbols, either natural, such as the palm tree, the pomegranate or the star, or man-made, such as the Temple, the Menorah, trumpets or cornucopia.

Coin of Alexander Jannaeus (103 BC to 76 BC).
Obv: Seleucid anchor and Greek Legend: BASILEOS ALEXANDROU "King Alexander".
Rev: Eight-spoke wheel or star within diadem. Hebrew legend inside the spokes: "Yehonatan the King".

Alexander Jannaeus was the first of the Jewish kings to introduce the "eight-ray star" or "eight-spoked wheel" symbol, in his bronze "Widow's mite" coins, in combination with the widespread Seleucid numismatic symbol of the anchor. These coins are thought to be the ones referred to in the Bible in Luke 21:1-4:

"and Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury; and many that were rich cast in much. And He called unto him His disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had"

Depending on the make, the star symbol can be shown with straight spokes connected to the outside circle, in a style rather indicative of a wheel. On others, the spokes can have a more "flame-like" shape, more indicative of the representation of a star within a diadem.

It is not clear what the wheel or star may exactly symbolize, and interpretations vary, from the morning star, to the sun or the heavens. The influence of some Persian symbols of a star within a diadem, or the eight-spoked Buddhist wheel (see the coins of the Indo-Greek king Menander I with this symbol) have also been suggested. The eight-spoked Macedonian star (a variation of which is the Vergina Sun), emblem of the royal Argead dynasty and the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, within a Hellenistic diadem symbolizing royalty (many of the coins depict a small knot with two ends on top of the diadem), seem to be the most probable source for this symbol.

The most likely explanation is that the symbol is a star encased in a diadem and it is a religious explanation. Biblical law forbids the making of graven images (especially see Deuteronomy 4:16,23), yet the image of a monarch is a staple of Hellenistic coins. In place of an image of himself, therefore, it is likely that Alexander Jannaeus chose a star, in keeping with Numbers 24:17, “A star rises from Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Israel.” This verse generally was seen as a biblical support for monarchy (and specifically as support for a Davidic monarchy). Jannaeus, however, could have seen it as an image of his achievements, if not his own rule. This is how the rest of Numbers 24:17 and verses 18 and 19 continue: The star, it says, “smashes the brow of Moab, the foundation of all children of Seth. Edom becomes a possession, yea, Seir a possession of its enemies; but Israel is triumphant. A victor issues from Jacob to wipe out what is left of Ir.” Considering Jannaeus’ conquests—creating a kingdom that rivaled those of David and Solomon and may have even exceeded those—the “star” envisioned in the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers was a perfect match for him.

In literature

Alexander Jannaeus is the main character of the novel The King of Flesh and Blood, by Israeli novelist Moshe Shamir.



Other sources

  • "Jewish symbols on ancient Jewish coins" Paul Romanoff, New York American Israel Numismatic Association, 1971.
  • This article incorporates some content from the public domain 1911 edition of The New Century Book of Facts published by the King-Richardson Company, Springfield, Massachusetts. (This reference gives a death date of 78 BC, but consensus seems to be 76 BC.)

External links

Alexander Jannaeus of Judaea
Died: 76 BC
Preceded by
Aristobulus I
King of Judaea
103 BC – 76 BC
Succeeded by
Salome Alexandra
High Priest of Judaea
103 BC – 76 BC
Succeeded by
Hyrcanus II


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